Fame without Fortune: Part 1
Call it an early mid-life crisis, but I had just had enough.
By my mid-30’s, I had just had enough of dealing with actors, enough of dealing with contracts, enough of dealing with the endless battles for control of what was mine to begin with, enough of chasing people around with lawyers just to get credit for my work, and enough of watching people use my name and credits to get their projects financed, only to cut me out of the deal once the money came in. I was just over it.
Mostly, though, I had just had enough of Mark Archer and all of his issues, so I quit.
I don’t mean that metaphorically, either. I mean I quit filmmaking. Completely. I closed my business, I sold my camera, and I stopped taking any new work. I walked away with no intention of ever coming back, crossed over the river from “living the dream” to the pursuit of a life doing something else…anything else, and burned the bridge behind me. I was not going back.
To say that things in my business and career were not going well at that point would be an understatement. The statute of limitations had finally run out on my years-long pursuit of Neil Labute and my 5% share of the $20+ million dollars that my first film, In the Company of Men, had grossed. My follow-up project, American Reel, had fallen flat before it even got out of the gate, and had been lost in the bankruptcy woes of a dead-beat distributor, never even seeing the light of the marketplace until nearly 5 years after it was made. And of the last three feature-length film projects I had started, only one had even made it to market (The Chaplain), but our commercial work had taken such a battering over the prior years that we couldn’t afford to support the marketing efforts for the film. In a downsizing-for-survival move, we pulled it from the shelves and I sat and wondered what in the world had happened. Whereas, just a few years earlier I could seemingly do no wrong, now I felt like everyone, including God, was opposing me, and I finally broke down.
“I can’t do this any more,” I told the Lord in my prayers over and over again.
I couldn’t figure out what it was that I was doing wrong. My lifelong dream of being in the movie business had become such an ugly, convoluted mess every day that I had started to dread even opening my emails or answering the phone. It never seemed to be anything good. It was only bad news on top of bad news, and people stealing from me any way they could. Even my commercial work had become unbearable, as more and more it became questionable content with deadbeat clients and their sketchy business practices. For the sake of money, I had started agreeing to content in projects that was morally questionable, and I could hardly stand to look at myself in the mirror. Deep in my heart I heard the Holy Spirit telling me what the problem was. I just didn’t want to hear it.
The part of the “Fame and Fortune” story that no one hears about is the plethora of those who only get the fame, while someone else runs off with the fortune. What I had learned the hard way was that contracts are only as good as the people who sign them. I would sit in my office and stare in anger at my worthless contract, fighting the disbelief that the man who just a few years earlier had practically begged me to help him shoot his tiny film and get paid nothing in the process had not only run off with every last dollar of profit, he had tried to remove my name from the credits of the film, as well. I even had to crash my own film’s premiere – twice – once in Los Angeles and again in my own home town, because for some reason my invitations kept getting lost in transit.
After ten years of winless battle and disappointing follow-ups, I was just tired. What’s worse, though, is that I had finally lost my drive, my faith, and my vision for a bright future. I had to finally admit that I was that person that I had allowed people to portray me as: The poor loser who got screwed and left behind. It was finally over. I resigned myself to a new life of being someone other than that Mark Archer.
The only bright spot in my life seemed to be my beautiful bride and our newly arrived first daughter, Elizabeth. I would watch our baby girl sleep in my arms and think about how I wanted her to grow up with dreams of a bright future. I felt like I had forgotten how to dream of a bright future long ago, so how could I possibly teach her to dream big? I had made my decision. It was time to move on.
What in the world would I do? I literally had never given even a second’s worth of thought to that question at any point in my life since I was 17 years old. I had always and only ever pursued a career in filmmaking since my late teens. It was as much a part of my identity as my name or my face. Now, in my late 30’s, I could not imagine me without that part of my identity, but I really wondered if anyone else would feel the same way. Would anyone even care that I was giving up and walking away? It didn’t seem that way. Outside of my family, nobody had seemed to care that I was still making films for the past 15 years since gaining notoriety, so why on earth would it make any difference now?
Determined to divorce myself from all of it, I drove over to the Purdue University campus and re-enrolled myself in school. I was going to escape this mess of my life in Hollywood by immersing myself in a new career. And with that trip, Mark Archer the filmmaker became Mark Archer the college freshman. I was going to finish my engineering degree that I had started so many years earlier and quit. I convinced myself that being an engineer sitting in a cubicle somewhere was my idea of heaven, and off I went to class.
But the Lord, in all of his grace, was not finished with me yet, and what I would come to realize years later was that He was purging my life of the poison that had paralyzed my career. He was purging me of me.