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Marc Fienberg Knows How to Play the Game

Marc Fienberg Knows How to Play the Game

Articles - Directing

Marc Fienberg is making his debut into full-length features will full force. He is the writer, director and producer of Play the Game, starring Andy Griffith, Doris Roberts and Paul Campbell. Before features, Fienberg had a lot of success making short films, his most notable being Sunday Morning. Now he is rivaling that success as his new film, which grossed $370,000 in its Florida release, is scheduled for an expanded release August 28, 2009.

The story of a ladies’ man who tries to teach his grandfather the tricks of dating, the film was inspired by Fienberg’s own conversations with his grandfather. He discussed this in his interview with MovieMaker, along with what it was like juggling three roles on the set and working with several veteran TV stars.

Eliza Chute (MM): It says in the production notes that the screenplay was inspired by your own conversations with your grandfather, and that you used many real-life discussions you had with him to write the movie. How much of the main character’s love life is inspired by your own?

Marc Fienberg (MF): Yes, as the writer of the movie it pains me to admit that most of the funniest lines were stolen from my own grandfather. But I think that’s also the reason that many people seem to identify with the characters and the movie in general: It really is true to life in its depiction of older and younger people looking for love, companionship and sex.

MM: Were the “five steps of the game” he teaches Grandpa Joe in the movie something you developed specifically for the film, or were they once your own take on women?

MF: Unfortunately, the main character of David was inspired more by the ladies’ man I tried to be, rather than the ladies’ man I was. The “five steps of the game” were things that my friends and I developed to help us in our dating lives, and although I can testify to the fact that the five steps do indeed work in the real world, out of respect for my own reputation in the dating world (which I’m sure is that of a suave, debonair Don Juan), I have to take the fifth when it comes to saying whether they actually worked for me.

MM: You worked with such beloved TV stars as Andy Griffith from “The Andy Griffith Show,” Liz Sheridan from “Seinfeld” and “Everybody Loves Raymond”‘s Doris Roberts. What was it like directing such veteran actors?

MF: Working as a first-time director with these living legends was exactly how you’d expect it to be: Amazing. And amazingly terrifying. Aside from the normal questions that I imagine every first-time director asks himself on his first day (Do people realize I don’t know what the heck I’m doing? Why is everybody looking at me and asking me questions? Will my old boss at the tow truck company still hire me back?), I was haunted by the question of “What if these legendary actors realize I can’t direct?”

Well, as it turned out, thanks to directing several short films and studying the craft for years, I actually could direct a movie. And where I did have shortcomings, I was lucky that Andy, Doris and Liz were amazingly patient and understanding in working through them (like the time I inexplicably found myself explaining to Andy Griffith how to “rock into” a scene, something he was doing before I was born; he still teases me about that to this day). But most importantly, I quickly learned the most important lesson I think a director can learn: When you are lucky enough to have such talented actors in your film, the best way to direct is to keep your mouth closed and get out of the way. When I did that, magic happened. And when I didn’t do that, inevitably those were the scenes that hit the cutting room floor.

MM: This was your first feature film. How did it differ from working on shorts?

MF: Working on a feature film was nothing at all like working on my short films. On my short films, aside from being the writer-director-producer, I was performing the jobs of dozens of different crew members: Script supervisor, assistant director, gaffer, electrician, production assistant, line producer and even craft services. Because I had a much bigger budget on my feature film, I was able to hire and surround myself with a crew of experts in those areas, so that I could focus solely on directing.

Ironically, although I was responsible for much less, the amount of time, energy and stress involved was an order of magnitude higher. I think like most things in life, as the budget grows, the stakes grow, the problems grow and the stress grows.

MM: What were the biggest challenges in juggling the roles of writer, director and producer for the film? Did any of these titles ever conflict?
MF: The script was pretty much locked by the time we hit pre-production, so, unfortunately, the “director” me decided that I wouldn’t allow the “writer” me to come to the set. The “writer” me is still bitter about that and is threatening to never work with the “director” me again.

The biggest challenge was juggling the roles of director and producer, since they are often two roles with opposite agendas. As the director, I needed a crane for a very important shot. As the producer, I needed to stay within budget and say no to the director. Usually, the producer got his way, because I realized that if the director got his way, we’d run out of money and then the writer and the producer would have to band together and kick the director’s butt for ruining the film.

MM: While many big-budget films are in theaters for only a week or two after making a few million, your film has been in release in Florida for three months and made $370,000. What do you think that says about the state of independent moviemaking today?

MF: I think it is a great success story for what good independent movies can do in the marketplace if they do it wisely. Although it’s great to spend millions of dollars to get the word out to everybody in America with a pulse so that your movie makes millions of dollars in its first week, I think that indie films can prove that, in many cases, slow and steady wins the race.

Instead of releasing the film across the entire nation, we released the film in one state: Florida. Instead of spending millions of dollars advertising our film, we spent thousands of dollars. Instead of losing money on our theatrical release, we made money on it. Instead of millions of people going to the theater on opening weekend, we had thousands. But what all this resulted in was that, instead of only being in theaters for a few weeks, we were in theaters for more than three months, and are coming back for more to theaters across the nation on August 28. That’s one way for an indie film like ours to give time for word of mouth to spread, and for the film to catch on across all demographics.

MM: Without having the marketing and distribution funds of big-budget films, what were your strategies for the marketing and distribution of the film. Did you find these strategies to be an integral part of your film’s success so far, or do you believe a good product markets itself?

MF: I believe that you need both a strategic marketing plan and a good movie that appeals to a wide market. Each is necessary, but not sufficient on it’s own. Luckily, we made a movie that appealed not only to younger singles in their teens and 20s because of the dating tricks taught by the young couple in the movie, but also appealed to baby boomers and seniors because of the storyline about senior love, companionship and sex. Naturally, we did a lot of marketing through our website, www.playthegamemovie.com, but we also did a lot of grassroots marketing to both teens/college kids and boomers/seniors. My wife, my mother, my father, my aunt and I each spent weeks at different movie theaters standing in front of every audience right before the trailer played to tell them that Play The Game was soon coming to that theater, and asking them to come see it. In one day, I spoke before 118 movies, told almost 10,000 people about the film. I ran into many of those people again on our opening weekend. I shook a lot of hands and gave a lot of autographs, and the campaign we ran felt much like I suspect a political campaign feels.

MM: What hopes do you have for the movie’s expanded release August 28?

MF: That’s easy. I hope the film exceeds even my own wildest expectations and that we are able to spread the word about the film enough so that tens of thousands of people come out on opening weekend to see the movie. And certainly I hope, and expect, that word of mouth spreads fast and wide enough so that we can not only play in theaters for months, but that we can begin to release the film in even more cities across the nation. Our test market in Florida showed us that the people that see Play The Game become the best, most virulent word of mouth advertising for the film we could ever hope for. If we’re able to make them laugh like we did in Florida, then I think I’ll be happy no matter what happens.

For more information, visit http://www.playthegamemovie.com.

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