It was early in 1994 when the call came in. The Montel Williams Show wanted me as a guest to discuss the “Tonya/Nancy” fallout. Naturally, I was beyond thrilled, excited and, yes, nervous. But I had just launched a figure skating magazine and was eager for all the promotion I could get.
I remember like it was yesterday the days leading up to my first TV appearance. The call with the producer going over details of the planned show. Their booking of my flight to New York and my hotel. In the end I drove to the city the day before as a snowstorm threatened to cancel flights from Worcester. I couldn’t believe I was in New York as a guest on one of the most popular syndicated talk shows of the time. The taping went great and the rest as they say was history – over 15 years of TV appearances around the sport of figure skating (the total count is around 300). Because they wanted me on that show and because I said yes, it launched my career and created a brand in the process. Someone reading this is now asking how much I was paid in cash. The answer is simple – zero. It was exposure.
Throughout my career the one thing I have endeavored to keep is an open mind. When an opportunity presents itself the first thing I look at is the exposure. Is it going to look good on my resume? Might it lead to something else? Will the footage be worthwhile? Perhaps the most important – will I have a good time. Sure, the compensation package is a consideration. But currency shouldn’t just be measured in dollars and cents. Each “gig” is cumulative. By simple example, many high profile “non-cash” TV appearances led to a $2,500 an episode paid gig as a Judge on FOX’s Skating with Celebrities.
Unfortunately, what I’m seeing in this industry lately are closed minds unwilling to see the big picture. An actor, who I booked on a paid gig last year, recently took to social media to call out a listing they saw about how actors apparently weren’t being compensated. Instead of ignoring the posting they thought it was a good idea to take their “vent” to social media to get like-minded people to agree with them. I have seen other similar postings or have heard of those brought to my attention. These actors believe they’re doing the industry a service when in fact they just expose themselves as nonprofessionals. What’s curious about some is that they are represented by reputable agents. Do these agents know what their clients are doing on social media? Sadly, they don’t think about the possible fallout from defamation or that they have now branded themselves as troublemakers. Believe me when I tell you, producers, casting agents, directors and employers look at your social media before hiring you for a gig or a job. I now understand why some of these folks have painfully thin resumes.
To quote Paul McGill in my favorite book A Woman of Substance, “We are each the authors of our own lives, Emma. We live in what we have created. There is no way to shift the blame and no one else to accept the accolades.” Whether I’m creating a project or considering the opportunity to work on one, I always look at career “currency” and how it will increase my brand. This is all about leveraging one project after another. The one thing everyone wants in this industry is to be noticed. I think it’s best to be known for ones accomplishments rather than complaints.
I’m now thinking to myself, what if I said no back in 1994? Would my career have launched? Who knows. But one thing I do know is this is an industry of endless opportunities. It also doesn’t hurt to have a little bit of luck and being in the right place at the right time.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been talking to my friends in the UK about the upcoming “Brexit” vote. They all had different points of view from those that wanted to stay in the European Union and those that wanted to leave. This post isn’t about one American’s position, but about my special relationship with our friends across the pond.
Putting aside what we learned in school, I was somehow introduced to Barbara Taylor Bradford’s masterpiece A Woman of Substance. The story is based in the UK and to quote “A Woman of Substance charts the life of Emma Harte, from kitchen maid at the beginning of the 20th Century, to respected business woman and Grandmother in the 1980’s.” The book was turned into a brilliant mini-series that saw such famous British landmarks as the storied Harrods turned into Harte’s. You can bet that one of my first destinations was tea at Harrods!
When I started a newsmagazine for the sport of figure skating in the early 1990s, I found myself again in the UK when I attended the 1995 World Figure Skating Championships which were held in Birmingham, UK. I soon found myself conducting business in the country from distributing our magazine to working with editors. At one point I had struck a deal with the national governing body to conduct an all too “United States” direct mail effort. I say United States, because I learned the biggest lesson at the time…I discovered that the English like to buy their magazines at kiosks (newsstands). Oh sure we had a nice amount of subscribers, but we also secured a pretty good newsstand contract in the country as well.
After publishing, my first screenplay First World was partially based in the UK. Part of the story has the Prime Minister calling for an emergency meeting with the President of the United States at a military base in the UK to reveal the actual mission of the Apollo space program. I filmed that segment actually down the street where I now live. To this day we were so fortunate to have a wonderful British actress who now resides in the States to play the Prime Minister.
I’ll never forget her audition. I was staying at a hotel with some of the cast filming another scene when Lindy Nettleton arrived along with Jeffrey Phillips (who played the President). Owing to scheduling and space limitations the audition took place in a hallway. They were both brilliant. After the film was released, we had a few screenings at science fiction conventions in the UK.
When I posted notices for cast and crew for my first feature film Justice Is Mind we received responses from literally all over the world. But there was one composer from England by the name of Daniel Elek-Diamanta. In today’s day and age of the internet it doesn’t matter where you live, talent is talent. To say he had talent would be an understatement. Instinctively, not only did we click, but he understood Justice Is Mind instantly. He scored the entire film to critical acclaim. When our original sound mixer dropped out, he found a terrific company in Visionary Sound headed up by Timothy McHugh. In the end, they both saved the day.
Of course, perhaps one of the highest tributes Justice Is Mind received was when we had our international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth ocean liner in 2014. Suffice to say you can’t get any more British than Cunard!
My point to all of this is simple, no treaty keeps people from working together for the common good. Talent doesn’t know boundaries it simply wants to create. From magazines to film, those that I’ve worked with in the UK have brought something special to the projects I’ve worked on. That’s what the “special relationship’ between the United States and United Kingdom means to me.
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” – Winston Churchill
“We are each the authors of our own lives, Emma. We live in what we have created. There is no way to shift the blame and no one else to accept the accolades.”
― Paul McGill in Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance
There have been many times that I have referred to this one quote from my favorite book. I even used it as a dedication of sorts in my book Frozen Assets. We all have books that we love and in the case of A Woman of Substance it is the character Emma Harte. In essence she grew up with nothing, worked hard, achieved great success against family strife and bulldozed her enemies along the way. It’s Barbara Taylor Bradford’s vivid writing that brings her world building and characters to life. And if you want to see one of the greatest book to mini-series adaptions click this link at Amazon.
And that brings me to the entertainment industry. I have been part of the industry in one form or another for over twenty years. I have made over 300 TV appearances and co-starred on a network TV show. I founded and published the world’s largest figure skating magazine for over a decade and produced a feature film in 2013 (Justice Is Mind), that was the 8th highest rated independent feature film on IMDb that year. Equal to that success was the epic loss of my publishing company in a brutal hostile takeover. That was an experience that I will never forget as it focused me relentlessly on one thing – resolve.
Those of us involved in the entertainment industry know it’s filled with rejections, hopes dashed and dreams that can turn into nightmares. But we also know that when an opportunity strikes it can shine light on your talent like you never thought possible. I’ve had both and, to be honest, it made me the person I am today. I will go to the ends of the Earth (and beyond!) to build a project and promote all associated to help further their own careers and goals. But cross me, take advantage of my work or try to claim it as your own and you will see a combined Emma Harte and Alexis Carrington Colby come out in full swing. It’s not pretty but always well documented. At this stage of my career I can be your best friend or your worse enemy. It’s your choice. Sadly someone this week chose the latter.
What I’m about to write is both a public statement and a warning to writers and creatives the world over. There are opportunists that look for shortcuts. People that don’t want to do the hard work but take advantage of yours. I promise you there are no shortcuts in this industry. Don’t let anybody kid you or tell you otherwise, everything starts with the written word. The writer is the foundation of all things in this industry. Without us actors, crew and the very machine that runs the industry comes to a grinding halt.
Like any independent filmmaker I am always pitching and presenting my work. Last weekend I sourced some agents and managers on Backstage.com. Unless they have a no unsolicited submissions policy, my pitch is pretty straight forward – brief intro of my experience, select loglines and links for more information. In essence a tight query.
Within hours I heard back from one manager that stated, “Thanks Mark. Can you send me a writing sample?” I responded in kind with a variety of links and my script for SOS United States. Now before someone says I shouldn’t have done that there are a few things to remember. First, the script is registered at the WGA (Writers Guild of America). Second, a professional doesn’t steal they review. Some, like an agency that reviewed First World last year, have you sign a submission agreement (fairly standard). Others, it’s just an email. Honestly, in all my experience and what I have seen, trying to get someone to sign a non-disclosure is a non-starter. It doesn’t work and just turns prospects off as it starts from a legal posture. However, in full disclosure, SOS United States has been sent to sales agents and industry representatives for review. Some are still reviewing, some have passed that’s just the way this process works. But what follows with this “agent” needs to be disclosed, because I really think I saw it all until this episode. So in the spirit of screenwriting, I will present it in three acts.
ACT 1 – SUBMISSION
Thanks Mark. How did you hear about us? SOS United States sounds intriguing. I will try to give it a read this week.
I heard about you from Backstage.com under agents and managers. Thank you for your comments on SOS United States. I call it a cross between Fail Safe and Seven Days in May (1964) meet Clear and Present Danger.
Have the studios seen it?
No they haven’t.
Great, we’ll get back to you soon. Thanks again for sending. I am actually from Massachusetts as well. Always looking for stories set there.
Sounds great. What a small world. Yes, we have great locations here in Massachusetts (and a great tax credit).
ACT II – PASSED
While conceptually it is very interesting, I think there is too much going on, too much information and in general it’s not easy to follow. I think you need to streamline the information and simplify in order for this to be effective. A film like the first Wall Street, took something complex and made it easy for most people to understand. I think that should be the goal for you as well. If you decide to work on it, I’m happy to take a look again but right now it is unfortunately a pass for us. Thanks again and stay in touch.
I appreciate the review.
We now pause in our story for the intermission. First, pay careful note to the film that this “agent” mentioned as it plays out when we return to our regular programming. Second, while having a project passed on is disappointing, no writer should immediately jump to their desk for a rewrite just because one person passed. You notice there are no notes with his comment. In all my communications with industry representatives this is where the conversation should have ended. Someone passes, you say thank you and everyone moves on. Brace yourselves as we now return to the program. I have XXXX out the name of the writer and the name of his father, but note again the film that this “agent” referenced and you can fill in the blanks.
ACT III – LAWYER
If you are interested, I might be able to get XXXX (the son of XXXX and a very talented writer) to do a rewrite. It would probably cost around 10k. XXXX is really into shadow governments and has done a great amount of research for other projects that dealt with them. Check him out online. He’s pretty famous. Let me know what you think.
That would be a pass for me. I’m not interested in having my screenplay rewritten by someone else, give them credit and pay for it in the process. That’s nuts! Also, fame in this industry doesn’t impress me. I’ve done enough TV myself.
XXXX has a brand name in film which helps open a lot of doors. I think a draft by XXXX would help it for sure. It would give the project some momentum and strengthen the script. He also produces and directs but he’s not a big enough name to direct something this big. He can also be helpful as a producer. If the script was in shape, we could take it straight to Warner Brothers where we are producing two movies with. But the script needs work.
I’m copying my attorney on this entire trail. This is lunacy. I see approaching you through your listing on Backstage.com was a mistake. You first pass on the project and then come back with a studio name. Like I’m supposed to be all excited. To add insult to injury you name a writer who, by your own admission, can’t get a project like this off the ground. Jesus, you must really think I’m desperate. You are ordered to delete SOS United States from your files. If you feel it is necessary to contact me again, contact Mr. Barry Bachrach.
(who included Barry in the cc)
Whatever dude, calm down. I was just making a suggestion on how I could make your project better. Please don’t contact me again.
Now let’s do some fact checking. First, let IMDb be your best friend. This “agent” has not produced a feature film. That doesn’t matter in the great context of things, but if you are producing something it shows up on IMDb if it’s in production (especially studio productions). Does he have projects in development at a studio? It’s possible, but nothing is listed and it’s the oldest trick in the book to throw a studio name out. I’ve been in studio pitch meetings I know how the process works.
Second, yes, this “writer” is the son of a “famous filmmaker” but is not represented by the “big” agency stated on his IMDb profile (I called the agency and checked) or nominated for any awards in screenwriting (I have been). This “writer” has three representatives listed. After learning that the second representative agency is out of business, I finally did reach his representative by phone with the third listing. The purpose of my call was to let this person know that their client was being represented by other parties, perhaps fraudulently, and to advise them of the situation. After a very pleasant phone call, I forwarded the entire email trail that included Barry’s information. Now, everyone has been notified.
Now let’s also make something else perfectly clear, I don’t know what this “agents” game was, but he lost. This is an industry where opportunists run rampant. They look for people desperate to be part of the industry. I am not one of them and that was this “agents” fatal error.
Let’s, for a moment, look at just how ridiculous this scenario was. It was proposed that I pay $10,000 to an unqualified writer with a famous father to take my idea and screenplay and turn it into something for them. And what’s in it for me? Oh, yes, the wonderful opportunity to be out $10,000 while someone else takes all the glory and credit for my work. You can only imagine the flurry of four letter words that I want to type here.
The one thing you never do in this industry is pay for access. It doesn’t work. This industry is built on relationships. If this “agent” was truly an industry professional the scenario would have been more along these lines, “I like SOS United States and feel it has some promise. What I’d like to do is show it to “so and so” at Warner’s. Just know that they may want to bring in another writer.” But that wasn’t the case. This “agent” was just looking for their own opportunity at my expense creatively and financially.
Should I have vetted this “agent” a bit better? Perhaps. Hindsight is always 20/20. But one never knows what opportunities exist unless you present. That is the risk we all take as creatives.
In the end SOS United States is out there. Did this “agent” delete it? I don’t know. Did they forward it? I don’t know. But what I do know is that with this post and my actions to protect myself legally and through notification to the “writers” representatives, I have documented this action. The one thing this “agent” should know is that I track this industry. Remember, I’m also a journalist. I also have my sources and contacts in the industry and if I get wind of anything, I will turn a quote from Taken.
“I don’t know what you want. But what I do have is a particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over many years. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.”
Trivia note: Liam Neeson starred in A Woman of Substance and Taken.
This weekend I hit page 110 of the sequel to Justice Is Mind. For the last several pages the characters and related plot points have been converging to an end point. It’s moments like this in my writing that I find myself going back to the beginning of the script to make sure I haven’t left anything out. But this is the first draft, and like any first draft, there will be edits.
As some may know, one of my favorite authors is Barbara Taylor Bradford who wrote A Woman of Substance. I came across an interview she did in Gotham last year on what some of her writing secrets are. She makes an outline that doesn’t go more than 10 pages. That’s generally about the same practice I employ. For me, I want to have an idea where the characters are going, but to give them flexibility if some new idea or plot twist comes up. In fact, I already adjusted the ending a bit for the sequel.
The one thing I don’t do is over edit. I really believe you can edit too much and water down what may have been OK in the first place. But this is all personal preference. Of course, if a project has been green lit there are those adjustments that sometimes you just need to make for a variety of reasons. I was looking at my first draft for Justice Is Mind back in 2010. I’ll just say this, thank God I changed the last ten pages!
But like Emma Harte in A Woman of Substance had her “Plan with a capital P”, I have the same thing with the “Justice Is Mind” project. It may take some time to implement, and I certainly won’t divulge it all here, but with a short and feature film completed, a sequel in development and notes for the fourth leg of this project, it’s moving. With each leg the goal is to continue to increase the profile of the project. Ambitious? Sure. But so was the feature film.
Speaking of the feature film, I’m pleased to report that Justice Is Mind can now be streamed on Roku through the new VHX channel. VHX just announced it last week. It’s certainly a great development and it just gives audiences more viewing options. I’m hoping to announce some additional distribution options for Justice Is Mind shortly.
On the political front I was more than delighted to read last week that relations between the United States and Cuba continue to thaw. In my political thriller SOS United States, it’s Cuba that comes to the aide of the United States. When I think of the number of times I have travelled in the Caribbean (mostly by cruise ship) only to see Cuba just over the horizon. It’s time this failed embargo is lifted.
And just as I was finishing up this blog post one of our supporters said, “You know when folks see a movie I don’t think they really get the work, the really hard work the writer has thinking up every word and making it come out sounding natural.” Suffice to say I appreciate those words!
From the writing of the screenplay, raising the money, producing, directing and marketing, audiences really have no idea what goes into the production of a film. And as Emily Best of Seed & Spark said in an article this week, “Every film is a business.” Because in today’s day and age of independent filmmaking, there is one thing you need to have.
The Barnstable Patriot summed up Justice Is Mind nicely, “In the film, past life memory and future mind tapping by machines merge in a psychological thriller, which develops slowly and then grips you with its logical twists and mysteries, haunting you afterward.”
From September 11-25, Justice Is Mind will be part of Viewster’s Online Film Festival (#VOFF). Their theme for this festival is “Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid”. There have been several moments after our screenings when attendees have said they are “scared” for this technology. In fact, one attendee at a screening even said something along the lines they are “terrified “of what these “mind reading” machines could do.
Point in fact, maybe they should be scared or at least concerned. An article was published in the International Business Times this week titled, “Mind Reader: Meet The Man Who Records and Stores Your Thoughts, Dreams and Memories.” The subtitle “US startup MMT has become the first to commercialise the storing of memories.” Is the technology I postulate in Justice Is Mind here in 2014? I’m not sure. But one thing is certain from all the articles about mind-reading that have been published over the last year, this technology will be science fact in the future and it will be part of our everyday lives. I simply envision it to be as commonplace as checking a box before you have an MRI. Do you want an FVMRI?
For sure, Viewster will open up an international market for Justice Is Mind. Domestically, I could not be more excited for our Cape Cod Premiere on September 18 at the Chatham Orpheum Theater. With so many films looking for an audience, that’s exactly what theatrical screenings do – build audiences, awareness and, just as important, press. What better way to launch onto Viewster’s festival when you have over 100,000 Google entries along with audiences that have seen the film and journalists that have reported on it pushing awareness.
These September initiatives will push nicely into October when Justice Is Mind has its International Premiere on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth ocean liner on October 29. Part of the onboard program will be a filmmaking seminar I’ll be presenting to guests a few days before. It’s a 45 minute PowerPoint presentation that will introduce attendees to the world of independent filmmaking. When one considers what goes into making a feature film, I think audiences will have a whole new appreciation on the process.
What Adrien Brody said in The Wrap really sums up the efforts of so many of us in this industry, “It is obviously a very competitive profession. It takes a tremendous amount of luck to be at the right place and the right time and to nail it when given the opportunity.” Having worked on both sides of the camera I could not agree more. To say this industry is competitive is an understatement. It takes tremendous will, determination and perseverance. In closing I am reminded about a quote from the character Paul McGill in Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Women of Substance.
“We are each the authors of our own lives.”