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Larry Meistrich, founder and CEO of the Shooting Gallery, is nowhere to be seen. He's still not talking about how his diversified companybest known for producing Sling Blade and You Can Count On Me, and for the highly acclaimed Shooting Gallery Film Series, which released such art-house hits as Croupier and A Time for Drunken Horsesclosed its doors late last month, laying off its entire staff without warning or severance pay. The collapse was fast, unexpected by many, and the result of several factors, from the slowing economy to the grandiose ambitions of head entrepreneurs Meistrich and his high school friend, Chief Financial Officer Steve Carlis.
Launched in March 1991 at the Tribeca site of 19th-century photographer Mathew Brady's gallery, the Shooting Gallery began as a start-up film collective. "We'd have parties to pay the electric bills and staff salaries," says Larry Russo, one of the cofounders, along with Meistrich and filmmakers like Bob Gosse (Niagara, Niagara) and Nick Gomez (Laws of Gravity). Russo left the company in '94 when he felt his financial investment was "a one-way street," but to this day he remains respectful of Meistrich's lofty goals. "If it wasn't for Larry reaching as far as he did from the very beginning," he says, "he wouldn't have achieved the success that he had." (Still, early projects like plans to construct five soundstages on Manhattan's West Side piers were aborted. So, too, were attempts to build a privately financed $75 million-$100 million studio in Harrison, New Jersey, in 1998.)
John Pierson, a former producer's rep who sold Laws of Gravity to distributor RKO for the Shooting Gallery team in 1992, contrasts Shooting Gallery to the film production companies created by Meistrich's peers in the early '90s, such as Christine Vachon's Killer Films (Safe) and Ted Hope and James Schamus's Good Machine (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). "If you look at almost every film Christine has produced and almost all the films that Good Machine has made, those companies are obviously about the movies," says Pierson, author of Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes. "Maybe that's the bottom line when it comes to determining whether [the Shooting Gallery] was really a company that first and foremost cared about film or a company that first and foremost cared about building an empire."
The Shooting Gallery's producing successes were few and far between: Laws of Gravity launched the company in '92 and Sling Blade's record-breaking $10 million Miramax deal sustained them in '96. "Never has anyone managed to leverage two successes like that into so many investment dollars and so much power," claims Pierson. In between, a hodgepodge of art-house and genre films were produced to mixed results, from Michael Almereyda's Another Girl Another Planet (1992) to Nancy Savoca's 24 Hour Woman (1999) to their most recent coproduction success, Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count On Me. But the real cash cow was the company's production and postproduction facility Gun for Hire, with locations in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Vancouver, and Toronto. Commercial, music video, and interactive divisions followed, along with a distribution arm, responsible for the Shooting Gallery Film Series, headed by former Miramax marketing and acquisitions executive Eamonn Bowles.
Despite the apparent successes of Gun for Hire and the Film Series, Meistrich and Carlis's mission, according to many, became more focused on the fast profits and expansion of new-media endeavors than good old-fashioned filmmaking. "The company got away from its core business," explains the now unemployed Bowles. "They had a radical philosophy change from being a tightly run, fiscally conservative company that watched every dime to turning around and trying to create a vast dotcom company.
"There were less than 35 employees when I got there, to 275 in the course of a year," continues Bowles. "And it wasn't on the film side that they were expanding. At the point of the most rapid expansion, the emphasis was more on funding new-technology business ventures. The film division was somewhat marginalized. In the most simplistic terms, they tried to be a dotcom and crashed like all the others."
The dotcom analogy is apt. In November of last year, Itemus, a gold-mining company turned e-commerce conglomerate, announced its intention to purchase portions of the Shooting Gallery's assets and properties. Before the deal closed on May 1 of this year, the company fired close to 100 employees (mostly from the new-media division), longtime partner Carlis resigned, and the Itemus acquisition went from a partial buyout to a 100 percent takeover because of the Shooting Gallery's increased financial liabilities. Meanwhile Itemus's stock price had plummeted from a $1.22 high last year to around 5 cents by the time the contracts were signed.
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