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Producer Avi Lerner: The Most Unlikely Movie Mogul

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Twilight. The Mississippi unfurls beneath Lerner's palatial suite in the Westin New Orleans. He gazes out, lost in thought, momentarily alone. An instant later, Stallone breezes in, looking much more at home here than Lerner himself.

They've been through the Hollywood wars together. Lerner has stood by Stallone, and Stallone by Lerner -- even when they had to deal with death threats while shooting Rambo in Thailand, where the Burmese government got wind of its anti-dictatorship theme and set hit men on Stallone's trail.

They're a study in contrasts: One with his ripped body, tight-fitting clothes and larger-than-life presence; the other with his lived-in face, a map of human experience.

Both remain outsiders to the nexus of Hollywood power, ones the industry has embraced only because it has to. But Stallone emphatically defends his friend.

"What people don't realize is, he has a lot of heart in this business where usually the less heart you have, the better," Stallone reflects.

Heart may prove secondary to what happens with Conan's opening. Lerner is hoping it will cross the $20 million mark its first weekend, but he isn't sure.

Early signs are mixed. THR reviewer Kirk Honeycutt calls it aimed entirely at video gamers and "merely dedicated to unfettered carnage in 3D." He describes it as "numbing and dumb."

Lerner sighs, more anxious than he'd like to let on. If the movie succeeds, he'll continue his upward trajectory; if not, he concedes, it will be "a great disappointment." Either way, he'll keep doing what he's always done: making films.

"In the war, somebody gets killed next to you, you carry on," he reflects. "That's life. If a movie falls down, if a business falls down, you always carry on."          

THE TOP 10 NU IMAGE MOVIES

The Expendables (2010)
$274.5 million
Director Sylvester Stallone
Cast Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Bruce Willis

Rambo (2008)
$113.2 million
Director Sylvester Stallone
Cast Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz

Righteous Kill (2008)
$78.5 million
Director Jon Avnet
Cast Robert De Niro, Al Pacino

16 Blocks (2006)
$65.7 million
Director Richard Donner
Cast Bruce Willis, Mos Def

The Mechanic (2011)
$51.1 million
Director Simon West
Cast Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Donald Sutherland

Black Dahlia (2006)
$49.3 million
Director Brian De Palma
Cast Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart

Wicker Man (2006)
$38.8 million
Director Neil LaBute
Cast Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn

Brooklyn's Finest (2009)
$36.4 million
Director Antoine Fuqua
Cast Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke

88 Minutes (2007)
$32.6 million
Director Jon Avnet
Cast Al Pacino, Alicia Witt

Mad Money (2008)
$26.4 million
Director Callie Khouri
Cast Diane Keaton, Katie Holmes, Queen Latifah