HOLLYWOOD— LARRY ESTES arrives for lunch at the trendy Melrose Avenue restaurant driving a distinctly untrendy 1988 Acura. No one's head turns when he enters. His table is hardly the best in the house.
But Mr. Estes, a low-key Georgian with a self-deprecating style and a faint smile that never quite vanishes, is one of the most influential, if unknown, players in town. The 38-year-old producer, a senior vice president of Columbia Tristar Home Video, has since 1987 financed nearly 60 films, most of them low budget ($1 million to $4 million). Some, particularly Sex, Lies, and Videotape, have become box-office hits. But Mr. Estes's true distinction has been in proving that thanks to the home-video market, a worthy film made at the right price can make a profit even if it never shows in a theater.
As a result, dozens of films that might never have been made -- many of them offbeat pictures the big studios thought too risky -- have enlivened the movie market. Among the current releases: Gas Food Lodging, about a struggling family gripped by loneliness, and Zebrahead, about a white high school student, his black girlfriend and the inevitable racial tension.
"I dare you to find anybody who has given more first-time directors a shot than Larry," said Steven Soderbergh, who wrote and directed Sex, Lies, and Videotape. "I dare you to find somebody who has done more for independent films."
Two weeks ago, Entertainment Weekly magazine, ranking Mr. Estes among the top 101 figures in the entertainment industry, called him "the unofficial godfather of the independent-feature-film movement."
"I just want to see good movies come out," said Mr. Estes, sipping iced tea.
In return for its financing, Mr. Estes's company receives part ownership to all worldwide rights, and in most cases retains the video rights. Mr. Estes said that investing in a film, while hazardous, involved some simple mathematics. How inexpensively can one make a film? What are its estimated sales overseas, in domestic video rights, in American movie theaters?
"You have to estimate what is the worst you can do," he said. "You add up the numbers. If they cover the cost and a little bit of profit," then the project is justifiable.
AN example of Mr. Estes's calculations can be seen in the 1990 action-thriller Delusion, about a fellow with a trunk full of embezzled money who picks up a stranded showgirl and a hit man in the Mojave Desert. The film, which cost only $800,000, is one of his most profitable.
"It had certain crime and sexual elements which warranted at least half a million dollars in foreign sales. And the same elements were probably worth half a million dollars in domestic video sales. That covered it. As it turned out, the film was worth releasing theatrically and played for several weeks." And that exposure helped the video.
The film, he said, may ultimately double its investment. But Mr. Estes added: "Sexy thrillers used to be the easiest to predict. Now everything's difficult to predict" because of shifting markets and the economy.
The film that transformed his company was its third one, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, about four Louisiana yuppies. The film cost just over $1 million. It has grossed about $60 million worldwide.
"It doesn't get any better than that," Mr. Estes said with a laugh. He is still amazed at the film's success. "It did better business overseas than in the States. It wasn't like this was an American phenomenon. People were just ready for it."
As for other proposed films, he said: "Sometimes you can't make the numbers work. As much as you love the material and who's going to do it, well, the numbers don't add up. Especially in this economy."
Mr. Estes, who is married to a schoolteacher and has two young children, said his own movie tastes run to off-kilter comedies like Local Hero and Raising Arizona. These were never offered to him. "I probably wouldn't have made those films," he said, laughing, "because they were too risky."
When he started out, many films he financed were inexpensive "genre" films -- raunchy comedies, thrillers, science fiction -- that were released quickly and glided successfully onto video.
"There were a lot of films with maniacal killers on the loose," Mr. Estes said. But then he moved toward artier, more upscale films. "They got more personal, more dramatic, more character-driven."
Mr. Estes, who grew up in Atlanta, began his film career while a student at the University of Georgia, where he helped run the film society. After graduating in 1975, he worked for six years for Atlanta-based Films Inc., a distributor of 16- and 35-millimeter feature films outside theaters.
Mr. Estes then worked in New York for several years on RCA's ill-fated Selectavision Videodisc system. He then joined RCA Columbia Home Video, which eventually became Columbia Tristar Home Video.
Almost immediately, Mr. Estes involved himself in finding films, concerts and children's shows for home video in what was then a burgeoning market. Quickly realizing that the price of buying the rights to a film for video often equaled the cost of a film, the company, spearheaded by Mr. Estes, began financing its own inexpensive films.
With Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Mr. Estes hit the jackpot. Other films have generally performed well, although there have been some big disappointments.
Such highly praised movies as The Waterdance, starring Eric Stoltz and Wesley Snipes, and City of Hope, the John Sayles urban drama, fared unexpectedly badly at the box office. But Mr. Estes hopes video and other markets will make them pay.
"Reviews for Waterdance were among the best I've ever seen," he said. "The wheelchair subject matter made it appear to be a sad film, which it wasn't. Especially with the economy the way it is, this is not the kind of subject people want to see when they want entertainment. I'd do it again tomorrow -- that film transcends disappointment."
Mr. Estes has been highly successful with other, unlikely films. Typically, a 1989 quickie called "Relentless," about a serial killer, proved mildly successful at the box office but a big hit on video.
Mr. Estes's company has financed several films about to be released, including Mr. Sayles's "Passion Fish," starring Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard and Nora Dunn.
Perhaps Mr. Estes's main competition is Live Home Video Inc., which has a current catalogue of more than 2,000 titles.
Live Home Video has recently expanded into making films; recent ones include "Bob Roberts" and "Reservoir Dogs."
Richard Gladstein, vice president for productions and acquisition at Live, said his company's budgets are somewhat larger than Columbia Tristar's, and Live often serves as a partner instead of sole financier of a film.
But Columbia Tristar has different goals. "Sure, anybody can get a movie financed if they have Tom Cruise in it," Mr. Sayles said in an interview. "That's not what Larry does. But it's reached a point where if Larry backs a project, agents and actors will know it's a real project and come on board. "Doing it all under the studio radar.
Although Larry Estes is something of a mini-mogul within the Sony empire, he has not met most of his senior American bosses. He works quietly out of small offices in Burbank, in the San Fernando Valley -- quite a distance, physically as well as psychologically, from Sony's studios across town in Culver City, which are undergoing a multimillion-dollar transformation.
Mr. Estes's relative success has apparently just caught the eyes of his bosses at Sony. Rumors swept the independent film world in recent months that movie executives within the Sony empire, with includes the Columbia and Tristar studios, were startled, if not a bit envious, to find this quasi-independent, low-budget operation going on discreetly beneath their noses. After all, Mr. Estes was managing to churn out films that cost less than a mid-level movie star's salary.
Several film executives at Sony apparently complained, and reports abounded that the Japanese-owned company was going to pull the plug on Mr. Estes. But Sony officials said this was not the case.
Mr. Estes said he was awaiting his budget, if a little nervously, for next year. Based on comments to him by Sony executives, Mr. Estes said he was assured that money would be flowing. "I'm optimistic," he said.
Sony officials said privately that they foresaw no problem in maintaining Mr. Estes's operation at Columbia Tristar Home Video.
The company's current and recent theatrical releases include "One False Move," a highly acclaimed drama, brooding and violent, about two men and a woman on the run, and "The Waterdance," an autobiographical drama about men struggling to reconcile themselves to living in wheelchairs.