Interview with Mary Mazzio

Mary Mazzio is an award-winning independent filmmaker, Olympic rower, and former law firm partner with Brown Rudnick. She received her undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke College, a law degree from Georgetown University, and studied film production at Boston University. Her company, 50 Eggs, LLC, has produced five independent films shown across the United States on television, in classrooms, and in theatres. We met with Ms. Mazzio outside of Boston, Massachusetts, to explore her thoughts on entrepreneurship and the challenges and excitement of making documentaries.

Kaizen: You’ve been a lawyer, an Olympic rower, and now a documentary filmmaker. When you were young, did you have any idea your adult life would be so varied?

Mazzio: Not at all. Although as a kid I remember always having a sort of boundless enthusiasm for whatever it was that I was doing. So I always thought that good things would happen in the end but I had no idea.

Kaizen: Where were you born and raised?

Mazzio: I was born in Newton-Wellesley Hospital, actually. I grew up in Needham, Massachusetts outside of Boston.

Kaizen: Where did you attend college?

Mazzio: I went to Mount Holyoke College, which is in western Massachusetts.

Kaizen: How did you choose that college?

Mazzio: I would say that they chose me. At that point I was putting myself through law school and college, so they offered me a very robust opportunity to attend. I have to say that I originally went kicking and screaming because it was a women’s college. ‘What?’ I said to my mother. She said ‘I really think you should consider it because you have leadership ability’ or some such thing. I didn’t know what that meant, and I said, ‘I don’t know if I want to go.’ And she said, ‘Are you kidding me? It’s a Seven Sisters school, and they have made it possible for you to go to a really good school.’

So I went out there really dragging my heels and I loved it! I thrived in such a way and I learned things that you can only learn at a women’s college. And so for me it was empowering. It made me who I am today. And I feel very indebted to the college because of that.

Kaizen: In what ways was a women’s college especially valuable to you?

Mazzio: I think now, in fact more than ever, young women, if they have an opportunity to spend two years, four years—whether it’s an all girl’s high school, a women’s college—I think it’s indispensable in terms of learning what you’re capable of and hearing your own voice. When you go to a coed high school, as I did (there were five hundred kids in my class), you don’t realize you have it, but there is implicit pressure in terms of ‘Oh, I can’t look too smart. Oh, if I take advanced calculus I’m a geek.’ If you go to Mount Holyoke, all the voices around you are those of women. Everything around you—you see women role models. And you see people stop wearing makeup. Everyone walks around in sweats. You’re free to be who you really are without the bullshit, without the trappings. For me that was so freeing.

And it was interesting coming out of Mount Holyoke, and it was funny, because I would be in these women’s studies courses and some of the language would be: ‘Patriarchy!’ And I’m like, ‘Why do you think that?’ And I remember being booed in a class. I was booed in a class! But I said, ‘You’ve got to give me the logic. How did this happen? Why is it women don’t have power? And it doesn’t mean it’s the patriarchy. What are the real elements at play?’ I loved it! It was intellectually challenging.

It was such a stark contrast when I went to Georgetown Law School. I walked into my law school class thinking it’s going to be just like Mount Holyoke. And (this is like fifty percent women in my class) the number of women being called on, the number of women raising their hands, was next to nothing. I remember being in a class where the professor referred to men as ‘Mr. Hicks.’ And they referred to the women as ‘Hey you.’ So that was really eye opening.

I would sit in the back. And I remember one day, the professor called on me, which is a terrifying experience for first year law students. But I think I had the confidence, because I was used to my own voice for four years, to respond.  Only I was completely unprepared for the lesson plan and the text, and he said something like ‘What do you think about blah, blah, about this case?’ And I said: ‘Well,’ (you know, projecting the air of authority even though you don’t know what the hell you’re saying). He asked me a question about this old famous case of a fox hunter, and who had the right to this fox. Was it the hunting party or the poacher who ran and grabbed the fox after it was shot? The answer depending upon the concept of ownership. And I said: ‘Well, the hunter, his evidence of ownership was his regalia’ and I used the word ‘Regalia’ and the class burst out laughing because I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. And I remember a man in my class came up to me and said ‘I never thought a woman would say something funny in front of four hundred people.’ And I was like, ‘Really? Isn’t that interesting?” That was so enlightening for me.

And then to go into law (I was a lawyer early on in my career) which was largely a male domain and today it’s still the domain of a single wage earner because of the long intense hours (at least at big law firms). And I found I was able to navigate those waters because I had a heightened sense of awareness of the limitations that had been imposed on women. I could start to figure out ways to navigate the system and, I would say, in an enlightened and informed way as opposed to a clueless way.

Kaizen: Plus you also had the confidence that came from being in an environment that enabled you to be who you were and to develop those skills.

Mazzio: Right. Exactly. And being an athlete. That second piece of confidence was equally as critical. You know, when the chips are down and you make it through a race, I think that gives you a sort of innate confidence. And then when you are an athlete, where I was able to achieve a decent caliber, then when you’re in the world of men, you can fit in better: ‘Okay, she can spit, she can swear, we get her.’

Oftentimes male colleagues meeting me would say ‘Oh! You went to the Olympics? I was a high school high jumper.’ ‘Yeah?’ I remember thinking ‘And?’ And then the light went off. We had a connection that made them more comfortable with me. But I do remember that my female colleagues weren’t accorded that same level of ‘Okay, we get you. I’m relaxed around you. You’re a woman. I don’t know what makes you tick. You’re not smiling. You’re not funny.’ Or whatever the elements are at play, I found it much easier to navigate those waters with both of those experiences.

Kaizen: Going back to your undergraduate years, you were involved in athletics then. Which sports?

Mazzio: Yeah, but I was bad. I was in rowing.

Kaizen: Was that something you started at Mount Holyoke?

Mazzio: I did. I was cut from almost every team in high school, so I was not known as an athlete. I wanted to be an athlete because I knew I had something inside. I had no eye/hand coordination, so I was the last one picked for teams; I was constantly referred to in my family as ‘The cellist’ and I’m like ‘Just because you’re the only kid who plays the cello, that’s not that special. And my sister Liz was an extraordinary athlete. She could, you know, beat me around the block; she could kick my ass in tennis, she was really a star. And she was younger. So there was a little bit of sibling rivalry.

So when I went to college, this man at Mount Holyoke came up to me and said, ‘You’re tall and you’ve got big legs.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah? So?’ And he said, ‘I’m the rowing coach. Can you come down to the river tomorrow?’ So I show up with a hundred and fifty other women. Right, like there’s only four hundred in my class. One hundred and fifty freshman women show up and he has us do a fitness run. And I was toast. I’m so last it’s ridiculous. I’ll never forget that he said, ‘We don’t think we need you.’ And I said, ‘Let me come just one more day. Please let me try.’ And I stuck with it. And because most of the people trying out hated getting up at 6 a.m. for practice, almost everyone quit, and I became an athlete out of default.

Then once I actually started to train it was clear that I had some natural strength and natural ability even though it wasn’t eye/hand. You know, it was a perfect sport for me. But I was on very thin ice when I first started.

Kaizen: What led you to choose philosophy and political science as your undergraduate majors?

Mazzio: Philosophy because I was getting such good grades. And I thought that if I were just a philosophy major that would be a challenging degree, so I added politics. Mount Holyoke—it’s really a special place. As an upperclassman, you have class with your professors and drinking tea back at a beautiful Victorian dorm discussing issues in a heated debate. And it’s a very personal: ‘So what do you think of the Cold War?’ And ‘Why did this happen?’ I loved it. I loved all aspects of it. I loved the debate piece around it. And so that’s why I doubled majored.

Kaizen: At this point what did you think your career path would likely be? Did you have thoughts in that direction?

Mazzio: I had no clue.

Kaizen: You graduated and then …

Mazzio: I did in fact. Speaking of that, we had some recruiters on campus. The recruiters were Proctor & Gamble and accounting firms. And I thought, ‘Well, in accounting they send you to business school, so why not check this out.’ So I came out and I had an offer from Coopers & Lybrand (Everyone was doing bank training programs). ‘Maybe I want to do investment banking. Well, I kind of still want to row’). I didn’t know if I wanted to be an investment banker. And I remember flying out to Proctor & Gamble

Kaizen: Cincinnati?

Mazzio: Cincinnati. And it was a special program for undergrads because typically they only hired business school grads and they had this special program for undergrads. And I went out there and I noticed that everyone was brilliant. Proctor & Gamble was hiring the best and brightest, but people who were far more brilliant than I was and probably a little less social than I was.

So I remember coming back (Oh, I was such a jerk). The recruiter called me up and said ‘So what do you think about Proctor & Gamble?’ and I said ‘Well, I’m a little concerned about my social life in Cincinnati!’ Oh my god! Only a jackass would say something like that! She said ‘We’re going to fly you back out again.’ They flew me back out and she said ‘We’re going to show you the Cincinnati night life with our P&G folks.’ Okay, well, that was a disaster. So I went to this party, and again everyone is brilliant, and I’m sort of thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t know that I really belong here. I am much more monosyllabic than these people.’ But during that trip, I had the opportunity to meet the CFO. I am waiting outside his office and the door flies open (and not by a human), it’s very regal. He shows me the boardroom and says: ‘Mary, I sit here, and this is where I’d expect you to sit.’ And of course I was ready to take the offer. And then all my new P&G friends that I had met said ‘What? You met the CFO? ‘We’ve never met him.’ And I thought I would be able to rub shoulders with him in the lunch room if I took the job! So I said to the recruiter (upon receipt of this disappointing news that I would not be under the personal wing of the CFO), ‘I’m just not certain enough, and I want to keep rowing. So I want to extend this decision.’ And I started thinking: why not law school? My mother was instrumental once again and she said, ‘If you go to law school as a woman, people will assume you’re smart. Automatically. You will not have to prove yourself.’ And, once again, I found that my mother was right. There are a lot of stupid lawyers, but if you say you’re a lawyer, people go ‘Oh,’ and that “oh” means, we’d better watch our step.

Kaizen: You received your J.D. from Georgetown University in 1987. How did you choose Georgetown as a law school?

Mazzio: They chose me. I remember struggling between the University of Chicago, where I had gotten in by the skin of my teeth, and I was choosing between Chicago and Georgetown. Again, I was putting myself through law school. I called up the Dean of Admissions and I said, ‘Can I get a bigger package?’ And I started negotiating with both schools to get a big scholarship package. That being said, it was a very difficult decision. But I also thought, ‘In Chicago I’m not going to be able to row. I still want to row. I still want to do it.’ So I off I went to D.C.

Kaizen: And rowing is a big part of Georgetown.

Mazzio: Right.

Kaizen: After receiving your law degree, you worked for the Boston-based law firm Brown Rudnick. Did you have a particular area of expertise?

Mazzio: Well, at the time, I had taken a year off from law school on a scholarship to spend a year in France. And I went to a French law school. I was thinking, ‘Oh, I might love to do International Law.’ Then, right after law school, I jumped again on the gravy train and spent, a year in Korea with the Luce Foundation. (It’s like the Fulbright Program, only it’s focused on Asia). So I spent a year in Korea working for a law firm and coaching the Olympic development team in various things. And again, I thought I would really love to do International Law. But I had been a summer associate at Brown Rudnick and there was no international law group. I figured that I have the personality of a litigator. I’d love to litigate; I’d love to be in the court room. But if you’re a litigator, you can’t have a secret passion like rowing. I needed a much more stable—I don’t want to say quiet or boring—practice, but I needed something where I could in fact be able to train. And so the biggest practice at the firm was real estate and it was transactional. And I thought ‘Sure I’ll join the real estate department.’ I couldn’t understand the jargon – I couldn’t understand anything they were saying for about two years.

Kaizen: How old were you at this point?

Mazzio: I graduated from college when I was twenty-one. So that’s probably about twenty-five, because I had taken a year off. Actually two years off, so I must have been twenty-six.

Kaizen: Okay. And this is 1987?

Mazzio: I started practicing in 1988, after my year in Korea.

Kaizen: In law the standard career path is to go for partner. How long did it take for you to make partner?

Mazzio: I believe it was an eight year trajectory.

Kaizen: So that would then put you then in your early/mid thirties?

Mazzio: Yes, I think I was thirty-one. Thirty-one, thirty-two, something like that. Maybe thirty-three because I took a year off for the Olympics. I think I was thirty-three. Yes.

Kaizen: About the Olympic experience and the lead-up to that. At what point did you have the talent and the seriousness enough to set the Olympics as an aspiration?

Mazzio: I don’t know that I ever had the talent.

Kaizen: Surely you did.

Mazzio: Yes, but there were women, certainly physiologically, who were six-two, one hundred eighty-five pounds. These women were chiseled from the gods. These are the women I was competing against. I knew that I had a shot, but I was constantly being cut from the national team. Constantly. And I started training hard in Boston in 1990—two years before the Olympic Games. I’m among the last people cut.

So I went through a very difficult decision tree. I was a lawyer. But I wasn’t a great lawyer because I was spending this time training. I was a good rower. But I wasn’t a great rower, right? So I said, ‘I’m going to quit the sport because I’m not great at either.’

I had an encounter with a woman who was in my first film. She sat me down after I got cut and I said, ‘This is it.’ And she said, ‘What are you talking about?’ She said, ‘You’re unbelievably talented as an athlete.’ I said, ‘Do you really think so?’ I really was not sure because I had these fits of brilliance and then plenty of mediocrity. I was not consistent at all. Partially to do with my training plan, partially to do with the fact I would still go to parties. I was serious, but just barely serious. And she said—and this is something that had a profound effect on my life—she said, ‘You make excuses when you lose. What is up with that?’ And I was like, ‘What? Oh my god. You’re right. I make excuses all the time.’

You hear kids do it: ‘We got wronged! The ref was jacking us!’ And that is exactly how we’re all brought up. Of course I didn’t lose because of my own mistakes. I lost because the water was rough. Or because my competitor—she’s eight hundred pounds. Chris said, ‘You make excuses all the time.’ And I was like, ‘You’re right, I do. I make excuses all the time. I can’t do that anymore. You can’t really succeed if you do that.’ I remember looking at her and saying ‘You’re absolutely right.’ And she said, ‘Now we‘re going to suit up and we’re going to do bench presses, we’re going to do squats. And then we’re going to run two sets of stadiums at Harvard. And then we’re going to throw up and then we’ll go out to eat.’ And I was like, ‘Perfect’.

Kaizen: And what’s her name?

Mazzio: Chris Ernst. She had been a two-time Olympian. And a two-time Olympian this tall. I mean she was spitting fire. From that day on I completely changed how I approach things, and slowly developed a singularity of focus. I went to a sports psychologist because I was a very distractible person. Somebody would walk by my office and I’d always look up: ‘Cookies? Who’s got pizza?’ I was a very easily-distracted person. So that really changed my life.

Kaizen: This is 1991? Leading up to the Olympics in Barcelona.

Mazzio: Exactly. Stopped going to parties. Stopped drinking with the men. Started eating right. I started working with an East German coach. He said, ‘You’re such a fighter but you have such a crappy aerobic base. How did this happen? Here’s what you need to do. You’re going to have bungee cords around your boat. You’re going to be out on the water X times a day.’ And I said, ‘I’m ready. I’m going to do this.’

It was painful because as an athlete he was making me do all the stuff that I never did. All the stuff that you hate to do as an athlete. That’s what you you’ve got to be doing to get better—do the stuff you hate to do. And that’s what I did. So I went from being ranked like thirteenth in the country, to like third or fourth. And they take seven scullers to the Olympics. So there you go.

Kaizen: What was the Olympic experience like?

Mazzio: Really hard. Really stressful. Incredibly rewarding for a kid who was never perceived to be an athlete. Right? That I’ve got that—my little Olympic sticker, and my little Olympic bag, tucked away in my closet. That says I really was an athlete. But honestly, making the Olympic team, that’s not what really mattered. What really mattered was that I learned how to focus and concentrate. And that has just made me a better person.

Kaizen: After the Olympics, you went back to law practice, after your sabbatical so to speak? Did you then have ambitions toward doing documentary film?

Mazzio: No.

Kaizen: Not yet?

Mazzio: I had ambitions to not do a desk job. I had ambitions to, it sounds so cliché, but to change the world in ways I thought I could have an impact. And I looked out there and I’d go to the movies and watch television and I’d see women in media, and I didn’t know anybody like those women. Right? I’d see tall, leggy, gorgeous blondes. I didn’t see women who were opinionated and obnoxious. I didn’t see women that were funny, you know? I was seeing a two-dimensional picture of women. I had gone to Mount Holyoke so I was sensitized to all this. And I said, ‘I’m going to have a baby daughter. I’ve got to do something.’ And I didn’t know what that would be.

The other thing at that time was that I had benefited through my career from the largesse of so many people who supported me. Whether it was Mount Holyoke, with its financial support or others, all the way through my life, I had been lifted up by others. So when people say, ‘Oh, you’ve achieved so much.’ No, no, no. I was able to have a web of friends and support that lifted me up. And working as a lawyer, I was living a life, by the way, that I loved. It was awesome. It was yuppified. I’d go down to One Financial Center [in Boston]. Toot! Toot! The guys in the garage always saved a space for me. But I became completely insulated from the real world. So I felt like I had an obligation to give back in whatever way that might be. So I actually seriously considered politics. It was politics or film because I felt that both were two mediums where you could really impact others.

Kaizen: Why film in particular?

Mazzio: Because I had skeletons in my closet!

Kaizen: And they are going to stay in the closet?

Mazzio: Of course! Well no, except that, looking back now, they were so minor compared to some of these jokers in Washington. I was practically a choir girl. But I was afraid, you know. Think of the intrusion on your private life? It’s like, ‘Oh no, they’re going to find out about the time I did X.’ Right? Because I loved going to parties in college. I was a normal red-blooded American girl in college. So I thought, ‘I don’t know that I’m cut out to be a political figure. Certainly not with young children.’

Kaizen: This is a drastic change, though, going from law school to film school.

Mazzio: Well no, because I went to film school on the sly. Nobody knew. And my husband was so great. When I was going to quit my job and go full time to film school, he said ‘You’re X years away from being a partner at this law firm.’ And I’m like ‘That’s forever! I just want to go to film school full-time,’ which really would have been foolish. That’s my personality type. And I’m so glad that I listened to him because in fact I did become a partner. When you become a partner, people just assume (a) you didn’t washout and (b) you weren’t asked to leave so you must be a decent lawyer. In fact, my first investors in my first film, A Hero for Daisy, were either clients or friends of clients. It gave me an opportunity, again, to build another network, to help support my goals and my objectives. And that’s what really made it possible.

So instead, I went to film school part-time. I could hustle down to Boston University and nobody would know. My secretary would say, ‘Mary’s in a meeting.’ I didn’t want anybody to know because I didn’t know if I’d be successful or not.

Kaizen: Okay. So you’re close to partner. You’re doing film school on the side. In your film school experience, looking back, what was valuable or useful there?

Mazzio: I’d say understanding the medium. What film school will not do is teach you how to tell a story. Film school will not teach you how to seek access to capital. Film school will not teach you how to be entrepreneurial. You have to be all three of those things as a filmmaker.

But it taught me that I could really be comfortable around the jargon. Around the camera. What is color temperature? How do you balance for color temperature? What are the issues that go into the actual craft? So I found that particularly valuable.

I had one course that I found immensely valuable, which is how you tell the story. You go back to the greats: you go back to Shakespeare; you go back to Socrates; you back to Euripides. Everybody rips each other off through the centuries. Shakespeare told his stories three different ways within a single play. That’s also a rule of thumb when you’re trying a case: you have to say the same thing three different ways to a jury. It’s universal in many ways. So I found that going back and reading the classics was immensely helpful and inspirational. That I could, in my own way, add something to all these levels of greatness. Maybe they could inform me and help me in my work.

Kaizen: About the business side of film and being entrepreneurial. You were aware you had to be thinking about these things, but how were you thinking about them at the time?

Mazzio: I thought about them in a panic with my first film. Once my first film was completed, I had the weight of the world on me because I had investors. We had no distribution, and I had talked people into working for free that were so accomplished in their fields. I had again, once again, been the beneficiary of the support of others. There was a woman at Arnold Worldwide and her name was Margie Sullivan. She ran all of production for the firm, which meant that she gave out work for all of the Gillette ads, all of the Volkswagen ads, so she had relationships all over the city. I didn’t know her. I went in to see her and said, ‘I have this idea.’ She picks up the phone and she pulled in her edit facility, she pulled in her colorist, her sound facilities. She said ‘You’re going to work on Mary’s film and you’re not going to charge her a dime.’ Nuts right? She became my guardian angel. Although the film was still incredibly expensive because the medium is so prohibitive. But I dove into it naïvely and it became apparent to me that I had the weight of the world on me, it felt at the time. I had investors’ capital; I had people’s sweat equity and time; and, damn it, I’d better do something. We had one dripping wet 16 mm film print that we were trying to rush to have a screening at the Head of the Charles [Regatta]. And my first film, of course, was about Chris Ernst, this great rower, and I’m like ‘Okay, how do I get people there?’ I’d gotten corporate sponsorship. Dan Dillon, the president of Welch’s, had seen the film and he had a thirteen-year-old daughter at the time. And Jim Davis [New Balance Athletic Shoe, Inc. (NBAS)] president of New Balance had seen the film and he had daughters. And they both said ‘Mary, here’s a check. We’re going to support your work.’ But I still didn’t have distribution. So I felt that I really needed to do something. I’m writing my own press releases, I’m hustling reporters—I’m doing everything I can think of. And a reporter from The Boston Globe calls and she says, ‘I hear you’re going to have a screening and how about we meet for coffee?’ And that’s what started it.

Kaizen: What’s the theme of A Hero for Daisy and its focus on the Chris Ernst story?

Mazzio: It was really about Chris Ernst and these really remarkable women from Yale University in the 1970s. Yale had gone coed in the early 1970s; and like many other male universities converting, Yale was completely unprepared for women. So the concept of a rowing team. You put the women on a bus and you say ‘Okay, you can row, you can use the equipment but we don’t have any facilities for you. You’re going to wait on an unheated bus after you have trained in the rain or the snow. Every man is going to shower and then you’re going to go back to campus. Twenty minutes back to campus. And, by the way, you’re not allowed to use the shower, because it’s a men’s shower. Even after the men have showered you can’t use the shower because oh, the men will be late getting to dinner.’

So these women were getting sick, getting pneumonia, and two of them were about to go on to the 1976 Olympic Games. The men were losing all their races. It could not have been more of a stark comparison. These women tried diplomatically for a couple of years to rectify the situation. But the wheels of change were grinding slowly at Yale. So they decided, ‘You know, people need to understand what we’re going through.’

So nineteen members—only one person didn’t participate—they went down to the Athletic Director’s Office. And the Athletic Director went, ‘Oh, my god! Nineteen women.’ They dropped trou and they had Title IX in blue marker on their chests and backs. Naked. And Chris Ernst read this statement which began with, ‘These are the bodies which Yale is exploiting on a day like today.’ There was a stringer for The New York Times.

That story, it was in 1976, went around the planet. It was in The Paris Tribune, and Yale alumni started writing in: ‘Get those women a shower! Get clothes back on those women!’ Several weeks later the women had their showers. Now, in point of fact, it turns out that Yale was trying to get some permitting for a second trailer—and they were so worried that this public act would ruin everything, they wouldn’t get their permitting. Again, why they couldn’t use the men’s shower, who knows? But within two weeks women had their shower.

It was a wonderful introduction, frankly, to the country: what did Title IX mean? Equal accessibility for women, whether it’s on the playing field, whether it’s scholarships, whether it’s in the lab, nobody really knew what it meant. And this battle for what that meant really played out on athletic fields. So when other athletic directors picked up The New York Times: ‘Oh boy. We had better look at our own facilities.’

So Chris told me this story, she was the captain at Yale. She was the ringleader. And she was a good friend of mine. I laughed, ‘You what?!?’ Then I said to myself, ‘I’m an elite rower. I went to a women’s college. I was about ten or whatever at the time when this happened. How did I miss this? How did I miss this piece of history?’ And her story wouldn’t leave me. And I was like, ‘I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to tell this story.’

Kaizen: When did you say you were going to do it? What year was that?

Mazzio: I had made a short film for a film class about her. And the class was like ‘Wow! This is a story.’ For six months I was like, ‘I need to do a film, I need to do a thesis film.’ Chris was like, ‘No.’ She’s a bit of a recluse. She’s like ‘No. No. No.’ I’m like ‘Chris this story needs to be told. It’s not about you. It’s bigger than you. You have to let me tell it.’ She’s like ‘Oh s***!’ Because she couldn’t say ‘No.’ And neither of us knew how big that film was ultimately going to be. Looking back now, it’s shocking. It’s like lightning struck.

Kaizen: One year later then, in 1999 …

Mazzio: We finished the film in 1999 and it really came out in 2000. And that’s when The New York Times was writing about it. NPR, you know all the media.

Kaizen: It sounds like that year was frenzied.

Mazzio: Oh, my god. Yes.

Kaizen: Because it’s not just doing the shooting and developing the story and making it work—but at the same time also doing all the fund raising, both individuals and corporate sponsors, and writing your own press releases and so forth. How many people were on your team? You mentioned a lot of sweat equity, but how many people overall?

Mazzio: I have to think about that. Now our team’s numbered above two hundred in all aspects of our film. But I’d probably say fifty, seventy-five? We had musicians. Somewhere between fifty and a hundred.

Kaizen: Who’s your right-hand person, so to speak, on this?

Mazzio: My right-hand people at that time were my sister, Teresa Mazzio—I leaned on her a lot—she was working at Fidelity Investments—and my good friend Eric Hamilton. He had been a rower, and he was producing films, he was working with Bud Greenspan on documentaries. I really leaned on them both.

Kaizen: And how much money altogether did it take with all the investors?

Mazzio: That’s confidential.

Kaizen: Fair enough. Did you launch 50 Eggs at this time?

Mazzio: No. I actually launched earlier than that, in the 1990s because I had some screenplays. I had some screenplays that were bouncing around Hollywood. And I had a meeting at Paramount [Pictures] and I said ‘Oh my God I’ve got to incorporate. I can’t look like a schmoe. So I got incorporated, got stationary, got the logo, got the whole thing going. 50 Eggs actually was incorporated around 1995 or 96.

Kaizen: What’s the value of incorporating?

Mazzio: I felt at the time it made me look legitimate. That was the only reason I did it.

Kaizen: I see.

Mazzio: I remember laughing because my accountant said, ‘Well, do you think this is ever going to be profitable?’ I remember laughing at him. ‘Are you joking? Seriously?’

Kaizen: And ‘50 Eggs’: why that label?

Mazzio: Well, because once again my husband was fantastic. He thought that my corporate name, Medusa’s Revenge, was not a good idea, that I’d have some difficulty getting corporate sponsorship with that name. I was sold on Medusa’s Revenge because, remember, I originally started thinking my first line of attack was going to be how do I change the perception of women, and what women look like, and how they’re supposed to be, act, and achieve, and what’s possible. And so I thought Medusa’s Revenge would be a most excellent name.

Kaizen: Yes, it is a strong name. 50 Eggs is more whimsical.

Mazzio: 50 Eggs was because my husband said, ‘You know your favorite movie is Cool Hand Luke.’ Do you know the old Paul Newman movie? Classic. There’s a scene with all the prisoners and they bet against Paul Newman’s character. They’re like ‘You can’t eat fifty eggs. You can’t eat fifty eggs. He’s like: I will eat fifty eggs.’ And my husband said ‘That’s you; you’re always like defying what people think is possible. You are eating those eggs.’

Kaizen: Okay, so you’ve got a great story, you’re comfortable with the medium, you’ve got funding lined up. Getting attention for your film was a challenge. What important things did you do there to get attention for the film?

Mazzio: Part of that was luck. Part of it is not being a jerk on the phone. Being super nice to people’s secretaries. I mean secretaries and assistants make or break your career. People forget that.

And so I remember talking my way, this is a little bit later, through Kay Koplovitz’s secretary. I don’t know how I did it. You know she was running [USA Network] at the time? She had just left the network and somehow I tracked her down. And the only way I got to her was I somehow talked my way past her assistant. And she became a mentor of mine. An advisor. She started making introductions to HBO, ESPN, and it was because of her and that kind of access, that we were able to strike a broadcast opportunity.

But you were asking about publicity, that’s where it begins and ends. You can make a great product, and if people don’t know about it, you’re toast. And we didn’t have money for a PR person. We had nothing. And so what really happened was this reporter from The Boston Globe wrote a story that was above the crease, above the New England Patriots in October. That’s a big deal, full page, when you open the thing. So everybody saw it. The New York Times called and the photo editor said to me, ‘Okay, get ready, get ready’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Well, you haven’t seen the size of the photo going in the Sunday New York Times’. Then it’s NPR, then it’s this, then it’s that. And I’m speaking all over the country, it was a whirlwind. It was pretty incredible.

You know the calls I would get were fabulous. I remember the CEO of a technology company in Silicon Valley called and he said ‘So my kid’s having her sixteenth birthday. Can I get you to come out here?’ and I’m thinking ‘I’m not a pony.’ I paused, and he said ‘Oh, there’s an honorarium.’ I said ‘Oh, I’m your pony! Yes, I will do it.’

So it was wonderful—I mean the audiences I was encountering. I remember going to the University of Minnesota. Title IX was a huge battle when this was happening in 2000 because men’s programs were being cut under the auspices of, ‘Well, this is a Title IX issue. Not, by the way, that our budget has been cut back. But we’ve got to cut men’s wrestling.’ They’re cutting men’s wrestling because it has no clout, it’s not popular. But it doesn’t cost them very much, because these guys are wearing, you know a 69 cent uni suit and the coaches work for free. Like, why would you ever cut men’s wrestling?

But at Minnesota, the coach of the men’s wrestling team was also the coach of the men’s USA team. Before I went in I was told: ‘We’re going to have a sellout crowd to watch your movie and hear you speak.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, okay, this is good.’ But the athletic director said, ‘We want you to be aware that the entire wrestling team is coming.’ And they all sat together with their wrestling shirts on, and I was both terrified and gleeful, thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be fun! I could really get heckled!’ So I’m at the podium after the film, and some football players had some great challenges. Everyone was so respectful and the wrestlers didn’t say anything. And of course I wasn’t going to call them out because I didn’t think that was appropriate. The wrestling coach came up to me and said, ‘I have daughters and I get what you’re trying to do.’ And he didn’t give up his fight on Title IX but I thought, ‘Wow. That’s something.’ That he could at least understand. He might be pissed-off about it but he got, at least for the moment, women are entitled to as many scholarships as men and that’s the way it is.

Kaizen: Apple Pie was your next film. What was the theme of that one?

Mazzio: That was about athletes and their mothers. With A Hero for Daisy we had several broadcast opportunities because we had gotten so much press. We selected ESPN, and ESPN did a marvelous job with it. So the guys at ESPN said ‘You know we’ve had great viewer feedback, so let’s do another.’ And I said, ‘I want to do Billie Jean King. No one’s done Billie Jean King. I really want to do her.’ They said ‘Yes, but we have an audience of mostly men, so how about we think of something else?’ And they said ‘We’d love you to do something with celebrities.’ I’m like, ‘Celebrities?’

So I’m in the shower and I’m thinking, ‘What can I do?’ And then it came to me: ‘Mothers! Perfect! I can have my women’s theme. I can do my thing.’ So I put together a film on famous athletes and their mothers. We had Shaquille O’Neal; we had Drew Bledsoe; we had Kenny Lofton who played baseball in six major World Series teams. We had Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind climber to summit Mount Everest; we had Rulon Gardner who had won the gold in the 2000 Olympics. I loved, loved, loved that film. I asked all of these athletes if they could have their moms do their sport. And to see Rulon Gardner show his mother how to do a take-down pin. And she’s on the ground. So funny. It was a wonderful, wonderful project.

And it was the first time I encountered celebrities which was really scary. My first interview of the film was with Mia Hamm. My heart rate was probably over 200, I was so nervous. I sat next to her and I could see that she was as nervous as I was. I heard that she doesn’t like media. But that was really wonderful that I could have a conversation with these kinds of celebrity athletes. And they knew I was an athlete so it was really a wonderful opportunity.

Kaizen: On the technical and production side of things, were things easier or smoother because it was your second film?

Mazzio: No, it was bad. We had a sponsor, and this taught me a very important lesson, which is: Do not start a project until you’ve got all the funding. We had a sponsor which had committed to underwriting a portion of the film but had to back out at the last minute because they had such a dismal year. And I didn’t have a letter of intent—by the way I’m a former lawyer, right? My mistake was in not obtaining a letter of intent because you’re not going to sue a corporate sponsor that says ‘I’m really sorry, we just can’t do it.’ You’re not going to destroy that relationship. But what you are going to do is to make sure that the check’s in. That’s what you’re going to do. And then you have a letter of intent so that when there’s the expectation of more than one check coming in they keep coming in. So I learned a very valuable lesson with that.

But we got it done. I said, ‘I’ve got a contract with the network. I have made commitments. By hook or by crook I’m going to make this happen.’ I’ll never forget we were staying in the crappiest hotels, eating day-old food for lunch, and it didn’t matter. You know what, we got it done. Delivered on time for the network. The amount of press—I thought that we had struck it lucky for A Hero for Daisy. The amount of press that was generated for Apple Pie was Entertainment Weekly—it was probably twofold for what we had for A Hero for Daisy. That was really a wonderful experience. And meeting those athletes was so fun.

Kaizen: Your next two films deal directly with entrepreneurship—Lemonade Stories and Ten9Eight.

Mazzio: And Blackrock! We also did a film called We Are Blackrock in between.

Kaizen: I wasn’t aware of that one.

Mazzio: In between Lemonade Stories and Ten9Eight. It was a special commission so it’s not publicly available.

Kaizen: What led you to focus on entrepreneurship?

Mazzio: Babson College had heard me on the radio and they had been approached about doing a series on PBS. They had called me up and said, ‘Could you come in and maybe consult for us on this project?’ So I go in and we sort of talked about what they were trying to achieve, what their objectives were, and what they hoped to get out of a project. And so we explored this together, whether they should move forward. And then they looked at me and they said, ‘Can we get you to do something really innovative around entrepreneurship?’ So I proposed a slate of what I thought would be really interesting entrepreneurial subject matters. And they said ‘We really love this idea of exploring whether entrepreneurs are born or made. We loved what you did with Apple Pie.’ And I said, ‘Okay, let’s do this.’

And that film was so different from Apple Pie because the mothers in Lemonade Stories had a profound effect on sparking an entrepreneurial spirit in their kids. In fact, I started raising my children differently after making that film. When Eve Branson says, ‘Richard was a profoundly shy boy. He would not talk to people. He’d hide behind my skirts.’ She said, ‘I looked at him and said this is not going to continue.’ She dropped him off four miles from home, so he’d have to ask people how to get home.

Kaizen: I remember reading that in his biography.

Mazzio: Yes! So great! And she said she was apoplectic because he was looking at bugs on the way home and she’s like ‘Where is he!’ because he didn’t show up for hours and hours. But I thought to myself, ‘What an interesting perspective that shyness is being selfish.’ And I had a son who had shy qualities and so after that film I was like ‘Okay, those days are over. You’re going to get out there; you’re going to stick your hand out.’ He’s like a politician now. He’s learning that you look adults in the eye and you don’t give one-word answers. You ask them about themselves because they’re people; they’re not adults, they’re people.

Kaizen: So you’re coming down on the entrepreneurs-are-made side of the debate?

Mazzio: Entrepreneurs are made. I think the piece that you’re born with—a little bit might be personality, a little bit is energy, right? You have to have an extraordinary amount of energy to be an entrepreneur. You also have to have a good left/right brain to just be able to dodge and weave. And people who are process people (they have to go from A to B to C), they are a little bit more methodical, I think can sometimes find that challenging. But I think you can cultivate those qualities. It’s really about being independent and how do you attack risk, how do you embrace it, how do you make sure it’s not reckless. Where on the continuum should you be playing from a risk factor standpoint?

Kaizen: Are you finding, as you move into your fourth project, Lemonade Stories, that the technical/production side is getting more efficient or is every project unique?

Mazzio: No, I am building my team as we go along, and so you make slight modifications—what’s working well, what’s not. But each project is becoming increasingly technically advanced. And the technology is also changing dramatically. With Lemonade Stories we were still shooting on 16mm, but we’re finishing to a digital format. And I think we were much more aware; we had a gaffer, we never had a gaffer on Apple Pie. We were taking steps that were much more professional and sophisticated, for each new project, without a doubt.

Kaizen: What number of people have a hand in the project at this point?

Mazzio: Again it depends. For Ten9Eight we had upwards of two hundred people. That’s from graphics to the musicians who are working with your composer, to your production team, and all that happens on the post-production side. When you go to the movies and you see those credits roll on for five minutes, there’s a reason for that. You need all that support.

Kaizen: Ten9Eight came out last year and its focus is entrepreneurship and a competition for high school kids?

Mazzio: Inner-city kids, primarily.

Kaizen: How did the idea for that project arise?

Mazzio: After Lemonade Stories came out, which got, by the way, more press than Apple Pie—USA Today devoted a cover story—there was a screening at Babson College and a fellow by the name of Steve Mariotti was there. He came up and he had tears in his eyes and he said, ‘I loved this movie!’ He said, ‘We need to talk.’ And I said, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, ‘I’ve got this nonprofit where I’m teaching inner-city kids and not famous entrepreneurs like you have in your movie. I’m teaching them to become entrepreneurs and launch their businesses. And what a profound impact this is having.’ And my jaw dropped when he told me about the program he had going on at Rikers Island. And I said, ‘I am in! Let’s do this!’

That was in 2004, and it wasn’t until 2008, that we actually could put gas in the tank. And that gas was fueled by the Templeton Foundation. And Templeton, in terms of their priorities, had a very strong interest in ‘What is it about entrepreneurship that can help disenfranchised communities?’

And I not only loved that theme, but I also loved the theme ‘What is it about keeping kids in school? What is it that these kids are learning from an educational standpoint that makes traditional education relevant?’ When you ask a kid that hasn’t eaten in two days, or who has a dysfunctional parent at home, and you say to that kid, ‘Concentrate. I want you to focus on pre-calculus.’ That kid is thinking, ‘Am I going to live until I’m nineteen? How am I going to get my next sandwich? I can’t concentrate I’m so hungry. I haven’t slept.’ And so I think the challenges for some of these kids are so astounding. And when you say to a kid, ‘Here’s a watch. You can buy it for five and sell it for twenty.’ The kid’s got fifteen bucks. They can go feed themselves.

And that triggers a second wave of things. All of a sudden: ‘Wait a minute. If I keep doing this, am I going to lose money? Am I making a profit?’  And that kid has to learn math. Right? And if there’s a business plan involved, you have to learn English. So all of the fundamental building blocks of education that were once completely irrelevant now are relevant. And I think that the key to making this so powerful is that there is so much education out there that makes no sense to so many kids. The lecture method is hard for many kids and it often favors girls, who can sit and concentrate a little bit better than boys. It favors the affluent. But I think in this community when you have so many other challenges. What a great tool to put in that anti-dropout tool kit.

Kaizen: Yes. Absolutely. And a positive path out of poverty especially. It’s a healthy path. It’s very inspirational.

Mazzio: And I loved these kids by the way. They Facebook me. They Tweet me. I love them! And I have a whole new subset of friends. I am indebted to my young friends who have educated me profoundly about their lives and challenges.

Kaizen: Ten9Eight also looks more logistically complicated, more locations, more people involved. Is that an accurate perception?

Mazzio: Yes and no. I’d say, Lemonade Stories: we went to London; we filmed all over the country. And Ten9Eight we did as well but we had multiple cameras on the days of the finals of the competition, in New York, so we had a much bigger crew. Right? There were a lot more logistical time pressures.

Kaizen: You’re part producer, director, and a manager of all these people. Did developing your managerial skills come naturally to you or did you have to work at it?

Mazzio: That’s a great question. I think I’m a very good director because I am very clear in what I want and what I need. And if we miss a shot, ‘Let’s move on.’ Right? I’m acutely aware of the budget, so I’m very practical on set. If we have a problem: ‘Okay, how do we solve it?’

In terms of being a manager, I’d say that’s still a work in progress for me. I say that because I have huge expectations for the people who are working with me. And partly it’s being an athlete. You know, when you’re training with high caliber people, nobody can slow down the boat. So I am very, very demanding and impatient. I expect people around me to throw their hearts and souls into these projects as I do. And not everybody can do that, which is fine. I’m not like a screamer or a yeller, but I am very demanding and very precise. And that can be difficult. I have a very high-level bar for myself. And sometimes I expect others to have as equally a high bar. And the team that I’m kind of formulating, over time, we all share the same vision.

You know my director of photography: he wants to get every shot. I mean he shot the Larry Bird commercial for McDonald’s, right? This is a guy who is extraordinary. My still photographer is equally so; he shoots for Vanity Fair. These people are really at the top of their game.

Kaizen: Richard?

Mazzio: I have both Richards. I have Richard Schultz, who is my still photographer, and Richard Klug is my director of photography. Shultz might say ‘Oh, this is great lighting in here!’ And Klug might say ‘I don’t think we can get it done with these light levels.’ And I’m like ‘We’re going to do it!’ You know? We’re constantly navigating. Klug will say to me, ‘I really want to shoot with this lens.’ ‘Richard, we can’t it’s too expensive.’ Where I come in is moderating the creative with the practical. We have a budget. I’m not an artiste. I really look at myself as a contractor. We got the guys throwing the nails; we got the guys putting on the roof. I am there orchestrating; I am like the conductor. Right?

Kaizen: So how do you combine setting a high bar for yourself and communicating to others the high-bar expectations—and at the same time doing it in a diplomatic way?

Mazzio: Right, and I try and do that. But the beauty of project-to-project is if somebody doesn’t work out. For example, if for Ten9Eight, we had somebody working on the crew and we were going to film under a sprinkler. A little bit of water would get on the camera. Now we had rented the camera. My D.P. knew what he was doing. But the A.C.—we were in a kind of flat bed truck—and the A.C. jumped off the truck, ‘I’m not going to participate in this. There’s water on the camera.’ And my D.P. was like ‘There are two drops on the camera. We rented it. We’ve got liability on this. It’s Mary’s policy.’ And so every once in a while you’ve got to roll with the punches. Will we hire that person again? Probably not. You know? So you have those issues in every project.

Kaizen: About distribution. AMC Entertainment picked up Ten9Eight. That was huge. How did that come about?

Mazzio: Yes! That was huge for us! That came about because I was sticking like glue to Tom Bernard, the head of Sony Picture Classics, right? They are almost the gold standard in terms of indie film. There’s no more Miramax, no more Paramount Vantage; there’s no more ThinkFilm to distribute independent film. Most of these studios or independent arms of studios have gone out of business. There are very few players left that are not doing big studio films.

I met with Tom Bernard and he was intrigued by what was happening with the film. He heard about the debut in Aspen, and the feedback that we had, he knew that Tom Friedman (from the New York Times) had seen the film in Aspen and loved it. And I’m like, ‘Can you please pick it up?’ And he says ‘I don’t think we can make money with your film. We have to open all our films up nationwide and I don’t think we can do that with your film.’ And I said ‘How about we open in ten/fifteen cities?’ And he said, ‘That’s not our business model.’ And I said, ‘But it’s such a worthwhile project.’ And I stuck to him like a cheap bride for about 6 months.

He and I had this ongoing discussion and I’m starting to get increasingly worried because I’m like, ‘What am I going to do?’ We had an 85-minute film. I knew we could get down to 55 minutes for broadcast if we really had to, but I thought we’d lose some of the heart and soul of the film. And we’d have to cut out a whole bunch of kids. And so part of it was weighing: the film was a little longer than I normally do, and I have a short attention span. So I said to myself, ‘Can we hold people’s attention span for 85 minutes?’ But I knew that 55 minutes was way too short to tell a story. And I figured if we’re going to be up there at 85 minutes, let’s try for a theatrical run. Right? That’s the minimum, 85 minutes for a theatrical run.

So I called up a friend of mine for corporate sponsorship at Bain Capital, somebody there was on the board of Burger King. And then he said, ‘You know, we work with AMC Entertainment. How about we put you in touch with the President?’ So I had a conversation with Bob Lenahan, the President of Programming for AMC Theatres. It’s just working the Rolodex. He said, ‘Let me see this film, let me check it out. It’s interesting you called because we have a new initiative that we are trying to launch here at AMC where we’re trying to have more appropriate content for urban guests. And they complain to us how often African Americans and Latinas and Latinos and Hispanic people are depicted in the movies are cliché and offensive.’ So I sent him the film.

He calls back a day later and said, ‘All right, how are we going to make this happen? What do you need?’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘I need you. You don’t need me.’ And I said ‘How about you open free of charge to schools? And how about you run the trailer in every city we open?’ AMC treated us like a blockbuster. Independent films complain all the time that they can’t get the attention of these exhibitors, right? That you can’t get a poster in the lobby. Getting your trailer run. You see the big studios’ ‘Coming Soon’ but how often do you see independent films? Pretty rarely. They put our trailer in rotation not just in the theatres we were going to be in (we opened up in fifteen theatres), but throughout the entire state of all the states where we were opening. All their theatres in Massachusetts had the trailer going. All their theatres in New York, Chicago, Miami, you name it. I mean, it was wild!

We also had a very special screening at the Smithsonian in D.C. and I called up the CEO Gerry Lopez and I said, ‘Gerry, would you like to come out? I think there are going to be some Administration officials, you know a lot of VIPs, the chairman of Visa is going to be there; the Deputy Secretary of Commerce, Dennis Hightower, is going to speak’. And Gerry said, ‘I’m coming to meet you.’ And when we met in person, he said, ‘Thank you for making, thank you, I’m so proud we could be part of this.’ My mouth dropped open because really, I was the lucky one. ‘You’ve elevated our profile because this was a first of its deal. This is an arrangement no other filmmaker has done before—a direct deal with the exhibitor.’ And I remember thinking ‘Even if Tom Bernard get’s involved, he’s going to pay us zero.’ I would have had nothing to gain from a distributor except ‘Oh, I was picked up by Sony Picture Classics.’ But by the way I probably would have done that had he made the offer, but he didn’t so I was sort of forced to think elsewhere. And honestly, it’s part hustle and luck.

Kaizen: This led to your being invited to participate in the White House Seminar on Entrepreneurship?

Mazzio: Right, and by that time the press, including Tom Friedman [New York Times] had written about the film, and this is before we had our broadcast. For a thought leader of his stature to call on the President to put this film in every high school; and in the same article he called on NFTE to be in every program, you know? He knew about NFTE because of the film; he saw it at Aspen. He connected the dots. And film can be just so powerful a medium to connect the dots for people.

Kaizen: The AMC Theatres run is over now. Is the documentary now available?

Mazzio: It is. www.50Eggs.com. You can also buy the DVD on PBS and Amazon. PBS is our official distributor. So they’re selling it to schools and things of that nature.

Kaizen: With a number of big projects behind you, are there any common denominators about how you come up with the ideas that you come up with? Do they tend to come at you all at once or is it a sequential process?

Mazzio: No. It is a process of ‘What is the press going to pay attention to?’ It’s that simple.

Kaizen: You start from the marketing.

Mazzio: Well, I mean Babson called me about Lemonade Stories. So some of it is people saying, ‘Listen, we might have some access to capital, what can you do in this sphere? What can you do in this contents space?’ ‘Oh, I have a great idea about this.’

Kaizen: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

Mazzio: It is a project that will be yet again entrepreneurial in nature. Different aspects within the entrepreneurial community that I think could be fun and compelling and different. Nothing like Ten9Eight. Something very different.

Kaizen: Looking back over the years, what is the best thing for you personally about being an entrepreneur?

Mazzio: I have more time with my kids, because I drive the schedule. I mean there are times when I don’t see my kids, but it’s a choice now. You know, when I was a lawyer, you are busting your hump and you’re working sixty, eighty, ninety hours a week and you’re not seeing your kids. You’re working for the man. And it’s not a choice. And my kids will often remind me, ‘Mommy you can come to my game—you’re in town. You are your own boss, are you not?’ They’re really funny!

Kaizen: Excellent. So it’s the control and flexibility that comes with the control?

Mazzio: Right. And more importantly, I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. Meaning, this kind of work—I’m so privileged to have this opportunity. In order to have this opportunity you have to hustle. You know, Fred Rogers once said that the space between his mouth and the audience was sacred space. And I feel very much the same way. If you have an opportunity to say something in a medium that can impact a human life—for me, what an impact.

Now, not everybody is going to like my films. WithTen9Eight we got seared by some critics. But I get down on my knees that Tom Friedman wrote about the film and The New York Times and others loved it. But we got skewered by a few critics. I mean skewered.

At first I was almost in tears and then I’m like laughing. And I’m thinking ‘I did not make this film for an aging white male critic.’ I made this film for kids in low income communities—inner-city kids, and I think the critics didn’t understand that.

And when we had free screenings for educators and kids, I got reports all day that kids were cheering, they were hooting and hollering, that they were clapping at the movie theatre. I was in New York and my heart was out of my mouth because I’m like, ‘These are eighteen-year-old kids, a lot of them are at-risk kids. Here I am, I’m a hockey mom with blue eyes—what the hell do I know? Can I connect with them? Can I connect with these kids?’ I walked in the back of Lincoln Square AMC Theatres. You could hear a pin drop. And I noticed kids were leaning forward.

Kaizen: The body language says it all.

Mazzio: Yes! And I’d say the proudest thing about Ten9Eight is when this woman calls me up, Winnie Jackson, she’s working with at-risk adolescents, she told me, for forty-two years in LA. ‘I took thirty kids to the Magic Johnson Theatre in Crenshaw to see your movie. You have no clue what you’ve done.’ Please tell me, I want to know, I tell her. She said there wasn’t an earbud, there wasn’t any texting. She says, ‘The conversation on the bus home with these young men was a conversation I have not heard in my forty years of work.’ And I’m about to cry right now because I was like, ‘Oh my God. If one of those kids stay in school, if one of those kids doesn’t go back to prison, oh my God.’ You know as a human to have that impact. I was just meant to be doing this kind of work.

Kaizen: That’s the high. What has been the most challenging or difficult thing?

Mazzio: Oh, everything’s difficult in this business. Everything’s challenging; you’ve got to raise money, it’s a prohibitive medium, everything logistically is a challenge. Every step of making these films is really difficult because you have to find the capital to make it; you have to get it made in a really high quality manor, but one where you’re not losing your lunch. You’ve got to get press; you’ve got to get journalists excited; you’ve got to get it distributed in order to have an impact.

Those five elements—they’re a challenge with every creative endeavor, I think, and I think it’s one of the reasons why so many Hollywood films fail. People don’t realize the industry return is 7%. That’s the industry return of Hollywood films. So you hear about Transformers and Toy Story 3—those are the exception. Most films fail. So I approach each film really strategically: ‘Okay, how are we going to get this on the map?’ And every film, because I have such high expectations of myself, I am always worried. You know, from start to finish—always worried. But that goes with the terrain.

Kaizen: Any predictions about the future of documentaries? The technology’s better, and production costs are coming down. Is that going to be a continuing trend?

Mazzio: I think so, but honestly the fact that production costs are coming down, a lot of people are excited about that—but I think you’re going to have a lot more material coming out on the market that may or may not be good. I think you will have some emerging filmmakers that are fabulous and they will have had an opportunity because production costs have come down.

I think on the other hand you’ll also have more people who want to be in this business who may not know how to tell a story. So you’ll have a lot more material. And it’s sort of like YouTube. YouTube has some moments of greatness, but there’s also a lot of schlock that you have to wade through. So I think at the end of the day people’s attention is increasingly diverted and that is very difficult, it’s why market share for movies is really declining. Yes, they’ve had some great box office years but I think people now can do so many other things with their time. And that’s increasing with technology, with Twitter and Facebook. People are spending more time on Facebook and Twitter and technology is changing so quickly. I think documentary film is very difficult. I think feature films are very difficult. For me with documentary films I’m always thinking about ‘what’s the impact’ and ‘what’s the outcome.’ And so as long as I keep thinking that way, we will have our own niche.

Kaizen: So for younger people with filmmaking aspirations, it will be easier financially in terms of the technology; but they will have to pay more attention to marketing, because of all the other noise out there making their signal harder to find, so to speak?

Mazzio: Exactly. And I think before making a film it’s really important to think about your strategy. A lot of filmmakers make this beautiful product, and I get calls all the time from young filmmakers that say ‘Okay, can you help me?’ I say, ‘Who do you know? And who is your market? Who are you speaking to?’ They say, ‘Oh, I hadn’t really thought about that.’ ‘Okay, is there a sponsor who’s in line with your message? Is there somebody who can give you some corporate support?’ That’s really key.

Kaizen: So this is where entrepreneurship programs in college and high school would be helpful. And maybe in film school? You mentioned there wasn’t much focus on the business side of things in your film school.

Mazzio: There is some. There is a little bit.

Kaizen: Is distribution going to be easier now with the internet, Amazon, Netflix, and so on?

Mazzio: Yes and no. But once again, it’s just a portal, and people will either download your material or they won’t. And for those who have investors and need a rate of return, it becomes increasingly challenging because—yes, you can have your stuff on Hulu, but you’re going to be making pennies.

Kaizen: About character. In describing your story, to do what you have done, you have to have all these skills and all this knowledge—but there are character issues about perseverance, and courage, and coming back from failure, and initiative. Can you pick any of those that have struck you as most significant character traits that make entrepreneurs successful?

Mazzio: Resilience. Honestly, coming back up from a failure. That is what it’s all about. I think we live in a society where if you fail, most people stay down, but if you keep getting back up, something good will come out of it. It may not be your intended outcome, but something good will come out of it. So I think having courage, having the attitude that you’re not going to take no for an answer. No is only No for that one minute. It doesn’t mean it’s No forever.

My mother always said, ‘When you get disappointments, you can cry for a day. Then you buy an ice cream and get on with it.’ That’s what I do. I have my share of disappointments like everybody else: ‘Oh, they won’t take my film. Oh, I got a crappy review.’ Or whatever. You have to roll with the punches, and I’m trying to get better at that.

Kaizen: As a younger person working to cultivate those traits in yourself: you said sports were very helpful to you, and you mentioned your parents and your mother especially here. How does one acquire those traits?

Mazzio: I’d say for young filmmakers the first thing to do is to work the Rolodex. Everyone has someone who can help them in their sphere. I kind of think of it as the karma bag. People will call me for favors; I always do a favor when I can, figuring; ‘You know what, on the backside, somebody’s going to do me a favor.’

So I think cultivating relationships early on in your career is essential for whatever it is you want to do, whether it’s filmmaking or otherwise. Because that person could be access to capital; that person could be access to a talented person for your crew; that person could be the guy that parks your car. You need to treat everybody, as an ally and a supporter. And you know: Whose dad works at ABC? Whose mother is a producer? Or my teacher? Or my coach? Or who knows someone? So I’d say critically important is networking and building those relationships early on.

And thinking about: how do I get from A to B? I want to be a filmmaker. Okay, you have six or eight steps for that to happen. Who can help you get from A to B? So I think thinking strategically and networking are really critical.

And if you fail, it’s okay to get back up. Try again. Now if you fail nine times, ten times, you might want to look for an alternative career. Right? If you are on your fifth or sixth film and you’re losing money every time, you might want to think about things differently. So I think as long as you’re thinking all the time.

Kaizen: So that critical self-evaluation is essential.

Mazzio: Yeah, yeah.

Kaizen: You mentioned the control and flexibility that being an entrepreneur gives you. But there can be challenges putting an entrepreneurial career together with family life just because entrepreneurship has to be all-consuming. Any advice about how to combine them?

Mazzio: I struggle with it myself. You know, I have workaholic tendencies and it’s bad. I’m the kind of person who can’t relax on vacation. That’s bad. I’m too revved up. But it’s very difficult when you have your own business and you want to make it successful and make everybody around you successful.

But my children are very understanding. And I think they think it’s really cool what I’m doing. Part of it’s the medium. Right? But the other part is, ‘Yeah, my mom owns her own company.’ And they think that’s kind of different and interesting. So they’re proud of me. And that means a lot to me.

And my husband, he’s so used to it now. You know, when you’re an entrepreneur, you’re oftentimes leaning on somebody really hard because you’re making all the decisions, right? It’s not like you’re at your law firm where you have two hundred colleagues who are really, really smart and you can bounce ideas off of. I’m making the decisions and I have very wonderful advisors, but you can only use those advisors sparingly. So I lean on him a lot.

Kaizen: You also made a major career change and went entrepreneurial in your thirties. Going entrepreneurial in your twenties can be scary enough, but you have many commitments when you’re older. Do you have any advice for people who might be in midcareer or closer to midlife?

Mazzio: It’s hard because I was far enough away from the college years for my kids that college seemed so far off that, okay, we can take a jump; we can take a flyer.

I think that if you’ve got children that are approaching college age that’s really hard. And it depends: is your spouse working at a full-time job with health benefits? You have to go through all that calculus. So it’s easier to be an entrepreneur when you’re younger and footloose and fancy free, but you might not have the legitimacy. You might not have the web of contacts; you might not have the access to capital; you might not have training; you might not have A, B, C, and D. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook—good for him—he did it in college; he was a computer programmer geek, right? But for those of us who aren’t so technically inclined, you know you might need some training out there.

I often say to young filmmakers who call me for advice: ’Go to law school.’ Because half of Hollywood—if you look around Hollywood—people running the studios are lawyers, former lawyers. They’ve got law degrees. And that is something that will serve you well no matter what you do. It will apply analytic rigor to your thinking.

Kaizen: You mentioned a lot of people who have been supportive, given advice and been mentors. If you had to pick one piece of advice from a mentor that’s stuck with you over the years?

Mazzio: You know, John MacArthur is one of my mentors. He’s former dean at the Harvard Business School, and he said to me, ‘Work with people you trust. Because at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about.’ And so that has always been with me. Work with people you trust.

Kaizen: That’s a good one.

Mazzio: Yeah. And: ‘Do what you love.’

Kaizen: So for young people just starting out, what is the most important piece of advice you’d give them?

Mazzio: I would say if you’ve got a passion, again, think strategically, you might want to go out on your own. But you might want to go and work for somebody.

If you want to be a filmmaker, go find a director, see if you can intern and be prepared to work 24/7, 365. Kill yourself because that work ethic will be impressive. And it will lead to something. You might not know what it’s going to lead to, but if you kill yourself, you will stand apart.

I have had a number of interns and those who have stood out haven’t necessarily been the smartest. Those who have stood out have been, ‘Mary, whatever it is, three in the morning, if you need me I’m there.’ It’s all about work ethic.

And where do you learn work ethic? You see it in your parents; you might learn it as an athlete; you might learn it as a student, particularly students that are overcoming learning challenges. Work ethic.

When I was a lawyer, when we would hire young lawyers, I noticed that sometimes the brightest lawyers—it came to them so easily over the years that they didn’t know how to work hard. And so I am a big fan of—if you’re hungry and you’re scrappy, and you’ll work hard and you’re trustworthy, then I want you.

© 2013 Stephen R. C. Hicks. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to “Interview with Mary Mazzio”

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