Three who have mastered survival in the indie world
EmptyThe noise is deafening.
It's the day after Yom Kippur and the walls of Danny Dimbort's office at Nu Image/Millennium Films are throbbing as a wrecking ball aimed at the building next door thunders too close for comfort.
Dimbort throws up his arms in exasperation, fighting to get his work done. He's a powerfully built man with an even more powerful personality, as unforgettable as his thick Israeli accent and the T-shirt with naked women that envelops him.
In a few weeks, Dimbort, co-chairman of Nu Image, will charge into one of the most important markets of the year, the AFM. There are people he needs to reach around the world before then, and the wrecking ball is taking his eye off his work.
"I work 24/7," he says. "I have passion every single day. That's why we are succeeding."
Dimbort is indeed succeeding -- and he's one of few who have succeeded for years in this toughest of businesses. He's a survivor.
Men like Dimbort; Myriad Pictures president and CEO Kirk D'Amico; and Troma Entertainment co-founder Lloyd Kaufman have brought special skills to an industry that has chewed up hundreds of their colleagues. How have they done it? How have they avoided being thrown off the island?
For Kaufman, the answer is simple. "I follow 'To Thine Own Self Be True,' a maxim written by William Shakespeare, who wrote that best-selling book, '100 Money-Making Screenplay Ideas,' otherwise known as 'Hamlet.' I make one-of-a-kind movies that come from the heart."
For D'Amico, it is more about tenacity: "You have got to get in there and keep going -- like with (2007's) 'Death Defying Acts.' It took us seven years to get that film made with Catherine Zeta-Jones. I had to take our own money and risk it and go to the BBC and persuade them to share the risk and never stop when unforeseen events happened -- like Rachel Weisz dropping out when she got pregnant."
For Dimbort, it is about his sheer passion for selling. In the morning he sells to Europe; at night he sells to Asia, where he recently negotiated deals for "The Mechanic" with Jason Statham in Hong Kong and Thailand. When he sleeps is the only time he gets a break -- and that's rare without a sleeping pill. The phone never rings then, he says, because he doesn't have a phone or a TV in his bedroom.
During the Toronto International Film Festival, when others were indulging in dinners and parties, he set up a makeshift office at the Four Seasons Hotel coffee shop, located strategically close to the front door. He ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same table every day for five days so buyers could find him. "I am sitting all week at the table," he says in the eternal present tense that defines his life. "I have about 20 bottles of water, so the only time I leave is to go to the restroom. Nobody else does this. And everyone makes a joke out of me, because everyone passes by 10 times a day and 10 times a day I am at the same location!"
They weren't laughing when the festival ended: "I sold 10 titles to the studios," he gloats.
Face-to-face negotiations are crucial to his success, he says, and Dimbort will fly across the world for only one night if he thinks he can close a deal. "OK, you spend an extra $5,000 on a plane ticket. But if you get to the right guy at the right time, you can get $1 million extra."
That thinking -- along with a tough negotiating style -- have made him a famous figure at the markets. "With my family, I am soft," he says. "With a buyer, I am tough."
Dimbort learned how to be tough the hard way. His parents emigrated from Poland to Israel in 1938; they had 18 brothers and sisters, none of whom survived the Holocaust.
"I grew up with no cousins, no uncles, no grandpa," Dimbort says. "When I was about 7 or 8, I would listen to the radio after the war to see if I could find out any news about my family. My mom would say 'Why are you doing this?' She told me: 'They do not exist.' "
One of three brothers, he says they "all slept in the same room. We didn't have money. We had meat once a week. We had so little food. That is why I work night and day. That is why I am so passionate."
After fighting in the Six Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Dimbort came to the U.S. in the late 1970s with indie kingpin Menachem Golan. "We knew nothing about the Americans and nobody here could understand us," he says.
Regardless, at Golan's Cannon Films, "We started to expand. We were selling more and better. We did 'Thelma and Louise' and 'Death Wish' with Charles Bronson and 'Missing in Action' with Chuck Norris."
But when Cannon was bought by MGM and the MGM management was fired, Dimbort found himself out of a job. "I was sad," he says. "It really hurt my ego. I worked very hard and no one showed any gratitude. It hurt me very much."
Rather than let someone have power over him again, 19 years ago he teamed with Avi Lerner. "Avi was managing the cinemas in Israel. He was upset, too. So I said, 'Let's do it ourselves.' "
They've been doing it themselves ever since.
Across town, in a sleek office in Santa Monica a few blocks from the ocean, another survivor is doing it the same way.
But as rough-and-tumble as Dimbort is, D'Amico is the opposite. His office is polished and zen-like office, with beautifully framed posters and windows overlooking the sea. He's tall and good looking, with a gentle manner that belies the reality of his work.
Right now, he's meeting with six of his staff members about the thing that matters most: collections -- a problem that has bedeviled the entire sales world. He is calm but very clear: "We have to get the money before production starts. Lean on them." But he says this in the manner of the lawyer he once was.
In an unsure economic environment, when layoffs and cutbacks are an everyday norm, D'Amico -- a former Holy Cross football player -- is celebrating the 10th anniversary of a company he started in 1999 after he had his own economic downturn.
"I got pushed out of a job as an executive vp at Village Roadshow," he says, "but I'd had an inkling I would be fired, so I prepared: I left one company on Friday, and on Monday morning I started my own at a house we had in Venice."
D'Amico has learned how to survive. "The first thing you have to do is learn from your customers," he says. "Then you have to be flexible because our business changes constantly -- not just with the actors and directors, but the business models: We had insurance-backed financing, then along came the German tax funding and U.K. sale-and-leaseback, and then more recently hedge fund-backed films."
Even more important, he says, "Hire good people -- and ones where the alchemy fits. No person is an island."
Although he says he is not a big risk-taker, his life has been driven by an unalterable wanderlust. As a child growing up on his grandfather's farm near Salem, Ore., he picked berries, sheered sheep, milked cows and dreamed big dreams.
"I remember lying in the fields and looking up on the planes going overhead and thinking, 'I'd like to be on one of those. I want to see the world.' "
After graduating from Holy Cross, he earned a law degree at Antioch University. He briefly worked for the FCC before starting his own company, Midnight Prods., where he made documentaries on such icons as Marlene Dietrich, Aretha Franklin and Steve McQueen.
At Midnight, he learned a tough lesson: "One of our earliest films was a documentary about the punk rock music scene in Los Angeles," he recalls. "We booked it at the Circle Theater. We had a contract, and then we told (the owner) if the film did well we wanted to extend it. He patted his heart and said, 'Don't worry. Trust me.' "
But when D'Amico went back to the theater owner, "He said, 'Forget it. I want you guys out of my theater!' He'd gone behind our back to the director and worked out another deal without us."
The lesson: Trust, but verify. It's been key to D'Amico's success.
That is something he has applied since leaving Midnight to work as head of business affairs for the Nederlander Organization, then as a vp at Samuel Goldwyn, before launching Myriad.
If verification is one part of his survival strategy, other talents have helped him, too.
"Because he started as a filmmaker," says his wife and business partner, Zanne Devine, "he knows how to do that."
Perhaps D'Amico's greatest survival strategy is his ability to remain upbeat -- even, he admits, when he makes mistakes.
"A German company wanted to buy us," he remembers. But they never paid for the shares. "When I realized that they weren't going to pay us for the shares, I started pounding on the table -- but it was too late." Now, he laughs about it. "It was a blessing in disguise. It would have been nice to put a couple of million dollars in my back pocket, but that company went into receivership."
If the deal had worked, D'Amico would have moved on to another career. He may have done well, but "I would never have been as passionate as I am about films," he says.
Just outside New York City, passion is what drives Troma's Lloyd Kaufman.
Sitting at a desk in the Troma building on Long Island, hidden behind stacks of Troma film paraphernalia and across from longtime business partner Michael Herz, Kaufman looks like he'd never fit in that sleek Santa Monica office. His jacket is rumpled, his bow tie hanging from his neck, unbound.
A smoother guy would never have chosen a name like Troma for his company. "Troma, in the ancient Latin, means "movies of the future," he explains.
But that eye on the future is a key to Kaufman's success -- not to mention a shrewd avoidance of debt and a library that has 800 timeless movies, including "The Toxic Avenger," "Sgt. Kabukiman" and "Class of Nuk'em High."
Despite Kaufman's anti-establishment spirit, he seems proud to discuss how industry biggies seem to be taking particular note of Troma lately. The recent success of the off-Broadway musical "The Toxic Avenger" and interest from Hollywood in remaking some Troma classics (Brett Ratner is working on a remake of "Mother's Day") have given him a sense of vindication.
"Now the big boys want to remake our movies," he says. "And we can make some money to make more films."
Kaufman, who took Chinese Studies at Yale before he shared a dorm with film buffs and decided to go into film, has made a career out of off-the-wall, campy horror comedies with political messages -- from the "Toxic Avenger" series about a guy transformed into a superhero thanks to nuclear waste to "Poultrygeist -- Night of the Chicken Dead" that takes on the fast-food industry.
"The theme of all my books and movies is the (battle of the) individual against a conspiracy of elites," he explains.
Kaufman doesn't belong to those elites, he notes. "I get lifetime achievement awards in Spain," but not here. "People have said I'm like a less successful, East Coast version of Roger Corman," he quips.
He enjoys pointing out all the Hollywood stars who played in Troma films early in their careers, such as Kevin Costner and Samuel L. Jackson, or others who told him they are fans or have been influenced by him, such as Quentin Tarantino and Peter Jackson.
Despite his obvious sense of fun, he bristles about how the powerful media seem to be aligned against him.
Asked about the biggest challenge facing him, he says, "Getting Troma films to the public in spite of media industry consolidation. The playing field for us independents is totally tilted way in favor of the media conglomerates." But don't think that will stop him.
He grins. "We need the Toxic Avenger to kick some conglomerate butt!"
Three-thousand miles away, Dimbort doesn't need anyone to help him kick butt. He's already tackled the wrecking ball and the demolition crew and made the most of the disturbance to get a hefty break in his rent.
"I've got them to drop it $6,000 a month," he says, amused. "And if they don't do more, we will move out." His eyes twinkle. The money, in truth, hardly matters to him. The joy of the deal is everything. "Business is business," he laughs.