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Shooting Gallery hits target

Indie juggles balance sheets and goals

MGM’s motto is “Ars Gratia Artis.” Mickey Mouse and his pals live in the Wonderful World of Disney. But the guiding axiom of ambitious indie purveyor the Shooting Gallery could be the classic business adage “Find a need and fill it.”

Over the last year or so, the New York-based production company — while still producing and/or distributing such films as “Niagara, Niagara,” “I Went Down” and the upcoming “Strangeland” — has expanded in an unusual direction: It has made its subsidiary divisions available to other Gotham filmmakers, for a price.

In addition to some 100,000 square feet of rentable office space, the Shooting Gallery offers post-production equipment and facilities through its East Coast Post division.

Clear Music can be hired to work on music selection and rights negotiations. And the if-you-come-we-will-build-it operation Gun for Hire can provide Manhattan moviemakers with personnel for any or all parts of a project. “This was stuff that needed to happen in New York — so we did it,” says TSG’s founder, chairman and CEO, Larry Meistrich. “We’ve grown into things that make sense as we’ve come across them.”

Indeed, the company’s next project — an $80 million plan to build a 30-acre studio back-lot just across the Hudson River, on the New Jersey side — makes so much sense business-wise that the Giuliani administration is negotiating hard to keep Meistrich and Co.’s lucrative facility within New York City. (Meistrich says the location will be decided by yearend, with construction to start in the spring of 1999.)

Fade out on the up-and-coming mini-mogul, cutting deals with the city’s power brokers; flashback to the company’s humble beginnings eight years ago. Meistrich had gotten his first taste of moviedom during his college days at Johns Hopkins, when he worked as an extra in John Waters’ “Cry-Baby.”

“I had some fantasies about being an actor,” he recalls. “But after a couple of auditions, I got over that quick.” Switching to the production side, Meistrich scraped up $7,000 to found the Shooting Gallery, with some help from his high school buddy Stephen Carlis, a Wall Street money man who served as the outfit’s chief financial officer. Before long, producer Bob Gosse joined the staff in the Shooting Gallery’s rundown loft on lower Broadway.

Breakthrough performance

The first big break came after Gosse and Meistrich teamed up to produce the Shooting Gallery’s first self-financed film, Nick Gomez’s 1992 drama “Laws of Gravity” (in which Meistrich even played a small part). The $38,000 film impressed critics, attracted industry attention to the fledgling production company and would go on to earn $4 million. The second big break, in 1996, was similar to the first, but on an exponentially larger scale: the Shooting Gallery’s “Sling Blade,” made for $2 million, garnered an Oscar for writer-director Billy Bob Thornton — and mountains of money for its investors when Miramax bought the film for $10 million in 1996.

But here’s the plot twist: Meistrich and his fellows stayed put. “A lot of people who get an indie financed and come up with a hit go directly out to Hollywood,” says Carlis, now the Shooting Gallery’s president. “We want to build a company rather than just get paid. And our business plan hasn’t changed; we’re staying in our niche.” Hence the ancillary divisions, which Carlis says draw sufficient outside business — from such clients as Universal Pictures, Warner Bros., Miramax and NBC — to more than compensate for the increased overhead.

Stabilizing effect

Now that Gun for Hire works on 15 to 25 projects a year, that steady stream of income has helped stabilize the Shooting Gallery’s cash flow. “The physical production side isn’t hard; it’s the same every time,” says Meistrich. “And it guarantees that we never have to make movies just for the money.”

“We’re not as reliant on performance to drive the day,” echoes Carlis. “All the ancillary business flattens out the financial peaks and valleys.” He points out that the Shooting Gallery’s greater financial steadiness enables its directors and producers to take more artistic risks. For Gosse’s directorial debut, last spring’s formidable “Niagara, Niagara,” for example, star Robin Tunney won the best actress award at the Venice Film Festival — but the film grossed less than $1 million domestically.

The other element to artistic risk-taking, of course, is cost containment. The Shooting Gallery’s production budgets rarely go above $4 million. “If an artist has a burning desire to make art, they can do it on any budget,” says the Shooting Gallery Pictures president Eamonn Bowles, who also oversees domestic distribution. “And they stay under budget here, because they want creative control.”

Indeed, as one recent L.A. Times article noted, “No one (at the Shooting Gallery) pretends that commerce plays second banana to art.” Promotional materials advertise the staff’s willingness to sniff out product placements or “devise a festival strategy” as a less expensive way to help market a film.

This money-mindedness also comforts the wealthy backers who furnish most of each film’s budget. Now that the Shooting Gallery has gone from raising cash for individual films to pooling investor dollars into a sort of movie mutual fund, profits and losses are parceled out proportionately, so a patron is less likely to lose the proverbial shirt. “We aim to give our investors a venture-capital rate of return — but with the risk reduced well below the venture-capital level,” says Carlis.

In the end, however, thrift only goes so far. The Shooting Gallery is committing to its huge expansion just as the indie film market has gotten well and truly glutted; is the move poorly timed? Ancillary business income aside, how prepared is the Shooting Gallery for an indie shakeout? “There are very few distributors who are truly independent now, and the ones who are owned by the majors have deep pockets,” admits the Shooting Gallery Intl. president Steven Bickel. “But my distributors, internationally, are hungry for product, and they’re familiar with TSG as a viable company that’s a steady supplier.”

“There is definitely a glut now, but we’re in a good position because we’re comparatively established,” says Meistrich. “Now that there are 250 independent movies out there, and film festivals are getting 1,500 submissions a year, we just have to do our jobs better — which I don’t mind.”

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