The movie business is rife with starry-eyed businessmen who bring their wealth to Hollywood with hopes of making good. Most of them last for a few years until they run aground on too many failed opportunities. It takes a mix of grit, acumen, luck and yes, taste, to stay the course. Car salesman James Robinson’s Morgan Creek lasted decades before the market caught up with him and he canceled his bankrupt international division’s famed Cannes Fest Le Moulin de Mougins distributors brunch. Real estate mogul Bob Yari was riding high on Oscar-winner Crash and sleeper hit The Illusionist before he ran out of cash. Wall Street hotshots Victor Kubicek and Derek Anderson acquired the rights to Terminator and put Salvation into production before they wound up on the wrong end of a batch of lawsuits.
Born and raised in Detroit, former mortgage banker Gary Gilbert (Quicken Loans) is hanging in. His older brother brought him into his business, which sold to Intuit in 1999. In his early 30s, Gilbert moved to New York to seek a second career. “I was at a crossroads. I had no idea what I loved and had passion for,” he says. “I had to attempt to make my own mark. People say, ‘do what you love.’ What do I really love?” The answer was, the movies he grew up with, from Dirty Harry and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Gilbert “dreaded” telling his family and friends he wanted to make movies, with the inevitable “rolling of the eyes,” he says.
Gilbert’s goal from the start was not financing movies but actually creatively producing them. His idea of a good time is hanging on set or fussing in the editing room–not taking calls or answering emails. He relies on production chief Jordan Horowitz (pictured with Gilbert above), an ex-theater and photo shoot producer who started out as his assistant seven years ago, to pursue the art of the deal. It took eight years before Gilbert committed to living in L.A. full time. “I was very careful,” he says. “I wanted to learn how to produce. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who comes in with money and writes a check.”
The company started off at a high level, backing Zach Braff’s Garden State, which was picked up by Fox Searchlight, followed by a series of small films such as Pantelion’s Spanish-language hit From Prada to Nada, produced with Gigi Pritzker’s Odd Lot, Lakeshore’s Sundance entry Henry Poole is Here, which was acquired by Overture, and current Anchor Bay release Meet Monica Velour, starring Kim Cattrall as a porn star. Upcoming is Mike Uppendah’s Michigan quadraplegic biopic Cripple (due for a title change), starring Aaron Paul, Lena Olin, Tom Sizemore, Tom Berenger and Jeff Daniels, which seeks a distributor. “A film has to be so much better than ten years ago to get any attention,” Gilbert says.
Gilbert’s company peak to date was Lisa Cholodenko’s 2010 Oscar-nominated The Kids Are All Right, which he helped to get made when only a third of the $4 million budget was in place. “We were hands on, on set every day with Jeffrey Levy-Hinte,” says Gilbert. When the film debuted at Sundance, Gilbert was in Park City negotiating the distribution deal with Focus Features. When Cinetic Media’s Bart Walker recommended not waiting until Cannes to sell the movie, but rushing to finish in time for Sundance, Gilbert pushed the reluctant Cholodenko to make the date. “It was the right thing,” he says, smiling.
Gilbert’s trickiest challenge has been trying to get Kenneth Lonergan’s six-years frozen, too-long Margaret, starring Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Anna Paquin, Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Olivia Thirlby, and Kieran Culkin, out of the editing bay and into Fox Searchlight release. Lonergan’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut You Can Count on Me is “still in litigation,” says Gilbert. “It’s a great movie with great performances.” The struggle involved the late producer Sydney Pollock and producer Scott Rudin insisting that Gilbert not take the movie away from an auteur final-cut director, whose three-hour cut–which Ruffalo calls a “masterpiece”— didn’t meet Searchlight’s contractual demands for a 2.5 hour film. Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker have been working on a shorter cut, and Searchlight plans to open the film before year’s end. “If I knew the same facts, I’d do it again,” Gilbert says. “We had all the right ingredients. There’s no way to predict how things go wrong.”
At Cannes this year Gilbert announced a deal with Kids Oscar-nominee Mark Ruffalo and Tim Robbins to star in sex addict comedy Thanks for Sharing, written by Cholodenko’s Oscar-nominated writing partner Stuart Blumberg (Edward Norton’s Class 5 Films) and Matt Winston; Blumberg makes his directorial debut. Voltage was selling rights at Cannes, along with U.S. reps WME and UTA. Gilbert Films will finance, Gilbert and Horowitz will produce, and William Migliore and David Koplan will produce for Class 5 Films, with Norton serving as executive producer. Production will begin in Fall 2011 in New York City.
Still in the works is an adaptation of Zach Braff’s off-Broadway comedy All New People, which Second Stage will mount this July.