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Big Shot

At 23, Larry Meistrich launched SoHo’s hottest film company witha mix of no-frills financing and extravagant chutzpa. But will that be enough to construct a lavish Hollywood-style studio in, uh, New Jersey?

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"I’m sure 99 percent of people who’ve heard about our plan don’t believe it,” admits Larry Meistrich, shivering in the sharp winter wind. “It’s always, ‘Yeah, sure, go ahead, build a movie studio.’” Meistrich is the 31-year-old president of the Shooting Gallery, an independent film company based in SoHo best known for producing the Oscar-winning Sling Blade. He is standing in the middle of a cracked asphalt clearing that currently serves as the parking lot of the Joe Supor Industrial Park in Harrison, New Jersey: a bleak 30-acre lot that seems designed to confirm the worst of the state’s bad aesthetic rap. It’s also where, this July, Meistrich plans to begin construction of the largest movie studio on the east coast, and the biggest movie soundstage in the world.

If he weren’t so generally unassuming -- soft-spoken, shortish, stocky, dressed as usual in jeans, a sweatshirt, and basketball sneakers -- there would be something nearly Promethean about Meistrich. The hulking relief of the Manhattan skyline looms over his shoulders as he quietly outlines his plan to bring Hollywood to the dilapidated banks of the Passaic River. But even he would have to agree that when it comes to engendering thoughts of movie magic, rusting machinery just doesn’t pack the punch of swaying palm trees. Indeed, on this particularly gray weekday morning, a Hollywood-size helping of suspended disbelief is required to imagine the site as he sees it -- the New York area’s first Los Angeles-scale, and -style, studio back lot.

“Most definitely, what we want to build here is an L.A. studio,” he says, excitedly. “Right now, there are 560,000 square feet of studio space in New York, and that includes apartments where the only thing you can shoot is a bottle of aspirin. We’re looking to put up 500,000 square feet of indoor space, fifteen to eighteen soundstages -- one 110,000 square feet, the biggest in the world -- as well as a functional outdoor back lot: sets of Paris, the subway . . .” He looks behind him. “Yeah, we’re going to have sets of New York in the shadow of New York. As well as all the support services, just like in L.A. I don’t only want to be competitive in the city or on the east coast. I want L.A.’s business. I want blockbusters, the Die Hard 4s and the Godzillas, studio tours, the whole thing.”

Of course, Godzillas -- never mind studio tours -- cost money. In this case, at least $75 million to $100 million. It is, to say the least, an ambitious undertaking for a company with fewer than 50 employees, one that has made twelve feature films in its eight-year history and only began distributing its own films two months ago. But in recent years, the Shooting Gallery has emerged as one of the fastest-growing film companies in New York, and Meistrich has become a homegrown proto-mogul, though one more in the mold of Jack Warner than of Michael Eisner.

“Larry really is like those old Jewish peddler guys that went out to Hollywood and created the studios,” says Nancy Kriegel, the Shooting Gallery’s plain-talking production head. “Those guys weren’t filmmakers, they were businessmen. That’s Larry.”

Meistrich doesn’t disagree: “I’m not your typical indie film guy,” he admits, heading to his car for the eight-mile, fifteen-minute trip back to Manhattan. The Shooting Gallery, though, is most certainly an indie film company. Aside from making Sling Blade, it has produced Nick Gomez’s Laws of Gravity and Illtown, Hal Hartley’s upcoming Henry Fool, and the soon-to-be released Niagara, Niagara, among others.

Still, Meistrich notes: “I don’t know Godard or any of those movies.” A rabid sports fan who played football (cornerback) in high school (Horace Mann) and college (Johns Hopkins), he adds: “If I’m at home and I’ve seen SportsCenter, I’ll watch a movie. What I really like is the process of making movies. I’ve studied the old studios. The indentured-servitude part wasn’t really that appealing, but having everything under one roof, the turnkey aspect to them, their basic business plan, that all really makes sense to me. And the time is right for it to work here. . . . I know we’re a small company, and that people are skeptical. My response: ‘Okay, fine, don’t believe us.’”

“I would love to see a bunch of fuck-ups like larry and bob and those guys running a studio,” hoots Billy Bob Thornton in his inimitable Arkansas drawl. Bob is 35-year-old Bob Gosse, the co-founder and creative director of the Shooting Gallery and director of the upcoming Niagara, Niagara. Thornton, the writer, director, and star of Sling Blade, first met Gosse and Meistrich when he approached them about financing his film.

“They were in khaki shorts, looking like they just rolled out of bed,” he recalls. “It was like dealing with regular guys. We didn’t even sign a contract. I shook hands with Larry, and he promised me he’d make the movie.”

Thornton was even more impressed with the company’s policy on creative control. All directors are promised final cut, if, that is, they stay under budget. “They realize that the way to make a good movie is to let someone do what you hired them to do,” says Thornton. “They’re not going to give you any extra grapefruits for the fruit tray, but they’re not going to tell you how to make your movie.”

Meistrich unequivocally confirms: “You respect my money, and I’ll stay out of your face. If you’re over budget, then you lose final cut. But we’ve never had a director that’s gone over.”

The differences don’t stop there. Unlike the overwhelming majority of theatrically released films, which are largely underwritten by studios, one third of every Shooting Gallery production is self-financed, and the rest is bankrolled by private investors. “We’ve never taken studio money,” crows Steve Carlis, the company’s CFO. “All our films are financed with talent essentially working for scale and back-end profit points. And all but one of our movies have been profitable.”

Over the past eight years, the company has assembled a dependable core of nearly 900 private investors. “Almost all the money is Wall Street money,” says Carlis. “In the beginning, it was the usual -- friends and relatives. But after Sling Blade, Wall Street people started beating down our door. Now the minimum is $10,000, which is really not that much for a $2- or $3 million movie, but some of our biggest investors were once $10,000 guys.”

Carlis, like many of the company’s upper-level staff, is an old friend of Meistrich’s (they met at Horace Mann). Gosse, a Lindenhurst, Long Island, native who graduated from the suny Purchase film program, met Meistrich in the late eighties on a Hartley-directed short film produced by Ted Hope, the future founder of fellow New York indie production company Good Machine (The Ice Storm, The Myth of Fingerprints). In 1990, the two started the Shooting Gallery.


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