A MINI-MOGUL : Deferred Payments, Bartering and Local Shoots Help Film Maker Come In on Low Budgets

Times Staff Writer

Samuel Goldwyn, the late movie mogul, once said that a great picture has to start with a great story.

Victor Alexander, president of a low-budget film maker called American Victor Organization, has a different approach: "If you have Western costumes, you do a Western. If you have military outfits, you do a Vietnam movie."

Alexander heads an operation that is low-budget movie making at its lowest. His "studio," where he edits and stores film, is the garage in his 20-year-old tract home in Newbury Park. Movies are shot in as little as 16 days, with Vietnam scenes for a recent film shot on location in Riverside and sequences for a low-budget Western shot at a horse ranch five minutes from his house.

Sometimes his stars are his bankers. One of Alexander's financial backers was an ex-karate champion turned bartender who took out a second mortgage on his home to raise $15,000. The contribution helped him win the starring role, Alexander said, in the film "Kill Zone."

Alexander, 44, is a mini-mogul, one of scores of people who want to make movies and do so by producing low-budget offerings that are often financed and acted in by friends who work free on the promise that they will be paid if the picture ever makes money.

Shares Future Profits

Equipment is borrowed by exchanging a promise of sharing profits, if any. In one case, Alexander found equipment for a war movie by donating money to a military museum.

Alexander's current offering is "Hell's Outlaw," a $75,000 slasher film he produced and directed about a Western outlaw who rises from the dead to kill yuppies planning to build a resort on the ranch where he was hanged 100 years earlier. Alexander hasn't sold it yet, despite trying to peddle it at the Cannes film festival this spring in the south of France.

"Hell's Outlaw" stars Tag Groat and his brother, Rick, who, when they aren't acting or producing their own low-budget films, support themselves doing Western shows at corporate picnics.

At the end of the movie, Rick, the good guy, cuts off the head of Tag, the bad guy. As the head sits in a field laughing, a headless horseman rides by and grabs it while a country-and-Western singer croons " . . . he picked his head up off the ground and we still don't know if he is dead."

Alexander is a native of Iraq. He got into the movie business after studying film at San Francisco State University and working nearly five years making films and documentaries in Norway. So far he has produced or co-produced five low-budget pictures in the United States, usually becoming a partner by supplying the camera equipment and film while relying on outside investors for other production costs.

Wife Helps Out

He has supported his movie making by free-lancing as a cameraman, film editor and laboratory technician. He also gets financial help from his wife, Liv Marie, an aerospace designer at Litton, who will star in an upcoming film called "Star Quest," which he describes as "a future fantasy story of a woman caught between two worlds and times."

Alexander estimates they have spent at least $200,000 over three years. The company's primary assets are $100,000 in camera, laboratory and editing equipment, a 1986 Isuzu pickup truck and a 1985 Ford van.

No one knows how many ultra-low-budget films are produced each year. About 450 films are released annually in the United States, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America. It is fair to say that countless others are never screened beyond living-room showings for friends and family.

Alexander, however, and partners actually have sold two pictures, "Kill Zone," which is being syndicated on television in the United States and a murder mystery called "Survival," which is being distributed on videocassette in Scandinavia.

Reviewed in Variety

"Kill Zone," which cost $92,000 to make, is about a Vietnam veteran who goes berserk in the same way Sylvester Stallone did in the first Rambo picture, "First Blood." The film was described in a 1985 review in "Variety" as a "tame action thriller" that "takes an eternity to unfold."

Shapiro Entertainment, a Studio City picture distributor, bought the licensing rights to "Kill Zone" for a percentage of sales. Leonard Shapiro, president of Shapiro Entertainment, said "Kill Zone" is a "well-crafted exploitation film for the price."

Shapiro sold "Kill Zone" for television syndication for $140,000 to Samuel Goldwyn Television, which Alexander says paid Shapiro $28,000 up front and will pay the rest over five years. Another company, Vestron, paid Shapiro $75,000 to distribute "Kill Zone" on home videocassette in the United States and Canada.

For his part, mini-mogul Alexander expects to make a $20,000 profit over three years for his role in making the film. It's not much, but it is probably more profit than will be made on the $47-million bomb "Ishtar."

Samuel Goldwyn Television then sold "Kill Zone" as part of an 18-picture package of B-grade adventure movies called "The Explosives" to stations in about 50 major television markets. Goldwyn executives expect the film to gross $750,000 over two years.

"It fit the genre of the package we were putting together," said Meyer Gottlieb, executive vice president at Samuel Goldwyn.

The movie first aired in March on Fox Channel 11 in Los Angeles, billed as its "World Television Premiere." Elizabeth Saunders, the station's vice president of promotion and creative services, called it part of the "guns and ammo" group of pictures that ran. She said it fared well for the station's 9 o'clock time period in which it aired, with about 8% of those watching television in the city tuned in to "Kill Zone."

Shapiro says, however, that such low-budget movies are losing their appeal because the television syndication market is soft and because home video audiences seem to want better quality.

"You have to step up a little more now," Shapiro said. "The video market has been flooded with low-end products. The $100,000 to $300,000 budget movie doesn't have enough impact anymore with the video audience."

The most controversial aspect of low-budget film making the Alexander way is how actors are paid. He is a non-union producer and often uses actors who defer their wages on the promise that they will be paid if the movie makes money.

"I generally don't believe in deferral because you usually don't get paid," said Wayne Douglas, who played a ranch hand in "Hell's Outlaw. "I know the people here, otherwise I wouldn't have done it."

Actors' and directors' union officials routinely accuse non-union picture makers of exploitation.

Union Objections

"An actor in a non-union picture is completely subjected to the whims of the producer," said Mark Locher, chief spokesman for the Screen Actors Guild. "There are no residual payments, no safety standards, no guaranteed rest period, meals, transportation or hotels. All of the things the Guild established in 54 years usually are absent in a non-union picture.

Alexander acknowledges that he sometimes has used SAG members in his movies, but claims he has paid them more than SAG's daily minimum scale of $379. He also acknowledges, however, that in using SAG actors it exposes them to disciplinary action, such as a fine by the union, or even being kicked out, should SAG officials learn that the actors worked on a non-union picture.

Alexander said he realizes his films aren't likely to win an Academy Award, but doesn't care.

"These are B pictures," Alexander said. "But this is what kept the studios alive in the golden days of Hollywood."

Mogul Samuel Goldwyn probably would have agreed. "The trouble with this business," he once said, "is the dearth of bad pictures."

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