Senator Films throws its hat into the ring

Times Staff Writer

LIKE any recent film-school grad -- especially one with the acclaimed short film “Jesus Henry Christ” on his resume -- Dennis Lee was eager to make movies. But a directing deal at New Line Cinema never yielded a job, and Lee’s “Fireflies in the Garden” script was rejected all over town. “It was always, ‘We love the script, but we don’t know what the market for it is,’ ” Lee recalls.

Frustrated by the inactivity, Lee cobbled together $500,000 from family and friends, calling in every possible favor to make “Fireflies” on his own. With Lee just two months from starting his shoestring production, Senator Entertainment rang up the fledgling filmmaker. Senator President Marco Weber and production executive Vanessa Coifman not only gave the 37-year-old more than 15 times his intended budget but also broad creative control.

“That was the crazy thing about it -- they were happy with the script the way it was,” Lee says.

Crazy -- and perhaps prescient. With Senator behind him, Lee used his script about a pitiless father and his fractured family to assemble an astonishing cast for a debut feature: Willem Dafoe, Ryan Reynolds, Emily Watson, Carrie-Anne Moss and someone named Julia Roberts. “It was,” Lee says, “a dream experience.”


The question now is whether Senator will enjoy similar good fortune. Independent producers -- especially those who gamble by distributing their own films -- fail at a hopelessly consistent rate. Besides Senator, 2008 will bring two other new (and well-funded) producer-distributors into the mix: Overture Films and Summit Entertainment.

Where Overture and Summit are concentrating on seemingly more broadly commercial productions (Overture has Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in “Righteous Kill,” while Summit has “Brothers Bloom,” starring Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz), Senator is trying to carve out a different niche: movies that scare off everybody else.

In addition to the $8-million “Fireflies,” Senator’s 2008 slate includes “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” (a teen horror movie that the Weinstein Co. bought and then unloaded) and “The Informers,” director Gregor Jordan’s movie adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ 1994 short-story collection, whose screenplay kicked around town about as long as Lee’s.

“If I was interested in all the movies that everybody else wanted, I could never compete,” says Weber, the 40-year-old head of Senator, whose American operations are an offshoot of a long-standing German distributor and financier that recently underwent a reorganization. “I am really interested in getting involved in films that might even be polarizing.”

In some ways, Senator resembles an early Miramax -- taking fliers on untested directors, gravitating toward movies that aren’t full of middlebrow cheer, relying on enthusiastic reviews to be successful.

“ ‘Igby Goes Down’ was turned down by everyone in Hollywood for six years,” Weber says of the first Senator-financed movie, a 2002 drama and minor art-house hit that MGM distributed. “But I don’t care about that. If I believe in something, I want to do it.”

Building confidence

Half of Canter’s Deli was open for business. The other half of the Fairfax landmark was filled with the cast and crew for the $15-million “The Informers,” which, on this October day, had just started principal photography. The cast includes Billy Bob Thornton, Winona Ryder, Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke.


“Up until last night, I wasn’t sure we were going to make this movie,” Jordan says during a lunch break. It’s not that he didn’t believe in Senator, it’s that Jordan has grown accustomed to his films falling apart like a cheap suit. He had been penciled in to direct the sci-fi movie “The Tripod,” but the project was canceled, as was the Mel Gibson film “Under and Alone.”

“I was in development hell for a couple of years,” says Jordan. “But in the end, it just comes down to luck.”

When Jordan became involved in “The Informers,” it had an unwieldy 150-page script -- Ellis’ own adaptation of his stories about emotional drift in 1980s Hollywood -- and another director (Nick Jarecki) attached.

That wasn’t Jordan’s sole worry. When he was preparing the Heath Ledger movie “Ned Kelly,” Jordan said he would receive worrisome memos from financier Universal Studios about the box-office grosses of recent westerns. “There was this whole sort of marketing analysis done on it,” Jordan says, adding that those kind of worries are not what directors should have on their minds during production.


When he met with Senator’s Weber, Jordan was nervous about having the same kind of conversations. Just a few minutes into their initial meeting, though, the director began to relax. “It’s not that I am obsessed with making art films per se, but it was clear he was not interested in making a film clearly driven by economics. And this is definitely a movie with a dark edge to it.”

Within hours, not months, Jordan was handed the “The Informers” job.

Although Jordan and Lee ultimately brought together recognizable casts, it required a bit of gamesmanship. “The message had to get out,” Jordan says, “that Senator was real and that the money was real.”

Now Senator has to show moviegoers that it’s legitimate as well. “Mandy Lane,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006, is scheduled to be the company’s first release in late March or early April. “Fireflies” is set to debut this summer, with “The Informers” arriving in late summer or early fall. Senator also said it was purchasing domestic distribution rights to “Splice,” a sci-fi thriller starring Sarah Polley.


Weber says Senator has mitigated some of its risk by selling off foreign rights to its movies, but he’s aware that he’s not working with the safety net of a deep-pocketed studio. He hopes that will continue to make the company attractive to filmmakers and actors alike.

“If they feel you are courageous -- if you’re putting your money where your mouth is -- it motivates people,” Weber says.

Says Lee: “I think my experience at Senator is the exception to the rule. When I tell my friends what happened, they can’t believe it.”