The Buddy System

Stars in Their Eyes: GreenStreet partners Penotti, left, and Stevens at their Tribeca office.Photo: Emily Shur

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?”

Odd Couple: Penotti, left, and Stevens in Steven's cluttered GreenStreet office.Photo: Emily Shur

For mini moguls running a multimillion-dollar business (they are each paid a little over $100,000 in salary plus bonuses when their films succeed), there’s a playful Peter Pan quality to these two five-foot-eight, never-married single guys. They often toss a basketball back and forth as they talk, and it’s impossible to avoid tripping over Oscar, or Penotti’s wandering yellow Lab, Titus, as the dogs bound around the high-ceilinged space decorated with movie posters.

The partners share similar taste, and when they disagree it can get awkward, since they have veto power over each other when it comes to green-lighting projects. Although they usually work out disputes in private, some spill over in public. Stevens, who wants to jump-start a directing career (his first effort for GreeneStreet, Just a Kiss, got mixed reviews), has recently fallen for a World War II love story that he’s eager to direct. Penotti, skeptical about bankrolling the project, has stalled on making a decision, so Stevens confronts him at the staff meeting. “Dude, you’ve got to deal with it,” he says. “I don’t know what to do,” Penotti responds, “because I know you want it. I’d go see this movie, but I don’t want to put $3 million into it.” You can see disappointment shadow Stevens’s face. “We go through this all the time,” he tells me later. “John doesn’t see the commercial potential—I do. Our contract is that it has to be unanimous.”

They met cute in 1992 at—where else?—a movie set in North Carolina. The film was Love Field, starring Michelle Pfeiffer, who was then in the midst of a four-year, much-chronicled romance with Stevens. (“We’re still friends,” he insists, albeit somewhat ruefully.) But Stevens’s visit did produce at least one long-term relationship: He got to know Penotti, a production assistant on the film who was dating Pfeiffer’s close friend, a makeup artist. “We all started hanging out,” says Stevens, and the two men stayed in touch upon returning to New York, sharing their dreams of having careers in the business. “We finally reached the point,” Penotti recalls, “where we said, ‘Enough talking about this. Let’s make it real.’

“Our relationship,” he adds, “has lasted longer than any of our romances.”

“We finally said, ‘Enough talking about this, let’s make it real,’ ” says Penotti, adding, ‘Our relationship has lasted longer than any of our romances.”

Stevens, whose acting career had begun to stall, was motivated by the desire to reinvent himself as a director and producer. Born Stephen Fisher (he flipped his name in deference to another, same-named guild actor), he had a bohemian childhood: When he was 12, his parents divorced and Fisher moved from Chicago to New York’s meatpacking district with his mother, Sally, a struggling painter who worked as a coat-check girl and gallery assistant to make ends meet. (His two younger sisters took one look at Manhattan and fled back to their father’s Chicago home.)

His mother, now an AIDS activist, describes their free-spirited downtown life by confessing, “Fisher and I went through our adolescence at the same time.” Strapped for cash, she rented out part of her loft to an acting teacher. “Fisher was 13, and he’d come home from school and jump into my classes,” says Dan Fauci, now a Hollywood producer whose students have included Ted Danson and Marisa Tomei. “He had his own stage; he’d do monologues.”

At 15, Stevens was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and underwent radiation and surgery to remove his spleen. “It gave me this incredible lust for life,” he says. “I have this incredible curiosity about everything—that’s why my desk is like this.” He gestures toward the piles of stuff spilling onto the floor in his small office, which is decorated with prints from his collection of vintage black-and-white photographs.

Before he’d turned 30, Stevens had won scene-stealing parts in dozens of movies, from The Flamingo Kid to Short Circuit, and starred in such TV series as Early Edition—he had a lock on the nerdy-genius-wild-man roles. Then the offers started slowing down. Stevens has never commanded a million-dollar movie paycheck. “Supporting-guy roles get boring,” he says. “You don’t get to use your mind. I wanted to be involved in the whole picture.”

Adds Fauci, his former acting teacher, “Fisher has an amazing range, but there’s lots of things he can do that I don’t think he gets the chance to do. He’s had a movie career as a good, steady, offbeat character actor.”

That’s a euphemism for the fact that Stevens, who has a mesmerizing baritone, lacks leading-man looks. His friends tease him mercilessly about the unconventional appeal that makes him catnip to the opposite sex; in addition to Pfeiffer, he’s been linked in the past with Marisa Tomei and Gina Gershon, among others. “Your whole story should be about Fisher’s sex life,” jokes Turturro. “Everyone wants to know about Fisher’s unbelievable success with beautiful women.”

It’s got to be tough being a B-list actor surrounded by A-list friends, though Stevens maintains a sense of humor about it. He shows me a glossy proposal that GreeneStreet is shopping to cable networks for a faux reality-based TV travel show called Go Fish, which he hopes to star in and produce. The conceit: Unemployed actor “Jack Fisher” has “hit rock bottom. Although he hasn’t worked in six years, Fish still considers himself a serious actor whose talent is unappreciated by a celebrity-obsessed profession. Fish sees loneliness, poverty, and, worst of all, anonymity staring him blankly in the face.” And then he finds success as the host of a goofy travel show. The pitch doesn’t stint on the names of several of Stevens’s glam gal pals—Uma? Marisa?—as likely cameos. It’s a dark, funny, close-to-home version of the anonymous life Stevens feared he’d lead.

John Penotti is one of those rare souls who actually likes to drive everywhere in Manhattan. He’ll get behind the wheel of his dark-blue BMW, with its immaculate, cushy leather interior, even if he’s only going a few blocks. He takes long Sunday-night drives to nowhere every week just to clear his head. Heading up the West Side Highway to give me a lift home one night, he reminisces about his childhood in Paterson, New Jersey, one of six children of a schoolteacher and homemaker. “My father once pointed out to me that I used to hum all the time—I was trying to create my own white noise,” he says. It was a boisterous household with a cheaper-by-the-half-dozen work ethic, where the enterprising and highly competitive siblings took on paper routes and other jobs from a young age.

“We are this big, Catholic, animated, intense Sicilian family—except for John, who was always the quiet one, the sweetheart,” says his older sister, Bernadette, the lone girl in the brood and a movie executive (she used to date Bruce Willis and now runs his New York production company).

He’d originally planned to become a doctor—he’d been premed at Tufts—but after graduation, he says, “I got cold feet.” He kicked around Boston for a year as a schoolteacher and squash pro, until 1989, when Bernadette got him a career-changing job with Sidney Lumet and his producer Burtt Harris, then making the movie Q&A.

“The way John listened, you knew he was studying everything,” recalls Lumet, who has remained close, recently showing a rough cut of his new movie to Penotti for advice. “John was circumspect; he knew his place, but if you asked him a question, he had a well-thought-out answer.” Eager to build his own business before he and Stevens joined forces, Penotti had already established his own company, Concrete Productions, to prepare budgets and schedules for studios.

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.”

The Buddy System