How Avi Lerner's 'Expendables' Gamble Paid Off

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Israel Film Festival executive director Meir Fenigstein had many good reasons for choosing Avi Lerner as the recipient of this year's Lifetime Achievement Award, not the least of which is the 285 films the Nu Image/Millennium Films co-chairman has produced over the past two decades, including this year's critical hit Solitary Man, starring Michael Douglas, and Sylvester Stallone's retro all-star action blockbuster The Expendables. But it's safe to say it also had a lot to do with a day he visited him at the Beverly Hills headquarters of Nu Image/Millennium in spring 2008.

When Fenigstein poked his head into Lerner's office, the prolific producer welcomed him warmly and invited him to sit across him at his desk, just as he always did. But Fenigstein was nervous. Lerner had helped the festival out many times over the years, writing checks and making phone calls, but this time Fenigstein had a big favor to ask: Could Lerner spare $150,000 to underwrite the fest's awards gala at the Beverly Hilton celebrating Israel's 60th anniversary? Before he could broach the subject, Lerner paused the conversation to take a call.

"I think it was something to do with a celebrity that left in the middle of production and the agent didn't call him to tell him what happened for two days or something," Fenigstein recalls. "He was furious, and I didn't know if I should leave the office or continue to stay there. The conversation is not really fun, you know? And then he puts down the phone and suddenly smiles at me, and it's like I'm in shock. Suddenly, you're nice? I didn't know how to take it. He says, 'So what do you need?' "

Fenigstein told him. Lerner said, "OK." He just had to call Saban Entertainment chief Haim Saban and see if he was interested in sharing the costs.

"So he made the phone call," Fenigstein says. "I waited outside. Ten minutes later, he comes out and says, 'You're set. I took care of it.' It was amazing. I wanted to scream."

Screaming is not an unusual occurrence at the Nu Image/Millennium offices, nor is a guest being treated to a courtside view of a tense negotiation. In the increasingly corporate world of show business, where executives parse every syllable, paranoid that a wrong word will derail their career or send the stock price plummeting, the tousle-haired Lerner is an anomaly who isn't afraid to let it all hang out, whether the person present is a friend, a business associate or a member of the press.

[pullquote] "That's the way he operates," says Trevor Short, CFO of Nu Image/Millennium. "There's nothing under the counter or secretive. You don't have to even be in his office. People who are waiting in the reception area usually have a detailed view of the negotiation with an agent about an actor, because there's screaming and shouting going on at the top of the voice."

Back in the 1990s, when Nu Image was churning out low-budget actions films with titles like Cyborg Cop and American Ninja 4: Annihilation, few would have picked Lerner as a film festival honoree. But, in recent years, the company has been producing an increasing number of intimate, artier films with big name talent -- including 2009's Brooklyn's Finest, starring Richard Gere and Ethan Hawke, Leaves of Grass, with Ed Norton and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage, and the recently released Stone, starring Robert De Niro and Norton -- mining thematic and budgetary territory big studios have all but abandoned in their perennial pursuit of the next blockbuster franchise.

"Honestly, the studios don't know how to make these films," Lerner says. "In other words, they'll make a movie like Brooklyn's Finest and do it for $50 million-$60 million. We did it for under $20 million. Solitary Man, we made for under $10 million. If you do it with a studio, it would cost them $30 million. We will tell the actors, 'Hey, we can't get you $10 million or $5 million or whatever. For us, you have to do it for no money or very little money.' If the movie is successful, they'll get a part of it [on the back end]. It's a very simple formula."

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