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When glitches trump glitz

Surviving Hollywood is harder than it looks. Just ask producer Philippe Martinez.

March 04, 2007|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

WHEN a movie studio hires "Training Day" screenwriter David Ayer to pen a script, he doesn't worry about getting paid. But it has been 18 months since producer Philippe Martinez bought Ayer's movie "Harsh Times" at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the filmmaker is still awaiting the $2.2 million Martinez acknowledges he owes him.

That bills-past-due story line plays out with several other people doing business with Martinez's fledgling movie company, Bauer Martinez Studios.

When he arrived in Hollywood from Europe a year and a half ago, the French-born Martinez said he would revolutionize independent film. With a purported war chest of $200 million, he pledged not only to finance but also distribute a slate of filmmaker-driven movies. While studio-owned specialty film labels were succumbing to bottom-line calculations, Martinez said his company would be driven by a love of cinema.

In addition to buying "Harsh Times," Bauer Martinez developed and produced "The Flock," starring Richard Gere, and "I Could Never Be Your Woman," starring Michelle Pfeiffer. The company signed "Die Hard's" John McTiernan to direct the $50-million Hayden Christensen action movie "Crash Bandits" and said it would spend $850,000 for the adult film comedy "The Amateurs," starring Jeff Bridges.

Those, at least, were the stirring headlines. The reality has been far more contentious and interesting.

With numerous scheduled and then abandoned release dates, most of these new Bauer Martinez movies haven't seen the light of day. The few that were released into theaters promptly flopped. In addition to owing Ayer $2.2 million and "The Amateurs' " producers at least $850,000, Martinez acknowledges that the firm has left unpaid bills at film labs, public relations firms and movie marketing companies. Faced with a cash crisis, Martinez says, he cut the staff by two-thirds.

Martinez says his company nearly had to close its doors, and he doesn't dispute that because of the cash shortage a number of people weren't paid. But he says all but one of the company's mothballed movies -- "The Amateurs," whose future remains cloudy -- will come out soon.

"People have a tendency when they have a problem to close the tent and get out of town," Martinez says, adding that in recent weeks he has been able to overhaul his company's balance sheet and has two new financing deals to get back in the game. "We're still here. And we have learned all the possible mistakes not to make. Now we know what we can and can't do."

The 39-year-old Martinez appears alternately excited and exhausted by his Hollywood trials. A large man given to loose polo shirts who likes to sprawl across his office chairs, he becomes the most animated when complaining about people who focus only on his past. Years ago, he completed a 14-month sentence in a U.S. detention center (for overstaying a visa) and six months in a French jail after being convicted in a fraud case related to the collapse of a film sales company.

Whether or not Bauer Martinez, which was named after Martinez's father and grandfather, will successfully rebound is unknown. Even after agreeing in a December binding settlement to pay Ayer the money it owed him, Bauer Martinez immediately missed the deadline for the first $500,000 "Harsh Times" payment and still hasn't paid it, Michael J. Plonsker, a lawyer for the writer-director, says.

"I learned that if you don't want fleas, you don't lie down with dogs," says Aaron Ryder, producer of "The Amateurs," which has been on the Bauer Martinez shelf for nearly a year and a half. "But there are only so many distributors out there."

That historical imbalance created the opening into which Martinez, like so many other interlopers, has stepped. The studios want to transform moviemaking into a slam-dunk business, steering their production capital toward sequels, remakes and comic-book adaptations. If anybody is going to make and release smaller, riskier movies, it's outside investors such as Martinez.

For the gate crashers, the attractions are understandable: rubbing shoulders with glamorous stars, sipping Champagne at glitzy premieres, perhaps even making a buck or two. While a fraction of these newcomers succeed, a far greater number crash and burn. Even the most sophisticated investor can be taken to the cleaners: Billionaire Philip Anschutz says he lost more than $100 million when his 2005 movie "Sahara" bombed.

In some ways, the deck is stacked against these tenderfoots from the moment they arrive. Talent agencies peddle them scripts other producers and studios have rejected. Sales agents extract acquisition deals no experienced film buyers would contemplate. Banks lend money at steep rates.

In the case of Bauer Martinez, it's unclear who was taking advantage of whom: Was he simply a victim of a system rigged to fleece newcomers, or did he try -- and so far fail -- to beat Hollywood at its own game?

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