Todd Shotz, an Elkins Park native, will be honored with the first-ever qFLIX Philadelphia Producer Award this week.
Things happen in Todd Shotz’s life the way they happen in the movies: by coincidence, on exquisite location and sometimes with fireworks bursting overhead.
Take his most recent trip to Venice, Italy. Shotz, a Cheltenham native who founded and runs the L.A.-based company Hebrew Helpers, was touring a Levantine synagogue in the Jewish Ghetto after officiating at one of his client’s Venice Bar Mitzvahs. Just then, a couple approached.
“They said, ‘We heard you’re a cantor,’” Shotz recalled. He explained that he’s not a cantor, but he officiates services as a Jewish educator and is also a singer. “Do you ever officiate weddings?” they asked. “All the time!” he answered.
And so it was that five hours later Shotz found himself in Piazza San Marco, under a chuppah, officiating an impromptu Jewish wedding for two strangers from San Francisco — one of whom, Lana, escaped Communist Russia years ago and has since dreamt of a Jewish wedding. That’s something that hadn’t happened in her family since before World War I.
“I sang the sheva brachot [the seven blessings] as loud as I could in the hustle and bustle of Venice's busiest square,” Shotz wrote in a Facebook post that was picked up by L.A.’s Jewish Journal. “In my concluding words to them, I reminded them that of all the billions of people in the world and all the billions of people who have ever existed and all of the billions that ever will, they have found one another, and that is truly lucky. Lana began to softly cry. Then David stepped on the glass and we shouted ‘Mazel Tov!’”
It was a picture-perfect moment for the happy couple as well as for Shotz, whose other full-time job is as a Hollywood producer, most recently of the LGBT festival darling Lazy Eye, directed by Shotz’s old friend Tim Kirkman.
“Tim called me up out of the blue last summer,” Shotz recalled on the phone from his hotel room in Italy. “He said, ‘I want you to produce this project with me.’”
Shotz had been living in L.A. and producing for years, including time served as vice president of television and film development at Cheyenne, Bruce Willis’ and Arnold Rifkin’s production company. Now he was on his own, producing independently, so Kirkman sent him the script.
“I read it and called him on July Fourth — fireworks were bursting overhead, which I know sounds cheesy, but it’s true — and I said, ‘I have to work on this project with you. It’s a really important story because its so universal.’”
The film, which tells the story of two exes who reconnect after 15 years, screens this week at qFLIX Philadelphia, a festival of American and international lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and queer independent film. Shotz will be honored with the first-ever qFLIX Philadelphia Producer Award. “It was such a surprise,” Shotz said of learning he’d receive the award. “I was just blown away.”
Producers don’t often get glitzy festival awards, perhaps because their role can seem obscure.
“The producer of a film is involved every creative and business aspect of a film, helping to steer the project from script development to pre-production to production to post-production and then into distribution,” Shotz explained. “I'm involved with raising the financing, pulling the talent together and making sure everyone is 'playing well in the sandbox.' When making an independent film, producing is even more hands-on.”
Lazy Eye was Shotz’s first opportunity to act as lead producer.
“I was involved with finding and courting investors; negotiating and even drafting contracts; consulting on casting; coordinating with lawyers, accountants, agents and managers; handling locations; ordering last-minute costumes; sitting on set as a second pair of eyes for the director; overseeing expenses; and troubleshooting every moment of our 12-hour shoot days,” he said.
And all that’s just during principal photography, after which there’s editing, post-production and distribution strategy for both the festival circuit and commercial market. Shotz has devoted himself to Lazy Eye, day in, day out, for a solid year. And yet he has somehow also managed to keep Hebrew Helpers — which operates out of four cities, and has targeted four new locations for expansion — thriving.
“We see about 180 kids each week privately,” he said. “We do some small group work and work with synagogues. We’re this great plug-in for personalized Jewish education, whether it’s kids looking for something more one-on-one or more meaningful, or kids without a Jewish background whose parents weren’t planning on doing anything until the kid comes and says, ‘I want to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.’ We say if you give us 16 months, one hour a week, one on one, you can learn a ton.”
The oldest of four children who grew up in Elkins Park, Shotz gets inspiration for his busy, engaged Jewish life from his parents, Steven and Barbara Shotz. His father was a founding director and vice board chair of Republic First Bancorp and a director of First Bank of Delaware. His mother is vice president of senior and educational programming at KleinLife.
Regarding both careers, his parents have been extremely supportive. They recently flew to Italy, along with Todd’s sister, Annette, to vacation with him before his big Philadelphia premiere. After that, he’ll be on the road again for Lazy Eye’s Asian premiere in Hong Kong. The reception to the Before Sunrise-style story has been gratifying.
“The film made its world premiere at Provincetown International in June,” said Shotz, “then it opened in San Francisco at Frameline, the LGBT film festival that is the most prestigious. It was so sold out at Frameline that they added a second screening — we were one of only two movies that got that honor. Then it opened in Kansas City at their LGBT festival, which was very important to us. We’re very interested in the movie being seen in smaller markets that don’t always get this kind of programming in their movie theaters.”
The team is trying to arrange screenings in Little Rock, Ark., Houston and Austin, Texas and North Carolina.
“We’re hoping to play a lot of places in the South,” he said.
Shotz thinks the film resonates, in part, because its themes are easy to relate to.
“We all have those thoughts about someone — what could it have been? What if we had a second chance?” Shotz said. “And also for myself, what’s the vision for my life, besides this person? That’s what the main character is struggling with.”
On July 16, the film will screen at OutFest in L.A., another prestigious fest. Shotz also has about eight other producing projects in the pipeline; a new production company with Kirkman called Tfor2; and the ongoing task of broadening Hebrew Helpers’ geographical range.
But for the moment, relaxing in Italy with family, Shotz’s concerns are more immediate: where to eat? “We might be going to this place where George Clooney goes for dinner,” he said from his hotel room in Lake Como.
Whether that restaurant or somewhere else, it was sure to be another cinematic evening in Todd Shotz’s whirlwind of a life.
The Centerpiece screening of Lazy Eye is on Wed., July 6, 7:15 p.m., at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. For more information, go to the festival website, qflixphilly.com.