After scanning last week’s box office returns, Jim Jimirro is in the unique position of heaving a sigh of relief and quickly thinking about the next toga party.As head of J2 Communications Inc., the company that owns the National Lampoon trademark, Jimirro will burst into the black next fiscal year after three straight years of losses, thanks to its lack of debt and the earnings from “National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1.” The “Lethal Weapon” send-up starring Emilio Estevez and Samuel L. Jackson topped the charts on its opening weekend, bringing in $ 9 million. It passed the $ 20 million over the weekend, nabbing an estimated $ 21 million-plus to date. New Line’s internal guess, Jimirro said, is $ 30 million domestic gross. The picture could be the start of another profitable franchise, a la “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” for producer New Line Pictures. “The first benefit is a name that’s highly recognized,” said Smith Barney entertainment analyst Susan Passoni. “This adds to a portfolio of sequels. If this film is successful, they’ll have another coming out next year.” Under the current three-picture deal with New Line, Jimirro gets a percentage of the gross after New Line’s initial investment is recouped. That was around $ 18.5 million for “Loaded Weapon,” including P&A. Starting in the fourth quarter of 1993, J2 begins seeing cash from homevideo and foreign receipts. Next year, J 2 will finally be making money again and Jimirro’s gamble will have paid off. Clearly, he has every right to be chanting “toga, toga.” When J2 bought National Lampoon in 1990 from actors Tim Matheson and Don Grodnick, it was barely profitable. The magazine itself, the biggest asset, reportedly was printing losses of $ 3 million annually. Jimirro’s company, however, was throwing off $ 700,000 in net earnings on $ 7 million in sales from low-cost videos like “Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen” and comedian Tim Conway’s “Dorf on Golf.” For $ 4.7 million in stocks and warrants, Matheson and Grodnick stepped aside. A former Disney Home Video president, Jimirro saw the potential of buying the National Lampoon name as an obvious way to expand. “When we bought National Lampoon, we bought it because we thought it was a brand-name franchise, where people immediately know what it is,” Jimirro said. “We wanted National Lampoon in all areas of leisure-time activities.” That means everything from an “Animal House”-themed comedy cruise with Dolphin Cruise Lines to “National Lampoon’s ChessMeister 5 Billion and 1,” a computer game from Spectrum HoloByte Inc. But first, Jimirro must perform a monumental turnaround. To do that, he had to undo deals initiated by previous management. Starting in mid-1990, he was consumed untangling an arrangement where, for a modest licensing fee, New Line put up 100% of development, production and P&A, but received 100% of copyrights, distribution and merchandising worldwide. Meanwhile, National Lampoon also had a deal with another company, Film Accord, to underwrite films under the NatLamp banner. “They had two mutually exclusive production deals,” Jimirro recalled. “I didn’t believe the deal with New Line was one I was happy with. Separately, we had to settle with Film Accord.” In the meantime, Jimirro was hunting for $ 4 million to $ 5 million to keep his company afloat. The dismal lending environment sent him to boutique investment banker Ocean Capital Corp. Nothing, though, turned up at a price that suited Jimirro, forcing him to cut back the bimonthly magazine to a quarterly and sell off Heavy Metal magazine for $ 500,000. “When I couldn’t raise money, I was devastated,” Jimirro said. “Now, I’m fine. We have no debt. We weathered the storm. If I’d gotten debt financing, we might be in a different situation.” Now, when “Loaded Weapon” begins delivering, all the proceeds flow directly to J2’s coffers, and not a moment too soon. In the fiscal year ended July 31, J2 lost $ 1.16 million, on $ 4.5 million in sales, and it had a $ 2.7 million net loss the year before on $ 6 million in sales. Now all of the revenues from film production and licensing flow are J2’s. Indeed, after crafting a better contract with New Line, exactly a year after acquiring the company, Jimirro may be in the clear. The current deal calls for three pix budgeted at under $ 10 million each over 4 1/2 years. J2 receives $ 150,000 a year for the National Lampoon name, with an additional $ 300,000 for each picture made. A second picture with New Line may start as early as this summer. As a sign of Jimirro’s new-found groove in Hollywood, he’s off to an industry lunch. His dining companion? “Animal House” co-writer and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” director Harold Ramis who, oh, yes, just directed “Groundhog Day,” the film that bumped Jimirro’s pic from the top of the box office heap.
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