My Movieguide® Epiphany
By Patrick Mulhearn, Louisiana Economic Development
As a lifelong and self-proclaimed “stuffy Episcopalian,” when I think of the word epiphany, what comes to mind is usually the season between Christmas and Lent.
Of course, it can also mean an “ah-ha” moment that “consists of a sudden realization or an illuminating discovery” if not “a powerful religious experience.” After attending the Movieguide® Awards in Los Angeles, and after trying to wrap my brain around the remarkable set of circumstances that brought me there, “epiphany” is really the only word that fits.
I work for the State of Louisiana. From 2006 to 2009, I was the state’s Assistant Director of Film and Television helping to administer and promote the Louisiana Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit program in the effort to diversify Louisiana’s economy by attracting more film and television business to the state. In 2009, I left state government to run Celtic Studios in Baton Rouge, the largest design-built stage facility in the Gulf South which has hosted everything from the final TWILIGHT blockbusters to a little independent film you may have heard of called GOD’S NOT DEAD.
In the first half 2015, Baton Rouge was home to three scripted television series, 20th Century Fox’s FANTASTIC FOUR reboot, and the remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. But, after changes to the film tax incentive program made the program temporarily unworkable, the film business all but dried up, and the cameras quit rolling in Baton Rouge on August 14, 2015.
Celtic’s stages sat empty for exactly one year when the Great Louisiana Flood of 2016 dropped 7.1 trillion gallons of water on Baton Rouge and the surrounding areas. Displacement from the flood prompted our studio to take in as many as 4,000 evacuees on August 14th of 2016. It may have been the one and only time I audibly thanked God that our stages were sitting empty!
By 2017, my job trying to lease out stage and office space to productions had lost its luster. After the Louisiana Legislature fixed the issues plaguing the incentive program, I left Celtic Studios. Later that year, I agreed to a second tour of duty working for the state, this time with a focus on growing Louisiana’s creative and financial infrastructure for the long-term sustainability of an indigenous entertainment industry.
And, that is what brought me to Los Angeles this past February. Louisiana had a number of amazing musicians like Lafayette’s Lauren Daigle who were nominated for Grammys this year. There were several events planned around the Grammys that celebrated our artists and were great networking opportunities for the state. As a result, I was able to schedule a number of meetings with industry decision-makers.
The week before I left for Los Angeles, my friend Darin Mann from Baton Rouge (who I have known for more than 20 years and now just happens to work in my building) asked me to grab a coffee with him, something we had not done in years. During our coffee, I told him I was going to Los Angeles, and he insisted I should meet his cousin Travis Mann from New Orleans who is now a producer in L.A. Darin connected us by e-mail. Both Travis and I have been around the film industry long enough to know that the odds of a connection through a cousin amounting to anything are often slim to none.
I chose to stay at the Universal City Hilton because one my state colleagues was staying there. When I told Travis where I was staying, he told me my hotel was the perfect location to meet because he had an awards show to attend there Friday evening, and that we could meet there beforehand. We both put the meeting on our calendars with managed expectations.
I arrived in Los Angeles on a Thursday. After attending a Grammy event in downtown Los Angeles that evening, I returned to the hotel and saw something oddly familiar as I exited my ride – a Community Coffee sign. If you have spent any time in Louisiana, you know that Community Coffee is a cherished local brand based out of Baton Rouge that has been around for a hundred years (they are literally celebrating their 100th anniversary this year). While Community Coffee signs are ubiquitous in Louisiana, it is not something that I often see when I travel to the West Coast.
The next day, as I was leaving the hotel for a meeting, I saw someone who looked a lot like Matt Saurage, Chairman of the Board at Community Coffee, whose family has owned the company since 1919. I had given Matt and his kids a set visit on FANTASTIC FOUR several years ago, and we bump into each other in Baton Rouge every now and then. After contemplating the odds, I decided to walk in the direction Matt’s doppelganger was headed. To my surprise, I ran into the preparations for a red carpet event and a group of people hanging Community Coffee signs. I asked the group, “Are y’all from Louisiana?”
The response I got was, “Are you Patrick Mulhearn?” which came from John Jackson, a noted Louisiana videographer who shoots for Community Coffee. John is also a popular outdoor show host who I had met with recently back home. We had a good laugh.
The group explained to me Community Coffee was the title sponsor of the Movieguide® Awards that were being held at the hotel later that evening. Before leaving for my meeting, I finally came face to face with Matt Saurage. Our conversation further piqued my interest in Movieguide®. After my day in Burbank, I texted Matt to see if I should attend. He gave me a solid “maybe” because they were expecting a packed event, and he was not sure if I needed a tuxedo.
After throwing on a suit, I met with Travis at 4:30 p.m. Travis explained that he was one of the executive producers on I CAN ONLY IMAGINE which had been nominated for an Epiphany Prize (there’s that word again) by Movieguide®, the organization’s highest honor for an inspirational film. I CAN ONLY IMAGINE had recently won another prize that has not gone ignored by Hollywood: The Box Office. Of all the independent films released theatrically in 2018, I CAN ONLY IMAGINE was the highest-grossing by far.
The more Travis and I talked, the more we realized inspirational content creation and Louisiana make for a winning combination. We agreed to keep the dialogue going, and that we would make plans for him to visit us in Louisiana. A text from Community Coffee soon afterward let me know that they had found an open spot for me at the awards if I wanted to go and that a suit would suffice instead of a tux. My evening plans were made.
And, what a wonderful evening it was. At the event, Movieguide®’s Dr. Ted Baehr gave an unforgettable presentation that helped me to see the industry in a whole new light (one might call that an “illuminating discovery”). His numbers were undeniable. Uplifting and inspirational movies and television shows are in demand and are successful because they play to a broader audience, something Louisiana’s content creators might want to keep in mind. As a father who had two young boys at the height of DUCK DYNASTY‘s popularity, I knew the show’s overwhelming success had something to do with fact that I never had to change the channel when the kids were in the room. Those bearded duck hunters from Ouachita Parish were on to something.
It really was not until the morning after the event that it hit me: Of all the hotels in Los Angeles where I could have stayed, of all the nights that I could have been there, of all the award shows in the industry, of all the companies that could have been title sponsors, and of all the cousins that I could have been introduced to, what are the odds that pure coincidence would put me at the Movieguide® Awards with one of the producers of I CAN ONLY IMAGINE? To quote the title of the film that won this year’s Epiphany Prize, “I CAN ONLY IMAGINE”
**Editor’s Note: J. Patrick Mulhearn is the Senior Director, Strategic Initiatives, Office of Business Development, Louisiana Economic Development