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The entertainment industry is arguably the best PR firm for whatever cause you care to mention. Lifetime Television thrives on mawkish exposés of single-mother heroin addicts and a variety of misogynistic injustices. Oprah draws public attention to crises of the spirit, filtered through the fine, fine novels -- filled with, golly, so many beautiful words -- that make those crises so very touching, so very haunting, and yet so very true. And from SpaceCamp to Space Cowboys, NASA has blessed mediocre films in an attempt to make post-Apollo space exploration seem sexy -- smart thinking, what with Congress looking for any excuse to hack the agency's budget; without Hollywood, NASA's next launch is a bottle rocket.
With that sort of promotional power in mind, George S. Reppas started a film production company early last year. Its name: George S. Reppas Film Associates. Its founder: Hillsborough industrial developer and entrepreneur George S. Reppas. Its goal: to bring precisely one film project to fruition, the true story of George S. Reppas. So far it's a success. In July, Los Angeles producer Dan Paulson optioned the film rights to Hell's Halo and is searching for a name actor to play Reppas.
Vanity project? Sure -- and what's Hollywood without vanity? But Reppas figures the film might smooth his way toward suing the pants off the U.S. government for failing to insure the business a Third World nation stole from him. And even if it doesn't, Hell's Halohas a great third reel, what with the prison riots and explosions and all.
Both entrepreneurs and movie producers are familiar with the "elevator pitch," the no-frills explanation of their blockbuster idea. Here's the elevator pitch on Hell's Halo: In 1972, Reppas was imprisoned by Madagascar's military government, had his business hijacked, was sentenced to prison, and woke up each morning watching packs of foot-long rats gnaw on the corpses of his fellow inmates.
He relates this tale genially in the dining room of the Olympic Club, the ornate, high-ceilinged Union Square hangout for Bay Area gentry. The place is only slightly less exclusive than the neighboring Bohemian Club, famed for its yearly gathering of the ridiculously powerful on the Russian River; Reppas is a member there as well, which is to say that the 73-year-old has done well for himself, rising up from CPA-dom into industrial development and entrepreneurship. He's filed patents on a sleeper-desk-wall system contraption, a footrest designed to blow-dry your toes and help prevent athlete's foot, and a retractable dome concept he pushed for 3Com Park in 1992 and is now trying to license globally.
In 1965, Reppas founded Société AGM, a business development corporation that was supposed to bring Marshall Plan-styled economic development to the African island nation of Madagascar. AGM's main business was cattle ranching, and it built a state-of-the-art facility in Madagascar to process the 20 million head of cattle the company owned. It was one of the first American business ventures in the country, and as lead investor, Reppas made periodic trips there to follow its progress. At that point, having relatively recently won independence from France, Madagascar was politically volatile. "Madagascar was the very definition of a rogue state," Reppas says. The country went through two military coups in the first seven years of AGM's existence. During the second coup, AGM's local administrator was imprisoned and the company's assets seized. Flying in to help sort out the matter, Reppas was imprisoned himself almost immediately upon his arrival. Without a jury trial, he was sentenced to five years in the Antinamora high-security prison for bribery and corruption (charges Reppas denies), with a fine tacked on that would have taken 250 years to work off on his prison stipend. An appeal trial only made things worse: His sentence increased to 15 years of hard labor and a fine that would have taken 2,000 years to work off. And the government seized AGM.
In prison, Reppas became the self-styled "King of Antinamora," rallying his fellow inmates into organizing -- not to mention getting them to clean up the joint a bit. Reppas escaped after 2 1/2 years, when another coup led to an insurrection in the prison. He fled under a hail of gunfire, and with the help of the U.S. Embassy -- and some hippies with a truck -- left Madagascar and returned to San Francisco.
Reppas had pondered the idea of translating his experience into a book or movie soon after his return. He was beaten to the punch, however, by Billy Hayes, who was freed from a Turkish prison around the same time as Reppas; Midnight Express, the book and Oscar-winning movie that followed, pretty much sated America's interest in the unjustly-treated-American-abroad genre.
Two years ago, however, Reppas ran into Sam Scribner at the Bohemian Club, where Scribner was under consideration for membership. The original plan was to cobble together a book deal out of Reppas' rambling, 450-page prison memoir, but Scribner saw film possibilities. And so George S. Reppas Film Associates was born. Scribner, with a pair of minor gunplay thrillers to his credit, was commissioned to spend six months writing Hell's Halo.
Told to let his pen run, Scribner's first draft ran to 239 pages, which translates into an unproduceable four-hour movie. Long, tense arguments ensued over what to cut. "I had to tell him, "George, the audience can't stay in the theater longer than you've been in prison,'" Scribner says.
In the script, the halo refers to the reddish silt of erosion in the sea around Madagascar. It also refers to Reppas, who is nothing less than an inspiring and almost divine presence, emboldening the spirits of his fellow inmates when he's not pecking out angry letters to Henry Kissinger (whom he still refers to as "Henry Kissmeoff").
The end titles of the Hell's Haloscript say that "George Reppas still vows to return to Madagascar to restart his AGM projects." But first, Reppas needs to sue the U.S. government. Reppas is nothing if not stubborn -- he believes strongly that the government avoided its duty to support his venture, and that putting out a book and movie telling his story can build public sympathy for his case. "I think it opens up a lawsuit," he says. "There's a good chance for a break with it. I think it can be very helpful."
Reppas' case is essentially an insurance claim. When AGM started, it acquired risk insurance from what is now the Overseas Private Investment Corp. (OPIC), a government agency that insures the investments of American companies doing business abroad. Stanford's Hoover Institution crunched the numbers to figure out how much Reppas might be owed. Factoring in about 30 years of unpaid interest on the principal of his stolen investment, Reppas figures he is due about $65 million. He has been pursuing the matter since his return to the Bay Area in 1975, appealing to OPIC and getting rebuffed; according to a Hoover Institution report, Reppas was told by an OPIC official that his claim wouldn't be recognized because AGM lapsed in its premium payments before it was expropriated, which Reppas says is not true. And with a democracy in Madagascar today, Reppas thinks he can reasonably make a claim to do business there again. Now is a good time, he believes, to take the matter to the courts.
"There's no precedent for this sort of case," says Reppas. "I need an attorney with a great imagination."
Producer Paulson -- whose previous credits include the Wesley Snipes vehicle Passenger 57 and a batch of made-for-cable films -- has high hopes for the project, though with an actors' and writers' strike looming in the spring, there is pressure to speed the film into production. Freiberg, Hollywood agent that he is, is a tad more focused on issues of budget, casting, and international appeal. He estimates production costs at a relatively cheap $25 million to $30 million. "It won't be a network movie," he says. "It's too dark, and there's not enough money in a network movie. We can get it on the fast track by getting a director attached. And then an actor with some foreign value.
"Maybe we'll have the premiere in Madagascar," Freiberg adds with a laugh.