At 10 a.m. on Jan. 10, GreeneStreet Films’ co-founder John
Penotti, 37 and bleary-eyed, slathered ketchup on a turkey wrap in the kitchen
of the company’s Tribeca office. Titus, his yellow Labrador retriever, tracked
the sandwich’s every move.
Mr. Penotti reached for a
baggie filled with white powder. “In a film office 10 years ago, this would
have been a baggie full of cocaine,” he said. “Now it’s vanilla Coffeemate.”
On the counter was a
copy of Variety , which carried a
full-page “For Your Consideration” Oscar ad for In The Bedroom, the first movie to which GreeneStreet Films gave a green
“We have to change our logo,” Mr. Penotti said. He was focusing
on the minuscule white square at the bottom of the ad. Standing near him was
his partner, Fisher Stevens, who showed up in the kitchen.
“They shrunk ours,” said Mr. Stevens. Mr. Stevens, who is also an
actor- Short Circuit, Reversal of Fortune -was recognizably
bespectacled and floppy-haired. “Look how big Miramax’s is.” Miramax
distributed In the Bedroom .
“Well, Harvey is a big guy,” Mr. Penotti said of Miramax’s
co-chairman, Harvey Weinstein. “Bigger than us.” Then Mr. Penotti and Mr.
Stevens, shoulder to shoulder, copped Hans-and-Franz tough-guy poses.
In The Bedroom is
2002’s quality sleeper, what You Can
Count on Me was last year. An honest, brutal family drama starring Sissy
Spacek, Tom Wilkinson and Marisa Tomei, and directed by a first-time feature director,
Todd Field, the film had the pedigree, reviews and general grown-up feel to
take charge of the art-house market in Oscar season. And it has: In the Bedroom has landed near the top
of the winter’s short must-see movie list. It has also installed GreeneStreet
Films as a comer in an otherwise disastrous year for New York’s film industry.
GreeneStreet has been quietly developing movies and keeping a low
profile since its inception five years ago. “It puts a lot of pressure on us,
and on our investors,” Mr. Penotti said. It’s a lesson that he and Mr.
Stevens-who has spent a decade living down the hype he earned 12 years ago for
being a promising actor and the
boyfriend of Michelle Pfeiffer-learned well.
“We’ve been waiting,” Mr. Stevens said. “We were waiting for
something good to happen.” In the Bedroom -about
the disastrous fallout of an affair between a college student and married
woman-was adapted from Andre Dubus’ short story “Killings” by Mr. Field. With
Miramax marketing behind it became the small, deeply felt movie of the year.
With astonishing performances by Ms. Spacek, Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Tomei, each
of whom has a shot at an Academy Award nomination next month, as does Mr. Field
for writing and directing, the movie became the art-house hit of the year.
GreeneStreet suddenly found itself in an extremely hot spotlight.
Which makes sense for a company housed in a converted lighting
factory on Desbrosses Street. GreeneStreet’s lofty space is held up by
weathered wood columns and filled with stubbly film-school grads and lithe
assistants. Its two floors of offices are already home to a passel of renters
(“buddies” is Mr. Penotti’s film-mafia euphemism): writers Jon Robin Baitz and
Frank Pugliese, actor Rob Morrow and actor–director Griffin Dunne. Actor John
Turturro, who had Illuminata
production offices here, said he’s considering setting up shop here again, and
Bruce Willis’ New York production office is in the building. Matt Dillon will
soon move in.
There’s also a P.R. firm (Mara Buxbaum’s I/D Public Relations);
Track 9 Recording Studios; Red Scare special effects; Mr. Stevens’ Naked Angels
Theater Company; as well as post-production suites and production office space.
All in all, the troupe adds up to a kind of triple-A threat to the Tribeca Film
Center, Robert De Niro’s converted coffee-factory Death Star, just three blocks
south-not to mention the unspoken name of Miramax.
The two companies are structured differently. Miramax started out
20 years ago as a distributor, then began making its own pictures. GreeneStreet
produces pictures and gets other companies, such as Miramax, to distribute
them. The two companies have one thing in common, however. They each have a
kind of family, a stable-in Mr. Penotti’s terms, “buddies”: in-house actors,
writers, producers, flacks, sound– and special-effects teams that function as
an ad-hoc, miniature version of the studio system.
New York, said Mr. Dunne, has “never been a real film community,
like in Los Angeles. So it’s nice to have a mini-studio, with a little
commissary.” Mr. Dunne directed Lisa
Picard Is Famous , GreeneStreet’s first release, a mock-documentary tracking
the burgeoning careers of two starving actors. It was released to warm reviews.
“It was also released on Sept. 14,” said Mr. Stevens. “No one saw it.”
GreeneStreet’s next two films were the Benjamin Bratt vehicle Piñero , which received pretty
spectacular reviews for the actor, and In
the Bedroom .
“It was the first thing we technically committed money to, and it
was after every other studio and every financier had passed,” Mr. Penotti said
with a broad grin in one of GreeneStreet’s brightly lit conference rooms. Mr.
Penotti had gotten started as a production assistant and assistant director to Sidney Lumet on five films, including
one produced by Mr. Dunne, who also gave Mr. Stevens his first acting role, as
“one of the Jewish kids who’s too nerdy to go out with Rosanna Arquette” in
John Sayles’ 1983 Baby, It’s You .
In those early days, Mr. Stevens was being touted as the Next Big
Thing-an energetic, promising character actor whose Naked Angels theater group
generated conversation. He was also, in either a Woody and Diane or Julia and
Lyle kind of matching, the unlikely beau of Michelle Pfeiffer. But his career
sputtered out sometime after Short
Circuit 2 , and his girlfriend wound up married to Ally McBeal creator David E. Kelley.
“I think I made a lot of mistakes,” said Mr. Stevens. “I turned
down jobs, I was trying to be an artist. Now I’m in a place where I feel more
grateful, and respect and appreciate any kind of success.”
Mr. Stevens and Mr. Penotti, friends for a decade, founded Madcap
Films in 1996 in tribute to their hero: writer, director and producer Preston
Sturges. “We had a hard time getting people to take us seriously with a name
like Madcap, and the time it was taking to explain the Sturges reference was
just not worth it,” said Mr. Penotti.
Madcap shared Sixth Avenue offices with the Shooting Gallery, the
company that made Slingblade and was
a mainstay of New York’s independent film world until its ugly 2001 bankruptcy,
which included allegations of dirty bookkeeping by its co-founders.
“It was a very big lesson to us,” Mr. Stevens said of the
Shooting Gallery’s demise. “We really liked those guys. They tried something
audacious.” In early 1997, Madcap moved to an office on Greene Street, where
they changed their name. A year later, they set up shop in the raw Desbrosses
Street space, and began to build GreeneStreet’s film center.
The company was originally backed by arts patron and Jones
Apparel Group chief Sidney Kimmel. “He was great for our development phase,”
Mr. Penotti said. Though Mr. Kimmel is no longer a GreeneStreet investor, both
partners were careful to emphasize their good relationship with their original
Their investing partners of the past two years, whom Mr. Penotti
and Mr. Stevens described as “extremely private,” are Louis Bacon, Christopher
Pia and Michael Garfinkle, three principals from the Moore Capital Management
hedge fund who took personal positions in GreeneStreet. Mr. Bacon, the futures
and currency trader, was in his single days a fixture on New York’s club scene,
but has since become increasingly reclusive and increasingly wealthy.
The company has three more films slated for release in 2002.
There’s Just a Kiss , a feature
directed by Mr. Stevens, starring Ms. Tomei. It was purchased by Paramount
Classics and will be released this summer. The
Château , starring Paul Rudd and directed by Jesse Peretz (son of New Republic publisher Marty Peretz)
will be distributed by IFC in March. Then there’s Swimfan- “We’re changing it,” Mr. Stevens said grimly of its title – a teen thriller starring Traffic ‘s Erika Christensen and Bring It On ‘s Jesse Bradford.
“We didn’t want the girl from 90210, ”
Mr. Stevens said, dating himself. “Or Buffy, ”
Mr. Penotti added quickly. The film was just purchased by 20th Century Fox 2000
and will be released in the summer.
This year, GreeneStreet will go into production on a 70’s
coming-of-age film, The Italian , with GreeneStreet tenant Frank
Pugliese directing. And Molly Gunn ‘s
production offices will soon move in. The film is about an Upper East Side
socialite who takes a job as a nanny to earn the respect of her boyfriend. Mr.
Dillon will star in the GreeneStreet project Tough Guy: The Eddie Maloney Story .
If there’s one consistency within the GreeneStreet crew-Ms.
Tomei, Mr. Dillon, Mr. Dunne-it’s of being, like Mr. Stevens, hype victims who
never quite lived up to their imagined star potential.
“It’s not like we’re looking to reinvent people’s careers,” said
Mr. Penotti, acknowledging that many in the stable have been around the
Hollywood block. “We’re just looking for people to work with who are very
talented, and let their work speak for itself.
“These people are artists who have integrity,” said Mr.
Stevens-who said that running the company has “killed my acting career.” “We’ve
all done terrible movies, sure … but there is a sense with these artists that
they are not just trying to become stars, and have really struggled to make the
right choices, to do art and make a living. Now hopefully we can provide them
with a place where they can do both.”