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COVER STORY : No Flowers, Send Money : 'Divine Rapture' was to have been producer Barry Navidi's first feature. He had it all--$13 million to play with and Marlon Brando, Debra Winger, Johnny Depp and John Hurt signed. Yet the picture folded two weeks into the shoot. What went wrong? Welcome to Hollywood Accounting 101.

First Of Two Parts

December 17, 1995|Frank Rose | Frank Rose, the New York-based author of "The Agency: William Morris and the Hidden History of Show Business," writes frequently about Hollywood

Barry Navidi is still trying to figure out just what happened. Last July he was on location in Ballycotton, Ireland, making a $13-million movie--modest by Hollywood standards but impressive for a fledgling producer from London, especially since it starred Marlon Brando and Debra Winger and had Johnny Depp and John Hurt in supporting roles. A month later he was hoofing it in Beverly Hills--no hotel suite, staying with a friend, having lost his home, his money, his partner's money, his partner's father's money, an outside backer's money and seven years of work on a picture that folded after two weeks of shooting.

That's $2.85 million with nothing to show for it but 29 minutes of film in a closet in his rented flat in North London--29 minutes of film and the knowledge that, for a while at least, he'd marshaled the incredible array of forces required to produce a major motion picture. Before he got the phone call from Los Angeles. Before his backers disappeared. Before the promises they'd made dissolved into a dizzying maze of claim and counterclaim only the lawyers can untangle.

"If I'd gone to a casino," he says ruefully, sipping black coffee outside a Beverly Hills patisserie, "at least I would have enjoyed it."

Solidly built, with olive skin and salt-and-pepper hair in a modish cut, Navidi is one of thousands of filmmakers and filmmaker wannabes who have come to Los Angeles, lured from Spain or Italy or France or Israel by the romance and the market potential of Hollywood. He fell in love with the movies as a small boy in Iran, when he would sit in front of the movie screen in his parents' house for hours and lose himself in Hollywood make-believe. As a vice president of the National Iranian Oil Co., his father could arrange for private screenings of all the latest releases. The first one Navidi remembers is "The Sound of Music," with Julie Andrews yodeling Rodgers & Hammerstein through the Austrian Alps. After that came sterner stuff--"Kelly's Heroes," "Where Eagles Dare." Then he was sent to boarding school in England, and when he asked to go to film school after graduation, his father didn't object. Which is why, at 35, Navidi is in Beverly Hills right now.

There's nothing new about Hollywood's appeal to foreign filmmakers: Hitchcock succumbed in 1939. But as European cinema has languished, the victim of rising costs and tightened funds and a language barrier that shackles its commercial potential, people like Navidi find themselves with fewer and fewer options.

In the meantime, paradoxically, a worldwide boom in multiplex theaters and cable and satellite TV has led the Hollywood studios to look overseas more and more for their profits. The combination has put Hollywood at the vortex of a global entertainment industry, with cash and talent funneled in from all quarters but everyone playing by Hollywood's rules. The "Divine Rapture" story shows what can happen to a picture that challenges those rules--that flouts studio conventions for the uncertainties of high-wire financing.

"Divine Rapture" was to have been Navidi's first feature film, a black comedy about a young woman who seemingly rises from the dead, only to be seized upon by an elderly priest who needs a miracle to redeem his faith. The script was quirky, trafficking in taboos (death, religion) that made it off-limits to the major studios.

But with the film a low-budget, independent production, those same qualities gave it the makings of a left-field hit--something on the order of "The Crying Game" or "Driving Miss Daisy," neither of which had been viewed as having much box-office potential when they were in development. A longshot, to be sure--but in this business, what isn't?

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The trade-off for freedom from second-guessing by studio executives is a scramble to secure independent financing. The standard route is to lock in a North American distribution deal, sell off foreign rights--territory by territory--and take the whole package to a bank, which will use the distribution guarantees to secure a loan to cover the cost of production. There's plenty of room for disaster, but once the cameras start rolling on a picture with major stars, it's highly unusual for the picture to collapse.

"This is something I've never heard of happening," says Ed Limato, Brando's agent, in his corner office at International Creative Management. "I've heard of problems, grave problems, at the last minute but always something fixable. This is extraordinary."

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