Samaha places hopes in slate of A-list stars

It's crunch time for filmmaker

The official signing late Tuesday of Kevin Costner to star in Franchise Pictures’ actioner “3000 Miles to Graceland” underscores a remarkably active year for the company’s majority owner — producer Elie Samaha.

But with nine high-profile, star-studded movies slated for theatrical release in 2000, Samaha knows it’s crunch time. Supporters and critics alike will be watching to see whether he can cross over from B-product producer to a provider of quality films that perform at the box office.

The path from B to A is littered with the bodies of producers who tried to link up with stars and studios only to crash and burn.

However, the Lebanese-born producer is confident he’ll escape that fate. He’s owned a variety of businesses in the past two decades, which he said are his personal film school: “Whether it’s real estate or dry cleaning or restaurants or nightclubs, import or export, it’s all about cost and efficiency. You look at the (film) companies that are not in business right now, and it’s because many of them overpaid.”

Still, one film producer, who preferred to remain unidentified, said: “People are wary of him, but watching him nonetheless.”

But more people openly support Samaha.

“The rap on Samaha used to be that Elie is putting together all these pictures that are not really good pictures,” an associate said. “Yet he delivered on the projects that were hard to finance, and now he’s getting projects that people are fighting for.”

“He’s trying to hustle us, isn’t he?” said Samaha, talking on the phone with an accent that most dialect coaches might have a hard time identifying. “Does this mother****** know Travolta is starring in the movie!”

The tall, athletic-looking and charismatic producer in his early 40s hungup the phone and sat on a soft white armchair in a cozy office on the third floor of a 1940s building in the heart of the Sunset Strip. “Everything in Hollywood is a hustle,” he said with a playful gleam in his eye.

Glancing out of a large window overlooking West Hollywood, where he co-owns restaurants including Benvenuto on Santa Monica Boulevard, Samaha continued: “Whether you are in the restaurant business, the club business or the movie business, it’s like a jungle out there. The same actor you’re trying to get, there’s like 200 producers going after the guy.”

But for Samaha, hustle is in the blood, and it’s why he sleeps, on average, four hours a night.

Samaha formed production and sales company Franchise Pictures a little over two years ago. Franchise has grown from producing titles such as “A Murder of Crows” and “Entropy” to two 1999 theatrical releases: “This Is My Father,” written and directed by Paul Quinn and starring Aidan Quinn, and “20 Dates,” the low-budget Slamdance Film Fest pic written, directed and starring Myles Berkowitz.

Millennial leap

But the quantum leap will take place in 2000. The release slate includes “The Whole Nine Yards,” starring Bruce Willis; “Battlefield Earth,” toplined by John Travolta; and pics starring Kevin Spacey, Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes.

On deck are four pics going out through Warner Bros.: “The Whole Nine Yards,” directed by Jonathan Lynn (Feb. 18); “Battlefield Earth,” directed by Roger Christian (May 12); “The Art of War,” directed by Christian Duguay (July); and “Get Carter,” directed by Stephen T. Kay (October).

Also due out next year are “The Third Miracle,” directed by Agnieszka Holland and starring Ed Harris (Sony Pictures Classics/ January); “The Big Kahuna,” from director John Swanbeck (Lions Gate/ April); “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her,” helmed by Rodrigo Garcia (MGM/UA/ April); “Animal Factory,” directed by Steve Buscemi (June); and “Augie Rose,” directed by Mat Tabak (October).

Franchise boasts a movie-by-movie output arrangement with Morgan Creek and WB, and distribution pacts with such companies as Village Roadshow Pictures and Germany’s Intertainment.

Franchise is also in active development on at least a half dozen other films, including the Sean Penn-helmed “The Pledge” starring Jack Nicholson, slated to begin lensing on Feb. 15.

“Samaha delivers what all the buyers want,” said Jared Underwood, Imperial Bank’s entertainment group senior veep. “What separates him from the pack is his relationships with talent.”

Because he knows a lot of stars from his days as a nightclub owner, Samaha has been able to put together pic packages — 95% of which Imperial has backed. In October, Imperial brought in a consortium of banks including Nationale Investerings Bank in the Hague, Fuji Bank, Natexis and Bank Paribas; together, the banks put up $200 million for four films, most of which Samaha has set up at Warner Bros., where he has a non-exclusive open-ended deal.

Franchise’s ascent has much to do with Samaha the man. His bottom-line mentality has enabled him to move from producing pics in the $2 million to $5 million range to studio-sized releases.

“Some of the deals that we have made were hard to make,” said Cassian Elwes, a William Morris agent who has been a force in indie film over the past decade. “Elie is a tough negotiator. But when we shook hands, we had a deal.”

Notably, Samaha greenlit “Battlefield Earth,” the sci-fi actioner that nobody else would touch for more than a decade.

Maverick in motion

Born in Beirut and raised by his mother after his father died when he was 4, Samaha, a brother and a sister quickly learned to be independent. Samaha joined the Lebanese Christian army in Israel at 14. Later, he lived in London and Paris, where he managed a girlfriend as model and actress.

Moving to New York City in the late 1970s with about $60, Samaha hustled — trying import, export and head of security jobs at clubs.

In L.A. in the 1980s, Samaha and his brother — now also a movie producer — dove into the dry cleaning business when they observed that few cleaners had two-hour service or stayed open all night.

The Samahas launched Celebrity Cleaners at a single location in 1982; in four years the company expanded to 24 sites around the city, catering especially to studios and stars.

“If you take a shirt to the dry cleaner,” Samaha said, “they charge you a dollar. But when the studios take a shirt to the dry cleaners, they charge you five. That’s when I learned there’s a lot of money in the film business. And I said to myself: This is fascinating. I’d like to be involved in this.”

Samaha’s dry cleaning business gave him access to talent — an access that increased as he segued more and more into clubs and restaurants, eventually selling off the cleaning business. (Samaha, who at one time trained and competed as a kickboxer, also co-owns Kachina Grill and the Sunset Room, among other properties.)

With clubs such as the popular Roxbury on Sunset (which closed last year), Samaha applied the principles he had learned in the dry-cleaning business: allowing the studios to hold parties at his venues, but only if they were willing to pay his studio rates.

Indie roots

Samaha’s first foray into movies came through Millennium Films, an indie company that had a deal with Avi Lerner’s Nu Image. Together with partners Lerner and Amir Malin, Samaha produced dozens of lower-budget films, many of which were funded by Imperial Bank. Soon after Malin left to help form Artisan, Samaha also left and founded Phoenician Pictures (his lower-budget film unit) and Franchise along with then-partner Ashok Amritraj.

This year, Amritraj exited the company, later joining forces with producer David Hoberman. Now Samaha is a majority owner of Franchise and is its final decision-maker on all things creative and financial.

Alan Horn, prexy and chief operating officer of Warner Bros., said: “Elie is an astute businessman whose intensive knowledge of the worldwide marketplace makes him an excellent partner for us.”

Andrew Stevens is Franchise prexy; Hans Turner, chief financial officer; Andrew Kramer, head of business affairs; Lisa Wilson, in charge of foreign sales and distribution; Tracee Stanley, acquisitions and development head; and Jim Holt, veep of production finance. Still, Samaha is front and center.

“Samaha puts himself out there,” one associate said. “He’s made a conscious decision that he should ride the wave of success and work as hard as he can because these things never last.”

And, for the moment, that’s precisely what he’s doing.

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