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Name of the Game Is Dependent Independence : Movies: As independent film companies join forces with Hollywood, the payoff has been financial security. But when is autonomy at risk?

June 21, 1995|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Castle Rock Entertainment offers Demi Moore $12.5 million to star in "Striptease."

New Line Cinema shells out $4 million for Shane Black's spec script "The Long Kiss Goodnight."

To coincide with the release of "The Postman," Miramax Films issues a star-studded soundtrack and a volume of poems by Pablo Neruda through its recently formed Miramax Records and Miramax Books.

Ah, life under the corporate umbrella. A far cry from those days when three flops in a row--or tight cash flow--had executives from these formerly independent companies on a fiscal tightrope. As the latest earnings statement from the struggling Samuel Goldwyn Co. suggests, autonomy comes at a price. Forming joint ventures and selling off pay TV, home video and foreign threatrical rights reduces the risk . . . but precludes huge profits, as well.

Hollywood came calling in 1993 after releases such as "The Crying Game" demonstrated how popular and profitable low-budget "niche" films could be. Eyeing the growing global market and the public appetite for offbeat fare, the major studios set out to acquire the product they had trouble producing and marketing in the past.

Twenty-eight-year-old New Line--the most financially successful of the independents with the "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtle" franchises--hooked up with Turner Broadcasting, as did Castle Rock, producer of the mass-appeal hits "When Harry Met Sally . . . " and "City Slickers." Miramax, the leading purveyor of quality art-house films such as "My Left Foot" and "The Piano," bypassed Paramount Pictures and Turner for the Walt Disney Co.

Though the deal left Miramax co-founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein $80 million richer, they felt considerable trepidation going in.

"In our contract, there was more mention of autonomy than of money," Harvey Weinstein recalls. "Turner made similar promises but I had doubts--mistakenly it now seems--that he could let go."

Castle Rock and New Line confirm that the Atlanta-based mogul has been good to his word. When it comes to day-to-day operations, they say, they're holding the reins.

"Turner Pictures serves as an outlet for Ted's creative impulses," observes Castle Rock CEO Alan Horn, one of several friends--Rob Reiner, Martin Shafer, Andrew Scheinman and Glenn Padnick--who founded the company in 1987. "And, in any case, Ted is too busy building a global company to read a screenplay in our development pipeline."

Without a major library, distribution system and, preferably, a billion dollars in capital, Horn says, the going can be rough. "Movie-making has become more expensive and you can't step up to the table if you don't have the chips," observes the Castle Rock executive. "Forced to sell off rights, we watched others take the lion's share of profits from 'In the Line of Fire' and 'A Few Good Men.' 'Dependent independence' is the best of both worlds."

Castle Rock has elaborated on its original game plan: releasing eight of its typically story-driven, commercial projects such as Reiner's $50-million "The American President" in 1995 compared to four last year. New Line too has upped its output from 24 in 1993 to 30 in 1995. But rather than sticking with low-budget "niche" films, it's broadening the mix--some say re-inventing itself. To line up Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan for a remake of "The Women," the company offered them $12 million and $8 million, respectively. Bruce Willis will get $16.5 million for "Gundown."

Well aware that ill-conceived attempts to face off with the majors led to the downfall of independents such as DEG, New World and Cannon--and to Carolco Pictures' current crisis--New Line's president maintains they're employing the same old strategy on an admittedly larger playing field.

"People said that Turner's deep pockets made us profligate, that we've forgotten who we are," says Michael Lynne, a law school colleague of New Line founder-CEO Robert Shaye. "But we're still doing niche films like 'Friday' and 'My Family.' Big money isn't inconsistent with being smart and opportunistic. People annihilated us for giving Jim Carrey $7 million to do 'Dumb and Dumber' but it turned out to be a bargain when the movie grossed $200 million worldwide."

Last year was a gala one for New Line when not only "Dumb and Dumber" but Carrey's "The Mask" surpassed $100 million domestically, giving the outfit five of the top 10 independently released movies. Castle Rock stands to make a killing on "Seinfeld" TV syndication--even after Sony Pictures, which once owned 44% of the company, takes a 15% distribution fee off the top. But, post-Turner, it's had a tougher time on the feature film front as movies such as "City Slickers II," "North" and "Little Big League" failed to take off.

Horn discounts talk of any sibling rivalry: "Procter & Gamble owns Ivory, Camay and Safeguard--and there's room for them all," he says. "We don't argue with New Line about who gets the Fourth of July weekend. We don't compete against each other in bidding wars."

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