Hollywood, South Pacific-style
by Stephanie N. Mehta, FORTUNE Magazine

(FORTUNE Magazine) - German entrepreneur Michael Gleissner founded an online bookseller long before consumers knew about the Internet, started a web-hosting company ahead of the dot-com crash, and even dabbled in the high-stakes world of hedge funds.

Now Gleissner is embarking on his riskiest venture yet: The 37-year-old multimillionaire is directing a self-financed movie he wrote about, um, a young entrepreneur who sells his company only to find that money doesn't solve all his problems.

First-time director Gleissner admits the film has an autobiographical component. He made millions selling his company, Telebooks, to Amazon in 1998, then made even more money investing on Wall Street. (He won't disclose how much, but in 1999 he filed to sell Amazon shares totaling an estimated $85 million.)

But he wasn't fulfilled. "What was I going to do, buy more boats, buy more houses?" asks Gleissner, reached by phone after a long day of shooting his film, Irreversi, in Hong Kong. "I discovered there is a creative side in me."

He's still an entrepreneur, though, and Irreversi is just one piece of a sprawling film empire he's attempting to build--in the Philippines, of all places. Gleissner has invested almost $9 million of his own money to build a Hollywood-style soundstage and ultramodern production facility in Cebu province, home to the second-largest city in the Philippines.

His hope is to turn Cebu into the Vancouver of the South Pacific--a hot destination for directors looking to shave costs by filming and finishing movies outside the U.S.

It is an audacious goal. The Philippines is fast becoming a go-to destination for animators looking for cheap post-production help, but the island nation isn't exactly crawling with Tarantino wannabes itching to work on live-action films. No problem: Gleissner has started a school in Cebu to help teach locals the art of film.

Some 400 Filipinos have taken workshops at the school, the first crop of students for a one-year program began arriving in January, and Gleissner's film company, Bigfoot Entertainment, will soon begin bidding on production contracts.

Gleissner is hardly the first rich guy to invest his hard-earned dough in the movie business. Howard Hughes famously plowed millions into movies, and Hollywood is crawling with newly minted real estate and Internet millionaires looking to get into the film business. But often these folks invest in pictures for the chance to meet celebrities or go to fabulous parties - both of which are in short supply in Cebu. (Gleissner was in Cebu on Sept. 11, 2001, and wasn't able to return home to New York. He says he was so charmed by the city that he decided to set up shop there.)

Most outsiders haven't made a lot of money in Hollywood, either. But Gleissner says he's more interested in building a film business in the Philippines than trying to make a quick buck. He has already found ways to send production work to his studio.

When he funds a new movie - he has previously backed such small films as Three Needles, starring Lucy Liu, and East Broadway, with Margaret Cho - the directors agree to do some production work in Cebu. "It's an amazing facility," says Russell Marleau, the director of another Gleissner-funded film, The Curiosity of Chance. "It is completely state of the art."

Of course Gleissner gets to meet his share of starlets. Irreversi stars model and actress Estella Warren. "Estella is great," he says, "but I'm not into the name-dropping thing." Top of page

YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS