What is an 83-year-old entertainment icon doing in bed with a well-known TV mother after being slipped a mickey with a sex pill in it?
Inquiring minds want to know. And they’ll get their answer if they go to see Play the Game, an engaging new coming of age—and coming of aging—comedy.
The icon is none other than Andy Griffith, a/k/a Sheriff Andy Taylor of the ‘60s sitcom The Andy Griffith Show and criminal defense attorney Ben Matlock of the ‘80s-‘90s crime drama series. As for the TV mama, she’s played by Liz Sheridan, best known as Jerry’s mother Helen in Seinfeld.
If the thought of Andy Taylor and Helen Seinfeld getting down on the big screen scares you—no worries. The scene is humorous and good-natured and true to the picture’s PG-13 rating, although it is still unexpected, considering the principals involved.
In fact, Play the Game in itself is somewhat unexpected, a fresh, funny and sweet look at senior citizens with a parallel storyline involving younger people in similar situations.
The plot centers on David Mitchell (Battlestar Galactica’s Paul Campbell), a car dealer teaching his Grandpa Joe (Griffith) contemporary tips on how to play the game in order to win women over. Grandpa eventually has that interlude with Mrs. Seinfeld and later takes a liking to Rose, played by Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond). At the same time, David tries to use his strategies on Julie (Marla Sokoloff), a perky young woman who happens to be Rose’s granddaughter.
Play the Game is the first feature from Marc Fienberg, a Chicago native, who recognizes that older audiences are typically overlooked by the Hollywood studios.
“Hollywood says boomers or seniors don’t see movies, but when someone makes one, they come out in droves,” says Fienberg, who worked in the corporate world before ditching his comfortable job and moving to LA with his wife and kids to make movies. “In Florida, we tested Play the Game and it ended up playing for months. We spent almost nothing (on promotion or advertising), and it was all word of mouth.”
Play the Game opened in the Sunshine State during the spring and has taken in a healthy $400,000. It is now getting a broader release throughout the United States, and Fienberg, who also wrote and produced the low-budgeted project, is counting on a unique marketing tactic.
“We have ‘Grassroots Grandmas’ who volunteer to get the word out,” says Fienberg. “A 75-year-old woman named Florence in Florida tells everyone. Now she’s in New Jersey doing the same. The seniors have time on their hands, and the senior grapevine is faster and more powerful than Facebook in Florida. She (Florence) got 3000 people into movie theaters alone.
“Part of the strategy is finding Grassroots Grandmas—and now we have them all over, including Florence in Jersey and Ellen in Philly. We’ve become one of the top five independently distributed films in the country this year—and when this film goes wider, there’s a shot we’ll be number one.”
The “Florence” that Fienberg talks about happens to be Florence Seidelman, mother of Susan Seidelman, the director of Desperately Seeking Susan, as well as The Boynton Beach Club, a 2005 independent film that centered on the lives of senior citizens in a Florida development. Fienberg says the 75-year old Florence, who also produced and co-wrote The Boynton Beach Club, has been an inspiration to him and incredibly helpful in helping Fienberg market Play the Game.
“Look, I know this isn’t the type of film that gets into Sundance, but we knew there was an audience out there, including those snowbirds in Florida,” says the filmmaker. “Florence was essential in getting the word out. She’s really amazing, full of energy. At 75, she’s even about to produce a play.”
The play she’s producing, in fact, is a musical version of The Boynton Beach Club.
Of course, Andy Griffith’s name has been important to get audiences interested, as well. It holds a lot of weight to older filmgoers and baby boomers who grew up watching him on his TV series, and in such films as No Time For Sergeants and A Face in the Crowd. Meanwhile, younger movie fans may recall him recently co-starring as the cantankerous diner owner in the 2007 indie hit Waitress.
Fienberg, who based the film on his relationship with his own grandfather, says his Poppa Joe’s favorite TV show was Matlock and his favorite actor was Griffith.
How did he land the actor for his film?
“It was a typical Hollywood thing where I sent the script to his agent and his agent sent it to him,” recalls Fienberg, who now lives in L.A., where he shot Play the Game and is now fielding offers for film and commercials projects. “He (Griffith) told me later why he did it. He liked the role because he had a bedroom scene and he didn’t die at the end of the script.
“I think it’s reflective of the movie. Nobody dies here like in a Hollywood movie. This was all about living, and how seniors should not give up and look forward to love and companionship. That’s why Liz and Doris took their roles too. When I told Liz she was going to have a bedroom scene, it sold her.
“The benefit of having Andy Griffith is that people view him as an endearing man like their grandparent,” adds Fienberg. “And let’s face it: it’s a deep dark secret, but seniors still do it. They need companionship and sex like the rest of us. Andy didn’t have problems with it. He was playing a part he never played before, a part that represented his age in a positive light.”