Is There a Hit Film in the Battle for Ohio?

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 9 – With “Jarhead” revisiting the gulf war and “Good Night, and Good Luck” taking moviegoers all the way back to McCarthyism for a history lesson, it must not have seemed like such a stretch to make a documentary about a divisive event that at least everyone remembers.

To the lengthening list of political films vying for the attention of a polarized public, James D. Stern – a serious Hollywood financier and Broadway producer who dabbles at directing his own movies – hopes to add one that looks squarely at the 2004 presidential campaign between President Bush and Senator John Kerry.

The question, of course, is just how many people will want to relive that fight.

While it lacks the partisanship and personality of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the as-yet-untitled picture relies on a dispassionate, journalistic delivery – Mr. Stern’s liberal leanings notwithstanding – to provide concise, pointed and even funny answers to anyone still wondering how Mr. Bush managed to defeat Mr. Kerry.

About 13 months ago, Mr. Stern and a partner, Adam Del Deo, dispatched 15 camera crews across Ohio to chronicle the final days of the house-to-house struggle between Republican and Democratic political organizers in the most critical battleground state in the country.

The resulting film, which the co-directors are still polishing in hopes of getting it accepted by the Sundance Film Festival, shows Republican campaigners functioning like a well-oiled machine and Democrats looking incapable of ordering lunch, let alone organizing a major get-out-the-vote operation. These scenes, interspersed with interviews with top strategists for both the Bush and the Kerry campaigns – with the glaring exceptions of Karl Rove and Bob Shrum – by and large leave the impression that the Bush campaign was run by major-league professionals and the Kerry campaign by bush-league amateurs.

One sequence is particularly memorable: After Tad Devine, a top Kerry consultant, is quoted earnestly explaining the Democrats’ strategic decision to appeal to swing voters, or “persuadables,” an unshaven young Democratic operative is shown knocking on doors of these supposed persuadables in Ohio. When a young man eating his breakfast says he is leaning to the Republican side, the hapless organizer meekly asks, “Can I persuade you otherwise?” but has nothing more to add as the door shuts in his face.

Most of the ground the movie covers will be familiar territory to followers of politics, however: Mr. Bush had a consistent message, Mr. Kerry did not, the movie asserts; Mr. Kerry erred by restraining Democrats from attacking Mr. Bush at their convention, only to be excoriated by the Republicans at theirs; Mr. Kerry never came up with an effective retort to the “flip-flopping charge”; and on and on.

While the terms “flip-flop” and “Swift Boat” might seem to some an unpleasant but mercifully distant memory, Mr. Stern is certain that this trip back to the 2004 campaign has only grown more enticing in an intervening year marked by scandal and escalating debate over the rationale for war in Iraq.

“I think this movie has gained relevance every day,” he said. “The more that this administration has taken the country in one direction, I think people want to understand how it is that the political process got to the point where this president was elected.”

Mr. Stern’s stature as an arbiter of the zeitgeist isn’t so evident from his mixed track record as a director. His last documentary was “The Year of the Yao,” about the N.B.A. star Yao Ming, which grossed about $35,000 at the box office – a bomb, not a misprint. He also directed the much better received “Michael Jordan to the Max,” a 2000 documentary about the retired basketball superstar, which grossed nearly $19 million at Imax theaters, and a supernatural thriller, “It’s the Rage,” which went straight to video. (He has shared directing credit on each of his theatrical films.)

Yet Mr. Stern should not be easily ignored, either. In the theater, he has been a producer of “Stomp,” “The Producers” and “Hairspray,” among other hit shows. And in Hollywood, his résumé as a financier includes last year’s critically acclaimed “Hotel Rwanda” and the successful comedy “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” and this fall’s “Proof.”

Mr. Stern, 48, acquired his financial acumen, interest in politics and even his ties to basketball at the knee of his father, Richard J. Stern, a wealthy Chicago entrepreneur, part-owner of the N.B.A.’s Bulls and prominent Democratic donor. In 2003, the younger Mr. Stern, who also manages the family’s investment fund, set up a fund of his own, Endgame Entertainment, with a term of three years, as a way for him to establish a track record as a film producer.

In increments of less than $5 million, the fund generally makes short-term, relatively safe loans, providing the last piece in a film’s financing puzzle, as Endgame did with “Harold and Kumar”; and direct equity investments, as it did with “Proof,” which was brought to Mr. Stern by Harvey Weinstein, another investor in “The Producers.” (For his money, Mr. Stern received an executive producer’s credit on both films.) It also develops its own productions.

While Mr. Stern has been a quiet presence in Hollywood, he has quickly built a reputation for both financial savvy and taste. “He responds well to ‘It’s a good deal,’ and also to ‘It’s a really good project,’ ” said Peter Schlessel, a former executive at Sony Pictures, which distributed “It’s the Rage,” and who with Mr. Stern is one of the producers of “Stay Alive,” a forthcoming horror film. “A lot of people in Hollywood may have the left brain or the right brain, but it’s rare to operate on both sides.”

With the fund approaching its closing in February, Mr. Stern said his plan now was to turn Endgame into an operating company, giving him the freedom to do acquisitions and joint ventures and cut other long-term deals. His investors, who he says have made 35 percent on their money, are apparently coming along.

“This is really a bet on Jim Stern,” said Tom Barton, a Dallas-based hedge fund manager best known as a short seller, who said he was pushing Mr. Stern to make bigger financial bets on movies. “I expect him to be a very steady moneymaker across the board and, because he has that great taste, to be able to find one or two of those grand slams.”

Whether Mr. Stern’s political documentary has any chance of being a grand slam, or even of getting into theaters, could well be decided in a few weeks, when Sundance announces its schedule; his film is being represented by John Sloss, a lawyer known as a festival kingmaker.

If Mr. Stern has shown a knack for juggling dual agendas as a financier and filmmaker, meanwhile, he may have a third motive for pushing to get his film in front of audiences: he sounds very much like a devoted Democrat trying to shake his party into fixing its problems in time for the next election – and with a certain Illinois-bred New York senator in mind.

“As we go forward at first into 2006, and then into 2008, I think this movie will be even more relevant, and I think the audience for it is expanding,” he said in an interview. “You’re going to go out and nominate a candidate in the Democratic Party. The question is, Can she win a place like Ohio?”

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