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Betting High Stakes on Low Budgets : Movies: Independent Hollywood filmmakers are creating a niche with action-adventure films that are sold directly overseas, and rarely ever seen in the U.S.


Talk to Aron Schifman and Richard Munchkin and you get the idea that, hey, what's so tough about making movies, finding scripts, casting stars and keeping investors up and overhead down?

Look what's happened in just the year since Malibu's Schifman and North Hollywood's Munchkin joined forces across the Los Angeles Basin. Their company, Century Film Partners, has quickly rolled out two motion pictures and will unwrap its third at the American Film Market--"Breakaway," introducing ice-skater-cum-actress Tonya Harding--while pursuing a 1995 production schedule of a movie every other month.

Century Film Partners is one of the newest of the "new actioneers," production companies that export American-made movies to the global market.

But few of these made-in-Hollywood features will likely ever make it to Hollywood. While involving American actors, crews and investors, these films generally travel overseas for, say, the home video markets of Latin America, the cable/TV/satellite companies of Europe and perhaps the movie houses, video stores and TV stations of Asia.

There is a seemingly global lust for American movies of the pulp variety--low in budget and high in octane, carrying titles like CFP's "Fists of Iron" (battles in and out of the ring), "Texas Payback" (revenge in Vegas), and "Breakaway" (escape from the Mob).

A hidden Hollywood? Crypto-moguls?

How many Los Angeles-based independent film companies compete for this specialized low-budget market is difficult to determine, since many operate through private funding--limited partnerships--or through co-production deals or advance sales to foreign buyers.

But an idea of their numbers can be seen at this year's American Film Market, being held Thursday through March 3 in Santa Monica. There are 110 members of the American Film Marketing Assn., the Los Angeles-based trade group that specializes largely in independent English-language movies for overseas sales.

But more than twice that number of independents--235--will be at the weeklong market in the hallways and rooms of the Loews Hotel making deals for their low-budget films.


"I don't know where they all come from," said one association executive, who asked that his name not be used. "Obviously they aren't all members. Most major distributors want high-budget films. So there must be a market for the low-budget somewhere. The low-budget people produce a product that is not worse than promised regarding look, story and stars. Even if you sell only 20,000 copies in video you might make a buck."

To some members of Hollywood's filmmaking community, these low-budget action-adventure movies represent a first chance to get a writing credit or a rare meaty role, a chance to direct or cut a film and to many, an opportunity just to work, to see their faces on a screen, to see their names at the end credits.

"We're the Dashiell Hammetts and Raymond Chandlers of our generation, making pulp, fun films," says Eric Gardner, the 33-year-old former USC film student who, with 32-year-old USC alumnus Sean Dash, wrote and produced "Breakaway" for Century Film Partners.

A year ago, pitching a story idea to Century, the two filmmakers got the go-ahead for "Breakaway" to be shot on Super-8 film.

"Then as we developed the project, the numbers were crunched and we were able to go to 16mm. Then, when we signed up Tonya Harding, we went to 35mm and got even a bigger budget. It was almost like a student film becoming a feature film."

Hollywood's new actioneers shun big stars, big money deals and big studio overhead trappings in making their claimed $1-million to $3-million movies.

"We put our money onto the screen," Schifman says.

"Our movies are shot within a month and completed within six," says Munchkin, who has worked as a line producer and director. "And through our work in the industry, we're assembling a family of filmmakers; talented, hard-working people."

The company also has cast a few identifiable names, Sam Jones and Bo Hopkins in "Texas Payback," Michael Worth in "Fists of Iron" and, of course, Tonya Harding with Joe Estevez and Teri Thompson in "Breakaway."

And the films all speak that most universal of cinematic languages--action.

"When we go overseas," Munchkin says, "we sit down with the buyers and say what do you want to see?, and No. 1 is action. Comedies don't translate. What we think is funny they won't think is funny in Turkey or Malaysia, but a car chase is a car chase in any language."

"It's like cable at night here," Schifman says. "What you see there is mostly action films."

There's a certain fiscal sophistication to the making of these pulp movies as their producers study market trends--what sells, what repels--and finance their films through limited partnerships for operational expenses while selling their films from country to country.

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