FOR SERIAL ENTREPRENEURS ED HART AND BRUCE LUNSFORD, THE MOVIE INDUSTRY WAS JUST THE NEXT FUN THING TO DO
Until recently, the closest Bruce Lunsford got to the movie business was a brief non-speaking part in the movie “The Insider,” which was partially filmed in his office, and a subsequent dinner at Jack Fry’s with Russell Crowe, who played Big Tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wiegand in Michael Mann’s 1999 film.
Ed Hart’s connection to motion pictures? Well, he did refurbish one of the city’s oldest theaters, the Uptown, and turn it into the Schuster Building at the intersection of Eastern Parkway and Bardstown Road.
By any measure, both have been heavy hitters in the Louisville business community for a couple decades.
Lunsford, of course, started a number of health-care companies, including Vencor (now Kindred HealthCare), Ventas and Atria Communities. He’s a player in the thoroughbred industry, and he made a run for governor in 2003.
Hart established a reputation for turning around businesses after buying and marketing 32 units in the 1400 Willow condominiums in the Highlands. He eventually recruited Lunsford as an investor in Kentucky Kingdom, which went from a bankrupt kiddie park to a thriving business that they sold to Six Flags Corp. in 1997. They still own and operate a successful theme park in Hot Springs, Ark.
Still, even if you buy the notion that they’ve worked in entertainment — it’s a natural progression from amusement parks to horseracing to indie film, right? — it’s a bit surprising to see the focus of their latest foray.
Well, at least they’ve both seen a lot of movies.
Oh, and they’re running a little company called Hart/Lunsford Pictures LLC.
[img_assist|nid=2275|title=On the set of â€œWatching the Detectives.â€|desc=From left, Celine Rattray and Daniela Taplin Lundberg, both of Plum Pictures; director Paul Soter; and Ed Hart of Hart/Lunsford Pictures.|link=|align=right|width=200|height=133]As with so many things in life, the growth of Hart/Lunsford Pictures was aided by coincidence.
One of several boards on which Lunsford serves is AeroCare, an Orlando, Fla.-based medical equipment company. A fellow board member, Ted Lundberg, mentioned that his wife, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, had started a movie company with two other women in New York City. Plum Pictures, founded in 2003 by Galt Niederhoffer, Celine Rattray and Daniela Taplin Lundberg — all barely 30 and educated at elite universities — had enjoyed a breakout effort with its second film, “Lonesome Jim,” which made the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. The screenplay was written by James Strouse, who is married to Niederhoffer. It’s the story of a 27-year-old man returning to his hometown of Goshen, Ind., after failing to make it on his own. Directed by cult hero Steve Buscemi, it gave Plum a big boost.
The Louisvillians, who actually formed their film company in 2004, were curious now. They arranged meetings with the Plum partners in New York and Louisville, and last year a new partnership was born, with Hart/Lunsford Pictures making a contractual commitment to work with Plum and produce up to two independent films a year for three years, each budgeted at $2 million to $3 million. Hart said the company’s role with Plum is to provide capital and approve scripts and actors — and to let the Plum team handle the rest.
Said Taplin Lundberg: “Independent film is always a risk, but they liked us. We’re not flashy, we believe in a lot of hard work. They liked that about us.”
Hart acknowledged the point.
“In New York, they’re grittier, more serious and better business partners than anyone in Hollywood,” he said. “You have to remember it is a business — a very difficult business. You’re a fool to think you can make money on every picture, so the idea is to spread risk by making many pictures.”
By agreement, both partners take an active role in the partnership, with Hart focusing on the creative side and Lunsford sharing his business acumen. Hart spends a lot of time reading scripts (he said he considers more than one a day, and has read 500 so far). Plum and Hart/Lunsford have worked on three films so far, and Hart has been on the set of each for several days. The Plum team says his notes to actors and directors are taken seriously.
Hart has a passion for the process, said Plum partner Celine Rattray, London-born and Oxford-educated (Taplin Lundberg went to Princeton, and Niederhoffer to Harvard).
Hart “asks a lot of questions and has valuable suggestions,” Rattray said, and “brings a fresh, smart set of eyes to projects. On the set, he stays out of the way when he needs to. … He reads a script and has notes for us two hours later. That feedback is valuable, because we want to make films the public will like, and he’s seen a lot of films. He’s who you want your audience to look like.”
Lunsford’s background and skills are invaluable, Taplin Lundberg said, because having someone with a business mindset to think strategically and long term lets the women focus on the work at hand. “This business could be really good,” she said. “If we play our cards right, we can take this to the next level.”
Taplin Lundberg, whose father Jonathan Taplin produced films (he worked on some famous Martin Scorsese films, for example, serving as executive producer on “Mean Streets” and “The Last Waltz,” which documents The Band’s farewell concert), said the women welcome the collaboration and aren’t just patronizing their patrons. “They’re both quick studies and have superior intellects,” she said. “We don’t just take their money, we listen to what they have to say. They have great instincts on casting and scripts.”
Plum and Hart/Lunsford Pictures have three independent feature films targeted for release in 2007: “Dedication,” a romantic comedy starring Billy Crudup and Mandy Moore; “Grace is Gone,” with John Cusack; and “Watching the Detectives,” a comedy currently filming in New York with Paul Soter directing.
Get me rewrite
Hart’s and Lunsford’s current storyline may not have been written had an earlier one turned out like they’d planned. Hart headed the executive committee for Lunsford’s 2003 campaign for Kentucky governor, which ended when Lunsford dropped out of the race just before the May primary. In hindsight, Hart called that a smart business decision.
“Politics is a filthy business, not what we wanted to be in,” Hart said. “They say politicians sell their souls to raise money. Bruce spent $8 million of his own money so he wouldn’t have to compromise on anything, and they said he was trying to buy the election. So you can’t be right.”
Lunsford still has varied and voluminous investments, including with Hart on the Arkansas amusement park. He’s also raced more than 200 thoroughbreds, with the three most successful (Vision & Verse, Madcap Escapade and First Samurai) carrying his entire operation. He’s proud of his legacy of building companies, but from the twinkle in his eye, it’s obvious he’s having a lot more fun as an entrepreneur than he would have had, say, in the governor’s chair. He’s purposely stayed out of the media spotlight, and surely wouldn’t have started this movie adventure had he made it as a politician.
As for the film biz, he sees similarities between raising horses and creating feature films, namely that both are risky but can yield great rewards.
“With movies, you have a script, people, a collaboration of players working toward a goal. People get in it for the experience; it’s their hopes and dreams. I’m realistic about it, but I believe you can enjoy the business and the journey. We’re banking on three women, and a lot of our risk is believing in them.”
This year’s model
The numbers mentioned in Hollywood film budgets are outlandish. “Mission Impossible III,” for example, had an $80 million budget. A-List actors like Tom Cruise command, and get, $20 million per.
That’s not independent film, which, of course, operates much differently. Actors often defer or reduce their pay to take on projects dealing with subjects they’re passionate about. In those cases, actors can get a percentage of the film’s revenues as part of their deal. And every deal is different.
The Plum and Hart/Lunsford formula for producing pictures for less than $3 million, Hart said, is to focus on those sorts of deals with actors, directors and writers that allow qualities films to get made economically. So when he reads scripts, Hart considers the cost of various shoots and knows what shots are cheaper to complete. There are tight shooting schedules and no frills on the set.
Another key strategy is choosing scripts with a meaningful message. In “Grace is Gone,” for example, a father takes his two daughters on a road trip after his wife, a soldier, is killed in the Iraq War. John Cusack, an A-lister, was perfect for the role, Hart noted, and wanted to do it because he has a personal passion for the topic. Cusack actively supported John Kerry’s presidential candidacy and has criticized the Bush administration for its handling of war casualties, telling an Associated Press reporter that the policy banning media coverage of war dead is “one of the most shameful, disgraceful, cowardly political acts that I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
Hart spent four days on the Chicago set of “Grace is Gone” in 2005, speaking to Cusack at length; he said the part appealed to Cusack’s passion. “He’s involved in a movie he believes in. The movie isn’t anti-war, but John says it’s a subtle way to send a message.”
The film also marks the directorial debut for Strouse, who wrote the screenplay as well.
Most independent films are sold to distributors, which then market them throughout the world. A film that is successfully marketed overseas or in the DVD market can make money before anyone in the United States ever sees it.
“The odds are against independent film,” Hart said. “If you’ve got good talent, you can get distribution. The name gets the project in the DVD rental market and gets it sold overseas.”
Filming in Louisville
Ed Hart is passionate about another thing. He wants to make movies with people from Louisville, and he wants to make movies in Louisville. Hart/Lunsford’s first project — financed at $500,000 — was “How You Look to Me,” written by Louisville’s Bruce Marshall Romans and completed in 2005.
The film, a semi-autobiographical story of friends coming to terms with themselves, is set in Louisville’s art, literature and horse racing scenes, and stars Frank Langella (“Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Superman Returns”) and Laura Allen (TV soap “All My Children”). That deal also came about through networking; Romans is the brother of leading Churchill Downs trainer Dale Romans, who is a friend of Lunsford’s.
In the movie business, the term “in development” can mean any number of things, ranging from having had a discussion with a producer to being ready to shoot. The number of “in development” projects dwarfs the number that actually get made. Louisville filmmaker Archie Borders and Hart/Lunsford have a film called “Rocket Man” in development. Borders, who was entertainment director at Kentucky Kingdom while Hart was president, is optimistic that the film will be made. Shooting could begin in Louisville this fall, he said.
The script is based on a 16-minute segment from the Public Radio International show “This American Life,” called “Everyone Speaks Elton John.” The script is finished, Borders said, including a pass through Hart’s meticulous eye. Borders, who is partners with Marcel Cabrera in a production company called Full Circle, previously produced the feature film “Assisted Living.” His film “Paper Cut,” on which he served as writer, director and producer, is set for DVD release in early 2007.
Borders has done some work on local casting with musicians and actors, he said, but nothing has been finalized, including an agreement with Hart/Lunsford on financing. But Borders was excited to learn about the new production company; when he learned of it, he quickly gave his old boss a ring.
“Ed is smart and direct. If you’re straight with him, he will be with you,” he said. “You know you’re not getting any B.S. He also wants to make good pictures. He’s got the heart of an artist.”
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