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Serpentine

Feature Presentation

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There is that moment in a theater when the words “Feature Presentation” come up just before the picture starts. Certainly as a theatregoer we’re excited to see the film, but as a filmmaker it’s a rush—particularly when it’s your movie.  That rush happened for me when Justice Is Mind and Serpentine: The Short Program screened together at The Strand Theatre in March. Ask any filmmaker and they’ll tell you, there’s nothing like seeing your film on the silver screen.

But for all the accolades that come with making a feature film, there are significant challenges that theatregoers don’t necessarily concern themselves with. The recent articles on Broad Green and Open Road chronicle the times ahead for some. While the capital to produce is there, it’s the net return that’s the issue. Thus consolidation or, in the case of Broad Green, production shut down. In my view it comes down to a reasonable budget with a solid marketing plan tied to distribution. To turn a phrase from Ron Popeil you can’t “Make it and forget it”.

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Producing my first film First World back in 2006. At the Commonwealth Hotel in Boston.

I met with a colleague a few weeks ago who wants to make his first feature film. He’s a talented filmmaker who has made some award winning short films. A short film is one thing, a feature is an entirely other animal. His concerns were numerous—completing the script, managing a crew, finance and distribution. Basically it comes down to taking that leap of faith. You have to believe in yourself and your own capabilities. Yes, you rely on others, but as Luc Besson said you have to be the General of the Army. Look at any film in production from the low budget independent to the major studio release, the entire project revolves around the director. This isn’t to say that the director acts unilaterally, they too have to report to someone or at least adhere to a structure.

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Behind the scenes of Serpentine: The Short Program.

As for structure and directing, I’m looking forward to returning as site supervisor for the Naval Justice School’s mock trial program in Newport, RI. Yes, it’s directing of a sort, but it’s just as much as adhering to the structure of their program. What I enjoy about this program is that it’s neither film nor stage, it gives me the opportunity to roleplay a character over multiple days without a set script rather a set of circumstances and situation. As director it’s generally to make sure that the actors have an understanding of this process as it’s not stage or film. There’s no call to action and cut, rather you are in character when in the school. My supervisory role is essentially making sure everyone shows up on time, answer related questions and to follow the rules of the base and the agency that has hired us.

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From behind the scenes to on screen. This scene is one of the primary media stills for Serpentine

One thing about this industry that I enjoy is the variety of opportunity it affords. Whether directing a film, writing a screenplay or working on a military base, it’s about being well-rounded. The one thing that has helped enormously with my work in Newport was the years I spent doing TV interviews (many live). While there was no script, there was a subject matter and certain facts I had to adhere to. My point is that whatever the work is, it’s about the accumulation of experience because who knows what that next part will be.

Casting.

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Back to Newport next month!


The Star

Tommy

From the opening credits of Serpentine. Tommy’s name racing along the ice.

On Sunday my friend and business partner Thomas J. McGinnis passed away after a long illness. For so many that knew him he was our North Star. A light that guided us throughout our careers.

Back in 1993 Tommy took a chance and believed in my vision for an international newsmagazine for the sport and art of figure skating. It wasn’t just his financial support that breathed life into this venture, it was the stature he commanded in figure skating and the numerous personalities and “stars” he introduced me to.

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With Tommy and Lois at The 25 Most Influential Names in Figure Skating. 2002. New York City. We produced this star-studded event in a theater.

I’ll still never forget that day. Here I was at a skating conference to give a presentation on what I planned to do. No sooner was it over when Tommy came up to me and said “Do you need an investor?” As a fledgling entrepreneur, I certainly did! Of course I knew who Tommy was. You couldn’t be involved in skating without knowing the name. Simply, his was a name that yielded grace, style and importance.

While so many judged my ability to pull off this venture, Tommy never questioned it. He used to tell me he knew a star when he saw one. I didn’t quite know what he meant at the time, but it didn’t take long for the magic that was Tom’s coaching on and off the ice to have its effect on me. He was filled with wonderful witticisms. One of the earliest bits of advice he gave me was, “Be available, but not too available.”

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Tom McGinnis and Tom Collins at a skating reception. Collins produced Champions on Ice.

Over the ensuing years, and with my other business partner Lois Elfman, we built a multi-million dollar media company that eventually saw the title available in over 60 countries. For years it was the world’s largest for the sport. Indeed, it was a venture we were all proud of. I fondly remember the days when Tom would visit the office or call. No matter who I was on the phone with, they were quickly placed on hold. This was Tommy calling and I was available!

Sadly, in 2004, we lost the company in a brutal hostile takeover from a predator investor who bought up our securities and foreclosed. In one day, a decade plus enterprise was over. Over 20 of us lost our jobs. Worse, Tommy lost his investment.  My God, how do I make that call? What do I say to this man who gave so much? Who believed in me?

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Todd Sand and Jenni Meno with Tommy at an event we sponsored.

When I made the call his first response was, “How are you?” How was I? How was I. With the emotional turmoil that Lois and I went through the months preceding, someone asked how we were. That was the type of person Tommy was. He was a coach. He knew that not every performance ended in a gold medal. He knew there were just as many difficult days as there were great ones. He knew the peaks and valleys of life. He imparted all this knowledge onto his students.

After the company, Tom and I were frequently in touch as friends. There were so many things we would joke about. I always wondered how old Tommy was. His response was as accurate as it was witty, “I’m older than you and younger than Dick Button.” OK!  As for Dick Button, it was Tommy who introduced me to him at Skates of Gold in 1993. Tommy knew everyone!

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At The 25 Most Influential names in Figure Skating. 2002. New York City.

Very few of us know the impact someone has had on us until an end is coming. Tommy’s investment bought me an education in the real world. I’ve often remarked that I wouldn’t have been able to produce a feature film had I not had the experience of running a company.

Over the last few days I’ve been looking at Tommy’s emails to me.  I can’t help think of the kindness and generosity this man imparted to me and so many others. Never a judgement, but a lesson. Never a criticism, but encouragement.  Let’s say I’ve shared many the tear. To be frank, he was the father figure I looked up to and admired. Someone who I could talk to and not be afraid.

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With Rosalynn Sumners at a Champions on Ice reception.

Tommy’s words of wisdom and support continued when I put Justice Is Mind into production. One of his emails read, “Mark, how wonderful. Best wishes for success” and on one of our screenings, “Mark, well done!  Congratulations and wishing you the best in success.” Making a feature film is not easy by a long shot, but knowing that Tommy was there wishing for the best was just another element that made that project go in the positive direction that it did.

When I announced my return to figure skating with Serpentine in 2016, Tommy wanted to be involved. He must have figured out that I do my best writing in the morning when he once responded, “You are an early riser. I thought the stars appeared only at night?” It was wonderful to add his name as an Executive Producer. It was like we had come full circle in our work together. When the Associated Press syndicated a story about Serpentine Tommy’s response was quick, “A hot property.”

In April I brought him a copy of Serpentine. I knew his health was failing. But he wanted to stay engaged. It was hard seeing a man so full of life slowing slipping from this world. There were many things we talked about. I left that day feeling sad. Waving goodbye to a friend I wasn’t sure I would see again.

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After a toast to Tommy. With Lois Elfman in New York City on Wednesday.

A few days passed and an email came in from him, “Enjoyed Serpentine very much. T.”  That email meant the world to me. A couple of emails after Tommy told me about his devastating health news while also promoting a friend who was appointed to the presidency of the Julliard School. That was Tommy, always thinking of and promoting others.  Our last email exchange was when I was updating him on some plans for Serpentine. His response “Great. Tom. XXX”

I did see Tommy about two weeks ago when he was in hospice. I thanked him again for our friendship and for believing in me. I held his hand and told him not to worry about anything.

While Tommy loved to be around stars and create them, indeed he was The Star. The rest of us simply orbited around him.  For those of us that were fortunate to come into his orbit, we were his students whether we realized it or not. From on ice to off, Tommy had a knack for discovering and nurturing talent. It was a rare gift. To turn a phrase from Auntie Mame, he invited us to his banquet so we never starved.

I will miss my mentor and friend. A voice in my life is now gone. But with Tommy’s performance and tutelage in this world transferred to another, perhaps it’s time we score his life while he was with us.

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Serpentine‘s world premiere poster. Thomas J. McGinnis Executive Producer.