King took long path to Hollywood throne

King took long path to Hollywood throne

One measure of a producer is the movies that wouldn't have gotten made without him. In the past decade, British-born independent producer and international sales impresario Graham King has backed 10 movies. Since 2001, four of them -- "Traffic," "Ali," "Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator" -- have earned 28 Oscar nominations and nine wins.

Two more of King's high-octane pictures starring Leonardo DiCaprio are generating Oscar talk this fall: Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" (in theaters Oct. 6) and Ed Zwick's "Blood Diamond" (Dec. 15). King also has two action programmers starring Nicolas Cage in the works -- the now-filming $50 million "Bangkok Dangerous" and Lee Tamahori's $90 million "Next," which is in postproduction. King's delicate balancing act is to subsidize his taste for ambitious cinema with global popcorn fare. "I'm a gambler if I find something to go for," he says. "That drives me."

With his roots firmly planted in the global marketplace, King boasts that rare Hollywood skill set: business savvy, an aggressive work ethic, taste and charm. He's not just another suit with a studio careerist agenda. Actors and filmmakers trust that he's on their side. His close relationships with Scorsese, Zwick, DiCaprio, Cage, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Johnny Depp and his year-old, first-look deal with Warner Bros. Pictures have placed King at the top of the Hollywood food chain.

What did he do right? In the early 1980s, after a year at UCLA, he spent six years at 20th Century Fox Television learning the international sales ropes. Not picturing himself on the corporate track, King next rolled up his sleeves at indie TV sales company Cori Films, where he sold international rights to movies. In 1994, King founded his own company, International Entertainment Group, which sold such films as the Leslie Nielsen comedy "Rent-a-Kid" and HBO's abortion drama "If These Walls Could Talk."

Even after his pet project -- the Bosnian drama "Savior," starring Dennis Quaid -- failed to score in foreign markets, King continued to pursue darker, more prestigious material like the $8.5 million "Very Bad Things," starring Cameron Diaz, Jon Favreau and Jeremy Piven.

At a time when many movies were getting banked in foreign markets on the basis of landing a star, King insisted on backing strong scripts. "For me, it was about being proud of what you were making," he says. After Zeta-Jones brought him the script for "Traffic," King told Fox Searchlight chief Peter Rice that he was interested in taking foreign rights on the movie, which had director Steven Soderbergh and Harrison Ford attached. Two days later, Rice called to offer him the deal.

When Ford dropped out, King suggested Jones' then-boyfriend, Michael Douglas. Then Fox got cold feet. King took on the whole $50 million budget, knowing it would be hard to presell internationally off a script. So he found a domestic buyer in USA Films, which launched it late in fourth-quarter 2000, hitting the Oscar zeitgeist perfectly -- it earned five noms and won all but best picture. The week before the Oscars, "Traffic" was an easy sell all over the world.

King's transitional career moment came after he and partner Andreas Klein's flirtation with the German Neuer Market had raised $100 million. Ken Kamins, then an agent at ICM, tipped King off that Scorsese's "Gangs" needed a financial savior. King offered to plunk down $65 million of his new German money on acquiring foreign rights, and to his shock, then-Walt Disney Co. chairman Joe Roth went along with him thanks to a hearty endorsement from banker John Miller at JPMorgan Chase. "I fell off my chair," King says.

Roth set the project up at Miramax Films, where Harvey Weinstein ran the show. Although King was terrified to be banking all their new money on one movie, "to me the numbers made sense," he says. There were no big films for sale at the London screenings right before the MIFED market that year. "Buyers were sleeping outside my room," says King, who had to deal with an angry Weinstein, who hadn't even started casting yet.

"He made the move because he's a showman who understood that quality on a big scale was rarely available to the independent marketplace," Kamins says. "Before 'Gangs' happened, Graham was strictly a sales agent. So in one swoop, he takes the giant gamble and impresses a lot of talent representatives, territorial distributors and Disney/Miramax. He gets it right, and now everyone wants to know what's next. He was a player."

Luckily for King, his involvement in the film was capped. As costs soared, Disney and Miramax took the budget heat. King insists that even with more than $5 million in interest charges, his investors "broke even."

King's transition to hands-on producer took place during production on "Gangs," when he went toe-to-toe with Weinstein over several issues. "By the time Graham got to set, the story had circulated around cast and crew, and he inadvertently earned their respect," Kamins says.

Out of that film came King's central relationships with DiCaprio and Scorsese as well as Diaz and Daniel Day-Lewis. It turned out that he had another crucial skill for a producer: He had a feel for how to communicate with talent, and so he partnered with DiCaprio on the actor's production company, Appian Way. "Now he's a producer in the mold of Dino De Laurentiis, who knows how to use relations in the international community to get important and difficult films made," Kamins says. "The independents overseas revere him because he seemed to understand that quality can never be denied and that he used that as his best weapon to engage and attract American studio involvement."

Somehow, King also extricated himself from the crazy German stock market. He went on to produce DiCaprio's passion piece, "The Aviator." The Howard Hughes story started as a Michael Mann film, but after "Ali," Mann decided not to direct another biopic, and King took the movie to Scorsese, bringing the director and DiCaprio into the project as collaborators. The movie, on which Warners shared domestic rights with Miramax, stayed on its $109 million budget.

"Graham is a producer who is willing to take risks," Scorsese says. "For the kinds of films I'm interested in making, this has been a great asset."

The producer's diligence was rewarded. After "Aviator" earned 11 Oscar noms, King landed what he had been ardently seeking: a deluxe studio deal at Warners that pays for his overhead and development costs. Now King can buy an expensive book like "Shantaram," which Depp wanted to star in for the producer, and not pay for it out of his pocket. "He had put together deals with Leo and Johnny Depp," Warners production president Jeff Robinov says. "He's smart and aggressive and has great relationships and taste and great contacts in the international market."

Because of the producer's relationship with DiCaprio and Scorsese, Warners, along with the Brad Grey/Brad Pitt production company Plan B, brought King "The Departed." Not only does the remake of the Hong Kong thriller "Infernal Affairs" "have Scorsese written all over it," King says, but it features a fantasy cast: DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg, all working at below their market rates.

Thanks to the movie's overt commerciality, King insists he will avoid the potential heartbreak of another Academy campaign for Scorsese, saying, "I can't put Marty through another one." Not that King won't be caught up in awards season himself. Warners also will be pushing his South African diamond-industry expose "Blood Diamond," produced by Paula Weinstein and Zwick.

If he can maintain this level of excellence, King could start to resemble the legendary independent producer Sam Spiegel, the man behind such Oscar winners as "On the Waterfront," "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Lawrence of Arabia." He's just getting started.