MAY 22, 2006 The Werner Herzog Archive

Rescue Dawn - Production Troubles

Movie Game Is Not So Easy

By Michael A. Hiltzik

  The Clippers' Brand has tried to transfer his basketball success to Hollywood, but his time as a producer has been marred by lawsuits.

  Elton Brand's reputation as an emerging NBA star has risen this season along with the Clippers' fortunes. His more checkered career as a Hollywood movie producer hasn't been getting as much attention.

  A production company in which Brand is a 50% owner has generated at least as much litigation as box office buzz.

  Gibraltar Entertainment has been named directly or in passing in four lawsuits since the beginning of this year, three that have been settled or are in settlement negotiations, according to lawyers involved.

  None alleges wrongdoing by Brand. But they do underscore the difficulties that professional sports celebrities face when trying to leverage their success on the field or on the court into success in other areas.

  How much money Brand has invested in Gibraltar or its ventures isn't known. But one attorney said Brand settled a $250,000 claim out of his own funds to end a lawsuit.

  "He was as stand-up a guy and as honorable a person as I have ever been in litigation against," said Bryan J. Freedman, a lawyer who represented producer Gerald Green. "He came down to my office, looked in my eyes, and did exactly what he said he was going to do."

  Two of the cases derive from a single production, "Rescue Dawn," an adventure movie directed by idiosyncratic German filmmaker Werner Herzog, who is known for shooting in extreme conditions in remote locations around the globe. Herzog went to the jungles of Thailand to film much of "Rescue Dawn," which recounts an escape by two American pilots from a Laotian prison camp during the Vietnam War. According to a published report, the $10-million production financed by Gibraltar ran out of money, temporarily stranding some crew members until the firm could raise the money to bring them home.

  Brand declined to talk about Gibraltar or his partner in the venture, nightclub operator Steve Marlton. His agent, David Falk, didn't return calls for comment.

  Brand, 27, is hardly the first sports celebrity, especially in Southern California, to hear Hollywood beckoning. Scores of players have tried to use their fame and connections to build movie careers, and it's not unusual for a player of sufficient stature to claim a producing credit on a film. Former Laker Shaquille O'Neal is listed as executive producer on "Kazaam" and "Steel," released in 1996 and 1997. Magic Johnson owns an independent production company with six films and TV series to its credit in a business portfolio that also includes a movie theater chain and retail and health club franchises.

  But it's unusual, and perilous, for a player as early in his career as Brand to try establishing himself in Hollywood as an independent producer. The deal-making is notoriously complicated; seasoned executives from other industries who expected their money and smarts to take the town by storm have been known to flee, bloodied and poorer, after only brief flings in moviemaking.

  "It's a business in which glamour outweighs reason," said Martin H. Kaplan, a former screenwriter and Walt Disney Co. executive who is associate dean at USC's Annenberg School for Communication. "For some reason, although 90% of all movies fail, people think that the rules of economics and human history apply to everybody but them." He said that most successful people in the movie business follow the rule of never spending their own money, extracting capital from starry-eyed newcomers instead.

  Brand signed a six-year, $82.2-million contract with the Clippers in 2003, but whether he has received any outside professional advice on investing in Hollywood isn't clear. Freedman said that during his encounter Brand was unaccompanied by an advisor. "He wasn't represented by legal counsel in the case," Freedman said in an interview.

  In his seventh season in the NBA and fifth with the Clippers, there is no debating Brand's star power on and off court. The Clippers' leading scorer and a two-time All-Star, this year he received the NBA's sportsmanship award.

  Brand formed Gibraltar Entertainment in 2004 with Marlton, who is best known as the owner of Pearl, a West Hollywood restaurant and nightspot that opened last year. Marlton said in an interview that the two met as neighbors in the Hollywood Hills after Marlton relocated from Portland. "You develop over time a relationship with somebody, and one thing leads to another," he said.

  Marlton said Brand is a "50-50 investor" in Gibraltar but wouldn't say how much capital the company has. "He's a very well-read, intelligent human being," Marlton said, adding that Brand had read scripts and viewed raw footage of Gibraltar-backed films. "We sit and critique together."

  Gibraltar's website calls Brand and Marlton "two of the biggest up-and-coming names in the entertainment industry" and says they founded the firm "with the aim of not only investing in the film business, but also nurturing new screenwriting and directing talent to produce vibrant new films, with a focus on superior quality entertainment."

  Marlton acknowledged that he had no prior movie producing experience, but thought his background in restaurants, nightclubs and the trucking business would easily transfer to the new venture.

  "Making movies isn't any different from any other business," he said. "It just takes common sense. I didn't think that crossing over to film would be that difficult."

  One of Gibraltar's first ventures involved "Bottom's Up," a feature film starring Paris Hilton produced by a partnership involving an independent producer named Freddy Braidy.

  A Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit filed in March alleges Braidy's firm defrauded a North Carolina investor of $2 million in part by pledging its rights to the film as collateral on a $750,000 loan from Gibraltar without the investor's permission.

  The lawsuit, which states that Gibraltar was repaid, doesn't allege that Gibraltar was part of the fraud. Marlton said that Gibraltar still has a small investment in "Bottom's Up" that might yield profits once the film is distributed but added, "It might be a straight-to-DVD movie."

  Another picture on Gibraltar's slate is a horror film titled "Something's Wrong in Kansas." A San Diego investor alleged in a lawsuit in January that he and his associates had been defrauded of as much as $2.5 million when the original producer improperly transferred the film rights to Gibraltar. That suit and the allegations have been withdrawn and the parties are negotiating a settlement, according to sources familiar with the matter.

  Gilbraltar has had the most trouble with "Rescue Dawn," a project whose difficulties were the subject of an article last month in the New Yorker. The article describes complaints by crew members that they were going unpaid, and reports conflicts between Marlton and director Herzog and Herzog's assistants, as well as between Marlton and Thai government officials.

  Marlton called the article "ridiculous," suggesting that it exaggerated the location problems. But he acknowledged that the project ran into numerous snags and that he fired at least one of Herzog's producers as the result of a disagreement over where in Thailand to erect a set.

  "I could write a book from this on every mistake you can make in the film industry," Marlton said. "A Third World country, our first movie, everything just got landed in our laps." He said that Gibraltar initially signed on to the project as a minority investor for about $1 million, but that after the other investors withdrew "the burden was left on us. We had to make ends meet until we could find other investors." Eventually a European production company invested several million dollars to keep the project afloat, he said.

  Marlton said Brand visited the location last year, joining him on a flight to Thailand with the film's stars, Christian Bale and Steve Zahn. Once the NBA season got underway, he said, Brand devoted his attention to the Clippers.

  "He has a more than competent partner in myself," Marlton said.

  Herzog didn't return calls seeking comment. The film has been largely completed. Gibraltar's website lists it as an "action thriller" destined to be one of "the season's hottest films."

  The financial fallout from the project landed on a Los Angeles court docket this year. In March, California-based set decorator Peter Mayer sued Brand, Marlton and Gibraltar, alleging that he was not paid what he was owed after being discharged from the film in 2005. Mayer's attorneys, who contend that at least 40 crew members are in a similar situation, are seeking to convert the lawsuit into a class action.

  Marlton called the lawsuit "frivolous.... It's a wage and labor board issue," he said. "Anybody can file a lawsuit." He contended the lawsuit has been dismissed but that could not be confirmed by Mayer's attorney and the court docket indicates it is still pending.

  Separately, producer Green filed a Superior Court lawsuit in February over a $250,000 fee he said he had been promised for work on "Rescue Dawn." Among the documents filed with the complaint are personal guarantees for the money apparently signed by Brand and Marlton last September, in which each pledged to meet a Jan. 31 deadline to pay Green the full amount.

  Marlton conceded that the deadline was missed. "When his fee came due, I told him ... that he'd be paid like everyone else, when money came in from foreign sales" of the film's distribution rights.

  Freedman, Green's attorney, said that Brand appeared in his Los Angeles office on his own three or four weeks after the lawsuit was filed, expressing a desire to resolve the matter himself. Soon after the meeting, he remitted funds sufficient to close the case, Freedman said.

  Marlton acknowledged that Brand "just took care of it" and that the incident led to some hard feelings. He said he had failed to tell Brand that he put Green off.

  "Elton was a little perturbed with me that I let it get to that point," he said. "It was a shock to him, and, needless to say, he wasn't happy about it." But he claimed to be still in frequent contact with Brand.

  Marlton contended that Green's lawsuit, like the others, reflected "people trying to take advantage of Elton's nature, his position in the community."

  He suggested that Green somehow pressured Brand to sign the personal guarantee of his contract. As for his own guarantee, he contended that his signature on the document was "a forgery," an assertion Freedman rejected.