From Processing ‘Scripts’ to Reading Scripts: How 3 Ex Optical Lab Owners Found Success in the Film Biz

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Michael Rothstein (l) with Crypto star Luke Hemsworth.


It’s a plotline straight out of the movies. Three former optical wholesale lab owners leave behind the daily grind of making prescription eyewear to become producers of independent films featuring Alec Baldwin, John Malkovich, Kurt Russell, Marisa Tomei and other big name screen stars.

Like the legal disclaimer seen at the start of many movies, this story is based on actual events. In fact, the main characters—Michael J. Rothstein, formerly Hirsch Optical in New York, Mike Palkovicz, formerly of I-See Optical Lab in New Jersey and Greg Ruden, formerly of Expert Optics in Illinois—are real people who are well-known to many in the optical industry. How they landed their dream job is the true story of three middle-aged guys who each sold their successful family business to an international conglomerate, invested some of their profits in an indie production company, took a leap into the unknown and landed on their feet. In my conversations with this trio of ex-lab execs, I learned that the transition from producing prescription eyeglasses to producing independent films is not as unlikely as it might sound.

“It was a natural fit. We were all bonded by common life experiences. We all were entrepreneurs rooted in family-owned optical businesses. We all exited on high notes as CEOs of our respective businesses when they were purchased by Essilor,” said Michael Rothstein, who ventured into the film industry in 2013 when he joined Yale Productions.







Photos courtesy of
Yale Productions.












His first project was “Addiction: A 60’s Love Story.” Since then, Rothstein and his partners have created projects such as “After Everything” starring Marisa Tomei, which premiered at SXSW 2018; “The Escape of Prisoner 614” starring Ron Perlman and Martin Starr; “Crypto” starring Kurt Russell and Luke Hemsworth and “Already Gone, a collaboration with Keanu Reeves.

Recent releases include “I Used to Go Here,” which debuted at SXSW ’20 and stars Gillian Jacobs and Jemaine Clement, and “Becky,” a 2020 Tribeca Film Festival entry starring Kevin James, Lulu Wilson and Joel McHale. Rothstein’s most recent productions are “Chick Fight,” a comedy currently streaming on Amazon Prime that stars Alec Baldwin, Malin Akerman and Bella Thorne and “Red 48” an action thriller starring John Malkovich, Tyrese Gibson and Michael Jai White.

Rothstein said that many of the skills he acquired as a lab owner and manager are directly applicable in his new career.

“Some of the most important things I learned through optical were budgeting and managing projects. In film, I’ve noticed a lot of people don’t have that. Some have connections to talent or distributors or salespeople. But for me it’s understanding how to create a process, how to make it efficient and make it work. I love that part. It’s directly correlated from my optical days.

“When I was in the lab business we were a multilayer, big company,” he said. “You got exposure to sales to marketing to manufacturing, all those aspects. You couldn’t just worry about one fire, you had to juggle everything, no matter what stage you were in the process. In the film business, you can have one project in post-production and another being released in theaters, and you’re getting ready to shoot your next one, so it was good that I learned to juggle.”

One of Rothstein’s biggest takeaways from his optical career is understanding how to manage the people on his team, a valuable skill that has helped him succeed in the film business.

“My dad [the late Hal Rothstein] instilled in me the importance of relationships, how to treat people and how you want them to treat you. Everyone is important. It doesn’t matter what level they’re at, they all make it work.

“But not everyone takes that approach on the producing side. They may not go on a set and meet the crew and the people behind the scenes, and learn who’s doing what. That was always important to me when I was manufacturing lenses. I always wanted to know what everyone did.”




Mike Palkovicz.


 
 Mike and Jackie Palkovicz on the set of “Chick Fight.”
 
When Rothstein told his friend, Mike Palkovicz, about his new career in the film business, Palkovicz, a lifelong movie fan, became intrigued. In 2018, he and his wife, Jackie, met with Rothstein and Jordan Yale Levine, one of the partners in Yale Productions, at Vision Expo East in 2018.

“‘Burn’ was the first movie we got in involved in,” Palkovicz recalled. “After doing our due diligence and reading the script, we got excited. I wanted to see the mechanism by which everything works. I wanted to learn about everything from pre-production to the premier of the movie.”



Photo courtesy of
Yale Productions.




Palkovicz signed on as producer, and in August 2019, he and his colleagues went to the premiere of “Burn” at the AMC Theater in Times Square. “Watching the movie on the big screen was pretty cool. It was like, ‘Hey Ma, I made it to Times Square!’”

In addition to its theatrical releases, Yale Productions also releases films through television networks and streaming services such as HBO, Amazon and Hulu, which have become even more essential outlets since the COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered many movie theaters. Palkovicz sees a parallel between doing business with these major outlets and his experience as an independent wholesale distributor for major lens manufacturers.

“These guys [Yale] bring credibility and they bring major players to the party. So being in optical and working with the Essilors, the Youngers, the SOLAs, the Zeiss’, the discipline that those companies had is the way Yale does business. Everything is done in a professional manner. What a transition for us… no pun intended!”



Greg Ruden



Greg Ruden, a longtime friend of both Rothstein and Palkovicz, joined Yale Productions seven months ago. The trio is currently collaborating on “The Survivalist,” an action thriller starring John Malkovich, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ruby Modine. It’s Palkovicz’s fifth and Ruden’s second film project with Rothstein and Yale Productions.

“When I got involved, I had just finished my agreement with Essilor,” Ruden said. “I looked at this as an investment opportunity. I thought the time was right, because where would you want to invest your money during COVID? Now some people say it’s the worst time to get into the film business, but I disagree. With all the theaters being shut down, it leveled the playing field for the independent film company.”

Like Rothstein and Palkovicz, Ruden knows what it takes to run an independent business successfully. “You talk about independents, and that’s what we are. When I was with Expert Optics, which was also independent, you had to work hard and you had to be competent. And if you didn’t work hard and you weren’t competent you didn’t eat. I see the same thing with Yale Productions.”

Both Palkovicz and Ruden have other business investments, but both agree that being in the film industry is uniquely satisfying.

“This has been my favorite investment because of the process of reading the script, watching the talent attached to it, seeing it being made and then finally seeing the finished product. You sit back and think about how it all came together,” said Palkovicz. “It’s a blow your mind moment.”

This is the first in an occasional series about "Life After Optical." If you or someone you know has an interesting post-optical career they'd like to share with VMAIL readers, please email Andrew Karp at akarp@jobson.com.