For Plymouth Rock team, money woes, questions crowding out hopes
Boston Sunday Globe
November 15, 2009
This story was reported and written by the Globe Spotlight Team, reporters Scott Allen and Marcella Bombardieri and editor Thomas Farragher.
David P. Kirkpatrick seemed to relish the role of big-shot Hollywood insider as he briefed state development officials about his bold plan to challenge Tinseltown at its own game. And the former head of Paramount Motion Pictures certainly sounded like the right man to build a huge movie and TV studio in Massachusetts. He talked about how he helped bring “Forrest Gump’’ to life. He casually referred to Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston as “the kids.’’
By the time Kirkpatrick left that first meeting in August 2006, state officials were practically ready to break out the champagne, according to two people who were there. A few months later, the state dangled the prospect of more than $100 million in tax breaks and other benefits to Kirkpatrick’s team.
So began one of the most buzz-generating projects in recent state history, a $650 million plan to build 14 sound stages and a virtual entertainment city in the woods of Plymouth, making Massachusetts the production center for countless movies and TV shows. Plymouth officials have scrambled to help Plymouth Rock Studios create the 2,000 studio-related jobs the company predicts, while people mobbed job fairs to chase their dream of making it in show business.
But a look behind the breathtaking vision of Plymouth Rock Studios reveals a project marred by over-the-top claims, broken promises, legal infighting, and the chronic lack of one crucial ingredient: money.
A Globe Spotlight Team investigation has found that, despite their cultivated image of Hollywood know-how and deep pockets, Kirkpatrick and his oft-changing cast of partners never obtained nearly the resources to build one of the world’s biggest studios. Members of Kirkpatrick’s group have been sued at least 11 times in the past three years by writers, investors, consultants, and others who say they weren’t fully paid. Kirkpatrick and his various collaborators were so desperate for funds that they turned to dubious sources for help, including a convicted embezzler and an obscure Florida financier whose former business partners were recently sentenced to prison.
Among the Spotlight Team’s findings:
■ Kirkpatrick’s own backstory goes way beyond what he publicly shared with Plymouth townspeople. He lost virtually all of his wealth over the last decade. On the day that he shared celebrity gossip with Massachusetts officials, he was going through a painful personal bankruptcy in Los Angeles and had given up his mansion for a small rented house in a working-class neighborhood. The once-powerful Paramount executive had been reduced to making small-time videos – “Merry Christmas Babies’’ sold 23 copies – and relying on a loan from his mother in Worcester to make ends meet, court records show.
■ It’s not clear whether Kirkpatrick’s team even owns the studio project. Kirkpatrick’s former partners in the sprawling Plymouth plan – a group of prominent businessmen who hoped to use films to project their Christian faith – allege in a 2008 lawsuit in Los Angeles that he stole the proposal from them during a time that they were in financial distress. The group, called Good News Holdings, had set up a field office in Plymouth, but, when Good News ran out of money, Kirkpatrick split and formed a new studio company. Plymouth Rock officials deny wrongdoing, but, in materials for potential investors, they warn that they may face more lawsuits over ownership of the studio.
■ Kirkpatrick tried to buy out his Good News partners and finance the studio plan with money from an investor who had recently served four years in prison for embezzlement. Kirkpatrick said he did not know that George Thomas Bobbitt had confessed to stealing money from his clients. But Kirkpatrick helped keep Bobbitt’s identity a secret for some time – describing Bobbitt to his partners as a man who wanted to remain anonymous – making it difficult for others to discover Bobbitt’s criminal record. The deal fell through after Bobbitt was unable to produce the funds he told Kirkpatrick he had tucked away in the Bahamas.
■ Last week, Plymouth Rock abruptly severed ties with its latest would-be financial backer, Prosperity International LLC of Florida, after the Spotlight Team began raising questions about Prosperity’s claims in marketing materials about its track record and resources. The company, which had approved a $550 million construction loan to the studio developers, has falsely claimed credit for projects it has not been associated with. It is run out of a rented house near Disney World by a man who has been through bankruptcy himself.
Cancellation of the Prosperity loan leaves Plymouth Rock scrambling when it was already struggling to pay the bills. The Plymouth Rock team has raised just $11 million so far. It has spent $15 million, leaving it millions behind in payments to consultants who are trying to get the studio off the ground. Now, the long-awaited groundbreaking for the studio is in limbo as Plymouth Rock tries to line up new funding.
“We want to get the project done,’’ Kirkpatrick said in an interview in his brick-walled office in Plymouth’s Cordage Park last week. “Right now our word is ‘persist.’ ’’
The story of the Plymouth studio project has always been a study in optimistic public predictions while, behind the scenes, major players struggled to keep the project going, and sometimes fought among themselves. Since Kirkpatrick’s initial visit to Massachusetts in 2006, he has parted bitterly with at least five collaborators – from the Fitchburg businessman who introduced him to Massachusetts officials to the Good News team to best-selling novelist Anne Rice. Rice had planned to sell Kirkpatrick the rights to her novel “Christ the Lord,’’ which Good News executives were counting on to show that the new company was a force in movie-making. But Rice angrily withdrew when he didn’t pay her.
“David, you broke my heart,’’ she wrote in a scathing e-mail, obtained by the Spotlight Team.
The major constant through the three-year project has been Kirkpatrick himself, who rose from lowly story analyst to become the top movie executive at one of Hollywood’s leading institutions. The charismatic Kirkpatrick has been the face of the Plymouth studio from the start. But he makes little mention of his career’s steep decline since he was ousted from Paramount in 1991. Even some former business partners at Good News said they didn’t know Kirkpatrick had gone through bankruptcy. As far as they knew, Kirkpatrick was still a movie mogul who had accepted Jesus Christ as his savior and wanted to devote his career to creating family-friendly entertainment.
Kirkpatrick would be the first to admit that the movie business can get nasty. He estimated that he was typically sued three times for every movie he produced. And he argues that the twists and turns of the Plymouth Rock Studios project are not out of the ordinary. His bankruptcy, he said, was forced on him when the company that financed his independent movies reneged on commitments, leaving him to pay the bills.
The failure of Good News Holdings, he said, was typical of most start-up companies and not his fault. He insists he did tell the other Good News executives about his bankruptcy and tried to keep the company going even when it could no longer afford to pay him and other employees.
Moreover, Kirkpatrick’s current collaborators say his past conflicts are irrelevant to what they’re trying to achieve. The Plymouth Rock team, a mix of Hollywood veterans such as Earl Lestz, who led the refurbishing of Paramount’s studios, and Boston businesspeople such as former Boston Celtics executive Joseph G. DiLorenzo, say Kirkpatrick is the creative leader, but not involved in day-to-day decisions anymore. He’s just one of 27 employees.
DiLorenzo argues that the studio has only two real financial problems: a weak economy and the failure of the state and Governor Deval Patrick to come through with financial support. The state’s decision in June not to grant the studio $50 million for roads and other infrastructure was a particular blow, he said, because the studio had worked so hard to make its case. “We have not accepted their explanation’’ for the rejection, DiLorenzo said. Patrick administration officials said last week that the state still wants to aid Plymouth Rock – if the studio comes up with long-term funding first.
A rocky path
Griffin Mill is no role model. The lead character in the 1992 Hollywood send-up “The Player’’ is a heartless, scheming studio executive who crushes hopes and attempts to cover up his accidental killing of a writer. But David Kirkpatrick delights in saying how much Mill resembles him. They dress a lot alike, although he acknowledges that the actor who played Mill, Tim Robbins, is taller. In the past, Kirkpatrick even suggested legendary director Robert Altman had based the character on Kirkpatrick’s career at Paramount, though he now says Altman was just teasing.
Kirkpatrick has always portrayed his career in grand terms, claiming that, as a studio executive, he oversaw more than 200 motion pictures that won 163 Academy Awards and grossed more than $10 billion at the box office. It is a list which includes such mega-hits as “Top Gun’’ and Eddie Murphy’s “Beverly Hills Cop’’ (He was Murphy’s chief handler for years at Paramount). But the list also includes movies such as “Forrest Gump,’’ which was green-lighted by Kirkpatrick’s successor at Paramount and came out three years later. “Mr. Kirkpatrick had nothing to do with it,’’ said a producer who was involved in the project from its inception. Kirkpatrick says it’s fair to take credit because he bought the rights to the story on which the movie was based.
For years, he lived in a world of six-figure bonus payments that afforded him a mansion on North Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and a white Cadillac that Harrison Ford called his “Reverend Ike’’ car, Kirkpatrick once told The New York Times. For a decade, he said, he never saw the inside of a grocery store.
But Kirkpatrick’s star dimmed after he lost the Paramount job in a 1991 corporate reshuffling. He had some success as an independent producer, but he struggled to raise money and got into expensive legal skirmishes. The big blow came when the German company that financed his movies collapsed. Kirkpatrick won a $3.6 million judgment against the company in 2003, but they never paid him. He had to sell the mansion and, when that wasn’t enough, he filed for bankruptcy.
Some of the biggest losers in Kirkpatrick’s financial meltdown were the people he hired to write, edit, produce, and appear in his various failed projects. Bankruptcy and other court files detailing Kirkpatrick’s financial distress are thick, and the trail of unpaid creditors is long, telling the story of collaborators dazzled by Kirkpatrick’s big-studio pedigree and then left holding the bag.
“He’s been floating around the country playing off his big-studio image,’’ said veteran director and editor Scott Miller, adding that he was never paid the $35,000 or more Kirkpatrick owed him for directing a basketball video in 2004. “In 35 years, this is the only man who stiffed me and stiffed me in such a vulgar way.’’
Kirkpatrick recalls his bankruptcy as “a very tough and humbling experience,’’ but he believes it contained the seeds of a better life, a chance to see “what’s important and valuable.’’ In the midst of bankruptcy, Kirkpatrick began working with a group of Christian businessmen who were eager to offer an antidote to the shallow values of Hollywood. Kirkpatrick, who said he once considered the seminary, told his new collaborators that he wanted to share their vision of spiritually uplifting books, movies, and even cellphone messages. “Spiritainment’’ they called it.
On March 21, 2006, Kirkpatrick was professionally reborn. He became one of six cofounders of Good News Holdings, and he began planning his comeback from an office building on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Soon enough he was setting his sights on Plymouth.
This much is true: Good News Holdings did not let Christian humility get in the way of self-promotion.
In March 2007, under Kirkpatrick’s guidance, the company bought a seven-page advertisement starting on the cover of Daily Variety magazine announcing that they were on a quest to feed “audiences’ hunger for a higher vision.’’ A serene-looking Kirkpatrick promised that his company would soon begin filming “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt,’’ based on the best-selling book by Anne Rice, a born-again Christian who wrote “Interview with the Vampire.’’
Never mind that Good News had no way to pay for the $263,420 advertising package – those bills still haven’t been paid. Good News had less chance of finding the $40 million Kirkpatrick estimated that it would cost to film a movie about Christ on location in Israel. But the publicity of the Kirkpatrick-Rice alliance was valuable, boosting the company’s profile as it prepared to raise funds for its own movie studio in Massachusetts.
Rice withdrew from the “Christ the Lord’’ project a few weeks after the ads ran because, she said, Kirkpatrick repeatedly rebuffed her requests for payment and did not seem to be preparing for movie production. She fired off a scorching e-mail after he began writing her letters that, she felt, were an attempt to bully her.
“As I look back on it now, the entire enterprise on your part looks like a scheme,’’ Rice wrote in an e-mail in May 2007. “Did you have some idea that you could draw me deeper and deeper into the project and then make a demand on me for funds?’’ Kirkpatrick said that the split with Rice was painful, that he eventually attempted to pay her, but too late. Rice, reached by e-mail, declined to comment.
The spat with Rice reflected deepening money problems. By late summer 2007, Good News faced 10 lawsuits from creditors and employees who said they had not been paid. Yet, even as Good News withered, planning for their biggest project – the Massachusetts movie studio – ramped up. The team scouted locations by helicopter, rented office space in a renovated factory in North Plymouth, and held a lavish party where local residents brainstormed ideas for the studio. At least one key Good News executive, CEO Christopher Chisholm, began planning to relocate his family from California to oversee the project.
At the same time, Kirkpatrick started to break away from his original partners in the studio project.
First, Kirkpatrick split from the Massachusetts businessman who had introduced him to state officials, saying Good News could handle the job without him. Mark Panagiotes of Fitchburg, who initially proposed the Massachusetts studio under the name “Bay State Studios,’’ hired attorney R. Robert Popeo to take legal action over being squeezed out. Panagiotes agreed to a financial settlement that neither side can discuss because of a confidentiality agreement.
Next, Kirkpatrick started to pull away from the financially troubled Good News. He got a seemingly perfect opportunity in October 2007 when a man approached Kirkpatrick after hearing a speech he gave at televangelist Pat Robertson’s Regent University in Virginia. George Thomas Bobbitt, whose wife was a film student who dreamed of owning her own studio, told him that God had called him to invest $200 million in Kirkpatrick’s vision.
Bobbitt, a man in his 50s who lived in campus housing and drove an old car, seemed an unlikely major investor, but Kirkpatrick and a fellow Good News founder wasted little time flying Bobbitt to Plymouth for him to learn more about the studio, which then was called “Project Julia.’’ Bobbitt eventually agreed to buy Good News Holdings for $14.4 million and put up many millions more for the studio from bank accounts he said he had in the Bahamas.
It turned out that Bobbitt was a former tax and investment adviser in Kentucky who went to prison in 1998 after pleading guilty to 13 counts of misappropriating at least $600,000 of his investors’ funds.
But the other officials at Good News Holdings did not know immediately that they were being asked to sell out to an embezzler. Kirkpatrick told them the buyer wanted to remain anonymous, and he helped set up a Delaware corporation – called “Whitney Investment,’’ after Bobbitt’s wife – so that Bobbitt could buy Good News without revealing his name. Eventually, Kirkpatrick did tell the Good News officials that the buyer was Bobbitt. Good News officials declined to comment publicly because the matter is the subject of an ongoing legal fight.
Kirkpatrick now says he did not know about Bobbitt’s criminal record. “It was very, very difficult to get true information from this man because he was very secretive,’’ Kirkpatrick explained. Kirkpatrick said the other officials at Good News, not him, should have done a background check on Bobbitt. “Due diligence was not appropriately done,’’ Kirkpatrick said, and, as a result, Good News agreed to sell to a felon whose money was suspect.
But Bobbitt’s wife said she told Kirkpatrick as well as his close ally at Good News, Thomas Black, that her husband had a criminal record and that she did not know whether the supposed fortune in the Bahamas was real or legally acquired. Whitney Wright, who has filed for divorce from Bobbitt, even sent Kirkpatrick a screenplay she had written about Bobbitt’s life, from his service in Vietnam to his imprisonment for what she believed were trumped up charges.
Kirkpatrick’s response to the script, called “Target Man,’’ was effusive and appeared to raise no questions about his would-be investor. “What a powerful piece ‘Target Man’ could be to transform lives,’’ Kirkpatrick wrote to Wright.
Today, Kirkpatrick acknowledges reading the screenplay, but denies that Wright told him about her husband’s criminal record. The sale fell apart because Bobbitt failed to produce the funds he claimed to have. But Kirkpatrick found another way to break free of Good News. He incorporated a new Plymouth movie studio company at the Massachusetts secretary of state’s office along with a new partner, Joseph DiLorenzo, and Good News cofounder Black. When Good News expired, leaving people unemployed, Kirkpatrick announced that a new company was in charge and that he had split with his former partners. He changed the project’s name from “Project Julia’’ to Plymouth Rock Studios and said it would have no religious connections.
Today, Kirkpatrick and DiLorenzo say they’ve done nothing wrong. Kirkpatrick contends that Good News essentially laid him off when they stopped paying his salary in early 2007, freeing him to pursue separate business interests.
“Good News Holdings had nothing to do with Project Julia,’’ said Kirkpatrick.
However, in a Los Angeles courtroom, the major investor in Good News Holdings takes a dim view of Kirkpatrick’s behavior. Brazilian millionaire Washington Cinel argues that Kirkpatrick stole the studio project by first pressing Good News to sell out to a felon, and, when that fell through, spinning off the studio to a separate company.
Kirkpatrick called the Cinel lawsuit a “rat’s nest’’ of charges and countercharges among former owners of Good News and insists that no one stole anything. In any event, he said, Cinel only wants back the $2.25 million he invested. Plymouth Rock financial documents, however, warn potential investors that more Good News officials may sue over the “misappropriation of a corporate opportunity.’’ It’s a legal phrase, alleging theft of the studio idea.
When Plymouth’s Town Meeting convened in October 2008 to pass judgment on Plymouth Rock Studios executives’ grand proposal to bring to town what they called “Hollywood East,’’ the results of the vote were a foregone conclusion. But the studio didn’t skimp on pageantry.
“For us at Plymouth Rock Studios this is all about our kids,’’ declared Kirkpatrick. “There is nothing more extraordinary than the wonder of making stories, making pictures.’’
The lights went down and the video rolled. TV personality Leeza Gibbons smiled on the people of Plymouth, reminding them, “You all are so fortunate that you have right in your midst . . . a brand-new Hollywood.’’
Then came a brief review of the plan and a montage of classic film scenes set to soaring music, ending with Judy Garland and her companions skipping down the Yellow Brick Road. Soon, it was time for Plymouth’s town meeting members to debate tax breaks and re-zoning a golf course for 2 million square feet of sound stages, office space, retail businesses, housing, and a hotel.
Except there was no debate. Members voted to cut off discussion before it started, and hoots and applause filled the hall. Although much of Plymouth is eager for all that Plymouth Rock Studios has promised, a quiet minority believes town officials have been too star struck to question the background of Plymouth Rock Studios’ principals, their financing, and any risks the development might bring.
“A lot of their support has been this blind, optimistic, ‘Yes, it will be a wonderful thing – we need jobs, we need jobs, we need jobs, and who are you to stand in the way of this?’ ’’ said Bill Abbott, an attorney who was among only three dissenting votes on the studio at Town Meeting.
Studio officials said they had tirelessly attended more than 400 meetings in Plymouth to address everyone’s concerns, and they pointed to the nearly unanimous approvals they have received from various town bodies, including landslide support in a nonbinding referendum last year.
“Sometimes [development is] not pretty,’’ said Kevin O’Reilly, studio spokesman. “We were able to come to an end result that everybody was happy about.’’
Not everybody. Some say the studio has not lived up to its promises. For example, last year, studio officials hailed their creation of Rock CGI, a computer graphics company that they projected would employ 200 graphic artists by the end of 2008, at annual salaries between $75,000 and $250,000. Now, the officials say they dropped Rock CGI from their plans because it would have distracted from building the studio.
Meanwhile, the studio’s supporters have been treated to a taste of Hollywood glitz, while dissenters have felt the occasional sharp elbow. When two Planning Board members wrote a memo saying the town was rushing to wrap up negotiations prematurely under “the crushing schedule’’ imposed by the studio, Kirkpatrick railed against the authors for a “preconceived bias that is disturbing.’’ Town Meeting soon followed his cue and voted to reduce the Planning Board’s ability to oversee the project.
When two Plymouth residents circulated material about Kirkpatrick’s background and the troubles at Good News Holdings, they received letters from the project’s lawyers, accusing them of “libelous statements.’’ When a screenwriter who said Kirkpatrick owed him $36,000 wrote an article for Boston Magazine, Good News Holdings’ lawyers threatened legal action, saying he was violating his nondisclosure agreement. The article never ran.
In June, Plymouth attorney Jerry Benezra sent a package about Kirkpatrick’s bankruptcy and legal troubles to the state agency considering a grant for the project. Not long after, Benezra received an anonymous letter with an ominous, cryptic message. “Jerry,’’ it read, “we smell you.’’
It included a photocopy of an e-mail between state officials regarding Benezra’s submission. Somehow, within five days of that e-mail being sent, it wound up in the package sent anonymously. Both the studio and state officials say they don’t know how it came to be in outsiders’ hands.
Meanwhile, the studio has shown its appreciation for its biggest backers. Dick Quintal, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, says he sees paving the way for the studio as his legacy.
Quintal accompanied studio CEO Earl Lestz earlier this year to the Producers Guild of America annual awards in Hollywood. Quintal, who said he paid his own way, eagerly shared snapshots of fountains and backlots at Paramount, where Lestz once oversaw the physical plant.
“They’ve got a track record,’’ he said. “I can pretty much tell somebody the minute I meet them if they’re real.’’
Quintal has known for some time about Kirkpatrick’s bankruptcy and several of the lawsuits against him. And he accepted Kirkpatrick’s explanations.
“I didn’t pay no attention to that,’’ he said. “That’s none of my business.’’
If town officials did little to take the true measure of the man behind the studio, Kirkpatrick’s lieutenants were hardly rigorous as they examined the track record of its latest would-be financier.
Just weeks after the studio popped champagne corks in late September to celebrate a $550 million construction loan from Prosperity International LLC of Orlando, Fla., the deal went bust. It was an embarrassing and potentially crippling collapse that even a modest amount of corporate diligence may have averted.
The Spotlight Team’s investigation found that Prosperity principal Michael F. Burgess has a record of unmet promises and false or misleading claims. The warning signs for potential customers were ample. Consider:
■ Burgess claims his firm helped fund $117 million for the first phase of Orange County National Golf’s resort complex in Florida. That’s false, according to Bruce Gerlander, the golf center’s general manager. “They have certainly not been involved in any development or funding here,’’ Gerlander said. After the Globe’s inquiries three weeks ago, Burgess promised to remove the claim from his website. As of yesterday, he hadn’t.
■ On his website, Burgess claims his company helped finance the renovation of a historic hotel in Nashville. The Miami-based group that finished that hotel’s renovation in 2007 said it had never heard of Prosperity International. Turns out the project listed as Prosperity’s work was done by a separate company for which Burgess worked in 2003 – a year before Prosperity was formed.
■ When Prosperity emerged last year as the chief financial supporter for a plan to redevelop a former sports arena in Memphis, civic officials there did something Plymouth Rock Studios did not. They hired a former FBI agent to do a background check on Prosperity. And then briskly walked away.
“They couldn’t give us a banker that we could follow up with, the name of a lawyer, the name of a corporation that they’ve done work with,’’ said Scott Ledbetter, chairman of a Memphis committee formed to redevelop the 20,000-seat Pyramid Arena.
Before his deal with the studio crumbled, the Globe asked Burgess to identify a single successful Prosperity project in the United States. He cited Ravallo Resort in Orlando, which, according to Prosperity, “is a 5-star resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.’’
On Prosperity’s Web pages, Ravallo exists as a sleek, luxury destination of palm trees and hotel towers. In fact, the Ravallo Resort is a vacant lot, as its developer waits for Burgess to come through with the construction loan he promised would arrive in June and multiple times since.
Timothy J. Hadley, the studio’s senior vice president for legal affairs, told the Globe in early November that the studio had fully vetted Prosperity’s background, but the corporate scouring did not include examining Ravallo, Prosperity’s most prominent domestic project.
Still, Hadley said, the studio was aware of some of Burgess’s background, including the personal bankruptcy he declared in 1995 and the imprisonment this year of his former business partners – a father-son team who were Burgess’s associates in a firm separate from Prosperity. They were sentenced in May for an elaborate bank fraud scheme as representatives of yet another firm with which Burgess was not associated.
Since the studio severed ties with Prosperity last week, Burgess has not responded to requests for comment. In an earlier interview with the Globe about his track record, however, he was unapologetic. “Always people are trying to damn everything people do that has success all over it,’’ Burgess said. He promised that he would deliver for Plymouth Rock.
The day after the studio concluded that he couldn’t – leaving the project in a hard place – Kirkpatrick seemed to have lost a bit of his Hollywood sparkle. He tapped out we-shall-survive e-mails to studio supporters. He politely greeted visitors to his austere, bright office in Cordage Park. And he serenely sought to explain away the three-year trail of missteps and missed deadlines left by his plan to bring movie magic to Massachusetts.
“It’s certainly a bump in the road,’’ Kirkpatrick said about the Prosperity debacle.
He said he is not a man without regrets. He mourned the loss of his friendship with a literary luminary like Anne Rice. He said he hoped the legal dispute surrounding his project can move toward mediation and settlement.
“It’s really brutal and it’s really sad,’’ the once and would-be movie maker said.
And then Kirkpatrick returned his attention to the most critical remaining task. He’s trying once again to find the money to build his studio.
“We’re going to try to persist and drive through this,’’ he said. “We do have some alternatives that we’re looking at right now. And we are hopeful and optimistic that those might emerge.’’
Globe correspondent Kathryn Harris contributed to this report from Southern California.