Who'll work with the new Miramax?
Agents say they will, cautiously
Hollywood has a long history of lining up deep-pocketed outside investors who want to be in show business and then taking them to the cleaners. But with construction magnate Ron Tutor seemingly poised to buy Miramax, the industry isn't so sure it can expect business as usual.
Tutor, chairman of construction giant Tutor-Perini, certainly qualifies as a Hollywood outsider. To the degree that he is known, it's for his movie-related partnership with David Bergstein, the financier who has left a trail of unpaid bills in his wake and is engulfed in litigation, with all the major guilds pitted against him.
Although Tutor has said that Bergstein won't be involved with Miramax, key players in the industry remain skeptical and distrustful. As one talent representative who has tangled with Bergstein put it, "It's crazy to assume that it's a new day." A Tutor spokesperson and Bergstein's attorney did not respond to inquiries.
Overall, the Miramax deal seems to raise more questions than it answers: questions about whether Tutor and his associates will have problems financing the deal with its $660 million price tag that some consider to be steep, questions about whether the deal will close and questions about what Tutor's group envisions for the company if they succeed. But though some in Hollywood have snickered over a process that hasn't seemed entirely logical to them, that doesn't mean the industry will keep away.
"The lure of independent money is pretty sexy," said a talent rep with clients who were caught up in disputes with Bergstein.
Given Tutor's association with Bergstein, that lure seems to be strong indeed. There are allegations of unpaid bills in two countries. But the community knows Tutor's wealth is real. And in these tight times, a leading agent acknowledged, "We don't have the luxury of not doing business with people who have real money."
Assuming the deal closes, the agent said he would approach Miramax with extreme caution. "They're basically the buyer of last resort -- or near last resort -- until they have proven otherwise," he said.
A competitor at another top agency said he would warn clients in line for a project with Miramax, "There's a real risk based on (Bergstein's) past performance." And some top talent will hang back, he predicted. "People will let other people go to the trough first to see how they fare," he said. But if the new company has strong material, "The reality is, big-ticket actors, writers and directors are going to participate," he added.
Another talent representative said that if a writer, director or actor is particularly attracted to a piece of material that belongs to Miramax, they will resist warnings. In fact, some clients previously signed to projects with Bergstein-associated companies despite such warnings.
In these troubled times, he added, agents might be tempted to put clients in questionable projects generally, even if they have doubts about how they will be treated.
"It's not just because (they want) money," he said. "They need to keep clients who will be doing this work off their phone sheets and not get fired because those clients are not working. If you're a $2 million actor, and you're working and you're making a few hundred thousand dollars and staying in a Ramada, you're not on my phone sheet."
When Tutor's $660 million bid for Miramax became public, many Hollywood insiders chuckled over the price that he and his associates -- a group that includes Colony Capital chairman Tom Barrack and actor Rob Lowe -- were prepared to pay. "I congratulate Disney," one studio chief said archly when asked about his reaction to the deal. A source in the Tutor camp said the magnate believes the price is justified.
That price is considered so high at a time when libraries are declining in value that observers wonder whether any bank will loan money to close the deal. (Tutor's group has put up a nonrefundable $40 million deposit at Disney's insistence to keep the acquisition on track.) Some speculate that the Miramax acquisition might be part of a broader plan that might make sense when it's revealed. Others are simply mystified.
But even if Tutor's group overpays for Miramax, no one expects his company to overspend on projects going forward, certainly if Bergstein is involved. In previous dealings handled by Bergstein, top talent often has agreed to work for reduced rates. On some projects, even those lower fees were difficult or impossible to collect.
Two high-profile examples were Taylor Hackford's "Love Ranch" and David O. Russell's "Nailed," both of which were plagued by problems because of to lack of funds. Hackford had to enlist the DGA to try to extract his fee. Producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher still have not been paid the majority of their fee on "Nailed."
(Asked about their approach to a potentially Tutor-owned Miramax, SAG, the WGA and the DGA issued a joint statement to THR, "The guilds are monitoring the proposed sale to make sure that all contractual obligations are met." They declined further comment.)
Tutor has denied detailed knowledge of Bergstein's myriad troubled dealings, but the nature of Tutor's relationship with Bergstein remains far from clear. Last month, Tutor told THR that their association was "very strained," adding, "We don't spend any social time together anymore." He alluded to "the madness ... of what took place" in his associate's dealings in Hollywood and vowed to take responsibility for Bergstein's mistakes. Tutor quickly backed away from some of those remarks and, in a letter to THR, protested the portrayal of Bergstein "in a negative light."
Perhaps because of that ambiguity, several agents and industry sources expressed skepticism that Bergstein won't have a role in Miramax. "If (Tutor) was not affiliated with him, he would be turning his guns on (Bergstein)," one attorney said.
And even when Tutor acted on his own, he did not entirely succeed in smoothing over problems. Tutor personally tried to negotiate a way forward on "Nailed," the still-unfinished film that cost more than $26 million. Tutor was unable to reach an agreement with Russell to complete the film and has told THR that he will hire another director to finish it. He also asked producers Wick and Fisher to accept half of their already-reduced fee to continue work on the project. They declined.
"It's totally insane," the talent representative said. "Tutor is going to get into this business with so much stink on him (because of the Bergstein association). But I guess they're thinking, 'If you have money to spend, people will play.' "
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