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Red carpet for film biz partners

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There are many differences in the lives of good friends Diana Scott and Donna Lynn Johnson. A practicing nurse as well as the owner of Scott Street Tavern in Springfield, Scott is also a film student at Wright State University and the mother of two children. Johnson has a teenage son and is the owner of the Main Squeeze on Xenia Avenue. In her spare time, she runs a food consulting company and previously held positions with companies like Dole and Safeway Manufacturing in her native California.

There is, however, something that is bringing these two seemingly divergent lives together: a joint venture that they have named Mad River Films.

The pairing was the result of a quirky introduction. Several years ago, Scott was producing her first student film and needed to cast someone for the role of a middle-aged woman. The role required some nudity and Scott was having trouble finding anyone willing to agree to it, until a friend suggested Johnson.

“When the director met Donna Lynn, he loved her,” Scott said. Soft-spoken and reserved, Scott also grew fond of the vivacious Johnson, and the two quickly built a friendship. Johnson recalled, “We had seen each other around town a little bit, but I really got to know her on the film.” Later, when Scott decided that she wanted to start a film sales company, Johnson was her first choice for a partner, and the adventurous entrepreneur agreed.

“I’m always looking for business opportunities,” Johnson said, “and the Main Squeeze is making enough now to support itself.”

The friends have settled into new roles as chair and president of Mad River Films, which is nearing the end of its first year of operation. Scott, who has had several sales apprenticeships at the Cannes film festival, handles the technical aspects of the company. Johnson is in charge of the company’s finances. Both admit that the company has already had its share of ups and downs. Over the past few months, they have received hundreds of films from hopeful independent filmmakers. Yet, they have considered few to be marketable.

“It’s like American Idol,” Scott said. “You get a large stack of films and maybe one of them is watchable.”

Because most of the work has come from first-time directors, there have also been several cases where ignorance of copyright laws solicited a rejection.

“We get a lot of good films,” Scott said, “but sometimes there will be art in the background, or there will be artists on the soundtrack that they didn’t know that they had to pay.”

Particularly it’s a problem when the musician is well-known and would therefore require a steep royalty fee. That cost would likely usurp any money that a low-budget filmmaker, or her sales company, would receive from selling the film to distributors. That is a great concern for Scott and Johnson, who often find themselves in the position of having to spend large sums without any guarantee that the money will be recouped. For example, the two traveled to the Cannes film festival last May to market four films and paid for their own airfare, booth space, posters and promotional CDs. The trip cost the duo $18,000 total. For their efforts, they made a single sale of one film to a territory (world region) for $10,000, of which they kept 22 percent.

“Cannes was really depressing,” said Scott, who noted that the poor economy kept many participants from making significant sales. That, however, did not keep the two from having a good time at the festival. Months after the event, they still enjoy showing pictures from the high-profile premieres they attended for films like Inglourious Basterds and Up while sitting in the same theaters as Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and film director Jan Chapman. On the red carpet, they wore their best evening gowns and loaned jewelry from local shops Rita Caz and Jennifer’s Touch.

“During the day you’re selling films and at night you’re on the red carpet,” Scott said. “It’s a bizarre world.”

Said Johnson, “It will be four o’clock in the afternoon and men are in tuxedos.”

It is obviously a world in which they like living. The partners remain upbeat about the future of Mad River Films, despite the somewhat dismal return from their Cannes trip.

“People still have slots to fill, and because of the economy, there are not as many people making movies, ” Johnson said, speaking of the film and television industries.

Recently, they set up a booth at the American Film Market (AFM), a decidedly less glamorous venue, but one of the major U.S. film marketing junctures. They are optimistic that the growing dearth of completed film projects will make their products more desirable and they look to the Miami Valley’s positive track record in the film industry for inspiration.

“There have been lots of successful films made here,” Scott said. “We have great film schools here; this town is full of filmmakers.”

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