Project Greenlight

M.V. MoorheadAugust 10, 2012
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A Valley movie mogul is helping return filmmaking to Arizona – backed by a trove of shipwrecked Spanish emeralds.Ruben Arizpe prides himself on the ability to pick a good script. During his career in movie financing, the Valley-based dealmaker helped marshall into existence such blue-chip blockbusters as Jerry Maguire and The Horse Whisperer.

What, then, might Arizpe make of a script with this plot line: A group of adventurers, aided by the visions of a psychic, recovers the shipwrecked treasure of a Spanish Conquistador. But they soon learn that finding a large fortune in emeralds is not the same as turning that fortune into ready cash. Enter our hero, a resourceful movie-finance veteran. He hatches a daring plan for the emeralds – a plan, as they say in the movies, so crazy it just might work. Cue montage.

The twist is that this isn’t a movie. Emeralds, crystal skulls, frustrated treasure hunters and suspicious millionaires – this is Arizpe’s real life.

Arizpe grew up in the L.A. area but spent his senior year at Scottsdale’s Chaparral High School. The Fountain Hills home he shares with his wife and two kids suggests the importance of movies in his life – framed posters of Westerns and manly epics hang everywhere. This passion came from his father, a co-owner of Diamond’s Department Store. “My father wasn’t a very ‘I love you’ type guy,” Arizpe says. “He tried to show it in other ways. He’d show me a movie, and he’d say, this is what honor is. He showed me 12 O’Clock High when he wanted to show me what leadership was. Or High Noon. That taught me responsibility. Sometimes you have to go it alone, and the lonely road is the only road.”

After Army service, Arizpe says, “I installed telephones at Warner Bros. Studios. Playing poker with some of the production people, they pulled me into the business.”

Arizpe, 50, did time in production, working on special effects for TV shows like Sliders and Lois & Clark. But he found his niche in another side of the business. “I never thought about the finance side until I was working in distribution at Warner Bros. I started working with CFOs of different studios on a contract basis,” he says. “The thing is, when you raise money, you don’t get paid if you don’t close.”

Arizpe did “close,” however, and not just in the movie business. He also worked for the Democratic National Party, generating millions for the campaign of Bill Clinton.

A couple years ago, Arizpe relocated to Arizona, which at the time offered a significant tax credit for film productions that spent 100 percent of their “below the line” budgets – costs not related to stars, directors and the like – in-state. “One of the reasons I moved to Arizona was to build up the film industry here, only to find that six months later they took away the tax credit,” he says.

However, Arizpe hasn’t given up on the idea of Arizona becoming a film-production mecca. He’d like to look beyond the idea of the state as a storehouse of Western-movie locations. “This is the perfect place for [special] effects houses,” he says. “Quality of living here is very high, cost of living is very low. Effects artists would live like kings here. Arizona could be seen as the Effects State.”

That kind of outside-the-box thinking led him to finance films via precious green gems. In 1993, Florida-based Iconic Ventures announced the discovery of a shipwreck in the Atlantic containing loot appropriated from Mexico by 16th Century Spanish explorer and conqueror Hernan Cortes. The reported bounty: gold, silver, Aztec art, crystal skulls, Cortes’ signet ring, and piles of dark green emeralds, including the enormous “Isabella Emerald,” valued all together at $3 billion.

The find was big news, making the cover of the international edition of TIME magazine. But nearly two decades later, salvagers still haven’t realized the nine-digit payday they expected. Enter Arizpe, to try to turn Mexican emeralds into Hollywood gold.

“We were introduced to Mr. Arizpe through some trusted associates,” says Dr. Branon Edwards of Iconic Ventures. “As is often the case, simple introductions often evolve in unexpected directions.”

Arizpe conceived the idea to offer the emeralds as three-to-one collateral to movie investors – put up one dollar for a movie venture, get three in return, backed by emerald riches. But it hasn’t been an easy sell. Ask Arizpe how the salvagers knew where to look for the shipwreck, and a pained expression crosses his face. “This is where the investors turn off when we tell them,” he says. “It was discovered by a psychic. True story, though I don’t have much faith in psychics. But she gave them the location, and it was there.”

Even without this wrinkle, investors seem skeptical. “No one believes us,” Arizpe says. “No one believes we have these emeralds… even though we invite investors to come out, bring an appraiser, cherry-pick the ones they want, and we’ll put them in a vault.”

Why not simply sell them off gradually?  Edwards explains: “While we can only sell an emerald once, we can leverage that same emerald numerous times over the years by backing one successful venture after the other.”

Arizpe hopes these ventures will include two projects he’s working on with his producing partner, Susanne Bohnet of Serafini Pictures: a rock musical set in L.A., now in development at Paramount, and a miniseries about Tombstone that will go way beyond the OK Corral. “There’s tons more history,” he says. “Congress, mining disputes, the Earps and their involvement with Wells Fargo, the surrender of Geronimo; I could go on and on.” But he would rather we saw it on TV. And that depends on a Conquistador’s emeralds.

Ruben Arizpe isn’t the only one dismayed over Arizona’s lack of a movie-production tax incentive. “It’s why production is down here,” says Chris LaMont, Vice President of the Arizona Film and Media Coalition, a group that lobbied for HB 2127, which failed to reach the state legislature this spring. “It was a 20 percent tax credit. If you spent a quarter million dollars on Arizona crew, you’d get $50,000 back.”

Forty states have such programs, but our biggest competition, in LaMont’s view, is New Mexico. “Principal photography on The Avengers was done in Albuquerque. Lone Ranger, with Johnny Depp, shot in Monument Valley for a few days, then they went to Albuquerque, too.”

 The state argues that Arizona’s locations – Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon – are so iconic filmmakers won’t be able to resist them. Ken Chapa, former director of the Arizona Film Office, is unconvinced by this argument: “With [today’s] technology, they can come in and shoot some plates and do it green-screen. Or they’ll just rewrite the script,” he says. “In this industry, if you don’t have an incentive, you’re out of the game.”


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