Dan in Real Life

How Dan Satorius went from Normal to Sweet Land

Published in 2008 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine

By Marc Conklin on August 10, 2008


An autumn afternoon in a quiet Illinois town, circa 1955. A young boy cranes his neck, straining to see around the people in front of him. Finally, a clearing. An Art Moderne–style movie theater towers above him. His eyes follow the word “NORMAL” as it runs down to a blinking marquee: Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. The boy plunges his left hand into his pocket, checking for change. He has enough. He smiles and marches toward the box office.

This is how the opening scene in a biopic on Minneapolis lawyer and producer Dan Satorius might read. Although the protagonist himself would never greenlight the idea (out of decorum and the fact that he prefers documentaries), the tale of a boy who journeys from watching Saturday matinees in Normal, Ill., to co-chairing the Midwest’s largest entertainment law practice is undeniably cinematic.

Act I: Normal Theater

The central Illinois prairie is not the likeliest of backdrops for a man who today carries 15 IMDb credits. As the son of an electrical contractor and a homemaker, Satorius remembers Normal as, well, normal. And conservative. “If you want to find Normal on a map, it’s to the right of Peoria, in every way,” he quips, adding that the values he was raised with—family, church, education, individualism, public service and volunteerism—were actually shared by ’50s conservatives and ’60s hippies alike.

But amid the cornfields and insurance offices, something rose above the Normal plains. The Normal Theater (pronounced thee-AY-ter) on North Street stoked Satorius’ imagination. “It was my babysitter on Saturday afternoons,” he recalls. “Davy Crockett was the first movie I remember seeing. But there was also Old Yeller, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Ben-Hur, Birdman of Alcatraz, Lawrence of Arabia, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance …” He can go on. 

Did these now-classic films inspire the impressionable boy to seek fame and fortune as an actor—joining a pantheon of Normal greats that includes, let’s see, there has to be one—McLean Stevenson? No, but they did make him want to produce. And when a Midwestern kid has that kind of ambition, he looks west. So at the age of 18, Satorius packed his bags and headed along Interstates 74 and 80 for … Iowa. 

Act II: Fear and Trembling

Satorius wanted to stay grounded in the prairie so he pursued his higher education at the University of Iowa. He remembers Iowa City as a relatively radical environment. “This was Vietnam, the Kent State era. We closed down the school my freshman year,” he recalls with a smile. 

The atmosphere inspired an artistic awakening in him. After running the Iowa student film festival, Refocus, for two years, Satorius got the bug to pursue film on the graduate level. He chose the nation’s oldest graduate film program, which just happened to be at the University of Iowa. The Master of Arts in motion picture production was revered for theory, history and criticism, but Satorius immersed himself in production. Everything converged in his thesis film, Fear and Trembling, which he describes as an “experimental narrative” based on Søren Kierkegaard’s 1843 philosophical work of the same name.

Satorius acknowledged some fear and trembling of his own about entering the real world. He decided to delay it by following his wife, Tonda Mattie (whom he had met as an undergraduate), to law school. “I thought a legal education might add credibility to my future producing career,” he says. “Luckily, Tonda applied to one I could get into.” So in the summer of 1975, he and Mattie prepared for a move east—back to Illinois.

Act III: Do the Right Thing

The initial experience at Southern Illinois University’s School of Law in Carbondale wasn’t what Satorius expected. “This was the age of The Paper Chase, so you had professors saying, ‘Here’s a dime, call your mother … there’s considerable doubt about you ever becoming an attorney,’ that kind of thing. It was very affected, and it wasn’t at all like my previous graduate school experience.”

Midway through his first year — deep in the cold of winter, his legal career in doubt — Satorius got a phone call. A former film school professor informed him that Fear and Trembling had been nominated for a prestigious student Academy Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “I hung up and thought, ‘Now what do I do?’” he recalls. “Do I quit law school like I really want to, or do I finish because it’s the right thing to do?” 

Ultimately, his pragmatic side won out, and he decided to persevere in law school (and the film didn’t end up winning). He didn’t realize it yet, but his personal, professional and artistic paths were about to intertwine, involving law, art and Tonda Mattie. 

Intermission: Easy Rider(s)

Three years later, their licenses secured, Satorius and Mattie sold their trailer, bought a tandem bike and started pedaling to the West Coast. 

Over the next several months, they followed the Bikecentennial Trail through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming, then rode a combination of bikes, trains and ferries to southern Washington, Vancouver Island, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tucson, New Orleans and Minneapolis. The experience made a lasting impact. “Other than raising our children, that bike trip was one of the greatest things Tonda and I have ever done,” says the father of three. “You had to be optimistic about this country after an experience like that.” 

Despite knowing virtually no one in the Twin Cities, the couple settled in Minneapolis. “We were impressed with the culture in the Twin Cities, especially after seeing The Crucible at the Guthrie Theater,” Satorius says. “We just decided, we’re from the Midwest, our families are from the Midwest, let’s stay here.” Mattie helped set up the Chrysalis Center’s legal clinic while Satorius produced documentaries, corporate videos and TV ads for the Russell-Manning production company. Before long, the couple decided to hang its own shingle as Satorius & Mattie. 

Satorius could have chosen a more lucrative practice, but he stuck to his interests. A musician himself (saxophone and keyboards), he tapped into a growing pool of musical talent in the Twin Cities over the next several years—acquiring a client list that included The Replacements, Soul Asylum, Trip Shakespeare, Mint Condition, Semisonic and Prince’s NPG Records. He was busy and happy, but still, he missed film. Then he met Ken Abdo.

Act IV: A Simple Plan

Upon arriving in Lansdowne, Va., for the ABA’s Entertainment & Sports Annual Meeting, he shared a room with Abdo, a fellow Twin Cities attorney. The two clicked. “We decided right then and there to start a dedicated entertainment law practice,” recalls Abdo, who at the time was only dabbling in it. “And within just two years, that’s exactly what we were doing.” 

Satorius joined Abdo & Abdo as a partner in 1994. Five years later, the firm bloomed into Abdo, Abdo, Broady & Satorius. And in January 2006, it merged with Lommen, Nelson, Cole & Stageberg to create Lommen, Abdo, Cole, King & Stageberg, P.A. (marketed as Lommen Abdo). Satorius and Abdo’s complementary nature has always made their partnership work. “Dan is ‘indie’; I’m more mainstream,” says Abdo. “He’s personally conservative, politically liberal; I’m almost the other way around. He has Stanley Kubrick taped to his wall. I’ve got a poster of The Archies. That tells you all you need to know.” 

Satorius now represents a wide swath of producers, publishers, distributors, artists, writers and performers in music, television, book publishing, computer and interactive media industries. But his primary concentration is film. “With my background as a filmmaker, I know more than the paperwork,” he says. “I come at it from a focus on the work. My clients have a passion for what they do, and likewise.”

Act V: Sweet Land

“Passion” is a word that pops up often when people describe Satorius. “Dan has a passion for independent film,” says Ali Selim, the writer/director behind Sweet Land (2005) and a longtime Satorius friend and client. “Dan is successful because he genuinely likes what he does. I probably call him every day, and I’ll work with him forever.”

Abdo agrees about the Satorius enthusiasm. “Dan is as passionate as anyone I’ve ever met,” he says. “He’s a great advocate, and loyal to everyone in his life. You want to work with someone who’s got your back. Dan is definitely that guy.”

Satorius was instrumental in bringing Sweet Land into theaters, taking the somewhat unusual step of helping Selim set up his own distribution company. After its theatrical success, Satorius negotiated the DVD rights with Fox Home Video. And more recently, he secured a TV distribution agreement with MGM.

Today, sitting in Lommen Abdo’s 20th-floor conference room in the IDS Center, Satorius is certainly far from Normal. He has collected contacts across the country and has represented people in every aspect of filmmaking. He recently attended his 16th Sundance Film Festival and blogged about it for Minnesota Public Radio and Gather.com. He has served on several boards, including IFP Minnesota, the Minnesota Blockbuster McKnight Film Fund, the Screenwriters’ Workshop and Resources in Counseling for the Arts, as well as on the Governor’s Task Force on Music and Recording Arts Industry in Minnesota. He still produces films. And on the side, he and Abdo have their own cover band, Article 20, with Satorius on keyboards and Abdo on drums. (Motto: “Songs from the ’60s, Men Acting Their Age.”)

But what of his film aspirations? Should he have left Flyover Land for Hollywood after that fateful phone call in the winter of 1975? “Conventional wisdom says you’ve got to live ‘out there,’” he says. “Could I have climbed the ladder faster? Probably, but it would have been different. I’m very happy here.”

When asked if he has ever experienced that single cinematic moment when he thought, “Wow, this is why I do what I do, this is why it’s all worth it,” Satorius shrugs. “I’ve gotten that all along,” he says. 

Now that’s worthy of a marquee.  

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