In Hollywood, a film project that sparks controversy among its creators often ends up on the celluloid trash heap. Not so the embattled Vermont film Birth of Innocence. Despite state and federal criminal investigations, $14 million owed to investors and the involvement of a mysterious, Svengali-like character, two groups of interested parties are determined to make sure the unfinished feature sees the light. They just don’t agree on anything else.
The real-life saga of storyteller Malcolm “Mac” Parker is shaping up to be more gripping than the story line of the movie that prompted his legal and financial troubles. As the state delays Parker’s trial on charges of violating state securities law, and a federal investigation continues, Parker’s former editor claims he’s discovered the whereabouts of the silent partner who pocketed close to $4 million of the $14 million Parker raised to fund the film. Meanwhile, that same editor has squared off against Parker and his allies in a battle to get the film into theaters.
All the public knows of Birth of Innocence is contained in a five-minute trailer that drips with New Age sentiments, delivered by Parker himself in a voice-over paired with images of idyllic natural scenes and smiling, peaceful faces.
But the movie’s investors stopped grinning a long time ago. For more than 18 months, Parker has been under investigation for possible wrongdoing in a more than 10-year fundraising effort that netted roughly $14 million from hundreds of investors. The film has yet to be completed.
State authorities charged Parker with securities violations last year. The storyteller was scheduled to go on trial in November, but Vermont Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford delayed the trial for six months to allow the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Burlington to complete its own probe into Parker’s financial dealings.
The six-month extension expired in April, but the feds still haven’t filed charges, despite having interviewed investors and other people associated with the film before a grand jury.
In response to the ongoing federal probe, Parker’s attorney and investigators at the Vermont Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities and Health Care Administration sought, and won, a request to further delay Parker’s trial until October 2011. By then, the reasoning goes, both sides will know if federal prosecutors plan to file charges against Parker and others involved in the fundraising scheme.
It’s not clear whether the federal investigators have been in contact with Lou Soteriou, a chiropractor to whom Parker said he paid roughly $4 million for help in creating the film. Parker has described Soteriou as a spiritual guide and mentor who had tremendous personal sway over him and his family. He said Soteriou “went missing” early last year after BISHCA investigators first began asking questions about the film’s financing scheme.
Neither state nor federal investigators — nor Parker’s attorneys — have been willing to reveal Soteriou’s whereabouts. But Horace Williams, Parker’s cocreator and creative partner on Innocence, claims Soteriou lives in Connecticut, where he owns a chain of four fitness centers.
Soteriou did not return phone calls or emails from Seven Days.
Scorned investors are worried that, without a federal indictment, they’ll never recoup their losses. “I and other investors are being kept in the dark regarding progress on the investigation and forthcoming indictment,” Robert Melik Finkle wrote to officials in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Burlington on May 18. “Indeed, it can sometimes seem as though you have dropped the case especially as Mac has bragged more than once in his updates that charges have not been brought. I think I deserve to know if the investigation is still in progress and why it is taking so long to indict someone who has caused injury to so many people.”
Finkle, who has cooperated with state and federal investigators, is believed to be the single largest investor in Parker’s film. He’s owed roughly $600,000 in principal and interest.
While the criminal investigations remain secretive, Parker, cocreators and investors are waging a very public dispute about how to complete the film and get it into theaters.
“There are a number of film festivals we hope to enter … by late fall and early winter,” says Christopher White, one of several Parker allies who found money to hire a couple of Vermont filmmakers to complete Birth of Innocence and package it for theatrical release. Although White will not say how much of the film remains to be completed, he says the process will cost another $15,000 to $20,000. Burlington filmmaker Rob Koier has been hired to work on the movie, with Bill Kinzie and Art Bell as consultants.
White says Parker remains committed to getting the film “into distribution within a year” as a way of repaying investors and making good on his promises. Although he concedes that Parker “made some really poor decisions,” White observes, “his commitment has been unwavering.”
Meanwhile, Williams, who claims Parker pushed him out of his editor position on the film project in early 2010, has his own distribution ideas. He’s secured the interest of Sunset Pictures, a Hollywood production firm run by Martin Guigui, a former Vermont musician and artist who’s credited with directing such films as Benny Bliss and the Disciples of Greatness and National Lampoon’s Cattle Call.
Guigui tells Seven Days his firm will prepare Innocence for a public release as long as all legal issues are resolved.
To date, Parker and his allies have rejected Williams’ overtures, claiming he has no rights to the film. Williams disputes that and purports to possess the only existing copyright of the film itself. Neither side, Guigui notes, appears to have established a proper “chain of title” to the film, which puts the film’s ownership in some legal doubt.
“My heart goes out to all the investors; some of them are friends of mine,” Guigui says. “I’ve seen Horace’s version of the movie, and it’s very timely and timeless, with beautiful music and great images. They all did a great job — no one should be to blame here. If they can find a way to harmonically come together, as the film claims, then my company would love to put this out.”
According to emails obtained by Seven Days, investor loyalties are divided between Williams and Parker. They are united, however, in frustration over the film’s lack of progress.
The unending production is beginning to take on the quality of a Hollywood farce, but the investors’ despair is real. “As I have said over and over again, this was an investment for me, not a donation,” wrote Finkle. “Mac asked for my trust and as a result I have lost everything.”