Company Town : Into the Wilderness of Family Films : Movies: Discovery Channel and National Geographic TV have plans to put Mother Nature on the big screen.

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Encouraged by the box office success of "The Lion King," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin," more and more production companies are exploring the family features film genre.

Two of the least likely newcomers are National Geographic Television and the Discovery Channel. Now that natural history has built a solid television and cable audience, they are planning feature-length films on nature themes. They have been quietly checking out Hollywood production and distribution deals for the past year.

The move to feature films is more of a brand-awareness strategy for both organizations than a bid to make a box office killing. The reasoning is that either company's name on a feature film would enhance the value of its television, cable, video or merchandising products.

However, although their goals may be similar, there is a crucial difference in the companies' approaches. National Geographic Television--part of the 107-year-old nonprofit Washington-based organization that publishes National Geographic magazine and produces TV specials--is bringing drama to its feature films while keeping within its own strict programming guidelines. Discovery, the Maryland-based documentary producer and cable network, is taking the natural history documentary, pure and simple, to the big screen.

"There are stories we can't tell on television," said Tim Kelly, senior vice president of television at the National Geographic Society. "And there are people who will not watch documentaries--like the 40-and-under crowd--who will go to the movies, and we'd like to reach those people."

David Vogel, president of production at Walt Disney Pictures, said he welcomes the newcomers, but he noted that since making "White Fang" and "Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey," he knows the difficulties of producing pictures about animals.

"The family market is no different than making other films," Vogel said. "In fact, it may be harder because you have to catch the kids' imagination, and they are so media-savvy we have to do something very special."

For example, Disney's "Homeward Bound" was about three pets on a journey. The fact that the animals were given voices helped attract young viewers.

"One of the problems about taking documentaries to the big screen is that when programs are available on television, it is difficult to make them special for the big screen," Vogel said. "I would ask myself, 'Why am I paying $7.50 to see this on a big screen?' "

National Geographic Television has already gone Hollywood. It first started talking with Sony Pictures Entertainment about developing features when Sony's video arm, Columbia TriStar, took over National Geographic's video distribution two years ago.

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By early 1994, National Geographic Television had signed a multiple-picture, first-look deal with Sony, but both companies have been tight-lipped, refusing to talk about the arrangement until the first picture is announced.

National Geographic Television is essentially licensing its name while maintaining editorial control over the films, which Sony will fully finance. Sony retains all rights, including international, to the films it finances, and National Geographic gets a share of the profits.

From $3-million pictures in the vein of "The Bear," which featured an animal in the lead role, to $50-million films closer in subject matter and dramatic scope to "Dances With Wolves," National Geographic aims to create a unique brand of adventure in its feature films.

The joint venture has Hank Palmieri as head of feature films in Los Angeles.

Although the two National Geographic projects likely to get the green light first are small-budget "exotic" films, Palmieri said National Geographic Television and Sony eventually hope to attract big-name directors and actors.

Discovery Productions, meanwhile, is taking the pure documentary to theaters. Its first project, the $3-million "Lords of the Serengeti," was shot recently in Africa and is to be released in the first quarter of 1996, though Discovery has yet to sign a distribution deal.

Discovery's strategy is to concentrate on out-of-home entertainment as part of a marketing push.

Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive John Hendricks says that strategy is also tailored to meeting increasing demand for family-oriented products.

"Theaters are desperate for matinee material which they can play on Saturday and Sunday," Hendricks said. "Disney dominates the market with animation classics, but Discovery can offer the same escape."

That doesn't mean its documentaries will try to compete with the Disney blockbusters, according to Denise Baddour, Discovery Communications' senior vice president and general manager.

"We are trying to look at ways of using the Discovery brand to position the feature films, and that may not be with a traditional release pattern," Baddour said. "There isn't really a model for the distribution of a nonfiction theatrical release. There is just the Hollywood model and the art house release, and we don't want to necessarily go out there and compete head-on with feature films."

Tim Cowling, Discovery's head of production, said the "Serengeti" story of big cats will be told through the eyes of renowned natural history cameraman Hugo Van Lawick, who has lived among families of lions, cheetahs and leopards in the region for 30 years.

"We are thinking now about the dramatic approach and will probably use Hugo's voice for the narration, which will make it very anecdotal," Cowling said. "It won't be the regular voice-of-God narration we have in natural history."

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