Larry Meistrich is essentially looking for the next Nick Gomez. Today, Gomez is an obscure but first-rate director of television dramas, like Brotherhood and The Shield. But back in 1991, Meistrich financed the unknown filmmaker's first movie, The Laws of Gravity, for just $35,000. When the gritty street drama became an art-house success, Meistrich's fledgling New York-based indie production company, the Shooting Gallery, was on the map. Four years later, Meistrich and his outfit graduated to the big time when they sold the distribution rights to Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade to Miramax for $10 million.
Hollywood, though, is not immune to its own laws of gravity, which prescribe that whatever goes up must come down. Hard. In his late 20s, with numerous successful productions like Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me under his belt, Meistrich envisioned himself as a mogul, with ambitions for a multimillion-dollar studio space in New Jersey and a dynamic Internet entertainment component. But in 2001, the Shooting Gallery's decade-long run as a beacon of the independent film movement came to a screeching halt when the company permanently shuttered its doors amidst an avalanche of massive debt, severed friendships, and nasty lawsuits. But Hollywood's siren song is irresistible. In fact, that longing is the very foundation of Meistrich's latest venture.
THE LOUNGE OF MANHATTAN'S EXTRAVAGANT Four Seasons Hotel oozes with Power, and Meistrich, now 41, is holding court tonight with aspiring filmmakers. A diverse collection of ballet dancers, massage therapists, and Marine veterans have ponied up $10 for a 15-minute opportunity to pitch their ideas to Meistrich and his associates. Each of them has come here on a blustery evening in late November because, in their mind at least, they each have the most brilliant concept ever. They've also come because they don't know where else to go with it. But, mostly, they've come because they've heard Meistrich has money.
Last October, seven months after cofounding Nehst Studios, Meistrich told The Hollywood Reporter that he'd partnered with Lexicon Filmed Entertainment and Machine Made Media to share a privately financed $250 million film fund, and that Nehst was open for business to back films budgeted up to $50 million. Nehst aspires to be something totally new, but it's rooted in the familiar storming-the-gates filmmaking mindset of the early 1990s. ''Hollywood uses the same 200 writers for everything,'' Meistrich says, between sips of red wine. ''We're trying to democratize the process. I've been in meetings in L.A. where I've pitched our clients' ideas to impressed execs who've said, 'Great, why didn't they just call William Morris?' The average person can't call William Morris. Nehst is another way in.''
In April, Nehst (websites with N-E-X-T were already trademarked, so the old-English spelling of the word, pronounced ''next,'' became the studio label) launched pitchnehst.com, where anyone with a dream can upload a script or idea for production consideration. At about the same time, Meistrich and his colleagues began crisscrossing the country hosting pitch sessions, like the one at the Four Seasons, in untapped markets like Cleveland, Syracuse, and Sacramento. ''There's always going to be someone outside the system who's good enough to play,'' says Meistrich. ''If 10 is Martin Scorsese, I would say most of these people, experience-wise, are 2 to 4. Talent-wise, though and the jury's still out most of these people are 6 to 8.''
As for the token fee, which may or may not go toward the tasty drinks and cheese tray: ''We charge 10 bucks per pitch, but that's really just to weed out the maniacs,'' he says. ''For every 40 pitches, we get one completely crazy person. This one guy in Sacramento wanted to fight me.''
NEXT PAGE: ''You feel this nervous energy because you're literally pitching in front of 75 people. And as soon as you're done, the three judges basically critique your pitch, so it does feel like American Idol.''