For Texas High School graduate Travis Mann, attending a local premiere of a movie that opened across the nation may feel like a daydream from back in his youthful days of watching Steven Spielberg flicks.
But happen it sure did when "I Can Only Imagine," a movie about MercyMe singer and songwriter Bart Millard, opened in Texarkana.
Mann, whose high school years were spent here in Texarkana, followed his dream to study business, gain practical experience on movie sets, graduate from law school, work in the movie industry for Disney and other companies and then start his own company, Cobalt Pictures.
Mann was an executive producer for "I Can Only Imagine," which as of this past weekend had earned $70 million since opening in mid-March, bankrolled by just an estimated $7 million budget, according to IMDB.
"It's been a long road to get here," admitted Mann earlier this week, reflecting on the journey that's taken him to this point.
For young Travis, movies were forever an interest, whether it was seeing films in the days of George Lucas and "Star Wars" or shooting his own student films. His imagination was captured. In high school, he started thinking about what he wanted to do with his life, and he took a cue from sound advice given to him.
He recalls being told that every industry in some way is related to money and capital, so he decided to attend Southern Methodist University, where he studied finance but never lost interest in movies. Then he saw that Oliver Stone was coming to the area to film a movie.
"He was coming to Dallas to make movies and he did a movie called 'Born the on Fourth of July' with Tom Cruise," Mann recalled. Cruise was a young star back then.
And with an SMU friend working on the production, Mann's plucky persistence and offer to work for free eventually landed him a gopher job on set. His eagerness—and dogged persistence—led to more work, and then again to do the same for "JFK."
Mann would pick people up from the airport, answer the phones and run all sorts of errands. He'd also drive the original, unprocessed 35 mm film, safely packed into film cans, to and from the airport to be sent to New York City for processing, he explains. A screening copy would be flown back to the production crew. Editors would sync the sound with the infamous "Clack!" from the film slate, and from there they'd watch these "dailies," he said.
"It sounds ridiculous but was actually very important," he recalled. If anything happened to the film, an entire day of production would be lost.
In his routine trips to pick up industry folks at the airport, he'd talk with them about the movie business. He remembers someone suggested law school, so he studied at UCLA, choosing electives where he could learn about intellectual property and copyright. He worked for the Directors Guild of America for a semester.
"It was a great education and a wonderful background because so much about putting projects together for films is about contracts," Mann said about law school. It certainly paid off when he started his company, Cobalt, about five years ago.
Along the way, that legal knowledge empowered him in the industry. He worked in-house for Walt Disney Pictures on theatrical legal affairs. He'd work on all the legal agreements necessary, such as location agreements or cast and crew agreements, and intellectual property like screenplay rights.
"It was a great educational experience to see inside the studio system and meet a lot of fantastic people there," Mann said about time with Disney. He left to work at a Beverly Hills law firm, and then he worked with people who were interested in backing a Christian film. That was fun and exciting, he said, but the response was tepid.
"It didn't set Hollywood afire," Mann said about the response to this movie.
He pitched movie ideas to studios but found himself frustrated. So, he ventured into work as a lawyer and deal-maker for a company involved in international film sales. It gave him practical knowledge about cobbling together the financial backing for independent movies.
Mann realized this type of producing was a workable idea, and he wanted to do this for what he describes as "positively inspiring content."
"I wanted to do it with true life stories that are positive, inspirational, full of hope and redemption," Mann said. They're the kind of movies he loves, and he's quick to name examples like "Chariots of Fire" and "The Blind Side" as movies he would've loved to have produced.
He wanted to raise the bar with Christian films and their quality. Now, he's worked on "I Can Only Imagine," which found both an audience and generally favorable reviews by the critics. It was an attractive project from the beginning.
"When I first heard of the story, I thought this is a really powerful story," Mann recalled. He saw that it had the elements to elevate and separate itself from others, in part because of the song and built-in fan base. Still, the response wasn't quite what he anticipated—in a positive way.
"I am surprised at its success. It is a very pleasant surprise. I felt in my heart of hearts it would do OK," Mann said, commending the Erwin brothers, Andrew and Jon, for their direction, and the actors for their performances. He's moved to cry every time he sees the movie.
Here in Texarkana, he attended premiere with his mother, Ginger Mann. "It was very exciting," he said. He went from having produced a movie few people saw to this wonderful experience. He'd hoped his mother and her friends weren't the only other people there at the local show, but the theater was packed.
"The crowd was just enormous and they loved the picture," said Mann, who returns to Texarkana for holidays and family visits. "That's still where I go home to," he said.
What's next for Mann? Another inspirational true story, he says. It's the story of Irena Gut, a Catholic Polish woman, who hid 12 Jewish people in the villa of the ranking Nazi officer of her region during World War II. It's slated to start filming later this year with Jan Komasa, a Polish director, at the helm, said Mann.
"It's just one of those 'wow' kind of stories where you can't believe it actually happened," Mann said.