Wannabe Film Moguls Come to Tribeca (Where Else?)

Film producers Graham King and Rick Schwartz were on the set of The Aviator, on a soundstage in Montreal in the summer of 2003, watching Martin Scorsese direct Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Howard Hughes having a breakdown while building the largest airplane in the world.

“Show me the blueprints. Show me the blueprints. Show me the blueprints,” Mr. DiCaprio, as Hughes, repeats in a manic staccato to the chief engineer of his latest obsession. “Show me the blueprints. Show me the blueprints. Show me the blueprints.”

At that moment, something clicked in the minds of Messrs. King and Schwartz. “Watching Leo perform that scene, I turned to Graham, and we knew we had the name for the company,” said Mr. Schwartz, a tall man with dirty-blond hair and an easy smile. “It was kind of a metaphor for madness.” They had the moniker for their own newly formed firm joint obsession-an independent film company.

And so, earlier this year, Blueprint opened its sparsely furnished offices in a second-story loft overlooking Mercer Street in Soho, marking the arrival of a new big fish in the small pond of Manhattan’s film world. For, despite the apparent frugality of its offices, as a subsidiary of Mr. King’s Santa Monica–based film sales company, Initial Entertainment Group, which just secured a $220 million credit facility from J.P. Morgan Chase, Blueprint just became the best-financed independent film company in New York.

Instead of using up their credit on fancy furnishings, the partners are spending their money on talent. They’ve signed development deals with Mr. DiCaprio, Mr. Scorsese, Johnny Depp and Nicole Kidman-all of whom were nominated for Golden Globe awards earlier this month. They are already developing the novel Shantaram for Mr. Depp. It’s about a heroin addict who escapes prison to become a doctor in Bombay and then a gun-runner in Afghanistan.

All that talent and money puts plenty of pressure on the upstart company, and they know it. “My biggest worry is: Where do I get the next Aviator?” said Mr. King, a London native with an accent from the rough side of town and the physique of a soccer player. “I’m an independent guy. To protect myself, instead of waiting for an agent to send me the next big screenplay, I have to develop it with the talent.”

Mr. King’s earned this place as a top indie producer as a result of the respect he’s earned as a top sales agent. He only applied to J.P. Morgan Chase for a $100 million credit, but when the bank went out to syndicate the loan, it was immediately oversubscribed.

Yet, despite the successful track record as a sales agent, it’s a little daunting to be the new producer on the block. Over Christmas weekend, The Aviator-one of the most expensive independently financed films ever produced-opened wide in theaters across the nation, Messrs. King and Schwartz’ nerves are being tested as much as Hughes was with the opening of his first independent film, Hell’s Angels, in 1930.

“When we shot the Hell’s Angels premiere, and Howard Hughes is told, ‘You’ve got $4 million on the line,’ I was sitting there thinking, ‘I wish it was four million,'” says Mr. King, who is on the hook for over $70 million on The Aviator.

And the holiday weekend was stressful. While the film has been critically acclaimed-it’s been nominated for six Golden Globes-it opened in an extremely competitive market alongside Meet the Fockers, Lemony Snicket, Fat Albert, Spanglish, Ocean’s Twelve and Phantom of the Opera. And after three weekends, it’s only earned $42 million against the Fockers’ $204 million and Lemony Snicket’s $105 million. But the film opened in fewer theaters, and while most films’ box office immediately starts dropping after the opening weekend, the Aviator’s box office has grown by over 40 percent each weekend.

Whatever the final box office turns out to be next week, a new player will be rising over the Manhattan-centered independent film business, just as the sun around which today’s indie world once revolved-Miramax-is setting. And while Blueprint is poised to fill the vacuum left by Miramax’s exit, Messrs. King and Schwartz are very different from Harvey and Bob Weinstein, though the two brothers can easily take credit as midwives for this new company.

Mr. King made the first step in his evolution from sales agent to producer when he took the tremendous risk of picking up the foreign-distribution rights to Miramax’s Gangs of New York, directed by Mr. Scorsese and starring Mr. DiCaprio, for $65 million. Mr. Schwartz, a New Jersey native and former assistant to Harvey Weinstein, was the executive on the project. Additionally, Miramax is splitting domestic distribution of The Aviator with Warner Bros. And some have wondered whether the post-Disney Weinstein brothers could end up with their own deal at Blueprint, too.

Mr. Schwartz has wanted to be in the movie business since his days at CUNY’s Queens College campus in the mid-1980’s. After school, he applied to all the producers based in New York. At first, he settled for a job writing catalog copy for a computer-paper company. When the company was sold, the owner gave Mr. Schwartz a helping hand.

“The only person I know, I think she’s a receptionist at this place called Miramax,” he told Mr. Schwartz.

He soon learned Meryl Poster was head of production.

“I called Meryl, but never got a call back,” says Mr. Schwartz. “I kept on calling and sent her gifts. I was shameless.”

After a couple of months, he finally got a meeting. Ms. Poster immediately asked him: “Are you single? Are you straight?”

Newly married, Mr. Schwartz was deflated. “I knew right there that this was a business with no rules. I also understood what she was driving at: If you jump on board, your life would be this company.”

Eventually, he was led to Mr. Weinstein’s office. “Back then, Harvey had a very small office, and he was a much bigger guy. He was in the middle of a meeting. There were three people on the couch and he was on the telephone and smoking. The call was not a happy call.”

After Mr. Weinstein hung up the telephone, he looked up at Mr. Schwartz and asked, “Why do you want to be in the movie business?”

“I stammered something,” he recalled. “I don’t really remember. Everything else he asked me about was my family, where I grew up, what kinds of things I like to do. I realized he wasn’t going to test me on my knowledge of Godard. He was trying to get a feel whether he could spend an enormous amount of time with me.”

When the interview was over, Mr. Weinstein growled: “You start Monday.”

The beginning of the second week, Mr. Weinstein walked out of his office, gestured to Mr. Schwartz to follow him and said, “We’re going to Chicago.”

They drove out to New Jersey, where he joined Mr. Weinstein aboard his jet, without a change of clothes or even a toothbrush. “It was the beginning of two years of going all over the world with him. It was the beginning of the education, my film school.”

Mr. Schwartz’s timing was propitious. Miramax was just about to explode with the release of The English Patient.

He quickly gained Mr. Weinstein’s confidence. “Information is the currency of this business. He learned very early on that he could trust me,” said Mr. Schwartz.

He recalls one incident during pre-production of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. “They wanted Bob De Niro to play a lead in the movie. They were going back and forth with his agent but not getting anywhere. Then came that moment it was going to work or it wasn’t going to work. Sitting in his car outside of his apartment [on Central Park West], he gets De Niro personally on the telephone and negotiates complicated figures like foreign grosses that to me, at the time, was all gobbledygook. He just cut through months of negotiating with agents and lawyers.”

Like every Hollywood assistant, Mr. Schwartz also quickly learned to exploit his position. “I would read everything I could get my hands on. I was ruthless. I had access to the whole company.”

He also used his position to cultivate his own contacts. “So many of my relationships started with Harvey. Even though you are someone’s assistant, people will engage you because they know that you may become someone important some day.”

Some would say that Mr. Schwartz exaggerates the depth of his relationships to power players in Hollywood. “He’s a good guy, but he’s got celebrity Tourette’s-he’s always name-dropping ‘Charlize’ or ‘Leo’ or ‘Cameron,'” says one former coworker. “Just because he met Nicole Kidman a few times doesn’t make them best friends.”

Mr. Schwartz’s moment to exploit those contacts came in London after nearly two years. “We were getting ready to go back to the States, and Harvey said, ‘You’re staying. You wanna be a producer, now you’re going to act like one.'” The project was Kenneth Branagh’s musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.

“It was my graduate work,” Mr. Schwartz recalled. “On that movie, I learned everything: casting, production, post-production, editing, testing and marketing through the release.”

It was the next project that gave Mr. Schwartz a taste of his future. His assignment: Birthday Girl, starring Nicole Kidman.

He spent a lot of time in Australia with Ms. Kidman and her husband at the time, Tom Cruise. “I was essentially working on my own, 22 hours away from the company. I couldn’t just pick up the telephone and call Meryl or Harvey; I had to make decisions on my own.”

After Birthday Girl wrapped, he was sent to Italy and Morocco to supervise Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malèna, starring Monica Bellucci, then Spain for Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others, with Mr. Cruise producing and Ms. Kidman starring. While shooting in Madrid, he got a call from Mr. Weinstein. The company had taken on the biggest project in its history, Mr. Scorsese’s Gangs, starring Mr. DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Daniel Day Lewis and Liam Neeson. “I cannot underplay the impact of working with Scorsese, my hero. It was just amazing.”

Mr. Schwartz moved his family to Rome while he flew back and forth from Madrid, sometimes on commercial flights; other times, Mr. Cruise would fly them over in his private jet for lunch with Mr. Scorsese. It was all pretty glamorous: living in a townhouse just up the street from the Via Veneto where Fellini shot La Dolce Vita and flying around Europe with Mr. Cruise. Yet Mr. Schwartz was starting to become disillusioned with the role of a studio executive.

“I was always the ‘suit,'” he said.

If getting hired by Mr. Weinstein would prove to be the inciting incident in Mr. Schwartz’s professional life, Mr. Weinstein also would become responsible for the turning point at the end of Act I in his career.

“We were halfway through the film, and things were clearly going poorly,” said Mr. Schwartz. “Harvey called and said, ‘I’m coming to Rome.’ I was waiting at the gates of Cinecitta when Harvey pulls up and his door swings open. I hear him screaming into his cell phone. Harvey hands me the telephone and says, ‘Rick, this is Graham King. Graham, this is Rick Schwartz. Rick, tell him what I’m going to do to him.”

“I hear this British accent on the phone, also screaming and threatening,” said Rick. “They were apoplectic. Graham told me, ‘Tell that fuck he doesn’t know who he’s dealing with!'”

A natural mediator, he tried to calm the tensions between Messrs. Weinstein and King. Mr. Weinstein ripped the phone from his hand and yelled at him, “Don’t try and do that! Sometimes you have to go to war!'”

It was an inauspicious beginning for what has since turned out to be an extremely productive relationship for all three.

Mr. King started off as a sales agent. He went to UCLA from London. The first summer, he took a job in the international television sales department at 20th Century Fox. Mr. King never returned to school. In 1995, he formed IEG and made a name for himself after providing the financing for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. Shortly afterward, IEG partnered with a German company and went public on the Neuer Market.

Ken Kamins, then head of International Creative Management’s international division, recalled, “All of a sudden, they were sitting on a big piece of money. Disney had stalled on Gangs. I called Graham and told him that there might be an opportunity: ‘You’ll get the project or you won’t, but everybody will know who you are.'”

Mr. King was skeptical. “I read the script that night. The next day I told him, ‘Let’s do it.'”

Mr. King offered to pick up foreign-distribution rights for $65 million. “I didn’t really think they’d accept. Next thing I know, Joe Roth from Disney called to tell me we’ve got a deal.”

Shortly thereafter, Mr. King left for the London screenings, an international film market. “It was a frenzy,” he said. “Buyers were sleeping outside my door. I remember one Japanese woman grabbing my ankles as I walked down the hall. I sold the territories to distributors for record amounts.”

Mr. Kamins said this was the turning point for Mr. King. “When you’re a foreign sales agent, the most you can be perceived as is an investor. But no one respects the investor. Even if you have creative issues, you don’t have authority. Graham had gotten to the point where if he was investing all this money, he needed to be involved from the beginning. He needed to be a producer.”

Messrs. Schwartz and King met in New York during Gangs’ post-production. “We hit it off immediately,” said Mr. Schwartz. “He had a lot of money on the line. He knew that he could trust me.”

Mr. King said, “I joked with him that he should leave Harvey and come work with me.”

Mr. King wasn’t the only one who started to notice that Mr. Schwartz was blossoming. After Gangs, he went on to Robert Benton’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, with Ms. Kidman. Then he became the executive featured on HBO’s Project Greenlight. People in Hollywood now knew who he was, and the offers were coming.

Meanwhile, Mr. King had taken on a project that director Michael Mann had been developing with Mr. DiCaprio: a film about American icon Howard Hughes. On this one, Mr. King would finally be the producer in name and authority. Then Mr. Mann dropped out and Mr. Scorsese came on as director. Mr. Weinstein wanted the project, but Mr. Scorsese would only do it with Miramax if Mr. Schwartz was the executive. He couldn’t say no. It meant deferring his plans for a couple more years at Miramax.

For Mr. King, The Aviator was a real test. Mr. Schwartz said, “The guys on the set were taking odds on how long before Graham would go back to run his company, but he stuck it out.”

The project turned into a courtship for Messrs. King and Schwartz. “When you shoot until 6 in the morning, it’s a real bonding experience,” said Mr. Schwartz. “That’s when we decided to combine forces.”