PRODUCER GETS THE SPOTLIGHT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It wasn't a scene to make James G. Robinson humble. But then, consider the raw material.

As a Baltimore Who's Who ranging from Artie Donovan to Cardinal William H. Keeler watched, the Advertising & Professional Club of Baltimore yesterday gave Maryland's biggest film producer its Distinguished Marylander award in honor of bringing $30 million of filmmaking business to the state this year.

"We're making millions of dollars as a result of him making XTC millions of dollars," Gov. William Donald Schaefer told the 400 people at the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel.

The scene was a love-in of joking politicians, admiring film colleagues and networking locals gathered to honor the president and CEO of Morgan Creek Productions, whose fortune made in the car business has allowed him to call his own shots while building his second career.

"I have a reputation for being a hard [nose]," Mr. Robinson allows.

But what a hardnose, a charming, intellectual, egotistical guy who wants to have fun. Two hours in his office at the Harbor Court condominiums in Baltimore, where the Timonium resident keeps the headquarters of Morgan Creek Productions Inc., is a ride through a kaleidoscope.

The 59-year-old former Subaru distributor from Dundalk laughs about directors who didn't think Jim Carrey -- who has only

carried two of the biggest farcical comedy hits of the decade in the last eight months -- was funny, and about how Siskel & Ebert hate every movie he makes big money on.

"If I don't have a good time, why am I in this business?" he said. "I already made my money."

He also matter-of-factly calls himself one of the "six or seven people in Hollywood who can green-light a movie" and waxes evangelical about the pedagogical force of even lower-brow movies like "Major League II." "I know exactly what the score is -- always," he said.

Words he has lived by. Morgan Creek has become a major independent studio less than a decade after Mr. Robinson founded it with then-partner Joe Roth, now the head of Disney Studios.

Morgan Creek won early notice from the financial community for making innovative deals with studios to distribute its films, which cut the company's potential by much less than it reduced the financial risk that killed other independents. Since, it has won critical acclaim for films like "Enemies, A Love Story" and "The Last of the Mohicans" while doing boffo numbers for less acclaimed films like "Ace Ventura" and "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." He said the company will produce 10 films in the next 16 months, ranging from a thriller with Sharon Stone to a comedy about Tom Arnold confronting the bully who tormented him in high school.

"In '95 I'm being very commercial," he said.

It all began with a tax dodge.

Mr. Robinson was already rich by the time he started thinking about making movies. He had bought a business that cleaned cars at the port of Baltimore after he got out of the Army and diversified into adding minor options like undercoating and sunroofs. In 1975, he bought a bankrupt Subaru distributorship and ended up importing for and supplying more than 90 Midwestern car dealers.

By 1979, he found his way into tax-sheltering partnerships that provided bridge financing to filmmakers. "The community hears you have money, they come to you," he said. "It was strictly a financial deal."

But Mr. Robinson had nursed a creative avocation since winning a national photo contest at age 8. "I had developed a great eye a long time ago," he said. "I felt I had the eye and the taste."

And while he won't say so directly, Mr. Robinson leaves the impression that he was at a point in his life where there was more to do than sell Subarus.

"All of us, over time, there are things you wonder why you didn't do it," he said.

And so he did. He sold the Subaru distributorship, kept his other auto-related businesses and put a reported $80 million into Morgan Creek. He runs the company from Baltimore, flying to Los Angeles for three or four days a week.

"Morgan Creek is basically a .500 average batter," he said. "We've batted about .500 for the last five years at [its films] being Number One at the box office. I don't know if I can keep doing it. No one else has done it."

This year, Morgan Creek filmed "Major League II" and "Silent Fall" in Maryland. Movies are serious business behind the glitz, he insists, saying entertainment is America's second-biggest export business, behind aerospace.

"We buy lumber, we buy clothing, we rent cars, we have hotel rooms," Mr. Robinson said. "We basically become an integral part of the community and they don't have to spend a cent to get us."

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