BUSINESS The Comeback Kid

Out of Chapter 11, the brains behind the Plaza Theatre is making movies now.

It’s an odd concept for the Business world, if not for show business. At the advanced age of thirty-two, Kjehl Rasmus-sen is making a comeback.

In the ten years since he graduated from SMU, the Dallas native has ridden a roller coaster of high-profile successes and humiliating setbacks. Hailed as a rising star in the early Eighties, he saw his dreams for the Plaza Theatre and then for moviemaking fizzle under Chapter 11. Now his star’s on the ascent again, thanks, he says, to discipline and a pair of guardian angels.

Rasmussen has spent the past few months in an editing room in the West End finishing his second film, Winning Colors, but there was a time when his first film, Animal Behavior, looked like it might be the beginning and end of Kjehl Rasmussen’s moviemaking career.

A love story about a behavioral psychologist who teaches sign language to chimps, the movie had begun production in 1985 and starred Karen Allen, Armand Assante, and a then-Iesser-known actress named Holly Hunter. Shortly after principal photography was completed, the project’s financing unraveled, and Rasmussen filed for Chapter 11 protection. The company’s only asset? The unfinished film, which gathered dust on a Hollywood soundstage until late 1987.

Enter Miramax films, a small New York-based distributor headed by the dynamic duo of Harvey and Bob Weinstein. The brothers, portrayed as movie business mavericks by the national press, lit the fuse for Miramax’s explosion onto the film scene by turning art-house movies like The Thin Blue Line and sex, lies and videotape into box-office hits.

Rasmussen says that eventually he would have tried to raise the money through other sources to complete the film, but Miramax came along at just the right time, buying the North American distribution rights and paying Rasmussen more than the $375,000 he needed to complete the picture. The infusion of cash allowed Rasmussen to get out from under most of his debt and took him a long way toward implementing the reorganization plan the court had approved in April 1986.

Though the film opened to mostly negative reviews last fall, Rasmussen believes the poor performance was due to marketing the film as a sophisticated romantic comedy instead of the children/chimp comedy it actually was. Ad campaigns were reworked and the film rereleased in twenty smaller markets, not so much to generate additional box-office revenue as to pique the public’s interest for the Dim’s May 1 video release.

Apparently, the strategy worked. Miramax says Animal Behavior is doing well in video stores and is now scheduled to run on HBO this fall. In addition, Miramax is negotiating with pay-per-view television and syndicators.

Three years ago, Animal Behavior seemed unlikely ever to see the light of day, let alone turn a profit. Now the film represents a nice return (of “six to seven figures”) for Rasmussen, who managed to buy back 90 percent of the debt the film incurred, and for partner Randy Clendenen, a Dallas restaurateur who formed Cinestar, Ltd. in early 1988 to work with Miramax.

“Kjehl’s got a great eye for talent,” says Miramax co-chairman Bob Weinstein from his offices in New York. “He has an open door at Miramax.”

Rasmussen, says Weinstein, “is a comer in this business.”

KJEHL RASMUSSEN HAS HEARD SUCH PROPalace of Amateurs. It and subsequent productions were well received and Rasmussen’s stock was climbing. The year was 1984; Kjehl Rasmussen seemingly could do no wrong. When his interest strayed toward moviemaking, he found a project and did a deal in less time than a pro with Hollywood clout and years of experience. Rasmussen was a golden boy and Dallas believed in him. And so did Esquire magazine, whose November 1984 issue named Rasmussen as one of the best of “the new generation-men and women under forty who are changing America.”

It was a heady experience for Rasmussen, who found things moving too far too fast. Suddenly, he says, he was responsible for a lot of people’s jobs, for millions of dollars. Shortly after the Esquire article, the Plaza closed, reportedly $2 million in debt. For Rasmussen, already caught up in the whirl of making Animal Behavior, though, there was scarcely time to look back.

Rasmussen is the typical Type A over-achiever. Straight As in high school (Lake Highlands). The kind of guy who looked for ways to overdo his homework. Driven. When financial shortcomings and tension on the set reduced Animal Behavior to a devalued property and his dream to ash, bankruptcy came as a harsh dose of reality.

“I literally sat down and reevaluated my entire life from top to bottom, finally realizing that most of the problems were of my own doing,” says Rasmussen now. “I just didn’t have the business experience to deal with that kind of responsibility. So I had to get tough.”

Rasmussen sought refuge in discipline, “my own personal boot camp.” Discipline, he says, may be the driving force behind his life and what kept him sane through it all.

Each morning for the past twelve years, Rasmussen has run 1.5 miles and swum ten laps in an Olympic-size pool. Without fail. Seven days a week, 365 days a year. Even on holidays. It was the one constant in a world that was falling apart around him.

The discipline, says Rasmussen, helped put him among the 5 percent who actually emerge from Chapter 11.

Now, with Animal Behavior behind him (except for collecting checks), Rasmussen’s attention is focused on his second film, Winning Colors, scheduled for immediate release to cable and home video and soon to appear on the Disney Channel. Rasmussen describes the film, starring Tab Hunter and Jose Ferrer, as the “new National Velvet.”

Rasmussen’s Cinestar is also packaging for distribution two TV movies-The House That Cried Murder and Walk Through the Fire-and finishing up a documentary called Milt and Honi, working on a series for Wales national TV, and making an ice dancing film with Katarina Witt and Brian Boitano.

All in all, busy times for a man who waded into a tough business and quickly found himself in over his head. Not everyone would have survived, let alone staged a comeback.

“You have to remember,” says Rasmussen, reflecting on the tumultuous course of the past few years, “that all we did was set out to make a movie and launch ourselves in the film business. I think that, despite the problems, a lot of people have come out of this respecting me. If I had quit or the system had beaten me, it would be different. But I’ve come out of the war zone and I’m still living and I’ve learned a lot.”

Once again, Rasmussen has convinced others to believe in him. They’re betting Esquire wasn’t wrong, just premature.