Does the name Benjamin Waisbren ring a bell? He had been the Hollywood mouthpiece for Wisconsin-based hedge fund Stark Investments and managed to convince his midwestern bosses that show biz was like any other investment, putting aside all those pretty, skinny people. Then came Stark's unfortunate decision to finance "The Poseidon Adventure," and Waisbren was out the door. Now, the hedge fund is using Ryan Kavanaugh, another high-octane middleman who shuttles between Hollywood and the big money. Bloomberg's Seth Lubove finds Waisbren trying to revive his career. "What Hollywood looks at is how you survive the bumps,'' he says.
Waisbren learned the harsh lesson that success in Hollywood is as much about luck as financial analysis. While some of the movies financed by the $264 million he invested on behalf of Stark for a six-picture deal at Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. - on top of several million more at producer Initial Entertainment Group - may turn out to be hits, Waisbren won't be able to share in that success. Warner Bros.'s "We Are Marshall'' was in 10th place last weekend at U.S. and Canadian movie theaters, taking in $5.1 million, according to box-office tracker Media By Numbers LLC.
Relentless to the point of badgering, Waisbren says he can be a difficult person when others don't share his vision. He says a personality conflict with his masters at Stark ultimately led to his downfall. "I may not be the easiest guy to get along with in the world,'' he says during a series of almost daily phone calls and e-mail exchanges. "I make a lousy lap dog.'' Even the people Waisbren says would vouch for his character, almost all of whom asked to remain anonymous, say he can be persistent to a fault.
"The impression I was out here just throwing money at movies was ridiculous,'' says Waisbren, whose name is still appearing as a producer on films he had a hand in, among them Warner Bros.' "Blood Diamond,'' starring Leonardo DiCaprio. He contends Stark's partners were as star-struck as anyone, jumping up from their tables at the trendy Koi restaurant in Los Angeles when celebrities arrived trailing camera flashes.
Kavanaugh is no shrinking violet himself. Before joining Stark, he was sued by PR man Mike Sitrick over Sitrick's $6 million investment in Pre-Cash Inc., a maker of pre-paid payment cards. According to Sitrick's complaint, Kavanaugh allegedly invested in private startups on whose boards Kavanaugh served. Sitrick later won a $7.6 million judgment in arbitration, but agreed to hold off on enforcing that judgment
provided Kavanaugh testify that he was worth less than $100,000. Now, Sitrick is demanding Kavanaugh pay up, claiming that Kavanaugh hid assets and had more than $100,000 at the time. Kavanaugh denies that and has filed a complaint against Sitrick.