Even 30 or so years ago, when Moonstone Entertainment founder Ernst “Etchie” Stroh was in the Israeli music business, he was apparently so nice about saying “No,” people thought he was saying “Yes.”
“I remember this one fellow who came in with a project and Etchie was so positive and so nice, the man thought, ‘Yes! He’s going to do it,’ ” says Stroh’s wife of 39 years and partner Yael. “It wasn’t until he walked out the door that he realized he’d been turned down. Even when Etchie says no, it’s done in such a beautiful way.”
A wife can’t testify against her husband — and one who describes a relationship as “42 years of honeymoon” probably shouldn’t be considered an unimpeachable source on the subject of her spouse. But Etchie Stroh — whose Moonstone is now celebrating its 20th year in the production and distribution business — does have a certain reputation, even among his competitors.
“He’s a charming, well-liked guy,” says one, with perhaps begrudging respect: Moonstone Entertainment has, after all, survived two of the more tumultuous decades in the history of mass entertainment, an era that has seen media, technologies and film companies appear, flourish … and then vanish like shadows at noon. Moonstone’s formula has been about low overhead, a tight team and realistic expectations.
“I think it’s the nature of how we run our business,” Stroh says. “It’s a lifestyle, really. We’re really a boutique, family operation rather than a typical Hollywood operation. Everybody — me and my wife and everybody else — has worked together beyond the 20 years. For five years before, I was running another company and they were with me then, too.”
Etchie, who is Moonstone’s CEO and Yael, the company’s president, founded Moonstone at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival — Etchie’s music industry background having led, via his connections with the legendary Ertegun brothers, into the then-burgeoning world of VHS. “They got me into the film business via Warner Home Video,” he says of the Erteguns, Nesuhi and Ahmet. But Etchie eventually had what he called his midlife crisis.
“I said ‘Israel is a little too small,’ ” Stroh recalls. “I’m 36 and I feel 75 and I want to do something else. Yael was for it and I’m entrepreneurial. But I didn’t know what ‘independent’ meant.”
For Moonstone it has meant involvement with what is now well over 100 films, including 70 or so in the distribution back catalog and about 30 with which the company has been involved as a producer, with such directors as Robert Altman (“Cookie’s Fortune”), Alan Rudolph (“Afterglow”), “Il Postino’s” Michael Radford (“Dancing at the Blue Iguana”) and Mike Figgis (“Miss Julie,” “Hotel”). Moonstone also has a long, ongoing relationship with the fabled Chen Kaige, whom Stroh manages in territories outside China. “The Promise,” produced with Chen and his wife-producer Chen Hong, was the largest production then mounted in China, received a Golden Globe nom for foreign film and was the official Chinese submission for the foreign-language film Oscar. Their new collaboration is titled “Caught in the Web,” an examination of new media’s influence on modern society. It will play at the upcoming Toronto Film Festival.
The other big plans include a pair of franchises. “We’re planning to do a movie a year with an action character called Code Name: Falcon,” Stroh says, referring to a series of adventures that will feature an ex-Marine who is called upon by the State Department for top-secret missions. “Scoop,” on the other hand, will be a series based on the 30 novels of Israeli author Ram Oren, about an adventure-seeking journalist. “He’s a young character and his ex-girlfriend is a detective, so there will be this love-hate relationship weaved into it,” Stroh says.
Negotiating on foreign territory has been one of the strengths of Moonstone, which managed over the years to survive and grow from a sales agency into a production, financing and distribution company. It has maintained years-long relationships across the globe, notably eastern Europe, with the likes of Blitz in Croatia, Intersonic in Slovenia, the Hadidas in France, and of course, in Israel and China, where another project — one that Stroh dubbed the Moonstone “tentpole” — will, with luck and pluck, be made soon: “Middle Kingdom,” a tale of the Boxer Rebellion and a Chinese-U.K.-German-French co-production. It will provide the usual opportunity for walking on eggshells, something at which Stroh seems adept.
“Remember ’55 Days at Peking’?” Stroh asks. “Same period, except they shot in Spain.” Moonstone will be shooting in China and while Stroh says he hopes to attract Chen, no director has been announced.
“The first step is a story, then a script, and then we go to China and see if it needs changes,” Stroh says. “It’s always a tentative matter, knowing the Chinese. On one hand, they will never admit anything embarrassing, and won’t want the Boxers presented in a negative way. But it’s a fascinating period, even if there are arguments about it.”
The menu of fresh productions — another, now in preproduction, is the action thriller “Recall,” scripted by Paul Schrader — will mark a newly accelerated pace for Moonstone (“The Promise” dates back to 2006). But Stroh says the key is keeping one’s eye on “the big picture, not quick buck.”
“Looking back at the last 25 years, they all have their ups and downs,” Stroh says. “Sometimes you produce a film and think it’s going to be ‘Wow’ and then you end up saying, ‘OK, it didn’t turn out quite that way.’ Or sometimes you take a film in distribution and think it’ll be great and it’s a disappointment. Maybe because of the film, maybe because of some people. But it depends in the individual case.”
Comparing Moonstone to “a little speed boat” (“We can turn left and right, production, distribution, keep our hand in all those fields and do it at our pace, within our kind of priorities”), Stroh says very little has changed; he and Yael still run the show, mostly Yael. (“We cannot do anything without her blessing. I need peace at home and at work. I did a few crazy things and learned my lesson.”)
One change, however, has been welcomed — the addition to the staff of the Strohs’ son, Shahar, a graduate of Berkeley and holder of an MBA from the Stern School of Business at NYU, and in whom his parents see the future of the company. (An older son, Eylon, “is not a big fan of the entertainment business” and heads research at Adobe.)
“When it started, he was 10 years old,” Stroh says of Shahar. “There are a lot of accomplishments you have, but this is one of the biggest. You want to hand it over to Shahar, rather than to Wall Street or an investor. If you look at it, Moonstone has only changed when technology has changed. We’re very proud.”
Any other thoughts? Yes, Stroh says with a laugh. “Time flies.”
A look back at Moonstone Entertainment
1992: Moonstone is launched by husband and wife Etchie and Yael Stroh at Cannes’ Majestic Hotel. Its initial line-up of five films includes features distributed for Eduard Sarlui, the co-owner of Vision/Epic/Emerald, for which Etchie previously served as president.
1993: “A Woman Scorned,” starring Shannon Tweed and Andrew Stevens, represents Moonstone’s first acquisition and signals the beginning of the company’s collaboration with producer Ashok Amritraj.
Zalman King’s “Red Shoe Diaries” series marks the company’s first foray into television.
1994-1996: With Amritraj, Stroh puts together several genre films, mostly in Canada, for which Moonstone handles distribution and marketing. Titles included “Midnight Heat,” “Spill,” “Jungle Boy” and “Electra.”
Also partners with Steve Friedman and Kingsroad,” distributing the company’s library (“All of Me,” “The Big Easy,” etc.) and helps get “Brainsmasher,” “Kickboxer 4,” “The Redemption” and “The Stranger” financed and produced. Friedman passes away in 1996.
1995 – 1996:
FONT>Collaborates with Cinepix Film Properties in the production of several action films, including “Bounty Hunters” and “Hardball.”
1997: A transition to the more physical aspects of production and financing results in an association with Robert Altman and the co-production of “Afterglow,” directed by Alan Rudolph and starring Nick Nolte and Julie Christie, who earns an Oscar nomination for her role. This specialty-film phase also includes such productions as “Digging to China” starring Kevin Beacon and Rachel Evan Wood, and “The Only Thrill,” with Dianne Keaton and Sam Shepard.
1998: The Altman connection continues with “Cookies Fortune,” a Moonstone co-production starring Glen Close, Liv Tyler , Julienne Moore. Other productions include “Thick as Thieves” starring Alec Baldwin. Both films opened and closed the 1999 Sundance film fest, respectively.
1999: Co-produces Mike Figgis’ “Miss Julie,” starring Saffron Burrows and Peter Mullan. Also produces and distributes “Prophet’s Game” and “Kimberly” using investment funds for the first and last time.
2000: Company moves from Beverly Hills to a two-acre lot in Studio City into headquarters dubbed the “Moonstone mansion.”
Moonstone co-productions include “Pandaemonium,” directed by Julien Temple, and “Dancing at the Blue Iguana,” directed by Michael Radford. Home entertainment production/distribution ventures include “Cause of Death,” “The List,” “Wilder” and “Hidden Agenda,” starring Dolph Lundgren.
2001: Co-produces Mike Figgis’ experimental feature, “Hotel,” starring Salma Hayek, David Schwimmer and Rys Ifans, which plays at Toronto.
2002: Etchie Stroh and Chinese director Chen Kaige begin a partnership, resulting in an advisory role on “Together,” which premieres at Toronto and for which Moonstone acts as a distributor.
2003 – 2005: Moonstone and Kaige collaborate on “The Promise,” the most expensive film ever made in China that Stroh and Chen Hong produce and Moonstone distributes. The film would earn a best foreign-language Golden Globe nom.
2006/2007: Moonstone co-produces/distributes the Dolph Lundgren action film “Diamond Dogs,” which shoots in China and Mongolia. Stroh and his son Shahar also play a role in the staging of the opera “Turandot” in Valencia with Zubin Mehta conducting and Chen Kaige directing.
2008 – 2010: Moonstone concentrates on the distribution of its 80-plus-title library and providing services as a sales agent to third parties.
2011: Co-produces “The Howling Reborn” and forms a joint venture with Jay Firestone’s Prestige Films” to co-produce features and TV series in Canada.
Ethie and Yael’s son Shahar plays an increasing role in the company on the production end.
Boutique keeps it all in the family | Moonstone players | Stroh, Chen caught in mutual ‘web’ | In the works at Moonstone