It's 24 hours after meeting with Stephen Jarchow, and the only detail about the man that remains in the memory is how utterly unassuming he appears. This is not a knock against Jarchow; his friends and colleagues say much the same thing, but always with the caveat that looks deceive. So it's a compliment to describe Jarchow as rather ordinary. Or maybe it's just a nice way of saying that the man who founded Regent Entertainment during the early 1990s and helped pay for last year's art-house sensation Gods and Monsters isn't at all the archetypal movie producer. Not like, say, Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, a man who looks as though he has devoured half of Hollywood and has yet to pass it through his digestive tract.
Even his spacious office, which is located off Preston Road and Northwest Highway, reveals little about the man, save for the photographs of his 12-year-old daughter. There are the requisite movie posters in the small anteroom -- most of them for Gods and Monsters -- but the Regent CEO's office is mostly bereft of film artwork. The only thing truly out of the ordinary is a glass case filled with miniature sports figurines and worn copies of Clair Bee's collectible books from the 1940s and '50s featuring all-around star athlete Chip Hilton. Jarchow mentions that he owns the film rights to these books and plans to make at least one movie using Bee's character. This is how Jarchow discusses much of his business: casually, in a soft, easy tone that matches his exterior.
Atop his office coffee table sits a pile of the books Jarchow has written, among them 1986's epic Real Estate Syndications: Tax, Securities, and Business Aspects and the sweeping Institutional and Pension Fund Real Estate Investment. Jarchow doesn't even crack a smile when he's kidded that these are rather, ya know, sexy titles.
"These are hard to write," is what the 48-year-old says before moving on to the next topic of conversation -- how to secure foreign distribution for made-for-television movies. At least on the surface, the man is all business.
Jarchow's stoic veneer gave Gods and Monsters writer-director Bill Condon the impression that Jarchow didn't like his movie, the story of Frankenstein director James Whale during the final months of his turbulent life. When Jarchow and his Regent partners -- Paul Colichman, Peter Dekom, and Mark Harris -- convened last year to screen the film, Condon was already nervous. It did not help matters that after the lights came up, Jarchow sat there with a look of stone-faced seriousness.
"You get ridiculously insecure at such moments," recalls Condon, who regained his composure only after receiving assurances from Colichman that Jarchow really enjoyed the film. "Only later did I get to understand his style. The man is straightforward and gentle, which is a breath of fresh air when you're in Los Angeles."
Not long ago, Regent was simply Jarchow's side project, a nothing little Dallas-based movie distributor selling foreign video rights for dreadful films he picked up for pennies at bankruptcy sales. Regent -- the name has a familiar movie feel, but it was just a street in Jarchow's hometown, and his way of pretending he was in the movie business even though he was just dumping garbage in Europe.
But that seems like a long time ago. 1994 B.O. -- Before Oscar.
Now the man has an Academy Award on his résumé, thanks to the writer-director who once thought Jarchow hated his movie. He even helped pay for Gods and Monsters out of his own pocket. To hear Bill Condon tell it, Jarchow's a regular Robin Hood in pinstripes, and his partners are equal saints in his eyes.
Had Regent just turned out Gods and Monsters, among the most critically adored films of 1998, then this would be a captivating success story all by itself. It's so high-concept as to be far-fetched: Unknown production company with an office in the barren wastelands of Dallas spends $1.5 million of its own money on film about gay horror-movie director, receives rave reviews, and wins numerous awards and untold respect. Sounds like a winning pitch meeting.
However, Regent's story only begins with the success of Gods and Monsters. Since the film's release last year, the company has purchased a movie theater on one of Los Angeles' busiest street corners, making it easy for Regent to showcase its own films in the world's largest market. And more important is that the company has gotten into the distribution business. Meaning: Regent is morphing into a bona fide movie studio.
The company already has a track record of producing made-for-TV movies -- most of which star outcasts from Fantasy Island reruns. But in recent months, it has picked up three films for distribution: the delightful Free Enterprise, about two Star Trek zealots for whom love is the final frontier; Sixth Happiness, starring a grown man trapped in the fragile body of a small child; and Spent, about a couple trying to overcome their destructive addictions.
It ain't Miramax, but it's a start.
And to think, Jarchow is nothing more than the accidental movie producer, a Wisconsin-born man who stumbled into the film world from the back entrance -- in this case, a dying Las Colinas film studio that Jarchow purchased in 1992 simply because it was a good deal. Until then, he was as much a part of the movie business as any schlub who forks over eight bucks to sit in a darkened theater. He practiced law, he wrote real estate books, and if he harbored Hollywood dreams, he never chased them down.
As a child, he was a film fan, but was more interested in the business of making movies. He engrossed himself in books about the old studio system, reading the biographies of Darryl F. Zanuck, David O. Selznick, and Louis B. Mayer -- the men who created Hollywood in their own images.
"I was very interested in the silent films and how the business really started and how it was financed and the ups and downs," Jarchow says. "I really have never been that interested in the lives of the stars or anything like that."
Perhaps Jarchow says it best when he offers this simple explanation of how a real estate investor ended up in the movie business. As he watched the images dance in front of his young and impressionable eyes, the child wondered only one thing:
"Who paid for this?"
And a movie producer was born.
Regent may well be the most schizophrenic movie company in existence, capable of turning out thoughtful fare such as Gods and Monsters one minute and cotton-candy crap like Kiss of a Stranger (starring Dyan Cannon) the next. Other than that, the bulk of Regent's roster reads like the cast list of Love Boat 2000, which is appropriate, since a handful of the nearly dozen films Regent has produced since it became a functioning "studio" in 1996 were made strictly for television, usually the Fox Family Channel.
Movies such as Panic in the Skies!, Loyal Opposition, Storm Chasers: Revenge of the Twister, Doomsday Rock, and When Time Expires have boasted performances by the likes of The Actor Formerly Known as Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill; former Charlie's Angel Kate Jackson; ex-hunk Richard Grieco; Hill Street Blues' Ed Marinaro; and Ponch himself, Erik Estrada. Beverly Hills Cop Judge Reinhold recently appeared in Regent's Teen Monster, which the company advertises on its Web site as "a frightening and funny contemporary take on the meaning of life and death."
Some of the company's titles sound like parodies of real movies, among them Crash and Byrnes, a just-in-production cop-buddy film intended as the pilot of a proposed TV series; and Britannic, an action film about the Titanic's "sister" ship that stars Jacqueline Bisset. You can almost see the movie posters on Tim Robbins' office wall in The Player.
Jarchow and Colichman both speak with pride of the just-finished I'll Remember April, a film about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II -- starring Mark Harmon, Mork and Mindy's Pam Dawber, and Happy Days' Arnold, Pat Morita. They'd like to see the movie get a proper theatrical release, but know deep down it's going to be a hard sell. Jarchow suggests Regent might have had a better shot with a cast of unknowns. Sometimes, it doesn't pay to make TV movies too good.
But, as Colichman and Jarchow point out repeatedly, that's where the money's at -- in television, not in the theaters. It's easy to make a cheap-o TV movie and sell it to the Fox Family Channel or USA Network, then turn around and sell the hell out of it for broadcast on French or Spanish television. After a while, those movies are pure profit. There's no publicity to deal with, no distribution; just turn on the tube, and there you have it -- the once famous Kelly McGillis chasing tornadoes in a movie that smells like Twister.
Jarchow and Colichman do not see any contradiction in making lowbrow TV fodder and prestige art-house films; they scoff at the notion that one is better than the other. The fact is, without Doomsday Rock, there would be no Gods and Monsters or Sixth Happiness. The TV movies pay for the "real" movies. It's a frightening point, but one well taken.
"There's an international demand for good-quality TV films that can play prime time internationally," Jarchow explains. "That's something that we can sell. That's something we are now known for...I think some of our choices were not as good as they could have been early on, but if you pay attention, you try to get better at your job."
Then again, Regent began as nothing more than a name Jarchow could use to recycle barely released U.S. movies in the foreign market. The company began in the early 1990s, when he owned the Studios at Las Colinas with his then-partner Chris Christian. Jarchow, once a partner in locally based Lincoln Properties, bought the studio because it was a steal: a $12 million property he picked up for $1.25 million.
Buying the studio mostly as an investment, Jarchow figured it was also his way to learn more about the business of moviemaking. He had little to do with the studio's operations, which were marginal at best. In fact, only one movie was filmed there during Jarchow's ownership, the Steve Martin born-again dramedy Leap of Faith. But because he owned the studio, movie folk mistakenly believed Jarchow was in The Biz. They sent him scripts and offered him their back catalogs at bargain prices. One locally owned distribution company, Media Home Entertainment, unloaded its inventory for next to nothing: $25 million worth of titles for $150,000. Jarchow later bought another local distribution company's stock of films -- nearly 2,000 titles at a bankruptcy sale -- to build up Regent's catalog for future Internet use.
In 1994, the self-proclaimed workaholic sold his Las Colinas interest and spent his time negotiating foreign distribution for his burgeoning inventory. Two years later, Peter Dekom, a Los Angeles-based lawyer who was assisting him with some overseas deals, introduced Jarchow to the man who would help make him a legit player in the movie industry.
Paul Colichman is the Regent partner who, as a kid, might well have been voted Most Likely to Make Movies. He's literally a product of Los Angeles: He began working in a Westwood movie theater when he was 12, graduated from U.C.L.A., and went on to become the man responsible for getting Joan Rivers' talk show on FOX-TV during his tenure as the network's head of late-night programming. "Hey, I was young and stupid," he explains with a laugh.
Raised on art-house movies, he's the product of the early-'80s indie-film outburst that turned foreign films such as François Truffaut's The Last Metro, distributed through United Artists Classics, into fringe mainstream fare. Eventually, Colichman would go to work for UA as the company's assistant midnight-film buyer, getting such films as Penelope Spheeris' L.A. punk-rockumentary Decline of Western Civilization and, yes, even The Rocky Horror Picture Show into theaters.
In 1988, I.R.S. Records founder Miles Copeland brought Colichman in as president of I.R.S. Media, perhaps the most overlooked indie film company of the time. At I.R.S., Colichman helped oversee such titles as Tom and Viv, a T.S. Eliot biopic that garnered two Oscar nominations. I.R.S. was also responsible for one of the decade's most startling films: director Carl Franklin's One False Move, which was Billy Bob Thornton's first film as writer and star.
Having Colichman attached to Regent offered the company legitimacy where before Jarchow had only a back catalog of artistically bankrupt films. Colichman brought in his agent, Mark Harris, and Regent became a "real" studio; the three men chipped in $1 million in equity and, with Jarchow's solid financial history, established a line of credit.
For Colichman, Regent was I.R.S. reborn. The company's first original film was The Twilight of the Golds, a made-for-Showtime endeavor starring Brendan Fraser and Jennifer Beals about a pregnant woman who discovers her fetus is gay and wrestles with the decision about whether to abort the child. The movie was often didactic and turgid, though it did earn Faye Dunaway a Screen Actors Guild nomination for her performance. And the film was given a theatrical release following its cable debut -- all in all, a reputable first outing.
But it was nothing compared with what would happen the next time Regent got one of its movies into a theater.
The most talked-about movie of 1999 is nothing more than a glorified home movie about three filmmakers who go into the Maryland woods to film a documentary about a ghost and never return. Shot on video for a few thousand bucks, The Blair Witch Project, released through Artisan Pictures, is one of those films that comes along every few years and redefines what it means to be an "independent film."
Fifteen years ago, when people mentioned an independent film, they were talking about a movie made "off Hollywood" -- say, Jim Jarmusch's debut Stranger Than Paradise or the Coen Brothers' shot-in-Austin Blood Simple. Soon came Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape, the movie that turned Sundance into a verb and Bob and Harvey Weinstein's Miramax into an immovable mountain. These films and several hundred more were "indie" -- meaning none was financed by a major studio. This cinematic revolution wasn't televised -- at least not until the films started airing on the Sundance Channel or the Independent Film Channel. There are millions to be made these days selling movies made for thousands. Small films are big business.
This is the environment in which Regent finds itself: Indie fever, catch it! Gods and Monsters was only the tip of the iceberg, a movie starring the until recently obscure Ian McKellen and Lynn Redgrave (and, oh, Brendan Fraser) that got audiences into theaters and made Bill Condon a happy man come Oscar night.
But if one were to rewind the tape to 1997, he would see that things did not look as promising. Director Brian Skeet originally wanted to turn the story of horror director Whale's life into a documentary, and contacted novelist Christopher Bram to write the script. But Skeet abandoned the project when he couldn't get anyone interested in financing it. Bram, however, then turned Whale's tale into a biography, Father of Frankenstein. And Condon, whose biggest directorial credit up to that point was Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, wanted to make a film from Bram's source material. So he took the book to his Candyman collaborator Clive Barker, who then optioned the rights to it, allowing Condon to write the screenplay while keeping McKellen in mind for the role of Whale.
The only problem was finding someone to pay for a movie about a gay director who dies at the end of the film; it didn't help that Condon had no cachet as a director. So he wrote the script specifically tailored to a modest budget ($3 million) and a tight shooting schedule (four weeks).
Paul Colichman received the script from Condon's agent, and he fell in love with it. Colichman adored the portrayal of Whale as a complex gay character doing battle with the stroke-induced "thunderstorm" raging in his brain. He then forwarded the script to partners Jarchow and Harris. Jarchow offered only a few suggestions -- both of them involved toning down some of the explicit homosexuality, though he eventually relented -- and Regent agreed to finance the film for $2.5 million, with the rest coming from the BBC in England ($500,000) and Showtime ($1 million).
Regent had the option to buy out the cable channel and ultimately did, though Showtime gets to broadcast the movie for free later this year as part of the deal. Condon had no trouble signing on with a company that, up to that point, had nothing but made-for-TV movies on its roster. After all, save for the Candyman sequel, Condon's own résumé read like late-night cable listings.
"To be fair, they were only a year old, so they didn't have a rep at all," says Condon, whose next film is about the first Jewish Miss America. "I've done a few cable movies, and I know those are the bread and butter for these kinds of companies, so that didn't bother me. I was just grateful there was somebody who responded so strongly to the script, because we hadn't found that person anywhere else."
But getting the film made was easy compared with actually getting it into theaters. In 1998, the film screened at Sundance to critical acclaim, despite being shown at midnight in the middle of a snowstorm. No distributor wanted it: Either they had too many "gay" films, or they didn't want to touch a "gay" movie. And a year ago, Regent was in no financial position to distribute and promote Gods and Monsters itself.
Initially, Condon was crushed, but all that changed after Sundance, when Jarchow began talking about how extraordinary the film was: "like capturing lightning in a bottle," he told the writer-director. That's when Jarchow decided to pay off Showtime -- "out of his own pocket," Condon recalls -- to give the movie a proper release.
"That will remain one of those great moments," says Condon, who is still amazed by Jarchow's commitment. "It probably takes someone like that, who's a bit of an outsider, to do that. When you've been in Los Angeles too long, you forget how to take a risk."
Eventually, Lions Gate agreed to distribute the movie, but even then, Gods and Monsters didn't receive the publicity boost hindsight might suggest it needed. Condon says it never played in more than 120 theaters across the country, mostly because Lions Gate was too busy pushing the Nick Nolte-James Coburn father-and-son drama Affliction. Still, Gods and Monsters would go on to win several significant awards, among then the National Board of Review's honor for best picture, a Golden Globe for best supporting actress (Lynn Redgrave), and, of course, the Academy Award for best screenplay adaptation.
When Condon went up to accept his Oscar near the end of the four-hour ceremony, he used the forum to say something about how Hollywood had turned its back on James Whale. The audience, ready to head for the parties, glared at him with "hostility and boredom," Condon recalls.
"People like me don't get to go up there much," he says. "That was a little moment of triumph."
On the surface, Free Enterprise should have been an easy sell: Two friends, Robert (Rafer Weigel) and Mark (Eric McCormack, or Will of NBC's Will and Grace), try to squeeze out meaningful relationships in between seeing midnight showings of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, trading Star Wars dialogue, and having brief encounters with the hero of their childhood visions, Captain Kirk himself. It's a charming, often hysterical little movie that ought to appeal to a dozen different audiences, among them the wannabe-hip Swingers crowd, the Star Trek-Star Wars legions, and the Will and Grace audience. And anyone who would enjoy watching William Shatner play a drunk, lecherous egomaniac prone to doing rap numbers about Julius Caesar.
But writers Robert Burnett (also the film's director) and Mark Altman couldn't find anyone interested in their movie, even after it cleaned up at the AFI International Film Festival in Los Angeles. Distributors worried that Free Enterprise wouldn't play outside of the Trek crowd. They stayed away, until Colichman met with Altman and offered to distribute the movie through Regent, which began picking up films to both aid worthy young filmmakers and build Regent's inventory.
Regent had gotten into the distribution business when it picked up director Waris Hussein's Sixth Happiness in April of this year. Hussein's film is based on the memoirs of Firdaus Kanga, who actually stars in the film as a man suffering from what's known as Glass Bones Disease, which renders him as fragile as a dried twig. But Regent's partners and John Lambert, the company's head of theatrical distribution and acquisition, agreed that Free Enterprise, also acquired by Regent in April, was a far more accessible film to release first. Frankly, it wouldn't be such a tough sell.
That means Altman and Burnett's film has been something of a guinea pig as Regent learns the distribution end of moviemaking. And the transition hasn't been a smooth one. In early June, Free Enterprise opened in several theaters throughout Los Angeles but could not play in Regent's own theater, since the company didn't close on its purchase until July. The release didn't garner the buzz the duo hoped for; they had wanted to get the movie into local art houses, then build word of mouth. Hence, the film came and went, despite generous reviews and some good national press.
In coming weeks, Free Enterprise will roll out in New York, Chicago, then Dallas and a few other top markets. But it will not be this year's Swingers, despite the Kirk-in-a-cocktail-glass poster Regent has put together and the fact that Regent sent Shatner and the filmmakers to the Cannes Film Festival.
"We were up against Notting Hill," Altman says. "They played [Free Enterprise] like it was a mainstream release and not an indie film, and it has hurt us a little bit. But it's getting us out there with the big boys. I mean, we had a respectable per-screen average, but look at what Artisan did with The Blair Witch Project. They opened on one screen and built word of mouth and expanded...I almost wonder how it would have fared if we would have opened smaller."
Jarchow and Colichman, not surprisingly, agree with Altman. But they're just learning. Wisely, Regent gave Altman and Burnett money to push the film on a Web site and tour the sci-fi conventions.
Hussein's film will be an even tougher sell; he describes Sixth Happiness as a cross between My Left Foot, My Beautiful Laundrette, and The Tin Drum. But his film is hardly the stuff of high concept. Indeed, it's such an intimate film that at times it's hard to watch. Hussein, whose credits include the first Dr. Who episodes for the BBC, never even considered U.S. distribution. He thought it unlikely that someone would want to release a film about a disabled man in Bombay struggling with his homosexuality.
Then Regent came calling, after Mark Harris saw a screening of the film at Outfest, a gay-and-lesbian L.A. film festival.
"This is a film that doesn't have any stars and isn't an easy-selling film," says Hussein. "I am happy Regent is taking a gamble. They did the same thing with Gods and Monsters, which has its own texture. I admire them for building their repertoire slowly but surely, and hopefully they will continue on this track. They deserve it. I admire their courage. They're competing with Miramax now."
Maybe, maybe not; it's too soon to tell.
Jarchow and Colichman insist there is no pressure after Gods and Monsters to turn out another prestige art-house picture. They say they're just trying to build up inventory, keep the foreign guys happy with their TV movies, and, by next year, get 12 movies into the theaters, ones they have either produced or picked up for distribution.
Regent has a few films in production, including Nosferatu, a sort of time-cop thriller set in the present day and in the 16th century. Then there's Neverland, the story of Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie. For now, Jarchow says Ken Russell -- the man responsible for the film version of The Who's Tommy -- will direct, though he's well into his 70s.
Jarchow says he is still trying to purchase theaters in New York and London; he'd also like to build one in Dallas, not far from Preston Center on land he owns. And he loves to talk about the day when Regent can broadcast over the Internet, one of the reasons he continues to buy old inventory. He wants something to show as soon as the Web turns into a theater.
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"I said to my daughter when we went to the Academy Awards, 'This may be the only time, so we better enjoy it,'" Jarchow says. "We will make some good movies. It may be a few years before we get one, but when Paul and I started the company, he said, 'Every three years, we'll have a really good movie.' That's the average. We think Neverland's going to be pretty good. There are a few others that are out there. The key for us, though, is to get the financing in place so we get our times at bat."
Regent can't be judged a success or failure for another two or three years, long enough for the company to get its promotions and marketing departments up and running. Awards are fleeting, and successful directors always leave the little guy for the Big Studio. Even Miramax sold out to Disney.
But there is one way to measure success, and it counts for everything in the tenuous world of independent filmmaking. Bill Condon, Mark Altman, and Waris Hussein all say the same thing: They would sign with Regent again in a heartbeat. Even Altman tempers his distribution criticism with the following disclaimer: "You're looking at the Bob and Harvey Weinstein of the 21st century."
Altman likes to tell the following story about Stephen Jarchow. In April, Free Enterprise screened at the U.S.A. Film Festival. And both he and Burnett were in town to present their movie in Regent's hometown. But Jarchow didn't make it to the screening. Instead, he was at his daughter's ballet recital. Burnett says that proved to him he had signed with a real company: The boss man put his family before film. No wonder Altman talks about releasing the Free Enterprise sequel through Regent. Imagine The Graduate, he jokes, only with Princess Leia in the role of Mrs. Robinson. C'mon -- it'll be a smash hit.