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Action-Movie Director Segues Into Executive Suite

December 29, 1987|JAMES BATES | Times Staff Writer

Movie director Hal Needham once predicted he'd never win an Oscar.

But Needham got one in March, not for making a movie but for helping to design a camera car with a crane in it that makes filming action scenes easier. When he accepted the award, Needham joked that film critics would suffer heart attacks when they learned the news.

After all, Needham is the one who directed Burt Reynolds as he smashed his way through a fleet of cars to become the top box-office star in the late 1970s and early '80s with such films as "Smokey and the Bandit," "Smokey and the Bandit II" and "Cannonball Run." The movies were among the most critically panned, yet enormously profitable films of the past 12 years and made Reynolds what the actor calls "the Laurence Olivier of cars."

Needham, 56, is now taking the Oscar-winning vehicle and his money-making touch and trying to make a success out of Camera Platforms International, a publicly held company in Valencia. The former stunt man and eighth-grade dropout, who heads the company as chairman and chief executive, acknowledges that he knows virtually nothing about business.

'It's My Money'

"I thought stock was something that grazed in a pasture until 2 1/2 years ago. Hell, I just got into this because it's my money," Needham said with a Southern accent he developed growing up in Memphis, Tenn.

Camera Platforms owns 16 camera cars--actually trucks--that rent for $300 to $650 a day and can cost as much as $275,000 to build. Camera cars are used to film such scenes as highway chases or to pull a car filled with actors. Normally, film directors must rent separate camera cars and cranes. But Needham's design is more versatile, mostly because he has built a crane into the camera car so that it can hoist a camera for outdoor shots, move the camera along with the action or tow a car.

Most of the company's efforts, however, are directed at what Needham hopes will be its biggest product--a ballast that controls the flow of electricity in high-intensity lights commonly used by directors to light sets. The company is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars developing the ballast, which Needham believes will make movie lighting safer and eliminate troublesome light flickers. He also believes that the ballast could have a much wider use in commercial lighting.

So far, though, Camera Platforms is suffering from the usual problems of a start-up company. For the nine months ended Sept. 30, the company lost $907,699, with about $392,657 in revenue from its camera-car rentals. Needham attributes the loss to research and development expenses for the ballast.

Needham is so committed to the company that he hasn't directed a movie in nearly two years. He also sank $2.5 million of the estimated $15 million he made from movies into the company. He and his partner, William Fredrick, whom Needham credits with designing the camera car and the ballast, each own about 26% of the company, stakes that are worth about $5 million each, based on a closing price Monday of $4.75 a share over the counter.

Camera Platforms, founded in June, 1985, was an outgrowth of Needham's friendship with Fredrick, who designed a "Budweiser Rocket Car" Needham owned. In 1979, it became the only vehicle to break the sound barrier on land.

$10-Million Loan

Needham also persuaded UST Inc., formerly U.S. Tobacco, to lend the new company $10 million in exchange for an option to buy a majority interest within three years. Needham is a close friend of UST Chairman Louis Bantle, whose Skoal chewing tobacco sponsors Needham's stock car on the racing circuit.

Needham's move to running Camera Platforms comes during something of a lull in his directing career. After a string of film hits, Needham hit a lull with a couple of duds such as "Stroker Ace" and "Body Slam."

Reynolds, one of Needham's best friends, believes that Needham has been treated unfairly for someone who made so many profitable movies. Reynolds said Needham is shunned by some studio executives because of his candor, combined with a lack of success with his past few films. He said the scripts that Needham is usually offered aren't worth filming.

"The stuff they were sending him was such garbage," Reynolds said. "Hal made an enormous amount of money for a lot of those studios, and the people who run those studios should be thankful for that."

Needham realizes that his outspokenness may be coming back to haunt him in Hollywood.

"It's true I don't play by the rules all the time. Anytime you are successful, people will say you are a smart ass. I'm sure they say that about me," he said.

One of his more controversial comments came in a 1980 interview with The Times in which Needham seemingly brushed off directing as "a snap" and said that, although he would never get an Oscar for a picture, he would "be a rich son of a bitch." The remarks angered some other directors and studio executives who take the profession more seriously.

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