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Box office bust.

Box Office Bust Arkansas Movie Production For "Staggerwing" Never Took Off But Investors Took A $400,000 Dive

A year has passed since the dreams of those associated with the production of the movie "Staggerwing" were dashed into the ground at Fayetteville, leaving behind a trail of nearly $400,000 in unfulfilled claims.

The film got a first class kick-off in August 1987 in the conference room at Stephens Inc. in Little Rock, where the point man on the project was Earl Bond, then a Stephens employee. Bond's ties to Stephens - and statements he made - gave him instant credibility, according to writers, producers and actors who committed to the project.

One financial backer says Bond's association with Stephens was like the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." But the $1.7 billion oil and financial giant never intended to underwrite the film, Stephens Inc. says.

"If that was the impression, it was purely subliminal," says Steve Stephens, spokesman for the company. "Stephens was not directly involved at any time and never intended to give that impression."

Bond denies having led investors on and places the blame for the project's failure on broken commitments by Jonathan Stern, a Boston real estate developer.

Regardless whose fault it is, in the dust that settled after the film's collapse, nothing remained but broken promises, unpaid bills, lawsuits and investor losses. The project now stands as a bruising black eye for the state's infant film industry.

Launching Pad

The project officially kicked off when representatives of Film Trust of Arkansas and Show Inc. announced they would produce "Staggerwing," a modern-day Robin Hood script written by best-selling author Harry Minetree based on the life of Dallas Rae Delay, a convicted killer now in the Missouri State Penitentiary.

Nate Kohn represented FilmTrust and Stern headed up Show. Stern is associated with Sillerman-Magee, a merchant banking group specializing in radio and television acquisitions. Bond assisted Stern and Kohn as vice president of FilmTrust.

Early on, Minetree says he was convinced Bond had the financial backing for "Staggerwing," and that most of the money was already in escrow. And Stern says "because of the credibility of the Stephens organization," he felt Bond would be able to raise the money needed for the production. But appearances were deceiving.

The Working Arrangement

Staggerwing Productions Inc., a Delaware corporation, was a joint venture of Show Inc. and FilmTrust, according to Stern. He says the agreement was that Show would put up development money for the film and FilmTrust would raise production funds "from various wealthy people in Arkansas, including Sam Walton."

Stern says FilmTrust, and Bond, didn't keep its part of the bargain. "He (Bond) sold us on his expertise ...it was Earl who got us involved," Stern says.

Bond says of his involvement with Staggerwing: "I didn't own any part of it." He says he was trying to help Stern and Minetree "structure their financing."

So, who owns Staggerwing Inc.? "Jonathan Stern and the other fellow out of Boston (Steve Herman)," says Bond. "And FilmTrust had a small ownership in Staggerwing."

Bond also claims he was acting as an unofficial representative of the Arkansas Motion Picture Development Office, a division of the state's Industrial Development Commission, but a call to an official at the AIDC doesn't bear him out.

Christy Johnson, director of the State Office of Motion Picture Development says her office knew about "Staggerwing" but wasn't asked to support the production in any way.

Johnson says Bond didn't represent her office, and her office doesn't raise financing for movie productions. Nobody called her office to inquire about FilmTrust or "Staggerwing" before production began, she says. If they had, she would have advised them to ascertain whether a completion bond had been posted. A completion bond guarantees creditors will be paid.

Back To Bond

"It was Minetree's project, his story and his baby. The money-raising effort was to be from Jonathan Stern and his partners," says Bond, who claims the production halted because Stern pulled out of the deal at the last minute.

And, Bond says, he never approached people in Arkansas to invest in Staggerwing.

Although Bond denies having any ownership of Staggerwing, he admits charging hotel bills on a FilmTrust credit card on behalf of the cast and crew. (In November 1989, Days Inn Motel in Bentonville sued FilmTrust for more than $6,500 in room charges, contending Bond charged the fees from March 20 through March 29. In July, American Express refused to pay the charges.)

Bond says FilmTrust is currently trying to sell property it owns in North Little Rock and liquidate the debt that encumbers the property. National Bank of Arkansas holds a mortgage on the property, but Bond says the film company's debts do not include money owned to the Director's Guild of America.

The guild filed a claim against "Staggerwing" on behalf of director Hal Holbrook and line producer Bruce Nalepinski. According to Bond's reasoning: "That's against `Staggerwing,' and I had no part whatsoever." He says Nate Kohn ran FilmTrust.

Minetree, who wrote the biography of Texas heart surgeon Denton Cooley, has written articles in Time, Harpers and Town & Country and was a staff writer for the popular television series, "Hill Street Blues." He also has produced several documentaries. Minetree was introduced to Earl Bond by a mutual friend and former classmate from Vanderbilt who is now a bond broker in Dallas.

Kohn and his wife had moved to Arkansas from Illinois and had been introduced to Bond by William H. Asti, a local architect interested in film production. Asti says he encouraged Kohn to come to Arkansas and assist him in his film development efforts.

Asti says FilmTrust was his idea originally, but Bond and Kohn incorporated the company and edged him out. Asti says when he realized Bond was more interested in land development than film development, he had his attorney make sure he was not involved in "Staggerwing" because he was convinced "all hell will break lose."

Down The Line

Once a script is written, casting is completed, money is raised and so forth, the first person to set the production ball rolling is the line producer. In this case it was Bruce Nalepinski of East Hampton, N.Y.

"About a year ago was the first time I set foot in Arkansas," says Nalepinski, who was hired by Minetree.

"Basically we came to an agreement that I would come to Arkansas in March to Little Rock and meet Earl Bond. He would set me up with a car and I would go to northwest Arkansas scouting...As soon as I got to Little Rock my first disappointment was I was supposed to meet Earl Bond at the airport. He didn't show. I ended up renting my own car with my own credit card."

Nalepinski brought in an art director from Atlanta, who had turned down an opportunity to work on "Driving Miss Daisy" to come to Arkansas for "Staggerwing." He also brought a secretary, auditor and location manager to the state and kept Kohn and Bond advised "with weekly reports how much money we were spending."

At the end of the first week he met Ron Loveless of Rogers. "Ron is actually the only person who ever gave me any money, about $200,000," says Nalepinski. "Nate and Earl never ever gave us any money."

Loveless did not return repeated phone calls to discuss his participation in the film venture.

When it was time to bring the actors to Arkansas, a $100,000 cash bond first had to be posted with the Screen Actors Guild to protect their members' interest. Nalepinski says Kohn told him to ask Loveless for the money. He did, and Loveless gave it to him.

"Ron was very up and up and legitimate and honestly tried to help," says Nalepinski. "The other folks involved, I rarely heard from."

Nalepinski says he believes he was asked to go to northwest Arkansas to "stir up interest in Tyson and Walton," so that they would invest the rest of the money needed to produce the film.

That was April 1989. By the end of the month, Nalepinski had 90 percent of the crew in place and they were ready to start shooting.

"A lot of scrambling went on between Nate Kohn and Earl Bond and a lot of phone calls," says Nalepinski. "...This invisible escrow account never showed up. ...I had to send all the actors home without paychecks, and I had to send all the crew home without checks with the promise we would be paid in six weeks," he says, but here it is a year later, and they're still waiting for their money.

"We not only let down those from California and New York, but the locals and the folks from Fayetteville were let down. It would have been good for the locals, and we would have dumped $1 1/2-2 million into that area," Nalepinski says, adding, "It's a shame Arkansas loses in the end because the film industry is pretty small. Everybody knows about Arkansas."

Aftermath

Kohn and his wife left Arkansas a few months ago, but Earl Bond is still here, although not at Stephens. Bond says he left the company because they wanted him to become an "institutional broker." Instead, he says, he went out on his own. Bond is now a partner in Bond and Gammill, a Little Rock investment firm.

Stephens has a company policy not to comment about reasons employees leave.

And what of Harry Minetree and his script? He still has hope "Staggerwing" can be filmed in Arkansas. Ownership of the script has reverted back to him, and he's currently in California considering several courses of action. However, Arkansas is still his favorite location. But soon a business decision will have to be made, and the loser in this whole story could be Arkansas.

"We would like to come back and make the film in Arkansas, but the only way we will be able to do it... is to raise the money in Arkansas," Minetree says.

"It would be like a fairy-tale ending if we could shoot the film there and share the success with the people of Arkansas. ...That would generate a lot of publicity."

But after all he's been through, why would Minetree want to come back to the state? "Because the script is suited to Arkansas, to that terrain in the Ozarks, and we like the people there so much. Everybody was so happy with the way things went until it fell apart. We feel we owe a debt to the local Arkansans who weren't remunerated for the work they did...If it's not made in Arkansas, I will always feel incomplete."

Jan Meins is a free-lance writer living in Cabot.

PHOTO : DASHED DREAMS: Hal Holbrook, director of "Staggerwing," was one of many people who were committed to the project, which ended in failure.

PHOTO : READY FOR TAKE-OFF: Although the Staggerwing plane which was to be used in the film was ready to go, the movie never got off the ground.
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Title Annotation:Arkansas production of Staggerwing
Author:Meins, Jan
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:May 7, 1990
Words:1845
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