I hear Mark Amin is an impeccable dresser. So, 2/9/04, I put on my best suit and tie (normally I do my interviews in jeans) and drive to his Lions Gate office in Marina Del Rey. They're in the middle of moving to Santa Monica and the look is disheveled, even down to Mark. He wears a dress shirt, no tie. It's 5PM. He's had a long day. His office is lined with pictures of his children.
Luke: "What did your family want you to grow up to be?"
Born in 1950, Mark comes from the small Iranian town of Rafsanjan. He speaks with a moderate Persian accent: "They wanted me to be a businessman. I came from a family of businessmen (pistachios) for several generations. They discouraged any artistic endeavor. My best subject in school was writing. That was the only subject where I'd get the best grades. I loved literature. In hindsight, I should've taken more writing courses. Instead, I was psychologically forced to study science and math, which I was not good at. I ended up majoring in economics at college. I barely got the needed B-average to graduate. Then I went to business school, which was better because it was less theoretical.
"I came to the United States at age 17 for my last year of high school. Then I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Kansas. I graduated from UCLA with my MBA in 1975. I went back to Iran in 1976 because all my family was there. I'd come to the US to study, not to stay. My family had the largest pistachio trading company in the nation.
"I was drafted into military service. I was given a civilian job within the service. When the revolution came, they canceled all the military service. My family's business was nationalized. It took me a couple of years to help my parents get out of Iran. I moved to Europe from 1981-83 before moving back to Los Angeles.
"I grew up thinking I was going to run the family business. It gave me a certain confidence. When the revolution happened, I realized I would have to think for myself. I decided to do something that I wanted to do."
Luke: "When you were a child, did you want to go into your family's business?"
Mark: "It's not that I wanted to... I was going there without thinking. I was on that track. My family was liberal in political and religious point of view, but in business traditions, they were conservative.
"I started with a clean slate. A couple of my friends were starting a video store. They wanted to expand. They asked to join. I invested money. That chain became 20/20 Video, which at one point was the largest chain in LA. Through that business, I learned about videos.
"In 1985, I started my own video distribution company (Vidmark which became Trimark in 1990). I invested $150,000 of my own money. My family and friends invested $120,000. For the first three years, all we did was license the rights to older movies and TV movies. You'd create a campaign for the movie, with a great poster and box.
"Once we became successful, we dabbled in theatrical distribution, production, and theatrical distribution. By 1990, the company had become a small studio. I eventually had 100 employees."
Luke: "What do you think you do best?"
Mark: "I'm best at marketing. I could take almost any movie and sell it. Back in the late eighties and early nineties, after people would pick up a blockbuster, they'd pick up B movies. And all they would have to go by would be the box. We were best at developing box art. I also found I was good at knowing what people want to watch.
"Gradually, I transferred that instinct to making films. I would try to pick among the scripts people brought us. But as a small studio, you're dealing with the leftovers after the scripts have been pitched to the major studios and the big independents. In 1995, I started writing my own stories and developing my own scripts.
"The original Leprechaun idea was brought to us but I developed the script. We made it for one million dollars and it did nine million box office. We made Leprechaun 6 and 7. I came up with the idea for The Dentist (1996). It was a huge hit on HBO and on video.
"After that, I wrote more sophisticated stuff. The breakthrough for me creatively came on the movie Diplomatic Siege (1999). I came up with that in 1995. [It's Mark first writing credit.] The movie didn't turn out that great but it was highly profitable. Every country in the world bought it and it got prime time TV premieres. The movie was made for $4 million, which is large for a non-theatrical movie, and it grossed almost $8 million, which is large for no theatrical release and no P&A (prints and advertising).
"I've gravitated to the creative side."
Luke: "Do you want to direct?"
Mark: "I've thought about it. I'm not sure. I think I could but I'm not sure I'm willing to give up a year of my life to a project.
"When the merger opportunity came along with Lions Gate, I jumped at it, because it would allow me to concentrate on the creative. When you're running a studio with 100 employees, you can't spend much time on creative."
Mark pulls out a yellow writing pad. "When you came in, I was writing a story."
Luke: "You write in English?"
Mark: "Yes. My Farsi is high school level while my English is college-level."
Luke: "What was your role with Frida?"
Mark: "In 1997, after the success of Eve's Bayou (1997), I was looking for a project with a similar feel. Somebody told me about Frida (2002). I read a book on her and optioned it. There were many scripts around. We picked the best one. Six months later, Salma Hayek came along. She was very aggressive and agreed to do it for little money and a producer credit. She deserves her credit because she helped pull the movie together. We were getting ready to go into production in Mexico. We started selling it internationally. We made a deal with Disney for the territories of Latin America and Spain for a big chunk of the budget. Suddenly, the word got back to Miramax, who had previously turned down various versions of the project. Then they started doing their usual tactics. They said they didn't want to buy it but they started creating problems with some of the talent. Eventually, it turned out Miramax was behind the whole thing. Finally they came out of the woodwork and said they wanted to buy the project from us. They agreed to finance the movie and to pay us a nice fee upfront. They took over. They and Salma chose the director [Julie Taymor].
"I like the movie. The movie is 90% of the script we had developed. The storyline is identical.
"The two movies that have most helped my career are Eve's Bayou and Frida. I had produced and/or financed many small but good movies, such as Love and a 45 (1994) which put Renee Zelwegger on the map. I produced the films of many first time directors such as Johnathan Mostow's first film Flight of Black Angel (TV, 1991). I also did many horror and action and genre films. Jennifer Aniston's first feature starring role was in Leprechaun. Eve's Bayou was Trimark's most successful film."
Luke: "Producers I talk to are scared to make black movies."
Mark: "Yeah. You can't sell them foreign."
Luke: "And theaters are afraid to play them in case they cause riots."
Mark: "This movie is different. You can say it is an African American movie because all the people in it are African America. But in terms of story and genre, it is not. It has nothing to do with urban issues or racism. This movie could be all whites or Chinese. It's the story of an upper middle class family in Louisiana. The father is a doctor.
"The risky thing about it was not only was it African American, but we weren't going after the traditional urban audience. We were making a black movie without the normal appeal to the urban audience. Compared to other black movies, it had a low percentage of the black audience. It appealed to a sophisticated, non-urban audience, and the blacks who came were almost all middle class and upper class. It was not the type of movie that appealed to gang members and an urban audience...
"I'm not a great fan of character pieces. You take a huge risk unless the character is played by Jack Nicholson. My taste is story driven with great characters. Those kinds of scripts are hard to find."
Luke: "How often do you enjoy reading a script?"
Mark: "Even some of the scripts that turn out well are not fun to read. Because I have a system that filters things, half of the scripts I read are enjoyable. Many of them I can't make because I can't figure out how to market them."
Luke: "What have you learned about human nature from marketing and making movies?"
Mark: "Since I've moved from business to creative, I've become a softer person. I'm more tolerant. Even if somebody hurts me, I'm more likely to understand it and get over it. I've found that with most people, if you genuinely appeal to their goodness, it works."
Luke: "Even in this industry?"
Mark: "Yes. It may only work for a short time... The thing that's peculiar with this industry is that people will do or say whatever it takes to promote their art, at the expense of their personal character. I come from a business background in a small town where your character is your capital. You can't fool around. Why in this business do people lie and cheat and still do business together? In this business, no matter how bad you are, if you get a hold of a script or a project or you align yourself with talent, then people are willing to look beyond everything. Yes, they will be more careful dealing with you and you will have a harder time getting your project set up."
Luke: "How would your journey through this industry be different if you used the first name you were born with - Mohammed?"
Mark: "I didn't change my name for this industry. I didn't change my name. I just added "Mark" as a middle name, so my name is Mohammed Mark Amin. I picked up the name "Mark" at the end of high school. I arrived here and I did not speak English. The kids called me "Mo," and I hated that. There was this Three Stooges show on TV where MO was one of the lead characters. I was living with an American family. They encouraged me to come up with another name. I went through names that started with "M," and I settled on Mark. Throughout college, I was called Mark.
"Anyway, I don't think it would've been that different."
Luke: "There aren't many Mohammeds in Hollywood, or producers of Islamic descent."
Mark: "There are several Muslim writers, directors, and cinematographers, but Mohammed is such a clearly Islamic name. The business on the business side is 90% Jewish and 10% everything else. On the creative side, it is about 50% Jewish. Jews are a minority and have had to deal with discrimination. All the people I deal with know my full name. I have never sensed any kind of prejudice. Maybe I've been oblivious. The only time I felt prejudice were from people I didn't know. I remember that during the Iran hostage crisis, I was walking through a parking lot in Orange County when I got picked on by a bunch of kids because they heard us speaking Farsi. They tried to pick a fight with us which we avoided.
"I can name you a few examples of friends who'd rather do business with me than with a fellow Jew.
"I'm not religious. Thank God, my family was very liberal. My parents told us that it doesn't matter what religion you are and where you are in the world and how often you pray and how often you go to a place of worship, what matters is what kind of a human being you are. If there is a heaven and a hell, then if you are a good person, you go to heaven, and if you are a bad person, you go to hell. It doesn't matter who you pray to or how you hard you pray, all that matters is how good of a person you are."
Luke: "Let me show you this two paragraph story from Donald Zuckerman about Courtney Love cursing you out."
Mark: "It's a trivial thing but yes, it is true. I won't get into what she said. I did not say, 'F--- her.' I don't talk like that. I did say there was no way I was going to buy this movie.
"I was dragged to this party by the producer. Then he dragged me over to Courtney. Then she was extremely rude and dismissive. Maybe she was distracted. I'd been dragged there. I had an emotional reaction."
Luke: "How's the Internet video-on-demand business coming along with cinemanow.com?"
Mark: "It's good. We were too early  in that business but it is starting to catch up. As soon as we formed the company [partnered with Microsoft and Blockbuster], we realized we were early. We had a conservative business model. We concentrated on building software and getting the system working. It works. We are the leader in that business. Our only competitor is movielink.com. Our company is near the break-even point. I guess our sales are higher than theirs and their expenses are ten times ours. I don't know how long the studios will pump money into it. Cinemanow.com, on the other hand, will be profitable in the next two months. It has become the leader.
"We have many studios giving us content. It's like having a big B movie channel at your disposal and it is only $9:95 a month. You pay more for the blockbusters and the adult content (which movielink does not)."
Luke: "That would be the profit center?"
Mark: "It's behaving like video stores. Into the early eighties, adult was the profit center. But every year, the percentage drops. Our biggest problem is pricing. We're trying to convince the studios to adopt a more liberal pricing to allow people to download and burn a DVD. When we see that, we will see the dam break and a huge increase in sales. Our business model calls for allowing you to download a movie on to your hard drive and burn a DVD, including the jacket copy, so you can give it as a gift to a friend.
"Generally, new releases are $20-$25. We can undercut that by 40%. So the consumer saves money, we make more money and the studio makes more money. The problem is that the studios are afraid to aggressively go after this business. I am afraid they are going to wait until it becomes a serious problem like the music business."
I call a veteran Hollywood writer about producer Mark Amin. He says: "Mark was at the right place at the right time with Trimark. He's responsible for Frida (2002). He hooked up Salma Hayek with the project. He understood the power of home video. All his films were made for home video. He rode that wave. He understood genre titles for home video. Mark is in the category of Jim Robinson of Morgan Creek. He understood foreign sales, franchising. He franchised these goofy movies like Leprechaun (1993). He made some movies many times."