It was supposed to be a great boon to Macon.
A Hollywood production crew was coming to town, eager to employ local residents, spend money at local stores and restaurants and spread the word about all the positives Macon and Middle Georgia have to offer.
When the producers of “The Hardest Hitter” first selected Macon to be the backdrop for their movie in December 2008, local officials saw not only a big boost to the economy from an industry that hadn’t been active here in nearly two decades, but they also viewed it as a means of attracting tourists and future productions to Macon. Essentially, the movie would be a two-hour commercial for Middle Georgia.
“If production begins as hoped, we’re looking at $1 million in expenditures associated with people staying in hotels, eating at restaurants, shopping locally and otherwise spending money here,” Ruth Sykes, vice president of the Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said at that time. “That doesn’t include the production costs of the movie.”
Now 18 months later, “The Hardest Hitter” project appears dead. The production never got out of the preparation phase, and the production offices at the Goodwill Building downtown have long since closed.
A long series of legal battles among the movie’s producers finally seems to be settled, but because none of them is still attached to the project, the prospects of ever shooting a frame of celluloid here for “The Hardest Hitter” seems unlikely.
While the city and locals who worked with the producers were unscathed — none of the contracts drawn up with the city were broken, and locals employed by the producers were paid — it leaves those involved wondering what went wrong.
“The Hardest Hitter” story is based on the life of Richard Hill, a young man who grew up handicapped in Texas during the 1960s. Eventually, he got his leg braces removed and managed to impress a major league scout with his hitting prowess, signing a contract with the Montreal Expos organization.
A couple of years ago, Hill tried to market the rights to his story to Hollywood. He eventually hooked up with Carmine Zozzora, who has credits as an actor and a co-producer on various Bruce Willis projects. Zozzora took Hill’s story and turned it into a screenplay.
Zozzora said Hill had initially attempted a screenplay himself, but said that initial script was poor in quality. Zozzora said his version of the script helped attract financiers to the project.
“Richard Hill told me that people like Jon Voight, Robert Duvall, the Jonas Brothers were all interested,” Zozzora said. “It was a Christian network thing. They were all supposed to be friends. I took the guy at his word.”
Hill didn’t want to say too much about the situation between him and Zozzora when he recently spoke with The Telegraph, but he said he never told Zozzora that Duvall and Voight were attached to the project. (Hill said the Jonas Brothers didn’t see a script until much later).
“I’ve learned the word ‘attached’ in Hollywood is a big word,” Hill said. “Someone else who was doing the movie prior to Carmine had these connections. ... As for the script, I’m not going to comment on that.”
Zozzora was signed on to direct the movie as well as co-produce it based on his script. He brought in his producing partner, Terry Collis, who also has a long list of credits as a producer, production manager and transportation coordinator going back to 1979.
The production was being funded by Mike Blubaugh, a Fort Worth, Texas-based businessman, while Collis and Zozzora oversaw the day-to-day production business in Macon. They discovered Macon while scouting minor league ballparks across the country. Collis and Zozzora instantly fell in love with Luther Williams Field, which would be the centerpiece of the movie.
“We loved Macon,” Zozzora said. “The city embraced us. (Collis and I) were embarrassed by what happened, that we put people through that. We went there with the best intentions. We had these assurances and were misled the whole time. ... I think Macon is the best-kept secret in the whole country.”
All of the principals involved with the production agreed that working in Macon itself was great.
“I’d love to still (shoot a movie) there,” Collis said. “I honestly think that Macon will be a successful (movie location). It’s a good location. We couldn’t have had a better experience than what we had in Macon.”
Andrew Blascovich, spokesman for Macon Mayor Robert Reichert, said the city had high hopes for the production, which was being set up at the same time the bigger-budget horror movie, “The Crazies,” was being shot in Middle Georgia. Two movies being shot in the area plus the tax incentives the state of Georgia provides for film and TV productions shot in the state could have been the welcome mat the city needed for future projects.
“Just like anything else, one of the best ways to promote something is word of mouth,” Blascovich said. “It’s not just the actors, the directors, the producers who come here. It’s the cameramen, the sound guys, everyone as well. ... ‘The Crazies’ was a good experience. ...We had high hopes that we could build on top of that success.”
Preproduction seemed to start off well for “The Hardest Hitter.” Locations were scouted, extras were cast, props and costumes were acquired and sets were in the process of being built.
Zozzora said, however, that Blubaugh failed to make deposits into an escrow account for which he was contractually obligated. A couple of weeks ago, Zozzora sent members of the media and city officials a lengthy e-mail that included previous e-mail messages from Blubaugh and Hill. The e-mail backs Zozzora’s contention that contractual obligations weren’t met.
Blubaugh acknowledged that he had never worked in the movie business before and had more trouble raising money for the project than he thought he would.
“I’m not a sophisticated investor when it comes to movies,” he said. “I couldn’t raise the rest of the money.”
According to the e-mails, Zozzora and Collis put together a budget for the movie that Blubaugh apparently approved in mid-January 2009.
At the end of January, Blubaugh still hadn’t deposited the funds and was apparently trying to create a “deal memo” that would sell of pieces of the production to other investors, Zozzora said. Zozzora said Blubaugh, instead, provided interim money that covered the costs of things going on in Macon. By doing it that way, he said, Blubaugh actually was spending more money in the long run than he would have had he deposited the money originally.
“This was starting to be expensive,” Zozzora said. “There were enormous cost overruns. It was costing $120,000 a week per delay. I urged him to shut things down until he had the money. ... I wanted to lay everybody off until he put (the money) together.”
In a May 14, 2009 e-mail to Zozzora, Blubaugh seemed to acknowledge the problems, stating: “Carm, I know you are discouraged and frustrated and you are correct that I have failed to perform and caused increases in the budget. I thought I could fund the film but ran into many obstacles. I have expended much of my time on this film also, although, not as much as you have. I appreciate and recognize your talent, effort and sacrifice during the past six months.”
Blubaugh went on to present a series of options for Zozzora to ponder about what to do next.
According to the e-mails Zozzora sent and received, the back-and-forth continued for several more months. Zozzora said Blubaugh promised several times to make deposits into the escrow account but failed to deliver as he tried to line up additional financing.
“I missed a lot of those deadlines,” Blubaugh admitted. “But I put $2 million of my own money in the movie.”
At the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010, Zozzora and the production parted ways. Collis stayed on for a little longer, Zozzora said, hoping to get some of the money owed him.
Collis sent out an e-mail to media members and city officials, letting people know he was no longer associated with the production and had shut down the offices for “The Hardest Hitter” because he hadn’t been paid in five months.
Since then, Zozzora and Blubaugh reached a settlement. Zozzora said he has been paid about half of what he is owed, and the rest of the money is due this coming January.
This past week, Blubaugh said he and Collis also have worked out a settlement, the terms of which haven’t been disclosed.
Zozzora said Collis lost out on working on three other movie projects while he was tied up with “The Hardest Hitter.”
Collis said he has some new projects lined up, and if one of them comes to fruition, he hopes to be able to consider shooting in Macon in the future.
Hill, who still has the rights to “The Hardest Hitter,” said he hasn’t given up on the project. If he can line up new financing, he hopes that the project would still be shot in Macon.
“If it ever does get shot, I would love to bring it back to Macon,” Hill said.
Blascovich said the city hasn’t been involved with any of the legal issues surrounding the movie, but he said it’s unlikely the production will return to Macon.
He does hope, however, that Macon will be involved again with the movie industry.
A new sound stage in south Atlanta could point some movie producers toward Macon in the near future, he said.
“Just having that and Macon’s other factors, our chances greatly improve with a sound stage only 60 miles away,” he said. “I think things are looking in a positive direction for us.”
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.