Sanborn Studios’ key players have rocky bios

Herald Staff WritersNovember 21, 2010 

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Behind Sanborn Studios’ gala opening this month are three key players with various financial stories that read like scripts to a gripping suspense show.

Multiple bankruptcy filings.

Huge flops in Hollywood.

A string of high-profile lawsuits.

And one with a criminal fraud conviction.

But the studio’s lead players -- Kenneth Sanborn, Karinne Behr and her brother, Philippe Martinez -- are aiming for a comeback story with a happy ending: a successful Lakewood Ranch studio with a hit television show about competing news helicopters called “Miami 24/7.”

In the process, they promise to create more than 100 jobs that would pay an average of $72,000 a year and pump $164 million into the local economy over several years.

Sanborn, the studio’s chief executive officer; Behr, the studio’s president; and Martinez, executive producer of “Miami 24/7,” are not the only ones with a vested interest in the outcome. So do taxpayers, whose money has been pledged by local economic development officials to help launch Sanborn Studios.

Those officials express optimism that the investment -- now totaling $717,000 in incentives -- will pay dividends. But some are questioning whether the trio, given their past commercial failures, can deliver on their promises.

Despite the siblings’ previous legal and financial troubles, Sanborn said he had no problems hiring Behr to be his studio president and Martinez as executive producer of its debut TV show.

“What I focus on is people and people skills. I don’t look at dollar amounts,” Sanborn told the Herald, adding that he trusted his “gut feeling” and that “a dozen industry people” had spoken highly of Behr.

“Philippe Martinez’s legal and financial challenges from nearly two decades ago have been reported years ago and really aren’t pertinent to Sanborn Studios,” Sanborn said later in an e-mail. “His only connection to our current company is that of executive producer of the TV series ‘Miami 24/7.’ ”

From TV cameraman to boss

Sanborn Studios’ genesis dates back to 1987, when Sanborn -- a former ABC cameraman in New York -- started a company in New Jersey called Aerial Films Inc. The company filmed commercials and special events using stabilized cameras mounted to helicopters.

But after filing for bankruptcy in 1999 and emerging from bankruptcy reorganization, Aerial Films relocated to Sarasota in 2000. Just three years later, the company was back in bankruptcy court.

Shortly before seeking Chapter 11 reorganization a second time, Aerial sold most of its assets to a startup called Gyrocam Systems. One of Gyrocam’s owners was Sanborn, incorporation records show.

With few assets in Aerial’s name, the bankruptcy court converted the case to a Chapter 7 liquidation. Its long journey through the courts did not end until last July, when the trustee reported he had recovered just $224,000 for creditors who were owed millions.

In 2006, Gyrocam won a $51.7 million defense contract for cameras used to detect roadside bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq. Soon after, President George W. Bush toured Gyrocam’s facility at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

Sanborn and his Australian partners sold Gyrocam to defense giant Lockheed Martin Corp. in August 2009. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Three months later, Sanborn incorporated Gulf Coast Studios LLC, according to the Florida Division of Corporations. Its name was changed to Sanborn Studios LLC in September of this year.

Longtime interest in region

Philippe Martinez’s recent return to the Tampa Bay area follows a tradition dating back to the 1980s. While living in Pinellas then, he played Igor Sullivan in “Cactus Flower” at the St. Petersburg Little Theatre. The production ran through May 1989.

“He was fresh from France,” co-star Susan Gill said. “He spoke good English but heavily accented. He’s a very large man now, but he was not then. He was slender and very, very handsome and perfect for the part -- except that no one could understand him.”

Gill recalled Martinez partying with cast and crew. They would all go to the old Ten Beach Piano Bar in the basement of the Ponce De Leon Hotel in downtown St. Petersburg. The spot is now occupied by Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant.

“He was a lot of fun,” she said. “We went out after every rehearsal to sing and have a lovely time. He was very gracious and generous. And then he just kind of disappeared.”

Martinez surfaced in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, when he started Ulysse Entertainment, a film sales company. But its demise and an investor lawsuit led to a French court convicting him in absentia of fraud.

Martinez served six months in a French jail in 1999 after spending 14 months in a U.S. detention center for overstaying his visa, according to the Los Angeles Times and other media reports.

It was around that time that his sister, Karinne Behr, became an officer at the newly formed B/M Studios (later renamed Bauer Martinez Studios). But the Tampa Bay area was not far from their minds.

Behr repeatedly submitted the studio’s movies to the Sarasota Film Festival. But it wasn’t until January 2005 that she succeeded with “Citizen Verdict,” which starred Armand Assante and part-time Sarasota resident Jerry Springer.

“Karinne Behr came to us year after year with different projects, but we only took ‘Citizen Verdict’ to help celebrate Jerry Springer, who is local and agreed to attend,” said Tom Hall, the festival’s programming director. “We always prioritize Florida films and, since some of it was shot in Tampa Bay, we showed it. We haven’t shown a Bauer Martinez film since then because we haven’t deemed any of them appropriate for the festival.”

Not long after the Sarasota screening, Martinez arrived in his chauffeured Rolls-Royce just north of the Skyway in Pinellas. After maintaining dual operations in London and Los Angeles, Bauer Martinez moved its headquarters to Largo, leasing the entire eighth floor of the Wachovia building.

In 2005, Martinez told a St. Petersburg Times film critic that Bauer Martinez Studios was shooting one or two films a year in the area and creating a movie community that would attract filmmakers from Orlando and Los Angeles.

But the company -- and several production- and distribution-related firms also started by Martinez and Behr -- soon would run into serious financial and legal problems.

Movie rights bring lawsuits

A movie that was never made landed Martinez and his companies in court several times.

In 2005, Martinez bought the rights to “Crash Bandits” from producers Dale Rosenbloom and Mark Yellen for $250,000, and assembled some A-list talent for it: “Die Hard” director John McTiernan, actor Hayden Christensen of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader fame, and his brother, producer Tove Christensen.

Then came the lawsuits.

Rosenbloom and Yellen sued Martinez in 2006 in Los Angeles Superior Court, saying he still owed them $115,000. The case later was settled out of court.

The Christensens sued last year, accusing Martinez of fraudulently inducing them into several contracts with three of his companies, then breaking those contracts by not paying the brothers. The Christensens’ suit also claimed Martinez lied when he told them he had secured $250 million to finance, produce and distribute films.

The brothers said that, had they known otherwise, they would not have agreed to appear in and co-produce “Crash Bandits” or give Martinez first-look rights to finance, produce and distribute movies by their production company.

The suit claimed Martinez owed the brothers more than $2.6 million but that they agreed to settle for $638,888, which Martinez did not pay. The Christensens dropped their suit earlier this month, but did not give a reason, court records show.

In turn, Martinez sued McTiernan, blaming him for the film’s demise.

BMS Picture Three Inc., one of Bauer Martinez Studios’ many operating names, accused McTiernan in court of breaking his “Crash Bandits” contract by not telling the studio he was about to plead guilty of lying to federal agents in a wiretapping case. That scuttled “Crash Bandits” after BMS spent more than $2 million developing it, the suit said.

McTiernan countersued, accusing Martinez and BMS of fraud and misrepresentation. Both sides later reached an out-of-court settlement, court records show.

Bauer Martinez films

Bauer Martinez did make other movies. Among them: “I Could Never Be Your Woman,” starring Michelle Pfeiffer and directed by Amy Heckerling of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” fame, and “The Flock,” with Richard Gere and Claire Danes.

But “Woman,” a 2007 straight-to-video release that contained an executive producer credit for Behr, was widely panned.

“A desperately unfunny mix of tepid showbiz satire and formulaic romantic comedy, writer-director Amy Heckerling’s long-delayed, trouble-plagued ‘I Could Never Be Your Woman’ finally has been released -- or, more precisely, unleashed -- as a direct-to-video title,” reported movie industry bible Variety. “But it’s unlikely that even the marquee allure of Michelle Pfeiffer, Paul Rudd and up-and-comer Saoirse Ronan will be enough to offset unfavorable buzz after enough renters sample this ill-fated fiasco.”

According to the Internet Movie Database, the movie had an estimated $24 million budget but reported a gross of just $9 million. “The Flock” cost $32 million to make but generated a mere $5 million.

A group of foreign investors who put more than $7.5 million into those films sued Bauer Martinez last year in Los Angeles, saying the studio never shared the profits or provided an accounting as it was required to do.

Bauer Martinez countersued, accusing the investors of promising but failing to provide $100 million to $300 million in financing for the company. Bauer Martinez lost more than $12 million on “Woman” and “Flock” because there was little or no marketing money from the investors, the company said.

The investors, in turn, blamed Bauer Martinez for the films’ commercial failures and accused the company of fraud. The case is still pending, court records show.

By then, Bauer Martinez was in financial trouble, having piled up a reported $100 million in debt, according to Entertainment Weekly. The company filed its last annual corporate report in Florida in 2007. The report listed Behr as president and treasurer; Martinez was listed as CEO and secretary. The state dissolved the company’s incorporation for failing to file a 2008 annual report, records show.

The Largo office closed in 2008.

Yet the lawsuits continued.

In one, a federal judge in Los Angeles ordered Martinez and Lucky 7 Productions Ltd. -- Bauer Martinez Studios’ London-based production company -- in 2008 to pay a writer more than $55,000 for inadequately crediting him.

The Writers Guild of America West sued Lucky 7 and Martinez in Los Angeles on behalf of Brad Mirman, who wrote the screenplay for “The Piano Player,” a 2002 film also known as “The Target.” The union said Mirman was incorrectly credited on-screen and on the DVD jacket, as well as improperly credited in the main titles.

The judgment has not been paid, according to federal court records. Martinez was scheduled to appear in a Los Angeles federal courtroom earlier this month to provide financial information, but it was canceled, court records show.

Incentives backed venture

The brother-sister team collaborated again on the 2009 film “The Chaos Experiment” (formerly titled “The Steam Experiment”). The movie stars Val Kilmer, Assante and Eric Roberts.

It was filmed in Grand Rapids, Mich., over 16 days in September 2008, shortly after the state passed the nation’s highest movie production incentives -- 42 percent of direct production costs. The film’s announced budget was $7 million.

The movie premiered last year at the Gasparilla Film Festival in Tampa, then returned to Grand Rapids for a limited theatrical run before being released on DVD.

Republican lawmakers in Michigan announced plans this month to gradually phase out the state’s movie tax incentives, saying they haven’t boosted the state’s economy as much as anticipated.

The Michigan connections continue in Lakewood Ranch: Martinez’s Michigan company, Cinepro Pictures, was the “Miami 24/7” series’ sales agent at the annual American Film Market trade show held a few weeks ago in Santa Monica, Calif. And Philippe Martinez Productions, Cinepro’s sister company, is listed on Sanborn Studios’ website as the show’s co-production company.

Cinepro Pictures, according to its website, is currently making six movies. “Scar 23” has a reported budget of $14 million, but does not appear to have stars attached to it. “Miami 24/7” lead writer Lee Ehlers is credited as screenwriter of “Throbbing Justice,” which has a listed budget of $6 million and no stars. “Game of Death,” budgeted at $15 million, has no stars as well. The other three titles are “Cyborg Nanny,” “Sins of South Beach” and “Bag Monkeys.”

The Herald tried to reach Martinez in his Michigan office; a man identifying himself as Martinez’s attorney returned the call to say his client declined to comment.

Behr, reached at Sanborn Studios last week, also declined comment.

Sanborn adamantly defends his choices of Behr and Martinez.

“The entertainment industry is ripe with ups and downs and no company or individual is immune to setbacks,” he wrote in the e-mail to the Herald. “Mr. Martinez is a talented professional with a bright future, and we believe any challenges in the past and subsequent sanctions have been dealt with accordingly ...

“He will only receive any revenue if the series is successful,” Sanborn stated. “He hasn’t received any payment and would only be paid if the show is successful. He is not an employee of Sanborn Studios and has nothing to do with the day-to-day operations. We’re grateful for his help.”

Area success would be boon

Sanborn Studios is promising an economic boon of $164.2 million when it is fully functional in about five years and 117 new jobs over the next three years, with about 60 employees hired in the first year. The company said it could eventually occupy 22 acres in the Lakewood Ranch area.

The film company has entered a two-year lease with an option to buy the building it is using now, and has another option to buy seven more acres in Lakewood Ranch. Its warehouse-like facility features one giant green screen stage and used equipment purchased from Last Stage Out of Town, a production company that operated in nearby Polk County.

Taxpayers are helping pave the way, with Sarasota County committing $717,000 that includes a local match for state funds that will total $468,000.

Jeanne Corcoran, director of the Sarasota County Film & Entertainment Office, said her office researched Sanborn, Behr and Martinez’s backgrounds using Google, the Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com) and other sources before making an incentive offer. She said she has met Behr but doesn’t recall ever meeting Martinez.

Corcoran said her searches did not turn up a 2008 Entertainment Weekly story that noted Martinez’s fraud conviction and Bauer Martinez Studios having “racked up a $100 million debt.” Links to similar stories by other media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, can be found via a cursory Google search.

“I can’t comment on this as I don’t know the man or any of the history or facts about him,” Corcoran said when e-mailed a link to the EW article.

While Florida does not offer any incentives for building studios, it does offer a maximum tax credit of 30 percent of production costs spent within the state.

Lucia Fishburne, Florida’s film commissioner, said she could not say if Sanborn Studios has applied for and/or received incentives because of confidentiality. She also declined to say if Bauer Martinez Studios or any of Martinez’ other companies have received incentives in the past.

Sanborn has stated that his studio has sold the standard 13 episodes of “Miami 24/7” to foreign distributors at the recent American Film Market trade show.

“We cannot disclose the names of our buyers at this time but the show has sold internationally during AFM in multiple countries including: France, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Poland, CIS, Africa etc.,” the studio said in an e-mail to the Herald.

Rex Jensen, president of Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, told the Herald in September that Sanborn had purchased six acres for the studio’s future home. No deed for any such sale has been recorded yet, according to a Herald review of public records in both Manatee and Sarasota counties.

SMR spokeswoman Candice McElyea said Jensen was not available for comment Friday, and referred questions to Sanborn, who was reached on his cell phone.

“We have a contract that we signed to purchase the land,” Sanborn said. “The closing hasn’t happened yet but we made a downpayment.”

When asked how much the down payment was, Sanborn responded, “That’s not relevant.”

According to the financial incentive agreement between Sarasota County and Sanborn Studios, Sanborn must add the 117 jobs with the average wage of $72,000 by Sept. 2, 2013. Within 60 days of that date, Sanborn Studios shall reimburse the county $2,992 for each of the 117 new jobs not created. If Sanborn Studios ceases operations in Sarasota County within five years of the October agreement, the company will be responsible to reimburse the county a prorated amount of the incentive starting at 80 percent if the studio closes between now and Sept. 1, 2011.

“While we appreciate the help the county and state has given us, the money we have invested already is in the millions,” Sanborn said via e-mail Friday. “We plan to spend nearly $30 million over the next three years and hire over a hundred employees. This sort of initiative in this economy should be celebrated.”

-- Information from Herald archives, numerous California and Florida court records as well as articles by the Grand Rapids Press, The St. Petersburg Times and Los Angeles Times were used in this report.

CLARIFICATION: Sanborn Studios has acquired the assets of Last Stage Out Of Town and its owner, Dan Harvey, now works at Sanborn Studios. Harvey has a current Polk County business tax receipt for Last Stage Out of Town. The status of LSOT was updated in this story March 25, 2011.

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