AFM Interview With Producer & Independent Distribution Maverick Mark Damon – November 9, 2014

“If you don’t succeed in the field of your dreams, you may one day succeed in the field you never dreamed of.  That’s the story of my career.” – Mark Damon, CEO and Chairman of Foresight Unlimited

Mark Damon is a film industry innovator and revolutionary who challenged the big studio system in the late 1970s and forever changed the world of international film distribution.

Damon spent years as a type casted cowboy in Italian Westerns, but at the age of 40, decided to leave it all behind to work for an independent Italian distributor.  This bold career change shot him to incredible heights in his film career and empowered distributors worldwide with a business structure that allowed them to take the business of big films into their own hands.

At the age of 81, he is a vibrant and inspirational leader who continues to create new roads and ways of doing business in film.

Mark shares his journey of how he got from his days as a cinema cowboy to being the film mogul he is today:  

How did you enter film sales & distribution?

I needed a change. I had been an actor for the first twenty years of my career.  I was a New York stage actor, and studied with some of the finest acting teachers like Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner.

I went to Italy when I was about 28, and they put me into Westerns. I was surprised, because I had never ridden a horse in my life. Cowboys had to be tall and blond, and I’m not that tall. I had very dark hair at the time, and they said, “It doesn’t matter. You’re American.” I said ok and learned to ride a horse. Every film I did, I got hurt, because I did all my own stunts, and I became an Italian Western star. That lasted for about thirteen years.

When I was forty, I had met the woman who I wanted to marry, so I had to do something serious. Westerns were going out of style, and I was typecast as a cowboy. I needed a way to make money, because the roles were fewer and fewer. I quit after I finished my fiftieth film as a star.

It was 1973, and I was living in Rome at the time. I met an Italian distributor, and said, “ I want to work for you. I want to learn something else.”  He said, “You want to work for us? You’re Mark Damon, the movie star!” They offered me a thousand dollars a month, and I learned distribution as an Italian distributor.

They really wanted me because they thought I knew everyone in Hollywood, and I could get them bigger pictures. At the time, all the independent distributors would buy a picture for ten or fifteen thousand dollars. They had no access to big pictures with big stars because the studios had control of that.

“One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest”: The One That Got Away

I had never worked for anyone before except for movie producers, so I wanted to show my new bosses that I could really perform. I said “look, there’s a picture they’re making in Seattle Washington called ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest’, and the star just happens to be a good friend of mine. We used to be roommates.” I said, “I can get that picture,” so I flew to Washington.

I met with the producer Saul Zaentz, and hung out with Jack who said, “Yeah, he’ll give ya the picture. It’s ok.” I made a nice offer – $400,000 for Italy.  Zaentz said he’d get back to me, and after about a week, I called him, and he said, “I’m sorry, but we’ve sold it to United Artists.” I said, “Why???” He said, “Because I could also sell Spain, Germany and France at the same time.”  I was destroyed. I failed in the eyes of my bosses, and so then I became determined that this would never happen again.

The Fight Against The Big Studios begins…

I contacted my distributor friends in various European territories and said that we have to buy in mass. We have to fight the studios, because they robbed us of this great picture. We have to show that independents can distribute better than studios – I was convinced of that. Private distributors would put up their own hard earned dollars to buy a picture. They’d take more care of the picture because they were more at risk. They would change campaigns from what might only work in the US to fit the cultural tastes of the Italian market or the German market etc.

I came to the US and started a campaign – which lasted for years – in which I fought the studios. I went to all the producers who made studio pictures to convince them of the independent route.

One of the first I convinced was Arnon Milchan, who founded New Regency. He gave me a film called “Once Upon A Time in America.” (1984), directed by Sergio Leone. That was the first big picture that was made available to independent distributors. And that was the beginning. That broke the ice. Arnon told everyone that they were crazy not to go with me.

I then worked with Peter Guber at Casablanca Record and Filmworks. One of our pictures “Endless Love” (1981) opened in Japan, and one week later we got a $600,000 check for overages.  Peter Guber went into Universal, put the check on their table and said, “This is how it works with the independents. We don’t get this from you, so I’m only going independent from now on.”

In 1983, we did more overseas business than any single major studio, and we had won the battle. We were the first ones to turn contracts into collateral that banks would fund. We said to the banks, ‘Look, these are good contracts. You may not give us 100%, but give us 50%.” That was the start of film financing through independent distributor contracts with minimum guarantees.

The ‘crossing model’ of the big studios vs. the ‘uncrossing model’ of the independent distributors

My whole thing was don’t just get the minimum guarantee. It’s possible to make money over and above that, especially when pictures are uncrossed.

When you have a studio releasing a picture, all the moneys from all the different territories including the U.S. go into a pot. Some territories might lose money, and some make money, so it wipes itself out. That’s what you call crossing. Everything is intertwined.

We keep it uncrossed, which means every territory stands on its own. So if a picture does well in Germany, but doesn’t do well in France, we’ll see moneys from Germany. If we combine that with the losses from France, we’ll see nothing. So that was the whole thing that I was telling people, is go independent and uncross. That was a campaign that went on for about seven years, until we proved that the independents could work as well as and better than the studios.

It got to the point where some guys at the studios like Universal and Paramount came to me and said, “Mark, you’re out of business. We like you. We’re friends, but you’re a danger to us.” That made me even more determined.

The inspirational take away

If you don’t succeed in the field of your dreams, you may one day succeed in the field you never dreamed of.  That’s the story of my career. I succeeded only partially in the first 20 years, and during the following 20 years in the business, I succeeded to the extent that I desired. I was able to introduce a new way of doing business.

Many people say I invented this whole business, and if it weren’t for me, there might not be a foreign sales business today. That’s silly. If I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have. It was just easier for me because I was an actor. I didn’t know any better. I said, “None of this makes any sense. Why can’t we change it?” I came in with fresh ideas.  If there’s something inspirational here, it’s what can be achieved if you come to a situation with no baggage, no preconceived notions while remaining open to all possibilities.

How do you feel about current changes in the business structure of distribution?

I can only think of it in terms of the projects that I get involved with. I’ve been in this business for about 40 years now. I don’t look at the other companies to try and figure out what they’re doing.

Do you still have the same passion and drive as you did twenty years ago?

I’ve basically done it all. It doesn’t ever bore me, as long as I can find new ways of bringing together projects that might never see the light. That’s what keeps me going, and it’s what keeps me alive.

by Erin Grover