WMA sets pic finance operation

Banner's first pic will be 'Bobby Long'

William Morris Independent, the division headed by the William Morris Agency’s Cassian Elwes and Rena Ronson, has formed an alliance with financier-producer Bob Yari to launch film financier El Camino Pictures.

The agency said the venture plans to fund at least 10 pics, with combined budgets of more than $100 million.

El Camino owner Yari is the shingle’s only equity investor, with an investment in the neighborhood of $5 million. The remainder of the pics’ funds will come through regional and state tax incentives as well as gap financing.

The agency holds no ownership in El Camino, which is named after the street in Beverly Hills where the agency is headquartered.

He added that William Morris initiated the deal as Yari’s representative. Yari, who made his fortune in real estate, is also partnered with producers Mark Gill and Mark Gordon in Stratus Film and with Mark Curcio, Tom Nunan and Cathy Schulman in Bulls Eye Entertainment. CAA repped Yari in those deals.

Banner’s first pic will be “A Love Song for Bobby Long,” starring John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson. Shainee Gabel (“Anthem”) will direct from her script.

Screen Gems will handle North American distribution and may pick up other territories. Kathy Morgan Intl. handles foreign sales. Yari will produce the film, which is expected to start shooting in July.

Although the partnership will focus on WMA clients, the fund is not exclusive to the agency.

It’s expected that the agency will be consulted on the choice of films, but will not produce or distribute the pics or invest in the projects.

The Screen Actors Guild has previously been at the center of heated debate about whether an agency making similar deals crosses the shadowy line into being a producing entity.

However, SAG surrendered oversight of talent agents last year when its members voted down a revamp of the SAG master franchise agreement. It would have cleared agents to own up to 20% of a production company, rather than a maximum of 10%.

The State Labor Commission still licenses California talent agencies.. A commission spokesman said last week that the state had not been notified about the WMA transaction.

State Labor Commissioner Arthur Lujan has previously made it clear that California’s Talent Agency Act precludes agencies “splitting profits” with employers and that Lujan had the authority to review any individual transactions involving agencies.

Of the El Camino deal, a WMA spokesman said, “We didn’t seek labor commission approval because it’s not a production company. It’s a financing entity. The labor commissioner is only concerned with service agreements.”

The El Camino model may inspire controversy, but with the declines in the international marketplace and studios eager to offset risk, agents are eager to find ways to help fill those gaps – and pocket commissions for their efforts.

“In an increasingly unpredictable economy, we are continually looking for innovative ways to finance independent films,” Ronson said.

Ronson added that the venture may ink overall output deals in key international territories, including continental Europe, Japan and Latin America.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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