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Phoenix gets fresh game plan

Life after Sony focuses on development

Mike Medavoy may have lost his studio deal, but he hasn’t lost his resolve to keep Phoenix Pictures alive and kicking.

This year alone, the company’s veteran chairman-CEO has set up seven films all over Hollywood featuring top directors and actors. And the company counts a host of deep-pocketed equity partners, among them Showtime, RTL, Canada’s Onex, Altamira Money Management — and Sony Pictures Entertainment, which remains a shareholder although its put deal with Phoenix has ended. What Medavoy can’t do, however, is give projects a greenlight — a power he enjoyed during a 22-year run that included stints as chairman of TriStar and co-founder of Orion.

‘Vertical’ problem

Medavoy and other at Phoenix concede their business strategy needs a few revisions. Witness the company’s apparent failure to cash in on “Vertical Limit,” despite spending $1 million on the spec script.

Similarly, as Phoenix explored the possibility of finding another studio home earlier this year, would-be partners balked at what they viewed as steep producing fees and stringent participation stipulations. Meanwhile, Phoenix backed away from first-look deals that seemed to promise little in return.

The Phoenix story is far from over, but it is a cautionary tale for today’s Hollywood: No matter how well-connected, well-positioned and well-read an executive may be, his kingdom can start to fray.

Still, sitting in the living room of his new home at the top of Mulholland Drive, Medavoy brims with plans for his company’s future.

The vision includes new horror and family pic labels, possibly backed by a film fund; exploiting the Phoenix library; expanding the shingle’s reach into television; and the possibility of backing a talent management business, all while producing six to eight films a year.

Three-year plan

Accompanied by Phoenix president and chief operating officer Arnie Messer and exec VP Matt Bierman, Medavoy is upbeat. He says the company, which has a staff of 32, still has enough coin to fund overhead and development costs for the next three years.

Medavoy also shrugs off the loss of greenlight power. “Complete greenlight authority doesn’t exist,” he maintains. “I’ve always had to convince people that I was right, and I’ve often been wrong.”Besides, if he can’t convince someone to make a movie, then he doesn’t deserve to make it, Medavoy says.

“For me, the question is: Do we have the wherewithal to put together a program of movies that make money? For me, that is the ultimate test.”

Of the 13 films Phoenix has co-financed, there have been award winners like “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” and “The Thin Red Line.” However, only the 1998 lower-budget “Urban Legend” qualified as an outright hit.

Rights fight

This brings up a Phoenix-Sony sore spot — and one of the reasons the loss of the Sony distribution pact isn’t as painful as it might be. In 1996, Phoenix paid $1 million for Robert King’s “Vertical Limit” spec. The film earned $213 million worldwide and would qualify as the biggest hit in Phoenix’s history.

Problem is, Sony says Phoenix doesn’t hold the bragging rights.

Phoenix was attached as a producer when it sold “Vertical” to Sony in 1998 — a move that stemmed from the fact Phoenix could only afford to invest in one mega-budget production at the time.

The shingle threw its weight behind “The Sixth Day,” which had a budget some $20 million less than the $100 million-plus “Vertical” and featured easy-to-bond Canadian locations.

As for producing, Phoenix had to grit its teeth and take a pass, thanks to a glitch that lay in the company’s very structure. All Phoenix-produced titles must eventually go through Showtime, while Sony pics go through HBO.

Ounce of prevention

Says Messer, “We’re entitled to participation and deferments (on ‘Vertical’).” He says the Showtime deal has been rejigged to prevent future snafus.

A Sony spokesperson says that Phoenix is owed nothing on “Vertical.”

This awkward scenario is one that Phoenix won’t face in the future. Although its current system represents somewhat of a loss of financial freedom, its old business plan no longer makes sense in today’s marketplace.

“Our models became out of date,” says Messer, citing average negative costs that have nearly doubled to $50 million since 1995.

So, you make a new model. For Medavoy, reinvention is business as usual. Although he’s the sort of man who often mentions “my” Oscar-winning films like Orion’s “Platoon,” “Amadeus,” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” his ego is blended with a solid dose of self-deprecation.

On Feb. 2, Simon & Schuster will publish his memoir. The title? “You Are Only as Good as Your Next One: 100 Great Films, 100 Good Films and 100 for Which I Should Be Shot.”

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