Coppola and Henson companies get loans for winery, puppetry

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2020 Invision

A statue of Kermit The Frog stands at the entrance to The Jim Henson Company, Tuesday, July 7, 2020, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. The U.S. government's small business lending program sent pandemic relief money into unexpected corners of the entertainment industry. The Muppet makers say they received about $2 million to keep their 75 workers employed through the coronavirus shutdown. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

LOS ANGELES – From a godfather of cinema to Kermit the Frog, the U.S. government’s small-business lending program sent money into unexpected corners of the entertainment industry.

While legendary names like Francis Ford Coppola and Jim Henson hardly evoke the image of “small” business, the leaders of modestly sized companies that bear their names say the funds have been essential to keeping ordinary workers afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Francis Ford Coppola Presents, the broader brand of the director of “The Godfather” films and “Apocalypse Now,” received a loan of between $5 million and $10 million to help keep 469 people employed, according to data released Monday by Treasury Department on the Payroll Protection Program.

The money went to pay workers for 24 weeks at Coppola's winery, including some 200 hospitality employees who staff its restaurant, pools, movie gallery and bocce court, which spent months shut down, though the vineyard kept producing wine.

“I do feel very strongly about this program,” the winery's CEO Corey Beck said. “For us, our first and main focus was to make sure that we could keep them on the payroll with benefits even though we were closed. Here’s something that’s available to us, potentially a 1% loan, let’s take advantage of it."

Beck said leaders have been encouraging employees to get creative in the downtime.

“Like our bartenders, we're telling them, ‘Come up with some fun new drinks,’ trying to help our business rethink how we do things.”

Beck did not give a specific figure but said the loan was about halfway between the $5 million to $10 million range in the released data.

The business was one of several dozen California wineries approved for loans under the program, according to Treasury data, including one partly owned by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The Jim Henson Co., founded by the late creator of the Muppets, director of “The Dark Crystal and ”Labyrinth," and puppeteer of Kermit the Frog, also received funding from the program to stay afloat.

While its brand has been wildly famous for decades, the company said its shop is more small and artisanal than its big name.

The Jim Henson Co. employs about 75 people, company spokeswoman Nicole Goldman said in a statement. “Thanks to the approximate $2 million dollar PPP loan we received, we have been able to keep 100% of our staff employed during this unprecedented time when we have had to fully shut down key businesses including live-action productions, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop (in Los Angeles and New York City), Henson Recording Studios, and our soundstage," she said.

The businesses of other storied filmmakers also appeared in the Treasury data.

Director Ridley Scott’s production company, RSA Films, was approved for a loan of between $2 million and $5 million toward 42 jobs, while director Martin Scorsese’s Sikelia production company was approved for between $150,000 and $350,000 to help keep 11 people employed, according to the data.

Many dozens of smaller entities that underpin the film and television industries received loans under the fund, including small companies that provide editing and technical services, along with non-profits that work to further the art like the Sundance Institute and the American Film Institute.

The Austin, Texas-based SXSW Film Festival, which has grown in its importance in recent decades and was forced to move online after the pandemic caused its cancellation, was approved for between $2 million and $5 million, allowing it to save 294 jobs, the data showed.

While the plight of major movie theater chains during the pandemic has been well documented, data showed that smaller exhibitors are hurting too, and sought help.

Three California-based chains, Regency Theatres, Galaxy Theatres and Laemmle Theatres, were each approved for a loan of between $350,000 and $1 million.

Scores of small theaters and film festivals around the country were also approved for aid.

Movie stars also sought help for their side businesses.

Reese Witherspoon's clothing brand Draper James, along with those of other celebrities including Kanye West and Khloe Kardashian, was approved for between $350,000 and $1 million under the fund, helping it to keep 44 people employed.

And Channing Tatum's New Orleans restaurant, Saints and Sinners, was approved for between $150,000 and $350,000 toward its 27 workers.

Representatives from the businesses and organizations did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The PPP aims to help smaller businesses and their workers weather the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the PPP, Congress created $659 billion in low-interest loans that will be forgiven if employers use the money on payroll, rent and similar expenses.

With about $130 billion unclaimed as the application deadline closed June 30, Congress extended the program until Aug. 8.

The public may never know the identity of more than 80% of the nearly 5 million beneficiaries to date because the administration has refused to release details on loans under $150,000. That secrecy spurred a lawsuit by news organizations, including The Associated Press.


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