The Beacon Apartments seemed charming enough when Bryn and Paul Shaw moved in, hoping to rebuild their lives following the presumed death of their young son. But a boy on the run from his abusive father had plummeted to his death down the murky shaft of the building’s wrought iron elevator. Bryn soon became involved in the mystery behind his death, hoping that if she freed the boy’s spirit, he could relay a message to her own dead son. What Bryn didn’t know was that another spirit haunted the building, one dead set against her plan.
Sound like a plot of a horror movie? That’s what Dallas lawyer Sally C. Helppie thought, so she produced it.
Helppie is of counsel at seven-lawyer Tipton Jones in Dallas where she practices commercial litigation and entertainment law. But she’s also president and co-founder of Sabbatical Pictures, the movie production company behind a feature film called “The Beacon.”
The movie stars Teri Polo of “Meet the Parents” and NBC’s “The West Wing”; David Rees Snell of FX network’s “The Shield”; and Ken Howard of “Michael Clayton.” Although it has not been officially released yet — post-production wrapped in November 2008 — it will be screened Saturday, March 28 at the Burbank International Film Festival.
“The Beacon” is the second film Dallas-based Sabbatical Pictures has completed since its launch in January 2007: The first, an action flick called “Exit Speed,” which was filmed near Coppell, debuted last year at the Cannes Film Market, the industry portion of the Cannes Film Festival. It enjoyed a limited theatrical release last September and on March 3 was released on DVD nationwide.
At the moment, Helppie is neck-deep in negotiations to license “The Beacon” to foreign and domestic film distributors. She hopes at least to have the foreign licensing deals done before she takes the film to Cannes in May.
It helps that on March 15, “The Beacon” took top honors at the Paranoia Horror Film Festival in Long Beach, Calif., and Polo won the “Best Actress” award.
Helppie isn’t a newcomer to show business. She started out as a working actor in Hollywood, making the move from Michigan to Los Angeles during college to create a career in front of the camera.
She lived in a less-than-glamorous apartment, worked as a waitress and landed some television and movie work. One of her first roles was playing a pregnant 14-year-old in an independent movie.
“I played a lot of teenagers when I was first starting,” she says. “I looked a lot younger than I was, so I could play teenagers even though I was 21.”
She liked the movie business, but she soon realized she craved more action than acting provided. “I learned it was kind of boring in front of the camera,” she says. She decided to continue from college to law school, “with the idea of doing something in broadcast journalism or in the entertainment field.”
It was at UCLA School of Law that she discovered something that blended her performance skills with the excitement she craved. “If you think about it, being a trial lawyer is like being an actor. With the jury there, you have a captive audience, and it moves a lot faster than a movie set.”
She graduated in 1985, intent on finding an associate position with a well-regarded litigation firm located in a warm climate. She found it with a Dallas firm then known as Johnson & Swanson.
There, she says she was in court immediately. “I cut my teeth on all the savings-and-loan problems,” she recalls.
While growing her skills, she also grew her family, giving birth to five children. “I had four as an associate at Johnson & Swanson and made partner on time and had one more as a partner there,” she says.
How did she do it? “I grew up in a large family, and I actually am one of those people who doesn’t need a lot of sleep, so it was just a matter of constant juggling,” she explains.
One of Helppie’s first supervising attorneys in the litigation section of Johnson & Swanson was E. Russell Nunnally. They would continue to work together through various Dallas firm incarnations until last fall, when she left Bell Nunnally & Martin to join Tipton Jones.
“She’s an extraordinary lawyer, a lot of energy, a lot of intelligence, hardworking and very skilled,” Nunnally says. In court, he describes her as articulate and fast on her feet. “As a trial lawyer, you have to be somewhat aggressive, and she was aggressive and combative when necessary,” he says.
She also supported other lawyers, including women, he says. “She was a great role model. Although the glass ceiling had been broken, she was one of the early female litigators and partners and was a good mentor to a lot of women who came in.”
Yet Helppie never completely severed her ties to the movie business. Through the years, she maintained a small entertainment law practice, representing a few writers and independent production companies on the side.
Much of her work focused on negotiating contracts and putting together financing documents, she says.
So when one of her entertainment law clients approached her at the end of 2006 with the idea of starting a production company in Dallas, she agreed to give it a try.
Helppie and her client founded Sabbatical Pictures in January 2007. The name, explains Helppie, comes from the timing: She and her business partner had started planning the company around the time her year-long sabbatical from Bell Nunnally & Martin was ending.
Helppie says she decided to take a year off from the firm basically to recharge her batteries after 20 years of practice and to share time with her family.
“My oldest was off at college by then, but I was able to spend some time with the younger four,” she says. She did some substitute teaching at her daughter’s magnet high school, where she also coached the school’s mock trial team.
Yet she wasn’t entirely absent from the law. She says she did handle small matters and kept in touch with the firm and with her litigation and entertainment law clients.
“It’s hard to make a complete break, both from a responsibility standpoint and also when you’ve practiced law that long, it’s hard to just step away. It’s who you are, and it’s in your blood,” she says. “And I like being a lawyer. I am not one of those lawyers who say, ‘I hate it’ and only do it for the money.”
She returned to her firm in December 2006 and the next month became president of the newly formed Sabbatical Pictures.
The first order of business: finding a movie to produce. “We started reading scripts, and we read a lot of scripts, but we were not finding anything we thought was both good and affordable,” she says.
So Helppie turned to her husband, Michael Stokes, who just happens to be an award-winning professional screenwriter.
“I asked him, and then it came down to, ‘What do you have?’ ” she says. Turns out, he had a script for a movie called “ Exit Speed,” so Helppie says she convinced him “that we needed to buy it for a low price.” (Stokes also provided the script — and the directing — for “The Beacon,” a piece Helppie says he’d started years ago but never finished.)
The next step was production. “As a producer, you are in charge of everything. You are the ultimate ‘big boss,’ ” she explains. “ I work with the casting director and with hiring all the ‘keys,’ which are the department heads — you’ll have heads of accounting, camera units, grips — and then I let them hire their staff. I am very involved in budgeting initially and then monitoring the budget throughout production. I also have to deal with emergencies.”
“The Beacon” supposedly takes place in a San Francisco apartment building, but it was actually filmed primarily at the historic Rogers Hotel in Waxahachie, Helppie says.
“[T]he Rogers Hotel is reportedly haunted, and it was a great place to shoot,” she says.
“We came in and rented most of the hotel. Our production design team turned it into an apartment house. They already had a creepy old elevator in it, with the wrought iron gates, which was exactly what we needed. But the elevator didn’t have that escape hatch in the roof, so our production design team built it in a warehouse also in Waxahachie and matched it to the elevator [in the hotel]. So when you see Teri Polo go into the elevator and look around and then go up the hatch, it’s two different shots on two different days.”
There certainly are some benefits to being in charge, like getting to cast your friends and family as extras.
“Extras are not covered by SAG [Screen Actors Guild] contracts, so you can let friends and relatives have walk-on parts without dealing with union contracts,” Helppie explains.
She also was able to hand a plum walk-on role to friend and former Johnson & Swanson colleague Paul E. Coggins. Now a principal in the Dallas office of Fish & Richardson, Coggins served as the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas from 1993 to 2001.
In both films, Coggins appears as a doctor and gets his name in the closing credits. In “Exit Speed,” he can be seen through an interior window and over the shoulder of a main character, walking through the hospital’s reception area in a long white coat.
Jokes Helppie, “He was so convincing in ‘Exit Speed’ that I called him up and asked him to reprise his role.”
Coggins says he “jumped at the chance” to appear in Helppie’s films. Although he does admit to being “a bit worried about being typecast,” he says he’s willing to don the white coat again, as often as needed. “In every one of these movies, there has to be a bus crash or someone shot, so there will be work for me,” he says.
While he enjoyed his cameo role, he says the real treat was watching Helppie work. “It was fascinating to watch the films being made, to see how much effort and work it was and to see how effortlessly Sally put it together,” he raves.
After the actual shooting of a film is completed, it enters post-production, a phase Helppie says can take longer than the actual production.
“That’s when you’re editing it, figuring out the music, the score, the special effects, the color correction, all of that,” she says.
Once a film is completed, Helppie’s legal skills kick into overdrive to negotiate foreign and domestic distribution. She helped negotiate the domestic DVD release of “Exit Speed,” as well as the foreign rights that have allowed it to be on screen right now in a number of foreign countries, she says. With “The Beacon,” she’s leading the distribution negotiations. She does not yet know whether the film will see a domestic theatrical release.
“The goal is to make a lot of licensing agreements,” she says. “Movie rights go on a long time, so you have decades of an income stream with cable, DVD and re-releases.”
Helppie declines to put a dollar figure on the production of the two films — she says ongoing distribution negotiations could be affected if she revealed the amount — but she does allow that both came in under $5 million.
Both movies, she says, are on track, revenue-wise. “Am I making money? Yes. Have I turned a profit yet? Not quite,” she says.
A Different Angle
Producing a movie requires a staggering amount of work, especially considering Helppie never intended to make Sabbatical Pictures a priority.
“The original plan was that I was going to come back full time as a partner, but it became clear after about six months that this was a full-time job,” she says. “I enjoyed it and wanted to continue to do it on a full-time basis.”
She says Bell Nunnally was flexible with the demands of her dual careers, but as production on “Exit Speed” ramped up, she realized she would have to make a choice between law partnership and movie production. Hollywood won.
“I gave up my partnership to start the movie business because you can’t do both; I don’t think you can reasonably do both,” she says. She stayed with the firm until the fall of 2008 as an employee and as a contractor before moving to an of counsel position with Tipton Jones.
“They brought me in to head up the entertainment law practice; they have a couple of other people there who do entertainment law,” she says.
In fact it was one of those people, Mike Farris, who brought Helppie and the firm together in the first place.
Farris practices commercial litigation with Tipton Jones; he’s of counsel because he, too, has a second career in the arts. Together with his wife, who also is a lawyer, Farris runs a literary agency. He’s also an author and a screenwriter. His biography, “Call Me Lucky: A Texan in Hollywood,” published by the University of Oklahoma Press, is set for a September release, and a Los Angeles producer has optioned two of his television series ideas, he says.
Farris says he met Helppie when he reached out to her in early 2008 after coming across her name in a newspaper article as a local attorney who also is a film producer. He thought they’d share mutual interests, so he says he sent her an e-mail. They met for coffee, and Farris says he was instantly impressed. “I was very struck by how open she was. A lot of times people in the arts are a bit stand-offish, and lawyers can be somewhat arrogant, but she was just like a normal person — very friendly, very open and very helpful.”
There was no discussion of joining Tipton Jones at that point, Farris says, and he can’t recall who brought it up first or how it happened to come about. But he says he arranged for her to meet with his firm and “it went from there.”
By the fall of 2008, Helppie had become of counsel at the firm, a change she says “just made sense.”
“The move was made so I could have colleagues with entertainment law experience and the flexibility to work full time in the entertainment industry and somewhat less than full time as an entertainment lawyer,” she says.
Firm co-founder Paul W. Tipton applauds the situation. “We have been very pleased with this arrangement. Making movies is kind of an unusual and demanding thing — you have to be flexible,” he says. But it’s not just hospitality. Tipton says entertainment law makes good business sense.
“It’s an area we got into a few years ago; film is an area that’s developing in Texas and developing fairly quickly,” he says. “It’s a niche that’s growing, and we’re glad to be a part of it.”
Firm co-founder Andrew L. Jones agrees. He says his firm’s entertainment practice “has the potential for being a revenue source,” especially work connected to bigger budget movies. With the smaller clients, Jones says the firm is “trying to plant some seeds at the very beginning,” which will hopefully bring in more business as the clients take on bigger films and projects.
Jones, himself an aspiring screenwriter, admires what Farris and Helppie have achieved, both as lawyers and as artists. “I think that’s the holy grail for an attorney or for anyone — to actually be able to make a living doing something that you really enjoy,” he says.
Although Helppie is busy with distribution deals for “Exit Speed” and “The Beacon,” she remains actively engaged in her commercial litigation practice, handling work for the clients who came with her to Tipton Jones. She also serves as the chairwoman of the Dallas Bar Association’s Litigation Section. Her entertainment law practice is similarly thriving — right now she’s working on financing documents for a client involved with a new Johnny Depp movie.
Of course she’s also looking ahead to Sabbatical Pictures’ next project, which may turn out to be another action film.
“We’re aiming for one production a year, which is actually quite a lot for an independent company,” she says.
One type of movie Helppie says she’s not likely to produce is anything involving law.
“I get a lot of submitted scripts from lawyers — the legal drama — but the hard part about that is that there’s no foreign market for it,” she says, which means missing out on a significant revenue source.
Foreign movie-goers “don’t understand our legal system,” she explains. “It’s just like comedies are hard. Unless they’re slapstick, there’s too much of a language barrier.” Better sellers, she says, are movies that are “family-friendly, action, horror and things with A-list actors.”
Coggins doesn’t doubt that, whatever Helppie and Sabbatical Pictures produce next, it will be a winner.
“I am a huge fan of Sally. I’ve been a fan of hers since she was a baby lawyer,” he says. “I think a lot of lawyers dream of doing something creative like this, and Sally is the type of person who makes it happen.”