Producers Andrew Kosove and Broderick Johnson are sitting behind twin prefab desks in their spare Los Angeles office, looking like the Odd Couple. Kosove, an intense, detail-oriented Jew from Philadelphia, stands about 5-foot-6-inches. Affable ex-basketball star Johnson, an African American from Athens, Ga., appears to be a head taller.
But the story of how these Princeton economics majors came to found Alcon Entertainment -- and to produce the new thriller, "Insomnia," starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams -- is more Horatio Alger than Neil Simon. "Neither of us ever had any intention of going into the movie business," says Kosove, 32. "We really stumbled into it in an unconventional way."
The producers -- who made Entertainment Weekly's 2000 "power issue" -- met at Princeton around 1989. At lunch one day, Kosove approached Johnson, then captain of the intramural basketball team: "He said, 'I know you guys won the championship last year, but unless you have a short Jewish kid on your team, you won't repeat," Johnson recalls with a laugh. "I fell in love with him from that point on."
Three years later, Kosove demonstrated the same kind of chutzpah when he read a newspaper story about an unusual gangster and thought it would make a good film. "On a lark, I started buying books on the movie business," he says. "I started sending them to Broderick, who by then had graduated and was working on Wall Street. We sort of mutually became fascinated with the business."
By 1995, the friends had moved to Hollywood, hooked up with a producer and were struggling to finance their gangster film. It was Frugal Living 101: "We were staying in the guest house behind our producer's home," says Johnson, 35. "We didn't even have a car."
After three years of work, the relationship with the producer soured, and the movie deal fell through. But the cloud had a silver lining: Through the producer, they'd met Fred Smith, the near-billionaire founder of Federal Express, who recognized kindred spirits in the young entrepreneurs. "We helped him find distribution for a stalled film he'd financed, and in return, he agreed to read our business plan for launching a film company that would maximize profit and minimize risk," Kosove says.
The 220-page plan outlined strategies such as developing creative deals with talent, pursuing studio distribution, sticking to commercial genres such as thrillers and slashing budgets (hence the prefab office furniture). According to Kosove, it "tried to combine the best of the independent and studio worlds."
Smith could relate, because while at Yale in 1965, he'd also written a paper outlining a new kind of business -- one that in 1971 became FedEx. Though Smith had received a C on his paper, he gave Kosove and Johnson a solid A: "It was one of the most well-though-out plans I had ever seen," he told the Los Angeles Times.
In 1997, the tycoon agreed to bankroll Alcon, named for a mythological archer who never missed his mark. Smith stuck with the producers even when their first film "Lost & Found," tanked at the box office. Smith was rewarded when Alcon's second movie, the $7.5 million family drama, "My Dog Skip," grossed $35 million and convinced Warner Bros. to sign a five-year, 10-picture distribution agreement.
The $300 million deal is indicative of what could become a new trend in show business: While many independents pre-sell movies to raise financing (which often means forfeiting profits), Alcon funds 100 percent of production costs, pays Warner Bros. a reduced distribution fee and gets to use the studio's worldwide distribution system, while keeping profits and copyrights.
"The economics of production have become more and more difficult for the studios, because of the huge overheads they're carrying and the position they've put themselves in where they're paying exorbitant fees to talent," says Kosove, who is married and attends University Synagogue. "They've had to figure out ways to keep their distribution pipelines full, while reducing their risk in financing films, which has provided opportunities for a company like Alcon."
Along the way, the producers have proved their mettle with a series of prescient creative decisions. For their 18th century drama, "The Affair of the Necklace," they cast the then-obscure actress, Hilary Swank, months before she earned an Oscar nomination for "Boys Don't Cry." Swank, who went on to win a 2000 Oscar, told The Journal she signed on to "Insomnia" partly because the producers "make the set such a creative and productive environment for the actors."
Kosove and Johnson also managed to hire Christopher Nolan to direct "Insomnia" before the release of his 2000 feature, "Memento," which received a 2001 Oscar nomination and numerous awards. "As an up-and-coming company, we try to invest in other up-and-comers," Kosove says.
In "Insomnia," Williams, cast against type as a psychopathic killer, plays cat and mouse with shady LAPD cop Will Dormer (Pacino) in an Alaskan hamlet. The gripping thriller -- a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film -- is set during the perpetual sunlight of an Arctic summer.
Kosove, who grew up attending one of Philadelphia's oldest Reform synagogues, Rodeph Shalom, implies the flick has a Jewish value or two. In the glare of the constant sunlight, Dormer can't sleep because his conscience is grappling with his yetzer harah (evil inclination). "His insomnia is the physical manifestation of his psychic struggle," Kosove says. "He's a character in moral conflict."
"Insomnia" opens today in Los Angeles.