Security Producer Mark Ciardi on Movie’s Lengthy Journey to Disney+
From director Reginald Hudlin and based on a true story, the inspirational drama Safety follows Ray McElrathbey (Jay Reeves), a Clemson University football safety who finds himself in the unexpected position of having to raise his 11-year-old brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson). Through dedication, determination and persistence, his unwillingness to give up on his dreams and his desire to keep his family together help him succeed both on and off the field.
During the virtual press junket for the Disney+ film, Collider got the opportunity to chat 1-on-1 with producer Mark Ciardi about why he was so struck by the story of Ray McElrathbey, the long journey it took to the screen, not giving up on a project just because it takes some time to get made, and what impressed him about this cast. He also talked about what he has in development, what he’s going into production on next, how he became the go-to sports movie guy, and what he would say to others who are looking to become a producer.
Collider: What was it about Ray McElrathbey that made you see a movie there, but then made you hang onto the rights for 14 years?
Image via Disney+
MARK CIARDI: I remember it really, really well, when these pieces started to hit. I think the first was on ESPN during one of the Clemson games, and then it became a national story. He was person of the week on ABC World News Tonight, and then he was on Oprah and, and I just got really moved, every time I saw little pieces of it. So, I just said, “Let me contact the school to see if I can try to get the rights.” I knew it would be competitive, so I got in early and was able to talk to Ray. He was 19, at the time, and it was all happening really, really fast for him. I just told him, “I’ll always be honest with you. I’ll never give up on this film and we’ll do our best to get it made, but no guarantees.”
We set it up at another studio, all those years ago, and developed the script and thought it was pretty good. We came close to making it, a couple of times. A lot of movies don’t get made. The majority don’t. You’re lucky when they do get made, and I certainly realize that and am appreciative of that because they’re big investments. For whatever reason we came close, but didn’t get it made. We tried different times, throughout the years, and always kept in touch with Ray. I told him, “Hang in there. Hang in there with me. I’m never gonna give up on it.” And then, when Disney+ was announced, a few years ago, it was one of the first things they bought. It’s funny because I brought it to Disney when I’d had a deal there, back in ‘06 and, for whatever reason, the timing of it just didn’t work. I was shooting Invincible, and it’s just one of those things. It’s timing.
How hard is it, as a producer, to keep a business mindset and not have your soul crushed, when you come so close to having something made and then it doesn’t happen, sometimes time and time again?
CIARDI: Yeah. As a producer, you get paid when you make a movie, so you’ve gotta hang in there. It’s funny, I’ve got three movies from 2006/2007 that are all getting made and are at different junctures right now. You can’t give up. If you have a script you love, to me, it’s about timing. Eventually, the timing could work out. It didn’t matter that 14 years have happened before the movie. In some ways, it was better to have waited. Now, Ray is a 34-year-old young man and has matured. If it would have happened at the time that he was still in college, it probably would have been a little too overwhelming. There’s something nice about having a little bit of time in between stories. The music from 15 years ago is great. It’s as timely now as it was then. The social issues are perfectly timed for what’s going on right now.
Image via Disney+
Is there ever a point when you know that you have to just give up on a project, or is it always just about waiting for the right time?
CIARDI: I didn’t control Ray’s rights forever. I think there was a period of time where he went with another producer. I don’t think anything happened. I don’t even think a script was developed. I usually just try to keep in touch with the people. All scripts don’t come out as good as you’d like and you know that some things might not get made, but if you believe in something and you have a strong script, then that’s currency. I don’t give up on stuff. It’s just about finding the right place. These platforms are great places to tell these stories. Theatrical has always been a little tricky, getting people into movie theaters. Now more than ever, during the pandemic. I knew years ago, before Disney had even announced theirs, when I saw Netflix and Amazon, I was like, “I don’t know that world, but I feel like my movies would be situated really nicely there.” I always knew that my films over index when they get to the home video and cable. So, I knew that, if you go right to the audience for the start, there could be very valuable stories to tell in there.
Your leads are relatively new to audiences. What made Jay Reeves and Corinne Foxx right for these roles? What most impresses you about what they did in this?
CIARDI: What was great about this was Disney said, “We don’t need stars for the movie,” and that’s awesome. The movie was the star, so we got to have these discoveries. We saw so many kids. There were thousands of auditions. I remember the first massive bunch of auditions that Disney casting had done. They put out a huge net and there were thousands, and then there were a few hundred that we looked at in our office. We loved Jay and we loved Thaddeus [J. Mixson]. Those were our two top picks, just from watching random readings. And then, we brought in four or five of each, for the Ray and Fay roles, and they did chemistry reads with each of them working with each other. I remember when the two of them came together, I had my fingers crossed because they were my picks, from the beginning, and they just lit it up. And Corinne was great. She came in with a number of girls and did readings. What’s fun is that you can see the chemistry, when you’re auditioning.
Image via Disney+
Do you know what you’re going to be going into production on next? Are you somebody who has a bunch of things in development, or do you prefer to focus on one project at a time?
CIARDI: Good question. I’m starting a Lionsgate movie that’s actually another football story that I was brought in on, about Kurt Warner. It’s another amazing underdog story. Back in 2000, he went from an arena league and stocking shelves in a convenience store, to the NFL, and then the Super Bowl and league MVP. And there are some other things. There are a couple of stories that I was working on years ago, that are in different stages of development. But the one for Lionsgate is going in January. I’ve got a Netflix movie. I’m developing a couple of things with Disney. It’s a good time right now with content. It really is. It’s always a challenge getting things made because it’s so competitive, but a lot of the stories that I’ve had, have managed to now get to a point where there’s a good chance they’re gonna get made.
Are you still looking to do Wish List with Reese Witherspoon?
CIARDI: I know that’s on IMDb. That has had different stages of activity. Right now, I haven’t heard really anything about it. It was just this really great idea. We had a lot of different iterations of that script. It never quite got there, but it’s a great idea. You never know. That’s another one from a dozen or so years ago. We’ll probably dust it off and bring another writer in and take a crack at it. You’ve gotta always keep these projects that you like in the back of your head.
How did you end up being the producer of so many sports movies? Is it something that has just been a coincidence? Did you just become the go-to guy for that, once you had success at it?
CIARDI: I got into the business at a later stage. I was 35 or 36 years old, and I didn’t know anything about the film business. I had played professional baseball and had lived in Los Angeles in the off season. I was around the movie business and started to have friends that were in the film business, and then I left. I was in L.A. from ‘85 to ‘90, and then I left. For most of the ‘90s, I was back east and I was overseas. And then, I wanted to move back to L.A. The idea of getting into the film business seemed crazy, but it also seemed somewhat realistic because I had friends doing it. I knew people in the business, so I figured that I’d give it a shot. I didn’t fear it. Looking back, it’s a crazy idea, but I knew enough people where I could get phones answered and people calling me back. And then, you just have to find great stories and teach yourself. I worked out of a garage, initially. When you have no one giving you anything, you learn pretty quick. I funded a lot of what I did, so it was a sink or swim situation.
And then, with the sports films, I never started out thinking that I wanted to do sports films. I’d set up a couple of thrillers and a couple of books, and then, at the end of 1999, I was reading a story in Sports Illustrated about this teacher in West Texas that was 35 years old, he was in Triple-A, and it told the story of The Rookie. I read the story and couldn’t believe it. He had not gotten called up to the big leagues yet, but at the end of the article, it said that he had played a little bit of minor league baseball, never got above Single-A, and I didn’t realize the name. It said he signed in 1983 with the Brewers, and that’s when I signed. Then, I looked at him and was like, “Oh, my God, Jim Morris.” I played with him for three years and we rode together one year. I just started spinning around and went, “Oh, my God, I’ve gotta get this story.” So, I ended up getting in touch with his agent, at the time, and who he’d just got. It all happened really quickly for him. Long story short, I ended up getting the rights for that and that set me on the path to do these sports films.
That one turned out really, really well, and had Dennis Quaid. I got pitched Miracle after that, so we set that up. And then, there was Invincible. We did three, right in a row, and then did a couple of movies with The Rock, and then Secretariat, Million Dollar Arm, and McFarland, USA. Everything comes by me because I’m now known for sports. It’s not everything I do. I did the movie Chappaquiddick, which is probably the biggest departure you could have from sports. But I love them. They’re just great stories and great backdrops to tell stories. It should never be about the sports, really. That’s always just in the background. It should be the emotion of the story.
Image via Disney+
Since you never really know how a movie is going to turn out, which of the films that you’ve produced would you say turned out better than you expected and why?
CIARDI: Man, I’m always fond of The Rookie, just because it was my first film and it was about a guy I knew, and everything was banking on that. I think Miracle probably has the longest life, and people still refer to that movie and quote it and watch it. What I love right now is that, on Disney+, I’ve got nearly all of my movies up there and I know they’re all well viewed and people love them. They’re like all of your children and I try not to play favorites. If any one of those films come on, like a lot of people, I just get sucked in and I ended up watching it and remembering. They’re just great movies to watch. They call them evergreens because they just can be played, over and over again, over the years. They don’t get old. Families can watch them rediscover them. That’s what’s great about these movies. So many people come up and tell me how much they love them. That’s really why you get into the business.
If someone wanted to be a producer in Hollywood, what advice would you share? What do you think are the most important things that someone should know?
CIARDI: There’s never really one path. Probably just coming to L.A. I don’t know if I’d recommend what I did. I funded my own projects. I had no experience. No one was hiring me, in my mid-30s, to be an assistant, or to work at a studio or a production company, so I had to do it myself. There’s also no barrier to entry. I started out as a producer. A lot of younger producers will find stories, and then I’ll get a call and they’ll want to partner up. You can always find stories, so find your network of people and meet actors. Get into an acting class, just to understand what acting is about. Try to be on a movie set and learn different jobs. I had to self-teach. I remember getting on my first set and I was in a trailer, and I had no idea what was going on, but I had people support me and support what I was doing. And then, I just learned. I didn’t know if I could do it or do it well. I knew I could develop. And then, I finally got on a set. It’s just being good to people, being honest, and working hard. It’s also the material. If you can’t develop a good screenplay, you’re not gonna have a good movie. I’ve been lucky to have really good writers that I’ve worked with and we’ve tried to get it in the very best shape we can.
Safety is available to stream at Disney+.
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About The Author
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Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter at Collider. Having worked at Collider for over a decade (since 2009), her primary focus is on film and television interviews with talent both in front of and behind the camera. She is a theme park fanatic, which has lead to covering various land and ride openings, and a huge music fan, for which she judges life by the time before Pearl Jam and the time after. She is also a member of the Critics Choice Association and the Television Critics Association.
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