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'Conan the Barbarian's' $70 Million Man: How Avi Lerner Is Making a Play for the Major Leagues

Issue 30 Cover Avi Lerner Katherine Heigl Robert De Niro
Timothy White

The latest issue of The Hollywood Reporter examines how the controversial dealmaker went from "Mosquito Man" and “Cyborg Cop” to working with A-listers like Katherine Heigl, who's getting paid a million dollars a week for "The Big Wedding."

Avi Lerner, once relegated to the minor leagues with B movies like Mosquito Man and Cyborg Cop, hit the big time last year with The Expendables. In the newest cover story of The Hollywood Reporter, which hits newsstands Thursday, executive editor, features, Stephen Galloway sat down with producer-financier Avi Lerner to talk about his $70 million gamble on the new Conan the Barbarian film, his crushing split with longtime partner Danny Dimbort and the A-list stars -- from Katherine Heigl to Nicole Kidman -- who are now on his payroll.

Among the revelations in THR's in-depth profile:

LERNER IS STAKING MORE THAN $70 MILLION IN CONAN THE BARBARIAN
The movie, a reboot of the 1980s film franchise starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, could mark a turning point for Lerner. It's one of his biggest gambles yet, involving a payment of $2.5 million for the rights alone and a budget well north of $70 million. He also has agreed to pay $2.5 million for the underlying rights for any sequel. (Lerner declined to comment on the budgets and salaries related to the films he's working on.) Lerner is hoping Conan crosses the $20 million mark in its first weekend, but he's nervous about the opening, saying it will be "a great disappointment" if the movie fails.

THE MOGUL IS PAYING SYLVESTER STALLONE $15 MILLION TO STAR IN EXPENDABLES 2
When Lerner conceived of teaming an older action star like Stallone with a couple of youthful counterparts, then boosted the ensemble by adding Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis to the mix, Hollywood thought he was nuts. These fellows were ancient history. Who on earth would pay to see them? But the $80 million-budgeted film ended up surprising naysayers to the tune of $274.5 million.

KATHERINE HEIGL IS GETTING A MILLION DOLLARS A WEEK TO STAR IN THE BIG WEDDING
The actress is being paid $3 million-$4 million to star in the movie, which is based on a French film. While that's a pittance compared to her usual salary of up to $14 million, the movie is being shot in a lightning-fast 32 days. The movie's A-list cast also includes Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Topher Grace and Amanda Seyfried.

LERNER iS TEAMING WITH LEE DANIELS ON PAPERBOY -- WITH AN ALL-STAR CAST THAT INCLUDES NICOLE KIDMAN, ZAC EFRON, MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY AND JOHN CUSACK -- FOR ONLY $12.5 MILLION
The Paperboy, which marks the first film to be directed by Oscar nominee Daniels since Precious, tells the story of a reporter returning to his Florida home and investigating a death-row inmate. It was initially conceived as Pedro Almodovar's English-language debut, and he retained rights to it for years before the project was snatched up by Daniels. It is light years removed from the kind of B-material Lerner was once associated with. And in spite of its A-list cast, the project has been cobbled together on a no-frills budget of $15 million, before a tax refund.

LERNER ADMITS TO BEING CRUSHED BY HIS SPLIT WITH LONGTIME PARTNER DANNY DIMBORT
When Lerner parted ways with his best friend, longtime partner and sales maestro -- announced to much fanfare in Cannes -- the move sent shock waves through the tight-knit indie world. The split is one of the few subjects that cracks Lerner's armor open. "I speak to Danny 30, 40 times and I still don't understand why he wants to leave," he says. Dimbort in turn says he just wants to try something different. Adds Lerner: "Am I disappointed? Very disappointed."

EX-WARNER INDEPENDENT PICS PRESIDENT MARK GILL TO HEAD PRODUCTION AT LERNER'S MILLENNIUM FILMS
The move, which comes amid Dimbort's impending exit, puts Lerner in a position to fill Hollywood's mid-budget gap and shift into new, bigger ground. The big question now becomes, can he pull it off?

ON HIS EXPERIENCE AS PARATROOPER IN THE SIX-DAY WAR AND KILLING PEOPLE IN BATTLE
Lerner, born in the Israeli city of Haifa in 1947 to a Polish mother and German father, joined the military at age 18 and eventually became a paratrooper. "As a young man, I believed how important it was to fight for your country," he says. "I fought in the Six-Day War, all the way. I used to sit in a truck and shoot the enemy. A lot of people in my unit got killed in the same truck." While he admits there are times he was "very scared" -- like the time when one of the top commanders was shot in the head when Lerner was with him -- he learned to focus on doing on his job the best he could and move on.

DESPITE BEING MILLIONAIRE, THE SIMPLE-LIVING LERNER HAS HOUSE IN MIDDLE-CLASS LAUREL CANYON
The cigar-smoking mogul is rich enough to own houses all over the world, though you'd never know it from his modest lifestyle, with a Los Angeles home off Laurel Canyon's Mount Olympus -- hardly the playground of the rich and famous. Luxury, fame and the trappings of power mean nothing to him. The deal is everything -- and he's a master of it. "The most important thing to negotiation is the possibility to say no and walk away," he says. "If you don't have that, they can play with you as much as you want. You must always have the card of saying no."

THE WELL-KNOWN LADIES MAN ADMITS TO A 'COMPLICATED' PERSONAL LIFE
After leaving the military, one of Lerner's jobs included working at a drive-in theater. That's where he met his wife, Daphne, whose father was a partner of the owner. They have two kids together and are effectively separated (she lives in London) but remain friendly. He also has a child with producer Heidi Jo Markel.

Read the full THR cover story now.

Courtesy of Nu Image/Millenium Films