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When glitches trump glitz

Times Staff Writer

WHEN a movie studio hires “Training Day” screenwriter David Ayer to pen a script, he doesn’t worry about getting paid. But it has been 18 months since producer Philippe Martinez bought Ayer’s movie “Harsh Times” at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the filmmaker is still awaiting the $2.2 million Martinez acknowledges he owes him.

That bills-past-due story line plays out with several other people doing business with Martinez’s fledgling movie company, Bauer Martinez Studios.

When he arrived in Hollywood from Europe a year and a half ago, the French-born Martinez said he would revolutionize independent film. With a purported war chest of $200 million, he pledged not only to finance but also distribute a slate of filmmaker-driven movies. While studio-owned specialty film labels were succumbing to bottom-line calculations, Martinez said his company would be driven by a love of cinema.

In addition to buying “Harsh Times,” Bauer Martinez developed and produced “The Flock,” starring Richard Gere, and “I Could Never Be Your Woman,” starring Michelle Pfeiffer. The company signed “Die Hard’s” John McTiernan to direct the $50-million Hayden Christensen action movie “Crash Bandits” and said it would spend $850,000 for the adult film comedy “The Amateurs,” starring Jeff Bridges.

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Those, at least, were the stirring headlines. The reality has been far more contentious and interesting.

With numerous scheduled and then abandoned release dates, most of these new Bauer Martinez movies haven’t seen the light of day. The few that were released into theaters promptly flopped. In addition to owing Ayer $2.2 million and “The Amateurs’ ” producers at least $850,000, Martinez acknowledges that the firm has left unpaid bills at film labs, public relations firms and movie marketing companies. Faced with a cash crisis, Martinez says, he cut the staff by two-thirds.

Martinez says his company nearly had to close its doors, and he doesn’t dispute that because of the cash shortage a number of people weren’t paid. But he says all but one of the company’s mothballed movies -- “The Amateurs,” whose future remains cloudy -- will come out soon.

“People have a tendency when they have a problem to close the tent and get out of town,” Martinez says, adding that in recent weeks he has been able to overhaul his company’s balance sheet and has two new financing deals to get back in the game. “We’re still here. And we have learned all the possible mistakes not to make. Now we know what we can and can’t do.”

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The 39-year-old Martinez appears alternately excited and exhausted by his Hollywood trials. A large man given to loose polo shirts who likes to sprawl across his office chairs, he becomes the most animated when complaining about people who focus only on his past. Years ago, he completed a 14-month sentence in a U.S. detention center (for overstaying a visa) and six months in a French jail after being convicted in a fraud case related to the collapse of a film sales company.

Whether or not Bauer Martinez, which was named after Martinez’s father and grandfather, will successfully rebound is unknown. Even after agreeing in a December binding settlement to pay Ayer the money it owed him, Bauer Martinez immediately missed the deadline for the first $500,000 “Harsh Times” payment and still hasn’t paid it, Michael J. Plonsker, a lawyer for the writer-director, says.

“I learned that if you don’t want fleas, you don’t lie down with dogs,” says Aaron Ryder, producer of “The Amateurs,” which has been on the Bauer Martinez shelf for nearly a year and a half. “But there are only so many distributors out there.”

That historical imbalance created the opening into which Martinez, like so many other interlopers, has stepped. The studios want to transform moviemaking into a slam-dunk business, steering their production capital toward sequels, remakes and comic-book adaptations. If anybody is going to make and release smaller, riskier movies, it’s outside investors such as Martinez.

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For the gate crashers, the attractions are understandable: rubbing shoulders with glamorous stars, sipping Champagne at glitzy premieres, perhaps even making a buck or two. While a fraction of these newcomers succeed, a far greater number crash and burn. Even the most sophisticated investor can be taken to the cleaners: Billionaire Philip Anschutz says he lost more than $100 million when his 2005 movie “Sahara” bombed.

In some ways, the deck is stacked against these tenderfoots from the moment they arrive. Talent agencies peddle them scripts other producers and studios have rejected. Sales agents extract acquisition deals no experienced film buyers would contemplate. Banks lend money at steep rates.

In the case of Bauer Martinez, it’s unclear who was taking advantage of whom: Was he simply a victim of a system rigged to fleece newcomers, or did he try -- and so far fail -- to beat Hollywood at its own game?

What is indisputably true is that movies and actors are caught in the turmoil. “You feel so helpless,” says Michael Traeger, writer-director of “The Amateurs.” “You want to jump out a window.”

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Clouds on the horizon

WHEN Ayer met Martinez at the 2005 Toronto festival, he loved what the producer had to say about his first feature. Ayer had mortgaged his home to help finance the gritty police drama “Harsh Times” and he had come to Toronto in search of a theatrical distributor.

In his mildly accented English, Martinez told Ayer his film would become the flagship release of his new company. “I felt like he understood the movie and its potential more than anybody else,” says Ayer, whose “Training Day” won Denzel Washington the best actor Oscar. “I got the sense he was going to put the film on a pedestal. And I was intrigued by the idea that he was going to create a different kind of paradigm.”

Traeger and producer Ryder also were taken with Martinez’s enthusiasm. Traeger and Ryder had joined forces to make “The Amateurs,” a comedy about some small-town dreamers (played by Bridges, Tim Blake Nelson and Joe Pantoliano, among others) who make an X-rated movie. In late 2005, with the movie completed, they went looking for a distributor and organized a screening for Martinez.

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“Philippe saw the movie and absolutely fell in love with it. He couldn’t have been better,” says Ryder, who was an executive producer on the 2001 art house hit “Memento.”

But just a few months after the two deals closed, problems surfaced. Any number of release dates were scheduled for the films, only to be ditched. “Harsh Times” had at least three release dates, Ayer says. “The Amateurs” had so many shifting debuts that Traeger and Ryder say they lost count: first November 2005, then January 2006, then February 2006, then March 2006.

“Then March turns into June, June turns into July and then July turns into September,” Ryder says. “Then I started thinking, ‘Something is up with these guys.’ ”

There was more direct evidence something was wrong at Bauer Martinez. The company had paid less than half of its promised $4-million “Harsh Times” acquisition, according to Martinez, and hadn’t paid any of the money due to the financiers of “The Amateurs.”

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Other movies faced similar tribulations. Weeks before production was to start, “Crash Bandits” fell apart, sparking two lawsuits (which were subsequently settled without the terms being disclosed). After filming was completed on “The Flock,” Bauer Martinez fired its director, “Infernal Affairs” filmmaker Andrew Lau.

Martinez, who would drive around town in a chauffeured Bentley, even failed to reimburse “The Amateurs” costar Pantoliano $300 he spent on gas and a hotel room when he was promoting the film, the actor says.

Producers Mark Yellen and Dale Rosenbloom brought the company the “Crash Bandits” screenplay, for which Bauer Martinez signed a $250,000 contract with the producers in October 2005. Two initial payments were made, but half a year later the producers said they were still owed $115,000, according to a lawsuit they filed. (Court records indicate the lawsuit over the delinquency was settled.)

The cash crisis appeared to be taking a toll on the movies Bauer Martinez had acquired and produced but not distributed. To release a movie on just a handful of screens requires millions of dollars to create marketing materials, purchase advertising and strike film prints.

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Bauer Martinez decided in January 2006 to join forces with MGM; the studio wanted to fill out its slate, and Bauer Martinez could benefit from MGM’s infrastructure. The plan was for MGM to release five Bauer Martinez movies: “Harsh Times”; the teen comedy “Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj”; Pfeiffer’s romantic comedy, “I Could Never Be Your Woman”; Gere’s sexual predator drama, “The Flock”; and “Fragile,” a thriller starring Calista Flockhart. Bauer Martinez would rent MGM’s distribution system, putting up the marketing costs itself, with MGM collecting a share of the ticket sales.

The first of the MGM movies was going to be Pfeiffer’s project. But when Bauer Martinez made the film, it had promised Pfeiffer at least 10% of the film’s first-dollar gross receipts, and writer-director Amy Heckerling an additional 5%. Since MGM was in line to collect its distribution fees first, the studio couldn’t honor Pfeiffer and Heckerling’s deals, so the movie was again put on the shelf, according to people involved in the production.

Around the same time, it became clear, MGM says, that Bauer Martinez didn’t have the money to pay the marketing costs for the other four films. In exchange for a heftier distribution fee, the studio said it would assume those costs.

But the first two movies to come out -- “Harsh Times” and “Van Wilder 2" -- performed poorly, grossing $3.3 million and $4.3 million, respectively. MGM wasn’t hugely impressed with either “The Flock” or “Fragile” and decided to part ways with Bauer Martinez after releasing only two of its five films. (MGM declined to comment on the record.)

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Bauer Martinez was back on its own and needed money.

Lessons the hard way

HOLLYWOOD talent agents like to say they want independent producers to succeed so that their clients might have more jobs, but in the case of Bauer Martinez, they may have smelled fresh meat and taken the company for all it was worth.

When Bauer Martinez bought “Harsh Times” for $4 million, the next-highest bid was just $1.1 million. For “I Could Never Be Your Woman,” a film numerous companies had previously passed on, Pfeiffer and Heckerling got deals that other film producers say were out of line with their recent box-office track records. Gere was paid $10 million to star in “The Flock,” which some film executives say was more than double his asking price. (The agents for Pfeiffer, Heckerling and Gere either declined to be interviewed or did not reply to interview requests.)

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“It takes some time to figure out how the town works,” says Martinez, who believes that some agents took advantage of him. “I’ve learned now to be very cautious in what we’re going to do.”

Even if some vendors and filmmakers weren’t getting paid, Martinez was able to come up with the money to make several movies, spending $33 million on “The Flock” and $24 million on “I Could Never Be Your Woman.”

But Martinez, who was behind the camera for Jean-Claude Van Damme’s direct-to-video movie “Wake of Death” and Jerry Springer’s little-seen “Citizen Verdict,” was unhappy with Lau’s version of “The Flock,” and took the movie away from the director. According to a person who worked on the film, Martinez tried re-shooting and re-cutting the film himself, and then, at the urging of Gere, director Niels Mueller (“The Assassination of Richard Nixon”) came on board to rework the film one more time. It is unclear what version of “The Flock” will be released.

Lau’s agent declined to comment on the dispute, and Martinez would not discuss the matter except to say, “We are very happy with the movie we have now.”

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Martinez says he plans to release “I Could Never Be Your Woman” this summer and “The Flock” in the fall.

Martinez says he has reduced the company’s debt from $67 million to $33 million, and is trying to settle all of his unpaid bills. “In three or four weeks, we will be debt-free,” he says.

He has borrowed at least $12 million from Walter Josten’s Blue Rider Pictures to support “I Could Never Be Your Woman’s” release. Martinez also has joined with an unspecified Florida company to finance the acquisition of as many as 12 movies annually (some released theatrically, some direct-to-video) for no more than $750,000 apiece, starting with the low-budget horror movie “Welcome to the Jungle.” He said last week that he was arranging financing to produce two new movies this year.

With 50 employees at its peak, Bauer Martinez now has 17. After holding office space in MGM’s Century City towers for a few months, the group recently relocated to a prime Beverly Hills location on Wilshire Boulevard. But even in the new digs, there are dissonant notes: On Martinez’s office wall is a framed letter from Bridges, the actor praising the executive’s understanding of his movie -- a film Martinez has no current plans to distribute.

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For now, Martinez says, his company’s most important test is to prove it can successfully release Pfeiffer’s and Gere’s movies. “I want to show,” he says, “that we can be a good distributor.”

Even though “The Amateurs” is not on Martinez’s release schedule, costar Pantoliano hopes his movie somehow sees the light of day. “I am telling you, there is going to be a happy ending,” he says. “ ‘The Amateurs’ is way too good a movie to get lost.”

Martinez says he, too, is not going to disappear.

“We have financed 22 movies in the last five years,” he says of his stints in Hollywood and London. “Twenty-two movies that cost $154 million. Of course you have problems. But look at what we have accomplished, and all the jobs we have created. I love watching films and I love the idea of building a little movie studio.

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“I will make it,” he says. “I am a survivor.”

john.horn@latimes.com


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