Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Man on a Mission.  Travis Mann began his Hollywood journey as an entertainment lawyer. But his heart drew beyond the legal fine print of movie deals (though it’s an expertise that continues to serve him well). Since February, as the new head of production at Mission Pictures, the well-regarded and fast-growing faith-based movie distribution company founded by Chevonne O’Shaughnessy and Cindy Bond, he’s been living out his dream to develop quality entertainment that has both mainstream appeal and something of value to say.

He began his career working for director Oliver Stone as a production assistant on the films Born on the Fourth of July and JFK. At the same time, he pursued a degree in finance from Southern Methodist University. He followed that up with a Juris Doctor from the UCLA School of Law where he was an editor the UCLA Law Review. From there it was on to legal work for Walt Disney Pictures where he negotiated and drafted writer, director, actor and producer agreements for the studio, and served as production counsel for a number of live-action and animated feature films.

Eventually, the tug toward the creative side of the business led him to create and sell a number of TV concepts to the likes of E!, Universal, Fox Studios. He also had some original film scripts optioned and he produced and co-produced a few small independent movies (i.e. Mercy Streets).

I recently had to the opportunity to talk with the new Mission Pictures production executive about his hopes and dreams both for the company and the industry as a whole.

JWK: How do you like your job so far?

TRAVIS MANN: I love it. I’m so impressed with the company the Cindy and Chevonne have built – their business model as well as their heart.  I think they’ve got their priorities in order.  I’m very pleased with what they’ve done and I’m excited to be a part of it.

JWK:  Can you tell me about your path to Mission?

TM: I met Cindy in about the year 2000 when I produced a small low-budget Christian film called Mercy Streets which was distributed by Cindy’s company. The way that I got to Mercy Streets was from a small town in Texas. I said “I want to go out to Hollywood and work in the entertainment industry” – not as an actor, but rather to produce and create content. And, in connection with that, I ended up going to law school at UCLA and getting into entertainment law.

JWK:  Good move.

TM:  It’s been a blessing and a curse because being a lawyer is a helpful vocation. But, in some ways, it can be an impediment to producing…You get golden handcuffs because you  get used to making a certain amount of money as an attorney in entertainment law in Los Angeles. When you try to step away from that and realize the salary you’re leaving behind to follow your dream and be entrepreneurial, it can be scary.

So, that was a challenge.  But I got a job in-house at Disney for theatrical legal affairs and then I went over to a firm in Beverly Hills and it was at that firm I met people who said “We’re gonna make a Christian movie.” And I said “Can you do that? Is there even such a thing?” And they said “Yes” and we all started talking about our different skill sets.  I said I represented a host of independent producers and I have some valuable skills and I could add value to what (they were) looking to accomplish.  And, frankly, I wanted to be a producer and that’s been my dream.  So, I stepped out of the law firm and we made a little movie together… The name of that movie was Mercy Streets and it starred Eric Roberts, Stacy Keach and David White, and John Gunn directed it.

Then I went around developing some other projects, to set up things with studios, big commercial things… I was very excited  because I thought “I’m on my way as a producer!”  But on those projects, we would go to two drafts of a screenplay with a writer and then get put into turn-around by the studio.  None of those films ever came to fruition and got made. I thought “My gosh! I have to go get a job again! I’m running out of money!”

So, I went and found a job as an attorney with a foreign sales company.  What that means is that, in the same way there are distributors here in the U.S. ( Warner Bros., Paramount etc.), there are similar companies that distribute entertainment content country by country all over the globe.  A foreign sales agent will take a film and go to Cannes or to the American Film Market here in Santa Monica or to the Toronto Film Festival or the Berlin Film Market and sell a film territory by territory to all those different distribution companies around the world… I learned about that business model with a couple of different companies that I worked for.

Later, when I reconnected with Cindy and found out that she and Chevonne had set up Mission Pictures International and were actually doing foreign sales for faith-based, family-friendly, inspirational entertainment.  And I said “Oh, wow! Well, that’s great! Because that’s what I’ve been doing!”

And so…I started consulting with (them)…I said “This (Mission Pictures) is really a great business model because 12 years ago when we did the low-budget film (Mercy Streets), there really wasn’t anyone exporting faith-based and faith-friendly content internationally – but there are believers all over the world.  And they’re all hungry for content that resonates with them, affirms what they believe (and) challenges them to aspire to greatness.

JWK:  Was getting into faith-based movies strictly a business decision – or was it something you’ve wanted to do from the beginning?

TM:  Well, I love entertainment for entertainment’s sake. I’m a huge fan of big, fun Hollywood movies. And so I love the superhero movies. I love the big action thrillers. I love (all) that. But I think that there is another aspect to entertainment that is…inspiring greatness in people. It wasn’t that I set out to change Hollywood. It’s just that there are certain movies I really love…I loved Chariots of Fire.  I loved The Matrix. I loved, most recently, The Blind Side.  I just think that there are films that you see that you just get inspired by and they strike an emotional chord.

JWK:  You’re a writer too.

TM:   I also write.

JWK:  Will you be writing some of the films Mission Pictures develops and distributes? Do you intend to be a creative producer?

TM:   I do have every intention of being a creative producer because I thank being able to tell a story and – having written screenplays and having won writing competitions – it’s very important to know how to effectively tell a story and communicate it to an audience. I don’t know how much time I’m going to have in far as sitting down and writing things from the get-go.  I would suspect that I’ll be primarily doing notes, comments, changes, encouragement, guiding and directing screenwriters working with us because they’ll be so many different projects we’re overseeing at any time.

JWK:  So, you won’t just be acquiring projects. You’re going to be developing in house.

TM:   That’s correct. That’s really my mandate and why I’ve come aboard full time. Because, in the past, Mission was focused on selling completed pictures – acquisitions – internationally…

…But, it’s better for everyone involved, if we can get more active in the process earlier in the process. Because, often times, producers aren’t aware of some of the quirks of the international marketplace or they’ll just make a decision to zig when they should have zagged and they’ll alienate an entire territory, things like that. Or they’ll just make mistakes because they haven’t been producing for a long period of time… Between me, Cindy and Chevonne, we’ve doing in entertainment in different roles and capacities for a long time now and we can help avoid some of those novice mistakes.  So, yes, (we’re) definitely taking a more active role in bringing in strong screenplays that will attract great talent that we can attach and cast to and go out and produce those on our own or partner with another production company (through) a co-finance or co-production deal.

JWK:  So, this is a major step forward for Mission. .

TM:   Yeah. We’re really ramping up production to control our own destiny as far as the creative choices of the projects that we do.

JWK:  Will you be doing domestic distribution as well?

TM:   No, not right now. There are other people who do domestic distribution and it’s definitely a growth area that we’re interested in exploring later on, but right now  we’re typically partnering with other people who do domestic distribution already and have the infrastructure in place.

JWK:  Any plans on getting into television?

TM:   Mission is getting more into television.  We’re exploring that as a definite growth area, both in the scripted and the unscripted area, but, primarily scripted because, as we work with writers, directors and producers who are talented, there’s just room for more of that kind of content that’s out there –especially with some of the kind of alternate distribution models  via the internet and direct downloads (as well as) other opportunities.

JWK:  What’s the difference between a good story and a good story involving faith?

TM:   I think a good story is just a good story…although I’d say all the great stories have a faith component.  It’s about stepping outside your comfort zone, rising to the occasion or the challenge before you overcome a tremendous obstacle – because a hero is only as brave or as big as the villain which is kind of Screenwriting 101. Go big with your villain because your hero needs a major obstacle to overcome and so those I think are incredible great stories.

JWK:  What’s on the horizon for Mission?

TM:     Right now we’re excited because we just signed deals with talented writers and directors for slates of pictures where we’re going to work with them on a long-term basis over the next few years to do several films. One gentleman we just signed a deal with is Rick Bieber who has been in Hollywood for a long time and, most recently, wrote and directed The Fifth Quarter, the movie with Aidan Quinn and Andie McDowell, a very inspirational, positive story. We have some other things with him right now and we also just signed a deal with a very talented director named Rob Johnson  who directed a movie called Jada (a few years ago) which was a low-budget Gospel-themed piece. And so we’re working with  him on a slate of lower-budget faith-based pictures as well.

Beyond that, we have some bigger more expensive things in the works but the contracts are not yet signed but we’re very close and we hope to have major announcements  about some very high-profile pictures out shortly.

JWK:  Please keep me posted on those.

TM:    Absolutely!

JWK:  I understand you attend Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church.

TM:   Yes.

JWK:  How has your faith informed your career?

TM:   I find Rick Warren to be very challenging and inspirational in his sermons and one of his topics and themes of late has been Dream Big and he told the story of his vision and dream for Saddleback when he started the church…The only thing more crazy than how big his dream was, is how God exceeded it in every possible way. And, inspired by that, I went to Cindy and told her I think that we’re not dreaming big enough.  There’s no reason we can’t produce a picture that makes 100 million dollars, which is sort of a milepost for a wildly successful film.

JWK:  So, there’s no reason a faith-based film can’t be a blockbuster.

TM:   Exactly. There’s no reason we can’t do a blockbuster. There’s no reason we can’t produce a picture of such high quality that it would be nominated for Best Picture. There’s no reason we cannot win Best Picture. Not for vanity’s sake, but because we want to do the most excellent, accomplished work of anyone in Hollywood.

Look at a picture like The Blind Side.  We could do a Blind Side.  We could do a Chariots of Fire.  We could do one of these pictures and, if anyone’s gonna do it, it may as well be us.  I just think we need to raise the bar and aim higher as far as quality content that really appeals to a wide audience hungry for this type of entertainment.

JWK:  Where do you see Mission Pictures being 10 years from now.?

TM:  I don’t really know. I think that all we control are the choices that we make as far as trying to pick great material. I think, in the past, Christians have sort of started at a disadvantage because they have not selected screenplays that are competitive in the marketplace of ideas. What I mean by that is if you don’t start with a great screenplay you cannot make a great movie. It’s impossible. You can make a bad movie with a great screenplay but you can’t make a great movie with a bad screenplay.  It all starts with the screenplay.

As you go out to agents                to try and attach actors and directors to your project , if everyone passes, too often Christians will say, “Well, you  know, it’s Satan or it’s because it involves a faith component.”  I find that nothing could be further from the truth for most people. They (just) don’t want to be associated with a bad project or an inferior screenplay.  If there is a great story with a faith component,  I’ve never seen anyone walk away from it – rather they embrace it.  Because, at some point, everyone wants to leave behind a lasting legacy of films they can be proud of, (that) they can share with their families and children, mothers and grandmothers…I just think that Christians in Hollywood have too often made excuses of conspiracies against them where none exist. Rather, they usually just need to dig in a little deeper and do the hard work of creating a superior product.

JWK:  So, you’re not among those who think there’s a resistance to faith-related subject matter in Hollywood?

TM:  I think there’s some resistance to Christianity generally but unless you have a movie that is really overtly faith-based with some sort of Christian altar call or conversion story then I don’t see the resistance being there.  Especially not with The Blind Side or Chariots of Fire or other true stories of people who just live out their faith in a meaningful way. I don’t think anyone runs away and hides from that.

I’ll be off until next Tuesday. Till then, have a great weekend everybody!

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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