Moler wins struggle to helm indie

In a bittersweet Hollywood tale that saw the rejection of nearly $1 million for a first-timer’s script, director Ron Moler will make his helming debut with the indie pic “The Runner,” toplining Ron Eldard and Courteney Cox.

The film’s back story includes a high six-figure offer for the script from TriStar Pictures as well as an additional $500,000 to get Moler off the script as the director.

“Runner” will shoot in July in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City on a $5 million budget. Moler and Wayne Rice will produce. Elliot Rosenblatt will exec produce.

Pic is about a Vegas guy (Eldard) who takes a job running numbers for a bookmaker with the stipulation that he cannot gamble for himself. The only catch is that he’s a compulsive gambler. Things get more complicated when he meets a young woman (Cox) and falls madly in love.

In April 1997, Moler bought the script for $35,000 from unknown scribe Anthony Zuiker. Assuming it would ultimately be a low-budget indie project, Moler bought all the rights to the script.

Moler, who founded the film trailer house Aspect Ratio and has cut trailers for virtually every studio in Hollywood, was determined to make this his directing debut.

He said the original draft needed work and he spent months with Zuiker developing the material.

CAA agents David Styne and Adam Kanter had signed Zuiker based on the script and had sent the project out to numerous potential buyers.

When early drafts of the script drew interest in Hollywood from Matt Damon, Vince Vaughn and Joaquim Phoenix among other young thesps, suddenly studios reared their heads.

No Moler, no deal

TriStar ultimately offered high six figures, but the deal did not include Moler as a director. When he went in for a meeting with TriStar brass, Moler made it clear that he owned the rights to the script outright and did not want to see the film made without him in the driver’s seat.

“They knew me. They were positive about me. They were genuinely concerned. Their attitude was they would love to give me a shot at directing,” Moler said. “But the deal basically said if they don’t like the storyboard, I’m history.”

TriStar then offered to make Moler an exec producer on the project for $500,000, as long as the studio could hire a name director.

Moler, who would have earned the lion’s share of the script payment as the rights owner as well as the $500,000, turned down the big-ticket payday and restructured the project as an indie pic.

Once Moler made it clear that he wanted to direct, CAA got behind the helmer and helped set up the indie project, financed by a Chicago-based investment group.

Zuiker’s story

Zuiker’s story is equally outrageous. A year ago, Zuiker was the tram driver between the Treasure Island and Mirage hotels in Las Vegas. Down on his luck, he bought three books on screenwriting and holed himself up in a room and pounded out “The Runner.”

Moler was given a copy of the script through, as he puts it, “a friend of a friend of a girlfriend of a friend” of Zuiker’s.

Though the TriStar purchase of “The Runner” never materialized, Zuiker cut another deal with TriStar to script a feature on the Harlem Globetrotters, which he is currently researching.

Though Moler had never directed, he had successfully produced such pics as “Bachelor Party” starring Tom Hanks, “I Love You to Death” under Lawrence Kasdan’s helm and “Endless Summer 2.”

“They liked it and they wanted to do it. They believed in it and it wasn’t that they didn’t believe in me,” Moler said. “I had just been around long enough to know that as soon as you start giving up the power, you’re dead.”

Producer Rice, meanwhile, believes Moler will bring the right amount of art and show business to the project. “He sees the artistic as well as the commercial content of the material and at the end of the day we’re going to have a great trailer, too,” Rice said.

Zuiker’s deal was brokered by CAA’s Styne and Kanter. Eldard’s deal was made by manager Brian Swardstrom and UTA. Cox was repped by Cynthia Pett Dante at Brillstein/Grey and Rick Kurtzman at CAA.

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