Hollywood has always fallen hard for films about scam artists and their clever schemes. Even before "American Hustle" and "The Wolf Of Wall Street," there was "Catch Me If You Can," "House of Games," "The Spanish Prisoner," The Grifters, "The Sting," "Paper Moon" and seductive confidence artists stretching all the way back to "The Lady Eve" in 1941. The cons vary but the tricks remain much the same: victims are fooled into trusting in a stranger's good faith through greed, vanity, opportunism, desire, compassion, desperation and any other basic urge you can name.
It is easy to see the greenlight appeal of such stories. Not so much because of Hollywood’s own history with charismatic charlatans, or even because their conniving tales can provide such giddy entertainment, but because filmmaking itself so often involves elaborate self-deception and blind trust. The human lust for storytelling, and the constant craving for money required to feed that, is such that some of the strangest bedfellows are thrown together in the name of cinema.
For a taste of just how surreal some of those couplings can be look at the duo behind Envision Entertainment, the financing outfit that burst on the Hollywood scene a couple of years ago. The two men writing the checks at that company, Remington Chase and Stefan Martirosian, are as colorful as many invented movie characters, at least judging by this article in L.A. Weekly that has become the astonished talk of the town.
And yet here they are right in the thick of the Awards season as the backers of the pedigree war drama Lone Survivor that has two Oscar nominations to its name and has just opened number one with a bullet in North America. Chase, according to that article, admits to being an FBI informant; for his part, Martirosian acknowledges altering the spelling of both his first and last name in film credits so as to avoid a contested 1993 cocaine trafficking conviction showing up in online searches – the kind of details that make their involvement in such upcoming projects as The Girl Who Conned The Ivy League so much more tantalizing.
But beyond the lurid backgrounds being reported, all now in the hands of a high-priced crisis lawyer that the pair have hired to help control any reputational fallout, their story speaks volumes about the film industry’s readiness to embrace new financial players – provided their money is seen to be good.
Envision announced itself to the industry at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011 via a $250 million film fund. A year later, they claimed the fund had been boosted to $525 million. But, as L.A. Weekly points out: "The announcements were not exactly true. There was no 'fund' and the numbers were chosen for effect more than accuracy, according to Grant Cramer, an executive VP at Envision." Whatever the precise truth, the industry bought in: Envision was soon cutting its film financing teeth on productions such as "2 Guns" and "Escape Plan."
Money alone does not buy you an automatic seat at the industry's high table where talent relations are critical. For that, you also need bona fides. When Envision launched, they were able to point to an initial partnership with two known low-budget action producers, Randall Emmett and George Furla. In the case of Red Granite Pictures, the newly arrived outfit that sold and bankrolled Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf Of Wall Street" to the tune of $85 million or more, other connections played their part. Sure, this company was jointly spearheaded by the son of Malaysia's Prime Minster, who brought in unnamed Asian and Middle Eastern investors. But what really mattered was that the scion in question, Riza Aziz, also happened to be friends with actor/producer Leonardo DiCaprio, who was on full display at Red Granite's splashy Cannes' launch party.
With "The Wolf Of Wall Street" crossing $120 million at the global box office and earning five Academy Award nods including one for Best Picture, Red Granite has quickly ingratiated itself into the New Hollywood financing establishment alongside other relative newcomers such as Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures, which backed both "Her" and "American Hustle," and her brother David Ellison's Skydance Productions, which co-financed "World War Z" and "Star Trek Into Darkness." Having DiCaprio in your camp, or indeed Oracle's multibillionaire CEO Larry Ellison as your father, are certainly effective calling cards, but what about more rank-and-file investors that barely register on Google? For them, the problem is one of gaining enough access to and trust from industry gatekeepers to be able to even find suitable projects in which to invest.