Blame it on the gutter lecture. As an MBA student at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management (Kellogg Full-Time MBA Profile), Marc Fienberg took a public speaking course with a professor named Martin Stoller. The point of the lecture, Fienberg recalls, was that it would take a long time for any Kellogg student to fail so miserably that he or she actually ended up living in the gutter. So why not take risks and follow your dreams while you can?
For Fienberg, that meant passing on lucrative job opportunities and struggling for 12 years to produce an independent film. The big test will come on Aug. 21 when Play the Game, a comedy he wrote and directed starring TV legend Andy Griffith, gets a national release. Getting that far, though, involved more twists and turns than a James Bond film. And Fienberg's Hollywood saga is a lesson in tenacity, crisis management, and fund-raising that no classroom could provide. "I'm still out there raising money today," he says.
After graduating from business school in 1997, Fienberg took a trip to Nepal to recharge and it was there he wrote the script for Play the Game. It's the tale of a young man who teaches his widowed grandfather how to date again. The story was based on Fienberg's own experience with his grandfather. Fienberg entered screenwriting contests to get exposure and endlessly shopped his script to agents. He finally got someone to represent him, but no studio would finance the picture. Along the way Fienberg says he employed a cold-calling strategy that forced him to endure hundreds of rejections. "I'm very persistent," he says. "When I'm just short of annoyance, I stop."
One of those cold calls got him on the phone with Lawrence Kasdan, director of The Big Chill and other films. Kasdan gave him some valuable, if somewhat chilling, advice. "He said: 'Nobody's going to help you. If you're going to do it, you have to do it yourself,' " Fienberg recalls.
So Fienberg started raising the movie money on his own, sending out hundreds of e-mails to Kellogg alumni. The payoff came at a pitch meeting he organized in Chicago in early 2007. One by one, the investors started coming in. Fienberg has raised an estimated $3 million from 15 investors, nearly all of them Northwestern alumni.
Andy Griffith Saves the Day
One of the investors, Chuck Funai, the chief financial officer of Cummins Southern Plains, a diesel engine distributor, says he liked the script and the fact that Fienberg was involving older actors. He also saw this as a way to create a network of Kellogg alumni-investors for future projects. "We're optimistic we'll be doing other things, not just in the film industry," he says. "It's been a real learning curve," adds Jim Rose, the chief executive of marketing firm Mosaic Sales and another Fienberg investor.
With the money in hand, Fienberg's real work began. He called the actor he had lined up to play the grandfather, The Rockford Files star James Garner. But Garner's agent said the star had recently had surgery and wouldn't be able to do the movie. Fienberg says he spent the whole next day in bed, wondering whether he should tell his investors that the star they were betting on was now out of the picture. He called them and offered to return their money. Surprisingly, none of them backed out.
Fienberg had a date to start shooting, but no star. A successful Hollywood producer who had been mentoring him said Fienberg should cancel the shoot, and that producing the picture without a star would doom the project. Fienberg kept sending his script out to other actors. Three weeks before filming was scheduled to begin, Fienberg got a phone call from Andy Griffith. The veteran television actor told Fienberg he loved the script but he wasn't going to do it; with shooting set to start in just three weeks, there was no time to learn his lines. Fienberg was heartbroken. That was Thursday. Miraculously, Griffith called Fienberg back the following Monday and said he had changed his mind. "He told me he loved the script because it was the only one he'd been offered in a long time where he didn't die at the end," Fienberg recalls.
Getting Griffith required more fund-raising. The star, then 81, couldn't work 16-hour days like younger actors. That stretched out the shooting time from the previously scheduled three weeks to five. Because Griffith lives in North Carolina, Fienberg also had to pay for the star's airfare, accommodations, and a larger trailer, expenses he hadn't planned for when considering local talent.
The shooting began in June 2007. But three days into the production, just as Fienberg was learning the ropes as a first-time director, his crew broke for lunch and didn't return. Fienberg said he was soon visited by a burly union representative who said he had to hire everyone back at union wages or they would picket the production. Fienberg got on the phone again, this time asking his investors for yet more money to cover the additional labor costs. "If Andy Griffith goes home, he's not coming back," he remembers thinking.
Fienberg finished shooting and editing, but then came time for another big hurdle—finding a distributor to take the film to theaters. Some independent producers have luck submitting their films to festivals such as the Sundance Film Festival or the Los Angeles Film Festival. Good reviews at the festivals generate buzz and interest from distributors. But Play the Game wasn't accepted by any of the major festivals for an ironic reason. Fienberg says he was told the feel-good comedy was too commercial and not edgy enough.
Only about 600 movies per year actually make it to theaters, according to the Motion Picture Association of America trade group. There are thousands of films made. But many of the big studios have been shutting down their independent film distribution arms. Traditionally the distributors pay for the cost of advertising and making copies of the film in exchange for a cut of as much as 15% of box-office revenues. Increasingly, though, the dozen or so big distributors that are left want the film producers to pay those costs. That sent Fienberg back to his investors. Again.
In February of this year Fienberg raised $200,000 to finance a limited run of the movie in Florida. Fienberg spent $75,000 of that on traditional advertising, running newspaper ads and local television spots during reruns of Griffith's show Matlock. Fienberg also did a lot of grassroots marketing. For a month, Fienberg and his family lived in Florida. He gave lectures on moviemaking at retirement communities, veterans groups, and Jewish community centers. He popped up in theaters before the movie began and introduced himself to viewers so they would have a more personal connection to the movie and would be more likely to tell their friends about it. He says his biggest marketing coup was hiring a 75-year-old woman to hand out fliers at country clubs. "The senior citizen grapevine is faster and more powerful than Twitter or Facebook," he says.
Impressive Florida Run
Fienberg says the film's appeal to the over-55 crowd gave theaters more traffic at matinees and weekday screenings than movies aimed at younger audiences. "If you're retired, every day is the weekend," Fienberg notes. Play the Game ran for an impressive 13 weeks in Florida, generating $370,000 in box-office revenue. The numbers gave Fienberg and his backers confidence to invest in the August release, which will involve 55 theaters in 15 cities across the country. Fienberg is still raising money to pay for more copies of the movie and advertising.
On the long road from blank page to silver screen Fienberg, 39, says he lost out on some far more lucrative career opportunities. There was that promising interview with a 15-person startup called eBay (EBAY) that he never followed up on, for example. Fienberg got fired from two jobs, because, he says, his attention was more focused on his movie. Devoting himself full time to the movie was made particularly difficult because his wife, Eva, is a stay-at-home mom and the Fienbergs are scrimping by on savings and odd jobs to support their four kids.
For Fienberg, the big payoff comes when he gets to watch his movie with others and hear them laugh. After one screening in Florida, Fienberg says a 90-year-old man with an 87-year-old girlfriend told him the movie made him feel good. "[Before] I never felt like I was making a difference in the world," Fienberg says. And like his old professor said, no matter how the movie does in August, Fienberg is unlikely to be living in the gutter.