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Ross Johnson

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When Andy and Elie Went to the Movies

"I got one big problem with this copy, Johnson," said Marty Berg, the managing editor of the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a legal paper.

"You write like a fucking magazine writer."

A moment before I was about to reply, "That's what I am, asshole," I thought of the days when I've been an editor and of all the stupid crap that came out of my mouth when I was bored and wanted to see a reporter squirm. Truth be told, I was having the time of my life hanging out with crooked lawyers and their wazoo bimbos at the Pacific Dining Car, so Berg's attempt at wry observation was merely the price of pleasure.


Elie Samaha: What's a Few Million Among Friends?

It was April of 2001, and Berg was holding an 8,000 word first draft of a story his top editor had assigned to me about the dueling lawsuits between film producer Elie Samaha and Barry Baeres, a German stock market promoter. The story I'd written of back-room deals, Cannes hookers, gunslinger lawyers, and Samaha's wily wingman, Andrew Stevens, was pure gonzo.

To paraphrase the great Travis Bickle, my copy was like a real rain that had come to wash the filth off the streets.

And since when was being a “magazine writer” a federal crime?

But Berg, who’s now the editor of the paper, was just speaking the truth. His paying customers wanted the hard news about lawsuits, and too much Tom Wolfe made them uncomfortable. Hack lawyers hate good writing, because a hack lawyer always has an unsold hack novel in his drawer, which lack-of-sale keeps him plying his trade as a hack lawyer.

Looking back on the whole pile of hysterical Hollywood bullshit, the story of Samaha, Baeres and Stevens was so over-the-top that any tale about their then-pending litigation that went all gonzo/Wolfe/Talese on their asses would have been like the gasoline fight in “Zoolander.”

Lots of fun while it lasted, but then....BBOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMM!

Now, great reader of this web site, the stories I wrote on Samaha back in 2001 have been released from the musty corners of the Daily Journal pay archive. Thank you, D.J.

The surreal part of the tales you are about to read is that for five weeks in a Santa Ana federal courtroom in 2004, a civil jury had these two stories shoved into their eyeballs by $500-an-hour lawyers. By that time, three years after the case was first filed, nobody cared about Samaha and Baeres except Janet Sphintz, the law reporter for the well-funded Daily Variety, and me, who actually thought a Samaha trial would be an entertaining bitch of a courthouse brawl.

The trial was worse than an anal probe. Imagine being in a courtroom for five friggin’ weeks listening to accountants describing the rules of bonded film budgets, bank notices of assignment, and German stock market reporting (or lack thereof). Then there was Elie Samaha telling jurors they had a lifetime pass to the V.I.P. room at White Lotus if they would just follow their hearts.

The jury laughed at Samaha’s jokes for five weeks, deliberated for a day and a half, and hit Samaha and what was left of his Franchise Films for $106 million in compensatory and punitive damages for pumping the film budgets that Baeres was obligated to pay 47 per cent of.

I was stunned. I knew the real Baeres, a German film rights trader whose company was worth $2 million back in February 1999. But within five months of going public on Frankfurt’s Neuer Markt, Baeres’ Intertainment Licensing GmbH hit a market cap of $1.3 billion by promising investors that Intertainment would have the European rights to a sixty-film library to be produced by the highly talented and well-respected Hollywood producer, Elie Samaha.

Back in Hollywood, we knew Samaha as the former doorman who had made his bones running the V.I.P. rooms at the Roxbury and the Sunset Room and supplying party favors for Sly Stallone, John Travolta, Kevin Costner, Wesley Snipes and Bruce Willis. Now, according to Baeres and his press releases that still sit on the website, Samaha was going to make highly-commerical films with his late-night buddies.

First up on the slate was Travolta’s “Battlefield Earth.”

Before his stock investors woke up and smelled the kraut, Baeres put $185 million of their money into the worst slate of films to hit Hollywood since Ed Wood. In September of 2000, Baeres owed a total of $170 million on cash guarantees and letters of credit that would be soon payable to Imperial Bank in Los Angeles and HypoVereinsbank in Munich, this as Samaha’s awful films were being delivered one after another for European release. And the Neuer Markt, which had thrown all that funny money Baeres’ way, was crashing.

That’s when Baeres said that Samaha was not the next Louis B. Mayer, rather, he was a thief who had slipped him phony, inflated budgets and cheated Intertainment out of $75 million. He said that Imperial Bank (now Comerica Bank) was in on the fraud, He told his investors that Samaha and Imperial were able to do this because Baeres was a naïve, but honest, German who had given Samaha that $185 million with no oversight. “I was never allowed to see any bank budgets or production cost reports,” Baeres wailed later in court.

“Yeah, I pumped the budgets,” Samaha replied in the witness box. “How else was I going to get my slate financed?” Samaha almost said “piece of shit slate financed,” but didn’t leave out this part:

“There was no fraud. Baeres knew I was pumping the budgets, but didn’t care. He’s a stock promoter. His job is to sell air to greedy investors who will buy anything that’s rising. At least I made the movies.”

The mistake that Samaha made was treating the trial like an inconvenience. Baeres, who paid trial litigator Scott Edelman of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher $15 million with the last of his shareholders' money, showed up every day of trial with a Teutonic intensity that let the jurors know that there was at least one side in the fight who took it seriously.

At the end of the day, Samaha may have been no more or no less than an honest thief. If you don’t believe me, check on how the arbitration is going between Intertainment and Imperial/Comerica Bank, in which Intertainment is trying to convince an arbitrator that the theory Baeres gave the civilian jury -- that Samaha's bankers participated in an international conspiracy -- was honest and true.

It’s going nowhere, because Intertainment is taking on the bank lawyers for Comerica, who’ve had five years to figure out where the bodies are buried in Germany.

But don’t ask Baeres. He resigned from his chairmanship of Intertainment in 2004 almost as soon as the jury verdict came in. He’s now on Intertainment’s “supervisory board” and has moved to Los Angeles. His last public statement heralded the jury verdict in the 2004 trial, and briefly noted that the debt from Franchise might be hard to collect because Franchise is bankrupt.

But check that website out at Intertainment, because there’s hot news that Barry is confident that the same $106 million that’s due from the Franchise lawsuit will be matched by the money that will come in from the Comerica Bank arbitration.

Any day now.

Part one of May 2000 Daily Journal story: The Players Bang Heads
Part Two: A Long Night in Munich for Andrew Stevens