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A New Sheriff's in Tinseltown

Former venture capitalist Ryan Kavanaugh has ridden into town with bags of hedge-fund cash. He may ride out with an Oscar to his credit

Here's a Hollywood story that will never make it to the silver screen: Ryan Kavanaugh, a 31-year-old onetime venture capitalist, rides into Tinseltown with a radical approach to financing films. He masterminds the latest avalanche of cash to descend on Hollywood—this time from private equity and hedge funds that have helped Kavanaugh's Relativity Media raise over $3 billion to put into movies. It's no surprise that a lot of Hollywood graybeards have this love-hate relationship with the upstart: They love his money, hate his moxie. Now they have even more to hate about Kavanaugh. He has progressed from being Hollywood's latest ATM to a producer who very likely has a hit on his hands.

On Sept. 7, Lionsgate Entertainment (LGF) will release the film 3:10 to Yuma, a Russell Crowe flick that Kavanaugh rescued from the scrap heap last year after Sony's (SNE) Columbia Pictures had given up on the project. And, well, Ryan Kavanaugh may just have produced the Best Picture of the Year.

3:10 to the Big Leagues

3:10 to Yuma, a remake of the 1957 western that starred Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, is about a down-and-out rancher (Christian Bale) who's determined to help the local authorities bring a brilliant, if twisted, desperado (Crowe) to justice. And after seeing the flick with a friend, I can tell you that it's tense, has great performances from the leads, and a bullet-flying, final shoot-'em-up scene that would make Sam Peckinpah proud. My friend, a fan of westerns, called it better than Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood's 1994 Oscar winner. And while I'm not ready to go that far, I'm willing to bet the film gets a Best Picture nomination and maybe one each for Crowe and Bale.

As for Kavanaugh, a smooth-talking guy with a head for numbers, the film will firmly establish him as a big-league producer. Two years ago, the Relativity Media guru decided to go into films, but so far has made only a couple of moderately profitable low-budget flicks. Now he's turning on the jets: this film was made for $65 million and four more are underway, including a $77 million flick starring Jet Li and Jackie Chan. Mind you, producers have come to Hollywood before with big bucks and bigger ambitions, only to get sent back to Oshkosh, or wherever, with neither. And Kavanaugh may still be headed for a crash (some of the smarter guys in Hollywood are predicting it) but for now, this kid is definitely in the picture.

Just getting 3:10 to Yuma took some slick maneuvering. Sony's Columbia Pictures had the project and wanted Tom Cruise for the bad guy role. The studio was looking at a $100 million budget from director James Mangold and producer Cathy Konrad, the husband-wife team who shepherded Yuma. Columbia balked, and Kavanaugh, who had money in the project, took it on—but only if Mangold and Konrad would make it for $65 million and film it in New Mexico, where Relativity would get a ton of tax credits. Given little choice, Mangold and Konrad relented. They found a somewhat cheaper lead in Crowe, a very inexpensive guy in Bale (Oscar winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman was initially considered), and they cut scenes, slashed the number of extras and otherwise slimmed the budget. "You have to give him tons of credit for getting that much out of the budget," says Lionsgate Chief Executive Officer Jon Feltheimer.

Waiting for the Payday All that fiscal restraint didn't hurt the movie. Reviewers love the flick, but the issue now is whether it will make any money. For starters, the film is being released a week after the summer, not usually the wisest course for a film with box-office prospects, says Brandon Gray, founder of movie tracker Box Office Mojo.

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