Philadelphia is rich in home-grown talent, case in point this week’s Portrait: Todd Shotz. Shotz is a film producer known for films like “Latter Day Jew,” “Lazy Eye” and the documentary feature “On the Sly: In Search for the Family Stone.” For several years, he was the VP of Development for Cheyenne Enterprises, Bruce Willis’ and Arnold Rifkin’s production company, where he worked on such films as “Live Free or Die Hard” and “Sin City.” Before his career in film, Shotz spent many years working on Broadway in company management working on several Tony-winning revivals. Leading a dual life as both film producer and Jewish educator, he founded the personalized Jewish educational company, Hebrew Helpers. He is a recipient of the Human Rights Campaign E-Hero Award for his activism through media. Now residing in LA, Shotz returns to Philadelphia for a fundraiser to help two of Philadelphia’s treasured film entities, The Women’s Film Festival and the team behind qFLIX Philadelphia. His film “The Grotto” will be screened on Nov. 19 and Shotz will be in attendance along with the film’s writer and director, Joanna Gleason. The Tony Award-winning musical theater actress and film and television star is making her debut as a feature director with “The Grotto.” We had a chance to speak to Shotz on the run in LA.
Are you excited to return to Philly?
Oh yes. I grew up in Elkins Park, went to high school here and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. I am fourth generation living in Philadelphia on one side of my family, all of my grandparents and one great-grandparent were born here. I’m the oldest of four kids. My sister is still in Philly but the rest of us moved to California. My little brother George was part of the Gay Men’s Chorus in Philadelphia for a long time and now he lives in San Francisco and sings with the Gay Men’s Chorus there. My brother Dan is in LA and he’s a producer, and he has a couple of TV shows right now, including one called “The Old Man” with Jeff Bridges and he’s the showrunner for “Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” which is going to be a big show for Disney+. So we’re both in the business.
That’s cool. What did you want to be as a kid?
I was always very involved in theater. I went to a performing arts overnight camp. I was involved with every show you could be in at my high school in Cheltenham. I was in the choir, the musicals, the plays — anything that was performing arts related. I even interned at a PR agency on the Avenue of the Arts launch! I was also very involved with the Jewish community. I was teaching and leading services in our synagogue in Elkins Park.
What was your favorite role?
Oh! In eighth grade, I played my favorite role I’ve ever played, Elwood P. Dowd, in the play “Harvey.” That’s the role played by Jimmy Stewart in the movie, who thought he could see a 6ft rabbit.
What did you study at Penn?
I had a double major, English and Theatre. I did a lot of acting the first year and then my senior year, I made a shift to directing and producing. I was able to direct the Spring Fling musical, which was always a big deal. [Laughing] And the show that year was, “Merrily We Roll Along,” which after flopping the first time (it only ran for 16 performances), just re-opened on Broadway to critical acclaim! I always loved the music from that show. And it’s a beautiful show about friendship and what we want from our lives. Anyway, after Penn, I moved to Israel for a year and was an English teacher on a program in Tel Aviv and then I came back and started a career working on Broadway. I got to be a part of 23 different shows during my time in New York.
Wow! Tell me about that.
I worked for an amazing company called 101 Productions. They really mentored me and I got to be part of some incredible things. I mean, I got to work with Liza Minelli on her one-woman show. She was the most gracious person. It was a dream come true working with her. I worked on all the shows for the company but certain ones, like Liza’s show, I would be dedicated to work specifically with them as Assoc. Company Manager. Right after that, I worked on the best thing I ever worked on, the revival of Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” with Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle. I was there every night and I got to work directly with Tom Stoppard. He was so lovely. He answered all my questions about his other shows and movies. It was an incredible experience. And we won three Tony Awards!
What was a moving or memorable or funny moment from your time in the theater?
After its Broadway start, we took “Kiss Me Kate” on the road. The tour manager and I were responsible for 60 company members, five 48” tractor trailers, and you have to get everyone and everything to each city and be ready for the next show. It’s a huge responsibility.
The most memorable moment was when we went to Los Angeles. There we were, far away from NY and 9/11 happened. As theater people, most of us had apartments, friends and family in NY and it was devastating. On top of that, we were traveling all over the US and even little things, like the fact that we all had multiple bags with all our stuff that we could no longer take on the plane, made it clear that nothing would be the same again. As we went from city to city, we could see and feel the shift in America and we did our best to bring a little levity and light to the moment. But the most touching part was right after 9/11, every night after that at the end of the show, the whole cast and crew would go on stage and sing the national anthem. The audience would stand and it was incredibly moving.
The funny moment was when we were working on a show at the Beacon Theatre. It was Kenny Rogers’ show, “Christmas from the Heart.” Part of the show was a little play about a toy shop where the toys come to life at night. Anyway, we had to decorate the whole set with toys and on a limited budget. So imagine me going to FAO Schwarz to the back room to buy up all of their broken toys on discount — because we didn’t need the toys to work, they just had to look good and fill the stage — then riding home in a taxi piled with toys. I have a vague memory of a giraffe head sticking out of the window!
That’s a great image. So let’s fast forward to how you got to LA.
My brother was in LA working in films and I thought I’d come out and give it a try. We were in LA for two months with “Kiss Me” and I really liked it. I moved here with no job, but my brother got me an apartment across the hall from him and we got one of our best friends to move here as my roommate, so it was a great way to start here. I’d been teaching Hebrew and Bar Mitzvah in New York and started doing that here while I found my way in films. I knew I wanted to lean toward the producing side of things. I liked films because I found I could be more involved in shaping the project as opposed to doing Broadway shows where you didn’t have as much input. Luckily, I had saved some money, so I was able to take time to learn the business and then got a position with Bruce Willis’ production company in 2003.
By the time I left in 2009, I was the vice president. I got to work on a number of great films and with people like Lindsay Lohan, Chris Pine and Hugh Jackman. It was great. I left because I had an opportunity to produce a pilot for Showtime. It was a series called “Way Out” and it was about coming out of the closet. We filmed people as they were coming out. Unfortunately, it didn’t get picked up, but it was a great transition for me to realize that I really wanted to work on projects that meant something to me personally. Issues that I really cared about. I loved working on action movies with Bruce Willis, but it wasn’t where my heart was. So I started working on projects that had LGBTQ content, Jewish stories, or anything that I could get passionate about. I worked on documentaries [and] feature films. I did a short film with Joanna who directed this film, “The Grotto.” I love what I do.
Yes. I was able to do it because the Jewish company I’d started on the side, Hebrew Helpers, got bigger and bigger. It turned into a real calling for me and is incredibly meaningful for me while giving me the freedom to pursue passion projects in film. We’re now in 11 cities across the US.
And now you have your own company T42 Entertainment!
I know! Tim Kirkman is my business partner. He’s an amazing, award-winning writer/director (Emmy, Gotham, GLAAD and Independent Spirit Award-nominee). We co-produced “Lazy Eye,” which played at qFLIX. In fact, I was honored with a Producer’s Award, which was named after me and I think given out each year after. We sold out the Prince Theatre when it was screened. [Laughing] Probably with just my friends and family!
Well, I hope they all show up for the screening on the 19th! I’m excited for it!
Oh, they’ll be there! So back to the company, Tim and I wanted to start a company that would give a voice to people that have been marginalized. Obviously we’re both white, cis-gender men, but whether it’s LGBTQ stories or women’s stories or people of color, we want to help raise those voices. And when Joanna Gleason — who is a good friend to both of us — came to us with this film, we wanted to help. I’m actually very close to her sister and to her son who is a composer who came to the premiere of “Lazy Eye” in NY. He cornered me at the after party and said, “You have to talk to my mom about her movie.” I said, “Your mother is Broadway’s Joanna Gleason, I’m happy to talk to her!”
And then I didn’t hear anything until “Lazy Eye” was acquired by Netflix and she and her husband, Chris Sarandon (from “Princess Bride” and other things) watched it. They called me the next day. We read the script and signed on. It took a long time for us to find funding, we had to jump through all sorts of hoops including producing a short film that Joanna directed as proof of what she could do. We finished the short in March of 2020. Good timing, right? We couldn’t go to film festivals. We couldn’t do our own screening. It was crazy. We finally got someone to believe in the project, a woman named Laure Sudreau, who finances movies. She knows Joanna and they were out to lunch when Joanna mentioned the movie. Laure asked to see the script and the short film and within a week said, “I’m in!” and financed the whole movie!
Yes, it went very fast after that. We shot most of the film in LA on a soundstage and spent a week in Lancaster, Ca. Which they pronounce Lang-CAST-er, to shoot the desert scenes and the exterior of the actual Grotto. It’s been a great ride. We’ve had an amazing festival run and this is our last stop, back home in Philly!
We greatly appreciate it! OK, let’s do some random questions. Who came out first, you or your brother?
I came out first back in 1995, which was during the AIDS fright and before it was part of pop culture, so it was hard for me. I was at Penn and realized that I was in love with someone of the same sex and it really hit me. It’s one of those things where I always knew it, but I didn’t know it until I fell in love. By senior year, I had a boyfriend and told the whole family. It was hard at first, but most people were incredible.
Who surprised you most with their reaction?
My Rabbi! I grew up with him and always thought of him as very conservative. He was a Republican, when Republicans were still normal, and he was so accepting and open. It was incredible. I actually spoke at his retirement and told him that I credit him with keeping me involved with the Jewish community, because he showed me that it could be a loving inclusive place.
What song always gets you on the dance floor?
“Dancing Queen” [by ABBA] and “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5
Most physically challenging or dangerous thing you’ve done?
I rode a bike over the Amazon. It was on this track that was suspended in the air and it was the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but it was exhilarating.
Ha, they have or had something like that in the Franklin Institute, where you could ride across up near the dome. Not nearly as exciting, I’m sure. Favorite place to hang out in Philly?
I love Reading Terminal Market!
What Broadway show would you want to star in?
I always wanted to play Motel the tailor in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
What’s a favorite line?
It’s a line from Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.” It goes, “Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”
Speaking of making things better, on behalf of The Women’s Film Festival and the crew from qFLIX, I thank you for making this a fundraiser and donating the proceeds to us. Both festivals are really important to the city, but as marginalized festivals, we often don’t get the funding that larger festivals do.
Absolutely, this is what we’re all about, giving back and especially in my home town! Even if you can’t come to the screening, I hope people will donate through the ticket site. Both Joanna and I will be joining you and Gary Kramer for the screening and we hope everyone will come out!
The Philadelphia Premiere of “The Grotto” will be screen at 6 p.m. on Nov. 19 at FringeArts, 140 North Christopher Columbus Boulevard. Tickets are available at https://sickening.events/e/philadelphia-premiere-of-the-grotto.