Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category

Personal Projects (Part 1)

“When I say ‘personal work’, I’m referring to any body of work that wasn’t paid for by a client; work you created out of sheer passion.”
Joey L
3 Undeniable Reasons To Purse Personal Work by Chase Jarvis

“Personal and professional projects compliment each other.”
Ji Lee
The Transformative Power of Personal Projects
 (His personal Bubble Project opened new doors for him and he is now the Communication Designer at Facebook)


Last month I began shooting a personal project on Tinker Field in Orlando. I’m on the tail end of editing what will be a micro-documentary just over 2-minutes, and I’ll release it out in the world next week. I thought this would be a good time to talk about personal projects; why they’re important.

The original stadium was built in 1923 and named after Hall-of-Fame player Joe Tinker who was the shortstop the last time the Chicago Cubs won a World Series—in 1908. The current stadium was built in 1963 and some of the greatest players of 60s, 70s, and 80s played spring training games there.

But it’s been more than 20 years since a spring training game has been played there and plans were announced in January to tear down the decaying stadium. The announcement was met with some resistance and the demolition is on hold until further options can be studied.

My micro-doc isn’t for or against tearing the stadium down, but is more of a love letter to the place where I went to my first professional baseball game. A look back and told through visuals of an aging and rusting stadium that is long past its glory days.

In the days leading up to my micro-premeire here next week I’ll show some photos I took while out at Tinker Field as well as tell some stories of personal projects that have actually turned into movements, professional work, and even new careers. Today’s lead off hitter is  Humans of New York. Brandon Stanton started HONY as small personal project in 2010 and not only is a popular website, but at the end of last year the book version quickly became a #1 New York Times best seller.

Not your typical personal project, but sometimes when you small and personal turns into big and universal.



Scott W. Smith

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“No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit.”
Photographer Ansel Adams 

A couple of months after Ansel Adams died in 1984 I made my first trip to Yosemite. I wanted to see the Half Dome that he capture on film so brilliantly. I wanted to see the rocks, rivers and trees—the beauty that he captured. Out of reverence for Adams I didn’t take a single photo of the majestic scenery on that trip.


Suggested reading: Ansel Adams at 100

Related posts:
Ansel Adams, Zack Arias & Unicorns
Off Screen Quote #5 (Ansel Adams)

Scott W. Smith

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“Every picture tells a story don’t it”
Lyrics by Rod Stewart and Ron Wood Tony C

My post yesterday stirred up an image in my mind of what I consider the most memorable Sports Illustrated cover ever. It’s of Tony Conigilaro photographed by the great Neil Leifer.  The photo screams drama and begs you to know what happened. Even more than 40 years after the cover first ran—and even if you’ve never heard the name Tony Conigilaro before—you want to know what happened to his eye.

Conigilaro—often simply referred to as Tony C— was an up and coming outfielder for the Boston Red Sox and hit his first home run at Fenway Park when he was just 19-years-old.  A few years later he was selected to play in the 1967 All Star Game. Later that season he was hit in the face by a pitch thrown by Jack Hamilton. It shattered his left cheekbone and damaged the retina in his left eye and not only ended his season, but essentially his career as various comebacks failed and he retired from baseball in 1971.

He later worked as a radio announcer but in 1982 suffered a heart attack, then followed by a stroke and stayed comatose for eight years until he died in 1990 at age 45. I can’t say that I learned everything about life from sports, but I sure learned at a young age that no one gets to live at the top of the mountain. Some athletes have good games, good seasons, and even great careers—but there are also of plenty of heartbreak stories along the way.

To learn more of Tony C’s story read the Sports Illustrated article Return From The Dark, Shaun L. Kelly’s article Tony Conigliaro Forty Years Later; A Remembrance, or the book Tony C, The Triumph and Tragedy of Tony Conigilaro by David Cataneo.

Each year the Tony Conigliaro Award goes to the Major League Baseball player “who have overcome adversity through spirit, determination and courage.”

P.S. It’s spring training time here in Florida and I’ve been working on a personal project—a micro documentary on Tinker Field in Orlando. The historical park where the Minnesota Twins used to train is schedule for demolition. If any readers have marketing connections to MLB, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, the Minnesota Twins, or Brand 47 (in Boston) please email me at info@scottwsmith.com. I’d like see if this micro doc can move beyond a personal project and hit an emotional cord with a larger audience.

Related post:

Screenwriting, Baseball and Underdogs
Postcard #54 (St. Louis Stan)
Moneyball & Coach Ferrell
Screenwriting from Massachusetts

Scott W. Smith

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“Listen to the advice of people you trust.”
Scott Kelby

“Be a student so long as you still have something to learn, and this will mean all your life.”
Clay P. Bedford

Yesterday SmugMug Films released the above video on photographer, author and educator Scott Kelby. Kelby started giving Photoshop workshops more than twenty years ago and that passion has morphed into KelbyOne today—their tagline is “online education for creative people.”

So if you’re a creative person I wanted to put them on your radar if they’re not already there. I’ve been a fan of Kelby’s books, seminars, and online training for years.  KelbyOne is photography and Photoshop centered with a deep well of instructors that cross-over into various aspects of storytelling, creativity, business, social media, and life.

KelbyOne has a more than 70 instructors and some of my personal favorite online classes they have are taught by Jay Maisel, Jeremy Cowart, Zack Arias  and Joe McNally. Even if you consider yourself purely a writer, if you invest just $25 for a single month and watch as many online classes as you can it will help you take better pictures of your family and friends. And even if you don’t want to spend any money you can find free Kelby videos online via The Grid with Scott Kelby and Matt Kloskowski. They record and broadcast live ever Wednesday at 4pm EST. And you can also find free videos at Kelby’s You Tube channel.

“Photography’s gotten super cool—everybody wants to do it and thanks to technology everyone can. It’s a whole new world.”
Peter Reed Miller
Sports Illustrated photographer interview with Mia McCormick on KelbyOne

As a side note—speaking of Sports Illustrated— just a few days ago I listened to a 2011 PhotoShelter interview of Steve Fine, former Sports Illustrated Director of Photography, and though I’d been reading Sports Illustrated since I was ten I’d never heard the SI secret photo formula until last week.  Fine said what he looked for in a photograph was:
1) Magical moments
2) Sense of place
3) Tears 
4) Cheers

(Sounds like a trailer mix of Oscar-winning movies, right? Emotional, right? Check out the post 40 Days of Emotions.)

And if you can get magical moments, a sense of place and tears & cheers in one shot then you really have a great photo. (The same could probably be said for screenplays and movies, too.)

Another part of the SI formula is  shooting with either a 600mm or a 28mm lens (and going where most people can’t) and sifting through 250,000 photos that haven’t seen before for each magazine. (No, that’s not a typo—250,000 photos for each issue.)

But not everybody is going to be a Sport Illustrated photographer and Scott Kelby understands that. I remember when I was starting out in photography and film it was very hard for working professions to pass on trade secrets. It’s always been a competitive field and has only gotten tougher for various reasons. But Kelby and others openly pass on those trade secrets which is great—except it makes a competitive field more competitive. But that helps create greater work.  There are classic photos that 20 years ago were cover shots for Sports Illustrated that wouldn’t even be selected to be published in the magazine today.

Kelby knows his audience isn’t just professional photographers, but soccer moms, engineers, and the like who just love photography. (And who are often quite serious and talented.) He acknowledges that photo hobbyist and those who make some of their income doing photography are his largest of his audience.

“This idea of Metallica or some rock n’ roll singer being rich, that’s not necessarily going to happen anymore. Because, as we enter into a new age, maybe art will be free.”
Five-time Oscar-winning producer/director/writer Francis Ford Coppola

Last year I met a businessman who had a 600mm Nikon lens and loved to shoot surfing photos in Satellite Beach. We’re talking a lens that’s just under $10,000 to buy! And he bought the lens and was shooting just for the joy of it —and he gives the photos away for free. He didn’t seem interested in becoming a professional photographer—and would probably have to take a pay cut to become one. (BTW—According to Merriam-webster the word amateur is a French word that comes from “the Latin amator lover, from amare to love.”)

This isn’t to say you need expensive equipment to become a photographer. (I have lots of photographer and cameraman friends and not a single one personally owns a 600mm lens.) Kelby says many photographers are like amateur golfers thinking that buying the latest golf club will make them a better golfer.

“Don’t worry so much about the gear…there’s not a button on the camera that you press to get better photos.”
Scott Kelby

One of the things I appreciate about Kelby’s teaching is he isn’t saying take this class and get rich and famous.  He understands that more often than not it’s the business and marketing side that separates photographers, so he teaches that along with all the fun and creative aspects of photography. So wherever you are on your creative journey check out KelbyOne and see if it gives you a creative (or business) jolt.

Here’s episode #57 of The Grid where Kelby talks with the photographer Joe McNally:

P.S. All this talk about sports photography reminds me of one of my all time favorite photos. I took it when I was 19 and only owned a camera for just over a year. But I knew sports and was a staff photographer for the Sanford Herald and on this occasion photographed a well executed suicide squeeze play at a high school baseball game. What I love about the shot is I took it using film, with a manual focus fixed lens, and without an auto-winder. Yet despite some technical limitations and lack of experience I believe I captured what photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment.”


Related posts:

Photography is Your Friend
Ansel Adams, Zack Arias & Unicorns
Joe McNally/David Hobby
The Rise of Storytellers with Cameras (Features a video Zack Arias did for Kelby.)
Cinematography and Emotions
Mike Rich & Hobby Screenwriting
“Who said art had to cost money?”—Coppola

Scott W. Smith

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“I would never write about someone who was not at the end of his rope.”
Stanley Elkin

I’ve always been fond of the above quote by Elkin and I thought I’d add some movies that I know are not only about characters at the end of their ropes, but movies that as of last night are movies connected with at least one Oscar win :

12 Years a Slave 

Dallas Buyers Club 

Blue Jasmine   



Congrats to all of the winners at last night’s Academy Awards.

Related posts:
’12 Years a Slave’
The 20 Year Journey of Craig Borten—Dallas Buyers Club
Screenwriter Melisa Wallack —Dallas Buyers Club
Unconscious Writing (Tip #82) Blue Jasmine
Picking Movie Titles —Gravity
Back to the Future with ‘Her’

Scott W. Smith

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Harold Ramis was one of the co-screenwriters of Back to School so I dug around on the internet to find the most class like talk Ramis gave and this is what I found:

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“Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown, there’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.”
Jasmine (Cate Blachett) in Blue Jasmine
Written by Woody Allen
Nominated for 3 Oscars

“The art of survival is a story that never ends. “
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) in American Hustle
Written by Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell
Nominated for 10 Oscars

“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in 12 Years a Slave
Written by John Ridley
Nominated for 9 Oscars

I was looking for an Oscar-nominated song this year to add an exclamation to the above quotes and decided to settle for a now formerly nominated Oscar song. The song Alone But Not Alone was disqualified a couple of days ago by the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Science—but if you read related backlash articles in the LA TimesDeadline, and The Hollywood Reporter  on the song’s historic rejection you’ll know it’s a survivor.

The indie film hasn’t even been released and the song seems to have a life of its own. The producers of the Alone Yet Not Alone movie have to look at the controversy and be thinking—like Bill Murray in Scrooged— “You can’t buy this kind of publicity!”

The perfect Hollywood ending would be during the Super Bowl half-time show tomorrow that Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were joined by quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada (carried on stage, of course, by Tim Tebow) as they all sing Alone But Not Alone. The crowd joins in like a version of We Are the World. Cut to close up of Payton Manning crying just before completing his own personal neck injury comeback by winning the game’s MVP. Followed by world peace.

P.S. Gravity, Captain Philips, and Dallas Buyers Club add at least 22 more survival-related movies to this year’s Oscar nominations.

Update: 2/1/14: “I owe quite a debt to Capt. Richard Phillips, who survived something I know would have killed me.” Screenwriter Billy Ray accepting the WGA award for writing Captain Philips.

Related posts:

What’s at Stake? (Tip #9)
Goal. Stake. Urgency. (Tip #60)
“Unbroken” One great true story of survival that will be released as a movie this year.

Scott W. Smith

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“So they loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly. Hills, that is. Swimmin’ pools, movie stars.”
The Ballad of Jed Clampett by Paul Henning

Yesterday the city of Beverly Hills, California celebrated its 100th anniversary.They had a concert last night at the Saban Theater where they performed works by some of the city’s famous past residents (George & Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter) and Betty White sang the Beverly Hills High School fight song.

A song they probably didn’t sing unless someone poured moonshine into the punch bowl is the most well-known song ever where the city is mentioned—the theme song of The Beverly Hillbillies.

Beverly Hills isn’t the wealthiest community in the United States, but it has a long history of being associated with rich and famous celebrities, as well as top Hollywood movers and shakers. While selling housing lots 100 years ago was difficult, there’s a reason it’s more well-known around the world than nearby Brentwood, Bel Air, and Pacific Palisades—movie, music,  and TV references.

Beverly Hills is not only iconic, it is a feeding ground for dramatic irony. Just mix something that you don’t normally associate with Beverly Hills and there’s conflict, contrast, and comedy. Three fish out of water scenarios that quickly come to mind are 1) the low rent prostitute on a shopping spree on Rodeo Drive (Pretty Women), 2) the Detroit cop with a beat up Chevy on “vacation” in California (Beverly Hills Cop), and 3) a suicidal homeless man taken in by a bored rich couple (Down and Out in Beverly Hills).

But you can’t beat the story about a man name Jed, a poor mountaineer who barely kept his family fed—yet by a strange twist of fate ends up a millionaire living in Beverly Hills. The creator of The Beverly Hillbillies, Paul Henning, was actually a trained lawyer and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Love Come Back).

Henning was born in Independence, Missouri and raised on a farm there, and later attended Kansas City School of Law. But it was camping trips in Missouri as a youth shape that laid the groundwork for one of the longest lasting and most endearing shows in TV history.

“I’d always had a great affection for hillbillies. And I think that started when I was a Boy Scout. I went to camp in the Ozarks at a place called Nole, Missouri. It was right on the border of Arkansas and we’d take 14 mile hikes, and when you go seven miles into the woods….
Paul Henning interview on Emmy TV Legends
(And it’s obvious from Henning’s tone that he doesn’t use hillbilly in a derogatory way.)

Henning’s thoughts drifted off at that point in the interview, but what he alluded to is once you get off the beaten path you met some interesting people. And that’s no different today. Later in that interview Henning talked about taking a driving trip in 1959 through Civil War areas here in the States and coming up with the idea for The Beverly Hillbillies.

If you like hearing how stories originate, this is well worth reading:

“I remember as we were driving along the highway I said, ‘Imagine someone from that Civil War era sitting here in this car with us, going 60 miles an hour down a modern highway.’ You know, what an experience that would be—how unbeliveable that would be. And that got me to thinking about transplanting someone from an era like that into the modern-day world. And I think that’s where the idea [for The Beverly Hillbillies] came from because in my experience as a Boy Scout in the Ozarks I found there were pockets of historical places where people resisted modernization. They resisted roads being built. So this was the germ of the idea. If you could find someone from a remote, protected spot—you know, they didn’t have radio, they didn’t have television, telephone, anything—to transplant them by some means into a modern world and that was the beginning of The Beverly Hillbillies...My first thought was New York. And I thought this would mean expensive location trips and why not transplant them to Beverly Hills were you have the same sophestication—maybe more. And to make that possible they somehow had to become affluent and that’s how Jed was out shooting at some food and up from the ground came a bubbling crude. And all of a sudden they are millionaires. There had been a musical group called The Beverly Hill Billies and I didn’t know any of them personally but this title stayed with me and it seemed so apt. And I thought The Beverly Hillbillies is perfect.”
Paul Henning Interview. Archive of American Television

That simple idea turned into the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies which ran from 1962 to 1971 for a total of 274 episodes. Though not a critic’s favorite, it was the top rated show on TV in its first two seasons.  Some rural themed programs followed including Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.

And there are echoes of the story/concept/theme found more recently in the Oscar-winning Best Picture Slumdog Millionaire and on the all-time top rated non-scripted TV program Duck Dynasty. Two movies that come to mind that preceded The Beverly Hillbillies, but could be seen as kin, are Tobacco Road (1941) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

Just in case you’ve never seen The Beverly Hillbillies, below is the episode The Giant Jackrabbit (written by Henning and Mark Tuttle) which was the single most watch sitcom episode of its day and still ranks as one of the most watched 30-minute sitcom programs of all time.

P.S. A nice Iowa-Beverly Hills connection; The largest talent agency in the world WME with headquarters in Beverly Hills has as its co-CEO Patrick Whitsell from the rural community of Iowa Falls, Iowa (population 5,146). In fact, Whitesell and his father made news recently when they bought and restored a historic movie theater/opera house in Iowa Falls and Hugh Jackman arrived for a screening of his movie Prisoners. See the post The Iowa Falls—Hollywood Connection.

P.P.S. By the way,  the largest home is Beverly Hills is well below half the square footage as the 90,000 sq. foot house in Orlando, Florida featured in the documentary The Queen of Versailles. But in Orlando you won’t have movie stars and other Hollywood movers and shakers as neighbors. Location. Location. Location. (Though Shaq, Tiger, and Arnold Palmer have homes in the area.)

Related Posts:
“Winter’s Bone” (Debra Granik)
Screenwriting from Arkansas
Screenwriting from Missouri
The Serious Side to Gilligan’s Island

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m not interested in characters who aren’t broken.”
3-time Oscar nominated screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator)

“All characters are wounded souls, and the stories we tell are merely an acting out of the healing process. They are the closing of open wounds, the scabbing-over process.”
Richard Krevolin
Screenwriting from the Soul

Today is the sixth anniversary of Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places, and I’m pleased to announce my loose and distant connection to a recent (and controversial) Oscar nomination. In fact, Deadline called it the “Academy’s Most Obscure Nominee—Maybe EVER.” Since one of the inspirations for starting this blog was the movie Juno, let me start there.

When Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) was 17 she got pregnant. When Joni Eareckson was 17 she broke her neck. The movie character Juno gave her baby up for adoption and went back to singing indie songs. The real life person Joni became a quadriplegic and went back to singing gospel hymns.  Screenwriter Diablo Cody walked away with an Oscar for writing Juno. Joni spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair—but also recorded a song that’s just been nominated for an Oscar.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”
Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms

The now 64-year-old Joni also become a speaker, author of 50 books, married Ken Tada, and for the past 35 years has provided a global outreach to people with disabilities—including an organization that restores 10,000 wheelchairs per year and ships them to people in need around the world. If you like heroic underdog stories then you’ll enjoy Joni’s.

The Hollywood Reporter says the Oscar nominated song she sings (Alone Yet Not Alone) caused a “mini-controversy.”  The Week called the nominee “shady” and a “genuine head-scratcher.” You can read those links, but what’s speculated is the song (music by Bruce Broughton and lyrics by Dennis Spiegel—the two who actually got the nomination) benefited from a little Hollywood back scratching.

Hollywood studios spend millions—sometimes $10-15 million on promoting their movies. There’s much written about the fierce battles to win Oscars and how every front door, back door, side door, trap door—and even no door— is explored to win the coveted award that can result in millions of dollars on the back-end of a movie. The stakes are high.  (My friend Matthew recommends the book The Men Who Would Be King which gives insights into the Oscar process. He told me, “In short, it’s ugly. Makes a UFC bout look like a Tupperware party.”)

Hollywood has been called the world’s biggest high school and at this year’s Academy Awards Alone Yet Not Alone is not sitting at the cool kids table. It’s the kid in the wheelchair sitting alone in the cafeteria.  And I hate to throw out the C word here, but adding to the controversy is the song  (which beat out songs by Coldplay, Taylor Swift, Celine Dion and other heavyweights) is from a little seen Christian film shot in the Ohio Valley.

Who knows, maybe the song’s nomination was the Academy’s version of adding a little diversity to the Oscars. A wild card—like sprinkling in Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa into the Oscar nominations (Steve Prouty for hair & makeup). And maybe, just maybe, the song was nominated on merit. Broughton after all does have an Oscar (Silverado) and 8 Primetime Emmys. (Talent not typically found on a smaller independent film.)

But keep in mind there are four Biblical films coming out this year including Russell Crowe as Noah and the February release of Son of God —and even the book that’s the basis for the Angelina Jolie directed Unbroken (scheduled for a December release) has a Christian theme. Studios are concerned about every Christian with ten dollars in their pocket and just the Academy nominating Alone Yet Not Alone (for whatever reason) I imagine is seen as an olive branch by many Christians.  That olive branch didn’t hurt a little Mel Gibson film a decade ago.

Several years ago when I was based in Cedar Falls, Iowa I provided camerawork for an episode of a TV program that Joni and Friends produced.  (Couldn’t find that program online, but Wheels for a Kid’s World gives you a solid glimpse into Joni’s work and world.) I also produced a video of Joni talking at the Minneapolis Convention Center and remember it well because she quoted a classic Frank Darabont script and movie.

(Here’s a similar context I found online from a book Joni wrote about visiting someone she knew in intensive care and unresponsive after a tragic accident. )

“I sat there by Gracie’s hospital bed. I read Scriptures to her. I sang to her: ‘Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side.’ I leaned over as far forward as I could and whispered, ‘Oh Gracie, Gracie, remember. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.’ She blinked at that point, and I knew she recognized the phrase. It’s a line from the movie The Shawshank Redemption.
Joni Eareckson Tada
Hope…the Best of Things

While I did talk with Joni it’s doubtful she’d remember me, but I remember her well. And I got a signed book out of the deal.

Because Joni can’t use her arms she signs books with a pen in her mouth. (And singing is no simple task either for Joni. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “Her lung capacity is just 51 percent of what it ought to be — so weak, in fact, that her husband needed to push on her diaphragm while she recorded the Oscar-nominated song to give her enough breath to hit the high notes.”) She’s an amazing woman and I’m thrilled to see her in the spotlight. And the best thing about a little Oscar controversy is it puts the spotlight on the global work she’s done and continues to do for people and their families dealing with disabilities. You know the old cliché , “Hollywood couldn’t have written a better story”—but I’m glad they added a chapter to Joni’s story.


That book,  Joni, An Unforgettable Story, is an updated version of the book she wrote that became the feature film Joni (1979) written and directed by James F. Collier and stars Joni herself.

“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these things.”
George Washington Carver

1/29/14 Update: According to Indiewire tonight, “The Academy’s Board of Governors voted to take back the Original Song nomination for ‘Alone Yet Not Alone,’  music by Bruce Broughton and lyric by Dennis Spiegel. The decision was ‘prompted by the discovery that Broughton, a former Governor and current Music Branch executive committee member, had emailed members of the branch to make them aware of his submission during the nominations voting period.'”

No additional song will be added. One good thing that came out of this Oscar controversy is it shed a little light on the work Joni is doing.

And really, if you’re a producer of Alone Yet Not Alone you have to take this news like Bill Murray in Scrooged did when he’s told about a woman who had a heart attack over a TV promo his network ran. Murray at first looks distraught, then exclaims, “You can’t buy this kind of publicity!” Alone But Not Alone was put on the radar because of this controversay and today’s news seals the deal on it being locked in as a permenat footnote in Oscar history. Can’t hurt ticket or DVD sales when the film is released. And in ten or twenty years people may forget who won for best picture, or best actor—but will remember the Alone But Not Alone controversy. Call it the year of the “Oscar-nomination but not an Oscar-nomination.”

P.S. When I lived in Burbank, California back in the ’80s I would sometimes get calls to my house asking if I was “the editor Scott Smith.” At the time I was a 16mm operator/editor, but I knew who they were really looking for—  M. Scott Smith. Smith at that point had edited  To Live and Die in L.A. and Some Kind of Wonderful. Other big projects he’s edited are The Crow and Ladder 49 starring John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix. Turns out he’s the editor on Alone Yet Not Alone.

Scott W. Smith

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Main Street Madoff

“For the love of money is the roots of all sorts of evil.”
1 Timothy 6:10

“Great broker! Would recommend them. They’ve started TV Advertising which I think is always a sign of confidence from a broker looking for new wealth to manage.”
Online user review for PFGBest April 16, 2012
(Less than three months before that company filed for bankruptcy)

On this repost Saturday it seems fitting to revisit a post that’s only a year and a half old but follows nicely my recent posts on the movies The Wolf of Wall Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Wall Street. Because while Wall Street has had its share of scoundrels, just because a broker is in a quintessential small town like the one in It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t mean he can’t be a scoundrel too.  Remember even Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life had Henry F. Potter—”The richest and meanest man in the county!” (Mr. Potter even made it to #6 on AFI list of villains—that’s 18 slots ahead of Gordan Gekko.)

Well, back in Cedar Falls, Iowa just last year they had a fellow who some newspapers dubbed “The Midwest Madoff.” But I actually think that title originally went to Tim Durham who defrauded 5,000 investors for more than $200 million. Last year he was sentenced in Indianapolis to 50 years in prison. Up in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Tom Petters orchestrated what CNN/Money called “a $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme — one of the largest in U.S. history second only to Bernie Madoff.” Back in 2010 he was also sentenced to a 50 year prison sentence.

That’s why I prefer the Main Street Madoff title for this fellow in Iowa. (Technically his offices weren’t on Main Street, but he did own a restaurant on Main Street. It was a good one, too. )

It’s not every day that Cedar Falls, Iowa makes the front page of The Wall Street Journal—but sadly, July 11, 2012 was one of those days. When Russ Wasendorf Sr., the founder and chairman of PFGBest, a locally based international futures trading business, attempted suicide on that day and the FBI began a fraud investigation into $215 million in customer money allegedly missing, it had a way of attracting national news.

Back in February of 2012, I did a video shoot inside the company’s building and all looked right in the world. In fact, the 50,000 square foot state of the art building of the business—now shut down and under scrutiny—is one of the nicest in Iowa. European in design, eco-friendly, and three stories of glass fill the offices with natural light.

During the shoot I briefly met Wasendorf and the word that I ‘d use to describe his outward appearance would be “successful.” He supported local charities and in 2009 pledged $2 million to the University of Northern Iowa. He also opened a terrific Italian restaurant on Main Street and brought his chef here from Chicago.

And though I’d only seen Wasendorf a handful of times since he moved here,  the Sunday afternoon before his suicide attempt I saw him walking out of his restaurant just as I was driving by. I even had the thought, “That dude’s got it made.” About 8 hours later he drove to his company’s headquarters and drank a bottle of vodka and at some point hooked up a hose from the tail pipe of the car to its interior. Later that morning he was found unconscious and a suicide note was found.

“I have committed fraud. For this I feel constant and intense guilt. I am very remorseful that my greatest transgressions have been to my fellow man. Through a scheme of using false bank statements I have been able to embezzle millions of dollars from customer accounts at Peregrine Financial Group, Inc.”
Part of Wasendorf’s suicide note

The fact that he got married in Las Vegas nine days before his attempted suicide added more bizarreness to the situation. An annulment was filed for, the restaurant closed, contents of the offices auctioned off, and even Wasendorf son who worked for him—but was not a part of the embezzlement— said of his father, “As far as I am concerned, he died that day.”

Earlier this year Wasendorf was sentenced to 50 years in prison for defrauding thousands of innocent investors out of a $215,000,000 over a 20 year period. Bloomberg News quoted the acting U.S. Attorney’s statement, “The lengthy prison sentence imposed today is just punishment for a con man who built a business on smoke and mirrors.”

All of this fraud has got me thinking about a poem written over 100 years ago by a poet raised in Gardiner, Maine, educated at Harvard, and well versed in the works of Shakespeare, small town life and “the American dream gone awry.”

Richard Cory
By Edwin Arlington Robinson
(Poem written in 1887)

Whenever Richard Cory went down to town,
We people on the payment looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
Related posts:
Related articles:
The Wall Street Journal/Online—July 11, 2012, In Two Communities, Esteem Turns to Shock as Details Become Known
Cedar Valley Business/Online—July 11, 2012, Peregrine files for bankruptcy, feds seek to freeze assets
P.S. Oddly enough, someone has done a mash-up of a Simon & Garfunkel version of Richard Cory and the movie The Shawshank Redemption.

Update 7/13/12: Peregrine CEO Arrested

Scott W. Smith

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