Key figure quits Dixon film studio deal, citing lack of project funding

06/06/2013 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:46 AM

A Hollywood figure who has been a key to Carissa Carpenter's 16-year effort to bring a movie studio to Northern California has pulled out of the latest deal, saying that funding for the $2.8 billion project in Dixon has not materialized.

Howard Kazanjian, a producer on such megahits as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi," had been touted by Carpenter since 1997 as a star player on her team pushing to build the studio.

But he told The Bee in an email this week that he is no longer part of Carpenter's drive to bring a studio to the Solano County farm town, once known as "Dairy City."

"Per my employment agreement I would be hired as Executive VP Studio 'in the event of project funding,' " Kazanjian wrote Tuesday. "That agreement was terminated today as the project funding has not been met."

The development raises new questions about whether Carpenter can deliver on the lavish studio deal, which has been the focus of both skepticism and enthusiastic cheerleading in the town of Dixon, population 18,449.

The gulf widened after The Bee published a 10-week investigation Sunday revealing that Carpenter, 50, has left a 20-year trail of judgments, liens and lawsuits accusing her of financial misconduct and fraud, and has failed to come through in six previous attempts to build a studio outside of Hollywood.

She has made studio pitches in six Northern California towns (Dixon is the second in Solano county), along with the state of South Carolina, using various business names. This time she is promoting the studio in Dixon – her most expensive yet – as chief executive officer of Morning View, a limited liability corporation.

Carpenter recently told The Bee that she has "never failed to pay any debt justly owed" and blamed catastrophic illnesses and identity theft for the many financial misunderstandings.

By midweek, with Kazanjian out, one other visible Morning View figure was backing away from promises Carpenter has made regarding the Dixon project, saying he now is hoping to at minimum get his money back if possible.

"I understood from the start it was a very high-risk opportunity," said Charles J. Ansbach, who has been associated with Carpenter for years.

Carpenter told The Bee in a recent interview that Ansbach would oversee a $200 million annual philanthropy budget derived from the proposed studio, money she said would be disbursed to local groups and medical research.

The $200 million philanthropy budget – more than six times the size of Dixon's current $32 million budget – has been cited by Carpenter, Mayor Jack Batchelor Jr. and City Manager Jim Lindley as a potentially huge boost for the city.

But Ansbach said in an interview Wednesday that such a figure was not realistic.

"I don't see any possibility that would be the case," said Ansbach, who is also interim executive director of the Metropolitan Arts Partnership in Sacramento. The arts group, which is not connected to the studio project, is focused on strengthening arts education and outreach programs in the six-county region.

Ansbach said he is an informal adviser to Carpenter on philanthropy and that he invested early on in her studio proposal; he would not specify the investment amount but pegged it at less than $25,000. He said he has been concerned about the investment for some time as her earlier projects have failed to come to fruition.

"I'm hopeful I'll get it back ," he said.

Ansbach said he did not know how Kazanjian's departure might affect the project's viability. Of the principals Carpenter has identified, only Kazanjian has long-standing film-production credentials.

Ansbach said he has been involved in Carpenter's studio proposals for years, but that he has "never been paid a dime" and that when Carpenter rented office space from him for about a year, she never paid him the rent she owed.

But he said he's hopeful the Dixon project will attract the funding it needs; Carpenter has said the project would cost $2.8 billion over the first five years for construction and operating costs.

Dixon officials have lauded the proposal as one that would bring thousands of jobs at no cost to the city.

However, as of Wednesday, the city had yet to receive the $100,000 deposit Carpenter pledged last year to cover time devoted by city staff to work on the project, according to Councilman Thom Bogue. City Manager Lindley told The Bee in late April that he expected the money the following week, and that a "short escrow" would ensue.

Lindley stopped returning Bee phone calls last week as the newspaper prepared to publish an investigation detailing Carpenter's decades-long history of unpaid bills, tax liens and lawsuits over breached contracts and bounced checks. Several investors and businesses said they lost tens of thousands in her studio ventures, or were not paid for their work.

"We cut her off. We stopped dealing with her," said Greg Hayes, who represented Carpenter in 1997 when he was working for Runyon Saltzman & Einhorn, a Sacramento marketing and public relations firm. "There was always this talk of the payment coming."

Hayes was helping promote her first studio proposal in the El Dorado Hills area, and he recalled meeting Kazanjian – an impressive connection he said enhanced Carpenter's credibility.

The PR firm sued Carpenter and her Declaration Studios in 1998 and eventually got a $33,904.21 judgment, according to court records.

Carpenter told The Bee she thought the suit had been dismissed.

The Bee's investigation reignited debate in Dixon between project supporters and those who say the prospect of Carpenter bringing such a huge project to town is absurd.

On local blogs and comments on sacbee.com, readers, former Dixon political leaders and others have engaged in spirited discussions about whether the city manager should be fired or lauded for his enthusiastic support. Other commenters have hurled insults.

"To the Mayor and city officials of Dixon: I have a Bridge in Brooklyn for sale," read one.

Others dismiss criticism of her past and say they remain hopeful Carpenter will find the money to open the studio doors.

"As far as the project itself goes, I like to tell people that until they actually purchase the land and submit to the city their engineering plans and look for the city's approval of permits, it's a non-issue," Councilman Bogue said Wednesday.

"People have dreams all the time. Sometimes people can pull it off, sometimes people can't."

He added that supporting the proposal "is not costing us anything" and that he applauds the enthusiasm that Batchelor and Lindley have expressed.

"That's their job," Bogue said. "I mean, really, that's their job, they're supposed to pursue revenue sources to come into the city."

Since she first approached Dixon last year, Carpenter has stressed the company's need for confidentiality and has refused to divulge the identities of her investors.

However, at a City Council meeting March 12, Carpenter introduced five members of her "Morning View Team." In addition to Ansbach, she was joined by:

Robert W. Naylor, a Sacramento attorney, former state legislator and past chairman of the state Republican Party. He has helped Carpenter negotiate studio proposals with the city of Dixon, and Vallejo before that.

Dawn Rickabaugh, the broker/owner of Note Queen Capital Funding in Los Angeles, who helped secure letters of intent from Dixon landowners to sell their property for the project. Her website describes her as a specialist in "alternative closing strategies," and author of the book "Seller Financing on Steroids."

Dan Dolinar, chief operating officer of general contractor Rudolph and Sletten, based in Redwood City. The company's relationship with Carpenter's studio projects dates back to 2001. Dolinar said Wednesday he could not discuss details of the relationship because of a non-disclosure agreement with Carpenter.

Kevin Englund, also of Rudolph and Sletten.

Rickabaugh did not return Bee phone calls and emails for comment Wednesday.

Naylor, who also could not be reached Wednesday, recently told The Bee that he began working with Carpenter several years ago at Ansbach's suggestion, when both men worked on the executive committee of the Leland Stanford Mansion Foundation. He said Carpenter was seeking his political experience.

Call The Bee's Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091. Follow him on Twitter @stantonsam.

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