Is Avi Lerner Friend Or Foe To Indieprods?

Two European sales companies — British based Hanway Films (the sales company of British producer Jeremy Thomas) and Paris-based Celluloid Dreams — are calling for Avi Lerner to step down as vice-chair of the Independent Film & Television Alliance. The problem stems from accusations that, at the same time he’s helping run the organization pledged to be the “voice and advocate for independents worldwide”, some companies which Lerner controls are apparently exploiting those same indie filmmakers by allegedly owing them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Lerner is co-chairman of Nu Image, which in 2007 bought the U.S. distributor First Look which is being sued by around 20 other film companies. Hanway Films’ head of business affairs Richard Mansell says his firm is owed nearly $500,000 by First Look, and pledges to soon pursue Nu Image through the courts in Los Angeles. Celluloid Dreams has won a court case against First Look for over $720,000 still owing from the U.S. release of Quentin Tarantino-starrer Sukiyaki Western Django, but hasn’t seen a dime yet. CEO Hengameh Panahi, one of Europe’s most respected sales agents, explains: “You can’t exploit somebody’s film and then not pay people.” IFTA would not comment on what it says are legal matters involving its members. Hanway Films’ Mansell says: “How can he represent the interests of an organization which is meant to adjudicate on and penalize wrongdoing by distributors? It makes IFTA itself a joke. If the organization had any integrity it would ask him to step down. IFTA is not being asked to comment on a legal dispute between its members: it is being asked to comment on activity subject of a court decision.”

Here’s what happened: First Look went bankrupt last month. But its movie assets are still controlled by Nu Image through its Millennium Entertainment subsidiary. Fears are that, by having the related company Millennium Entertainment take over First Look’s assets, Nu Image will escape its obligations.

As for Avi Lerner, whose company Millenium Films recently ran afoul of the Producers Guild of America, tells me he’s unaware of any UK court judgments against him. As for anybody who has one stemming from First Look, Lerner tells me: “They’ve got a judgment against a company that doesn’t exist, so who cares? All I wish them is good luck and try to collect the money.” Lerner stresses he never had any involvement in the day-to-day running of First Look, and what he discovered horrified him. “I made a big mistake by buying this company. I am the first one to fight for the rights of the indie producer. If First Look or Nu Image has done wrong, I believe in honesty and I believe in putting all the facts on the table.” Lerner says he decided to put First Look in bankruptcy because he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life shuttling from court to court. As for Hanway Films and Celluloid Dreams calling for him to quit the IFTA, Lerner says he’s never heard of the pair. “Tell those two producers next time there’s an election for the vice-chairman not to vote for me.”

British producer Richard Holmes is still another indieprod who says he’s been burned dealing with First Look. Holmes won a court judgment in London at the beginning of this year ordering the U.S. distributor to hand over $176,000 owing from the American release of his Irish comedy Waking Ned. He’s now trying to get that judgment enforced and calls the situation “a disgrace”. As Holmes claims, First Look is “still trading as Nu Image/Millennium and attracting other producers into their quagmire.”

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