David Friendly greets a visitor to his quietly exquisite Monterey Colonial home in Brentwood by saying, “Welcome to the house that Big Momma’s House built,” a reference to the Martin Lawrence–starring franchise whose three installments raked in more than $400 million worldwide. A longtime producer of studio multiplex fare that includes My Girl, Courage Under Fire and Doctor Dolittle, Friendly also earned a hefty dose of awards season love with Little Miss Sunshine in 2006. Friendly and fellow producers Marc Turtletaub, Peter Saraf, Albert Berger & Ron Yerxa took home the PGA’s top film honor, the Darryl F. Zanuck Award, and the film snagged a Best Picture Oscar nomination.
By contrast, Sneakerheadz might bring Friendly a gazebo, a toolshed or a doghouse — and that’s not a reflection on its worth. It’s just a tiny documentary, made for a relative pittance, whose profitability is promising but uncertain. A look at the subculture of those who covet and collect “kicks,” or sneakers, and made for about $700,000, Sneakerheadz represents Friendly’s directorial debut, sharing helming duties with 28-year-old Mick Partridge.
But it is more than that. Sneakerheadz is Friendly’s step away from pricey stars, huge crews and bountiful craft services tables to shoestring filmmaking on a labor of love. Some might see that as a step down. Friendly views it as quite the opposite.
“There is something really exciting about ‘Let’s put on a show,’” he explained.
He is used to that, of course, the putting on shows. It’s just that his previous shows were mainstream and well funded. Since 1991, the former journalist (who still pens occasional columns for The Hollywood Reporter) and son of legendary news producer Fred W. Friendly has been churning out pictures under the banners of companies like Imagine Entertainment, Davis Entertainment and Deep River Productions and working with stars like Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan (Courage Under Fire), Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (Out to Sea), and Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore (Laws of Attraction).
“For about the last 25 years. I always had a company or a production deal,” he said. “And about two years ago, around 2012, all of that suddenly dried up. I often think of this Italian expression, ‘Don’t cry with a loaf of bread under your arm.’ I felt like I was doing fine. But there was no more support system. I was completely on my own. I started working out of my house, and at a little office on 26th Street (in Santa Monica) called ‘the Office,’ which is like a big study hall.
“Things were not happening,” he added. “There were no movies happening. I knew I had to dig my heels in. I think what got me into doing this documentary was, a) I didn’t have any movies to make, which was rare, b) I was excited by the subject matter, and c) I always wanted to make a documentary.”
What really caused Friendly to dive in was watching Coco take a plunge. A 10-year-old chocolate lab, Coco is Friendly’s regular swimming partner in their pool. One morning it was cold, and Friendly was just as hesitant to immerse himself in chilly water as he was to make a documentary. But Coco wasn’t hesitant. About the pool, at least.
“I noticed one morning, she came out and just dove in,” he recalled. “And it created a kind of epiphany for me. I thought, ‘If I’m going to do this documentary, I can’t check the water. I have to just dive in. Just like Coco.’ From that point forward I said, ‘I’m doing this. I’m moving forward. I’m going to make this documentary.’”
At that point, Coco stepped aside as Friendly entered the fundraising stage. In the meantime, he kept in mind one particular nugget he learned during his long producing career.
“A good producer has to be a good initiator and a good closer,” he said. “You must be a closer.”
So he began. He hit up golfing buddies, friends in the fashion business, former NBA player Michael Finley, his older brother Andy. “It took a while, but people were really interested,” he said. “They liked the topic because the amounts were not huge for these people. We were able to get enough money together to do the movie the way we wanted to.”
David Madden, president of FXTVS, has known Friendly for more than 25 years, dating back to Friendly’s days at the Los Angeles Times. The two are currently shopping a pilot called Queen of the South, an adaptation of the novel La Reina del Sur. So when Friendly told him he was making Sneakerheadz, Madden was impressed but not surprised.
“I thought it was incredibly ballsy of him, in a good way,” Madden said. “When David said he was going to do it, I saw it as coming from his journalistic background. He’s always been an intellectually curious person. It seemed like a great way for him to combine his reportorial instincts with his filmmaking skills.”
But the 58-year-old Friendly, recently elected (along with fellow producer Lydia Dean Pilcher) as the PGA’s Vice President of Motion Pictures, also realized he needed a collaborator, a younger filmmaker who could help steer the project so it would better appeal to the desired 18-to-24 (orthereabouts) demo. Partridge, who attended USC film school and has a background in music videos, met Friendly through a mutual golfing pal.
Partridge wasn’t just there to serve as hip, on-set window dressing. He offered a good deal of practical input that contributed to the shaping of the film.
“For example,” Friendly said, “when we were working on the first pass, I had a whole overview section about the history of the sneaker dating back to the formation of Converse. And he made the point, ‘Guys like me will just turn it off right here.’ I never would have realized that. We wound up feeding that into the doc [in small portions] rather than having a whole section that felt like medicine.”
There was another instance involving music (initial clearances will be done for a cheaper “festival cut”) in which Partridge politely suggested to Friendly that perhaps there was a better way to go. “He had had this old-school blues song over some footage,” Partridge remembered, “and I talked to him and said, ‘No one knows what this is. It will turn people off. A Jay-Z track or something more exciting would be better. Something you can bob your head to.’ ”
But well before he and Partridge began shooting, Friendly prepared himself. For the two years prior to shooting, he watched three or four documentaries a week and studied them.
He also researched the world of sneakers and collectors, marveling that it’s a $42 billion a year business. He estimates he owns more than 75 pair of sneakers himself — and that collection wouldn’t even qualify him for entry into his own film. It was his own particular affection for the adidas Superstar — he stumbled upon a pair of chocolate brown Run DMC models in a little shop in Soho in New York City and fell head over soles in love — that sparked his interest in the topic as a documentary.
“I started going on the Web to find more Superstars,” he explained. “When I was 14, that was the shoe I wanted that my parents wouldn’t get for me because it was $25. Later in life, of course, you hopefgetully get to the point where you can buy whatever sneakers you want. What I discovered was websites devoted to the Superstar. There were sneaker blogs. There were incredible amounts of sneakers available for sale on eBay. And I wanted to penetrate this world. The deeper I got into it, the more I realized it was a great subject for a documentary.”
Most of the time, working with just Partridge and director of photography Paul DeLumen, Friendly shot 47 hours of footage, which is being cut down to an anticipated running time of 88 minutes. They flew coach — sometimes cashing in airline miles — to places like Tokyo, Boston, Miami and New York City. They schlepped equipment. They dined in restaurants that were a few stars short of five.
“I kept scratching my head saying, ‘Really? That’s all? That’s what we have?’” Friendly said with a chuckle about his doc’s paltry budget. “To be honest, it was fun, because sometimes on a movie, because you’re a producer, they won’t let you do anything. Literally when you go to help out, to pick up an apple crate, they say, ‘You can’t touch that.’
“I really enjoyed walking onto the set and being asked what I want to do,” he added. “Most of the time when I walk onto a set, I’m hoping the director is in a good mood. ‘How can I support him or her? What do they want? How can I accomplish this?’ And this time it was ‘OK, what is the shot?’ I love that.”
It was down-and-dirty doc making, the kind that would have made his father proud.
“I was influenced by my father throughout my career,” David Friendly said of Fred, who worked closely for years with the esteemed Edward R. Murrow. “Whether it was journalism or making movies. Largely on a character basis. My father had great integrity, and he taught me and my siblings the importance of having a conscience and being responsible. That was one of his greatest gifts to me.
“Obviously growing up watching things like Harvest of Shame [the 1960 documentary about American migrant workers] and the documentaries on [Joseph] McCarthy were influential. Believe me, I was absorbing this stuff internally.”
Friendly also is pondering a unique distribution model when Sneakerheadz is finished. “Doing this movie theatrically would not be impossible, but it would be difficult,” he said. “The target demo for this kind of movie is the millennials. And they don’t really like to pay for content, as you know. So I thought, ‘Why not try to involve a corporate sponsor as a presenter? Have them take us out of our costs and even a little more. And then release it digitally. For free.’
Just prior to this magazine going to press, Friendly finalized his deal with his sponsor — a little company called AT&T. “I think it’s a model that works,” says Friendly, who hopes to set up screenings at the 2015 NBA All-Star Game in New York City on the weekend of February 15. “We’re going to get lots of eyeballs for AT&T, who wants to reach the millennials. And we’re going to get, in exchange, money to complete the film and to get it out to the widest possible audience.”
Christopher Chen, VP of business development at Endgame Entertainment and a self-described “mild sneakerhead,” is helping with the marketing and distribution of Sneakerheadz. Because people are watching content in different ways now, he explained, “We wanted to find a way to break the model.” Chen says they’re still pondering their distribution options.
But one aspect of Sneakerheadz he is sure about: The film is the result of Friendly’s passion. “He’s sending me emails at two or three in morning about somearticle about sneakers that he just read,” Chen said. “I can be on the phone with him and we can have a discussion about anything under the sun and before you know it, 45 minutes have passed. He’s passionate about anything he puts his heart into. I enjoyed working with him. He’s really a 24/7 guy.”
After a long and accomplished career that included Martin Lawrence in drag and a specialnight in black tie at the Oscars, Friendly has arrived at a creative oasis because he followed Coco into the water.
“It’s important to try,” said Friendly, who is also producing a feature called I.T., starring Pierce Brosnan, as well as serving as executive producer on another documentary, this one about Earl Lloyd, the first African-American NBA player. “It’s important to take that shot. For me, this has been, other than Little Miss Sunshine, the most creatively satisfying project I’ve worked on. The reason I single out Little Miss Sunshine is because that was a project that had been turned down by every studio and every specialty division in town. My partner Marc Turtletaub and I just
loved the script, and we just said, ‘We’re gonna go do this.’ And we followed our instincts and succeeded beyond our wildest imaginations.
“So nothing will probably top that as an experience for me culminating in an Oscar nomination,” he added. “But I like the feeling here of complete responsibility and the fact that I’m on a high wire and there’s no net. It’s a good feeling.”
DAVID FRIENDLY: TAKE FIVE
“When I got serious about making my first doc,” says David Friendly, “I started watching at least one a day to draw inspiration and to settle my nerves.” Friendly graciously shared with Produced by five recent films that stayed with him and strongly influenced him in making Sneakerheadz.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
Directed by David Gelb. Beautiful storytelling, beautiful cinematography and editing. This was the doc that made me pursue mine. I even asked Gelb to direct Sneakerheadz. Only after he passed, did I decide to keep it for myself.
Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)
Directed by Stacy Peralta. Peralta completely nails his landing with this raw and energetic take on the Zephyr skateboarding team. This is rock and roll filmmaking and my editor Steve Prestemon is really tired of me saying, “We gotta pace it up like Dogtown!” The vintage footage, which could have felt old-fashioned, makes it.
Life Itself (2014)
Directed by Steve James. This one brought me to tears. I loved Hoop Dreams and this just demonstrates that epic was no fluke. James literally takes us into the most private spaces in the final days of Roger Ebert’s astonishing life. What comes across is Ebert’s pure passion for life and James’ equal passion for filmmaking. A living eulogy for the iconic Chicago film critic.
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010)
Directed by Alex Gibney. I could have picked any number of films from Gibney who along with Errol Morris just may be the preeminent doc maker today. I may have been biased a bit since I went to grade school with Spitzer, but this is one where you can’t take your eyes off the screen. Sometimes the success or failure of a great doc (or a great news story) rests on the big GET. Somehow, Gibney interviewed Spitzer on camera and the interviews are brilliant and revealing. You keep asking yourself, ‘Did this really happen?’ Come to think of it, that question may be the litmus test for all doc subjects.
Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul. This won the Oscar and for good reason. The story was so improbable and unpredictable. You know you’ve got something when the real-life “plot” could not be bettered by fiction. I loved the music and the fact that I had never heard of its subject. In this one, the star of the film was the story.