Outside the valet station of L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills on a recent evening, the actor James Woods was bellowing into his cell phone: “Give the guy a hundred dollars! Just give it to him!” Inside at the Writer’s Bar, the hotel’s softly lit den for after-hours negotiations over $1,400 bottles of Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut, the producer Brett Forbes was slumped back on a plush couch wearing a black T-shirt, jeans and Adidas sneakers, his brown bed-head hair falling in waves over bright blue eyes. Mr. Forbes’ producing partner, Patrick Rizzotti, sat alertly in a chair next to him, wearing baggy jeans and a frayed pink polo T-shirt over well-maintained biceps.
The two men, both 29, were quietly celebrating a screening of their first movie, Pride, about an inner-city swim coach in Philadelphia played by Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow), which will be released by Lions Gate in March. “It was very surreal,” Mr. Forbes said of the experience. “I got choked up.”
While legendary Hollywood producers such as Robert Evans and the late Don Simpson were as famous for their boozing and broads as their movies, Mr. Forbes and Mr. Rizzotti are emblematic of a new breed: in bed before midnight, lest they miss that 8 a.m. E.S.T. conference call with Wall Street investors.
Never before has the phrase “hedge fund” been uttered so frequently west of the Hudson. The sobering economics of the movie business today has caused risk-averse studios to increasingly rely on outside financing, and so producers are showing up not just with a Hot! High concept! Better than Borat! pitch and a vague notion that Angelina Jolie is “attached,” but with actual dinero. “We will pay for everything up until the point where we walk in and they say, ‘O.K., good job, guys—we’ll make the movie,” said Mr. Rizzotti, who worked part-time at various hedge funds as an undergraduate at California State University in Northridge, near where he grew up.
He and Mr. Forbes, who majored in communications at Loyola Marymount, met on a ski trip to Lake Tahoe in 2001 and entered the film business two years later. Rather than working the phones for a boss-zilla such as Scott Rudin, or in an agency mailroom, they went looking for money to fund a new company, Fortress Entertainment, the idea being that potential investors would invest relatively modest amounts into a fund that would support the development of multiple movie projects. “Everybody goes around town trying to raise $3 million per movie or $5 million for a movie,” said Mr. Rizzotti in his Jerry Maguire–esque patter. “We created a formula where we only went to individuals asking for $20,000 to $30,000. So it was never huge risk money for anybody. We would just say, ‘Give us a little—a small fraction, just a little bit.’”
After an ill-fated partnership with another production company, Fortress went out on its own in 2004, creating the American Film Capital fund, which now represents over 100 private investors. The company has raised over $6 million. In the case of Pride, which was made for $15 million, Fortress funded the film’s development; hiring screenwriters Michael Gozzard and his partner, Kevin P. Smith, on the basis of a spec script (Mr. Gozzard is a former Fortress development executive); optioning the life rights of Mr. Ellis; hiring the director, Sunu Gonera; and attaching Mr. Howard—before bringing the project to Lions Gate.
It’s all too fast, said one veteran agent disdainfully. “It used to be that wannabe producers would start off as assistants and then become C.E.’s (creative executives), and read and read and read, and start sitting in development meetings, seeing how movies are put together, how notes are given to writers—learning the tools of the industry.” He added that the latest generation “is all about the formula, the numbers. It’s the conglomeratization of the business, and it’s why movies are getting worse.”
Yet “if you have money, the studios show you the red carpet,” the agent acknowledged.
‘Make Me an Offer’
“I always knew I wanted to produce,” said Mr. Forbes, who grew up in Beverly Hills and whose mother was a TV producer (perhaps you remember 1981’s Twirl, starring Heather Locklear) before she left the business to raise Mr. Forbes; now she has a deal with Fortress and oversees the company’s TV development. “But I knew that if I was a successful financier first, then I could do anything else. If I wanted to direct, if I wanted to write—no problem. If I finance my own movie, I can do it.”
And yet the pair has had their share of scrappy start-up moments. The screening of Pride earlier that day, for example, was not exactly a silk-pajama’d, Evans-esque affair, but rather foldout beach chairs in the living room of the film’s editor, Bill Fox. “We were thinking we were walking into an editing bay,” Mr. Rizzotti said. “Brett was like, ‘It’s a house, dude! We’re going to a house!’”
Making it onto agents’ call sheets was a hurdle for the up-and-coming producers. Mr. Forbes recalled trying to talk to one about a film property the agent controlled. “We called and called, but there were no return phone calls,” he said. “So I started faxing over the press release about our company that explained who we were—I faxed it, faxed it, faxed it, three or four times. Finally, he called me up and screamed, ‘I know who the fuck you are, I just haven’t gotten to your fucking phone number yet!’ He was screaming. We’re buddies now. It worked out fine. But, yeah, we definitely had to get noticed.”
When Lions Gate and the William Morris Agency, which represents Mr. Howard, were stalling over Mr. Howard’s deal, Mr. Forbes and Mr. Rizzotti began to panic.
Knowing that Mr. Howard would be at the Sundance Film Festival, Mr. Gonera instructed the producers to carry the film’s script with them at all times at Park City.
One afternoon, when Mr. Forbes and Mr. Rizzotti were piling up on free swag at one of the infamous hospitality suites, in walked the man himself, trailed by Entertainment Tonight cameras.
“We’re like, ‘What do we do? How do we get to him? We’ve gotta do something!’” Mr. Forbes said. “When there was a break, we walked up to him and said, ‘We’re doing this movie, Pride.’ And he’s like, ‘I love that movie—I want to do it!’ And we’re like, ‘Well, that’s what we want you to do—we just need you to sign on’ …. He said, ‘I want to do it, man—get ’em to make me an offer. I want to do it.’
“Then it was: Great—job’s done. He walks out, we walk out. And then Ben Weiss, who runs development for us, starts yelling: ‘Terrence! Who do we call? What do we do? Who do we call?’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, what are you doing?’ And then someone standing next to me goes: ‘Talk to me.’ And it was his agent. Negotiations started the next day.”
‘More Day Killings’
It all sounds very Entourage, doesn’t it? But sometimes working in the entertainment industry is just another day at the office.
One weekday morning, Mr. Forbes was sitting with Mr. Weiss in Fortress’ office on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, reviewing films the company has in development. The office is in the former Girl Scouts of America headquarters, which has been remodeled into an industrial-chic beehive of workspaces rented by film, publicity and special-effects companies. The digs are temporary because Mr. Forbes and Mr. Rizzotti want to move closer to the beach. “I hate Hollywood, and I’ve hated it since the day I moved here,” Mr. Rizzotti said. “We’re not those people who go out every night and go to clubs like L.A.X.”
A handful of interns rounds out Fortress’ staff of four. One night at Cabo Cantina in Hollywood, on two-for-one margarita night, one intern got sick at the table; another punched the mirror in the men’s room. But that’s about as wild as things tend to get. Mr. Forbes is in a long-term relationship with a snowboarder named Brita who used to handle Fortress’ bookkeeping and now markets designer jeans. Mr. Rizzotti isn’t dating anyone at the moment.
Mr. Forbes and Mr. Weiss, a lanky 25-year-old with dark hair and eyes and a computer-science degree from Hobart College (“I made robots for my thesis”), were both sitting at a large conference table, staring into shiny G4 laptops. Outside a window that took up the length of one wall, skinny palm trees swayed like mops in the distance and a sign for the French Cottage Motel blinked on and off.
As Mr. Weiss rattled off projects—a movie described as “Ordinary People in reverse” and Lucky Thirteen, based on Mr. Forbes’ stepfather’s experience as one of the first 13 men to be admitted to Sarah Lawrence College—Mr. Forbes would say things like “Writer still working on a draft” or “We’re setting up the meeting next week.”
Suddenly, Mr. Rizzotti burst through the door, a can of sugar-free Red Bull in one hand. (Normally he downs four to five cans a day; lately he’s been on a “Red Bull diet,” limiting himself to two.)
“Dude, I was just on a fucking amazing conference call!”
The call had been with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, with whom Fortress is talking about producing a TV show as well as interactive online content for an upcoming event in San Diego.
The subject changed to another movie, an untitled teen horror flick set in a shopping mall. “There need to be more day killings,” Mr. Forbes said matter-of-factly. “Right now, all the killing takes place at night, during off-hours, when the girls are closing up, turning out the lights. That’s been done before.”
Mr. Rizzotti and Mr. Weiss nodded in agreement.
“We want it to be like a Jaws thing,” Mr. Rizzotti explained. “If you’re going to go to the mall, you’re going to get killed.”
Of course, in Los Angeles, a day at the office can mean a lot of different things.
Friday rolled around. Mr. Forbes and Mr. Rizzotti left work after lunch and headed to Marina del Rey, where they dock their Wellcraft Cabin Cruiser, christened Easy Rider. The producers bought the boat last December with the help of Mr. Forbes’ stepfather.
At 3 p.m. sharp, a group of half a dozen young Hollywood types, along with Robert Stein, head of the motion-picture department at the talent agency Paradigm, which represents Fortress, boarded the boat for an afternoon spin around the Santa Monica Bay. Mr. Rizzotti passed around a paper plate with a slab of Brie and crackers and then descended into the cabin to retrieve bottles of Stella Artois. Lindsay Girardot, an actress wearing dark sunglasses, denim shorts and tall, black boots, settled into her seat and tilted her head back to most effectively soak up the sun. Jamie Linden, who wrote McG’s next movie, We Are Marshall, about a plane crash that killed most of a West Virginia college football team in 1970, nervously inquired how long it would take for the Dramamine he’d taken to kick in. Dallas Sonnier, a manager wearing an untucked oxford shirt and a Texas baseball cap, tapped an e-mail into his Blackberry.
Mr. Forbes steered the boat out of the harbor and stepped on the gas. It was a typical October day in Los Angeles: sunny and 80 degrees.
Mr. Forbes’ black sunglasses glinted in the light; the wind had turned his hair into a wild tangle of curls. Mr. Rizzotti sat on the boat’s bow, his face blasted by the ocean spray.
When asked how it felt to have his first movie under his belt, Mr. Forbes said that he was pleased that Pride had been produced (if not released) before he turned 28. “I needed to hit something big when I was 28—either make millions or make a movie,” he said. “I don’t know where 28 came from, but that was my goal. Maybe it’s that you leave the house at 18, and in 10 years you make it. I don’t know—28 always felt naturally like an age when, whatever it was gonna be, I was gonna do it. And I did it.”
He paused. “I would have taken 29.”