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Published: Friday, 5/25/2012

COMMENTARY

Midwest still has stake in films

BY KIRD BAIRD
CULTURE SHOCK

"But will it play in Peoria?"

It's a question Hollywood studio execs ask of their projects frequently. The trouble is, few in Tinseltown seem to really care about the answer.

Not Kevin Cooper, a born-and-raised Toledoan who now lives in Chicago.

The 45-year-old filmmaker worked in Hollywood for years, including a stint as story editor for Michael Bay (insert jokes here about Bay's movies having no stories), and grew tired of the West Coast snobbery of the "fly-over states." In 2005 he co-founded a movie company, Amarok Productions, to do something about it: "develop small Midwestern film initiatives."

Cooper says Hollywood doesn't give a gosh darn about middle America, and it's darn near impossible for middle America sensibilities to play on big screens nationwide.

"John Hughes was a Midwestern guy who lived in the Midwest ... and his films, even with their universal themes, were about Midwesterners, ultimately," Cooper said. "But a younger John Hughes today would not have been able to get Home Alone made. That's a neat opportunity for us, to take advantage of the shift in how the film industry is working and what the studios prioritize."

Cooper's first film is I ♥ Shakey, a PG family comedy, with a cast that includes Steve Guttenberg and Beverly D'Angelo, about a widower and his young daughter who move from Toledo to Chicago. Unfortunately, their dog Shakey is not welcome in their deluxe condo building, and so the pair must find new owners for their pet. Naturally, giving Shakey away isn't as easy as it sounds, and the family learns lessons in love, trust, and friendship. And if that doesn't sound Midwestern enough, consider the film is loosely based on Cooper's own story, minus the widower part.

When he and his wife moved to Los Angeles from Connecticut, they brought along their new dog, a rambunctious "mixed breed of a lab and probably a Rottweiler" named Chaplin for his birthplace in Chaplin, Conn.

And like the family in I ♥ Shakey, "The place we rented didn't allow dogs," Cooper said, "but we didn't know that until we got there."

Cooper posted flyers throughout the neighborhood and gave Chaplin to several families, which resulted in the same outcome each time: The dog would go wild and the new owners would call Cooper the next day and ask him to take Chaplin back.

"The dog would not let go, or at least that was my interpretation," he said. "He wanted to be home and wanted to be with me."

Cooper gave up trying to find a new home for his beloved mutt, and kept Chaplin until he died a few years ago.

"I told everyone that story in L.A.," Cooper said. Some friends helped him develop his personal experiences into a script, and once Amarok Productions secured the funding, principal filming on I ♥ Shakey began in August, 2010, with a 90 percent Midwest cast and crew and filmed in Chicago.

The production budget was $235,000, although unexpected post-production costs for the 3-D film ballooned the budget to close to a half-million dollars -- not much compared to budgets of most Hollywood films. I ♥ Shakey premieres on Video on Demand in June and will play at the Maumee Indoor Theater on June 29.

Cooper, his wife, DeAnna, also a former studio executive, and 12-year-old Rylie Behr and rescue dog Ebony, stars of I ♥ Shakey, will be in Toledo June 2 as part of the King Wamba Parade in the Old West End Festival, and June 3 the Mud Hens will host an I ♥ Shakey night at the ballpark.

I ♥ Shakey is the kind of Midwest family comedy Hollywood doesn't make anymore.

And it took a former Hollywood exec by way of Toledo to tell it.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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