MGMhas confirmed its return to the North American theatrical distribution businessand unveiled an initial slate of 14 films from independent production companiesfor domestic release over the next year.

Includedin the slate are Lucky Number Slevin, Clerks II and several other titles from The Weinstein Company;Mirage Enterprises' Breaking And Entering, directed by Anthony Minghella; and a number of films from BauerMartinez Studios.

Therevitalized MGM, acquired a year ago by a consortium including Sony andComcast, did not reveal any international theatrical distribution plans, but anannouncement - perhaps involving some of the films in the domestic slate - isexpected soon. For the past five years the international theatrical release ofMGM films has been handled by 20th Century Fox.

MGMalso announced that it will make sequels to current remake success The PinkPanther and 1999 remake TheThomas Crown Affair (with PierceBrosnan once again starring).

Duringa presentation at MGM's Los Angeles headquarters, chairman and CEO Harry Sloansaid the company plans to become a "unique hybrid that combines thecreative freedom and energy of the filmmaking community with the efficienciesand expertise of major studio distribution and marketing."

Hesaid the company's new business plan addresses a lack in the marketplace of"quality, full-service major studio distribution."

MGM'snew theatrical distribution unit will be overseen by chief operating officeRick Sands. The company has appointed Paramount Pictures veteran Clark Woods aspresident of domestic theatrical distribution and Sands said marketing andmedia planning department heads would be appointed soon.

Gangsterstory Lucky Number Slevin, withJosh Hartnett and Bruce Willis, will be the unit's first release, on April 7.Bauer Martinez's Harsh Times, acrime thriller with Christian Bale, will follow on June 2. Other summerreleases will include Bauer Martinez's Michelle Pfeiffer romantic comedy ICould Never Be Your Woman (July 29)and Calista Flockhart mystery Fragile (August 4); Kevin Smith's comedy sequel Clerks II, from The Weinstein Co (August 18); and Weinstein'sfamily film Stormbreaker(September 1).

Releaseslater in the year will include psychological thriller Awake, John Madden's Elmore Leonard adaptation Killshot, and Peter Webber's Young Hannibal, all from the Weinstein Co; Bauer Martinez's TheFlock, with Richard Gere; andTapestry Films' comedy sequel Van Wilder Deux: The Rise of Taj.

BauerMartinez's The Darwin Awards isdue in February 2007 and Kevin Costner psychological thriller Mr Brooks, from the star's Tig Productions, will open in thefirst quarter of that year.

Releasedate for Anthony Minghella's drama Breaking and Entering (the director's first original screenplay since TrulyMadly Deeply), with Jude Law andJuliette Binoche starring, has yet to be announced.

Sandssaid that in some cases a film's producer or financier would pay prints andadvertising costs while in other cases MGM would get P&A financing"from equity sources."

Thedistribution strategy, he added, will add new properties to the MGM library -which contains around 4,000 feature titles - and therefore help maintain itsvalue.

Inthe year since MGM's acquisition by the consortium was completed, the studio'sfilms have been distributed theatrically in North America by Sony. Sloan saidthat going forward Sony would handle domestic home video distribution of newMGM titles (when MGM has the video rights).

Healso said the companies would continue to co-finance and co-produce someprojects, as they have since the acquisition with new James Bond film CasinoRoyale and sequel Rocky Balboa (which also involves Revolution Studios). Both thosefilms will be distributed theatrically in the US by Sony, but domesticdistribution of future MGM-Sony projects will be determined on a case-by-casebasis. MGM does not plan to expand its own small production and developmentstaff, Sloan added.

Respondingto rumours about the James Bond film, Sloan said the project is"proceeding very, very well."

The MGM chief said hisstudio would announce other new ventures in the coming months. Some new brandedinternational TV channels - one, he hinted, in the Czech Republic - will beunveiled at next month's MIP-TV television programming market.