The trouble with local filmmaking

by Jordan Green

The trouble with local filmmaking

It might be tempting to analyze the euphoric expectations and, later, crushing disappointments associated with the making of National Lampoon’s Pucked in the Triad during the mid-section of the last decade according to the plotline of the classic 1968 Mel Brooks comedy The Producers, ,in which a plan is hatched to oversell shares in a play that isdesigned to flop so that the schemers secretly can pocket the funds.

Another movie appears to hold up a truer mirror of how the enterprise went sour — Pucked itself.

Writtenby Matty Simmons, a founder of the National Lampoon entertainmentempire, the storyline concerns itself with Frank Hopper, played by JonBon Jovi, a lawyer and dreamer whose conception of business principlesis equally grandiose and simple. When the hapless protagonist, who islooking for ways to finance an all-woman hockey team, receives a seriesof credit-card offers, he tears off in pursuit of the dream withoutgiving adequate thought as to how to repay the debt — and inevitablywinds up in court.

Toexecutive producer Charles Grimes and a host of local investors, theproject must have looked like a sure bet. After all, its lead was JonBon Jovi, the 1980s heartthrob hard rocker who animated the longings ofteenage girls on middle school dance floors from New Jersey to Nebraskaduring the Reagan era. If Bon Jovi’s participation failed to engage themovie-going public’s interest, there was a line of name actors behindhim: David Faustino, (“Married With Children”), Cary Elwes (The The Princess Bride), Nora Dunn (“Saturday Night Live”) and Curtis Armstrong (Revenge of the Nerds).

Charles Grimes is a producer with Sympics International. (photo by Jordan Green)

Ina nod to nostalgia, the author of the screenplay and the lead producerfor the movie was Matty Simmons, who also holds producer credits on theclassic Animal House (starring the late comic legend John Belushi) and National Lampoon’s successful Vacation franchise.Arthur Hiller, an Oscarwinning industry veteran who began his producingcareer in television in the 1950s, was drafted to direct. (It would bethe first director credit in nine years and the last ever for Hiller,who is now 87 years old.)

The players were known quantities, and the concept had been road tested.

“NationalLampoon had a great reputation five years ago,” said Grimes, aGreensboro lawyer who made his first foray into filmmaking with Pucked. “Christmas Vacation is something we all watch. It was made by Matty Simmons, our lead producer. And so was Animal House, the top-grossing comedy of all time.”

Pucked pre-miered at the Grande in Greensboro’s Friendly Shopping Center inFebruary 2006, and while local audiences found pleasure in spottingfamiliar landmarks onscreen such as the Lawrence Joel Veterans MemorialColiseum in Winston-Salem, the Davidson County Courthousein Lexington and Dixie Lock & Key on Greensboro’s Lewis Street,reaction to the movie itself was decidedly unenthusiastic. The movienever made it to theatrical release, and it would be several monthsbefore the picture was released on DVD.

Thefinancing and marketing of the movie would generate cascading cries offraud, with creditor and Greensboro Auto Auction owner Dean Greenleveling the accusation at Grimes, and the producer in turn hurling itat National Lampoon.

Anunresolved lawsuit filed by one of Grimes’ companies against NationalLampoon alleges that the comedy franchise botched the marketing of thefilm, crippling its ability to compete and damaging its “acceptance inthe worldwide market, among critics and its reputation with one or moreof its movie stars.” Since Grimes filed suit in August 2007, NationalLampoon CEO Daniel Laikin has pled guilty to manipulating the company’sstock prices.

“Youknow you had Bon Jovi involved in this thing, and Bon Jovi is a prettywell known actor,” Green would later tell a lawyer representing thelocal movie companies during a deposition. “And when you put it alltogether, you know, the value should have been there.”

Grimesthought so, too. “It was my first one, but the lead producer, MattySimmons, had done a dozen movies,” Grimes said. “I had been talking toMatty for six or seven months before we did the project. I met Mattythrough mutual friends…. I thought it was a great script. And we sentit to Jon Bon Jovi and he liked it, and wanted to do it.”

JonBon Jovi, whose band shares the singer’s name, has maintained anenviable level of popularity since attaining mega-stardom with the Slippery When Wet album in 1986. A tour this year in support of the band’s new album, The Circle, culminates with a month-long residency at the O2 Arena in London in June. Pucked was not the singer’s first movie, but it was to be his last. Jon Bon Jovi could not be reached for comment on this story.

Grimessaid he developed a friendship with Bon Jovi during the shooting, andentertained the star at the popular downtown Greensboro nightclub Much.

Localactors remember the shoot with fondness. Although much of the dialoguewas handled by the big names, local actors received valuable experiencethrough the project.

CrystalLargen, who was working with Marilyn Green’s talent agency at the time,was trying to make a transition from modeling to acting. Marilyn Greenis the wife of creditor Dean Green. Largen showed up at an open call atFour Seasons Town Center in Greensboro and was cast as a member of thewomen’s hockey team, dubbed the Fearsome Foxes.

“I was a baby back then,” she recalled during a recent interview on the set of Elephant Sighs inHigh Point, where she is handing hair and makeup. “I was trying to gofrom modeling to acting. I was taking classes, and just trying to buildmy resume. That was my biggest break.”

Thelocal actors were surprised to find that the stars were not sealed offfrom the rest of the cast and crew. Friendships were forged and partiesheld. Largen said she still corresponds with Dot Jones, who put thenewbie in touch with her agent in Los Angeles. Largen met with theagent, who told her if she wanted to move out to the West Coast hewould represent her.

Largen also received the honor of getting to pose for the DVD cover with Bon Jovi and the other principal actors.

“Seeing myself in Blockbuster, that’s the coolest thing,” she said. “I’ve seen it in Harris Teeter. Random.”

ChristyJohnson, who also plays a Fearsome Fox, now fronts the rock bandDreamkiller and has gone on to do television advertising work for localclients such as Moses Cone Health Services. She recalled that Elwes wasrunning back and forth between the set and a Greensboro hospital, wherehis wife suffered a miscarriage. Despite the family difficulty, Elwesproved to be a “true professional with a big heart,” crossing thestreet to talk to fans across from the courthouse in Lexington during abreak from shooting.

“Working on a movie is like going to war,” said Phil Smoot, the unit production manager for Pucked. “It’salways a battle. Some of those battles are better than others, and thatfilm actually ran pretty darn well. Script and everything else aside,it actually went pretty darn well.”

Inthe fall of 2005, after shooting wrapped, Grimes and fellow producerGreg Harrison, a Greensboro businessman with a background in staffingagencies, were soliciting completion funding for Pucked andother movie projects, according to affidavits by Grimes and accountantRobert D. Patterson. In August, Grimes began talks with NationalLampoon CEO Daniel Laikin about the sale and distribution of the movie.Grimes said that Laikin and Simmons said that the Greensboro film wassuperior to all that National Lampoon movies since the Vacation series, each of which cost almost $30 million to make, compared to Pucked, which filmed for a fraction of that amount.

“Iknew Greg was an investor,” Dean Green recalled in an April 2008deposition. “I found out about all the other investors later. [Grimes]never disclosed to me we got all these investors we owed money to. Hedid disclose to me and we knew that he owed Greg money. As far as Iknew at the time, too, you know, that Greg had the majority of themoney.”

SymPics International issued a formal statement about the nature of its agreement with the local investors.

“National Lampoon’s Pucked wasfunded in part by locally raised monies under very detailed andconfidential private offering materials prepared by the companies’ LosAngeles-based legal counsel,” the statement reads. “These exhaustivematerials fully disclosed the many risks involved in motion pictureproduction and sales, all in keeping with legal requirements. In thesedocuments, each person who wished to participate in the projects wasmade completely aware of the potential risks and rewards involved inthe unpredictable entertainment industry, and each person attested thatthey had a net worth in excess of the required threshold for suchofferings and that they could afford a loss of the entire amount of theinvestment.”

CorroboratingGreen’s remarks, producer Greg Harrison said in a prepared statementthat his stake in the project represents more than 70 percent of thetotal investment, and that he has received no return on his investmentor reimbursement for expenses to date. Harrison is currently enmeshedin a legal dispute with a Cayman Islands insurance company over moneyowed by his staffing agencies.

The shooting of Pucked allowed local actors like Christy Johnson theopportunity to learn from established names like David Faustino(courtesy photo)

None of the other investors in Pucked or Home of the Giants, a subsequent movie produced by SymPics International, would agree to go on the record for this story. Home of the Giants, adark coming-of-age basketball picture starring Haley Joel Osment, hasnever had a theatrical release or received DVD distribution. Grimessaid SymPics is still “looking at the possibility of a major cityrelease under new technology that allows you to transmit digitaltechnology.” (The producer added that digital transmission reducescosts by about 93 percent by eliminating the need to make film printsat about $2,000 a pop; the new technology did not exist four years ago.)

Onecreditor, Mark Lane, was granted an order from a Guilford Countysuperior court judge on Jan. 7 upholding an arbitration panel’s awardof $264,278 in his favor and against Grimes and Harrison. Legaldocuments in the lawsuit state that Lane loaned the two producers$200,000 in September 2005 for “an independent film project,” andGrimes confirmed recently that the money was spent on Pucked.

Inlate 2005, Harrison approached Green about buying a Cessna C2J jet.Harrison appeared to be strapped for cash, and asked Green for helpfinancing the jet, and Green agreed to loan $750,000 to Harrison. Tosecure the loan, the two discussed putting up the domestic distributionrights of the movie as collateral.

Atthe time, the movie was being prepared for final editing and, as Grimesdescribed it in an affidavit, “hopeful sale and distribution.”

“AndMr. Grimes says, ‘Hey, so, we’ve got this movie here,’” Green said indeposition. “He told both of us this. ‘We’ve got this movie here.’ Hetold both of us this. ‘We’ve got this movie that there’s no lien oranything on. We’ll put this movie up for collateral. I’m going to havethis movie sold by the middle of the year.’ This was in December. ‘I’llhave it sold, you know, by June or the middle of the year. There willbe plenty of money to pay everybody.’” Green told lawyers in the April2008 deposition that Harrison loaned Grimes “5 million for two movies.He told him he would have the money in 18 months and it had been threeyears and he hadn’t paid a dime, which I don’t think he paid anyinvestor a dime.”

Smoot said Pucked cost upwards of $3 million to make.

Grimessaid he understood that the $750,000 loan would be used for the benefitof the film companies and that Green hoped through a second relatedtransaction to save money on his taxes through the sale of the jet.

OnDec. 22, Grimes and Harrison brought the prepared loan documents toGreen’s office at Greensboro Auto Auction on West Wendover Avenue. Whathappened next remains a matter of dispute between Grimes and Green.

Grimes said that Green put the documents in his desk without signing them.

Laterthat day, Grimes said he received a phone call from Green, who told himthe loan closing should be considered terminated if a secondtransaction involving the jet did not close before the end of the year.

Green has said of Grimes: “He’s good at fabrication to make it meet the situation.”

Incomplete contradiction to Green, Grimes said that during that phoneconversation he informed the producer that the loan transaction hadbeen completed through wire transfer.

Achecking account document for Greensboro Auto Auction shows that$750,000 was paid out to Winston- Salem law firm Bell Davis & Pitton Dec. 22 for the purpose of a loan from a company owned by Grimes toone owned by Harrison. A promissory note signed by Grimes and Harrisonon the same day lists $750,000 as the principal amount of a loan forthe benefit of Harrison with a “security agreement” clause stipulatingthat interest in the movie, including domestic distribution rights,would be assigned to Harrison, who would then be obligated to pay Greenback from the proceeds of the sale once it was completed. A separatedocument signed by Harrison and Green assigns senior security interestin the movie to Greensboro Auto Auction in consideration of the loan.Green also contends that Grimes was supposed to file a UCC statementform “to record Harrison’s interest in the film rights.”

Grimes and Harrison met in mid-January withaccountant Patterson to discuss capital needs for their movie projects,according to an affidavit sworn by Patterson.

Despitereceiving the loan to finance the jet purchase, Harrison appears tohave represented to his filmmaking associates that the deal had beenterminated. Accountant Robert D. Patterson said in an affidavit thatGrimes asked Harrison if there was any need to file a UCC statement,and Harrison responded that there was no need because the deal had beencalled off.

Green had a characteristically blunt response to the notion that he aborted the loan agreement: “That is an outright lie.”

Green concluded in April 2008 that Grimes failed to file a UCC on Pucked “becausehe didn’t want to cloud the title so he could misrepresent the damnthing later on down the road to Sony. He’s coming back with some otherdeal he just served a week ago saying that he got a copyright on it.

Well,how did he get a copyright on it if he didn’t misrepresent it? Hemisrepresented it, sir, or he couldn’t have gotten a copyright…. Ibelieve the term is fraud.”

Greensboro Auto Auction contends that Grimes received $450,000 for from Sony Pictures for Pucked, which he should have paid to his creditors instead. Grimes denies receiving any money.

Bythat time, Harrison had defaulted on the loan, and by the end of 2007he would sell the jet to High Point businessman Mark Norcross. InAugust of that year, Harrison acknowledged the outstanding debt byexecuting a consent judgment against himself and in Greensboro AutoAuction’s favor for $762,466.

LastAugust, Green abruptly dismissed his lawsuit against Grimes and thefilm companies. In his deposition, Green said Greensboro Auto Auctionwas worth more than $25 million and that the company earned upwards of$5 million a year.

“We weren’t getting anywhere,” Green’s lawyer told YES! Weekly. “There was no settlement.”

Grimes declined to discuss the lawsuit. Green said an associate of his wife’s advised him that Pucked wasworth “between $3 million and $3.5 million had Grimes hadn’t screwed itup so bad in the way that it had been marketed. He said, ‘If he screwedit up, it might not bring that’… He says if a person is inexperiencedand don’t know a whole lot about movies and doesn’t handle the thingright, they go on their own marketing and so forth and they mess it upand then it may not be worth the value. He said Mr. Grimes is fairlynew in this industry is what — you know, he’s not a seasoned producer.”

Infact, Grimes outsourced the marketing to National Lampoon, hoping tobuild on Matty Simmons’ involvement and the comedy giant’sentertainment connections in southern California. The deal was closedon Jan. 31, 2006, less than two weeks before the movie’s premiere inGreensboro.

“Lampoon was paid good money to participate and to help with the marketing,” Grimes told YES! Weekly. “They have failed miserably.”

Apending lawsuit filed by another Grimes’ company, American CinemaDistribution Corp., alleges that National Lampoon “constantly changedbudgeted amounts” without explanation and submitted handwritten chargeswith film names crossed out and written over “even though no authorityfor this type of brazen conduct or attempted crossing of expenditures…was ever agreed to between the parties.”

Thelawsuit also alleges that National Lampoon submitted invoices that weredated long after National Lampoon was fired from the project andinformed in writing to stop marketing the movie.

Grimessaid National Lampoon severely undermined marketing of the movie justbefore the premiere by releasing unflattering stills of Bon Jovi thatangered the star.

“Hewas talking about the movie on talk shows, at concerts and otherthings; he was very excited about promoting it,” Grimes said. “Then hestopped talking to us and pulled the key art from his band’s website.”

Amongthe other allegations leveled at National Lampoon is the companyappears to have attempted to sell licensing rights to the film inforeign markets without authorization, that it used funds raised forthe distribution of the movie as a “profit center for its own businessconcerns,” and that it generally performed shoddy work. Lastly, in afurther example of life imitating art, Grimes’ lawsuit alleges thatNational Lampoon claimed to have expended $300,000 — roughly the sameamount that Frank Hopper ran up to finance his all-woman hockey team —“despite not providing appropriate and agreed upon backup for theseexpenditures.”

MarkNebrig, a Charlotte lawyer representing National Lampoon in the case,said he was unable to comment on the merits of the case. Calls toNational Lampoon’s office in Los Angeles went unreturned.

The lawsuit went into mediation in late 2007.

Grimes traveled to Los Angeles for a weeklong series of meetings with National Lampoon’s Laikin.

“Hequoted numbers and gave us a lot of positive spin and positiveprojections,” Grimes recalled. “A few months later I was walking to themailbox in my robe with my coffee cup and opened up a newspaper withJohn Belushi’s picture on the front page, and there’s an articlesaying, lo and behold, the man I had been talking to had been hauledoff to jail.”

Laikin pleaded guilty to manipulating National Lampoon’s stock prices in September, and faces sentencing on March 1.

Legal problems for the company’s leadership have only accumulated. The Indianapolis Star reportedthat the FBI raided successor Timothy Durham’s offices in Indianapolisand Akron, Ohio and hauled off documents in late November.

Grimes’said National Lampoon’s legal problems have caused delays in hislitigation against the company, and he is considering his options.

Ultimately, National Lampoon’s Pucked mayhave failed because it wasn’t what the marketplace wanted, because itcost too much money and because of unscrupulous actions among theprincipals in its financing and marketing, which led to spiralingmutual distrust.

“Ifyou do anything over $2 million and you don’t have a theatricalrelease, I don’t think you can make money,” said Phil Smoot, the unitproduction manager. “I just think it was not that good. Everybody aimeda little high thinking they were going to make the next Animal House and the next National Lampoon’s Vacation, but those films had already been done, and that wasn’t what people wanted to see.”

Local productions have continued to employ actors and crew in the Triad, and the region has produced notable successes such as Goodbye Solo and Leatherheads. Its promise continues with enthusiastic local participation in Elephant Sighs in High Point. It remains an open question whether a creative and commercial homerun by Pucked wouldhave significantly enhanced the regional industry’s prospects;likewise, whether its failure represents a missed opportunity.

“Betterbusiness practices in filmmaking breeds a community that is willing tofinance films,” said Harvey Robinson, a Greensboro filmmaker whocreated the “Harvey’s Kitchen” video documentary series at“In filmmaking, there’s often a long-term return. If people are engagedin bad business practices, it makes it less likely that investors aregoing to stick it out for the long-term return.”

Eventhen, there’s no guarantee. “Backing films is a pretty high-risk thing,but the potential return on the film can be pretty huge,” Robinsonsaid. “Most people that are backing films do it because they love filmor they really love a particular director and his ability to tell astory.”

Grimes has drawn a similar lesson about the foundation of solid filmmaking from his experience with Pucked: Creative integrity and resourcefulness matter most.

“Findthe best story, well told,” he said. “Just tell it really well. Useyour creativity to overcome problems. You can solve a $10,000 problemfor a thousand dollars.”