From the "Biz" Archives:

From Website to Production Company: HSX Films Ignites

by Anthony Kaufman


"I heard a saying once, 'It's easier to curse the darkness than to light a match.' So I said, I want to be lighting matches," says Ignite Entertainment's President of Production Leanna Creel. "Even if it's a small light, I want to try to light them."

At this year's Cannes Film Festival, Creel, together with company Chairman, Michael Burns, decided it was time to move on from their web-based roots at the Hollywood Stock Exchange and officially change their name to Ignite Entertainment, making clear, stated Burns in a press release, "that our growing production arm had a singular identity in the industry." While the team was hashing out new names on the Riviera, a slew of their recently produced pics were selling in the Cannes market, from "Lolita"-starrer Dominique Swain in "Girl" to the post-Apocalyptic rock and roll movie, "Six String Samurai," to their first ultra-low budget movie "Mixed Signals."

Weary Internet producers and film professionals might ask, 'How did a successful website spin off into a film production company?' The reason lies primarily in Burns, who has worked on Wall Street at Merrill Lynch and Shearson Lehman Brothers (now Smith Barney) before joining Prudential Securities, where he has been head of their LA investment banking office for seven years. The website, HSX (the Hollywood Stock Exchange, www.hsx.com) where Internet users buy and sell movie stocks and star bonds in a simulated stock exchange, was financed primarily with Burns' own money. However, Burns' experience with numerous media deals (e.g. raising money for international broadcasters and film companies) gave him the access to investors when the time came to expand.

"As the Internet started getting more and more capital intensive," says Burns, "investors were really attracted to us. And investors were people that we'd worked with before and had already had relationships with." Then, with more institutional money coming in and just recently a round of venture capital raised through investor Keystone, not to mention its 110,000 players and steady advertising revenue, the HSX website continues to be an Internet success story.

"When we started the Internet company, it was a marriage between Wall Street and Hollywood," further explains Burns. "So we decided to spin off and actually start a film company." In early 1997, Burns gathered the necessary investors to create the production company known formerly as HSX Films. Together with HSX's first employee, Leanna Creel, they jumped into the world of producing movies; Burns as Chairman and project green-lighter and Creel as producing guru.

Creel worked as an actor for ten years in Hollywood before becoming a producer. She starred in the TV teen sitcom "Saved By the Bell" (something she wishes to put behind her), then went on to UCLA, got a history degree and suddenly found herself producing her first feature in 1994 for $23,000 when a friend's producer got into a car accident. After graduating, Creel realized her true calling and went back to UCLA to earn an M.F.A. in Film and Television. "The reason I stopped being an actor and wanted to be a producer," she says, "is because I didn't want to be another actress who sat around and complained that there were no good roles for women, that there were no interesting projects out there, that no one was taking risks on the young filmmakers. I didn't want to be another person complaining."

Creel did spend a stint studying website and gaming designs, but as for the Internet, she says, "My interests have always been more along the line of producing movies, because that's more my expertise. Until the Internet speeds up, when it speeds up, I'll be interested in it again." But now, Creel's packed schedule has been spent producing the 6 films since the company's formation and the upcoming roughly 8 projects that Ignite plans to put out each year.

The company's first project, "Mixed Signals" which is "presently entertaining offers" was shot in only 12 days in Los Angeles, where the company is based. Although Creel fulfilled such production roles from accountant and line producer to first AD, unit production manager and craft services, she explains, "I didn't get paid for anything." But, she continues, "It's the kind of thing you venture into knowing that's its going to pay off later. Because you know what, it made me a producer."

Impressed with Creel's quick production scheduling ("from the day we wrapped to the day we had our distribution screening was 89 days," boasts Creel), William Morris, whose talent was featured in "Mixed Signals," signed her on to produce "Six String Samurai" which the company needed to be scheduled, budgeted and produced in two months. Creel pulled it off. Subsequently Ignite Entertainment has an impressive range of films in various stages of production, including Morgan J. Freeman's "Desert Blue," Jamie Babbit's "But I'm a Cheerleader," "The Lauren Schwartz Story: The Saga of a Loser," being co-produced by Bette Midler and Bonnie Bruckheimer's All Girl Productions, and "The Suburbans," starring Ben Stiller and Jennifer Love Hewitt.

Most of Ignite's projects have come to their doorstep through personal contacts, either through people Creel met while going to UCLA or working as an LA actor, or through Burns' connections on Wall Street. "We very rarely get projects through blind submissions," says Creel. "Now we would like to continue our relationships with all the filmmakers that we've begun relationships with."

Working consistently with price tags under $5 million, Ignite's mandate, according to its principles, is to work with strong directors and strong scripts. "Script is the most important thing for us," says Burns. "And then we look at a script and say, can we attach the right elements to this?" Creel's personal passion, she adds, is "developing young talent, especially young women directors and D.P.s."

As the company continues to grow, they plan to hire another key investment banker-turned- producer, along with a new assistant to handle submissions and queries. As for the future of Ignite, Burns says, "My hope is that we are responsible for making terrific movies, so I am not so married to the idea of size. We have been approached to have some sort of studio alliances and some of our projects are a little too big for us to do, so we'll team up with a studio."

"I'd like us to be an autonomous company that has some output deal with a studio," joins in Creel. "But we would control our own foreign sales, and our own banking. I would like to have a reputation for developing and having discovered some of the really exciting talent, and being able to grow with them, similar to Ang Lee at Good Machine." Creel concludes, "And that directors will want to work with us, because they know we will support them and we are creative. We're not just handing over money. We will shepherd a project through in the right way and make it happen for people."

[Ignite Entertainment can be reached at telephone at 310/458.5256.]