342: According to Variety, Marvel Enterprises has pacted with Lions Gate to develop and distribute original animated features for the direct-to-DVD market.

First of eight original animated projects (2-D and 3-D) is due to be released by late 2005, company said.

Production partners haven't been named, but company indicated Lions Gate's animation partner, CineGroupe, will be a contender to produce some of the animated pics.

Each title will have a minimum running time of 66 minutes. Companies said specific details as to which characters will be exploited will be announced in future.

"We want to broaden the demographic for Marvel's characters to include both adults and kids, and to create an ongoing series of DVD movies that people will anticipate and collect like they do the Marvel comicbooks," Ross said.

"Going straight to DVD is the next level of publishing," said Marvel CEO Avi AradAvi Arad. "We have hundreds of characters whose stories we want to tell but that don't translate well to live-action features."

In addition, Marvel is trying to retrieve some of the TV and video rights to Marvel character material like "X-Men," "Spider-Man," "Fantastic Four" and "The Hulk." These rights were sold off to New World Animation (now Fox) and Disney during bankruptcy, and license terms will be ending in the next several years.

Brian B.