Dogged for years for accumulating more creditors than credits, Oscar-nominated “Thin Red Line” producers Robert Geisler and John Roberdeau now face losing their prestige projects.
A New York State Supreme Court judge sided with chemical company exec Gerard Rubin, who said he never got back a penny of the $6.25 million he gave the duo for development of the Terrence Malick scripts “The Thin Red Line,” “The English Speaker” and legiter “Sansho the Bailiff,” the D.M. Thomas novel “The White Hotel” and others.
The judge found the producers had breached their fiduciary duty when they excluded Rubin from the proceeds of a $1.5 million sale of “Thin Red Line” to Phoenix Pictures, and sold ownership of the other projects to which they remain contractually tied as producers.
That battle is a cautionary tale for any starry-eyed investor tempted to link with fringe players to make a killing in the film business.
Rubin’s lawyer, Barry Goldin, said his client will end up owning all the projects, and would parcel them off to recoup his money. The judge found Geisler and Roberdeau personally liable for the $1.5 million they converted from the proceeds of “The Thin Red Line,” plus interest.
Goldin was back in court last Wednesday as State Supreme Court Justice Barry Tompkins moved toward enforcing that judgment, hindered by the producers’ inability to turn over ownership documents to the projects.
The documents reside, the duo said, with the people who now own the projects: “The White Hotel” went to their former lawyer, Samuel Myers, and rights to the other projects to a Texan named Stephen Pate. Goldin said the court found Myers was a “straw” the producers used to shield “White Hotel” rights and that Pate owns only the producers rights, which amount to nothing.
The lawyer said last week’s date indicated Rubin could take possession soon: “They basically admitted they were broke and couldn’t pay the judgment to us, and their attorney at Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler said they were owed $130,000 and might withdraw. This was one of their last gasps, the end of the line for Geisler and Roberdeau.”
The producers claim they’ll appeal a bad legal judgment and keep the projects, even as they battle creditors on other fronts. Their current lawyer, Kaye, Scholer’s Howard Kleinhendler, told Dish the duo has a strong case for appeal, though couldn’t say whether his firm would hang around to wage it: “There are some issues over fees, but that’s not unusual in this business. Right now, we’re still in.”
BESIDES BEING HEAVILY LEVERAGED with lenders and lawyers, the producers have a litany of people looking to serve them with lawsuits. That includes a travel agent named Joyce Stogo, who allowed them credit for flights they took with prospective “White Hotel” director Emir Kusturica.
She’s allegedly stuck with $20,000 in bills she took a personal loan to pay off. The producers charge her husband, Don Stogo, doesn’t have clean hands because he introduced them to a wealthy friend who gave them $200,000 — $7,000 of which went to Stogo as a finder’s fee.
Stogo, who has a private detective trying to locate them, acknowledges taking the money, but regrets making the intro: His friend no longer returns his calls and the duo bounced a check to settle his wife’s balance that was supposed to come as part of that transaction.
A location scout in Philadelphia doing advance work on “In the Boom Boom Room” racked up months of unpaid expenses and refused to squire the producers and an art director around until he got paid. A check for $16,000 was approved by his bank before he ushered the trio, only to find the duo pulled the funds the moment they left town.
Jane Weinstock rented them a Gotham flat last fall. They bounced a four-month security deposit, and didn’t pay a cent of rent by the time they exited months later. Roberdeau said a week ago the apartment owner was two days from getting a settlement check. One week later, that claim was refuted by her lawyer, Robert Werth.
“She was naive, she let them in and they played it to the hilt,” he said. “They left her with about $25,000 of unpaid rent, a $2,000 phone bill, a Con Ed, cable TV bill and a broken mirror,” he said. “They’re animals.” He’s preparing a suit.
A 1996 New York Observer article detailed Geisler’s arrest for stiffing a caterer, and an article on the duo in last April’s Travel Agent magazine labeled them “perhaps the most well-known, nonpaying travelers in the industry.” But those are small skirmishes compared to the high stakes war being waged with Rubin.
DESPITE HIS MULTIMILLION-DOLLAR investment in their projects, the producers cut Rubin out of “Thin Red Line” proceeds and sold off the other projects he seeded by claiming they’d bought him out with four $10 checks. The court didn’t buy it.
“The problem with the film business is that there is a different sense of morality,” said Goldin. “Investors are looked at as suckers. These guys take the money and run. They’re economic sociopaths, incapable of telling the truth. They have taken credit for paying money to people like Malick, never acknowledging that money was actually paid by Mr. Rubin.”
Rubin has also sued Malick, whom he paid well over $1 million to write two scripts and a play, along with Phoenix and Medavoy. Medavoy maintains he was unaware of Rubin when he made the “Thin Red Line” deal with the producers, giving them first a $100,000 loan and then a $1.4 million payment, $600,000 of which was producing fees for the duo. Between 1986 and 1993, Rubin invested $6.25 million in the producers and their projects through Briarpatch Ltd. The judge found Rubin should have been refunded the $750,000 paid for “Thin Red Line.”
The producers angrily argue that as much as Rubin provided their livelihood those years, he directly caused their descent into debt by renegging on a verbal agreement to finance a $700,000 “Sansho the Bailiff” workshop for the play in 1993.
“To me, Gerry Rubin is a coward and a deserter,” said Roberdeau. “He fled the scene when he had an obligation toward ‘Sansho.’ When he pulls out, he leaves me holding up the building. However you paint me, you’re never going to be able to say I quit. I didn’t declare bankruptcy and leave people holding the bag. I put my head down and plowed through.”
ROBERDEAU SAID THAT in a phone conversation, Rubin told the producer he wanted to exploit a buyout clause in their limited partnership agreement and write off the investment as a loss. “I was under the impression he walked away; maybe that was me being naive,” said Roberdeau. Goldin countered and the court agreed that the buyout provision was exploited by the producers, when it clearly stipulates only Rubin could request such a move. There’s no documentable evidence he did.
The lawyer also said there is no written record his client agreed to fund the “Sansho” workshop, even though Roberdeau said the commitment is demonstrated by Rubin paying an Actors Equity escrow of $30,000.
“They knew all along he wasn’t going to pay, because by that time he couldn’t afford it,” said Goldin. “They very nearly broke him. He had been saving his last bit of cash for a wedding gift to his daughter. Somehow they found out and insisted he spend that money on them. My client had no commitment or fiduciary duty to fund the workshop. There’s no reason they couldn’t have called it off if they couldn’t afford it, my understanding is it was disastrous anyway.”
Roberdeau countered: “His ‘Oh, I was broke story’ is just horseshit. The guy knew exactly what he was doing and when he decided to quit, he assumed he would never see another nickel.”
How does an executive get strung along for so long? According to Goldin, “Even as Rubin got in deeper, it went on slowly so he never had to make a hard decision about $1 million, but rather $10,000, $20,000 or $50,000. Sometimes $500. But you make enough $10,000 decisions, suddenly it is $1 million and they’re progressively telling him if you don’t put in more money now, you will lose everything. They were calling him every day, and they did introduce him to significant players in the industry.”
That alleged strategy seems consistent with the plea Geisler made to Rubin three months after cutting the $40 checks. Attached to a notice they were being evicted from their W. 9th St. duplex, Geisler wrote: “We were served the following papers last night (on John’s birthday!).”
He asked Rubin to “please help us locate $5,500. We have conquered many, many hardships, but eviction will finally truly finish us.” Goldin said Rubin ignored the letter.