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