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Producer Avi Lerner: The Most Unlikely Movie Mogul

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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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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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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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

Anne Marie Fox
Timothy White
Courtesy of Nu Image/Millenium Films
Courtesy of Nu Image/Millenium Films
Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Courtesy of Everett Collection

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