Lerner lessons


In the 15 years since Avi Lerner and his partners launched Nu Image, the company has become a mainstay of the independent movement thanks to some savvy business maneuvers from Lerner, who, even at this stage in his career, says he still feels like an outsider in Hollywood. The executive spoke recently with Stephen Galloway for The Hollywood Reporter about what he likes best about the films he makes and what sets his
enterprise apart from so many others in the marketplace.

The Hollywood Reporter:
What guiding principle do you follow in operating Nu Image?
Avi Lerner: We always have the same rule: (Make) sure we can make a profit before we make a decision about the movie. Our biggest advantage over other people is the knowledge that (co-chairman) Danny (Dimbort) and myself have got in the foreign market. He can be precise to the dollar (about how much a movie will sell for); he never misses. So, we first make the decision if we want to make the movie based on how much we can sell it in the foreign market and then the domestic market, and then we take some kind of security. If we believe we can sell it for $15 million, we will try to make the movie for $14 million in order to leave some profit. Then we'll go and put all the elements together -- the cast and director -- and then double-check the number before we greenlight it because some element might have changed the cost. I greenlight, but I don't greenlight unless I get the OK from my two partners.

THR: How do you divide your responsibilities?
Lerner: Danny is mainly the foreign sales (guy), and he also helps a lot on the domestic sale. He also runs with (co-chairman) Trevor (Short) the day-to-day operation of the company. Trevor is responsible for the legal and corporate side and the accounting and administration. Myself, I am responsible for the production.

You started out making low-budget action movies and have moved into more upscale projects. What is your own taste in films?
Lerner: Of our films, my favorite is (the 2001 Holocaust drama) "The Grey Zone." And I like very much (2006's) "16 Blocks." I like all my movies, but I also take them in proportion: At the end of the day, they are just movies, and they are as good as how much money they bring to the company.

THR: What about the films that you haven't made yourself?
Lerner: I like different things. I very much like romantic comedies and comedies, but I will hardly do them because it is risky -- very few of them succeed, and you have to really understand the taste of the young girls that go to see those movies. And I like action in general. I hate watching horror, personally, but I do make horror. I very much like drama, but I don't make it. My favorite film is (1982's "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial").

Have you ever told Steven Spielberg that?
Lerner: I never met him. You have to understand, neither Danny, Trevor nor myself are from Hollywood. We are foreigners. We have a different accent. We have got different tastes, different ways of (doing) business. So, we would never be accepted by Hollywood people. They look at us as different people. They respect that we are good business people and make money and give clients jobs.

THR: You still feel that way, even after all these years?
Lerner: Yes. I have made 250 pictures in Hollywood, and I am still very (much on the) outside. For example, nobody invites me to (their) parties; they don't invite me to their premieres -- not that I am looking for this. I personally don't like to go to premieres -- I prefer to watch movies in the cinema. I learn a lot, I watch the public, what they like. In most cases, I don't understand -- I'll never understand how all these horror movies make money, how these comedies make money.

Would you like to make an Academy Award-type film?
Lerner: Yes, of course, but I would have to sacrifice everything, and I am not ready to sacrifice -- to risk money in order to be recognized by the Oscars. I am a member of the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), but I don't agree with 90% of the decisions the Academy makes, such as the five best picture (nominees).

THR: You're trying to make commercial movies, like the studios. What makes you different?
Lerner: The difference between us and the studios is the cost. Executives in the studios do not understand how to make savings on movies because they don't understand (how they are made). Therefore, they are making a movie for double the price that we can make it for. A lot of them have never been on a set but rely on what production people tell them. The people that make the decisions don't understand. On the other hand, I go to the set every time. I understand running the set. Hollywood is accepting of the fact that the costs of movies are so high, and there is no justification for this. If you check, picture by picture, what the studios are doing, most of their movies are losing money. They will never admit it, and they will say they have future value and tell you the television (rights) in 15 years' time will be worth so much money. But they can do better.