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Failed film deal leads to allegations of fraud, money laundering

Producer Christopher Eberts lost a suit over a film deal. Now he faces fraud and money laundering charges

Jeff Elliott dreamed of telling the story of his son's triumph over a life-threatening brain tumor on the silver screen. And in Christopher Eberts, an independent producer who had made films with Bruce Willis, John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, he believed he had found the person who could make it happen.

A retired firefighter from central Illinois, Elliott had self-published a book about his family's saga. Its message of faith resonated with many readers, and a mutual acquaintance introduced him to Eberts, who had producer credits on at least 15 Hollywood films.

The two met in Beverly Hills in 2009, and Elliott recalled that Eberts drove up in a $200,000 Bentley. The producer told him he would need money to get the film started, Elliott said. In the months that followed, he said, he fronted Eberts $615,000 from his family's savings.

But Eberts never made the film, and a federal judge ruled in a civil lawsuit brought by Elliott that he is entitled to nearly $1.2 million in damages from the producer. In addition, Eberts is scheduled to go on trial in U.S. District Court in Peoria, Ill., in April on seven counts of wire fraud and three counts of money laundering stemming from his dealings with Elliott.

The U.S. attorney's office there alleged in an indictment that Eberts "devised and participated in a scheme and artifice to defraud [Elliott] and to obtain money and property by means of materially false and fraudulent pretenses, representations, and promises."

Eberts, 49, has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He and his attorneys did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Eberts came to Hollywood more than two decades ago armed with a showbiz pedigree and investment banking chops. The nephew of "Dances With Wolves" producer Jake Eberts, he made a name as a producer in the 2000s with a handful of commercial films, including "Lord of War," which generated $73 million at the box office in 2005. He married a daughter of local construction magnate Ronald Tutor, and in 2007 he started a production company with a former president of the powerful William Morris Agency.

But Eberts soon faced a string of box-office busts and a personal bankruptcy. His situation illustrates the perils of independent moviemaking.

"It turns out to be really hard to make a great movie," said "Gladiator" producer Doug Wick, who does not know Eberts and spoke generally. "From afar, people who fantasize about sitting on a set with a drink and chatting with stars have no idea that there are extraordinary amounts of craft required.... There are so many different hurdles."

Indie producers typically raise money from a pool of investors, and look to partner with studios that can market and distribute their projects. But their movies often have trouble finding an audience in a marketplace dominated by big productions. It's a bit of a gamble, and unlike a corporation, independent producers often don't have the deep pockets necessary to weather a movie that bombs.

Indeed, Eberts' father-in-law knows how tough Hollywood can be.

Tutor, the chief executive of Tutor Perini, got into the film business in the 2000s, acquiring with a partner the movie companies ThinkFilm and Capitol Films. But those outfits went bankrupt.

He also was part of the group that bought Miramax from Walt Disney Co. for about $660 million in 2010. But he sold his stake three years later, exiting Hollywood.

"It's a tough business," said Tutor, who declined to speak at length about Eberts. "He was an independent producer, he tried to make movies. He's my son-in-law — he's married to my daughter — I wish him the best."

Eberts wasn't always aiming for Hollywood. He began his career in finance, working for Canadian investment firm Central Capital Corp. as an associate in its merchant banking division, according to a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

The banker set his sights on show business in the 1990s. But he didn't get encouragement from his famous uncle. Christopher Eberts told the Montreal Gazette in 2000 that Jake Eberts, now deceased, had discouraged him from getting into the film business.

"When I called him and told him I was going to quit investment banking and go into the movie business, he said: 'You're out of your mind. Don't even think about it,'" Eberts told the Gazette.

But Eberts pressed on, and in 1999, he got his first producing credit for the film "Woman Wanted," a drama starring Kiefer Sutherland.

It was an inauspicious start: Sutherland directed the picture but was credited as "Alan Smithee," a pseudonym often used by filmmakers who wish to disown a project. It did not receive a theatrical release, according to entertainment data firm Rentrak.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Eberts launched a handful of ventures: Christopher Eberts Productions, Canadian film company Screenworks Media and "virtual studio" MirageQuest Entertainment, but none distinguished themselves. Eberts' namesake company is credited with one film, 2003's "Chasing Holden," which was not shown in theaters, according to Rentrak.

Still, Eberts forged ahead, and found some success. "The Punisher," released in 2004, took in $55 million worldwide. A year later, he had his biggest box-office success with "Lord of War," which starred Cage and delivered some positive reviews.

By 2006, Eberts had married Kristin Tutor, whose father's construction firm is one of the companies slated to build the multibillion-dollar California high-speed rail line.

Tutor said he invested in one of Eberts' films but couldn't recall its title. "It was made and I continue to get revenue from it, so it was really a non-issue," Tutor said.

In 2007, Eberts launched a production company with Arnold Rifkin, the former president of William Morris. They produced a 2008 drama, "Deception," but it grossed $18 million worldwide against a budget of about $25 million. By the end of that year, Rifkin and Eberts were on the outs and after a round of legal skirmishing went their separate ways.

"It's a cautionary tale for people both inside and outside the entertainment industry," said Glen Rothstein, Rifkin's attorney. He described Eberts as charismatic and gentlemanly, but said, "You need to be careful about the people you do business with."

Eberts isn't credited with producing any films after 2009, when he made a trio of movies that were never released theatrically. He filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in February 2009, listing liabilities of more than $1 million.

Three months later, he and Elliott met to discuss making a movie together.

It seemed to go well at first, Elliott said. Screenwriter Howie Klausner, whose credits include the Clint Eastwood-starring "Space Cowboys," was tapped to work on the project.

"Eberts talked a good game," Klausner said.

But Klausner said he became worried when Eberts "bounced a couple checks," and alerted Elliott. In December 2010, Elliott's attorney wrote a letter to Eberts demanding return of the money he'd been given. Eberts did not respond, according to Elliott's complaint in the civil case.

In April 2011, Elliott filed the civil lawsuit against Eberts, alleging fraud and breach of contract. Judge Michael Mihm of the U.S. District Court in Peoria ruled in May 2012 that Elliott should be awarded $651,753 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. Eberts did not appeal the ruling.

"Eberts preyed on Elliott's naivete of the movie business and was able to flaunt his industry connections and previous success to convince Elliott to provide funds for a movie that would never be made," Mihm said in his ruling.

Around the time Elliott filed the civil lawsuit, he and his attorney brought information about their case to the FBI, Elliott said. The U.S. attorney's office indicted Eberts in June 2013.

The prosecutors' money laundering allegations center on three monetary transfers totaling $125,030. According to the indictment, the funds — "criminally derived property" — were sent to a relative of Eberts; his bankruptcy attorney; and an art gallery in Idaho.

Elliott, who has not collected the $1.15 million from Eberts, said he's been rankled by displays of the producer's luxurious lifestyle. In August 2013, Eberts and his wife were the subject of a spread in Angeleno magazine on the interior design of their mansion. And in November 2014, they attended a black-tie gala in Culver City for Baby2Baby, a local charitable organization.

"I found pictures of him on Facebook — in Greece, Spain, St. Barths — and that's where you really get upset," said Elliott, who self-published "Rebounding From Death's Door" in 2004. "He's out vacationing all over the world."

Despite the fight with Eberts, Elliott stuck with his Hollywood dreams. Ultimately, his project found a home with former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum's faith-based film company, EchoLight Studios. The movie, written by Klausner and called "Hoovey," stars Lauren Holly and Patrick Warburton.

It premiered at Bel Air Presbyterian Church earlier this month.

Twitter: @DanielNMiller

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