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Stern Stuff

The man behind the Michael Jordan Imax movie and a host of other projects keeps a tight grip on the reins.



By Patrick Z. McGavin

Jim Stern says one of the worst things about being an independent director in Los Angeles is the way the film industry insists on categorizing you. Recently a couple of producers approached him about making what he describes as a dark and edgy work about basketball, because, he says, he'd just done both dark and edgy and basketball: It's the Rage, a movie about guns in American society that he produced and directed, and the Imax production Michael Jordan to the Max, which he codirected.

Stern, who's 41, juggles identities involving the worlds of film, theater, finance, and sports, combining personal expression with entrepreneurial zeal. Growing up in Glencoe, he dabbled in the performing arts, and at the University of Michigan in the early 80s he earned a degree in theater and made experimental and narrative short films. Upon graduation he moved to New York and held a series of odd jobs and internships in the theater. He worked with the composer Howard Ashman on a musical based on Village Voice cartoonist Stan Mack's comic strip Real Life Funnies. "We did the show in New York, the review came out in the New York Times," he remembers. "Frank Rich said [Ashman] should never work again. I saw him sink into this corner in the New York Times building. It taught me that you need to validate yourself."

Finding the theater business a bit more brutal than he'd expected, Stern enrolled in the MBA program at Columbia University. "There was no money in off Broadway. I felt like I needed more options than just working in the theater. You had to raise a lot of money to have any position there unless you wanted to go on the nonprofit side, which I was less oriented to. I wanted to be calling the shots. Getting an MBA made sense in terms of getting investors," he says.

After he earned his degree in the mid-80s, Stern worked for 18 months for his father's company, a manufacturer of appliances like air purifiers and handheld massagers, but he still longed to develop his own film and theater projects. "In the financial world, there's a kind of reflexive crouch; you wait for the ceiling to fall in on you, so I was very much driven by not relying on anybody else to hire me. That set me in the direction of producing," Stern says. He moved to Los Angeles and began shopping scripts around, without much success. Then his father decided to sell his company, and Stern returned to Chicago to work with the investment bankers to help coordinate the details of the sale.

In 1991 some friends of Stern's with roots at Second City who performed under the name Friends of the Zoo were writing a series of sketches satirizing the men's movement. Stern suggested they convert the material into a musical. "I was getting married that year, and they gave me the script at my wedding," he says. "My wife got really excited about it, said we should get back to something smaller like that, and that process started this duality of my being involved in business and producing from a very creative standpoint." Stern's production of Wild Men, starring George Wendt, opened in 1992 and was a hit, running at the Body Politic for more than a year. Stern then took the production to New York, where it failed equally spectacularly. "People don't get into this sort of world to make money," Stern says. "They let things ride, and things tend to perpetuate themselves."

That atmosphere convinced Stern to take what was probably his greatest gamble. With a group of New York investors and producers, he ignored the thundering indifference of established producers and decided to back the New York production of Stomp! Stern credits his wife, Kathryn Glasgow Stern, for sensing the show's possibilities, though nobody could have accurately predicted its astounding success. "Now it sounds so patently absurd," Stern says. "'People aren't going to come and see that.' [Stomp!] had never performed more than three shows at a time; it had never sat down and played consecutive performances anywhere. It's done 40 times its initial investment."

Stern drew on the momentum from that success to back a series of ambitious projects, such as Alan Ayckbourn's Communicating Doors, Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, and Lanford Wilson's Redwood Curtain, all of which received mixed commercial and critical responses. Those experiences reaffirmed his urge to take total control of his own projects. Despite the demands on his time and attention, he was convinced he could handle the creative aspect of the business. "I'm one of those people the more busy I am, the more I tend to get done," he says. "I tend to drift a little bit when I have less to do. I wanted to direct. I loved the creative process. I wanted to work with actors. Ultimately I wanted to do films that were commercial. The more I learned about myself in the business, the more I learned it is more important to be focused project to project than to be concerned with what's going to happen eventually."

In 1995, with his wife and producer Richard Marzo, Stern set up his own Chicago-based film production company. Their first production was the low-budget drama 35 Miles From Normal, an autobiographical work written and directed by Mark Schwahn about college students coping with their encroaching adulthood and the urge to escape their small-town origins. The movie was shown at Sundance in 1997, though it never was released commercially, a painful and frustrating experience for all involved. But it reinforced for Stern the need to guarantee independence, financing, and control over each stage of the project.

Of course Stern had other projects and interests to fall back on, in particular the investment portfolio he was managing with his father at their hedge-fund company. He found the work comforting compared to what he'd been doing. "I'm so intense with the theater and film projects," he says. "Investing is all dispassionate. Making plays and movies is very passionate. That's the greatest joy in the world to me. But [finance] gives my brain a place to go because there is a lot of frustration in making movies and producing plays."

Stern's other abiding passion is basketball, specifically the Chicago Bulls. Since 1990, with his two older brothers and father, Stern has been part of the management partnership that owns the team. His love of the game and his background led his lawyer to approach him a couple years ago about a project some of his other clients were trying to get off the ground.

Like Stern, brothers Don and Steve Kempf grew up on the North Shore, were intense sports enthusiasts, and had worked in finance and investments. They wanted to make a movie about Michael Jordan in the Imax format and had raised $7 million through their Evanston-based production company, Giant Sports Screen, but lacked the contacts to set the process in motion. Stern had them.

"Jim comes from more of a feature background," says Don Kempf. "I come from a sports film background. Jim helped bring the two visions together." The filmmakers started shooting in April 1998, Jordan's last year and the beginning of the Bulls' final run of their second string of three consecutive championships. They shot nearly half a million feet of film despite not having legal clearance from Jordan or the National Basketball Association. Stern says coach Phil Jackson interceded on the filmmakers' behalf, which was instrumental in getting Jordan's approval. Though the reviews of the film have been mixed, Michael Jordan to the Max has already recouped the production expenses and just established a new record for the number of Imax screens--56--devoted to a single title. Now Stern and the Kempfs are producing an Imax version of Stomp!

During the postproduction process Stern was also putting together a deal to direct his first narrative feature. In 1997 he'd seen the Goodman's production of Keith Reddin's play All the Rage and acquired the film rights. Reddin's subject, the proliferation of guns and its consequences, resonated deeply with Stern: his roommate at Michigan, Toby Strober--to whom the film is dedicated--was shot to death in the early 80s. Reddin adapted his own script, and Steppenwolf actors Joan Allen and Gary Sinise as well as David Schwimmer signed on to the project. It was Allen's early enthusiasm for the project that helped Stern and his partner, Peter Gilbert, who codirected Hoop Dreams, attract the services of the other well-known actors, despite the paltry production budget of $5 million. Though some Chicago exteriors--the Drake Hotel, the Green Mill--figure prominently, the bulk of the movie was shot in LA.

The film was savaged by reviewers and was shown on cable in April before a limited theatrical release here and in LA and New York, but Jim Stern is not letting it get him down. In addition to the Stomp! film, he has three other movies in various stages of development. His wife's first novel, Another Song About the King, was published by Random House in February to good reviews and encouraging sales. With their two small children, they divide their time between Chicago and LA.

"I've always felt I could get things done," Stern says. "I've had the ability to make things happen. My wife worked on her novel for seven years. Film directing is very easy. If you don't know where to put the camera, there's somebody to help you. If you don't know how to edit, there's somebody to help you. You don't have that when you're writing a novel.

"I've done 14 different plays and movies over the last eight or nine years. There are sacrifices--you don't get to spend as much time with your family. This is something I've always dreamed of being able to do." The only thing killing him right now is the sorry state of the Bulls. "My kids are growing up Lakers fans," Stern says. "I bleed black and red."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Davis Barber.

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