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COMPANY TOWN

Producing Profits

Indie Film Company in Big Apple Embraces Commerce

July 03, 1998|THOMAS S. MULLIGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — What separates Shooting Gallery from some other independent movie companies is that no one pretends that commerce plays second banana to art.

Larry Meistrich and Stephen Carlis, former high school classmates who run the Manhattan-based production house, make no bones that they are businessmen, not auteurs. In their view, the most important creative contribution a producer can make is to take care of the investors.

"What money cares about is protection of the money, and what art cares about is protection of the vision," Meistrich, 31, said. "It's not impossible to make those things coexist as long as the artist understands that, OK, if it's $3 million, it's $3 million--there's no overage."

Filmmakers who can live with that rule get an unusual degree of creative freedom, even the right to cut the final version of their films. The approach has helped turn Shooting Gallery into one of the hottest--though not always the best loved--"indie" film houses in the industry with such films as "Sling Blade" and the newly released "I Went Down," which is drawing raves from critics.

Working a Rolodex full of well-heeled backers--many of them Wall Street professionals--the two mini-moguls have managed to finance more than a dozen $5-million-and-under feature films almost entirely without bank loans. For each new movie, Shooting Gallery creates a separate limited-liability corporation, a structure that confines the profit--or losses--to the investors in that particular film.

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That doesn't mean Shooting Gallery escapes risk, though, because it generally takes a 30% stake in its films.

The film company isn't the first venture for Carlis and Meistrich. In college, they sold T-shirts emblazoned with logos such as "Hard Rock Cafe--Johns Hopkins." Only problem was the restaurant chain didn't authorize it. The two had to stop when Hard Rock found out.

As little as five years ago, Meistrich called on relatives, friends and friends of friends to scrape together financing in $1,000 and $5,000 increments. Today, Shooting Gallery won't even accept a $10,000 investment unless it knows the investor is likely to write a six-figure check the next time around.

The all-equity approach means no interest payments and no need for costly completion bonds, guarantees that bankers require as a safety net in case a film goes seriously over budget or misses its timetable.

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Outside investors are guaranteed 130% of their money back before Shooting Gallery, the director, stars or other profit participants see any return on a film. The director and actors are paid modest upfront fees, but Shooting Gallery gets no upfront production fees.

"I've seen dozens of proposals to invest in films, and you rarely feel tempted," said Keith Abell of Greenwich Street Capital Partners, a New York investment firm. "There's nothing there you can analyze, no track record."

But Shooting Gallery's deals, by contrast, are "very comprehensible to people who work on Wall Street, very well-structured," said Abell, who has taken stakes in several of the company's films.

Shooting Gallery is best known for "Sling Blade," the 1996 drama about a killer returning home after spending years in a mental institution. Writer-director-star Billy Bob Thornton earned a screenplay Oscar, while the film netted Shooting Gallery and its investors a monster profit when the film--shot on a $2-million budget--was sold to Walt Disney Co.'s Miramax unit for $10 million.

Thornton, for one, is a believer in Shooting Gallery. The Arkansas native, now co-starring in the big-budget film "Armageddon," said he found Meistrich refreshingly straightforward and intelligent--especially compared with big-studio executives, whose "ignorance is astounding."

"Larry said, 'I don't pretend to know how to write a screenplay.' He just kind of trusted me, and all I'd directed at that point was a documentary," Thornton said.

Screenwriter Richard Guay and his wife, director Nancy Savoca, turned to Shooting Gallery to finance their new movie, "The 24 Hour Woman," after years of frustration shopping the script around Hollywood.

"My own feeling is it's a very appealing place for independent filmmakers," he said of Shooting Gallery. "You are left alone to succeed or fail."

Now comes "I Went Down," an Irish-made buddy crime comedy that opened last week in New York to respectable box-office numbers and is now being rolled out nationwide.

"I Went Down" is an important step for Shooting Gallery. It is the company's first major acquisition--purchased in January at the Sundance Film Festival--and the biggest test to date of its marketing abilities. Under an agreement with Artisan Entertainment (formerly Live Entertainment), Shooting Gallery essentially rents Artisan's national distribution network and then plans and executes its own marketing campaign.

Thus, when the next "Sling Blade" comes along, Shooting Gallery won't have to sell it to a Miramax but can distribute the film itself and hang onto a bigger share of the profit.

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