Producer's own tale bombs but sees future in film

There’s no such thing as a purple heart for film producing, but if there were, I’d give the medal to a Hollywood newcomer named Chris Mallick.

Mallick became enamored of a script called “Middle Men,” which related the story of his own rather bizarre, convoluted life. He liked it so much that he decided to finance it to the tune of $32 million, and he’ll likely lose most of it. The fate of “Middle Men” reflects the black hole that is the “indie” film business today.

“Middle Men” is not an obscure art film. Directed by George Gallo, it’s a compelling, skillfully made film whose cast boasts James Caan and Luke Wilson. Paramount picked up the film after it played at the Santa Barbara Film Fest.

The narrative tells of a businessman summoned to bail out two computer nerds who have stumbled on a system for selling (and billing) porn on the Web. The business is spewing off hundreds of millions of dollars a week before any of the principals can figure out how to manage it. In the meantime, the Russian mafia is closing in on the venture, setting forth a chain reaction of death threats and chases.

Mallick acknowledges that this is his story but insists that, while he got sucked into the venture, he ultimately withdrew and redeemed himself as a family man pursuing ventures outside the porn business.

Meanwhile, he’s in shock that his film, which received generally felicitous reviews and was well received at festivals, has hit the marketplace with a loud thud. After a dismal first weekend, ads have disappeared as quickly as theater dates.

Ironically, a film about another Web success story will shortly be released. “The Social Network” focuses on Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook. “Social Network” will open the New York Film Festival and already is being heralded as a hit.

Prompted by the trailer, I paid my way to see “Middle Men” at the smallest theater in a megaplex — only two other people were in the audience. It took a bit of detective work to find the theater, since playdates last weekend already were disappearing fast.

Mallick, a big guy with an imposing presence, admits, “I’ve made really good money as a turnaround specialist for many kinds of businesses, but I have no idea how to turn around my movie’s business.”

The failure of “Middle Men” to find an audience points up anew how the system is rigged against so-called indie films. A generation ago, movies like this would open on a few screens in key cities and be granted some grace time to build. Today nearly all the screens, and most of the ad money, goes to studio franchise films. Filmgoers don’t get the opportunity to “discover” movies; the giant ad budgets essentially dictate filmgoing tastes.

Mallick thought he had a chance of overcoming these issues by funding his own movie. His production budget totaled about $20 million, and he allocated an additional $12 million for prints and advertising.

Initial response was strong. The Paramount hierarchs liked the movie. Then it hit the wall.

Part of the problem, to be sure, related to subject matter. Though the breakthrough depicted in the movie involved methodology in billing for porn, it’s still about porn — a $97 billion-a-year business that no one likes to talk about but that casts a long shadow. The two computer geeks who figured out how to beat the system were themselves seduced by it — by the girls and the drugs and the mind-bending money generated by their invention.

Mallick himself insists he was repelled by the business but nonetheless held hostage by it for several years. But now movies have riveted his attention.

Despite the failure of “Middle Men,” Mallick says he will use his experience in selling his other movies. His next film is already finished. Others are in the works.

He knows movies will never be as unexpectedly lucrative as porn but figures there’s got to be a way to beat the system. Even where others have failed.

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