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He Gave Himself Final Cut

Keith Samples is an executive who now runs his own company--so he can do what he always wanted. Yep, you guessed it.

September 01, 1996|Glenn Lovell | Glenn Lovell is a Bay Area writer who specializes in film

ALAMEDA — If Keith Samples clicks as a director, Hollywood will have to do some serious rethinking. Samples is best known as a money man, "a suit," CEO of the suddenly everywhere Rysher Entertainment ("Kingpin," "Escape From L.A.," CBS' "Nash Bridges"). And, as we've long been taught, the people who craft the movies and the people who sign the checks aren't always compatible.

On the now-in-production marital comedy "A Smile Like Yours," starring Greg Kinnear and Lauren Holly, Samples is realizing a dream by temporarily shelving the contracts and the tally sheets to play director and co-writer. If he comes up with a hit, does this mean the next generation of auteurs can forget about film school at USC or UCLA, and go for an MBA at Stanford?

"Probably not," Samples said with a laugh during a break from directing co-stars Holly and Joan Cusack in a naval base hangar-turned-sound-stage. "I think I'm an anomaly. I got started late in this world. To be honest with you, I wish I had made 10 films. But it didn't work out that way. Which means I have to make them faster now."

Unlike Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Roger Corman--who went from directing to managing their own production companies with varying degrees of success--Samples, 40, got involved in the corporate side first, moving from executive vice president at Lorimar Sports Network to marketing, sales and TV syndication jobs. Rysher Entertainment, which relies heavily on ancillary markets (TV, cable, video and foreign sales) is a subsidiary of Cox Broadcasting. It was formed 5 1/2 years ago by "three people sitting around a kitchen table," Samples says, and is now worth $200 million. The name is an amalgam of Ryan and Sheridan, two of his three children.

"It was always my idea to direct," says Samples, who, in jeans and denim shirt, doesn't look anything like a button-down executive. "I may be the only guy in history who ever started a company with the hope that he could eventually hire himself to direct." (Bob Shaye, CEO of New Line Cinema, also built a production company before making his directorial debut in 1990, with the better-forgotten "Book of Love.")

Samples started cautiously in 1995, releasing two low-budget family films ("Three Wishes" and "'It Takes Two") to an indifferent domestic market. His 1996-97 slate, beginning with "Primal Fear" (one of several Rysher-Paramount co-productions) is more ambitious: 12 to 14 films released in as many months. Besides "Kingpin" and "Escape From L.A.," the lineup includes Stanley Tucci's "Big Night," "2 Days in the Valley," "Foxfire" (a Joyce Carol Oates adaptation, which opened late last month), "Dear God" (also starring Kinnear), "Turbulence" (a serial-killer-at-30,000-feet thriller with Holly as a take-charge flight attendant) and--what could be the company's first Oscar contender--"The Evening Star," which reunites Jack Nicholson and Shirley MacLaine in their "Terms of Endearment" roles. Rysher's long-delayed adaptation of Howard Stern's best-selling "Private Parts" is currently shooting in New York (see Page 3).

"We have a busy year ahead," Samples agrees, savoring the understatement. "We got into our first cycle of production with a few more [titles] than we should have. But part of that was to make the statement that we're for real." Next year, Rysher plans to reduce its slate to five or six films and cut its operating budget by $25 million.

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For a director, Samples sure sounds like a front-office kind of guy. Everything comes down to dollars and cents: His romantic comedy deals with "a very marketable subject matter" (infertility); his director idols (Ron Howard, Rob Reiner, Mel Gibson) have all made quality films that have also turned a profit; last year's disappointing "Sabrina," which also teamed Kinnear and Holly, was, "from a financial analysis point-of-view not a bad thing," because it eventually grossed $100 million worldwide and sold 250,000 rental units.

Holly, 32, laughs when she recalls her initial worries about taking direction from a CEO. She couldn't forget that this was the same guy who negotiated a three-picture deal with her agent.

"I didn't know if I'd like him or not," admits Holly, whose other credits include "Dumb & Dumber," "Beautiful Girls" and "Down Periscope." "I mean, he's really a businessman, isn't he? A syndication expert. What do they know about the creative side? They don't care about character or story . . . only what's going to make money."

Samples, she quickly conceded, didn't conform to the stereotype of the bottom-line exec.

"Sure, he's 'a suit,' but when he puts on his jeans and comes to work, he's a director who worries about character and story. He leaves the corporate hat at home. . . . I've been looking for a crack in the veneer but--I know this sounds like I'm buttering him up--I haven't found it yet. I'm used to at least one day of a temper tantrum with a director. But we haven't had it yet. I keep asking, 'Are you going to fall apart yet?' "

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