US pay TV channel operator Starz Encore Group is to shut down its Starz! Pictures cable movie development and production unit, laying off Los Angeles-based vice president of original movies Paige Orloff and her three-person development team. A Starz Encore spokesman confirmed that the unit, which most recently produced boxing drama Joe and Max, is "winding down" and will cease operations by the end of the year.

According to sources, around a dozen projects currently in development at the unit, including producer Hawk Koch's The Riverman, about serial killer Ted Bundy, will be put into turnaround. It is understood that Starz Encore will, however, continue to acquire 'busted theatricals' for presentation on its 15 US movie channels under the Starz! Pictures banner. Recent acquisitions have included How To Kill Your Neighbour's Dog, starring Kenneth Branagh, and The Badge, starring Billy Bob Thornton and Patricia Arquette. The company will also continue to use the banner to pre-buy cable rights to independent theatrical features - as it did a few years ago on Tortilla Soup and Onegin and more recently on Skins - and to produce film-related documentary programming for its channels.

Sources attributed the closure of the Starz! Pictures development and production unit to difficult financial conditions in the US cable industry and a reallocation of resources at Starz Encore, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of industry giant Liberty Media Corporation. Competing with longer established original movie production units at pay TV rivals HBO and Showtime, Starz! Pictures was launched in November 1998. Orloff joined, from HBO Pictures, the following year. The unit was designed to develop and produce between two and four, $4m-$8m projects a year. The $8m Joe and Max, directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and starring Til Schweiger and Leonard Roberts, was co-financed with German tax fund IWP and sold internationally by Motion Picture Corporation of America.