Without Graham King, 'Aviator' wouldn't fly

When Leonardo DiCaprio arrived in Japan to promote the opening of "Gangs of New York" in November 2002, the handsome young star was greeted by thousands of screaming fans, who broke through barricades and might have smothered him with adulation if security hadn't kept them at a safe distance. Watching the surging crowd of kids, hardly attracting a glance, was a burly man who would look right at home playing a vigilant bodyguard in a British gangster movie.

Largely unknown outside of the insular world of film industry foreign sales, Graham King has quietly emerged as the new king of Hollywood high rollers, having provided the key foreign financing for a series of risky high-profile projects that might never have gone before the cameras without his support. In fact, while DiCaprio and "Gangs" director Martin Scorsese were in Japan, King put them to work selling his next picture. Knowing both men were longing to make "The Aviator," which goes into wide release this weekend, King had DiCaprio and Scorsese woo a leading Japanese film investor, touting the saga of Howard Hughes, the test-pilot daredevil who built an aviation empire while romancing every Hollywood starlet in the phonebook.

By the time DiCaprio and Scorsese finished their pitch, King had a sale, pocketing a $13-million commitment for the Japanese distribution rights to "Aviator." King was responsible for roughly $80 million of the film's $116-million budget, with the rest of the backing coming from Miramax and Warner Bros. With so much money on the line, "Aviator" represents King's biggest bet yet. For all the press attention that's been focused on the fractious relationship between Scorsese and Miramax czar Harvey Weinstein, Weinstein was largely in the background on "Aviator" -- it's King who put in most of the money and spent every day on the set, keeping an eye on his investment. Old Hollywood hands, knowing that Scorsese has gone over budget on virtually every movie he's made, predicted doom, figuring the cagey director would walk all over the neophyte producer. "When I told people I was doing 'Aviator' with Marty right after 'Gangs,' everyone said to me, 'Have you lost your mind?' " King recalls.

Although he admits to popping a few Ambiens along the way, the 43-year-old producer kept the movie from spiraling out of control. "For 91 days, all Marty heard me say was how much this movie was costing," explains King, who retains the cockney accent of his old London neighborhood. "Before we started, I told Marty, 'We have a schedule of 91 days, and if that's not realistic, tell me now, because if we go to 115 days, it could put me out of business. And if I go down, we all go down."

Newcomers to Hollywood often go down for the count. Early on in "The Aviator," we see Hughes buttonhole MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, wanting to borrow a couple of cameras to supplement the 24 cameras he already has filming the aerial scenes of his epic "Hell's Angels." Mayer turns him down, telling him to go back home, saying 'You'll go broke here.' " King has heard such advice many times himself. Over the years, countless outside investors have crashed and burned, betting on too many bad movies and blowing too much cash on private jets and posh parties.

Still, King has earned considerable goodwill, largely because he is one of the few risk-takers left willing to back artistically ambitious projects. "Graham's movies all display a pattern," says Jim Gianopulos, co-chairman of 20th Century Fox. "They are films that for one reason or another, studios would've been very nervous about financing themselves, but they're made by gifted filmmakers with a vision Graham trusted. What he's really doing is taking the creative risk on the film, which is often what you have to do to make a great picture."

In today's Hollywood, risk is a dirty word. At most studios, ambitious projects are a rare luxury, elbowed aside by a flood of easy-to-market special-effects thrillers. The few Oscar-worthy films released by studios are invariably made with the help of independent investors -- according to Forbes, studios rely on outside partners for 75% of the movies they release. 20th Century Fox only made "Master and Commander" after it recruited two other studios to help foot the bill. Despite a three-decade relationship with Clint Eastwood, Warners wouldn't back "Million Dollar Baby" until Lakeshore Entertainment agreed to pay for half the budget.

While everyone else is hedging their bets, King reaches for the sky. "Graham is an old-style entrepreneur who champions films few other people would be willing to make," says Weinstein, who compares him to Sam Spiegel, the impresario who made "On the Waterfront" and "Lawrence of Arabia." King is always searching for an uncut diamond, often an expensive one. In 2000, King put up $40 million of the $55-million budget for Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic," which won four Oscars. He spent $55 million on Michael Mann's "Ali," then wagered $65 million on "Gangs." If "Aviator" is nominated for a best picture Oscar next month, he'll have three best picture nominations in four tries, a feat today's risk-averse studios can only dream about.

At first glance, it's hard to imagine King as a man with poetry in his soul. He grew up in the rough and tumble East End, where his father ran a garage and knew the Krays, the notorious gangsters who ruled '60s-era London. Like many kids his age, King had twin passions -- movies and soccer. At lunch one day, he spots a young man wearing an Arsenal T-shirt, prompting an enthusiastic explanation of British soccer rivalries (King's team is Chelsea).

King came to Los Angeles at 19, ostensibly to attend college. He lasted a year before he landed a job in 20th Century Fox's international TV department. His six years there gave him an appreciation for the global marketplace, then a backwater of the business. King eventually opened his own foreign sales firm, Initial Entertainment Group, which has gone through several partners and owners along the way. King was such a small fry that when he offered to pay $65 million to back "Gangs," then-Disney Chairman Joe Roth, who controlled the project, had to call King's banker, John Miller at J.P. Morgan Chase, to check out his credentials.

King doesn't wager all this money himself. He sells the foreign rights to a film country by country, a formula pioneered years ago by Dino De Laurentiis. As King explains: "I greenlight a $100-million movie, but I've sold off the domestic [distribution] rights for 35% [of the budget] and I know I can get 55% [of the budget] from my foreign markets. So before I even shoot one scene, I've got 90% of the film covered. So where's my risk?"

In fact, he has already recouped 95% of his investment in "The Aviator." His risk lies in gambling on one extravaganza at a time. Studios have so many streams of income that they can write off half a dozen failures without blinking an eye. King can survive one bomb, like "Ali," but if he has two in a row, his foreign investors will slip out the back door the next time he comes calling.

A more cautious soul might be content to remake old movies. Not King. When Paramount approached him about partnering on "Alfie" and "The Italian Job," he passed. "I told them, 'No way. Those are classics. If you're going to remake them you better have the goods.' " In order to get access to the best material in town, King has production deals with stars like DiCaprio and Johnny Depp, figuring they'll be magnets for good scripts. It's telling that the upcoming project King is most excited about is "Shantaram," a Depp vehicle based on a semi-autobiographical 944-page novel about an Australian heroin addict who escapes from prison and flees to India, where he becomes a doctor in the Bombay slums and a gun-runner battling Russians in 1980s Afghanistan.

The days when a major studio would finance a project like that are gone. If "Shantaram" gets made, it will be because King raises most of the money. He is still amazed that no studio wanted to make "The Aviator." Before Miramax got involved, the project was turned down everywhere. "They all went 'pass, pass, pass -- we don't like it,' and yet they're happy to turn around and greenlight some ordinary action film you could see any day of the week," King says, still sounding slightly incredulous.

Whether it's a great soccer match or an ambitious film, the thrill for King is being in the thick of things. When I first met him, he took great delight in recounting the saga of his first fight with Weinstein, an epic showdown over the rights to a foreign territory for "Gangs" that raged for days on end. Later, when "Gangs" went over budget, Weinstein demanded more money. More shouting ensued, but King stood his ground. Today all seems forgiven -- the two men are full of praise for each other.

"At first Harvey was very intimidating. But I stuck to my guns, which is just my personality. Besides, I had to say no with 'Gangs,' " King says with a grin. "I didn't have any more money to give him."

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