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COVER STORY

What Makes Elie Run?

Always in a hurry, always ready to make a deal, producer Elie Samaha has a driving passion: outdoing the studios at their own business.

April 30, 2000|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | atrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer

"Should I give you the bad news now?" Elie Samaha says with a sly grin. "Or do you want to wait until after the Jewish holidays?"

It is 5:30 on the second night of Passover, and the lights are out all over Hollywood. But it's a sign of the William Morris Agency's regard for Samaha that a roomful of top agents, most of them already late for family seders, are huddled in the office of Samaha's pal Cassian Elwes, the agency's movie financing and distribution expert, haggling with the dry cleaning and nightclub owner who has suddenly emerged as Hollywood's hottest movie producer.

Samaha is a blunt-spoken man in a perpetual hurry--on the drive over, when a young woman in a BMW is slow to turn in front of him, he barks, "Come on, grandma!"--so he doesn't waste time with amenities. If he thinks the agents are fudging one of their stars' salary numbers, Samaha erupts with an R-rated tirade: "Don't [expletive] lie to me, my friend!" he snaps.

When the agents tout a prominent young actor for an upcoming bio-pic about Montgomery Clift, playing up the artistic merits of the project, Samaha interrupts: "It's a labor of love, right? He doesn't want to get [expletive] paid?" (Translation: If your actor's willing to work for scale, I might make the movie on a budget.)

All is going well until the agents bring up a sore subject: They've heard Samaha has talked to a young actress about a project that is virtually identical to a script that another young actress, one of the agency's clients, has been trying to launch for years. "You can't do this to her, you'll break her heart," says John Fogelman, another agent in the room. "This is her life's passion--it'll kill her."

At first, Samaha is unmoved. He jokes: "She's dating [he names a prominent young actor]. Why would she commit suicide?"

But Fogelman presses the case. "Elie, this is not a business decision, this is an ethical decision." Agent Scott Lambert jumps in: "You're going to be in this business a long time. There are some situations where you don't go for the short-term gain."

Finally, Samaha relents, telling the agents he's willing to wait until next March. If their movie is in production by then, he'll abandon his project. But Samaha wants a bonus: The agency's actress has to do a movie for Samaha--"and for scale," he says. "Or a cameo for free."

The agents anxiously nod their heads in agreement. Fogelman suggests someone write down the deal. Lambert says, "Just shake his hand." Fogelman and Samaha shake hands. The storm has lifted. Samaha signals that the meeting is over by pulling out his wallet and extracting a $100 bill, which he tosses onto Elwes' desk.

"Change it for me," he says. "I need money for parking."

Elwes fishes some $20s out of his wallet. "Why do you need money for parking?" he says.

"I like to give the parking guys a tip," says Samaha. "It's the only way they make any money."

On the way back to his office, Samaha reveals that the negotiation was weighted in his favor. He's making so many movies that he couldn't start the rival project until next year anyway. To him, making it in Hollywood is all about knowing how to play the game.

"I really like those guys," he says. "But they're agents. They play you all the time. Why can't you play them?"

*

There is something almost comically larger than life about Samaha, as if the handsome, Armani-clad producer--imagine him as Sly Stallone's younger brother--had just popped out of a Marvel superhero comic about a budding Hollywood mogul. Born in Italy, reared in Lebanon, the 43-year-old Samaha emigrated to America in 1979. He worked as a bouncer at Studio 54 in New York before moving to Los Angeles in 1984, where he started a chain of dry cleaners, bought real estate and owned various nightclubs and restaurants.

And then, as if someone had waved a magic wand--Shazam! Samaha was a movie producer. Barking obscenities over the phone, sometimes showing up on the set and paying actors with cash out of a paper bag, he cranked out dozens of forgettable low-budget B-movies, most of them first available for viewing on late-night cable TV. Who else can say they made a Marlon Brando movie that went direct to video? Samaha earned money, but little respect. He was one of the few in Hollywood to celebrate when Warner Bros. studio chiefs Terry Semel and Bob Daly left the studio, grousing recently that "they didn't know who the [expletive] I was."

So it came as an even bigger surprise when Hollywood recently discovered that--Shazam squared!--Samaha had graduated to the big leagues, reinventing himself as the busiest deal maker in town. Stallone. Bruce Willis. Kevin Costner. John Travolta. Jack Nicholson. Robert De Niro. Jennifer Lopez. Wesley Snipes. They're all making Samaha movies, distributed--and don't think Samaha doesn't enjoy this part--by the same Warner Bros. studio whose bosses once wouldn't give him the time of day.

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