Pioneer of the 'Creek'
Morgan Creek's pioneering leader has found success in Hollywood by not being HollywoodWhen actress Lindsay Lohan failed to show up last summer on the set of Morgan Creek Prods.' upcoming "Georgia Rule" (set for release Friday), allegedly because of excessive partying, chairman and CEO James G. Robinson went on the attack, firing off a letter that scoffed at Lohan's "bogus excuses" and warned of dire consequences.
It was vintage Robinson: blunt, pugnacious and to the point. Although the letter undoubtedly rocked a few boats, this was nothing new for Robinson, who says the starlet's absences cost him $375,000 per day in production costs. In fact, Robinson has been rocking boats ever since he launched his company 20 years ago.
For good or bad -- and people argue both points of view -- Robinson, a pioneer among the wealthy businessmen currently putting millions of dollars into film production, has been doing things his way since he segued from his core automobile business into entertainment. He has won fans, like the former leaders of Warner Bros., where his company was based for many years, and like the current heads of Universal, which now distributes his movies and recently renewed its deal with Morgan Creek for another three years.
"Jim Robinson is an original in this business, someone who believes in his game plan and isn't afraid to stand behind it," Universal Pictures chairman Marc Shmuger says. "Over the years, we have built a strong relationship with him that means a lot to me and to Universal Pictures, and I'm very proud to have Jim and the rest of the Morgan Creek team in our fold."
But Robinson has drawn criticism, too -- sometimes from people who have worked closely with him. His relationship with executive Gary Barber, who for years served as his right-hand man, ended in a flurry of lawsuits. To this day, neither man has any time for the other. (Barber declined to comment.)
Robinson had equally contentious relationships with 1991's "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" director Kevin Reynolds, as well as writer-director Paul Schrader, whom he fired from 2004's "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist," replacing him with helmer Renny Harlin (and retitling the film "Exorcist: The Beginning"). By contrast, Paul Mazursky, who directed Morgan Creek's 1989 film "Enemies: A Love Story," says working with Robinson was "a wonderful experience" and adds: "He is one of a kind. He's not a movie (business) guy. There is something curmudgeonly and odd and strange and interesting (about him), but that's not Hollywood."
Robinson doesn't dispute the controversy that sometimes surrounds him, but he is vehement in his own defense. "I have no problems dealing with guys that are smart and talented," he says. "I got problems dealing with people that are bogus; I got problems dealing with people that are more concerned with their image than their art. For me, it is all about the art of the movie."
Well before any of the current, euphemistically named "high-net-worth" individuals entered the film business, Robinson was putting his money where his mouth was, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in production and building a substantial film library that he now estimates to be worth $80 million-$100 million (a number that could not be verified independently). That library includes such bona fide hits as "Enemies," "Robin Hood" and 1994's "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective."
"It sure earns money every year," Robinson says of the library. "I'll tell you that."
Robinson himself was earning money -- and lots of it -- long before he even knew what a movie library was. A Baltimore resident and son of an automobile mechanic, he entered the Army after graduating from the University of Maryland. Asked if he was a good soldier, he says, "You bet. In order to lead, I'll tell you something: You first must be able to follow. I was a good soldier. But when you are young, you do things you would never do (later)" -- including, he says, putting himself in the line of fire in Vietnam, though he declines to go into detail about the experience.
He started his career working in industrial relations for General Motors. But even in his 20s, he wanted something more: "I said, 'I am not going to end up here. This is not where I want to end up.'"
Feeling disdain for the company's business methods, he left and set up his own venture, processing imported cars and handling air conditioning and body and paint work on almost half a million cars a year. His venture became so successful that he was able to broaden his reach with a trucking company and port operations, and in 1975, he bought an East Coast Subaru distributorship, which he built up and eventually sold back to the Japanese. At the same time, he made some major real estate investments that he still holds.
"I was always out there working, hustling, doing stuff," he says. What did he want then? He says he didn't know. "Still don't know!"
In the late 1970s, Robinson was approached to help orchestrate bridge financing for some independent Hollywood films, which in turn led him to finance his own films. "There were people out there who had deals with the studios but didn't have any immediate financing, and I would finance (their films)," he recalls. "I didn't come walking into town and say, 'I want to be in this business.'"
Initially, Hollywood made sense for Robinson because of the tax write-offs. "When I got into the business, you could do six-to-one write-offs: You could have $1 at risk and write off $6, so you couldn't lose money. That all changed in the Tax Reform Act of 1986. But I also saw an opportunity (in that act). I said, 'Well, hell, there won't be many people jumping in and throwing money at films now.' And there weren't."
Robinson's early forays into Hollywood quickly led him to the producer-director who would become his first business partner, Joe Roth, whom he calls "one of the best producers in town."
Today, Roth is the quintessential Hollywood insider, a former chairman of Walt Disney Studios and now head of his own company, Revolution Studios. Back then, he was just embarking on his storied career. Together, he and Robinson formed Morgan Creek, naming it after a beloved Preston Sturges movie, 1944's "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek."
Early on, Morgan Creek was itself something of a miracle, backing such films as "Ace Ventura" and "Robin Hood," as well as 1988's "Young Guns," 1989's "Major League" and 1992's "The Last of the Mohicans."
Roth has been given much credit for Morgan Creek's early success, but Robinson points out that Roth only stayed with him for nine months. And ultimately, it was Robinson who risked his own money, which he did lavishly on "Robin Hood," plunging ahead with the film in defiance of rival Robin Hood-themed projects that had such well-known names as directors Edward Zwick and John McTiernan attached.
When writers Pen Densham and John Watson brought Robinson their screenplay, he fast-tracked the project at once. But "Robin Hood" was dogged with problems, not the least of which were conflicts between Robinson and Reynolds.
"The only way you can ever do a fast-track movie is to have one captain, one person who's got the big picture," Robinson reflects. "We had a director who was magnificent and mad, his own worst enemy -- very, very talented man, very likable guy. But (he) was like a guy who did a great painting and then threw it in the fireplace." (Reynolds declined to comment.)
Asked if he fired Reynolds, Robinson denies it. "That's all bullshit. Kevin was never, ever fired; he was never locked out of the editing room. (But) Kevin did not have the right take on this movie from an editing point of view -- he just didn't. I only stepped foot in the editing room one time for maybe half an hour, and I was accused of being in the editing room every day. Not so. But I did choose the cast. I'll tell you that much."
Even Robinson was amazed at "Robin Hood's" global success. "I did not know how well it would do," he says, "but I knew it was a good movie."
Before Robinson made "Hood," he staked his money on a smaller film that stands out as a rare art house venture in his body of otherwise mainstream features. Directed by Mazursky and based on a novel by Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer, "Enemies" starred Ron Silver, Anjelica Huston and Lena Olin. Robinson took it on after it had been turned down all over town. "It reminded me of things as a kid with my (Russian-Jewish) randparents," he says. "I felt that the movie should be made -- and I made it. You could not have seen a better made film; this was a true labor of love. To watch Paul Mazursky make a movie was poetry."
His view of "Enemies" was validated when the movie received three Oscar nominations.
The film was one of the many successes of Morgan Creek's first decade, when Robinson had a dazzling proportion of hits. Those hits helped fuel his foreign-sales company, Morgan Creek International (now headed by longtime associate Howard Kaplan), which protected Robinson's investment by selling off international rights. But in those early days, foreign was not as critical to the company's economics as it is today.
"In 1988, network sales could make or break a decision to make a movie," Robinson notes. "Foreign sales were like nickels and dimes; they only represented 15% of the budget."
For Robinson, it was the potential value of a library that mattered above all. "I believed -- and I believe -- there will always be a demand for material, for product," he says.
If Morgan Creek's nearly 60-title library remains its crown jewel (bolstered by Morgan Creek's recent purchase of the Franchise Pictures library), Robinson does not dispute that the company's recent releases have been somewhat less lustrous than of old.
He frankly admits that the company took a wrong turn a few years ago, a shift he believes he has now righted. While he says that many of Morgan Creek's recent movies have covered their costs (including 2006's profitable "Man of the Year," starring Robin Williams), he acknowledges disappointment in the performance of pictures such as 1999's "Chill Factor," 2000's "The In Crowd," 2001's "American Outlaws," 2002's "Juwanna Mann," 2003's "I'll Be There" and 2005's "Two for the Money."
Robinson's riskiest investment of late, the $90 million Robert De Niro-directed CIA drama "The Good Shepherd," was released at the end of 2006 and had earned roughly $60 million at the domestic boxoffice by mid-March. Insiders said it would hurt the company badly.
"Right now, it is playing all over the world, and we are just not sure (how it will do)," Robinson says. "But it is most certainly not a hit."
He is much more sanguine about the $20 million-plus "Georgia Rule," a multigenerational comedy that stars Jane Fonda, Felicity Huffman and Lohan.
His director, Garry Marshall, praises Robinson for the firm action he took with Lohan. "He writes a good memo," he says. "He did well."
Today, Robinson speaks in positive terms about Lohan, who quickly came back to work.
"She is a lovely girl to work with," he says. "I have no complaints about her work ethic when she is on the set."
However "Georgia" performs, Robinson says he has turned his company around. Over the last two years, he has restaffed it and reoriented its direction. He plans to continue making approximately three movies a year in the $20 million-$80 million range, paying for prints and advertising while Universal takes a straight distribution fee.
"I am more satisfied (with the company) now than I have been in 10 years," he says. "I will keep trying to make it better."
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