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The Buddy System

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What differentiates GreeneStreet from other indies is that the partners now have the cash to finance their movies. Penotti and Stevens launched their company, initially named Madcap Films, with a check from Penotti’s college roommate, Michael Gordon, then a Fidelity money manager, and subsequently won financial backing from Sidney Kimmel, the founder of Jones Apparel Group and a longtime movie producer (9 1⁄2 Weeks, The Emperor’s Club).

For several years, Kimmel underwrote development costs, acquiring many scripts for GreeneStreet, but was reluctant to finance the movies. Penotti and Stevens hustled outside financing (Illuminata, Piñero) and ultimately went looking for another backer. Thanks to an introduction from Stevens’s buddy Matt Dillon, in 2000 the partners landed new investors—Louis Bacon, the press-shy financier who runs Moore Capital, a hedge fund that manages $8 billion in assets, and his two top executives, Michael Garfinkle and Chris Pia. The three men invested their own money, some $30 million, in GreeneStreet.

“They gambled on us,” Penotti recalls. “They couldn’t believe we were willing to take so little salary up front. We couldn’t believe they’d let us green-light movies.” The partners may think of themselves as being naked in the business, but it’s not for want of the basic building blocks of showbiz success: a keen eye for movies that different audiences want to see, and the financial wherewithal to make them. They’re a bit in awe of their backers, or, as Stevens said after a recent visit to Bacon in London, “When I’m with Louis I sort of feel like I’m with James Bond. He’s this elegant, great-looking, debonair guy, one of the masters of the universe.”

Garfinkle says he and his partners are pleased so far. “After a year of courtship with John and Fisher, we got comfortable,” he said. “They knew what they were doing, all the money wouldn’t be spent on one bet, we’d have a portfolio of films.” Obviously, it would be easy to blow the entire $30 million on one movie, but Penotti knows how to leverage that money, working all the angles—preselling foreign rights, tapping into foreign-government arts subsidies, and bringing in other financiers and studio money. “John probably gives us, if anything, information overload,” Garfinkle adds. “He’s very careful, very cautious. We’ve made money, although we haven’t taken distributions—we’re in the building phase.”

At their Desbrosses Street headquarters, Stevens and Penotti have surrounded themselves with a rotating cast of film extras. Mimicking the success of Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal with the Tribeca Film Center a few blocks away, the two partners decided, upon moving five years ago from offices on Greene Street (hence the company name), to lease and renovate 35,000 square feet and build state-of-the-art editing facilities. They rent offices to 36 movie-related tenants, including a casting office and production companies for Griffin Dunne, Kevin Spacey, and Bruce Willis.

Playing landlord pays GreeneStreet’s overhead, a strategy that impressed Garfinkle: “They converted something that was a cost to something that made money.” And the film-center scene also makes for interesting cameos and coffee-break conversations in the communal kitchen. “The upside is the community,” says Rob Morrow, who has an office there. “You walk out the door and you can shoot the shit and commiserate about development. You feel part of something and not alone.” Dunne got a job directing the GreeneStreet movie Lisa Picard Is Famous after loudly grousing about another project that had fallen through. “Fisher walked the script of Lisa down the hall to me,” he says, “and I said yes.”

The company suffered financial repercussions after 9/11: Lisa Picard arrived in theaters across the country on September 14, 2001, a time when the public avoided movies; fearful employees quit; 15 percent of the tenants moved out; and rents dropped (most space has now been filled, but at lower rates). The hardest thing, of course, was the emotional toll. Penotti watched the conflagration from his new home one block from the World Trade Center site and then moved into the Tribeca Grand; unlike the many who fled the neighborhood, he refused to go above 14th Street for months because it felt like betrayal. He resisted going into therapy for a long time, thinking he didn’t deserve help—“I was one of the fortunate ones!”—but ultimately did so after realizing he hadn’t slept well in months and had an unshakable case of the blues. He’s just sold the apartment and is hunting for another place in Tribeca that doesn’t overlook the tragic site. “I realized I never looked left when I walked out the door,” he says wistfully.

As for Stevens, hitting 40 has made him reevaluate his life; he’s actively back hustling acting roles while trying to fulfill his GreeneStreet obligations, all of which makes for a hectic, emotionally tumultuous time. Sipping tea one recent night in his funky one-bedroom floor-through rental in a Village brownstone, he was feeling depressed after an audition for a Broadway show earlier in the day. “It felt mortifying to me,” he confides. “I felt, I’m too old for this. I put myself out there, and I didn’t get it.”

Other days are more upbeat. One recent morning began with an office development meeting, followed by calls to actors and writers about projects. Then he raced off to an audition for the role of a nefarious record engineer in an Elmore Leonard movie, Be Cool, and spent the afternoon in the Brill Building with a music editor, working on a rough soundtrack for the GreeneStreet thriller Slow Burn, watching the film frame by frame and choosing scary car-chase sounds and love-scene mood music. “My life is an ADD person’s dream,” Stevens jokes.

If it’s busy now, well, it’s only going to get worse: Over the next few months, GreeneStreet will start shooting several films simultaneously, including a documentary about the New York Cosmos soccer team and a musical, Romance and Cigarettes, directed by Turturro and starring James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, and Kate Winslet. And the partners don’t just drop by their movie sets; they tend to live there. “They are extremely involved,” says Yakin. “They look at the dailies, they comment on the script, they talk to you about the performances, they come to the set and help you deal with insane actors.”

Stevens and Penotti have never done a traditional buddy flick together. Maybe it cuts too close to the bone. Sharing power in a partnership can be stressful, but for nearly a decade they’ve found a way to make it work, no doubt because theirs is such an enduring friendship; even on weekends, you’re likely to find Penotti at Stevens’s country home in the Hudson Valley.

Late one recent afternoon, they are passing that basketball back and forth, as usual, while talking deals and deciding what to do that night—attend the premiere of Big Fish? Playboy’s 50th-birthday party? “Come on, dude,” Stevens says with almost comic urgency. “You should come to the movie with me.” You’d think they could use a night off, but in fact they’d rather hang out together.

“I’ve always had a problem with commitment,” Stevens admits. “But this has taught me to commit to something. John and I feel like we’re both married to the company.”


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