EXCLUSIVE: World champion poker player Chris Ferguson is putting his chips on the table to back, RCR Pictures, a new film/TV venture. The company will be run by producer and former River Road Entertainment executive Robin Schorr, who said she has raised the funding for overhead and a five-year revolving development fund to generate properties she’ll package and then set up with distributors. The lead investors are Ferguson and his business partner, Ray Bitar.
Schorr confirmed that the first project set up is a contemporary remake of Nevada Smith, the 1966 Western that starred Steve McQueen as a wronged man hellbent on revenge. The project has been set up at Paramount, which owned the original title. The film is being written by Dear John scribe Jamie Linden. He is transplanting the storyline of a protagonist who vows to live a life of revenge after three criminals kill his family. In the new version, the McQueen character has to go through three crime families to exact vengeance. Deal was closed with Linden’s reps at Paradigm and Magnet Management. Schorr will be the producer.
Schorr has been an exec at River Road and Kennedy-Marshall. She was exec producer of the docu Food, Inc., and also produced The Prince And Me and Peaceful Warrior, before deciding to strike out on her own. Schorr has an intriguing family connection to Ferguson. Her father is Len Kleinrock, a computer science professor at UCLA who, in 1969, was part of the team of computer scientists who participated in the computer equivalent of Alexander Graham Bell’s historic first phone call. Kleinrock and others transmitted the first message between two computers., a development that made the internet possible. Kleinrock was longtime PhD advisor to Ferguson, who took 20 years at UCLA to complete his PhD in computer science, focusing on virtual network algorithms. The very next year, Ferguson won the World Series of Poker in 2000, pocketing $1.5 million. Ferguson has won five World Series of Poker events worth millions in prize money, but he made a lot more than that by writing and licensing the software for FullTiltPoker.com, a leader in the billion dollar online gaming industry. Ferguson, nicknamed “Jesus” for his long hair and beard, is known as a very cerebral, methodical, card player not prone to displays of emotion. He is often seen on the NBC series Poker After Dark, on which he and Bitar are producers.
So why are all these brainiacs investing in the development of properties for movies and TV, where many smart players have walked away from the table after losing their chips? Schorr said that it took her 18 months to convince Ferguson and Bitar to bet on a strategy that hinges on the idea that a killer script is the equivalent of a straight flush. Ferguson and Bitar were motivated by a love of films, and bet on her track record for finding engaging material. Not surprisingly, she is on the prowl for a great poker film. I think that’s a tall order, because outside of the Martin Campbell-directed James Bond relaunch Casino Royale, most of the poker projects I’ve seen have been busts.
“My approach starts with a love of writers and underlying material, and it made sense to them that if you own great stories and scripted material, a lot of amazing movies and television projects can grow from that,” Schorr said. “These are incredibly smart guys. I’ll ask their advice here and there, but Chris is not going to be reading scripts every weekend. When you are investing in development smartly, you can end up with so much more than if you put money into production financing. $5 million or $10 million can get you on the ground floor of many projects, and we hope to have a slate of 15 projects or more by the end of the year. And, yes, I would love to find a poker movie.” RCR has opened offices in Beverly Hills.