Producer Mark Damon was born Mark Harris in Chicago, Illinois, on 4/22/33.
Mark Damon majored in literature and business administration at U.C.L.A..
He was a working actor in the 1950s and early 60s. He was the romantic lead in Roger Corman's The House of Usher (1960), which also starred Vincent Price. Mark starred in two films with Connie Stevens, including Young and Dangerous.
Damon moved to Italy where he appeared in more than 50 features over the next decade before moving to production and international sales.
Damond created the Producers' Sales Organization in 1977 and the Vision International company ten years later. He is one of the fathers of the independent film movement. Damon oversaw distribution of such international blockbusters as "Das Boot" (1981), "Once Upon a Time in America" (1984) and "Prizzi's Honor" (1985).
I sit in the waiting room at WDP Worldwide in Century City September 19, 2002. Mark Damon, the godfather of independent films, walks in. I'm surprised at how young and vigorous he looks for a man of 69 years of age.
Mark speaks slowly, calmly and in measured tones: "When I was an actor, I resolved that I would always take care of myself."
Luke: "Somebody told me that six years ago you were ready to quit the industry."
Mark: "Never. I have no hobbies. My two grown children have left the house. I couldn't sit around my home all day. My wife wouldn't know what to do with me."
Luke: "How did you find the process of working on your book?"
Mark: "Exhilirating at first, frustrating later. Exhilirating because I kept a lot of correspondence from certain periods in my life. I was able to go back into it and capture some of the emotions I felt. Frustrating because the mind plays tricks. You think something happened in 1967 and it happened in 1965. It's difficult to corroborate things. You have holes in certain periods of time. I had a photographic memory as a kid. But when so many things go on in your life, a lot of things get blurred. Since I've never kept a journal, it was frustrating not to be able to put everything together.
"What was interesting with my book was that after going through my entire life, I began to see a thru-line. Sometimes I picked it up. Sometimes my biographer picked it up. Where the drive started. What fed it. What were the things that never changed - my desire to be number one at everything. My determination to leave no stone unturned to accomplish anything I wanted to accomplish.
"Through looking back over all the years, it became obvious where some of the inciting moments were. You can't control what happens but you can control how you deal with things. No matter how adverse the situation, I will be able to cope with it. No matter how chaotic the situation, this gives me the opportunity to define an order that wasn't there before."
Five minutes into our conversation I have to leave so Mark can take a private call from Kevin Spacey, who's headed to South Africa with ex-President Bill Clinton to raise money for some worthy cause.
Thirty minutes later, I return to Mark's office.
Luke: "What killed Producers Sales Organization (PSO)?"
Mark: "I'll give you a couple chapters of my book that deals with that. I'll give you a thumbnail now.
"[In 1986] We formed a union with Lou Corman, who was running the film fund Delphi. We called our company PSO-Delphi. Lou Corman took us to Allen & Company to raise funds. They raised $25 million for us in private placement. Part of our business plan called for us to invest money not just in film production but with producers, giving them overhead deals so that we would have a flow of product. The plan was to produce a certain number of pictures per year.
"Meantime, we finally closed a credit line for $140 million with the First National Bank of Boston and the Chemical Bank of New York. The $25 million raised through private placement and put into escrow was contingent on the $140 million line of credit closing.
"Mike Spiegler, who negotiated the deal with us, was let go from the First National Bank. We were operating on a handshake basis. Then we found out there was an internal fight going on between Chemical and First National. First National was concerned that our line of credit would be too highly leveraged. When Spiegler tried to fund us, they let him go and brought in people who were not entertainment industry bankers. They looked at the credit line and concluded it was to highly leveraged. So instead of giving us a $140 million line of credit, they would give us an $80 line of credit.
"At that time, we'd made deals with producers and we were shooting five pictures (Short Circuit, Nine and a Half Weeks, Flight of the Navigator, Eight Million Ways to Die, Clan of the Cave Bear) and executing our business plan based on a $140 million line of credit.
"We made money on all the pictures except Eight Million Ways, which was Hal Ashby's last picture. Ashby at that time, his mind was blown. He'd had too much..."
Mark: "Coke. Whatever. It's a flawed picture with moments of brilliance. It was from a script by Oliver Stone and rewritten by Robert Towne, two of the best writers we had. Ashby threw the script out and had the writers improvise every day. It was mind boggling.
"Once our credit line was changed, our $25 million was blown because it was contingent on a $140 million line of credit. We were out of business at that point. We'd spent $11 million of the $25 million. We'd depended on a handshake while the documents were drawn up. That's what really happened.
"Since then, John Miller of Chase and Franz Zoffman of Credit Lyonaisse said that the stupidest thing the bank could've done was pull the plug on PSO because PSO had been so highly successful.
"If I had wanted to be in the courts for the next five years, we would've won against the banks.
"It was not production that finished PSO."
Luke: "That's the general perception. PSO moved from sales to production and they went belly up."
Mark: "That's a total misperception."
Luke: "Where did you go after PSO?"
Mark: "I went into a state of paralysis. Having had such a successful company. I didn't get that involved in the banking end of it. That's what my partner John Hyde was doing. We'd agreed that he'd handle most of the banking and financing and I would handle the sales and marketing and production. I was as shocked as anybody.
"I'm proud that we protected the other producers. They got all their money. Nobody got hurt except John and I. And we had no personal liability.
"I was flying so high. PSO was the platinum diamond in the business. There was almost no picture we made a mistake on.
"I would get up in the mornings [after the bankruptcy] and hear the soundtrack for Short Circuit, which was about to come out, and I was paralyzed. All these pictures that I put my heart and soul into are now going out without my overseeing the marketing. The pictures were just thrown to the winds. Eight Million Ways got short shrift. Flight of the Navigator was neglected. It was the first picture to use CGI [computer generated images].
"About nine months later, I revived myself and began a company with Peter Guber and Jon Peters called Vision. I sold the company to Credit Lyonaisse in 1993 and started MDP Worldwide [a production, sales and distribution company] on about $10,000. By 1998, we'd made about $12 million on lower budget pictures. We became a public company. We're now worth about $50 million. Because we are one of the few independents with cash, all these projects are coming to us. Kevin Spacey has been wanting to do this Bobby Darren picture for the past five years.
"We have about four magnificent pictures about to come out with budgets all over $35 million. We have four pictures in the under $10 million range. We have every important project available thrown at us now because most of the other independent companies are just out of money. We crawled back up."
Luke: "How do you deal with ripoff producers?"
Mark: "You'll have to be more specific."
Luke: "I heard Moshe Diamant turned your hair white with his shenanigans."
Mark laughs. "Moshe is a smart guy. He's also an Israeli. He's an egomaniac. He's a control freak. He knows how to produce pictures. People say he has no taste. The last two pictures of his we handled got about the worst reviews I've ever seen - The Musketeer and FearDotcom. We have one more coming out - Extreme Ops, which will also get a wide-release.
"Moshe and I go back a long way. It's been a harrowing experience at times. I still appreciate him. He gets pictures made and we make money off them. We're a public company and I have to keep looking at the bottom line. They may not always be films that reflect my taste but buyers want them and we sell them.
"Over the next year, we expect to do 8-10 pictures. We'll have three pictures in Sundance including The United States of Leyland with Kevin Spacey. If we do pictures under $10 million, we're looking for reviews. We're looking for cutting edge pictures. We're looking for original pictures. We'll rarely do anything between $10 - $35 million. Anything above $35 will be mainstream commercial pictures."
Luke: "Will Moshe make more pictures for you?"
Mark: "No. I think that business relationship is over. We've had enough of each other in business, hopefully not socially."
Luke: "How much are you going to reveal in your book?"
Mark: "Pretty much everything. I think the only way to do a book that's interesting to the public is if they see your vulnerabilities. I read the book The Kid Stays in the Picture. I thought it was good. I thought the documentary was brilliant.
"Here was a crazy egomaniac who ruined his life on drugs. I went all through the Cotton Club [experience]. What you don't have there..."
Mark points to my notes.
"You have the list of movies I took producer credits on. Imdb doesn't list the 300 pictures I helped finance and distribute. The Cotton Club would not have been made without our involvement."
Luke: "Do you look at the book The Kid Stays in the Picture as a model?"
Mark: "There's a certain similarity that we were both actors and we both became successful producers. Bob was crazier than I was. Bob rose to greater heights of prominence than I did. My claim to fame will be the fact that I basically, coming from an acting background, became what they call the godfather of independent films. The one who invented the foreign sales business. The one who invented ways to get films financed. That's my main claim to fame.
"How did somebody do what I did? Because I didn't know better. I came in with such fresh viewpoint because I'd been an actor and I didn't know anything. Then I got into distribution in Europe. I began to meet European distributors and I understood that these guys were better than the major studios. They were more careful with their money. They got every nickel's worth of publicity. They knew the provinces better than the majors. But they couldn't get big pictures. It became my goal to get them big pictures.
"I went on a crusade for years to show that you could make much more money if you distributed your pictures independently through PSO (Producers Sales Organization) than if you went through the studios.
"Bob Evans and I started out as actors who hated having other people decide our destiny. Bob became the head of a studio and I became the head of the independent world. I was one of the first founders of AFMA (American Film Marketing Association) - it represents the union of independent producers and sales people. I will probably end up the chairman of AFMA. Our worlds came together on Cotton Club.
"Bob's was a bigger brassier life. Mine was also fun and big in its own way, but not as far as the public is concerned."
Variety 8/15/02: "11:14" has received a greenlight from Mark Damon's MDP Worldwide, cinching together an ensemble cast under the helm of scribe and helmer Greg Marcks. Marcks, 26, had won the bronze medal at the 2001 Student Academy Awards for his short film "Lector." His spec "11:14" had attracted much attention and was quickly snapped up by Firm Films, the production division of management concern the Firm. "11:14" will star Hilary Swank, Colin Hanks, Rachael Leigh Cook, Henry Thomas and Clark Gregg, along with newcomers Blake Heron, Ben Foster, Rick Gomez, Jason Segel and Stark Sands.
Variety 7/29/02: Alexandre Dumas, author of the 19th-century French classic of intrigue and adventure "The Three Musketeers," would no doubt be honored to know that the financing plot behind "The Musketeer," MDP Worldwide's recent pic based on his novel, was also a classic of intrigue and adventure. In a six-month period, Los Angeles-based MDP raised roughly $36 million to make the film, but getting there required a high-stakes juggling act of international deals and structures.
At one time, MDP had 22 lawyers in six countries working on the various financing contracts. Damon flew on some 24 separate flights to all the cities involved, collecting legal papers that stacked up over two feet high. "It was a very complicated piece of clockwork," says Damon.