Ari Mark, co-founder and president of Ample Entertainment, is executive producer (with Phil Lott) of Cold Case Files (2017). He flipped open his files and told A&E True Crime how they find their cases, what makes them solvable and the true crime he’s dying to tackle.
What makes a good cold case for you?
We’re looking for really passionate, devoted investigators. We’re looking for investigators that have a passion project and, on top of that, a family that’s willing essentially to re-live those events. Sometimes those two things merge — so that if it weren’t for the family calling 14 times a day, the case wouldn’t get picked up. Then if it wasn’t for the investigator taking these calls and visiting with the family and re-interviewing them and re-interviewing witnesses…it has to work on both levels. Then from a TV format standpoint, there needs to be enough of an investigative process that we’re able to cliff-hang, because we’re in a world of ad breaks. We have to make sure we have multiple suspects, “aha” moments, and that we’ve got active process. If the case is cold a year and suddenly the murderer confesses, then it’s not as interesting and won’t sustain an hour of programming.
What are the meetings like where you consider the cases?
We have a team of researchers we meet with weekly. If I feel like the case has enough variety or would really pop, they start doing intense research. We hire journalists who are very, very good at digging. Let’s dig further — which means getting on the phone with all of these people and saying “Hey, 25 years ago…” and they’re like “Holy Sh**, I have to pull up the 1,700-page case file to refresh my memory.” You’re dealing with a lot of obstacles. You’re dealing with time — that can be a real obstacle in jogging people’s memories, getting them to be able to relive these moments. You’re often on the phone with these people dozens of times trying to piece together what makes the case unique.
Writing about true crime, you have to remember that this is people’s lives — their sister was killed or their dad was a killer. How do you hang onto that?
You get really attached to the stories and the families. First of all, as producers you question what the hell are we doing? You get very careful about how we talk about their loss. Because, it’s their loss — and let’s be clear — their lives are ruined. Yes, there’s closure for them in these cases and “justice” has been served, but not only did they suffer this unimaginable loss, but they were in a state of purgatory for 10, 20, 40 years with no answers — just waiting. And plenty of people abandoned them and their story. For the few that didn’t, they’re heroic for doing it, for sticking by them and re-igniting this case. It starts to feel like the more of these we do — it does feel like a mission. You start to realize where media can really be important. Media and technology. As time passes these cases do become more solvable. The problem is there’s close to 300,000 murders that haven’t been solved. And most of the reason they haven’t been solved is because nobody really cares and there are no resources. It’s pretty unbelievable — the fact that only one percent are getting solved.
Do you think cold case detectives are different from other detectives?
There’s two types. There’s the old guard of investigators, because before there was no such thing as a cold case unit. Before, it was just homicide investigators and they did the best with what they had and oftentimes they were really strapped. Resources were limited and technology was not what it is. Years later you have pretty momentous advancements in crime technology. Somebody new comes in, a new investigator, or a new family member pushes and pushes or there’s the anniversary of the murder or a press conference about the murder or a bone is found in woods (there’s all these catalysts that heat up cases). The new generation of cold case detectives, post 2003, obviously have an advantage. The question then becomes which case to open. It’s not “Can we solve it?” It comes down to “Do we have the time and resources?” Usually the answer is no.
How important was it to do the dramatizations of the crimes in a cinematic way?
We insert scripted moments to add another layer to the show. There’s different ways to do it. You can be more abstract by blurring faces and using slow-motion. There’s also something to be said for the old way — being very literal. There’s plusses and minuses to both. Sometimes keeping it very literal is good to keep the audience engaged.
Do you have a “dream” true crime story you’d like to tackle?
I’ve always been fascinated with the Zodiac killer. I know it’s been overdone a million times, but what got me interested in it was one of our episodes from the previous season about Ed Edwards. It was the story of the guy who was ultimately convicted of killing this young couple out in Wisconsin farm country. It’s very Jinx-like in that they caught him on tape muttering to himself that he killed them. That really got me going because there were theories that he could have been a serial killer and had spent time in the other areas where the other murders took place. There’s a lot of theories around him being the Zodiac.
Did your background working in the gaming world [as SVP of Original Programming for Xbox Entertainment Studios] influence your current work?
I spent a lot of time working in the Interactive TV world, so the way my brain thinks is… threads, is the best way I can say it. It’s how you weave together multiple stories, multiple threads, and that kind of “choose your own adventure” mentality — where this character could go this way and this character could go that way, but ultimately they end up in the same place. It’s such a complicated way of storytelling that I feel like once you can grasp that you can pretty much grasp anything.