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Money Also Walks

Brett Ratner Always Wanted to Direct, and He Is; Now the Goal Is to Direct His Finances

September 02, 1997|HELAINE OLEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

First-time film director Brett Ratner knows as well as anyone that money talks. In fact, it gives him a means of expressing himself in ways that most of us can't even imagine.

When Ratner wanted to catch a Mike Tyson bout, he didn't order it on Pay-Per-View. He didn't even fly first class to Vegas.

He rented a Gulfstream plane with leopard-print carpeting at a cost of $10,000 a day and flew himself and a few friends--including director Quentin Tarantino, actress Mira Sorvino and her father, Paul, comedian Chris Tucker and Def Jam Records co-founder Russell Simmons--to the fight.

"OK, so I wanted to spoil myself," Ratner said.

But Ratner, 26, whose first feature directing effort, "Money Talks," opened last month to decent reviews and a respectable gross ($10.7 million in its first weekend), knows that in Hollywood, the wunderkind of today can easily find his phone calls unreturned tomorrow.

"This type of business is especially cyclical. . . . One year is a good year, but the next year might not be as good," Ratner acknowledged.

So far, it looks as if Ratner has yet to experience the downside of Hollywood life. He recently signed a two-year first-look deal--Hollywood-speak for giving a studio first right of refusal on the projects that you'd like to produce--with New Line Cinema to produce and direct for them. The deal, according to Ratner, includes "a substantial fee" for each project of his it accepts, along with profit participation.

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Ratner, whose directing career began a few years ago with music videos, is now preparing to enter pre-production on his next film for New Line, "Rush Hour," starring Jackie Chan. The first official project under his new contract with New Line will be "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie," a remake of the 1976 John Cassavetes film that Ratner will produce as well as direct.

In addition, Ratner arranged late last year for his music video production company, Rat Productions Inc., to join up with Giddens, Marshall & Short Productions, forming a relationship that gives him a share of the firm's music video net profit. So far this year, the division has grossed between $8 million and $9 million, firm partner John Marshall said.

Ratner also has a recording arm, Rat Records Inc., that's producing the debut album of the alternative pop group 1,000 Clowns, which will be released by Capitol Records Inc. later this year. "If it sells a million copies, I'll be enormously wealthy," noted Ratner, who also will receive a cut from the "Money Talks" soundtrack.

And, proving that he can think as synergistically as any mega-corporation, Ratner is currently in final negotiations with Capitol for soundtracks on his future films and with Loud/RCA Records to produce comedy albums.

In short, at an age when most of his contemporaries in the biz are serving apprenticeships as personal assistants or low-rung staffers, Ratner is threatening to become his own cottage industry.

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Ratner was a 16-year-old from Miami when he enrolled in New York University's film school, where he met up with Simmons and Rick Rubin just as they founded Def Jam. Watching the duo build a rap music empire turned out to be quite an education.

"Film school teaches you how to make films; it doesn't teach you how to get a job," Ratner said. "I knew I had to make relationships . . . and I realized that these people aren't out of reach, and that actually the bigger they are, the more accessible they are."

When Chuck D of the rap group Public Enemy--whom Ratner had met through Simmons--asked him to direct a video for them in 1993, Ratner jumped at the chance.

But, having seen through Def Jam what an entrepreneur determined to build success on success can do, he knew he didn't want to be just another director working for just another production company.

Independent music video directors traditionally receive 10% of the cost of the video as their fee. For example, if a video costs $50,000 to produce, $5,000 of that is the director's pay. Moreover, music videos, unlike films, can be produced in a matter of days.

But the rewards can be significantly greater if you own the production company, something Ratner realized early on. Almost immediately, he set up Rat Productions, initially running it out of his New York City apartment.

Before he knew it, Ratner had several employees--including some longtime friends--and was hiring other directors to shoot music videos as he turned his attention to television commercials. Yet directing movies remained his ultimate goal.

"See, I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I didn't stop," Ratner said. "I was relentless and I did what I wanted to do. And I always talked about it. I told everyone I wanted to be a director, even when I wasn't a director. "

Although Ratner admits to a love of spending his considerable earnings, he's nevertheless taking steps toward lifetime financial security, both for himself personally and for his business.

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