Making studio films with an independent instinct

There’s a hurricane blowing through the Morgan Creek offices on the Warner Bros. lot, and he just happens to own the company. James Robinson is living proof that you can make mainstream films, co-exist in the realm of the majors, play by the studio rule book when it comes to snagging high-priced talent, sought-after material and nationwide rollouts, and still maintain autonomy and independence, not to mention the copyrights. You just have to storm through every day, minding the minutiae and watching the costs as well as the dailies, because it’s your money, not the multinational conglomerate’s, that flies out the window when you wash out on a $40 million project.

”The one word that separates an independent production company from all others is risk,” says the high-energy Robinson, who when interviewed was finalizing plans for the premiere of Morgan Creek’s teen adventure pic “Wild America.” (The pic opened over the July 4 weekend with $1.8 million on 1,812 screens; not bad considering the competition from “Men in Black.”)

Aside from the obvious stress of sending an investment of tens of millions into the marketplace, it seems

there are also little matters like renting bleachers for the fans, a platform for the stars, distributing T-shirts and tchotchkes to pump up the staffers, ad infinitum. Somehow, you don’t imagine Bob Daly or Terry Semel working out the details of getting something for Jonathan Taylor Thomas to stand on.

”When you’re working at a studio, where it’s nice and comfortable, there’s no pain and in my mind no short gain,” observes Robinson, settling down, if only momentarily. ”Bottom line is that the greatest feeling in the world is when you make a movie that you know is good and plays unusually well. That’s an emotional home run.”

Robinson’s indie outfit has had its share of home runs, including the teen-targeted actioner “Young Guns,” the smash spoof ”Robin Hood: Men in Tights” and the career-launching lunacy of Jim Carrey’s ”Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.” It also has stumbled, sometimes badly, with such misfires as ”Trial by Jury,” “Diabolique,” “Big Bully” and “Two if by Sea.”

If anyone wonders who takes the hit when the Morgan Creek films miss, Robinson says the culprit is easy to find. The former car import-export magnate says matter-of-factly, ”You need money to make movies. If we become stupid — and we have at many times done dumb things, which I take full responsibility for — we lose money. Yet on balance, we make money.” His attitude is casual, especially for someone who only moments ago seemed highly agitated about T-shirts and now is talking about losing the kind of money that’s close to the GNP of a small country.

What does tick him off is the fight for support that he feels indies have to wage with the lawyers and agents who drive the deals essential to his playing competitively against the majors.

”You know what the shame is?” asks Robinson rhetorically, returning to a more Robinson-esque passionate boil. ”The apathy in this town. The lawyers should try, if there’s any way humanly possible, to cultivate the profits to help the well-being and hopefully growth of independent production. What would happen if there where virtually no independent production companies in this business? What happens if there’s nowhere to go, but to the five studios? Not that I’m looking to antagonize the studios, but just for the record, independent production companies are competitors of the studios.”

So how does a ”competitor” co-exist with his rival? Robinson scoffs at the notion: ”First of all, we have very little to do with the head of production at Warner Bros. We have a lot to do with Warner Bros.’ promotions, advertising and marketing. (New WB marketing chief) Chris Pula I find very talented. He does his job. We want the distribution and marketing system of Warner Bros., and it’s very good.”

The key element in understanding his relationship with the studio, Robinson says, is that he buys their services, and he does feel that gives him the right to, well, occasionally let the Semels and Dalys know how he feels. He says he rarely does this, unless ”some schmuck pisses me off. Then I might call Bob or Terry.”

From the view of many of his indie counterparts, Robinson’s self-financed production outfit is firmly entrenched in the enemy camp, and he’s often derided as a studio producer disguised as an indie. This overlooks the unusual situation that the former auto mogul has carved for himself with the help of bankers such as Chase Securities’ John Miller, an indie financing pro Robinson describes as ”probably one of the best guys playing, a very smart man, and he gets it very quickly.”

By way of explanation of Robinson’s casual view of the financing challenges that most indie producers obsess and stress over, Robinson insists that money is ”nothing more than stuff. It’s inventory, it’s what I need, it’s what we use to make movies with.” He prefers to focus on the process and the end product, and the conversation veers quickly to a subject that stirs his infectious enthusiasm.

”For example,” he says, ”just last week I heard a story about a guy from the ’30s who helped hundreds of artists to escape from Germany. The town would say this is not going to be a feature film. But with ‘Enemies, a Love Story,’ they said that wouldn’t become a feature film, and it was probably one of the two best movies we ever made. There’s no way we could ever make any money off this project, but we may yet make the movie.”

Asked whether he has to go to the John Millers of the indie banking world on a picture-by-picture basis, Robinson testily says, ”Other places give you money to make the movie and you give away your cut. Hell, if I’m gonna live that way, I might as well go work with a studio. This is a self-lubricating machine. We have our own old money.”

Before we can dwell too long on the finer points of financing, Robinson is drawn back to focusing on the nitty-gritty of ”Wild America’s” launch. He seems happier solving problems than belaboring the obvious fact that competitively making movies in the ’90s means raising and spending enormous sums of money.

Forget interest rates and equity positions; Robinson loves grease pencils.

He enthusiastically demonstrates how he uses red, black and white ones to rework print campaigns, smacking his palm on the ”Wild America” poster on his office wall to show the changes that were made on the one-sheet to push the elements he felt were essential to selling the picture. ”It’s the faces of these three kids and the title! That’s what I want people to remember and think of when they see this poster!”

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