Motivating Movies, With a Maryland Touch
Disney+ Release ‘Safety’ Becomes the Latest on Terp Producer’s List of Underdog Films
The USA hockey team upsetting the Soviet Union in the Olympics. A 35-year-old pitcher making his MLB debut. A horse owner fostering a colt to Triple Crown glory.
Many are familiar with these athletic feats not only from cheering as they happened or flipping through the record books, but also from watching the fan-favorite movies that they inspired. Besides the feel-good plots, the films share another common feature: They were all produced by a Terp.
Mark Ciardi ’83, co-founder, president and CEO of Select Films and a member of the University of Maryland College Park Foundation’s Board of Trustees, has worked behind the scenes on ultimate underdog movies including “Miracle,” “The Rookie” and “Secretariat.” Now, the Terp-turned-movie-producer is adding another film to his growing list with “Safety,” the real-life story of a Clemson football player taking custody of his 11-year-old brother, which is being released Friday on Disney+.
“I became kind of known as the sports film guy,” Ciardi said. “But really, it’s inspirational stories.”
Though he grew up in New Jersey, Ciardi immediately felt at home at UMD, which his two older sisters had also attended. The Terps had recruited him to play baseball, and between studying for his marketing classes, the pitcher impressed enough on the diamond to be drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1983.
He notched five years of professional ball, debuting in the major leagues in 1987, but injuries ultimately cut his career short. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he had often spent the off-seasons, with an interest in joining several friends in the movie industry. Although he had no formal training and started “out of a garage,” he said, those relationships helped him get his foot in the door.
It also didn’t hurt that the subject of his first movie, “The Rookie,” was his former minor league teammate Jim Morris, played on-screen by actor Dennis Quaid. That 2002 success got the ball rolling for other “based-on-a-true-story” classics.
“You really have to be persistent—it’s a long play with movies,” Ciardi said. “You’ve got to have these kind of arrows in the quiver of stories that you really love and scripts that you really love, and never give up on trying to get them made.”
“Safety” fits that narrative. Ciardi first encountered the story of Ray Ray McElrathbey, a former Clemson cornerback who raised his little brother on campus while their mother battled addiction, over a decade ago during an ESPN gameday feature. Moved by the young player’s courage, he got in touch with McElrathbey, obtained the rights to the story and ultimately landed at Disney, which felt like a perfect fit for the film, Ciardi said.
Even before COVID-19 shuttered theaters, he had always intended for “Safety” to be released on the new Disney+ streaming platform. Luckily, filming wrapped last year before the pandemic, allowing for highlights such as shooting at a live Tigers game in front of 85,000 fans.
“It was pretty magical,” Ciardi said. “Most of the time, you have to (computer-generate) crowds, you cheat it. We didn’t have to do anything. It’s not that much time in the movie, but when you get to it, it takes your breath away.”
Ciardi has other uplifting films in the works, including projects featuring former quarterback Kurt Warner, astronaut José Hernandez and soccer goalie Tim Howard. In the meantime, he rolled back the reel with Maryland Today to share some behind-the-scenes memories from past favorites:
Besides shooting the high-energy hockey scenes depicting Team USA’s stunning 1980 Olympic victory, Ciardi’s top memory from this movie came from the premiere: The curtains opened to reveal the real former players from that iconic squad, prompting “USA! USA!” chants from the crowd.
“That movie probably still has the most staying power,” Ciardi said. “It’s one of those movies that a lot of teams watch and put on before games.”
After starting Ciardi’s movie career and reconnecting him to an old teammate—“I hadn’t talked to him in 11 years, and all of a sudden I’m reading about him,” he said—“The Rookie” remains a personal favorite.
He also fondly remembers running Dennis Quaid onto the field between innings to film during an actual Texas Rangers game and then screening the movie for President George W. Bush at the White House.
While chronicling the story of one of the most dominant racehorses in history, Ciardi got to meet the colt’s real-life owner, Penny Chenery, whom he called “the queen of horse racing.” That, along with filming at the Kentucky Derby, were definite highlights.
“Showing the film to the people the movie’s about is the most satisfying thing,” he said.
The same sentiment rang true for “Invincible,” during which Ciardi relished getting to know Vince Papale, the inspiration behind the film, and learning about his unlikely route to joining the Philadelphia Eagles. The producer also enjoyed working with the movie version of Papale, actor Mark Wahlberg.
“That was one of those projects that when it happened in 1976, there was almost a movie,” Ciardi said, “and then about 20-25 years later, we got the rights and kind of found this story and thought, ‘What a great underdog story.’”
A pivot into kids’ movies, this portrayal of a hockey-player-turned-magical-creature was actually Ciardi’s second straight film featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. After starring in “The Game Plan,” Johnson wanted to work with Ciardi again on the comedy, which grossed over $112 million worldwide.
“It was fun, kind of a silly concept that was watched a lot with families,” Ciardi said.