The Ultimate Gift from Producer Rick Eldridge
By Madelyn Ritrosky
The Ultimate Gift. What comes to mind? Unconditional love? A child? Self-sacrifice? A huge inheritance? Life itself?
If you ask Rick Eldridge, president and CEO of The Film Foundry, the ultimate gift would actually be many things. And they are wrapped up in an interesting package, the film version of the book of the same title, The Ultimate Gift. Eldridge served as producer and executive producer on the film.
The Ultimate Gift premiered at the Heartland Film Festival near the end of 2006, and will be released on 500 screens in March by 20th Century-Fox. Eldridge’s Film Foundry Releasing is co-managing the March 9, 2007, release.
It stars Drew Fuller (best known from the television series Charmed) in the lead role of spoiled-rich-kid Jason Stevens who has a lot to learn. James Garner is his wise, just-deceased grandfather, Red Stevens, whom we see in his videotaped, living will.
Co-stars include Bill Cobbs (Night at the Museum), Ali Hillis, Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine), Lee Meriwether, and Brian Dennehy. Michael Sajbel (One Night with the King) directs. (See “More Heartland: Gifts of Life” for more about the film’s story.)
I had the opportunity to meet Eldridge at the Heartland Film Festival, and we talked about the film.
He was originally given Jim Stovall’s self-published book by a financial planner who was mentoring Eldridge’s two teenage sons. He carried it around for a while, finally reading it on a cross-country plane trip from Charlotte, North Carolina, Eldridge’s home base, to Los Angeles.
Eldridge describes the book as principle-centered rather than deeply philosophical: it’s about “the principles around life, core values, and legacies.” His timing turned out to be “one of those incredible opportunities.” Universal had optioned Stovall’s book, but the author “had maintained the right to approve the final script,” and three scripts were already in the dustbin. When Eldridge came calling, Stovall had just gotten back the rights.
When they met, he told the author his vision for the film and said he would go “one step further” than script approval. He suggested that Stovall “interface and develop it with our writer, to have some key gatekeeper involvement with the story.” The book needed to be changed, because it is episodic, a gift-per-chapter format, whereas the film needed to be a single, fleshed-out “dramatic story around the concept.” With Stovall’s participation, Cheryl McKay, who has written some other message-oriented scripts, came up with what we see on the screen.
When they first put the film in front of test audiences, Eldridge made sure that one of those audiences was a group of financial planners who were familiar with the book the group that would be most critical and most knowledgeable regarding the film’s premise regarding legacies and life.
It turned out that these viewers found themselves counting the gifts and finding the film coming up short of the twelve in the book. Those gifts are: work, learning, friends, money, problems, family, laughter, dreams, giving, gratitude, love, and a day. What the film does is emphasize certain gifts, such as the gift of work, as clear lessons for Jason Stevens to learn, while others are subtly woven into the fabric of the story.
Eldridge did not want viewers who were familiar with the book getting sidetracked with counting the gifts in the film, so he came up with a solution: all twelve gifts are incorporated into the end credits. When I saw the film, the audience stayed put reading and watching as brief replays of scenes accompanied credits and the individual listing of the gifts.
While it may seem a bit didactic for some, it is one way to highlight elements of the film without the narrative becoming ponderously overloaded with “messages.” In addition, I find that I enjoy end credits that surprise you with additional, unexpected bits that add to the overall experience of a film. It’s like getting a little something extra thrown in.
The film was shot in late 2005 and, unlike some films, they had time before Heartland’s entry deadline to come up with creative answers to kinks like the test audience feedback. Eldridge was well aware of Heartland’s deadlines because he is on the festival’s board of advisors.
He first became aware of Heartland’s mission to honor positive, hopeful films “of the heart” when Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, which Eldridge produced, won Heartland’s Truly Moving Picture Award in 2004. He saw Heartland’s focus on “redeeming value stories” as fully in line with his own visions as a filmmaker.
For those interested in this kind of filmmaking or already familiar with Stovall’s book, there is a website called The Ultimate Gift Experience. In fact, a special program was devised for the months of January and February, 2007, before the film’s release in March.
Stanford Financial Group, a funding partner on the movie, is at the forefront of this aspect of the film’s promotion. Jim Davis, Stanford’s CFO, loved the book and bought hundreds of copies for his managers. Davis, along with Suzanne Hamm, who runs the Stanford Foundation, “embraced the idea of creating charitable screenings around the movie.” The film provides the event around which charitable organizations can invite their big donors and others.
Eldridge said they are taking the idea of the pre-screening, generally used to create buzz or word-of-mouth for a film before it officially opens, and taking it a step further in that “redeeming values” direction. So The Ultimate Gift is getting advance screenings that not only create some word-of-mouth, but also generate revenue for various charities. As Eldridge put it, these are “screenings with a cause.”
Eldridge went on to give an example of a screening in Florida. One of the invited guests was a top client of Stanford Financial Group and he loved the film. In fact, he so identified with the character of Red Stevens and giving back somehow through a legacy that he donated $8 million on the spot to the trust for St. Jude’s Hospital.
Eldridge is extremely pleased that the film has already compelled people to act in such beneficent ways. He said Jim Davis not only wants to see Stanford make money on the film, but is very interested in a film that “compels people to use the resources they have for the betterment of humanity.”
The Ultimate Gift is one of several films in the producing pipeline for Eldridge. Dog Days of Summer, a “thriller” by up-and-coming director Mark Freiburger, will probably get a limited theatrical release later this year and then go to DVD.
Running the Sahara, a feature documentary, has Matt Damon as executive producer and narrator, and is slated for release at the end of 2007. Like The Ultimate Gift, Running the Sahara is tied into fundraising, in this case for the fresh water initiative for impoverished parts of Africa. And, The Perfect Game is an “inspirational” baseball movie about the first international team, from Mexico, to win the Little League championship in 1957. That film features Louis, Gossett, Jr., Ving Rhames, Esai Morales, and Cheech Marin.
For Rick Eldridge, moviemaking is as much about “the betterment of humanity” as it is technical, artistic, and dramatic storytelling. This is his gift to us.
Film Entertainment Magazine