Boy seeks girl, gets distribution deal

Special to The Times

According to those who know him best, Brian Herzlinger hasn't changed in the 2 1/2 years since he took his place at the center of a small, quixotically charming phenomenon known as "My Date With Drew." He's still the guy "everyone loves instantly," according to Brett Winn, his childhood friend from New Jersey, college buddy and co-director/editor/producer -- along with their other old pal, Jon Gunn -- on the documentary that hits theaters in limited release in five cities Aug. 5.

Quite simply, "Drew" chronicles Herzlinger's quest to score a date with his lifelong crush, actress Drew Barrymore.

Indeed, as he reflects on his "Drew" saga, Herzlinger, now 29, oozes the unpretentious charm Winn describes, and which is on display throughout the documentary. The kind of charm that results when one honestly exposes one's foibles to the world.

For instance: his concern about being labeled a stalker, his insistence on practicing for a hypothetical date with Barrymore, his fear of being arrested while sneaking into the "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" premiere after-party, and so on.

The movie is made up of that kind of modest human drama, largely because it was made in ultra-guerrilla fashion. Herzlinger and his mates simply passed around a consumer-level mini-DV camera, taping each other as they brainstorm, argue, kibitz, make phone calls, read e-mails, eat, exercise and interview people who might help them eventually connect with Barrymore. Even when they were all on camera together, they never bothered to use a tripod -- they simply placed the camera on a counter or table.

The production may have been casual, but as Herzlinger talks about the movie between bites of an English muffin, it's obvious that he is now far savvier about Hollywood's nooks and crannies than when the journey started. The goofy, self-deprecating Herzlinger depicted in "My Date With Drew" is clearly present, but so is an ambitious young filmmaker.

One moment, he jokes that the movie's mere existence is nothing short of a miracle considering the story arc is built entirely around his private, unlikely hopes and dreams. "After all, I'm a nobody to the public," he chuckles. "I'm still a nobody to most of the girls I went to high school with, for that matter."

The next moment, though, he offers a dead-serious tutorial on what budding filmmakers had better understand about Hollywood. "At its core, everything you need to know about Hollywood, you learned in kindergarten," he offers. "People forget the rules of the sandbox: Don't throw sand in somebody's face, don't point and laugh at somebody if they fall and scrape their knee. It's just not nice.

"So my advice is to just be honest, and never take no for an answer. If you really have a story to tell, there is no excuse not to tell it. Inexpensive technology is now available -- we shot this movie on a digital video camera, we edited it on a laptop. We got it into festivals." And now, theaters.

Indeed, a major story point is that Herzlinger and his friends, with no money, influence or camera to call their own, simply "purchased" a Panasonic mini-DV camcorder at Circuit City on Winn's credit card, and shot most of the movie before the end of the 30-day return period. Then they simply gave the camera back. All audio was recorded with the camera microphone. No other tools or crew were used during production.

The plan was basically hatched over dinner one night in May 2003, shortly after a financially strapped Herzlinger won $1,100 on a game-show pilot. The winning answer: "Drew Barrymore." Winn had helped edit the "Full Throttle" trailer, featuring Barrymore, that year, and Herzlinger took all this as a sign that perhaps the torch he'd carried for the actress since he first saw her in "E.T." at age 6 was about to ignite once more.

Over dinner, he and Winn also discussed their frustration at having failed "to make movies" since coming to Los Angeles fresh out of Ithaca College's undergraduate film program. They joked about making a documentary about Herzlinger's dream date idea, using his $1,100 winnings as their "budget." They had nothing to lose by formatting the quest around the Circuit City return policy, they decided, and agreed to spend a month on the project. After that, Herzlinger recalls, they would evaluate "if we might make something out of it, or if it would end up being a forgotten summer project."

The green light

Herzlinger and Winn immediately brought their old college friend Gunn on board, and he invited producer Kerry David, a friend of Gunn's wife and now Gunn's partner. They dubbed themselves "The Drew Crew," "greenlit" their project on a Friday, and began documenting their mission the next Monday.

From that moment, "My Date With Drew" became the story of Herzlinger's struggle, and the Drew Crew's unorthodox approach to the challenge -- refusing, for instance, to approach Barrymore's family members or closest friends. Every member of the Drew Crew appears prominently in the film, with Winn, Gunn and David constantly pushing Herzlinger past his misgivings. Eventually, they choose a six-degrees-of-separation strategy to reach Barrymore before time and money run out.

Before the film, each member of the group had worked in the entertainment industry. Winn was editing trailers, Gunn directed an independent film called "Mercy Streets" a few years ago. Herzlinger worked for years as a production assistant on "Chicago Hope" and "Ally McBeal."

But among the Drew Crew, only David had ever whiffed the air of Hollywood's stratosphere, having spent several years as an assistant to Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. Her presence on the team put them on the path that led, indirectly, to theatrical distribution. A few years ago, David began producing movies, including both "Agent Cody Banks" films, and she became friends with Clark Peterson, who co-produced "Monster" in 2003. That project gave Peterson a relationship with DEJ Productions Inc., the theatrical production and distribution arm of Blockbuster Inc. that had co-distributed "Monster." At Peterson's urging, DEJ decided to distribute "Drew."

"Clark got involved early, when he came to our first screening," David recalls. "We invited industry peers we respected to look at what we had objectively, and give us advice. He did that, and even sat in on a few early editing sessions." His backing for the project was strong, she says, and ultimately, "Clark had this relationship with DEJ and basically insisted that [DEJ president] Andy Reimer watch the film. Our fortunes improved from there."

Peterson adds that "this was a documentary not aimed at a documentary audience, so that scared some people away, but I knew that Andy Reimer at DEJ had believed in 'Monster' when no one else did, and I thought he might agree with us that this story works."

After "Monster," DEJ co-distributed "Crash." "My Date With Drew" is the first film it is distributing theatrically without partners. The company decided to do so last year largely because Reimer agreed with Peterson that the Drew Crew had crafted a story tailor-made to appeal to conventional multiplex filmgoers as -- more or less -- the equivalent of a romantic comedy.

"When writers create fictional romantic comedies, they strive to hit certain story beats that take the audience on a ride before reaching a climactic finale that satisfies," says Reimer. "What those writers strive to create happens organically in this movie." He decided he was looking at mainstream, not art-house, fare.

Keeping faith

Reimer's faith rewarded the group's stubborn belief that "My Date With Drew" deserved, specifically, a theatrical release. That belief was severely tested repeatedly, but it never wavered. In fact, when Creative Artists Agency, which represented the project for a time, brought the Drew Crew a badly needed cash offer from NBC -- a proposal to cut the film up into eight episodes for a reality TV show -- they turned it down cold, even though they weren't exactly swimming in options.

"One by one, everybody passed," Winn says. "It was a tough period, because we had seen audiences react passionately at festivals. The guys at CAA said they thought we should sell it to television, and brought us a solid offer from NBC/Bravo. But they called to tell us that exactly as we were coming out of a screening at the HBO Comedy Arts Festival.

"We were coming out of a standing ovation, after winning the best feature category audience award against films like 'Napoleon Dynamite,' 'Super Size Me' and 'Garden State.' So we decided to hold off."

The movie also won audience awards at the 2004 Gen Art Film Festival and the 2004 Vail Film Festival, qualifying it as an official festival darling. In the end, though, DEJ took a huge gamble when it signed on, and even then, there was plenty to worry about.

"Would people spend $10 to go to a theater and see a movie shot on video that their mind tells them is more of a reality show? There was also the question of whether to push it as a documentary or not," Gunn recalls. "Then, there were other issues, like who would pay for the music -- things like that."

At one point, Gunn even called singer-songwriter Eric Carmen at home, seeking permission to use his song, "All by Myself," at a rate lower than the normal licensing fee. (Carmen agreed.) The Drew Crew also put back into the film part of the fees they earned through the distribution deal to license more songs. While they don't offer an exact figure, they say that the final budget of the film ran to the "modest six figures."

In the end, a theatrical release secured, "the good guys won a victory," in Gunn's words. And the Drew Crew considers that victory complete, no matter how long the movie stays in cinemas, whether it earns wider release, or how much money it makes. "The dream was to get it into theaters -- to play it in front of audiences," Winn emphasizes. "That dream is coming true."

With that success, the Drew Crew could well become a role model for penniless but determined filmmakers everywhere, and Herzlinger very much resembles a poster child for that crowd. In fact, he is a poster boy -- seen gazing longingly at a Barrymore billboard on the film's publicity materials. (Barrymore does appear in the film, supported its release and agreed to let filmmakers use her likeness but is not actively participating in publicity efforts.)

He marvels at the blur of recent months -- a period of festival and Internet buzz ,then chats on national TV with Jay Leno, Al Roker on the "Today" show and on "Entertainment Tonight."

But now, Herzlinger faces life after "Drew," and he hopes the result will advance his primary goal -- to direct feature films.

"For me, directing is the thing," he says. "As a filmmaker, this movie lets people see who I am, and maybe that will help me get that pitch meeting I could never get before -- to open those doors that have always been closed. But whatever happens, it's about the journey. That's what I have discovered."

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