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."

Producer Avi Lerner sits squashed in the passenger seat of a tiny Nissan rental, barking into his omnipresent BlackBerry. Call after call, his voice is gravelly, hoarse and always emphatic.

"Tell him I give him $1.5 million, with $500,000 for expenses -- for five days!" the Israeli native says with his trademark heavy accent, referring to a fallen star he wants for The Expendables 2.

Then he's on the phone with China, talking about hiring a producer for just more than $1 million to handle the part of Expendables shooting in that country -- on the understanding, of course, that the producer must pay for his own cast and crew.

Next, he's speculating with a business partner about whether audiences will believe Charlize Theron in a romance with a much older star. After that, he gets on the phone to bluntly tell an agent: "I got $200,000 for an actor. If he wants more, we can't do it."

He throws down his BlackBerry in disgust. "They always want more," he says. "They ask $4 million when they should be getting 4 dollars! They should be paying me."

Then he laughs, shaking his head at his own exasperation. "Every day another movie, another problem," he groans, secretly enjoying every one of them.

It's Aug. 1, and Lerner, 63, a year after the staggering surprise of his $275 million box office hit The Expendables, is being driven to the set of The Paperboy, where the onetime King of the B's (Mosquito Man, Cyborg Cop) and pariah to Hollywood's corporate establishment is now in the improbable position of telling Oscar royalty what to do. Paperboy is the first film to be directed by Lee Daniels since Precious, with a cast including Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, Zac Efron and Matthew McConaughey. It's been cobbled together on a no-frills budget of $15 million, before a tax refund.

At the same time, 1,300 miles away in Greenwich, Conn., Lerner is overseeing another A-list picture, The Big Wedding, with stars Robert De Niro, Katherine Heigl, Robin Williams, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Topher Grace and Amanda Seyfried. Both movies are much more upmarket fare than his new remake of Conan the Barbarian, which Lionsgate releases Aug. 19 and whose production began in March 2010, five months before Expendables opened.

It is since Expendables, however, that this onetime barman, carpenter and Tel Aviv drive-in owner, whose rumpled clothes look like they're from Marshalls and whose mop of graying hair makes him resemble a crewmember rather than a mogul, has finally earned grudging recognition as one of the most prolific producers in town -- 360 movies and four decades after he started in the business.

With hundreds of millions at his disposal and a shrewd eye on how to spend it, the brusque, hustling, gruff Lerner is suddenly in demand, even among those who might once have shunned him. As producer Cassian Elwes, the former co-head of William Morris Independent, says, "Every studio wants to be in business with him."


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