The Salacious Scam

24 Nov

You say to yourself you would never be so gullible. You are smarter than this. You would never fall prey to praise, empathy, compassion, excitement, and the prospect of financial security.  You know better.

I do know better, and yet, it all seemed so believable.

Marnie (a pseudonym) contacted me through Facebook in late September. She runs a new soundstage in Nova Scotia, and is partnered with an investment group in New York.  They are funding 14 films this coming year. She heard about me.  She wants to know if I have a film ready to shoot.

Initially I was skeptical.  Fat chance someone is going to find me through Facebook and drop 1.5 million dollars in my lap.  Yet some of my best donors I met through Facebook, and I’ve connected with so many great people who have been supportive of my films in so many ways.  So maybe FB is the new method investors use to seek out filmmakers.

We spoke on the phone. She was so genuine, so honest, so frustrated by the endless wannabe filmmakers who talked the talk but couldn’t deliver the product.  We commiserated.  We laughed. We made each other promises.

I would re-write an old script and send it to her as quickly as possible. She would send me a letter of intent to fund 85% of the $1.5M. I would need to bring in the remaining 15%.

The letter of intent arrived October 15th.  There it is, hanging on my corkboard above the fishtank in the penthouse. Oceanview Film Studios in Halifax, Nova Scotia in partnership with New York Capital Group is ‘eager and excited’ to participate in making the film ADDIE’S HOME.

I finished the rough cut edit for ABRUPT DECISION and made the submission deadline for Berlin and SXSW.  Next I tackled the script revision for ADDIE. I obsessed over the story about international visitors to the United States. I called friends and discussed plot points and characters. I searched the internet for story ideas and wandered New York streets, hoping to stumble upon intriguing personalities.  My search even took me on a tour of the United Nations. (Other than discovering the international post office in the basement, the tour was fruitless.)

In a final burst of determination I powered out the script over a sleepless weekend.

On November 15 I emailed the script to Marnie.

And waited.

Will she like the script?   If she didn’t like the script and wouldn’t consider re-writes then the project was dead. This was the deal breaker.

I waited till Thursday morning to email an inquiry, and told her I wanted to fly into Halifax the first week of December to meet.

Thursday evening an email came from her partner, Johnnie (a pseudonym), telling me they need to read the script before they can consider the project further, unless I’m no longer interested in their funding. Besides, he added, the studio is undergoing renovations and they are not on site at the moment.  They need more notice before I come to visit.

I broke out in a sweat.  I drafted a reply, read it over twice, re-wrote it, and then sent the message that I was working under the assumption they were funding 85%, and that I sent them the script on Monday.

Marnie emailed moments later.  “When can I talk to you on Friday????”

And behind that came Johnnie’s email: “Sorry about my error. We have the script.”

Friday morning I call Marnie’s office number, a Halifax area code.  She answers.  She tells me she’s at home, recovering from hip surgery.  I try to comfort her with assurances that she will heal, and the swelling will go down, and she will feel attractive again.

Then we get down to business.  “First off, I love love love your script,” Marnie gushes into the phone. “Did you write it?”

She tells me how she thinks this film, even though it’s low budget, might be able to get some big name stars.  “We can keep our fingers crossed,” she says excitedly.  She tells me the film is destined for a theatrical release in North America, and she adds “We have a new distribution partner in Eastern Europe.”

Okay.  Hold the phone.  Something is very wrong here.

1) Hoping for big name actors to work in a low budget film is a possibility, but not that realistic since I’m a virtually unknown director. Working with stars probably impresses a lot of directors, but in all honesty it usually means the shoot is going to be much more complex, if not out right impossible.

2) Theatrical distribution is not a money-making endeavor.  Why is she so enthused about theatrical distribution?  That’s something directors and actors may dream about, but it’s totally impractical in today’s world.

3) EASTERN EUROPE???  WTF?  I wrote a story about a widow living alone in a small Texas town who opens her house as an international youth hostel.  Who is going to pay money to watch this movie in Budapest?

“Now,” she continues, “I’m going to ask you some very direct questions.”

“And I’ll give you direct answers,” I reply.

“Your other investors, is their capital liquid?”

“I don’t know. I’ll have to ask my producing partner.”

“Because we need to get the ball rolling,” Marnie says quickly, “and we need to bring a line producer on payroll.”

“Uh huh,” I say, thinking about what to say next.

Marnie continues.  “And of course, all the money is completely 100% refundable.”

Oh shit.

I tell her I’ll get some answers to her later in the day.  She promises to send me a contract agreement by the evening.  The call is over.

Now I start running google searches on her, her partner, the film studio, the other film projects she claims to be working on, the investment group.

One internet site claims the investment group is a scam.

IMDb has only the slightest mention of any of the people involved.  I call a lawyer.  I call a talent agency in LA to verify what happened on a previous film shoot.  I send messages, through Facebook, to other directors.

I even go into Manhattan to find the offices of the investment group.  As I come out of the subway I am totally disoriented.  I walk three blocks in the wrong direction.  I’m staring at sign posts, and the lettering is blurry. I feel dizzy.  My stomach is cramping.  I’m struggling to concentrate on my mission to find the investment office, hoping desperately I’ll find proof beyond doubt that the organization is legitimate.

The doorman tells me the investment company does have an office in the building, but he knows nothing about them.  I don’t go up. I don’t want to tip my hand.  Or maybe I don’t want to see the office is a closet door with no one inside.

That night I go into full migraine.  I don’t sleep.  I barely move.

I take the bus to the airport before sunrise the next morning, shaking, dizzy, afraid I’ll vomit if I turn my head too quickly.  And for some reason, everything becomes a big deal.

For the first time ever I dread security screening. I’m anxious I’ll be scanned, or felt up, or will say something stupid. And yet, nothing unusual happens and I board my plane without any interference.

Saturday afternoon and Sunday I lay low.  Don’t talk much.  Don’t interact with others more than necessary.  All the while, I’m debating whether this entire venture is a scam to steal $225,000 from investors I bring into the project.

Finally Monday evening I get a message from another film director.  He laid it out for me in a very lengthy FB post.   The film studio is three hours from Halifax and ownership is uncertain with a recent bankruptcy filing.  He says he went through negotiations for an extended period, that his lawyer advised him the operation sounded like a scam, and that his attempts to contact the investment group were futile.

And then he never heard anything from them again.

There is no smoking gun. The only way to prove it’s a scam would be to give them $225,000 and watch the money disappear.

Like a plotless indie film, or a French movie, the story just ends. No final confrontation. No chase scene. No SWAT team moving in for the bust. It ends with nothing happening.

Friday’s phone call with Marnie was the last contact I’ll ever have from them, wherever they are.  I could fire off a venomous email describing my anguish at the deception, the weeks I obsessed over the script, my dizzying nausea and fragile state of mind. But they won’t email back.  They won’t proffer an apology or hang their hands in remorse. I won’t get the satisfaction of vengeance.

It’s simply a matter of the age old question: If an oil refinery explodes in a massive fireball and no one is there to film it, did it make any noise?

In Friday’s phone conversation Marnie breathlessly whispered into my headpiece, ‘”Promise me one thing, Paul.”

“Yes?”

“You will keep writing.”

No doubt about that, Marnie. No doubt about that.

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3 Responses to “The Salacious Scam”

  1. Carol November 25, 2010 at 5:44 pm #

    Oh Pablito! What a horror. You just have to trust that somewhere these people will be visited with exactly the evil they deserve. You probably won’t see it or be able to benefit but just know it will happen. Take care of yourself!

  2. Betty (in Texas) November 29, 2010 at 9:51 pm #

    Thank God! you did not get to Nova Scotia before you discovered this. It would have been worse(if it could get worse)
    My heart hurts for your experience, but better to learn it now than after you had other investor’s money and had given it to them. It is brave of you to tell what happened….That truly shows your integrity….good job!
    My husband and I look forward to meeting you when you are back in Texas. I hope you will give a small workshop while you are here.
    Cheering you on, Betty and Gary in Fort Worth

  3. Paul Kimball November 30, 2010 at 11:47 pm #

    I’m the director who contacted Paul, and I just want to make it clear that the people involved in all of this are NOT from Nova Scotia, which is a fantastic place to live and do business in.

    Happy to help, Paul – all the best with your film. 🙂

    Paul Kimball
    Redstar Films Ltd.
    Halifax, NS

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