In 1991, a former Warner Bros. TV syndication salesman named Keith Samples started a syndication company called Rysher Entertainment, and struck gold by providing independent stations with the perfect transition from afternoon cartoons to reruns of adult sitcoms: a squeaky-clean teenage sitcom called “Saved by the Bell.”
Four years later, the girl-next-door of that show, Elizabeth Berkley, will be making her feature film debut in MGM/UA’s topless epic “Showgirls,” and Samples’ company will be making an even more brazen entree into the movie business.
With more than $175 million tied up in the development and production of feature films and with an eclectic slate of five movies scheduled to open this year, Rysher Ent. has plans to go from no-profile independent to well-heeled mini-major in just three years.
It has the cash, because in March 1993 the deep-pocketed cabler Cox Enterprises acquired the company. And in Samples, Rysher has a CEO who has always been able to find a forgotten programming niche and exploit it.
“Bob Shaye is the guy I probably admire the most in the movie business,” says Samples, referring to the New Line Cinema CEO. “We haven’t dropped $4 million on a spec script yet, but we’ve taken some risks. We’ve always said to Cox that we want to build a little studio, but before that can happen we have to prove ourselves to two constituencies. The creative community has to be comfortable with us, and the theater owners have to want our movies.”
The indie plans to have its own distribution system in place by ’98, and plans to be accepted as a major player. That task took New Line Cinema 20 years to accomplish, and the movie business does not always welcome newcomers. Also, the first strategic alliance that Rysher forged was with Savoy Pictures, which has not won high marks from the creative community for its ability to distribute and market its pix successfully. However, Rysher is banking on talent like Sharon Stone, John Travolta, Jack Lemmon, Samuel Jackson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Keaton and Howard Stern – all are attached to Rysher features – to help win over exhibitors. The company is willing to use cash to get noticed – as it did at last October’s Mifed film market, when it threw a lavish party in a villa, which is almost unheard of at the strictly business Milan meet.
Rysher’s movies range in budget from $3 million to $40 million; Samples notes that while he has autonomy from corporate parent Cox (which claims 25% of all U.S. cable subscribers), he also points out, “We would not make a $100 million movie without having a serious conversation with people in Atlanta.”
Rysher first came onto the radar of most movie executives when investment banker Herb Allen played matchmaker between the indie production company and Savoy Pictures. The strategic alliance that resulted has Rysher paying for its own production, promotion and advertising costs on five titles; Savoy picks up a distributor’s fee for releasing the films. Rysher retains foreign and video rights.
Says Savoy president and chief operating officer Lew Korman: “Most companies come to us with their hat in their hand and say ‘If we are in business with you, we can afford to make the following movies.’ Rysher didn’t do that; they had financing, and what they wanted was a distributor who would treat them with some importance so they would not have to shop around for a studio every time they had a new project.”
The first film out of the chute for Rysher and Savoy will be “Destiny Turns on the Radio,” which stars Quentin Tarantino. The late-April release tells the story of a convict who breaks out of jail to reclaim the girl and the money he left behind. That will be followed in August by a documentary about hip-hop artists called “The Show.”
In the fall, Rysher-Savoy will release a contemporary romance set in a dance studio from Eleanor Bergstein, the writer of “Dirty Dancing,” followed by “White Man’s Burden,” the Travolta-Harry Belafonte vehicle about a world in which the balance of power between blacks and whites is reversed.
Besides Savoy, Rysher has struck deals on a project-by-project basis with MGM/UA and Warner Bros.
For WB, Rysher is producing “Me and My Shadow,” a pic starring “Full House’s” Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. This “Parent Trap” for the ’90s was headed into turnaround until Rysher offered to finance the project.
For MGM/UA, Rysher is producing the Michael Keaton comedy “Kingpin” in association with Motion Picture Corporation of America, which produced “Dumb and Dumber.” Keaton will play a broken-down former pro bowler who takes an Amish protege under his wing.
MPCA’s co-chairman Brad Krevoy says that once his company packaged “Kingpin,” it went looking for a studio or production company with an appetite for the $25 million film.
“I had been aware of Rysher’s phenomenal success in TV and was curious to meet this sleeping giant who had a huge bankroll for feature films,” says Krevoy. Krevoy’s notion of the “sleeping giant” echoes the image that Rysher has for most movie people who have never met with the company. But many film agents and studio executives admit to being surprised once they get into a deal-making situation with the cub production entity.
“I found myself starting to explain some small point on a deal and Keith just nodded his head and said, ‘Cut to the chase,'” says Mike Marcus, president of MGM Pictures.
Smart or not, TV alumni looking to make it as movie producers are often put through a period of financial hazing in which they must overpay for scripts that more established players have passed on. Samples may avoid this fiscal paddling, though, thanks to two veteran movie producers who are acting as the Virgil’s for Rysher’s descent into development.
Former Paramount studio head David Kirkpatrick is producing several Rysher films, including Howard Stern’s “Private Parts.” And David Valdes, who for years ran Clint Eastwood’s production company, recently agreed to produce two pictures for the company.
Valdes and Kirkpatrick are ostensibly just producers, but they also are Baedeckers with whom Samples regularly consults.
“If we’re going out with a spec script,” says one agent, “we treat Rysher the same way we would treat Spelling. They will have to pay a little more because their track record is not as strong as others. It will take a hit movie for them to have credibility.”
The company earned some major credibility at this year’s American Film Market thanks to its foreign sales staff. Under senior VP of international sales Meggan Kimberley, Rysher was able to use pre-existing relationships with foreign TV distributors to move its films and lessen its financial risk on pricier projects through favorable split-rights deals.
At this year’s AFM, Rysher found a lucrative niche with several foreign distributors who used to pick up a movie or two from Miramax Intl. but can’t get near its titles this year now that the Disney-owned indie has inked a series of multi-film sales to distribs around the world.
On one Rysher title called “Sydney,” a first film from Paul Thomas Anderson that stars Samuel Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow, Italian buyers were making mid six-figure bids for a pic that might have been a lot less sought-after in past seasons.
Time and critics will determine the quality as far as selling ability; Rysher has already proven adept at seeking out the underserviced corner of the marketplace and moving in for the kill.
It did that with syndicated action hours on TV long before the United Paramount Network or the WB Network were envisioned. It made a strategic alliance with Savoy when that distributor was desperately in need of product.