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Mall mogul makes movie moves

With big plans and big bucks, Yari is man of moment

Real estate magnate Bob Yari has bankrolled a chain of shopping centers and office buildings stretching from Texas to California.

But he’s now plowing his resources into an enterprise that’s even more ambitious. Yari wants to build an independent studio to finance and distribute 10 to 15 pics a year.

Yari is riding a wave of new money into Hollywood at a tumultuous time in the indie film sector.

The studios, pinched for cash, have flung open their doors to financing partners who’ve made their fortunes in other fields. And Yari — along with a number of multimillionaire producers, including Jeff Skoll, the E-bay co-founder who started Ovation Entertainment, and Fred Smith, the Fedex chairman who started Alcon Entertainment — has stepped into the breach.

Yari, who has either produced or financed four films this year and expects soon to be in production on several more, may be the most prolific of the group, and he appears to have stirred up the greatest interest among agents and producers.

But there’s something else that sets him apart: This is Yari’s second Hollywood career. The low-key 42-year-old is a disillusioned filmmaker. His production ambitions reflect a mission that is equal parts business and art.

Back in the 1980s, Yari apprenticed for legendary producer Edgar J. Scherick (as Scott Rudin and Brian Grazer had before him), and directed a feature, “Mind Games,” which he financed for MGM. But the film’s theatrical run in 1989 was cut short by a controversial studio deal with a video partner, and Yari left Hollywood in disgust.

“I was young and had a different view of what the film business was about,” Yari says. “I thought it was a more creative medium exclusively.”

In the 1990s, Yari focused on real estate, buying shopping centers like the Greenspoint Mall in north Houston, Tex., which he acquired in 1998.

Today, Yari keeps a foot in the real estate business. He has consolidated his holdings under one corporation, Triyar Companies, that’s based in the Avco Building in L.A., which Triyar owns. Yari says that the company recently bought a $40 million Houston office complex, and built 150 homes outside Santa Barbara.

But these days, Yari is drawing up a different kind of business plan, creating a film consortium that he hopes will minimize investment risk and maximize creative freedom for filmmakers. It’s a difficult feat of engineering, one that has been the Waterloo for countless financiers before him (See chart).

That doesn’t deter Yari.

“Personally, I love to build,” he says. “I’ve always loved the idea of being the auteur of an original project. But I’m getting just as much satisfaction letting other people do it and building the structure that allows that to happen.”

Yari has fourproduction and financing labels: Stratus Film Company, Bull’s Eye Entertainment, El Camino Pictures and Bob Yari Prods. Each had a mandate to put films quickly into production, a fact that’s brought the whole operation under increasing scrutiny.

  • Stratus was formed last fall in partnership with Mark Gill and Mark Gordon and has a first-look deal at Universal. Its budgets top out at about $40 million.

    Company is already in flux, since Gill is negotiating an exit from his Stratus contract to run the Warner Classics label.

    The first Stratus film, “Laws of Attraction,” a $32 million production starring Julianne Moore and Pierce Brosnan, was acquired by a new group of financiers led by Ron Tudor and David Bergstein, after Stratus opted not to finance the full cost. Stratus, which developed “Attraction” with Intermedia, retains a financing stake, and its name will remain on the film.

    Yari says Stratus, which has a small staff at the Avco Building, will soon announce two new productions. Gordon, who is in post on another film, is also expected to play a more active role in day-to-day operations.

  • Bull’s Eye was formed earlier this year in partnership with Mark Curcio, Tom Noonan and Cathy Schulman.

    Like Stratus, it’s headquartered at the Avco building. Unlike Stratus, it has an extensive development slate and a TV division. Its budgets top out at about $20 million.

    Bull’s Eye has already wrapped production on “Employee of the Month,” starring Matt Dillon, Steve Zahn and Christina Applegate, and is shooting its second pic, “Thumbsucker,” with Keanu Reeves, Vince Vaughn and Tilda Swinton.n El Camino is a financing company created by Yari and William Morris agents Cassian Elwes and Rena Ronson, who run the agency’s specialty arm, William Morris Independent. Budgets for El Camino pics range from $5 million to $15 million.

    Entity draws upon Elwes and Ronson’s relationships with foreign distributors, banks, bond companies and soft-money sources.

    The first film financed by El Camino is “A Love Song for Bobby Long,” starring John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson. Screen Gems has U.S. rights. Up next is the Sue Kramer pic, “Gray Matters.”

  • Bob Yari Prods. is a discretionary fund that’s not exclusive to Yari’s three other labels. The division is financing “Employee of the Month” and “Thumbsucker.” It is also co-financing with Ovation Entertainment David Duchovny’s writing and directing debut, “House of D,” now in pre-production.

    “The idea is to brand all these companies individually,” Yari says. His equity exposure on any one production is 15-20%, he says. Neil Sacker oversees legal and business affairs for every division.

Yari has aligned himself with a number of other veteran filmmakers and deal-makers.

At the Cannes Film Festival in May, Yari was often flanked by reps from rival agencies, including WMA and the CAA team that structured the deals for Stratus and Bull’s Eye.

Back in Hollywood, every small-time producer with a script and a business plan is trying to dial into Yari.

By some accounts, his sudden popularity has taken even him by surprise.

“He didn’t realize going into it,” one agent says, “that he was going to be a magnet for every hustler in town. Everybody is dreaming that they’re going to make their deal with Bob.”

Still, Yari remains a mysterious figure in Hollywood: A press-shy entrepreneur, Yari favors polo shirts and black Nikes and pilots his own Citation jet out of the Santa Monica Airport. He received a film degree at the Brooks Institute, an art school in Santa Barbara.

t’s not yet clear how high he has set his ambitions in Hollywood.

Yari is kicking the tires of a $120 million production called “Tripoli,” a Keanu Reeves historical drama that Ridley Scott plans to direct for producer Mark Gordon. It’s now in turnaround from Fox.

Whether he ratchets up his financial commitment to this degree or sticks to more modest fare, Yari can’t help but have noticed just how precarious the biz is.

In a year when only a few specialty films — “Bend It Like Beckham,” “28 Days Later” and “Whale Rider,” among them — are holding their own against the blockbuster onslaught, Yari will need all his smarts to place the right bets — and a lot of stamina to stay the course.