Producer Avi Lerner: The Most Unlikely Movie Mogul

 Anne Marie Fox

The controversial King of the B's struck gold with "The Expendables." Now he oversees Oscar royalty, spends big ("Conan the Barbarian") and is loved (and once in a while loathed). Still, "Everyone wants to work with him."

It's 97 degrees and hot enough to stew crawfish in the minuscule New Orleans apartment where Lerner sits watching the first day of shooting on Paperboy, but the heat doesn't faze him one bit.

Kidman's Southern-tinged, blue-collar voice floats from a nearby kitchen: "Git the f--in' door, bitch!"

The door bangs open and Cusack stands there, sweat pouring from his face. As Kidman approaches, he looms menacingly before her. "Git on your knees!" he screams. "Git down on your knees, bitch!"

He shoves her to the floor and, just as the entire crew leans forward to see what'll happen next, Daniels yells, "Cut!"

"Well?" he turns nervously to Lerner.

The producer ponders, revealing little. He keeps his emotions close to his chest, hidden under a barnacled carapace of self-protection. His hobby is playing chess with a computer -- when not attending his beloved Lakers games -- and he distrusts any display of emotion, even though it can't help but seep out.

"It's OK," he finally concedes while Daniels, an Oscar nominee, sighs with relief.

The story of a reporter returning to his Florida home and investigating a death-row inmate, Paperboy 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 material Lerner was once associated with and emblematic of how much he and his companies have changed in recent years.

"I felt very strongly about the director -- he's meshuggah," he says fondly, using the Yiddish word for crazy -- "and CAA top people ask me to do it. Maybe -- maybe -- those people will remember I put this together."

He doubts it. Make no mistake: Lerner isn't looking for favors or acclaim. At his heart, he's a bottom-line guy, someone who won't spend a penny more than he has to, who's notoriously careful with his budgets while simultaneously being one of the few independents truly able to make a project happen.

Not that he's critic-proof: Two established production companies, Celluloid Dreams and Hanway Films, recently called for him to step down as vice-chair of the indie group IFTA (the Independent Film and Television Alliance), claiming he owes several producers money. And multimillionaire David Mimran has sued him over the De Niro-Edward Norton crime drama Stone, alleging he was duped into investing almost $6 million.

People love Lerner or loathe him; there seems to be no in-between. But his friend Sylvester Stallone, who has had two successes with him -- 2008's Rambo (the latest in the franchise) and Expendables -- says nobody risks things the way Lerner does.

"The first one, he was nervous," the actor recalls of Expendables. "He put his whole company on the line. That takes a lot of guts."

When Lerner conceived of teaming an older action star like Stallone with a couple of youthful counterparts, then boosted the ensemble by adding Arnold 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 with its huge global take on an $80 million budget, Lerner proved he was right. And that's given him a credibility denied him for years. Which is why he's rolling calls from a veritable who's who of show business. Stallone is on the phone, then Jason Statham, then the top guys at CAA, then Cinetic Media's Bart Walker.

Thanks to a history of hits -- first with schlock like Shark Attack and Crocodile, then more stylish ventures such as 16 Blocks and The Mechanic -- the companies Lerner controls with partners Danny Dimbort and Trevor Short (Nu Image Inc. and Millennium Films) are awash in cash. With indie dollars drying up all around; with companies like Paramount Vantage and Miramax Films effectively out of the business; and with studios cutting back on releases, anyone with money to spend and Lerner's fearlessness to spend it must be taken seriously.

That's why he has not one but four films in active production and plans to make as many as eight to 10 mainstream movies during the coming year, including Paperboy; The Big Wedding ($35 million); The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D ($20 million) and Straight A's ($15 million).

He is also prepping his Expendables follow-up, to start shooting Sept. 19. And he's even opened his own studio in Shreveport, La., where he can benefit from the state's generous tax breaks.

At the same time, he's hired specialty stalwart Mark Gill as president of Millennium while agreeing to part ways with his best friend, longtime partner and sales maestro Dimbort -- a move that sent shock waves through the tight-knit indie world and 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, struggling to comprehend. Dimbort in turn says he just wants to try something different. Adds Lerner: "Am I disappointed? Very disappointed."

Despite this, he's spending, spending, spending -- just not quite the way Hollywood always likes.

"He's tight, tight, tight -- oh God, is he tight!" Daniels laughs. "But he's good for his word and I love him."

This strategy has made the cigar-smoking mogul rich enough to own houses all over the world (just how rich, he won't say), 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."  He adds, "Let me be very specific. We first sell it in our minds, know what we are selling, then make the movie. But sales is the key."

That's what drew him to The Big Wedding. When its producers at Two Ton Films approached him, they were in a rut; their investor had just died, and so had their funding. Told of the story -- about a divorced couple that has to fake being married for their daughter's wedding -- Lerner was hooked. "I always like stories from life," he says. (Curiously, for a man whose rambunctious relationships with women are industry lore, he lists family films such as Steven Spielberg's E.T. and Close Encounters among his favorites.)

Once he said yes, the project was cobbled together in weeks, despite complications involving the rights.

"The producers made a deal [with the makers of the French film on which Wedding is based] and bought it for very little money, as long as the budget didn't pass $40 million," he explains. "When the French producer found out it has De Niro, Katherine Heigl, they wanted more." Even though contracts were in place, one crucial element was still needed: the original writer's approval, mandatory according to France's droit morale, by which a writer has the authority to veto any changes made to his script. "I didn't have any choice," Lerner acknowledges. "So I gave them more money."

This is Lerner's third film with De Niro, after Stone and Righteous Kill; and with Heigl and Keaton already on board, he knew they in turn would draw Williams -- all at a fraction of their usual salaries. Add younger stars like Seyfried and Grace to the mix, and you have Lerner's beau ideal for foreign sales.

All this Lerner accomplished by paying De Niro $4 million to $5 million, according to sources, and Heigl some $3 million to $4 million -- a pittance compared to her usual salary of up to $14 million. Studios would salivate for a deal like this. How does Lerner do it?

"You tell them this is an independent movie, and you don't lock them up for six months, like a studio," he explains with his usual matter-of-factness, adding that the film is being shot in a lightning-fast 32 days.

Of course, Lerner's wheeling and dealing isn't always spot-on. He sorely regrets his overeager 2007 purchase of producer-distributor First Look Pictures, which he'd hoped would provide an avenue for his films' domestic release and which has saddled him with a bunch of lawsuits and threats from angry producers.

Others blame Lerner for putting the company into receivership, debts unpaid, even while Lerner himself was astute enough to buy back its library for under $6 million. Still, it left a bitter taste, reminding him to keep passion at bay -- a passion he hides from friends, staff, filmmakers, maybe even the women he's closest to.

"Because if I am passionate," he says, "they'll use it against me."


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