By Stephanie Zacharek
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By Voice Film Critics
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By Alan Scherstuhl
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By Stephanie Zacharek
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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.
On June 19, just days after their first annual board meeting as a new-technology firm, Itemus dropped the bomb that the Shooting Gallery's financial situation had "deteriorated substantially" and they would need at least $10 million to keep their new subsidiary afloat. Three days later, when Meistrich gathered roughly 60 staffers to tell them they were no longer getting paid, the man many in the industry have called a frat boy was crying: Meistrich's empire had fallen.
Now that the company is bust, many are left in the lurch. Bowles has been working at home, struggling to secure bookings for the films from last spring's Film Seriessuch as Cannes critics' favorites Eureka and The Day I Became a Woman, which are still circulating around U.S. theaters. "But there's no company left," says Bowles. "If you want to get materials, there's no one to get them for you."
Frank Novak, a furniture maker turned filmmaker, sold his debut film, Good Housekeeping, to the Shooting Gallery in May 2000 at Cannes, hoping for a release in January 2001. But because the Shooting Gallery defaulted on its payments, the film is now back on the market. "It's really a drag," says Novak, "because when we sold it to them at Cannes, we had all these other people interested in the movie. So that momentum is squandered."
Similarly, producer's rep Josh Braun was in final negotiations to sell Paper Boys, a 41-minute documentary by celebrated commercial director Mike Mills, for the next edition of the Film Series. Paper Boys was to be paired with Chris Smith's 60-minute documentary Home Movie for a run in theaters. "It would have been perfect," Braun says, "because Home Movie was shorter than the traditional feature-length film, so they needed to find something that worked thematically and was long enough to make up the time difference." Now Paper Boys may never see the dark of a multiplex and Home Movie is back in play, looking for other theatrical outlets.
Many see the demise of the Shooting Gallery Film Series as the most tragic consequence of the company's collapse. Neil Friedman, who sold Good Housekeeping as well as French director Laurent Cantet's acclaimed Human Resources to the company, says, "If not for the Film Series, Human Resources would never have seen release in America. And there's no way that film was ever going to make any money in the U.S." Miramax will reportedly launch a similar series soon, but Friedman wonders, "Are they really going to look for the more artistic films that Shooting Gallery went for?"
In addition, the company had numerous projects in development, from new films by Bob Gosse and Neil LaBute to an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's The Rum Diary starring Johnny Depp (which after several months of development prompted Thompson to send an infamous e-mail to Shooting Gallery production executive Holly Sorensen, which began, "Okay, you lazy bitch, I'm getting tired of this waterhead fuckaround").
While filmmakers may have lost another production company to develop, finance, and distribute their films, it's the many independently contracted publicists, ad agencies, landlords, and investors who will suffer a more immediate setback. "This is a devastating blow to my business," says New York publicist Susan Norget, who is owed a substantial amount of money for her work on the Shooting Gallery Film Series. Los Angeles publicist Fredell Pogodin, who has yet to be paid for time she spent on the Oscar campaign for A Time for Drunken Horses, had no idea she'd take such a huge hit. "Is this a sizable chunk of change that I have to eat? Yes. Have I ever been burned like this before? No."
According to The Hollywood Reporter, several investors, including former Shooting Gallery board members and production executives, claim they are owed more than $1.26 million for money they invested in films such as You Can Count On Me. Court documents obtained by the Voice also showed a judgment against the Shooting Gallery was filed days before the shutdown in favor of Maria Follini, mother of CJ Follini, president of Gun for Hire, for approximately $360,000, plus interest, for money she invested in the company. Over $174,000 is also owed in back rent for 609 Greenwich, and subtenants of the building like Highway Films and NYT Television may also find themselves caught in the quagmire, having rented equipment from Gun for Hire that they now fear may be repossessed.
Arnie Sawyer, whose company served as Shooting Gallery Films' ad agency, is also owed a large sum of cash. "There were all these assurances that Itemus would be the white knight," says Sawyer. "Those of us who saw the arrears growing took steps to protect ourselves, but it looked like there was going to be a silver lining." While that silver lining has turned to dust, Sawyer, a 20-year veteran of the independent film business, doesn't appear daunted. "There are no guarantees in this business," he says. "I'm always amazed people invest in it in the first place."
Back on the seventh floor of 609 Greenwich, two guys from another media company in the building stop by the ex-Shooting Gallery offices. "Is it all gone?" one asks. "Yep, it's all gone," the other answers. As they take the elevator down, he adds, "And we're next."
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