No Sex, No Violence, No Sale
I met movie producer Mitchel Matovich at Starbucks April 8, 2002.
"Lightning in a Bottle [1999 $1 million movie starring Lynda Carter] was a hard movie to sell," says Mitchel. "The response I kept getting from the distributors was, 'No sex, no violence, no sale.' I couldn't get a good theatrical distribution or a cable TV sale. They told me that if I'd put some heavy sex scenes in it, they would've bought it.
"The movie has a strong message against drinking and driving. And the distributors would say, it's such a message movie, we wouldn't know how to handle it. Some would quote the old line attributed to Louis Mayer, 'If you want to send a message, use Western Union.'"
Luke: "But G and PG rated movies make more money than R-rated movies."
Mitchell: "That's what I tried to tell people. I did a lot of studies on that. PG and G movies make double what R-rated movies make. But there's a mentality in this town that the rest of the world lives the way they do, talks the way they do, acts the way they do. If they see a movie that portrays a lifestyle that is not theirs, they don't understand it. They don't understand that most people live between Los Angeles and New York. All those people who would never go see an R-rated movie come out of the woodwork to see a PG-rated film.
"Because I ran into this mentality when I tried to enter my film in festivals, I founded the Santa Clarita International Family Film Festival, which only allowed films for family viewing. It's frequently difficult to get a family film into a film festival because they look for cutting edge visuals and language - more profanity, more sex, more violence rather than good solid well-told stories.
"I was asked to talk to a Congressional committee about the use of drugs, including alcohol, in the media. I don't think I am too popular with many of the people in town because of what I said. The people who control a lot of the money of the industry also have a large interest in drugs, including alcohol. They're not happy about seeing products they're selling portrayed negatives on the screen. In spite of what they say, people are really impacted by what they see on screen. They lead their lives, in part, by what impresses them on screen.
"They [Hollywood] say, no, no, no, people don't really act out what they see on screen. If that is true, then why do they spend millions of dollars for a few seconds on screen in product placement and advertising? They bury their heads in the sand."
A native Californian, Matovich dropped out of college to become a rocket scientist. "I left college to work fulltime as a mechanical designer when I found out that I was making more money doing that over the summer than my college professor."
In his early 50s, he moved to Los Angeles in 1990 to make movies.
Luke: "Tell me about your first movie, 1991's Social Suicide?"
Mitchel: "Social Suicide just happened. My first movie was supposed to be one that I'd written, The Image Machine.
"I was in the aerospace business. Some of my friends say I was a rocket scientist. I worked during the 1950s at the computer lab of the Stanford Research Institute. I was hired away from SRI by Lockheed. I worked on the Polaris, the Poseidon, the Trident missile systems and the Discover and Samos Spy-in-the-Sky satellite system. I also worked on proposals for Skylab and the Space Shuttle. I went to the engineering systems division of FMC Corporation and got them into the aerospace industry when I won a major contract on the Space Shuttle program. I left them and bought my own company, the Morton company. I won contracts on the Space Shuttle and other government projects. I got ahead on what I could do, not on where I went to school.
"When I had my company [around 1986-88], I lived in Menlo Park, a small community behind Palo Alto. My plant was across the bay in Hayward. I had a 90-minute commute every day across the San Mateo Bridge. I decide I'd use this time to write a book. I bought a tape recorder and dictated my story as I drove. Then I'd give my secretary the tapes to transcribe. She'd have them ready for me before she went home at night. Eventually I had a manuscript (The Image Machine) put together, which I let some friends read. They liked it and said, 'Gee, this would make a tremendous motion picture. Better yet, a television series.'
"I took a class at a local college in screenplay writing and wrote the screenplay. When my instructor, a Hollywood screenwriter, said, 'This will sell,' I had my attorney send it to a few people in Los Angeles and immediately it got some interest.
"It's uncanny how we sometimes predict the future. The storyline of The Image Machine was about Arab terrorists coming to the United States posing as students. When I put together the various episodes for television series, one of the episodes had the Arab terrorists commandeering an airplane and crashing it into Washington D.C.. In other episodes, I had the terrorists using methods and implements that can do just as much damage. To insure the technical accuracy of the devices, I did the engineering on them and I know they can work. I'm scared to tell anyone about them because they can inflict so much damage. I've tried to contact the FBI to tell them to watch out for similar concepts but they won't answer my calls.
"I had meetings with Friese Entertainment about making it into a TV series. They wanted to do it and we got close to signing a deal. Then they wanted to see my credits. My writing credits are all engineering technical stuff. So they said, well, we'll have to put a known writer on it. I said, you mean it is good enough to do it but the name on it isn't good enough? Sorry, but I'll do it myself.
"I haven't done it yet. When I first wrote it, I wasn't that good of a writer. You improve as you go along. I haven't published the book published yet. But I've had two other books published, Webville and The Last Discoverer [available on Amazon.com]. I've got another one ready to go into print - The Fourth Reich.
"For my first movie, I'd agreed to work with a young couple [Larry Folders and Victoria Myer] who'd made a couple of low-budget movies. We agreed that each of us would raise half the money and we would co-produce The Last Discoverer. When it came down to the wire, I'd raised my half and they hadn't raised any. My half was not enough to make the planned movie. They had this screenplay they thought we could do inexpensively [Social Suicide]. They said that if we made that one, we could make the money to make my The Last Discoverer. I went along with them. Social Suicide was supposed to cost $200,000 but wound up costing over a million dollars. It did not do well.
"Larry and Victoria had been taken by the Hollywood ripoff artists and they thought everybody was out to get them. We had some real problems. It wound up in litigation. They sued me and I won. We are now friends again."
Luke: "Tell me about your 1992 Jason Alexander film, I Don't Buy Kisses Anymore?"
Mitchel: "I knew the writer, Johnnie Lindsell, and she asked me to produce it.
"We initially selected Stephen Furst for our lead. Then one day the the production secretary came into my office and told me that casting was having another reading for the lead. I asked the director [Robert Marcarelli] about it and he said they hadn't signed a deal with Furst. He wanted to look at Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame. I went to the session and Jason read with Nia Peoples. He did look good. Rob kept assuring me that nobody had made a commitment to Stephen, and they gave Jason the part.
"As soon as the word got out about Jason getting the part, I got a phone call from Patricia O'Brian at SAG (Screen Actors Guild). She said, 'Mitch, you're in trouble. Jason was given the part promised to Stephen. And Stephen is upset. You will have to pay him the full amount whether you use him or not in the movie.' This was a low budget picture - $1.5 million. There was no way that there was enough money to pay Stephen and Jason and still make the picture.
"I called a meeting in my office and questioned everyone involved. They all swore up and down that no firm commitment had been made to Stephen. I specifically asked if anyone had put anything in writing or even made a verbal commitment to Stephen and I was told no. Feeling confiendent that I was on firm ground, I went to SAG and presented the facts to Patricia as they had been presented to me. Patricia said, 'Mitch, somebody is lying to you. Something was put in writing.' She dug into her desk and pulled out a letter that had been written to Stephen, telling him that he had the part.
"So I asked her for Stephen's phone number. I called him and I said I was sorry and I would like to get together and talk about a solution to our problem. We had lunch. He was upset and he could see that I was upset too. We talked about it and immediately liked one another. I told him that if he hit us for the full amount of what he would have been paid to do the picture, he'd kill the picture. He said, I don't want to do that. What's the most I can hit you for and not kill the picture? I thought about it for a moment and I told him. I gave him an honest answer. He saw that I wasn't trying to lowball him and he said ok. So I met him for lunch again, gave him the check and he signed a release. We became good friends and we're working on a project today.
"There's another story about this picture that appears in the book Tales From the Casting Couch by Terrie Maxine Frankel. When we were in pre-production for the picture, my friend Les Baxter, who did the music for the film, came down to the production office for a visit. His car was being repaired, so he asked his neighbor Larry Storch to drive him [veteran actor born in 1923]. While Les and I were talking, Larry wandered around the office. He picked up a copy of the script and started reading it.
"After a while, he comes into the office and says, 'This is a terrific project. Can I have a part in it?' I told him that we didn't have any money. He said he didn't care. He'd work for scale [lowest wage allowed by union law]. So when he said that, we increased the number of lines in one part and gave it to him.
"That's what happens when you have a nice clean project that is story driven and does not depend on explosions and sex and profanity to hold its audience. People kill to work on it.
"When we opened the picture in Los Angeles, we got fantastic reviews. [Los Angeles Times movie critic] Kevin Thomas, who's normally critical, didn't have a single negative in his review. When the picture opened, you couldn't get a seat in the theater. Audiences loved it but not many got to see it. The distributor [Skouras Films] got a substantial sum of money from Paramount for P&A [movie prints and advertising] in exchange for video rights. The distributor's daughter was getting married up in the wine country [Napa Valley] and he was throwing a multi-million dollar wedding and he needed a lot of money. So, I've heard, he pulled the picture from the theaters and spent the P&A money on his daughter's wedding. That is what I've been told. The financier of the picture [Chuck Weber] sued Skouras Films and won the lawsuit. Skouras declared bankruptcy and because there were no visible assets, it never paid any of the judgement.
"Even though I own 20% of the picture, I will never see a penny from it. I didn't even get all my wages. I put it on the screen."
Luke: "Do you have any good stories from the production of the film?"
Mitchel smiles: "There are a couple of things I could tell you but I might wind up getting sued. This is a rough town when it comes to putting things in print. I would definitely get sued if I told you about some of the things that went on."
Luke: "Suffice to say there were people in it that you don't want to work with again?"
Mitchel: "That's right. It's a funny business. If you know what the person is capable of, you can work with them and guard against it. If you know they lie, you take that into consideration if they have other talents that you need."
Luke: "Tell me about 1993's Lightning in a Bottle."
Mitchell: "Writer Jonnie Lindsell called me to say that she'd seen Lynda Carter on television seeking a good solid female-driven project. I got my casting director to send the script to her agent. Three weeks went by and we didn't hear anything. We called the agent. He said he'd sent it to her. Time kept going by. Finally, I found out that the agent had never sent the script. He was waiting for us to make a pay or play offer [meaning that you have to pay the actor even if you never make the picture]. I found out Lynda had an office in the area. I called her secretary and asked if they'd heard about the screenplay. No. She asked me what it was about and then said she hadn't but would call Lynda and see if it had gone directly to her. She called me back in less than an hour and said Lynda hadn't seen it but that she loved the concept and wanted me to send a copy to her home. So we did. And we hand delivered a copy to Linda's manager Melissa Prophet at the old Warner Brothers lot on Melrose Blvd.
"It was the morning that the LA riots started, and the crowd was moving towards Warner Brothers. Melissa had to evacuate the studio and she left the script behind. I heard that she got a call from Lynda asking if she'd read the screenplay. And when she explained that she'd left it on the lot, Lynda tried to fax it to her, she was so excited about the part.
"When we were raising money for the film, Lynda flew out from her home in Virginia to Northern California where Johnny Lindsell threw a big party at the Los Altos Country Club for potential investors.
"During the making of the film, Lynda's husband was being prosecuted for something he didn't do. The scandal sheets were after her. They printed articles that had no basis in fact. Lynda was always on the set on time and she always knew her lines and she was just a delight to work with."
Luke: "Your next film was 1999's Deadly Delusions."
Mitchel: "A friend called and told me that she had a wealthy widow friend who wanted to make pictures based on screenplays my friend had written. Could I make a picture for $250,000? I said I could but I would not if the investors took half the ownership of the picture as they normally do [and the producer takes the other half].
"The cast and crew on a low budget picture always gets screwed. They work their buns off for nothing and then, if the producer makes a ton of money on it, they don't see any of the profit. I think that's unfair. On a low budget picture, it is only fair that the cast and crew own half of it. The couple agreed.
"Because I was producing and directing the film, I needed a reliable line producer to manage the production details. [Mitchel hired production manager Renee Roland.] The lady I hired was recommended by my director of photography but she was unable to perform to expectations. In my opinion, her primary interest was to make me look bad so she could the ladies to let her producer the rest of their pictures. And she did. According to my accountant, she wrote many checks that should not have been written, putting us over budget. Instead of staying in the office to take care of details, she was on the set every day talking to the two lady investors. They were swayed by her and they later made a film together, Storytellers."
I found this suspicious review on Imdb.com: "This film is wonderfully acted by Mitzi Kapture and Tippi Hedren. It presents the first effort of a really good up and coming producer, Renee Roland. The story centers around a young man who takes credit for the writing talents of his Aunt. He is ultimately discovered but it is an interesting ride through out the picture."
Mitchel: "Instead of $250,000 they gave her a $500,000 budget and I understand that she went over by more than 100%. In my opinion, they got taken for a ride.
"It took me a while to find a distributor for Deadly Delusions. Distribution is a funny business. They can really screw you. If you let them, hey'll take your picture away from you and you'll never see a dime. I found a distributor who was hot to handle the picture. I went to the lab to get the negative and they didn't have it. It'd been picked up by employees of the post-production house where we were editing the picture, and it was never returned to the lab's vault. The post-house went bankrupt. Nobody knew what happened to the negative. We're in court about it. I've got a completed video of the picture that I took off the Avid [editing system] but it is not good enough [quality] to sell.
"Here's a good example of how people renege on their word in this business. I've got a screenplay based on my book The Last Discoverer. A company told me they would fund the project if I could get Tom Selleck to play the lead. So I go through the hassle of getting a letter from Tom Selleck's manager expressing interest. And then company backs away, telling me that they don't think Tom Selleck is a big enough name. Now I was going to do this picture, comparable to Air Force One, for $6 million. Tom Selleck isn't a big enough name for a $6 million movie?
"The problem that all independent producers face is that major studios won't work with you unless you have your cast in line. You can't get your cast in line unless you make a pay or play offer [to stars, which requires financial backing, preferably from a studio]."