Stern sees opportunity in budgets majors are shunning

Endgame Entertainment topper James D. Stern is a study in contrasts: a film school grad and docu helmer who’s also an MBA-equipped money manager; a movie producer who skipped the Toronto Film Fest for legit tryouts of his latest play.

And though Endgame’s “An Education” racked up three Oscar noms last year, Stern admits the company is unlikely to continue making such artsy projects.

The financing/production shingle, which operates out of unpretentious Beverly Hills offices, is banking on a slate of mostly midrange budget, adult-oriented pics to weather the biz’s uncertainty, from Nicolas Cage starrer “The Hungry Rabbit Jumps” to action thriller “Umbra,” to be directed by Joe Carnahan.

Bringing his financial and legit background to the hardscrabble world of indie film production, Stern has quietly amassed 20 films for Endgame in a decade. He’s also a part owner of the Chicago Bulls basketball team.

“Studios are simply not making midrange commercial films any more, which creates a real opportunity for us,” Stern notes. “We can sell our films because we have strong elements, so presales are very good for us. Less studio films means that we have better access to release slots, foreign sales, talent, writers and directors.”

Stern’s balancing act is to find engaging stories that make sense for the company, which benefits from his strong financial background.

“You can learn finance, but you have to have a feel for stories,” he says.

Endgame has leavened its adult-oriented dramas (“Hotel Rwanda,” “Lord of War,”) with a smattering of comedies (“The Brothers Bloom,” “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”).

But though Stern is proud of Endgame’s involvement on Lone Scherfig’s “An Education,” which earned three Oscar noms last year, including picture, he’s skeptical over the prospects for Endgame making such a seemingly noncommercial title again.

“It was really the best example of what we set out to do originally,” he notes. “I’d give my eye teeth to work with Lone again, but the opportunities are shifting and we’re not making something like ‘An Education’ now.”

Instead, the focus is shifting to midrange projects that could prove more commercial — mostly thrillers, sci-fi and the like.

The company’s in post-production on thriller “The Hungry Rabbit Jumps,” with Cage; it’s in pre-production on sci-fi “Looper,” directed by Rian Johnson, and on Phillip Noyce thriller “Wenceslas Square,” and it just signed Carnahan for “Umbra,” which had been in development at Ryan Kavanaugh’s Relativity.

“These are all obviously commercial films,” Stern notes. “What’s really hard for me is to give up on projects that won’t work financially. I have to stay optimistic that others are going to become available.”

That means being rigorous in selecting projects, limiting exposure through presales and keeping the budgets in the $20 million to $40 million range — while still retaining its eclectic image. Stern’s been a film director (“Every Little Step,” “Michael Jordan to the Max,” “The Year of the Yao”), produced plays and musicals (“Hairspray,” “Stomp,” “The Producers”) and served as a minority owner of the NBA’s Bulls going back to the half-dozen Jordan-led title runs.

Prepping the stage production of “Leap of Faith,” now in previews at the Ahmanson, prevented Stern from attending the Toronto Film Fest for the first time since he launched the company.

“Having directed five documentaries makes it easier for me to relate to directors,” Stern notes.

Endgame’s also maintained its exec roster with virtually no change since its launch, including president and CEO Doug Hansen, exec VP Cindy Kirven, senior VP Adam Del Deo, VPs Chris Chen and Lucas Smith, production exec Eleanor Nett and creative exec Jared Morell.

Stern’s family made its fortune in health care and hedge funds before he moved into theater and film — where he’s found that the business is actually less volatile than on the Great White Way.

“Broadway’s all equity-based with no risk mitigation, so you wind up having to get 10 producers,” Stern notes. “It’s a lot like wildcat oil drilling.”

He admits with a laugh that he was guilty of a bit a hyperbole at an L.A. Film Fest talk earlier this year about being an indie producer when he said, “You need to be as sly as a fox, as slippery as an eel, as thick-skinned as a hippo … and as rich as Sidney Kimmel. But if you don’t meet those qualifications, don’t worry — it works just as well to be crazy as a loon.”

Stern says he was trying to make the point that it’s most important for producers to be able to articulate explicitly what they’re trying to accomplish.

“What I meant is that you have to be very clear what your goals are.”

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