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How I Made It: Movie producer and financier Avi Lerner

The Hollywood B-movie veteran went from starting Tel Aviv's first drive-in cinema to producing and selling 10 to 12 movies a year, mostly action pictures. A recent high-profile success was 'The Expendables.'

October 31, 2010|By Claudia Eller, Los Angeles Times

The gig: Producer and financier Avi Lerner has been a fixture on the low-budget independent movie scene for decades and claims involvement in more than 350 films — many that landed directly on video-store shelves. With his crop of white hair and equally thick Israeli accent, Lerner is known as a producer of testosterone-fueled action pictures who recently has invested in more high-profile titles such as the recent hit "The Expendables," starring and directed by Sylvester Stallone.

His aggressiveness frequently pits him against Hollywood's labor unions and talent agents who complain their members and clients aren't getting paid enough. Lerner prides himself on bucking the studio system and wielding the clout to finance and sell his own movies around the world. "There are many producers running around town who cannot greenlight a movie," he says.

Independent roots: The son of a Polish mother and German father who escaped the Holocaust, Lerner was born in Haifa in 1947, a year before Israel became a state. He grew up sharing a room with his younger brother and sister. He learned early on to be self-reliant. "In Israel, you go out and play by yourself. You go to school by yourself. You don't get your parents to take you anyplace."

The color of money: He went to work at 14, washing dishes and flipping pizzas. "I learned at a very early age that to have money is important in life." He says of all the films he's produced in a four-decade career, only one — the 2001 release "The Grey Zone," a moral-dilemma tale about Jews who were forced to work in the crematoria of Auschwitz — did he and his partners make "knowing upfront that we weren't going to make any money and we still did it."

Lerner said while the creative elements of a movie are important, "I will not make something for the sake of art — I refuse to do it." He insists that his company earn a profit on every movie before it's released by selling off the distribution rights for more than the cost of production.

Tough guy: Lerner served as a paratrooper at 18 and later as an officer in the Israeli army. He talked about fighting in the 1967 Six-Day War. "It was part of my life to fight against the enemy. We were dedicated to it because it was a matter of surviving." But Lerner doesn't attribute his thick skin to his military training: "I'm a tough guy because I have to be tough today, not because I had to be tough when I was younger."

Entree to show business: In 1969, Lerner moved to South Africa with his father and worked as a projectionist in a drive-in theater in Johannesburg. He eventually became the manager of the cinema and subsequently persuaded some Jewish businessmen in South Africa who were interested in investing in Israel to help him build the first drive-in theater in Tel Aviv in 1972.

Return to the homeland: Back in Tel Aviv, Lerner took a job in banking and studied economics at Tel Aviv University while he and his partners expanded their theater business into a chain of six cinemas. After he graduated in 1975, Lerner and his partners launched what became the largest video distribution company in Israel.

Johannesburg, again: He moved back to South Africa in the mid-1980s and started a company called Nu Metro Entertainment with partners Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short and his brother, Danny Lerner, that specializes in production, foreign sales and video distribution and operates a theater chain.

Coming to America: In 1992, after selling a controlling stake in the theaters, Lerner and his partners relocated to Los Angeles and founded the foreign sales company Nu Image and four years later a production arm, Millennium Films. Today the company produces and sells 10 to 12 movies a year, including the big-budget action film "Conan" and low-cost "genre" pictures such as "Spider 3D" and "Terror Train."

Dust-up: Lerner's business partner Dimbort came under fire by the Producers Guild of America this year for giving his teenage granddaughter a producer credit on the drama "Solitary Man," starring Michael Douglas, "despite performing no discernible producing functions," the guild alleged. Lerner defended his partner, saying, "We have the legal right to give anyone a credit on this movie."

Personal life: Lerner has two grown children, a 37-year-old son and a 35-year-old daughter (neither of whom work in Hollywood), and a 10-year-old daughter, whom he enjoys taking to the movies. Lerner says he goes out and watches four to six movies every weekend.

Advice: "Watch and learn from other people's mistakes, as well as your own."

claudia.eller@latimes.com

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