Riskiest Money

J. Todd Harris is a movie producer. That means that he gets films made. “I’m just like any other guy that goes and tries to find projects and tries to find financing and a director and a writer and actors,” he says. “Producers have no discernible skills, so they just kind of take advantage of everybody else’s.” For a guy with no discernible skills, he’s had a remarkable run of success, producing some 32 films since 1995’s Denise Calls Up. Along the way, he’s been involved with broad comedy (Dudley Do-Right), horror (Jeepers Creepers), romance (Happy Hour), and even gritty drama (Urbania, which played Sundance in 2000).

But one film Harris hasn’t been able to get made — not yet, anyway — is a big-screen version of Gilligan’s Island. Happily for him and fans of Little Buddy, he’s working with an intellectual-property company that has as one of its aims just that, and it was in that context that he met Ross Schwartz, son of Gilligan’s creator Sherwood Schwartz. And in 2005, Schwartz the Younger gave Harris a copy of Bottle Shock, a script he’d written about the Paris tasting of 1976, when California wine scored a highly symbolic (but also literal) victory over the mighty French.

Recalls Harris, “I read it, and I liked it, but I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with it.” Then he remembered the Lhormers: he had gone to college with Marc and to business school with Brenda, and the two had gone on to run the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, which featured a number of Harris’s projects. “They told me, ‘If you ever find a movie that we could do up in here in the Napa-Sonoma area, let us know.’ I sent it to them, and they liked it, and they thought they could raise some money. And they had just programmed a film called Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School,” directed by Randall Miller and written by Miller and his wife Jody Savin (the film had previously played at Sundance). Marc and Brenda thought Randy and Jody would be good directing and producing partners on Bottle Shock.

Miller and Savin, says Harris, “liked the script but thought it needed to punch up the romance — you really don’t want to have a wine movie without a love story. And they heightened the father-son relationship, which I think is a very relatable element. They wanted to do certain things — they were used to doing their own material. So we made a deal with them, and we started doing fundraisers.”

Cut to October of 2006, when Del Mar wine collector Robert Baizer and his wife Diane Jacob headed north to Napa to harvest grapes for the Napa Valley Reserve. Explains Baizer, the Reserve is “a winemaking club with a vineyard located in St. Helena, founded by Bill Harlan of Harlan Estate. That fall, we invited our good friends Ralph and Gail Bryan of La Jolla to join us as our guests. While hand-sorting berries on the conveyor line at Napa Valley Reserve, Ralph mentioned to me that he had received a terrific screenplay from Todd Harris.” (The connection: Todd’s wife Amy Powers, who wrote the lyrics to Zhivago, a musical developed at the La Jolla Playhouse, where Bryan and Baizer had served as producing partners on the original production of Jersey Boys.) “As we picked out raisins and twigs from what would ultimately make our 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Ralph told me the story of Bottle Shock. After hearing it, I knew I needed to read the screenplay myself.”

Read it he did, and in December, Robert and Diane headed north to Napa again, this time to meet with the creative team behind the film. They were impressed that Miller and Savin had already broken into Sundance and that they had managed to attract a killer cast for an indie, one that included John Goodman, Danny DeVito, and Marisa Tomei. So, “Diane and I decided to provide the seed capital — the very first, and riskiest money into a film, allowing it to commence preproduction.” Further, the two “hosted a get-together at Arterra in April of 2007 to educate interested friends in San Diego about what we were doing.”

The event was one of several, says Harris, picking up the story. “We went to Napa, San Francisco, San Diego, Palo Alto, even Costa Rica. We did presentations with nice wine, with the director and some of his past work, and with our track record and vision for the film.” Miller had managed to attract Alan Rickman and Bill Pullman, with whom he had worked before, and “it gave us the momentum we needed to raise the money so we could shoot in the summer.”

They shot over five weeks in August and September of 2007. By early November, they had a rough cut to submit to the judges at Sundance. “Out of the 3600 films that apply, they take 125.” On the night before Thanksgiving, they decided to take Bottle Shock. “We had five screenings, and it played to 1500, maybe 2000 people. An amazing number of people stayed for the Q&A after the film. Now, we’ve got three or four different companies making offers. In a perfect world, the film will be in the theaters between late summer and early fall. It can be a nice alternative to the goofy end-of-summer films and slip in there before the ultra-prestige films of the fall. It’s an unabashed crowd-pleaser, which was unusual for Sundance — no drugs, no sexual confusion, no living in the gutter.”

The Hollywood Reporter went so far as to call it ‘“Rocky’ for wine aficionados,” a film that “gives crowd-pleasers a good name.” (Particularly hopeful, in my opinion, was their assessment of Rickman as English wine merchant Steve Spurrier, the man behind the Paris tasting: “One of his juiciest roles in recent years…able to satirize British haughtiness without falling into caricature.” From the trailer: “You think I’m an asshole. I’m not, really; I’m just British and, well, you’re not.”) Says Harris, “I think their review was pretty spot-on.”

Note: As part of its annual Vintage fundraiser, the SanDiego Museum of Photographic Arts is hosting a Judgment of Paris Rematch Dinner, beginning at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, April 11, 2008. The dinner, which will use “updated vintages,” will be held at the museum and catered by the Pamplemousse Grille. In addition, Bottle Shock director Randall Miller will be on hand for a discussion about shooting a film in wine country and for a Q&A. Cost is $575 per person ($475 tax deductible). See mopavintage.com for more information.

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