The years from 1987 to 1993 were a wild ride. I started as a PA sweeping floors on Hollywood movie sets and worked my way up to producing my own films. If someone told me that this is where I will be in 1993 I would not have believed them, but I must say I had my dream set in my sight and I just went for it, and that was the result.
Its 1994, and after I have produced and successfully sold my first movie L.A. Wars, I felt I was ready to jump on my next project. So I came up with a title “Mask of Death” and story-line for my next action movie, then I hired a screenwriter, R.C. Rossenfier. R.C. and I would meet up in my apartment in Hollywood 5 days a week and we write. I tell him what I want and he builds on it. He is a very good writer because he gave me what I wanted and his style of writing was much better than mine. One month later the script was finished. With the script in my hand I wanted to start shopping it around to raise money for the production. I planned to follow the same formula I used on L.A. Wars, but I wasn’t able to do so because this was a bigger budget film and required more money to be raised.
Consider it luck or maybe the force was with me at that time, so I got a call from the late John Dunning, who was a producer and partner in Cinepix Film Properties a Canadian film distribution company. John told me that he will finance my next project. It was the perfect timing as I had the Mask of Death script ready, so I sent it to him.
In 1993 while I was selling L.A. Wars at the Mifed Film Market in Milan, I met Andre Link who bought L.A. Wars for the territory of Canada. Andre was John Dunning’s partner at Cinepix, he showed John a copy of the film, and John was impressed. In fact John liked the film so much and that’s why he offered to finance my next project.
I was on cloud nine! John gave us a few notes and minor adjustments that he wanted to see in the script and we did those and now I was ready to start putting the pieces together. One thing I want to add is that not everyone was thrilled about the title “Mask of Death.” At the beginning they did not like it, but it represented the story very well, and after many tries to come up with a better title from everyone, they came back to Mask of Death. The way I work I like to come up with titles first then the story line and then the script, I did the same for all my projects and that method always worked for me.
I did a preliminary budget and came up with a cast list for the film. When I worked for PM Entertainment in the past, I met Lorenzo Lamas on the set of one of the movies he did for them. I liked Lorenzo a lot and I felt he would be perfect for the lead role, and on top of that he was in demand at the time and his films were very successful.
The budget would have been $1 million, but after John agreed to Lorenzo being the star, the budget was raised to $1.5 million. We also needed other name actors to be in the film, so we all came up with a list, and finally we chose 2 actors, Billy Dee Williams and Rae Dawn Chong.
Since the budget increased we needed to utilize a filming location where they offered tax credits to offset that increase, so we decided that the film will be shot in Canada. Canada offers around 30-35% in incentives, meaning the government will subsidize that amount, then the banks will finance that incentive and give you cash to use for the production costs. But these tax credits have their own set of rules on how films qualify, one of these rules was that the film will be classified as a Canadian production, meaning the majority of the cast and crew has to be Canadian citizens, and since the writer and I are American citizens, it will hurt the financing of the film if I am to get the producer credit on it. John brought in his Canadian production team and they took over the production of the project, I agreed to become an executive producer.
But it was okay with me, I was paid $50K for the screenplay, I was paid a producer fee, and I get 10% of the profits. The film was a huge success, it had its world premiere on HBO, was distributed in the USA by Dimension Home Video, was available in every blockbuster in America and sold worldwide.
I remember when I went and picked up the check from the attorney’s office in Century City. I was driving on the Avenue of the Stars and I stopped at a traffic light, some tourists were walking at the crosswalk, I was in a Mercedes 450SL convertible, I was calling my wife on my Motorola cell phone which was not too common in 1994, and for the first time ever I had a $50K check in my hand, and these tourists started looking at me to see if I was a celebrity or someone they might recognize. You know how they do a double take and stare to be sure – at that moment I felt like a real Hollywood movie producer, the ones you see on TV. I felt that I realized my dream, one of my happiest moments in life. I will put it up there behind getting married and having my 2 kids.
A few years later people were saying that Mask of Death was a rip-off of the movie Face Off with John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. To clarify, Face Off was produced and released 2 years after Mask of Death.
John Dunning was very happy with the results of Mask of Death so he contacted me and said let’s do it again. I agreed. I hired R.C. again and we went at, writing a new script entitled” New Breed”. John liked the script as well and we were ready to move forward, at that time Lionsgate was interested in acquiring his company, so he had to put a freeze on the production and ended up buying the script from me for $50k. New Breed became part of Lionsgate’s script library, I am not sure what happened with it. Maybe one day it will get produced. Again, it was okay with me. I did get $50K for it.
That last $50K became a down payment on my 2nd house.
If a filmmaker pushing his or her project asks me for advice and based on what worked for me, I would tell them:
- It’s not always about you, it’s about getting the project made, be a team player even if you have to make sacrifices, the rewards at the end are worth it.
- I have seen many filmmakers let their ego get in the way, remember the people you want to do business with are already more successful than you.
- Take a moment to get to know people, the person whom you think is the least important to you, could be the person who would offer you your next big opportunity.
- It’s not about money, it’s about your passion of telling stories on film, tell the best story you can and ultimately you will be compensated accordingly.
- My favorite advice. Be humble and nice, nice guys do not finish last.