Harrison Powell loves romantic comedies — films like “Father of the Bride,” “50 First Dates.”
“I’m the one that cries in those movies,” he says.
But the 31-year-old Sandy Springs resident doesn’t just reach for the box of Kleenex. He also pulled out his wallet — or at least those of fellow investors in the companies Giving Films and Astute Films — getting into the moviemaking business himself. Now he’s producing a rom-com — as they call it in Hollywood lingo — that’s filming in metro Atlanta and starring Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn and “Godfather” icon James Caan.
“Welcome to Pine Grove!” is based on Powell’s story idea, too.
How did a local guy who studied finance at UGA get the mojo to make movies with stars? Speaking from Day 14 of the movie shoot at a retirement community in Duluth, Powell described a mix of work, luck — and, of course, money.
In college, he “fell in love with venture capital and start-ups.” About four years ago, he started eyeing industries with “inefficiencies” that he thought could be improved at a profit. Healthcare and entertainment stood out. Then he partnered with a family friend, Rick Jackson, who runs a healthcare staffing and technology business in Alpharetta. Jackson’s a charitably minded entrepreneur and also had invested in roughly 20 films. About 90 percent of independent films lose money, Powell says, though Jackson may have fare better.
Powell and Jackson formed a production company to make religious — or “inspirational,” as Powell prefers — movies on a model of donating the profits to charity. “Not only telling inspirational stories, but making as much money as we can and giving it away,” Powell says.
Their first effort, “90 Minutes in Heaven” (2015) gave away money in all the wrong ways. Despite starring Hayden Christensen of 1990s “Star Wars” fame, the film bombed.
“I would say we ran out of toes, we shot ourselves in the feet so often,” Powell says.
“Paul, Apostle of Christ,” released earlier this year, has performed better. It stars Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 hit “The Passion of the Christ.”
Also just released: “An Interview with God,” starring David Strathairn (“Good Night, And Good Luck”).
With bigger films and more experience in mind, Powell teamed with Astute Films, founded in 2016 by Fred Bernstein, a former executive at Columbia and Universal studios. Also on the Astute team is Dominique Telson, former vice president of original programming at Showtime. Jackson is involved in the company, too.
Now Powell is branching out into more broadly “inspirational” movies. One coming soon to around 1,500 screens nationwide is “The Best of Enemies,” based on a true story about a Civil Rights activist and a Klansman who became allies on a school committee, starring Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson.
“Welcome to Pine Grove!” is a more personal effort. Powell says it’s based on his wife’s grandmother, who “begrudgingly moved into a retirement community in Jacksonville.” She found it was like “high school all over again,” with cliques set in their ways. But then she fell in love and married two years ago.
Powell knew he had a great story for a movie — “the idea that it’s never too late,” he says.
But it’s a long road from a story idea to hiring, say, Burstyn, who won a 1974 Academy Award for Martin Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” Other veteran stars in the film include Ann-Margret (“Grumpy Old Men”), Christopher Lloyd (“Back to the Future”) and Jane Curtin (“3rd Rock from the Sun”). Director Michael Lembeck previously helmed two of Disney’s “Santa Clause” movies and Dwayne Johnson’s “Tooth Fairy.”
Bringing the $6 million budget to the table from the start helped a lot, says Powell. “If you have money, that is something that typically doesn’t happen in Hollywood,” he said, explaining that film funding usually works the other way around, trying to raise a budget based on the cast’s star power. Not only did he have the funding, but by filming in Georgia, the state tax credit will return 25 to 30 percent of it.
A draw for the cast, he said, was the lack of leading roles for older actors in Hollywood. And he thinks the genre is a good selling point. “There’s not many heartfelt comedies anymore, especially romantic comedies,” he said.
He describes moviemaking as a tough and often “dysfunctional” business. “There’s a lot of egos and there’s a lot of mixed incentives,” he says, with crews wanting overtime and producers wanting the fastest possible shoot. (“Welcome to Pine Grove!” is planning a 23-day shoot.) And after assembling an 80-person cast and crew, a month or two passes and it’s time to start all over. “You’re constantly having to recreate yourself and your business,” he says.
But getting the film into theaters is the hardest part, he says, especially in today’s endless viewing options online.
“We need to be willing to jump on the coffee table and light our hair on fire because we believe in the story,” Powell said. “It can be so difficult to get above the noise.”
Now that’s he got a taste of the artistic side by providing the movie’s story — though not the script — Powell wants to try his hand at playwriting. He said he’s inspired by Tyler Perry, the actor/director/playwright who runs an Atlanta film studio. The stage sounds like a good way to test out potential film scripts, Powell says.
Of course, Powell is still a moviegoer as well as a moviemaker. Has working behind the scenes changed how he sees the silver screen?
“It’s been hard to enjoy the story sometimes,” he says, as his mind starts calculating payrolls and shooting days. On the other hand, he says, “it caused me to appreciate the end credits a lot more.”
Correction: A previous version incorrectly reported the profitability percentage of Rick Jackson’s film investments and has been corrected to reflect that the exact percentage is unknown. The story also has been updated to clarify that Jackson is involved in the production company Astute Films.