Stiller's shingle expands beyond comedy features

Coming off the huge success of “There’s Something About Mary” a decade ago and looking to establish his own shingle, Ben Stiller’s quest to find a production partner wasn’t too unlike the experience of working through a brace of blind dates.

“My agent set me up with a bunch of people who were production partner types,” he explains. “These were all great people, but it felt sort of strange that you have to be connected to someone you don’t know at all.”

Things finally clicked thanks to a referral from TV writer Jerry Stahl, whom Stiller portrayed in the 1998 adaptation of Stahl’s autobiography, “Permanent Midnight.” Stahl introduced Stiller to his friend Stuart Cornfeld, who had produced an eclectic range of titles including “The Elephant Man,” “European Vacation” and “The Fly.”

“We hit it off, and we’ve been working at it ever since,” says Stiller of the man who became his partner in Red Hour Films. “He’s all about writers and developing the script.”

Today, Red Hour employs a staff of eight and enjoys a first-look deal with DreamWorks. Stiller has added a third partner, Jeremy Kramer, a former Miramax exec with whom he and Cornfeld bonded amid the tough process of shooting “Duplex” in 2003.

Starring Stiller alongside Drew Barrymore and grossing just over $19 million worldwide, “Duplex” represented a disappointing step back for Red Hour, especially after the shingle had so successfully showcased Stiller’s unique comedic voice two years earlier with its initial offering, the offbeat “Zoolander.”

“Audiences weren’t sure how to laugh at a young couple who wanted to kill a cute old lady,” says Kramer, summing up the film’s key commercial limitation.

Since that ill-fated sophomore effort, however, Red Hour has enjoyed a pretty steady stream of comedic hits, starting with 2004′s classic TV spoof “Starsky & Hutch” (which took in more than $170 million in worldwide box office), “DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story” ($168 million), “Blades of Glory” ($146 million) and this year’s “Tropic Thunder” (better than $170 million).

This rather impeccable batting average when it comes to feature laughs has freed Red Hour to explore new realms. Earlier this year, for example, the shingle released horror-thriller “The Ruins” through DreamWorks. The early-summer release generated only middling box office heat but seemed to represent a new ethos for Stiller and his partners: Do what’s interesting.

In fact, Stiller got the bug to adapt “The Ruins” after reading an unfinished manuscript from Scott Smith’s novel. In a similar vein, Red Hour is working to adapt George Saunders’ dark, satirical “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” about a Civil War theme-park operator who hires a trained killer to take out a menacing gang. It’s also working on a biopic about pianist Oscar Levant, who was known for battling a personal demon or two.

“One of the things that attracted me to Red Hour is that the company picks projects because it loves the material or the people behind it, not because they’re trying to program something,” Kramer says.

Adds Cornfeld: “Our approach is much more about a specific process rather than trying to figure out show business.”

Red Hour’s feature success has given it a certain gravitas to go into other areas. The company recently struck a pilot deal with Fox to develop “The Station,” a half-hour laffer from scribe Kevin Napier focused on the interoffice minglings in a covert CIA facility in South America.

“When we first started out, we tried to have a TV division, then we realized how much work that was,” Stiller says. “Back then, just getting movies made was enough of a challenge.”

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