A black Newfoundland named Oscar dozes under the metal conference table in the vast, sunny converted industrial building in Tribeca, as producer John Penotti and actor Fisher Stevens huddle with staff members from their company, GreeneStreet Films, discussing the casting for several projects. Penotti throws out the names of possible female leads—Sandra Bullock? Diane Lane?—for a movie co-starring Billy Bob Thornton, who’s on his way over for lunch.
“He’ll have opinions,” warns Stevens, nailing Thornton’s twang as the room dissolves into laughter. Over the next hour, he can’t resist impersonating every actor whose name surfaces, including a memorably deep-voiced Ving Rhames. It’s part homage to the talent, part staff-meeting-as-performance-art. Penotti, ever the straight man, steers the conversation to budgets, and scripts that need work, while delegating follow-up calls. (“Where are we with Tobey Maguire?”)
They make a perfect odd couple: The cheerfully hyper Stevens, with his floppy hair combed back off his forehead, vintage seventies wardrobe, and machine-gun patter, has a desk piled chaotically high with scripts, books, and CDs. The preternaturally calm Penotti, always well turned out, whether in Prada suits or jeans, works next door in a much larger, much tidier office, busily multitasking on phone and BlackBerry. As development executive Jamie Gordon jokes, “They definitely have that dysfunctional-marriage thing, but it works.”
Penotti and Stevens founded their indie company in the back room of a Greenwich Village café seven years ago, and have proved adept at making eclectic, low-budget, mostly well-reviewed movies that are also financially successful—something of an anomaly in this exceedingly risky business.
“What makes us so insane and so different is that we make movies totally naked,” says Stevens. “We have no studio affiliation, and they’ve all been released to date,” he adds, meaning that nothing’s sitting on the shelf. From their Oscar-nominated breakthrough film In the Bedroom (cost: $2.5 million; domestic gross: $38 million) to the teen stalker flick swimfan (cost: under $10 million; domestic gross and video: over $60 million), they’ve built a track record for both scouting new talent and persuading established actors to cut their rates in exchange for the opportunity to take on challenging roles.
“John likes to micromanage, to be involved in everything,” says actor John Turturro, who wrote and directed the comedy Illuminata for GreeneStreet and is about to make another movie with the duo. “Fisher, as an actor, can work with other actors,” Turturro adds. “He could have been a psychiatrist.” John Polson, who had directed only a single low-budget Australian feature before the partners signed him to direct swimfan, says, “Fisher and John are risk-takers. I didn’t have a career in America when they hired me. It was a huge step up.”
Thanks to an acting career that began at age 16 with an early Miramax horror movie (The Burning), followed quickly by Broadway roles (Torch Song Trilogy, Brighton Beach Memoirs), Stevens moves in an almost comically famous social circle; moreover, he’s a talent magnet: The 35 guests at his Thanksgiving-weekend 40th-birthday party in Miami included Marisa Tomei, Ralph Fiennes, Nicole Kidman, Liev Schreiber, Rob Morrow, Griffin Dunne, and Matt Dillon.
“Fisher has the ability to get just about anybody on the phone and charm them into things that later they’ll thank him for,” says Mark Gill, president of Warner Independent Pictures. “John is a solid nuts-and-bolts producer, very good creatively, and handles the business side of the company.” (He’s also the office penny-pincher: While Stevens and new girlfriend Ann Marie Gardner, a freelance writer, and their boldface pals bunked at Miami’s pricey Shore Club for the birthday festivities, Penotti stayed at the $139-a-night hotel around the corner.)
With an infusion of cash several years ago from new investors—hedge-fund legend Louis Bacon of Moore Capital and two of his partners—Penotti and Stevens are poised to turn GreeneStreet Films into the next Miramax (or at least the pre-Disney Miramax). They’ve opened an L.A. office and launched a separate low-budget horror-film arm, Raw Nerve, and have committed to a formidable slate of projects, with three movies in postproduction and five more scheduled to begin shooting over the next few months. They’re determined to control the entire process, from script development through distribution of the final product. “What these guys are quietly doing,” says Rick Hess, a Creative Artists Agency executive who specializes in film-finance deals, “is building a movie studio, versus a small, independent production house.”
The intimate, 23-member staff includes five former Miramax employees, key among them business-affairs director Vicki Cherkas, a lawyer who spent seven years at casa Weinstein before joining GreeneStreet in 2000. Cherkas sees parallels between the two companies, whose Tribeca offices are just a few blocks apart. “They both started out making small, quirky movies,” she says. “Harvey and Bob Weinstein did it all on their own; they had no godfather. It’s the same with John and Fisher. This is their idea and hard work. But they’re more collegial than Harvey and Bob, and more willing to let other people into that circle.” The two companies do business together; Miramax has distributed three GreeneStreet films. But comparing the soft-spoken, unflappable, athletic Penotti with the volatile, love-me, larger-than-life Harvey Weinstein, one industry insider quips, “John’s the anti-Harvey.”
“John and Fish want to make money, but it’s not what drives them,” says Boaz Yakin, a director who has made two movies for GreeneStreet, Uptown Girls and A Price Above Rubies, and is involved in Raw Nerve. Sissy Spacek’s agent, CAA’s Steve Tellez, notes that the actress took a pay cut for In the Bedroom with the promise of profits if the movie took off, and the partners proved true to their word. “It was really refreshing,” says Tellez. “The money just came in, you didn’t have to beat them over the head. Sissy had a great experience, and she’d do something with them again.”
Yet the transition from small player to larger inevitably involves growing pains. Penotti and Stevens’s first project was the well-reviewed stage-to-screen adaptation of I’m Not Rappaport, followed by such highbrow fare as Piñero, starring Benjamin Bratt. But now they’re in the tricky position of juggling artistic ambition with the need to, you know, make money, producing a mixed slate of low-budget auteur films and unabashed commercial fare. The financing they secured from MGM for the frothy romantic comedy Uptown Girls was a decidedly mixed blessing: The studio demanded a recut after test audiences rejected a darker, less mainstream version. (Despite scathing reviews, the $20 million film took in $38 million at the box office.)
Two of their upcoming movies, now in postproduction, could not be more different, reflecting GreeneStreet’s high-low strategy. Slow Burn is a twisty urban thriller with a racial subplot, starring Ray Liotta as a district attorney, LL Cool J as his nemesis, and Jolene Blalock as a femme fatale; the trailer screams action-adventure mass-market movie. In contrast, Yes, written and directed by Sally Potter and starring Joan Allen and Sam Neill, is about social class and adultery, with dialogue all in rhyme; even in a rough cut, it’s a luminous tale, but unlikely to open wide, as they say. Tim Williams, a playwright and former London theater producer who is GreeneStreet’s head of production, cheerfully opines of the current output, “We’re completely schizophrenic.”
No surprise, then, that some critics wonder whether the company is having an identity crisis. “I don’t know what GreeneStreet stands for anymore,” says one disappointed auteur whose film GreeneStreet turned down. “Who are they?”