Rancho Santa Fe production company celebrates positive power of film with ‘Grave Secrets’


By Matt Liebowitz


So many movies that make it to theatres are flashy, good-looking and glossy but ultimately vacuous. For kids, that usually goes double — they’re sugary, high-calorie doses of entertainment overload with no redeeming value, no takeaway message. Mantooth Films is out to change that, one film and one story at a time.

“Storytelling unites us,” said Dale Strack, who, along with Patti Judd and Emmy award-winning producer Tonya Mantooth, runs the Rancho Santa Fe-based film company Mantooth Films.

“We love to read good stories and tell good stories — we explain and teach through stories.”

The three-person production team’s love of solid storytelling is on full display in “Grave Secrets.” Starring Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner Diane Ladd and Jennifer Stone from the popular Disney series “Wizards of Waverly Place,” “Grave Secrets,” is Mantooth Films’ adaptation of the book of the same name, written in 1997 by New Jersey sisters Annette and Gina Cascone and published under the name A.G. Cascone.

“Grave Secrets” is the eighth book in the 17-book “Deadtime Stories” series of horror fiction novels, widely lauded not only for their entertainment but also for their kid-friendly bent and positive message.

“We’re over the moon about “Grave Secret,” Strack, a RSF-based entrepreneur, said. “It’s exciting because it [“Deadtime Stories”] is a series based on great stores, and the evidence is in the cast. When Diane Ladd and Jennifer Stone want to be a part of it, that’s exciting.”

“You want to do projects that have great stories that convey a lesson and make people think and grow,” Strack added.

Tonya Mantooth said “Grave Secrets,” co-produced with filmmaking brothers Scott and David Hillenbrand (from the “National Lampoon Presents Dorm Daze” franchise), includes “very real, clever kid dialogue” and wraps its message in a fun and eerie plot. And for some real-time reassurance before the film comes out — it’s slated to be released in early 2012 in theatres, DVD and TV — Mantooth and her partners prescreened the humorous horror flick to perhaps the toughest audience: a group of 11-year-olds. The results gave the producers a serious dose of encouragement.

“It was beyond like, they loved it,” said Judd, a San Diego native who brought her years of expertise in branding, publicity and marketing to Mantooth Films.

The week before showing “Grave Secrets” to their own children, the Mantooth team screened it for a focus group of 30 tweens. “Twenty-nine of 30 said they’d see it again,” Judd said.

The fun, however, isn’t just in the final product. Judd, Mantooth and Strack said the 16-day shoot, done off-lot in neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Ventura, was a wonderful experience, and often saw the set department totally transforming the facades of homes. They even invited local kids into scenes.

“We had a blast working on the film,” Mantooth said. “That old saying about never working with child actors didn’t hold up on this project. The entire cast and crew were simply amazing.”

Of course, like any large-scale creative venture, “Grave Secrets” had its challenges. But the team was ready and embraced the multi-pronged process. “It’s a balancing act,” Strack said. “There are so many moving parts, and lots of people bring their talent and skill; orchestrating all these people was fascinating.”

Mantooth agreed. “You have to love all the moving parts, and we do,” she said. Speaking about her colleagues, Mantooth sees each person’s particular skills as integral to the success of the final product. “We complement each other, and we all love managing all these big shifting pieces.”

The end result is, of course, what the trio behind Mantooth Films is most excited about. And, fresh from recently seeing the film in its entirety, they couldn’t be happier about the way it all came together.

“When you can step back, look at what you’ve produced on screen and see the reaction, from laughing to crying to invoking discussion, and you get something that can live on, that’s amazing,” Strack said.

“Grave Secrets” is just the beginning of Mantooth’s mission: also in post- production is the thriller “Killer Holiday.” And Mantooth films is also working on the social drama “Bone Game” and another “Deadtime Stories” revamp, “The Witching Game.”