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THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Without Graham King, 'Aviator' wouldn't fly

December 21, 2004|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

When Leonardo DiCaprio arrived in Japan to promote the opening of "Gangs of New York" in November 2002, the handsome young star was greeted by thousands of screaming fans, who broke through barricades and might have smothered him with adulation if security hadn't kept them at a safe distance. Watching the surging crowd of kids, hardly attracting a glance, was a burly man who would look right at home playing a vigilant bodyguard in a British gangster movie.

Largely unknown outside of the insular world of film industry foreign sales, Graham King has quietly emerged as the new king of Hollywood high rollers, having provided the key foreign financing for a series of risky high-profile projects that might never have gone before the cameras without his support. In fact, while DiCaprio and "Gangs" director Martin Scorsese were in Japan, King put them to work selling his next picture. Knowing both men were longing to make "The Aviator," which goes into wide release this weekend, King had DiCaprio and Scorsese woo a leading Japanese film investor, touting the saga of Howard Hughes, the test-pilot daredevil who built an aviation empire while romancing every Hollywood starlet in the phonebook.

By the time DiCaprio and Scorsese finished their pitch, King had a sale, pocketing a $13-million commitment for the Japanese distribution rights to "Aviator." King was responsible for roughly $80 million of the film's $116-million budget, with the rest of the backing coming from Miramax and Warner Bros. With so much money on the line, "Aviator" represents King's biggest bet yet. For all the press attention that's been focused on the fractious relationship between Scorsese and Miramax czar Harvey Weinstein, Weinstein was largely in the background on "Aviator" -- it's King who put in most of the money and spent every day on the set, keeping an eye on his investment. Old Hollywood hands, knowing that Scorsese has gone over budget on virtually every movie he's made, predicted doom, figuring the cagey director would walk all over the neophyte producer. "When I told people I was doing 'Aviator' with Marty right after 'Gangs,' everyone said to me, 'Have you lost your mind?' " King recalls.

Although he admits to popping a few Ambiens along the way, the 43-year-old producer kept the movie from spiraling out of control. "For 91 days, all Marty heard me say was how much this movie was costing," explains King, who retains the cockney accent of his old London neighborhood. "Before we started, I told Marty, 'We have a schedule of 91 days, and if that's not realistic, tell me now, because if we go to 115 days, it could put me out of business. And if I go down, we all go down."

Newcomers to Hollywood often go down for the count. Early on in "The Aviator," we see Hughes buttonhole MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, wanting to borrow a couple of cameras to supplement the 24 cameras he already has filming the aerial scenes of his epic "Hell's Angels." Mayer turns him down, telling him to go back home, saying 'You'll go broke here.' " King has heard such advice many times himself. Over the years, countless outside investors have crashed and burned, betting on too many bad movies and blowing too much cash on private jets and posh parties.

Still, King has earned considerable goodwill, largely because he is one of the few risk-takers left willing to back artistically ambitious projects. "Graham's movies all display a pattern," says Jim Gianopulos, co-chairman of 20th Century Fox. "They are films that for one reason or another, studios would've been very nervous about financing themselves, but they're made by gifted filmmakers with a vision Graham trusted. What he's really doing is taking the creative risk on the film, which is often what you have to do to make a great picture."

In today's Hollywood, risk is a dirty word. At most studios, ambitious projects are a rare luxury, elbowed aside by a flood of easy-to-market special-effects thrillers. The few Oscar-worthy films released by studios are invariably made with the help of independent investors -- according to Forbes, studios rely on outside partners for 75% of the movies they release. 20th Century Fox only made "Master and Commander" after it recruited two other studios to help foot the bill. Despite a three-decade relationship with Clint Eastwood, Warners wouldn't back "Million Dollar Baby" until Lakeshore Entertainment agreed to pay for half the budget.

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