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."

Born in the Israeli city of Haifa in 1947 to a polish mother and German father, with two younger siblings, Lerner came to distrust passion early. A series of what he characterizes as emotional mistakes led to the closure of his father's factory when Lerner was 15.

"My mother had to go and wash dishes," he recalls. "We grew up quite poor, didn't have enough money. I always respected the fact that you need money in life. People never want to admit it, but money helps. At the end of the day, I had to make a decision for myself: I am going to have money."

He also wanted the safety it brought and the freedom from danger he encountered when, at age 18, he joined the military and eventually became a paratrooper.

"As a young man, I believed how important it was to fight for your country," he says with a conviction he still holds. "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."

Was he scared? "There's a moment you're scared. When you go into the trenches in a town we had to take over on the way to the Suez Canal, and it's 11 kilometers of them, and you go down with your gun, and you don't know when you're going to get shot -- you're scared. We were a unit of less than 60 people. We lost five of our friends. I was with one of the top commanders and he got shot in the head next to me and I got very scared. But you move on."

He's as blunt about war as everything else: "You see somebody move, you shoot him. I remember going through the town of Gaza, and suddenly you see somebody run and you get scared and shoot and then you find out it's just an innocent person. You don't have control 100 percent."

At that early age, he saw horrors like he's never seen since -- horrors that perhaps helped thicken his tough skin -- not least when some fellow soldiers raped an Arab girl and the commander of the unit hauled them before their peers. "He said, 'What those people have done is the worst thing a human being can do,' and threatened to shoot them. Then they went to prison." The memory repels him. "We felt so abused by what they had done. I still remember this scene."

After three years in the military (and further service in the reserve, fighting in 1973's Yom Kippur War among other conflicts), Lerner briefly followed his father to Johannesburg, South Africa, where he'd found work as a salesman. There, the son worked as a carpenter by day and barman by night -- and sometimes at a drive-in, where he discovered the inner workings of the movie world.

"I was a projectionist, then I used to sell tickets and hot dogs, then I became the manager," he recalls. "Everything in the cinema business, I did."

It was through the drive-in that he met his wife, Daphne; its owner was a partner of her father's. (The mother of his first two children, she now lives in London and is effectively separated from him, though the two remain friendly. Lerner also has a child with producer Heidi Jo Markel and admits to a "complicated" personal life.)

Soon, Lerner and his wife headed back to Tel Aviv, where in 1973 Lerner opened Israel's first drive-in theater at the then-hefty cost of $2 million, managing it for the South Africans, all while studying economics at the University of Tel Aviv and working in a local bank.

"I had three jobs, plus I got married and had my son and daughter," he remembers.

Despite this, he learned the new business fast -- so fast that he quickly opened cinemas of his own, and crucially bought the rights to sell concessions in Israel's theater chains. "We made a lot of money, me and three other partners," he says. "And with this money, I bought out the drive-in."

Lerner's background in exhibition is fundamental to his success: He didn't start in production, unlike many executives; he saw what audiences wanted and found how to deliver it.

In 1980, he moved away from exhibition when he sold his cinemas to hardscrabble Israeli producers Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, then moved to London to make films for them like Masters of the Universe, before returning to South Africa to produce 1985's King Solomon's Mines.

Lerner is frank about how that relationship soured.

"I did a deal with them, which they never kept," he recalls, saying he'd agreed to raise funds for their South African films. "I was going to get 5 percent of what I raised -- and Yoram was trying to take it away. I said, 'Yoram, I own 100 percent; I am giving you 95 percent.' "

Lerner kept the cash and, using it along with various tax loopholes, he embarked on an extensive flow of production, making some 40 movies during the 1980s from his home base in South Africa -- sometimes in tough circumstances. His crew was shot at when it filmed in Soweto, and he says two crewmembers were actually killed.

But that didn't intimidate him -- little does. He went right into the township and hired 30 local toughs to handle security. The trouble ended at once.

While there, he also bought South Africa's CIC cinema chain, which he developed into a 160-screen mini-empire, and started working with future partners Short and Dimbort.

But the volatile political situation in South Africa made him uncomfortable, and so in the early 1990s Lerner sold the business and moved lock, stock and barrel to Los Angeles, the very heart of the entertainment industry, where he, Dimbort and Short launched Nu Image Inc. and rode the great tide of the rising video wave -- piecing together movies for $1 million and up, grabbing B stars and high-concept titles and selling them at the burgeoning markets -- with enormous financial success.

Success didn't endear him to Hollywood.

"I hated nearly everything Hollywood represents," he says of his first years here. "I couldn't understand the whole system. Hollywood was a very, very small group of people that you couldn't penetrate, and the truth is, I never even tried to penetrate it."

Few of Nu Image's movies fit the Hollywood mold. Tacky, cheeseball, exploitative --- call them what you will, they changed when Lerner and his partners in 1996 created a sister label,
Millennium Films, designed to make more upscale projects.

The move raised eyebrows (especially when a big poster announcing Millennium in Cannes managed to misspell its name). But Lerner persisted and turned it into a success through films such as 16 Blocks and Rambo.

Now it's the Millennium films that dominate Lerner's business. With Dimbort's impending exit (announced to much fanfare in Cannes) and Gill's arrival, Lerner is poised to fill Hollywood's mid-budget gap and shift into new, bigger ground.

But can he pull it off?

Conan the Barbarian could mark a turning point, either proving doubters wrong or underscoring the old view that Lerner's tastes haven't changed since the early Nu Image days. The movie is one of his greatest gambles yet, involving a payment of $2.5 million for the rights alone and a budget well north of $70 million.

Conan's future clearly makes him nervous. "The audience is all males, mainly young, and it has an R rating," he notes, frequently asking this reporter how he thinks it will do, revealing another chink in his armor.


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