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In a business as bottom-line conscious as it is dismissive of failure, high-flying Manhattan producers Bobby Geisler and John Roberdeau have made more friends by not making movies than they have by actually making them. Their epic struggle to get Terrence Malick to direct The Thin Red Line began with years of wooing and coddling the hermetic director and ended with their being told not to come to the 1999 Academy Awards, accused of smothering the auteur and racking up wild debts.

Their opponents call them old-fashioned grifters, latter-day versions of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers. Until a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled earlier this year that they had bilked a major investor, they practiced Xtreme producing, using southern charm and other people’s money to make a name in the indie scene – throwing well-catered parties and glacially developing prestige pictures that, for the most part, never got made.

But now, in bankruptcy court in Texas (where their biggest creditors – their families – reside), the list of Geisler and Roberdeau’s unpaid benefactors is growing. The white-shoe Manhattan firms Frankfurt, Garbus, Klein & Selz and Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler are owed $300,000 and $150,000, respectively. The biggest fall guy appears to be Gerard Rubin, a chemical-company executive who paid them more than $6 million. Rubin’s lawyer, Barry Goldin, has called the pair “economic sociopaths.” Geisler calls Rubin a turncoat who stopped his bankrolling at just the wrong time, causing “many financial dominoes to fall for me and John.” Neither Geisler nor Roberdeau has filed a tax return in seven years. “I have paid a lot of money in legal fees over the years,” says an indignant Geisler, “most of it unjustly because of this mess. We’ve made some mistakes. Survival isn’t easy. Sometimes it involves cannibalism.”

And yet, as they appeal the Rubin case, mount two separate lawsuits against Rubin, and muddle through bankruptcy, the producers swear they are back. Again. They’ve got Barbara Kopple standing by to direct David Rabe’s adaptation of his play In the Boom Boom Room, with Patricia Arquette starring and Lion’s Gate set to distribute it domestically. And they’re talking to an A-list director, they say, about taking on the adaptation of D. M. Thomas’s novel The White Hotel, with a screenplay by the late, legendary Dennis Potter. All they need, says Geisler, is to firm up financing – the Hollywood equivalent of saying your Mercedes would run if only it had wheels.

Their latest lawyer, Paul Verner, says he expects to be paid once there’s a movie deal. He’ll have to get in line. Twyla Tharp, who agreed to choreograph bits of Boom Boom Room, is listed as a creditor for almost half a million dollars. A travel agent wants $20,000; a location scout, $16,000; a downtown landlord, $25,000; Potter’s estate, 75,000 pounds sterling. But after years of bad debts and even worse press, the team continues to win friends and influence people.

“There are several European financiers incredibly interested if we can land this director,” Geisler says, ready to build up the buzz again. “I think it will happen. But because I love the project too much, I won’t gamble on naming him, because lawyers will start calling him and trying to dissuade him.”

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