When the Japanese come calling in Hollywood, one of their first stops is usually talent agent Michael Ovitz's sleek new I. M. Pei building in the heart of Beverly Hills, attorney Peter Dekom's elegant wood-paneled office high above Sunset Boulevard, or Jake Eberts' table at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel, where the London-based producer frequently resides.
Ovitz, Dekom and Eberts are part of an elite corps of Hollywood insiders who have served as location scouts for Japanese investors eager to get into the glamorous--but risky--world of moviemaking. Not content to rely only on New York investment bankers, the Japanese have turned to Hollywood's insiders to advise them on talent and movie projects, to sort out the charlatans and self-promoters from the true success stories, to make introductions to trustworthy business partners.
"The history of outside investments in Hollywood has been a fairly unfortunate one," says Christopher Murray, an O'Melveny & Myers attorney who worked on the recent formation of Media International Corp., a $200-million consortium of major Japanese companies that will fund everything from movie production to sports programming. Adds Robert Cort, president of Interscope Communications: "A lot of people who have come into Hollywood have done so with a real sense of arrogance."
The Japanese want to avoid the mistakes of past investors.
In Hollywood, reality is rarely what it appears to be. An executive producer credit can mean no more than that the lucky recipient finagled part of an option on a movie script. A movie that looks like a box-office hit can actually be a money loser. A star with a household name could be at the brink of a career slide.
"Investment bankers can evaluate the worth of an investment on the basis of economics," says Lee Rosenberg, a partner with Triad Artists talent agency. "We see things from a different perspective--the human element, the creative side."
That's where Japan's Hollywood-based contacts come in. Forty-three-old Dekom cuts his own swath in the cliquish world of Hollywood. He and his firm--Bloom, Dekom & Hergott--are known for doing more than simply giving legal advice to such clients as actors Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Kim Basinger, directors George Lucas and Ron Howard, and producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. Dekom and his partners also know who's up and who's down, which companies are in need of cash, and which studio executive is coming in or going out (Universal Pictures Chairman Thomas Pollock was a partner in the firm, and clients have included 20th Century Fox chairman Joe Roth and former Columbia Pictures President Dawn Steel).
About three years ago, JVC/Victor Co. of Japan joined the firm's roster, with Dekom and his partner Melanie Cook doing general legal work for the company. Then JVC officials said they wanted to invest in Hollywood. Dekom looked around at the options, but didn't like what he saw.
"In those days, people were submitting things to Japan (for financing) that they couldn't get any other way," Dekom recalls. So Dekom proposed what he calls his "home-grown" solution. He introduced JVC to another client, producer Lawrence Gordon. The Japanese last year agreed to invest $100 million in equity and debt guarantees in a new company called Largo Entertainment to be run by Gordon. Dekom designed the business plan (in return he was given a small ownership position), and JVC agreed to cede total creative control to Gordon.
Eberts was no stranger to international financing or moviemaking. The former Canadian chemical engineer and financier founded the independent film company Goldcrest, which released such Oscar-winning pictures as "Chariots of Fire" and "Gandhi" before its demise (which Eberts has chronicled in a new book, "My Indecision Is Final"). Eberts has strong ties to such English film people as David Puttnam and Richard Attenborough and has raised money for filmmaking efforts from overseas sources.
Nomura Babcock & Brown--a joint venture between the Japanese securities giant and an American financing firm--plucked Eberts' name off a short list of major Hollywood producers and put him to work looking for investment opportunities. "He was a consultant, advising us on the inner workings of the industry." says Richard Koffey, managing director of Babcock & Brown, the San Francisco firm that has teamed with Nomura Securities Co.
Eberts helped the company settle on a strategy of cautiously wading into Hollywood's murky waters with a couple of $100-million investments in well-capitalized independents. Murray served as Nomura's attorney.