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H’wood goes on Yari safari

Producers try to figure out the indies' latest maven, but has Bob Yari figured out the film biz?

He’s put money into 16 movies in the last two years. In the process, he’s become one of the industry’s major enigmas.

With financiers for independent film becoming an endangered species, Bob Yari currently stands as the busiest backer in the business. But producers can’t quite figure out how he does business. Or why he’s in the business to begin with.

Or what kinds of movies he really wants to make. Yari is backing a wide slate of esoteric pics — a Somerset Maugham adaptation and a look at Andy Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick. But his next release is the $65 million “Hostage,” a meat-and-potatoes actioner starring Bruce Willis.

The big question: Will he go bust before his eccentric business model can achieve results?

The film biz is used to money men who come to Hollywood with dreams of acquiring gold, glory and girls. His dream is to build a money-making empire on the back of arthouse movies. It’s a noble aspiration, but in the process he’s inspired both fierce loyalty and foaming-at-the-mouth contempt.

One former associate describes him as a scoundrel. Another grimaces, “I don’t know anybody who’s had a great experience with him.” Supporters say those people are just frustrated that he’s not backing their projects.

Sitting in his Westwood office, the exec acknowledges that his community relations have hit some rough patches. “We’re working on it,” he says. “I won’t be in business without them. But in terms of certain people being upset, I’m not sure we can avoid that ultimately.”

Yari, who’s in his early 40s, has close-cropped hair and translucent skin stretched over an owlish face. He speaks in soft, measured tones. He looks less like a Hollywood player than like the real-estate magnate he used to be.

Hollywood has its share of rich guys with cinematic ambitions, with a current crop that includes Chicago Bulls co-owner Jim Stern’s Endgame Entertainment, eBay founder Jeff Skoll’s Participant Prods. and schmatta magnate Sidney Kimmel, who heads Sidney Kimmel Entertainment.

Unlike them, Yari has created a huge output. And, unlike them, he is a principal in no fewer than five companies.

There’s financing arm Stratus Film, a partnership with Mark Gordon. There are also four shingles that fall under the Yari Film Group: El Camino Pictures, a financing entity created in association with William Morris Independent; his own discretionary fund, Bob Yari Prods.; and production company Bull’s Eye Entertainment, a partnership with Tom Nunan and Cathy Shulman. There’s also foreign sales arm Syndicate Films Intl., headed by David Glasser. Soon there will be a video distribution label, to be followed by a domestic distribution company.

With 50 employees, that’s a lot of overhead for just two years in business, especially since Yari’s track record is virtually nonexistent. El Camino’s “A Love Song For Bobby Long” earned a Golden Globe nom for Scarlett Johansson but negligible box office; Bull’s Eye’s “Employee of the Month” went straight to video.

Yari hopes to see that trend reverse itself in the coming months. He plans to see at least eight theatrical releases through 2005, including “The Matador” through Miramax, “Prime” and “Winter Passing” through Focus Features and “Crash” and “House of D” through Lions Gate Films.

Yari theorizes that he has so many critics because his purpose is less about making movies, or even making money, than about building an empire. His lofty goal is to create a full-fledged independent studio, the like of which hasn’t been seen since the pre-Disney days of Miramax.

In other words, even his motives seem contradictory: He wants to be an auteur-empire builder.

Yari’s business plan calls for an annual slate of at least 10 films. Fewer films, he says, would throw his risk-reward ratio into jeopardy. “We’re not dependent on individual performance to recoup. We don’t risk the core equity.”

Yari says he also doesn’t want to risk falling into the same category as Elie Samaha, an indie producer whose Franchise Films was known for making movies of dubious quality. “That’s a business, but it’s not one we want to be in,” he says.

Even Yari’s supporters say that his greatest weakness has been overcoming his naivete about the film biz. And he admits that his productions have often suffered for it.

“We’ve honored obligations, but we’ve been plenty late,” he says. “One of the things I’m learning is there’s always some delay with the banks. I don’t think we’ve ever closed a deal before two weeks before the end of production. When you have three or four projects, that’s put us under a lot of cash flow strain. But that’s a reality and I have to adjust my expectations.”

That adjustment has taken a toll on some of his partners.

Groans one producer currently working with Yari, “He has all these companies fronting for him, so you never know when the money is coming. You’re trying to close a deal and he isn’t open about what’s going on. But at a time when there’s no one else, you do what you can.”

One agent whose below-the-line clients have worked on a number of Yari pics adds, “Even the pictures that get made, there’s a trail of blood and guts along the way. On one film, we had signed deals with guarantees and he wouldn’t pay. We finally settled for 50 cents on the dollar. A client fired us over it. I do my best not to do business with him, but it’s hard because he makes interesting movies.”

Although Yari’s slate focuses on arthouse pics, his projects rely on the same financing principles that back many direct-to-video thrillers at the American Film Market: foreign sales. Making those numbers work has become increasingly tough for all movies, especially for pics that don’t substitute explosions for character development.

“I think I’m not a bad judge of material and I want to support directors,” Yari says. “But to give them the ability not to be micro-managed, how do I protect us? Things have to fit in our box. That’s what gives me the ability to implement their vision.”

He has a reputation for greenlighting a movie and then later changing his mind. And, producers charge, his deals take forever to close because he constantly changes the terms. According to Yari, the problems come when he thought a vision fit the box, only to find it didn’t.

Last fall, Bull’s Eye hoped to make “Tishomingo Blues,” an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, as Don Cheadle’s directorial debut. However, when the budget kept creeping up and the foreign presales kept moving down, Yari pulled the plug.

“Was it (topliner) Matthew McConaughey? I don’t know, but the support wasn’t there,” Yari says. “It’s regrettable, but to move forward would jeopardize the whole business plan.”

Yari faced a similarly awkward scenario in 2003 with the Stratus spoof “Remains of the Piano,” which was written by Eric Idle as his feature directing bow. “I’ve never met him, but I know Idle was very upset,” Yari says. “He was furious.”

The “Piano” problem came when the bank saw that he intended to produce the film with Garth Drabinsky, co-owner of the bankrupt Livent. “I didn’t know about Garth Drabinsky,” Yari says.

Didn’t know about Drabinsky?

It’s possible that Yari hadn’t spent enough time in Hollywood to learn that his would-be producing partner was awaiting trial on $400 million in fraud and insider-trading charges. But shouldn’t he have received a heads-up from Stratus president Neil Sacker, a former top business exec at Miramax and Destination Films? Or from Glasser, who’s spent nearly a decade in foreign sales?

Yari is making his second go-round in Hollywood. After earning a degree in cinematography from UC Santa Barbara in the early 1980s, he directed the 1989 thriller “Mind Games” starring Maxwell Caulfield. When the MGM release earned just $85,000 in a 200-screen bow, he turned away from Hollywood to focus on his dad’s real estate business, where he found considerably more success.

However, Yari doesn’t want to be known as a real-estate developer-turned-producer.

“Real estate and film deals are very similar in terms of structuring,” he says. “The big difference is that an entrepreneur in independent film is a different animal than in real estate. Producers have all the requisite business skills, but their definition of success is you make the film, get your name on the picture and take the fee. You do that, you’ve made 90% of your goals. In real estate, you put up a building and it’s not profitable? That’s not a feather in anyone’s cap.”

Yari’s slate includes the kinds of movies that seem almost impossible to get made — period dramas, dark comedies, quirky biopics.

Now shooting is El Camino’s psychological thriller “First Snow” starring Guy Pearce and “Jump Shot,” an ensembler about gambling addiction that’s going through Bob Yari Prods.

Among the pics expected to roll this year are the Sedgwick biopic “Factory Girl,” also through Bob Yari Prods.; Stratus’ remake of Maugham’s 1934 Greta Garbo starrer “The Painted Veil,” to star Edward Norton and Naomi Watts for release through Warner Independent Pictures. Also up is Bull’s Eye’s “The Illusionist,” an adaptation of a short story by Steven Millhauser that stars Norton and Paul Giamatti.

With studios scared of anything that doesn’t have the potential for Roman numerals, Yari sets out a tempting spread for hungry producers. And supporters say that any grousing is just the cost of doing business.

“I’ve made five pictures with him,” says William Morris Independent and El Camino principal Cassian Elwes. “He said, ‘I’m going to do them,’ and he did them. You’re going to go through some growing pains and growth curves. I think that he’s learned a lot in the two years. Lots of people are desperate to make their independent movies and they’re frustrated that Bob’s not making their movie.”

“The Illusionist” producer Michael London says he’s happy to be making his movie with Yari.

“I heard all of those stories and I know they’re true, but he’s trying to rectify them,” London says. “He made a lot of $10 million-and-under movies and it’s really clear that the ground rules (with “Illusionist”) have to be different. Here, our budget is $17.1 million. There’s more riding on it.

“I think he’s guilty of spinning a lot of plates at the same time, but I credit him for having eclectic tastes,” he says. Most guys are only looking for the safest haven for their money.”

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