Big Shot

“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.

The company’s first efforts were shorts, B-grade features, and freelance production assistance for larger films. “We’d basically take a film’s budget and try to shave a few hundred dollars off the top,” says Meistrich. This was generally accomplished by, as he puts it, “scamming deals” on everything from camera rentals to catering.

“We realized there was a huge opportunity there,” explains Meistrich. “Nobody likes that end of the business. It’s not glamorous; it’s really hard work; it sucks. It’s like playing offensive line in football.” He flashes that grin again. “But you know, if you have a great line, then your team wins.”

Such Parcells-inspired business philosophy led to the launch of a Shooting Gallery production-services division, followed by a SoHo post-production facility and, finally, subsidiaries dealing with music for films, grip and electric services, and studio resources. The latter led to Harrison, New Jersey.

“This isn’t just something that we came up with last week,” says Greg Kanter, a company vice-president who headed up the search for a studio site. He lists the locations that were considered: a warehouse on Mercer Street; the roof of the St. John’s Center in Tribeca; sites in Chelsea, Battery Park City, Harlem, Long Island, and Westchester.

Last year, the company came close to buying the old Yale Trucking building on 40th Street and the West Side Highway. “The city was behind us,” says Kanter. “But at the last minute, the Javits Center, which is next door and has eminent domain over the Yale building, decided they might exercise their right to expand. Anyway, after that, we found Harrison.”

Currently, the two biggest New York studios are Kaufman Astoria and Silvercup. Both are located in Queens and are constrained by their relatively small size. “Those places aren’t big enough and don’t have the full range of services we’re talking about,” says Kanter. “And the existing warehouse at the Harrison site is in pretty good shape as is. Several Hollywood studios have already approached us about it.”

But the financing deal required to turn the site into a viable studio has not been finalized, and no architect has yet been hired. Meistrich has secured the services of Stone Pine Capital, the firm that brokered the financing of the Chelsea Piers, but he is still negotiating with the New Jersey State Economic Development Commission to get a credit enhancement that would allow the Shooting Gallery to borrow at a reduced interest rate.

“We’re confident that New Jersey will do anything to help bring this project to the state,” says Meistrich. “We’ve already gotten verbal commitments from institutions who will finance us. And equity deals are what we come from. From the top down, we’re always willing to take the risk.”

Overheard at this year’s Sundance Film Festival: “this is a company that hasn’t made a movie with a budget of over $2 million. How the fuck do they think they’re going to build a $100 million studio?”

It’s true that even in the relatively small pond that is the New York film industry, the Shooting Gallery isn’t close to being a big fish. The total gross of all the Shooting Gallery’s films, ever, is just over $100 million, while Miramax (the big fish) grossed $419 million last year alone. The disparity was obvious at Sundance. While Miramax threw a swank wall-to-wall cocktail party at Park City, Utah’s only oyster bar, the Shooting Gallery held a staff dinner at a nearly empty Chinese restaurant, where most of the action was generated by Meistrich’s 2-year-old daughter, who was playing loudly under a table.

Of course, Meistrich and his colleagues offer little but respectful admiration for the Brothers Weinstein, and continually note that it’s pointless to make comparisons.

“The big difference between us and Miramax, or even someone like October Films Secrets & Lies, The Apostle, is they’re an acquisitions company getting into production, and we’re a production company getting into acquisitions, post-production, and studios,” says Meistrich. (“Miramax is both an acquisitions and a production company,” sniffs a Miramax spokesman in response.) Still, Meistrich clearly relishes getting the Weinsteins to buy Sling Blade for more than $8 million (a film he made for $1.2 million).

“I actually respect Harvey Weinstein in a weird kind of way,” he says. “He’s absolutely up-front and honest about the fact that he’s going to try and fuck you. He’s like: ‘I will put your movie out there, market it well, and win awards. But don’t get in my face.’”

Nevertheless, Miramax has already snagged the distribution rights to Thornton’s next two films, which the Shooting Gallery will produce. And in public, at least, Miramax honchos are supportive of Meistrich’s studio vision.

“The need for more studio space in New York is absolutely there,” says Mark Gill, president of Miramax’s Los Angeles operations. “Larry and Bob are better than anyone else at making movies for a price. You bet against them at your own risk.”

Ted Hope of Good Machine agrees: “It’s a build-it-and-they-will-come thing. There’s huge shortage of space. All you need is Spin City, Cosby, and a big movie in town, and there’s nothing left. The question is, who’s the right person to build it? I wouldn’t do it. But Larry has always had a profound amount of courage and has demonstrated his ability to succeed at things using unorthodox means. I mean, over the last few years indie film hasn’t been particularly kind to private money, unless you’ve invested in Larry’s indie films.”

“I don’t like it there,” says Meistrich flatly. There is Los Angeles. “I don’t want to raise my kid there. I don’t like not having seasons. I don’t like it when the earth shakes. I’ve chosen to stay here.” The Shooting Gallery’s wood-paneled offices at Sixth Avenue and Spring Street are another reason why. The casual, clubhousey space vibrates with confidence. Meistrich is trailed most of the time by two large Samoyed-chow mutts that he brings to the office every day. (He leaves his pet wolf at home.)

“We’ve had the opportunity to go to L.A. and do big deals on a lot,” he says. “But I don’t want to be a part of that system, where you pay someone $20 million and then get hassled the whole time ‘cause the fruit isn’t red enough.”

Or, as Gosse puts it: “The only thing that puts the fear of God in us is having to move out to L.A. and work for the studios.” The Shooting Gallery, Meistrich says, hopes to release ten to twelve films a year, most of which will be financed for less than $10 million. “The studio is really our blockbuster. It’s selfish. I want to live here; I want to have a movie company here. So I want to make it as good as possible for me to do that. We’ve chosen to try and make that happen brick by brick. We’ve invested heavily in the infrastructure and relationships required to make profitable movies in New York.”

But can they pull it off? “Well,” says Gosse, “for a long time there were only two airports in New York. then along came the plan for Newark, and everybody said, ‘nah, it’ll never work in Jersey.’ But there was a need for it. Now there’s Kaufman Astoria and some other places, but there’s a need.”

Thornton eloquently concurs: “Those fellas are bulldogs. They’ll do it.” Then he tells a story of Meistrich’s early days on a film set. “He was a PA, and they told him to watch some equipment down in the subway. Then they forgot about him. Larry didn’t move, stayed down there all night. They found him sleeping on the stuff in the morning. Now you’ll probably find him sleeping out there in Jersey.”

Inspecting the Harrison site early one morning, Meistrich seems almost cocky: “I’m confident,” he says. “Look, I never thought I’d be doing even this much. I wanted to create a place where we could make money, and make movies that guys I played ball with in college wouldn’t give me shit about. If it gets any better, then it’s a bonus.” Taking a last look before leaving, he adds, “It is a little intimidating. But, you know, it’s not like it’s the Super Bowl. It’s just movies.

Big Shot