ON WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 13, Randall Emmett presided over a crime scene near one of America’s few tropical rain forests in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico. Robert De Niro, dressed as a small-town Georgia sheriff, emerged from a sun-faded mobile home and walked solemnly past a black van marked coroner, looking like a man uneasy about the ordeal ahead of him. In Wash Me in the River, the feature film Emmett had just started shooting, that ordeal was to pursue a recovering opioid addict exacting revenge on the drug dealers he holds responsible for his fiancée’s death. Off-camera, De Niro’s ordeal was no less daunting—somehow, the great actor had to keep Hollywood’s worst filmmaker from ruining the movie they’d set out to make together.
Emmett, who is 50, has directed just one other film, which has yet to be released. But as a producer, his credits include more than 110 movies, which have grossed in excess of $1.2 billion, most of them bad enough to require a category all their own. Among these, a few are impressively dreadful, like Neil LaBute’s 2006 remake of The Wicker Man, starring Nicholas Cage; others are the forgettable detritus of a bygone era, like the 2007 thriller 88 Minutes, which marked a low point for both Al Pacino’s acting career and the use of cell phones as a plot device; most, however, are cheap paint-bynumbers action flicks such as Survive the Night, with Bruce Willis; Mercenary for Justice, starring Steven Seagal; and Backtrace, which brought Sylvester Stallone and Matthew Modine together for one of cinema’s more improbable partnerships.
Such a bleak filmography would seem an unlikely lure for collaborators like De Niro and John Malkovich, who also appears in Wash Me in the River. But over a career spanning more than two decades, Emmett has made a fortune producing bad movies; that he has done so while pissing off investors, directors, and screenwriters—and, arguably, misleading audiences—hardly matters in Hollywood, where feature films have become increasingly difficult to finance and box-office receipts recently approached a 40-year low. There’s a crude, blunt brilliance to Emmett’s filmmaking formula: Accept money from just about anyone willing to hand it over, offer vast sums of it to an aging star for a day or two of work, then leverage that actor’s name to presell the movie in foreign markets. Along the way, forgo union writers and directors whenever possible, keep shooting days to a minimum, and film on location in places like Puerto Rico, where the local government offers filmmakers tax credits that can be sold on the open market for 90 cents on the dollar. Ugliness, after all, is excusable in Hollywood, where Harvey Weinstein was sheltered for decades by his power and ability to make people money; in Weinstein’s absence, it remains the kind of town where even auteurs like Martin Scorsese will rub elbows with Emmett, producer of Private Valentine: Blonde & Dangerous, as long as it helps them get a movie made.
“He begged Marty for a script that he couldn’t get financed so that he could finance it for him,” a producer who has worked with Emmett told me. That film turned out to be Silence, which had languished in development for decades before Emmett helped Scorsese find some of the money that finally got it made.
Emmett leveraged his deal with Scorsese to earn a non-PGA producer credit for The Irishman, but it did not earn him the respect of his peers. For those old enough to remember his early days in Hollywood, Emmett is still Mark Wahlberg’s former personal assistant, the hard-partying hanger-on who helped inspire the character Turtle on HBO’s Entourage. Younger generations know him as a minor character on Vanderpump Rules, the realitytelevision program on which he occasionally appears alongside his 30-year-old fiancée, Lauren “Lala” Burningham. Broad expanses of his own industry now view him with suspicion, including unions like the Writers Guild of America-West, which has placed his production company, Emmett/Furla/Oasis, or EFO Films, on its strike list, citing its failure to comply with an arbitration award amounting to $524,367.31 (after interest). Six other residuals claims against the company are pending, according to Neal Sacharow, director of communications for the WGA. “Given that EFO has not been reliable or financially responsible with their WGA payment obligations, the WGA would require significant financial assurances, including the posting of a substantial bond, as part of any renegotiation to sign on to the 2020 Minimum Basic Agreement,” Sacharow says. (EFO’s attorney, Rebecca Kaufman, says that EFO intends to settle the matter.)
Even Emmett’s own partners—Dubai-based Oasis Ventures Entertainment, the O in EFO Films—have accused him in a lawsuit of attempting to “steal assets,” including the rights to films like Escape Plan 3, alleging that he failed to consult them on dealings related to MoviePass Films, a co-venture with the now-bankrupt subscription-based ticketing service that produced a handful of films, including Gotti, a biopic starring John Travolta that is one of only a few movies ever to hold an approval rating of 0 percent on the website Rotten Tomatoes.
In January, such embarrassments couldn’t have seemed farther away. Emmett, dressed in shorts and a navy V-neck T-shirt, with a baby-blue surgical mask covering his face, had the sun at his back and an enviable cast at his disposal: Alongside De Niro and Malkovich, the film would feature Jack Huston—grandson of John, nephew of Anjelica—best known for his portrayal of a disfigured hit man on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Emmett also had the benefit of a straightforward, somewhat timely script and a much larger budget than many of the directors he has financed; EFO productions are often shot in two weeks or less, but Emmett had a month to film Wash Me in the River, and after making a hundred bad movies, he seemed to finally have an interest in making something worth watching.
For decades, Scorsese’s approach to balancing personal expression and commercial imperatives in Hollywood has been associated with six words the director may never have actually used himself: “One for them, one for me.” And while commercial pictures like The Color of Money and GoodFellas may have earned him the right to make Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ, these days, that formula is outdated, a luxury even for someone like Scorsese. It’s Emmett’s career that is a better indication of Hollywood’s current math. Instead of “one for them,” a single good movie exists on the backs of massive comic-book franchises and an endless well of cheap, schlocky action flicks bad enough to make Michael Bay seem like David Lean.
I FIRST HEARD of Emmett last September, while speaking with Adam Champ, an executive at Daro Film Distribution in Monaco. From his office in Côte d’Azur’s sundrenched tax haven, Champ explained an inglorious but profitable slice of the film industry that is built around a certain category of actor—the kind of action stars and leading men who once ruled Hollywood and now make very good money appearing in very bad movies, most of them relegated to streaming services, video on demand (VOD), and late-night television in Europe and South America.
Among these actors are John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, and Sylvester Stallone. But perched atop the ignominious heap is Bruce Willis, whose prolific partnership with EFO Films, one of the biggest players in this niche of the industry, results in as many as four or five movies each year.
“With Bruce Willis, there’s almost a model for how he features in these movies,” Champ theorized. “One of my clients calls it a ‘geezer teaser’: You have Bruce Willis at the intro of the movie, so people are like, Great, this is a Bruce Willis movie. But he’s actually a secondary character who shows up sporadically.”
In most of Willis’s movies for EFO, “sporadic” would be a generous appraisal of his presence. The actor clocks just seven minutes of screen time in Hard Kill, and in Extraction, he spends less than nine minutes onscreen. In the homeinvasion thriller Survive the Night, audiences get almost ten minutes out of the actor, even if they aren’t his best.
The audience being teased by these brief performances seems to consist largely of men older than 35 who spent their teen years renting Jean-Claude Van Damme movies from their local video stores. In that era, as Bertrand Reignier, another Daro Films executive, puts it, action stars like Seagal and Van Damme made relatively cheap movies “with nothing to sell them except for the artwork on the box and maybe an action-packed trailer.” This demographic has now helped fuel the multibillion-dollar VOD market, a virtual replica of a Blockbuster Video.
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