Rifkin turns new page in long career

Ex-Willis agent links with production partner

Some relationships die hard.

Most in Hollywood don’t know that Arnold Rifkin and Bruce Willis parted ways late last year after a 23-year union, mostly as agent and actor, then as producing partners at Cheyenne Enterprises.

For the first time in his Hollywood run, the rambunctious Rifkin isn’t tied to talent. In his latest career incarnation, the former chief of the William Morris Agency is determined to find financing for the films he puts together — and then actually own, or at least co-own the pics.

It’s been eight years since Rifkin, who had risen to the top reaches of the agency biz, was essentially forced out as head of WMA. In the end, he didn’t turn out to be the big signer people had thought he’d be. Nor was Cheyenne ever able to break out.

Now Rifkin, who refuses to focus on the negative, has teamed with Christopher Eberts, formerly co-owner of Ascendant Films. One of the things Eberts, nephew of producer Jake Eberts, brings to the newly named Rifkin-Eberts is the ability to navigate the complicated world of film financing.

“I no longer care about art. I would rather make money,” Rifkin says in his trademark facetious style.

“I’m finally taking the leap,” he explains, “and creating the financial resources that will allow me to provide for my family, which is growing.” (His second wife is pregnant.)

Rifkin-Eberts has four movies that have completed filming, including steamy thriller “The Tourist,” starring Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams, and two getting ready to shoot. Financed by Media Rights Capital, “Tourist,” which is in post, looks like it will be picked up by one of the majors. Jackman’s Seed Prods. also is producing.

Eberts and Rifkin were informally teamed up for much of 2006, allowing them to build a slate before they actually announced their union.

“With six movies, we decided to make the partnership official,” Eberts says. “We have our slate for the next one-and-a-half years.”

Their annual goal is to turn out two titles costing $10 million to $30 million, such as “Tourist”; three genre titles costing less than $10 million; and comedies. Todd Shotz will continue Cheyenne’s TV business

Rifkin, the son of a furrier who looks like he’s straight out of a Ralph Lauren ad, isn’t seeking the same macho bravado and camaraderie in Eberts that he had with Willis. (Rifkin and Willis even have matching tattoos.)

“We travel in completely separate worlds,” says Rifkin of Eberts as the duo sit in a wood-paneled conference room at Cheyenne, located in offices on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica.

“When you take the skill sets of two people who are so disparate, there’s the fortune,” Rifkin says.

Rifkin says the split with Willis was amicable and agreeable. Their partnership pact was up at the same time that Cheyenne’s overall deal with Joe Roth’s Revolution Studios expired. Willis and Rifkin have kept their parting out of the press — no small feat in a town obsessed with breakups of any sort.

Rifkin remains a producer on this summer’s “Live Free and Die Hard,” which returns Willis to the bigscreen in the signature role of John McClane. It was a role arranged by Rifkin when he repped Willis at Triad Artists, the talent agency co-founded by Rifkin and bought by William Morris in 1992.

Rifkin founded Cheyenne in 1999, with Willis joining him in 2000. Rifkin says it was a matter of loyalty to stay together, considering he had been Willis’ agent for 18 years. Willis scored a number of box office hits over the years, including the “Die Hard” franchise and “The Sixth Sense.”

But Cheyenne, which had a five-year deal with Joe Roth’s Revolution Studios, suffered a series of box office misses. Like many vanity shingles, Cheyenne largely made films starring Willis, including “16 Blocks,” “Hostage,” “Tears of the Sun,” “Hart’s War” and “Bandits.”

TV side turned out “Touching Evil” for USA and, in partnership with Lionsgate, “Scarlett,” which also aired on USA.

On paper, Rifkin and Willis were producing partners, but it was a difficult transition, since they were so used to the agent-client dynamic. That dynamic never entirely dissipated, since Rifkin still had the ability to help negotiate deals.

Rifkin and Eberts first met over “Lucky Number Slevin.” Eberts, who was a producer on the film, wanted Willis to star in the indie pic and called Rifkin at home late one night.

“The presumption that he could call my house that night cost him many zeroes, but in the end, it all worked out,” Rifkin said. “He became an out-of-the-blue friend. He’s a great bullshitter, and so am I. I bullshit creatively, and he bullshits financially.”

If Eberts brings financial expertise, there is no doubt that Rifkin touts an impressive Rolodex. At this point, Rifkin knows just about everyone — or everyone knows him. Eberts seems to have no problem putting up with Rifkin’s jousting and persistence, and one need look no further than their decorating styles to see that they are polar opposites.

Cheyenne’s 7,000-foot-square office space — soon to be relabeled with Rifkin-Eberts signage — is a metrosexual men’s lodge, with exposed brick walls adorned with paintings from Rifkin’s art collection, stained-glass desk lamps, leather club chairs and pool table.

Eberts has decorated his office with streamlined white leather couches and black-and-white photographs, one of which is the torso of an obese man. In his anteroom, he’s lined the wall with his electric guitar collection.

Eberts isn’t the sort of guy who craves the spotlight (leaving plenty of room for Rifkin), but he’s got plenty of confidence. In addition to “Lucky Number Slevin,” pics he’s produced or exec produced include “Lord of War” and “The Punisher.”

Among other attributes, Eberts won Rifkin over with his ability to find gap financing for one of their projects. Even sweeter, Eberts was connected with a production and financing partner in Romania, Film Tiger. Tiger’s Michael Philip is now working out of Rifkin-Eberts’ offices, while Film Tiger’s Jo Marr is in Romania.

“I was very impressed by the cost-savings and Tiger’s dedication. Nothing has been difficult with them,” Rifkin says.

Together, Rifkin-Eberts and Film Tiger developed and shot horror-thriller “Timber Falls” in Romania. Freestyle Releasing has picked up domestic rights. Tiger and Rifkin-Eberts also are producing “Night Train” and “Scavenger,” set to begin production in June, and “The Woody” together.

On April 30, Eberts-Rifkin begins production on conspiracy thriller “Black Water Transit,” starring Samuel L. Jackson as the owner of a container ship company who agrees to work with the feds in busting a crooked CIA agent. Film is being financed by Capitol Films.

In post-production is urban comedy “Who’s Your Caddy?” about an Atlanta rap mogul who tries to join a conservative country club. Dimension Films and Bob Johnson’s BET will release the pic on July 28.