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.
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.”
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
“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.
In Justice Is Mind the fictional trial was The Commonwealth v. Henri Miller. In reality Justice Is Mind was primarily filmed in The Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This past week, Justice Is Mind’s editor Jared Skolnick, who is also an award winning filmmaker, was featured in an article titled “Hey, Hollywood and Bollywood — how about Valleywood?” The story in The Valley Advocate stated that Jared “makes movies in the Valley because this is where he’s from and where he began building his professional network.” The same holds true for me. Even when I was living in Los Angeles in 2007 and cast the two leads in First World in the “Golden State” of California, I filmed the project in Massachusetts? Why? Because this is where I’m from.
Having lived in both New York City and Los Angeles, I can certainly understand the desire to be at the epicenter of the entertainment industry. Having been on a network TV show, a city like Los Angeles can be very exciting when you are working on the high end of the industry. I know numerous actors (some I’ve trained) and filmmakers who have left Massachusetts for the hope of fame and fortune. I firmly believe if you have the desire and will to move to these cities you should. You will never know until you try. For me, I’m glad I had my experience in both these great cities, positive ones from a career point of view, but my creative energy and the launching of all my projects has originated in Massachusetts. It’s not something I set out to do, it just happened that way. My new personal website, www.markashtonlund.com, chronicles the journey.
Case in point, the making of First World and Justice Is Mind. Both of these projects were enormously ambitious between the number of talent involved and needed locations. I had to work in a region where I knew the people and their general enthusiasm about being part of the film. Why film in a location that will require permitting, location fees and local regulations just to look cool, when you can film somewhere else for free working with enthusiastic location partners in exchange for promoting their business?
For me, as I did with Justice Is Mind, once I give the green light to a project I like to move along at reasonable pace in pre-production. Simply put, time is money whether literally or figuratively. As some may have noticed from postings to this blog, I have generally already scouted most of the locations for SOS United States and to some degree for In Mind We Trust.
But as we have seen from the latest film markets, the greatest challenge filmmakers on all levels have is in securing production financing for their projects and a return on investment. You don’t have to be a fortune teller to recognize that it always comes down to equity and what the investor wants. To say there has been an about face in film financing you just have to revisit articles that the trades wrote around the latest American Film Market and then there was this blog post over at Film Specific. But there is one piece to “The Commonwealth” financing pie that keeps films in the state.
Unless you’ve been living in a galaxy that is truly far far away, inhabitants of the planet Earth are eagerly awaiting for Star Wars: The Force Awakens to hit theaters on December 18. We’ve seen the trailers, the stills and countless articles speculating on the story itself, but the latter is truly nothing less than a state secret – and well it should be. This past week on IndieWire even Mark Hamill stated, “I’m Not Even Authorized To Tell You I’m In Episode VII.”
When I was booked on Skating with Celebrities back in 2005 all of us involved in that show, including the studio audience, were sworn to absolute secrecy by an iron clad contract. The show was produced live to tape and then aired in early 2006. Yes, everyone I knew asked me in one way or another who won. Some were downright angry I didn’t confess the results and some were, ready, offended. Like I cared. You don’t risk an entire production and litigation to satisfy one person, who will tell another and so on.
There were so many things I learned on that show that I have taken to my filmmaking work. Like my contract with FOX, the agreements I put in place for Justice Is Mind had a photography and non-disclosure clause. Most were totally fine with it, but it did strike some as overly controlling. My on camera work up until Skating with Celebrities was mostly live so there was no need for a non-disclosure, but you quickly learn the reasons why such things are necessary. Think about it, do you want to risk giving away the ending to a project that has been years in development and lessen its commercial appeal? Even now, I don’t allow clips to be manipulated or edited without my written approval.
We very much live in a “look at me” society with social media leading the charge. Sadly, I see so many posts about submissions, meetings and auditions that I would want to keep off the radar. What if your film doesn’t get accepted? That meeting falls apart? You don’t get cast? At any given time I have more irons in the fire than I can sometimes keep track of (thank god I have my lists!). Unfortunately, premature announcements can derail a deal that may have come to fruition if given enough time.
One such deal that was months in the making was the international premiere of Justice Is Mind on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth ocean liner. Imagine if I had breathed a word of it prior to it being a done deal. Cunard just simply could have said they declined to screen the film, I would have had serious embarrassment written all over my face to say nothing of tarnishing the brand of a film I have worked on for years. In the end the timing worked out great. The deal came through right before one of our screenings. I announced it publicly in May 2014 prior to our screening at the Elm Draught House Cinema.
Perhaps one of the most famous plot secrets was around one of my favorite films Witness for the Prosecution. In addition to director Bill Wilder holding the last ten pages of the film from the actors until it was shot, the end credits of the film features the following “The management of this theatre suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not divulge, to anyone, the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution.” Starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton, I highly recommend this 1957 classic.
But one thing that’s not secret was discovering that Justice Is Mind was named number two on a user created IMDb list. What film was number one on that list? Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
It was April last year when the email came in through my old website – ESPN was going to do a documentary revisiting the Tonya/Nancy saga of 1994 and they wanted to interview me about it. In the day, I used to do these types of interviews all the time. After I founded International Figure Skating in 1993 building it into the world’s largest for the sport (yes, I’m very proud of that accomplishment), I was often called by various networks and TV shows to offer my commentary on a particular subject in the sport. For me, this was brand building for the magazine and my name. During the height of the season it was pretty standard that a news crew would come to my office to interview me or set something up a skating event. Aside from anything else, they were a lot of fun to do!
But this request gave me momentary pause. I had lost my publishing company in a hostile takeover back in 2004 and with the exception of starring on Skating with Celebrities in 2006 and a couple of other interviews, I didn’t push anything in figure skating. For me, personally, the real turning point for my passion happened during the judging scandal at the 2002 Winter Olympics. By that point, the sport was already in a popularity nose dive due to oversaturation and horrid mismanagement with the governing bodies and their agencies. During those games I did over 200 TV interviews about the scandal. Exciting? Sure. But I knew where this was going to go. It didn’t take long for the bottom to literally fall out of an industry that was born nearly ten years earlier with the Tonya/Nancy saga.
I am now a filmmaker and pursuing a new passion. A passion to make movies and to work creatively with others. My work in figure skating gave me a solid foundation to build something new. My momentary pause didn’t last long. I wanted to work with ESPN again and then I learned that this documentary was being directed by the award winning filmmaker Nanette Burstein. It’s all about networking and there is always something new to be learned by working with others.
On Thursday I watched ESPN’s The Price of Gold with one of my best friends Kim Merriam. Yes, you have probably heard her name in association with Justice Is Mind. We filmed the short and feature length version at her house and she appeared in both films. But Kim and I used to skate together as well. It’s a friendship that started back when I was in high school. So not only were we watching this show together, but we were also on the Justice Is Mind “set” if you will. Coolness.
First, The Price of Gold is simply the best documentary I have seen that pulled together the “drama” that literally captivated the entire world for those weeks twenty years ago. For me, I could not be more honored to have been selected to be part of this documentary. A special thank you to Nanette Burstein for having me participate. And to my family, friends and colleagues who reached out to me on Twitter, Facebook and by email, your support was truly special.
In closing, I want to take a moment to wish all athletes going to the 2014 Winter Olympics the best of luck as you live a dream you have had since childhood. Having represented my country as a journalist in 2002, I can only imagine the pride as an athlete. And while I don’t’ understand the new scoring system, you, the skaters, will understand my closing mark.
Since First World: Covenant went live on Amazon, I’ve been rolling out the press release and tracking the results. I was very pleased to see a nice listing on Locus Online this morning. Locus is a fantastic science-fiction/fantasy magazine (both their print and online versions).
A few years ago when the short film version of First World had its premier in India at the First Ever National Discussion on Science Fiction, Locus mentioned the project back then. When developing something new (especially science fiction), every news item and mention helps to get the word out. On that note, I’m developing a page for The Ashton Times that links to some of the press the project has had since its inception. (Inception, now there was a great original science fiction movie!)
As for the space exploration front, I have to say I’m feeling a bit sad when I see these pictures of the space shuttle Endeavour at the International Space Station. We know there is only one more space shuttle mission left and then that program will be retired. But what a program it has been…over 30 years!
The advancements in science, space exploration and knowledge of our universe have increased on so many levels over the lifetime of the space shuttle program. I wish the Congress of the United States would stop complaining about the cost of the space program. It’s about the net result to human knowledge which always translates to more jobs in space and right here on Earth.
Thankfully, we now have a vibrant commercial space program in active operation with companies like Space X, Virgin Galactic and Bigelow Aerospace. Someday these new companies and government space agencies will unite together to form…dare I say it…a federation? But for now they each need to prove their respective place in space. Honestly, what I’m the most excited about is the Skylon spaceplane. Once you’ve seen the shuttle land…well…you get the point.
For those of you that have the Nook (or the Nook applications), First World: Covenant has been “processing” for the last 48 hours. I’ll tweet when it’s live.
I am pleased to announce that First World: Covenant has been published. My first ebook went live on Amazon yesterday afternoon.
For those of you that may not be familiar with First World, the story is set in the year 2018 when China announces its first manned mission to the Moon which sets forth the unraveling of a worldwide cover-up that began when Apollo 11 discovered a domed installation in the Sea of Tranquility, and with it, the origins of mankind.
Covenant is a prequel novella that takes place twenty-four hours prior to the events in First World: Revelation. Covenant revolves around four characters that each have a stake in the coming of a new world order and provides some additional background to the primary story that starts in Revelation. The synopsis can be found on the Covenant page and in the official press release.
The First World story really began in 2006 with one scene. I just imagined being on the beach when suddenly these space-like ships appear out of nowhere. OK, now where did I want the story to go.
Ever since I can remember, I have loved science fiction. I’m particularly fond of the classics from the 1950’s. I have also been fascinated with the number of conspiracy theories surrounding the Apollo missions. It’s hard to believe that some people actually think we never went to the Moon. So then where did these Saturn V rockets go?
Another area of interest of mine has been the various religious beliefs that are held by most of the human population on this planet and the governments that, let’s face it, control the population.
When I started to “pen” First World one of my other goals was to ground the story in history and major events. You’ll see what I mean when you read Covenant.
Since 2006, First World: Revelation has placed in three writing contests at leading film festivals, been produced as a short film that has screened at twenty science fiction conventions in over six countries and is running on Hulu.com through the IndieFlix channel (Yes, I am working on securing production of the feature-length version). As I mention in the acknowledgments, the words Thank You don’t nearly express my gratitude for all those that have supported this…adventure!
I hope you enjoy Covenant. I look forward to your comments.