Movie News & Reviews

Sacramento movie producers specialize in low budgets, big stars

Local movie producers Howard Burd, left, and Micah Sparks in Sacramento last month. Burd and Sparks made a movie called “4 Minute Mile” that stars Richard Jenkins and Kim Basinger and is out on video on demand.
Local movie producers Howard Burd, left, and Micah Sparks in Sacramento last month. Burd and Sparks made a movie called “4 Minute Mile” that stars Richard Jenkins and Kim Basinger and is out on video on demand. rbenton@sacbee.com

Before they became movie producers, Micah Sparks and Howard Burd were businessmen who dabbled – and in Burd’s case, dribbled – in entertainment.

Sparks worked in commercial real estate and then owned California Closets and other home-goods franchise stores. He also wrote a joint memoir with his novelist brother Nicholas, called “Three Weeks With My Brother,” that became a best-seller.

Writing the book “kind of gave me a bug about telling a story,” Sparks said. That bug now manifests itself in the low-budget movies that Sparks produces with longtime friend Burd – films that star such big names as Kim Basinger and John Travolta.

Sparks, 50, had sold off his stores and was looking for something else to do when he started talking to Burd, 51, about getting into the film business. Burd, then working as a regional sales trainer for Comcast, was game for trying the movies. Burd is game for just about anything, actually.

In his 20s, he played for the Washington Generals, the team that travels with, and loses nightly to, the Harlem Globetrotters.

Burd, a 6-foot-4 live wire and Roseville resident who had played collegiate basketball at West Texas State, said he gave up an IBM internship for the call of a red, white and blue basketball.

“I’m a risk-taker,” Burd said during a joint interview with Sparks, who lives in Citrus Heights and is mellower than and not quite as tall as Burd.

Choosing the Generals was a calculated risk. It postponed Burd’s business career, but it allowed him to travel the world and get paid for it.

Burd and Sparks also weigh all the risks and rewards when producing films – a venture that, for the fledgling and/or naive, can result in a win-loss record similar to the Generals’.

Sparks and Burd, who operate under the Phoenix Rising company shingle, offset some risks by keeping their budgets in the single-digit millions, and shooting only in cities that offer significant tax breaks. They do not use their own money (nor Nicholas Sparks’, his brother said) but rather that of investors.

Those investors have ponied up so far for two films, the first of which is the $4.6 million “4 Minute Mile,” a Seattle-shot tale of a talented high school runner (Kelly Blatz) who must overcome trying family circumstances.

Basinger, an Oscar winner for 1997’s “L.A. Confidential,” plays the boy’s mother, and 2009 Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”) a veteran coach who takes on the young runner as his personal project. The film also co-stars St. Francis High School graduate Analeigh Tipton, though Sparks and Burd did not know her before the shoot. They saw her in “Crazy Stupid Love,” liked her, and hired her.

U.S. distributor Gravitas Ventures released “Minute” this past summer in some theatrical markets (Sacramento was not one) and on video on demand. Burd and Sparks said the film is on track to earn its money back for investors. It’s now being shopped to foreign markets, where a recognizable name like Basinger’s helps.

“Minute” is an inspirational film – a category that translates to foreign markets and thus is vital to turning a profit, Sparks said. Other genres that play internationally are action, crime drama and horror, though Burd and Sparks opted out of that last one, Sparks said, “because neither of us like the disturbing stuff.”

Their second film, the $5.9 million mob drama “Criminal Activities,” fits the criteria. Shot last summer in Cleveland, it stars Travolta, Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) and Jackie Earle Haley. A 2007 acting Oscar nominee for his performance in “Little Children,” Haley makes his feature directing debut with “Activities,” which the producers are shopping to film festivals and distributors.

Burd and Sparks keep an eye on how the numbers pencil out on projects while also weighing in heavily on creative content. “Producer” can be an umbrella term that covers investors and consultants. But Burd and Sparks are project-originating producers, who buy scripts from writers and hire the director and other talent. They were on the sets of both their completed films every day.

“We control the whole thing,” Sparks said. “We decide who dies at the end (of the film). Once you option a script, it’s your script.”

They maintain creative control because they’re the ones on the front lines finding investors. Getting “Minute” made took at least 100 personal pitches to potential investors, including big-money people in Los Angeles.

Sparks said he learned, once they were having meetings in L.A., that movie contracts and deals were similar to those with which he already was familiar, from commercial real estate.

But to protect themselves fully, “we got a great entertainment lawyer,” Burd said. “We are smart enough to know we are entering a world of sharks.”

Many Los Angeles investors have been burned and are wary of investing in film, Burd said. But they found money in Sacramento, they said, and then cast a wider net.

They pitched “Minute” at a competitive event held by Seattle’s ZINO Society angel investment group. The live event played out something like an episode of ABC’s “Shark Tank,” with film producers and tech startups given only a short window of time to pitch their projects.

Burd’s “Minute” presentation impressed judge Mark DiSalle, who had produced Jean-Claude Van Damme’s early films (“Bloodsport,” “Kickboxer”) before moving from Los Angeles to Seattle and turning his attention to tech.

“Howard did a wonderful job in presenting the project,” DiSalle said by phone from Seattle. “He was very confident. But most importantly, he said all the right things, (addressing) what I would look for in a film without actually reading a script. He kind of reminded me of myself years ago.”

DiSalle asked for a script, and after he read it, told Burd and Sparks their budget should be higher. “Then they said, ‘Well, can you help?’” DiSalle said. He eventually kicked in more than $1 million “to enable an extra 10 days of shooting,” DiSalle said. DiSalle also became a producer on the film.

DiSalle said it likely will take another year to see if his financial investment in “Minute” will pay off. But he said he is “very proud” of the film, which debuted at the Seattle International Film Festival.

“I think we did an excellent job with what we had to work with,” he said. Netflix users have given the film 41/4 stars (out of five).

The experience revived his interest in movie making, DiSalle said. “It was really the spark – my juices started flowing,” he said.

Burd now is working on several side projects with DiSalle, including one that Garry Marshall will direct, Burd said. It’s called “Mother’s Day,” and it’s in the vein of Marshall’s “Valentine’s Day” and “New Year’s Eve.”

Burd and Sparks said they want to shoot their films in Sacramento, but that tax breaks are better in other cities. Their production partnership, however, will remain rooted here. Both are raising families here, and those vital parts of movie deal-making – phones and the Internet – are as readily available here as they are in Hollywood.

Even within L.A., most movie business is “done on the phone,” Burd said. “Because people don’t want to sit in traffic for two hours.”

Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

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