Movie biz develops N.Y. state of mind

I was having lunch at a popular restaurant here this week when, for one fleeting moment, I completely forgot what city I was in. At two adjacent tables, clusters of men were feverishly prepping their movie pitch meetings, arguing about who would say what and when. “I’m in New York,” I told my lunch companion. “Why is everyone around me talking like L.A.?”

“Times have changed,” came the prompt response. Indeed, more production decisions are being made in Gotham at the present time, and more greenlights are being flashed, than perhaps at any time since thestart of the studio system.

The explanation lies with three companies — New Line, Miramax and Savoy — which will account for well over 50 new movies this year, a tremendous increase in activity for these one-time “indies.” And while each has production offices in Hollywood, there is something distinctly New Yorky about them and the men who run them.

Harvey Weinstein, for example, may have sold his company to Disney and may spend half his life these days “skying from Gotham,” as Variety used to put it, but he positively exudes New York. Who else could deliver perorations with equal fervor about the editing technique of Alfonso Arau, the true meanings of “Shoot the Piano Player” and the glories of a good bagel — while chain-smoking cigarettes?

NOT LONG AGO a struggling indie, the post-acquisition Miramax no longer lives a hand-to-mouth existence dependent on acquisitions, but will itself produce a third of its 18-film slate this year. Suddenly Miramax is talking Jack Nicholson projects and is booking films like “The Crow” into 2,100 theaters.

If you talk informally to the men who control and finance these aggressive new companies — men whose tentacles reach out to the majors as well — you glean some points of view that deviate from conventional L.A. thinking.

For one thing, the New York players seem more keenly aware of the cyclical nature of the film business. If present trends continue, there will be over 70 more movies competing for attention in the marketplace by 1995 than there were last year. “I think 1996 will be the climactic year,” says one CEO. “That’s the year everyone acknowledges that the glut of pictures is out of control and starts cutting back and consolidating.”

Some companies already are arraying their strategies with this glut in mind. Savoy, which may make 15 or more films this year, is focusing its efforts on either the $ 50 million category or the under-$ 10 million one. The hypothesis: The riskiest pictures these days fall into the middle-range budget area with middle-range stars.

MIRAMAX, despite its largess from Disney, will continue to put its weight behind projects costing $ 12 million or less, as well as pick-ups requiring modest upfront monies. “Harvey and Bob Weinstein understand their franchise and won’t get carried away,” says one investment banker. “They still make decisions from the gut. They’ve got a big gut, but it’s not a $ 50 million gut.”

If New York’s heavy thinkers are girding for intense competition, they’re also anticipating important changes in the corporate environment. There is a prevalent theory that, apart from Edgar Bronfman Jr., several other major players hold substantial stakes in Time Warner and that, at some point in the near future, they might coalesce into a takeover attempt, followed by a break-up. “When you examine the debt and the intrigues surrounding the Time Warners and the Viacoms, you have to believe they’ll end up getting fragmented,” says one company head. “The megacompanies are simply not viable. They can’t be managed and they can’t be funded.”

New York’s power players may be sensitive to the forces of change, but they’re nonetheless banking heavily on an expanding market for filmed entertainment, as well as a glowingly optimistic valuation of film libraries. In short, everyone smells money as well as peril. And New Yorkers really get off on those two aromas.

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