Every time actor William H. Macy comes to the Sarasota Film Festival, a few local residents tell him to contact them if he’s looking for investors for a movie. “Well, the joke was on them; we kept their (business) cards,” Macy said to laughter in a jammed, 1,300-seat theater at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January.
Macy was on stage after the world premiere of The Deal, a satiric comedy about Hollywood that was partially financed by about 15 investors from Sarasota and Bradenton. Many of them were sitting in the sold-out Eccles Theater at Sundance that January night. But Macy, who co-wrote the film and heads a cast that also features Meg Ryan, LL Cool J and Elliott Gould, said he wasn’t going to introduce his backers. “In fact, we’re going to body-check you if you try to talk to them,” he quipped to a chuckling audience that contained plenty of competing filmmakers.
But Macy did acknowledge Jody Kielbasa, the executive director of the Sarasota festival and a co-producer of the movie. The Deal is one of the main attractions at this year’s Sarasota festival, which runs from April 4-13.
In 2005, Macy sent Kielbasa the script for The Deal, which he had written with his longtime collaborator, Steven Schachter. Macy and Schachter have been coming to the Sarasota Film Festival since 2002, when they presented Door-to-Door, a television movie they co-wrote about a salesman with cerebral palsy. The film went on to win six Emmy Awards, including one for Macy for Best Actor.
When Kielbasa read The Deal, which was adapted from a Peter Lefcourt novel, he was immediately captivated. “I was laughing on the second page, and I could see what a wonderful role this would be for Macy,” Kielbasa says. Macy plays Charlie Berns, a struggling producer who cons a major studio into making a $100 million action picture without a script in hand. When the mercurial star is kidnapped and production shuts down, Macy and a studio executive (Meg Ryan) conspire to shoot the serious film they really want to make. In the process, they reluctantly fall in love.
Kielbasa passed the script along to Keri Nakamoto, a film festival board member who has started a Sarasota-based production company. They set up meetings in Sarasota between Macy and potential investors. Each investment share cost $250,000, though investors could partner with others if they weren’t able to pony up for a full share.
Kielbasa says investors were told upfront that putting money in movies is a risky business. “The language in any film-investment prospectus is pretty blunt,” Kielbasa says. “It all but states, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? There are better ways for you to invest your money.’”
Macy says he was brutally honest with investors, too. “At our cocktail parties in Sarasota and other places, we would start by mentioning a couple of movie titles, and asking if people had heard of them,” Macy says. “When nobody had, we said, well, exactly, that’s the point. Those films never made it. So there’s a chance you’ll lose all your money, you’ll never get it back. But then we added that there’s a good chance you’ll make it back, and then some. And there’s a slim chance you’ll make a fortune. Some of the films I’ve done have done quite well, and some have done extremely well.”
Indeed, the prolific Macy has appeared in a wide range of commercial and independent films, including Air Force One, Jurassic Park 3, Wag the Dog, Seabiscuit, Boogie Nights and Mr. Holland’s Opus. He’s probably best-known for playing a husband who has his wife kidnapped in the dark comedy Fargo, for which he received an Oscar nomination.
Macy’s involvement with The Deal was a clear inducement for the local investors. “I liked the script, but I also liked the fact that this was Macy’s project,” says Nakamoto. “He is an amazing talent, and an amazing person. But I also did some research, studied some industry trends and tried to get a sense of the box-office potential. You have to take the emotion out of it and calculate the risk, just as you would with any investment.”
Jaymie Carter, a film festival board member, says Macy’s warm personality and reputation for integrity influenced her decision to invest. “I read the script, and I was impressed with the cast they had lined up,” Carter says. “But Macy himself was a big factor. And during the whole process, he’s been so great about keeping us informed, sending out newsletters that kept us up to date. And at one point, he and Felicity [Macy’s wife, actress Felicity Huffman] entertained us at their home in Los Angeles. They couldn’t have been nicer.”
Another investor, retired Sarasota physician John Welch, had already put money into a film. “About 10 years ago, I invested in Manny & Lo, which was Scarlett Johansson’s first film,” says Welch, a founder and longtime board member of the Sarasota Film Festival. “The critics liked it, but it wasn’t a hit.” Welch did get some of his money back, though. “I made $13 on it,” he says, laughing. But that poor return didn’t temper his enthusiasm for The Deal. “I liked the script, and with people like Bill Macy and Meg Ryan involved, it seemed like a no-brainer,” Welch says.
The local investors put up approximately $1.5 million, about 20 percent of the budget for The Deal. More investors were recruited in Chicago and New York, and a Canadian finance company also joined the project. Pre-production began in, of all places, Bucharest, Romania, in 2006. But then the Canadian firm dropped out, and Macy and Schachter decided they’d have to pull the plug on the production.
“But when we contacted our investors to tell them we were giving their money back, every one of them said, ‘No, keep plugging away. We have faith in you,’” Macy says. “It was amazing. One of them said, ‘Oh, you think this is bad? I built a shopping center last year. Talk about problems. This is nothing.’”
That’s when Sarasota’s Nakamoto played a key role. Through one of her contacts in the industry, she got Macy together with Peace Arch Entertainment, a film and television production and distribution company. After a meeting at the Toronto Film Festival, the firm agreed to provide the funds to get the project going again, this time in South Africa. Nakamoto also helped broker a deal with the Cadillac corporation, which provided a fleet of cars that were essential to the story.
One of three people with producer credit on the film, Nakamoto, who earned a degree in international affairs from Smith College, is a dynamic woman whose hobbies include scuba diving and skydiving. She almost missed the Sundance premiere in January when she took a tumble on a Park City ski slope and was briefly hospitalized. “Keri is terrific, very well connected, and she is fiercely protective of her investors,” Macy says of Nakamoto. “And she’s a party monster. She really knows how to throw a wrap party.”
Nakamoto spent two weeks on the Cape Town set during filming last spring. Jaymie Carter also went for a week to see how her investment was faring. “It was a wonderful experience,” Carter says. “We went to the set every day, and got to see the dailies at night. At one point, they needed more extras for a scene, so I got my three seconds of fame.”
South Africa was chosen as a location in part because of a favorable currency exchange and financial inducements offered by the government. “But the Cape Town area also looks remarkably like Los Angeles,” Macy says. “So we found all of our locations within a 30-mile radius. And our art department did a great job of creating backdrops for Prague and London, where some scenes are also set.”
Though the budget of The Deal is minuscule by Hollywood standards, Macy is proud that the movie has the look of a much more expensive film. He describes it as an affectionate poke at the pretensions and egos of Hollywood.
“It really is our love song to the business,” he says. “There are pettiness and dishonesty in the industry, sure, but there are also some wonderful people involved, and there is nothing like the camaraderie you have on a film set. Steven and I have genuine affection for all the crazy people in the business.”
Macy says Charlie Berns was a great role because, unlike some of the frustrated and distraught characters he has played, “Charlie is not a loser, not in over his head. He’s at the top of his game, and everybody else is spinning around him. He’s at a point in his life when he’s fearless, because he has nothing to lose.”
In adapting Lefcourt’s novel, Macy and Schachter made the story more of a romantic comedy. “I have wanted to do an adult romantic comedy for years, because it bores me to see 20-year-olds fall in love,” Macy says, laughing. “What do they know? And we were so lucky to get Meg Ryan, who is a master at this. And she’s one of the coolest broads I’ve ever met. She’s smart, incredibly professional and so funny. Of course, in writing it, we broke a cardinal rule, because we have our characters sleep together on page 30 instead of keeping them apart until the end. But this isn’t about sex. It’s about something bigger and more dangerous than sex. It’s about your heart and soul.”
The Deal was received warmly by the audience at Sundance on January. “It was a really great crowd, 1,300 people, and lots of laughter,” says Sarasota investor Welch. “We couldn’t have asked for a better reception.” Welch made sure to stay for the closing credits, since the investors were all listed under the heading of “Dealmakers.” The Sarasota Film Festival also receives an acknowledgement from the filmmakers.
Macy had hoped to land a U.S. distribution deal at Sundance. But sales were slow this year, with only a handful of film purchases negotiated in the firelit lounges of snowy Park City. But Macy was encouraged by the buzz The Deal generated, and is optimistic about the film’s chances for wide release.
Whatever the fate of The Deal, the experience has been invaluable for the Sarasota Film Festival, says executive director Kielbasa. “For Bill Macy to stand on a stage at Sundance and praise the Sarasota Film Festival and the local investors, well that’s just a tremendous thing,” Kielbasa says. “I’m proud personally to have been involved, and I’m pleased for the attention it has brought the festival and Sarasota.”
Kielbasa says a few board members had initially expressed reservations about his involvement with the film. “There was some feeling that it was a conflict of interest. But to me, it was no different than Michael Edwards [the producing artistic director of the Asolo Repertory Theatre] being involved with the Broadway-bound A Tale of Two Cities. Our experience with The Deal has helped us establish all sorts of relationships with filmmakers, actors and agents. It’s done nothing but enhance the reputation of the festival.”