WORKING WEEKEND: Substance and Stiles6 Jun, 2002 By: Bruce Apar
There's Bill Mechanic (Disney to Fox), Ann Daly (Disney to DreamWorks), and Ben Feingold (Columbia), to name the more prominent video execs who've crossed over into theatrical production management at major studios. Then there's Quentin Tarantino, a once-anonymous video store clerk who parlayed his geeky knowledge of inventory into a brand-name filmmaking career with a rabid following.
Then there's one Steven V. Scavelli, as ever, doing it his own way. In video circles, the president of Brooklyn-based video wholesaler Flash Distributors has made a name for himself – with his relentless work ethic, his generous charity work, his far-reaching network of well connected contacts and the kind of implacable confidence – some would call it cockiness – that a year ago led to his filing a lawsuit alleging antitrust and price-fixing, among other violations, by Universal Studios. The case is still in litigation.
Now, Scavelli has really gone and done it. The former St. John's University educator with a Ph.D in medical microbiology has become a principal, which is to say an equal partner in an independent production company, Smithy Films LLC. The other two-thirds of the equation are Hollywood screenwriter and producer Eric Gitter and fast-rising actress Julia Stiles, best known for Save the Last Dance. Stiles has an affinity for The Bard, having starred in three Shakespeare movies, including O (Othello goes to high school), from Lions Gate, and is appearing this summer in Shakespeare in the Park, New York's long-running Central Park series known for its star-studded casts and overflowing crowds of enthusiastic fans.
Stiles stars with Stockard Channing in the Aug. 6 MGM video release The Business of Strangers and in Universal's Matt Damon thriller, The Bourne Identity.
Smithy is working with Handprint Entertainment, a management company run by David Guillod, Benny Medina and Jeff Pollack, who will work with studios to get Stiles the best deals they can, while also trying to land the production contract on the project for Smithy. Handprint's roster of some 80 clients includes Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lopez and Puff Daddy.
Scavelli says Smithy has two films it is working on for Stiles that are close to being signed. One is a $25 million production with a major studio that would start filming this fall. On the other, Smithy has raised close to half of the projected budget of $10 million to $15 million. Stiles vehicles due in theaters later this year are MGM's A Guy Thing (Sept. 20) and Miramax's Carolina.
Scavelli says one major goal is to broaden her audience base from teenybopper 13- to 17-year-olds into the more mature demographic range of mid- to upper-20-year-olds.
So how did a regional video distributor make the leap to Hollywood-on-the-Hudson mini-mogul? It's not only a testament to Scavelli's reputation and power of persuasion, but also to the recognition by talent and independent producers of the vital role the video market plays in today's film industry, and in helping to make choices while managing careers.
For that is what Messrs. Scavelli and Gitter are now doing: managing the career of Julia Stiles, who in her spare time is an Ivy League honors English major entering her junior year at Manhattan's Columbia University.
As Scavelli sees it, he's “worked on the tail end” of the film business for 12 years as a distributor, “and I find a lot of what we sell would be done differently if the filmmakers understood the consumer and the retailer better.”
Now, the tape and disc peddler has worked himself into a position where he can influence the moviemaking process in his own small but potentially significant way by using his knowledge of video performance as a more critical benchmark in the art of pitching, negotiating and greenlighting. It's a more market-driven approach than what Scavelli has seen from certain independent producers, who he thinks could do more to analyze historical data on what the public wants to rent or own.
He also is eager to use the industry connections he's nurtured for more than a decade “to better myself financially.” The game plan of Smithy Films, Scavelli says, is to emulate what he says was a hallmark of the financial arrangement on Steven Soderbergh's recent hit remake of Ocean's 11 for Warner Bros. He notes the stars were willing to take less than their usual per-film fee in lieu of getting a piece of the box office and video back-end sales. He says the film's talent is motivated to do more personal promotion and stands to earn more if the film plays well.
What Smithy Films is not meant to provide to Scavelli is a de facto distribution channel for vanity films. He says distribution of each production will be decided separately and could be handled by a major studio or standard video distribution or be self-distributed by Smithy.
Then there's the survival factor. Being a player in the front-end of the movie business, where talent and production drive the train, will, he believes, “strengthen my position in the marketplace.
“Being one of five distributors left and a small one, this makes it harder for people to dismiss us as unimportant, which unfortunately has happened over the last number of years. We are important, even if we are only three to four percent of industry sales. It helps us in dealing with people in the movie business who may not want to tick off talent or talent agencies that we'll be working with.”