By Sydney Levine | Sydneys Buzz November 1, 2010 at 3:30AM
On the IFTA Board of Directors is a nearly legendary international sales agent and the only one I know to have written a history of the international sales business.
From Cowboy to Mogul to Monster: The Neverending Story of Film Pioneer Mark Damon is a personal history by Linda Schreyer with Mark Damon which actually gives much food for thought about the evolution of the business today.
Mark Damon will also appear on a panel entitled “So They’ve Optioned Your Script! They’ve Decided to Make Your Movie..Now What?” during the American Film Market on Monday November 8 in the press room at the Loews. Do come and hear from one of the most seasoned of pros what he has to say! (I will be moderating and blogging on this as well.)
I was honored to receive a copy of Mark's book from Mark and his publicist Diane Slattery, and I read it with great interest. It was so sweetly inscribed by Mark to me that actually I HAD to read it!
Dear Sydney – As you have always been a fan of independent filmmaking, thought you might find this an enjoyable read, and a walk down Memory Lane…Yours, as always, Mark Damon
What a walk down memory lane this is, evoking dormant memories, some I had confused and many I remembered from my own experience. This book seems to be the only document of its kind. For those colleagues of mine who started out in this crazy film business so many years ago, for those who remember and for those too young to remember the heady days of PSO in 1978, 1979 and on into the 80s, this book clearly illustrates that this was Mark’s best (but not only) international sales company. This was a company so admired and also so intimidating that it created a sort of class system in what up until then had been the most egalitarian part of the film business. If you are interested in the history of the international film business and in Mark’s many reincarnations, you will enjoy the read.
The book is also an instructive look at the early development of a business now undergoing stressful changes and perhaps sheds some light on lessons to be learned, and if so, what are they…
Mark speaks of his staff of highly trained women whom I recalled as he wrote of them.
Before I go on about Mark and the book, I would like to dispute one claim in the book on an intensely personal level.
My objection is about the first women in the business. ♀ It is based on my own wishful thinking that I had written such a book first. My book was to be called Ronna, Gina, Elyse and Me and was to be about the first women in the film business. Except long ago's Mary Pickford who is still acknowledged more as an actress than the founder of United Artists, Alice Guy-Blache, June Mathis or Dorothy Arzner, we were the first. I literally “got into” 20th Century International in 1976 as the first woman in international distribution with the help of the government’s Affirmative Action legislation whose policy, translated at the studio level read:
“If they ask, say yes.”So being a woman, as well qualified as I was, when I asked for the job of international sales trainee, I got it, and off I went to Amsterdam where I trained and got to supervise the Dutch release of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and partake in the release of A Bridge Too Far.
In the early 80s, with the advent of home entertainment in the form of VHS video (vs. Beta format by Sony) rentals (vs. sales which was the position Disney advocated but lost out on to the 20th Century Fox rental business model), the position of Acquisitions Executive was born. Ronna Wallace who had already been in the video business with Arthur Morowitz, moved to MGM; Elyse Eisenberg and I vied for a job a Warner Bros (she got it); Gina Resnick was at RCA in legal affairs before its merger with Columbia and subsequent transformation to Sony, and yes, there were some others like Ruth Vitale who I think I was vying with for the Vestron job (she got it). I landed at Lorimar Home Video.
I would still like for us to stake out this “first” hard won ground, but for the moment, Mark’s women have the spotlight as the pioneering women in international sales at PSO. He and his partner hired female lawyers, accountants and salespeople. Women were promoted to Vice Presidents and they had an entirely female distribution department. All this at a time when women were (and still are!) hitting their heads against the glass ceiling. He hired Janet Fleming away from her position as assistant to Sandy Howard (say “Meteor” and everyone recalls Sandy who also produced “A Man Called Horse”). The unflappable Janet Dammann was doing international sales (with Gregory Cascante). Kathryn Cass joined later. These were extraordinary woman, very respected and much admired. Maggie, Mark’s wife, was so integral to the company that the chief was known as MaggieandMark or MarkandMaggie. Parenthetically other interesting personages at PSO included 20th Century Fox’s Julian Levin and Spyglass’s Gary Barber, Michael Heuser.
Another point Mark makes with which I take issue is that he and PSO invented the international sales business. While he was part of the vanguard of establishing the international sales movement, the business was already established, and Bobby Meyers, as head of Columbia Studios’ international sales arm, was its spearhead with others who began companies such as Manson International a company known only abroad in the 70s for pure genre films which were being sold in the now defunct MIFED film market by Peter Elson and a very young Michael Werner. There was also New World which went out of business after buying Bob Berney’s early company Film Dallas. Barbara Boyle and Paul Almond were there then. And who remembers Roger Corman (still working)? Remember AIP and Sam Arkoff, remember Marty Ransohoff’s Filmways, later acquired by Orion which in effect became today’s Sony Pictures Classics? Other players in this little known area of the business included theater exhibition companies such as Cinerama Releasing going back to the 50s with This is Cinerama and Cinerama, films whose formats were invented to compete with the new media of TV, and Embassy which became Avco Embassy and was bought by Norman Lear and Jerry Perenchiko.
Granted Dino did not really have a “business” but did he did invent production presales methods on a film by film basis. A quote from an unknown source (probably Newsweek) here defines this still active mogul:
Independent producers Dino De Laurentiis and Joseph E. Levine (Embassy Pictures, 1948) use another ploy. Using his film’s all-star American and British cast as bait, Levine sold off the foreign-distribution rights to “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) even before the $25 million movie went into production. His pre-production profit: $5 million. With “King Kong” De Laurentiis did much the same.
If that sounds simple, it isn’t. On the way up to a final deal, legions of lawyers constantly bargain on behalf of their studio or clients, each attempting to maximize the personal take and minimize risk. Among those lawyers is Tom Pollock, who received 30 phone calls during a two-hour interview with Newsweek. (Tom Pollock is now Ivan Reitman’s producer partner at Montecito.)
So I won’t put Mark in the exalted position of being the inventor of the business of international sales but I would say that he may have invented international presales based on a company’s slate and he certainly is the bridge between old school film business and today's version of the film business which in turn is rapidly undergoing its own changes.
Mark often quotes Bobby Meyers, “an expert at selling movies to international buyers”. Bobby can be found today at Cinema Management Group helping out Edward Noeltner. Mark calls Bobby his mentor and advisor. This comment led me to discuss many points of the book with Bobby whom I’ve known since other heady days in the industry when Lorimar was in the film business with Bobby leading the international sales and me acquiring such films as “My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985) for the just established feature home video division of Lorimar. Bobby took me a bit deeper into the international film business history which you have just read above.
Mark doesn’t mention the concurrent growth of video which in actuality made international sales companies their most profitable years. Yes Mark and PSO had an “éclat” about them with Das Boot (1981) which gave them great style. He palled around with David Begelman…a questionable brag…and his big hit 9 ½ Weeks
came to him from Gary Hendler, the prematurely deceased Chairman and CEO of Tri-Star Studios (Colombia) and was financed by Sidney Kimmel, the founder of Jones Apparel and still producing. His film Adaline just sold to Summit for U.S. before AFM.
What really amazed me about Mark’s book is that I had always seen him as an American ex-pat who made it big as a movie star in Italy (Spaghetti Westerns I imagined) and who came into the film business by way of his Italian connections. In fact, he was a nice Jewish boy who went to Los Angeles’ Fairfax High, my own high school’s rival. What made him thrive was that he was a master entrepreneur and self inventor. And he remains so to this day.
Today his Foresight Unltd. is a full-service film-production and sales company that conducts its core business operations in the U.S. and is actively engaged in the production, acquisition and worldwide licensing of theatrical feature films in a variety of genres. Foresight has a stellar reputation in the international marketplace by selectively licensing distribution rights to quality feature films across a broad range of genres.
THE EAGLE PATH by Jean-Claude Van Damme in Post-Production.
Founded by Jean-Claude Van Damme, Rodin Entertainment comes from a historical chapter within Jean-Claude's past. Once the name of his father's flower shop in Brussels, Belgium, Rodin Entertainment has grown itself a rooted base within the soul of its founder. A remembrance of honest heart in stone. The statement statue that is The Thinker has began its imagination within the industry of media entertainment
THE LEDGE by Matthew Chapman in Post-Production
UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: A NEW DIMENSION by John Hyams in Pre-Production
UNTITLED PATRICK DEMPSEY PROJECT (FLYPAPER) by Rob Minkoff in Post-Production