“Play the Game” is the little independent film that could – and writer-director Marc Fienberg hopes it can do even more.
To be sure, Fienberg knows the odds against his independently distributed film – opening Friday (8.28.09) in limited release – but he also knows his audience.
“One of the reasons it’s hard to get the studios’ attention is they don’t believe seniors go to see movies,” Fienberg says in a phone interview. “But boomers and seniors see a lot more movies than other people. They don’t make an appointment to go out because the movies aren’t marketed to them. When you do market to them, they come out in droves.”
That’s what happened when the romantic comedy – which stars Andy Griffith, Doris Roberts and Liz Sheridan – tested in Florida earlier this year: A one-week engagement turned into a three-month run, earning almost $400,000.
On the heels of that success, “Play the Game” opens Friday in 50 theaters in 16 cities. With luck, it will expand to 200 theaters in almost 50 cities after that.
Fienberg is self-distributing – and finding that there’s a market for a comedy that doesn’t treat the elderly as shut-ins. Instead, this comedy about late-life romance deals in a gentle, occasionally bawdy, comic way with senior citizens jumping back into the dating pool.
The film was inspired by Fienberg’s grandfather: “He started dating again at 89 and came to me for advice. It was kind of endearing to hear stories about him getting back into the dating world and having the same emotions as a kid in school.”
“Play the Game” centers on a young car salesman, David (Paul Mitchell), who encourages his grandfather (Griffith) to try dating again, offering tips on how to attract a partner. Granddad finds himself swept up by a fellow resident of his nursing home (Sheridan), though he has his eye on another woman (Roberts).
The film lets Griffith, 83, handle slightly risqué material, while dealing with senior sexuality in a way that’s both funny and real. Griffith, Fienberg says, was eager to play the role.
“Andy liked it for two reasons,” Fienberg says. “It gave him a bedroom scene. And he didn’t die at the end. He wasn’t kidding about that. A lot of roles for older actors don’t celebrate life; they’re about death. In ‘Play the Game,’ nobody dies.
“Andy was at the top of my list, although I never expected him to say yes. But he embraced it because he wanted to play a man living every moment to the fullest. He was not shy. People expecting Andy Taylor are quite surprised when they see this. We ain’t in Mayberry anymore.”
With the massive baby-boom generation entering its sunset years, the topic of senior sexuality is gaining attention. Still, it makes some people uncomfortable to envision one’s elderly parents getting frisky.
“It’s natural to feel that way,” Fienberg says. “You don’t want to think about the people who raised you in those situations. Society as a whole has matured a little bit. You realize it’s OK but it’s still uncomfortable to think about.
“Seeing Andy like that definitely shocks some people. It’s nice that he’s the guy who’s doing it. Part of our goal is to make people a little uncomfortable. Who better than a man so beloved? It’s nice he’s extending himself.”
Fienberg was unable to get the studios interested in his cross-generational comedy. So he raised the money – a five-year process – and shot the film, then decided to release it himself as well. He found a distributor to handle the bookings and, with his MBA in tow, took on the marketing and publicity himself, focusing on the audience most likely to respond to the material.
“We tested to a senior audience when we launched it, and we did well,” Fienberg, 39, says. “Our model was ‘The Boynton Beach Bereavement Club’ (another independently released romantic comedy about seniors). We had to educate people about it. It’s definitely not an arthouse film. It plays in mainstream movie houses. Most people who see it assume it’s a big studio release.
“Once you decide to self-distribute, you don’t need the studios. They’re doing the same thing we are. It would be nice to have them for the millions they offer in advertising and marketing. But once you realize there’s an audience for the film, the question is whether you can get their awareness up.”
Meanwhile, Fienberg is hopeful that the film’s message will resonate with an underserved audience – and perhaps change minds in the younger generations.
“What I learned from my grandfather was that, whether you’re 19 or 80, we’re all human beings,” he says. “When my grandfather was locked alone in a room watching TV, he lost the will to live. But we’re social creatures. We can’t live without companionship. It’s nice to think that people don’t give up on life, that you can find a companion at that age.”