A Roseville film producer with three major Hollywood credits is making the Sacramento region the base for his next two movies.
Howard Burd plans to start shooting a horror movie in Ione in January and follow that with a film about Nick Newell, the one-handed mixed-martial-arts fighter, a couple of months later.
Both will be relatively small-budget films, made for about $1 million each, but will use experienced Hollywood actors and production staff as well as local talent.
“I want to get Sacramento on the map as a place to make great movies,” said Burd, 53, a Northridge native who has lived in the Sacramento area for the past 20 years.
Burd is a former college basketball star who went on to play professionally for the Washington Generals team that serves as a hapless foil for the Harlem Globetrotters.
He was working locally as a regional sales trainer for Comcast a few years ago when a friend suggested he raise funds for a small local film project. That venture never took off, but it led him to becoming producer for “4 Minute Mile,” a critically acclaimed 2014 film made in Seattle about a high school runner who used track to overcome challenges.
It was Burd’s first experience as a film producer, a job he likens to being a CEO in charge of every facet of a movie, such as raising money, securing a script and hiring actors.
He followed that up a year later by producing “Criminal Activities,” a crime drama that was filmed in Cleveland and starred John Travolta.
While shooting that film, he was recruited to help produce “Mother’s Day,” a larger-budget Garry Marshall film starring Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, Julia Roberts and Jason Sudeikis.
When you’re hanging out with Kate Hudson, it’s hard not to be a little starstruck.
Howard Burd, on being on set with Hollywood actors
“Mother’s Day,” shot in Atlanta, was panned as “sappy” by critics, Burd said. He disagreed: “I thought it was sincere and sweet.”
But it’s doing well financially despite negative reviews, he said.
Having produced three films in three years, Burd said he’s now focusing on making movies in this region, using local production talent and local investors, and offering the latter a chance to hang out on sets and even appear as extras.
“Everybody should come to a movie set at least once,” Burd said. “It truly is amazing.”
The shift to a Sacramento focus is motivated partly by personal considerations. “I live here. I want to get out of (my own) bed and go right to the set,” he said.
It’s also driven by the new economics of the film business, he said. Big studios are increasingly reluctant to take a chance on unproven ideas, leaving producers like Burd to raise all of their own money and tap local investors.
“If you have ‘Iron Man’ or ‘Batman’ or a No. 1-selling book, (studios) will spend $100 million,” he said. “But if you have something like my movie – not a superhero but a real hero – they won’t give you money.”
He’s referring to “Notorious Nick,” which tells the real-life story of Nick Newell, who was born with a left arm missing below the elbow. With help from his mother, he overcame that disability to make his high school wrestling team and go on to a successful MMA career. Newell retired last year with a record of 13 wins and one loss.
“It’s just a beautiful story, packed with emotion and MMA action,” Burd said of the project.
Filming will start next spring at various Sacramento-area locations.
But first up is “Preston School of Industry,” a horror movie set at Preston Castle in Ione. It’s based loosely on the true, unsolved murder of housekeeper Anna Corbin, who was bludgeoned to death there in 1950 when the building was used as a boys’ juvenile reformatory.
The idea was brought to Burd by Sacramento media personality Mark S. Allen, who is going to be involved in the project as a co-producer.
Allen said his tasks included developing the story line and hiring L.A. screenwriter Rob Rose to write the script.
“It’s really one of the best horror-film scripts I’ve ever read,” said Allen, who reads 200 scripts a year for his job as a reviewer. “I know I’m biased, but I know what I’m talking about.”
He said he’s eager to see the film and watch the reaction of viewers, predicting, they’ll be “jumping every eight to 10 minutes.”
Burd said his plan is to keep the budget for each film modest – not much more than $1 million each, but not scrimp on production values.
He intends to hire at least one Hollywood A-lister to star in each film but “condense” the role to limit the actors’ time on set and and keep costs down.
Similarly, he’s planning to use his industry contacts to bring in production talent at reduced rates. For example, he’s hired Hollywood veteran Stephen Barton (the “Shrek” films and “Chronicles of Narnia”) to write the music for both films, and he is negotiating with Hollywood veteran Barbara McCarthy to handle casting.
The director of the Ione film will be Auburn resident Gary Davis, a veteran stunt coordinator who has served as a second-unit director on several James Cameron films.
“I’m recruiting the type of people that will make these look like big-budget Hollywood films but at a lot less money,” Burd said.
Also involved in the film is Mark DiSalle, a veteran producer who helped put MMA on the map by making “Bloodsport” and “Kickboxer” starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Burd met DiSalle when he was pitching “4 Minute Mile” to a group of angel investors in Seattle. The two hit it off and DiSalle – who was advising the angel group – ended up joining Burd as a producer for that film and later partnered with him on “Mother’s Day,” too.
DiSalle said Burd impressed him right away as someone with the energy and sales skills to be a top film producer.
“The only thing lacking was actual experience in making a movie,” he said. “He was a quick learner, an eager learner. Now he’s a very good producer.”