After the Oscars, Alumni Reflect on the Filmmaking Business

Michael Coleman ’05 and Tom Heller ’05, producers of the acclaimed 2014 film Foxcatcher, talk about what it’s like to attend the Academy Awards.

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Left to right: Foxcatcher screenwriters Max Frye and Dan Futterman ('89CC) ; Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, the subject of Foxcatcher; Michael Coleman '05 and Tom Heller '05. 

When Tom Heller ’05 and Michael Coleman ’05 met on their very first day at Columbia Business School, they didn’t dream they would ever attend an Academy Awards ceremony together. But that’s exactly what happened in 2015, when the movie they produced, Foxcatcher, was nominated for five Oscars. The two had been working on the film — which is about two Olympic wrestlers, brothers, and their relationship with a troubled heir to the du Pont fortune — since business school, so this dream was 10 years in the making. Read more about their story. 

Now, the two are collaborating once again on a movie. Currently in only the very early stages, A Gathering of Saints is based on journalist Robert Lindsey’s 1988 account of one of the largest criminal investigations in Utah history, involving bombings, forgery, and the Mormon church. The story, says Heller, “deals with complex characters and has a lot of different layers, similar to Foxcatcher.” On the eve of the 89th annual Academy Awards, the two reflect on their decade-long journey to the Academy Awards and what it meant for them. 

What have you been working on since Foxcatcher came out?

Tom Heller: I started a New York–based film finance and production company two years ago called Catch and Release Films. Our focus is on acquiring and developing stories from the ground up — mostly based on underlying material like books, articles, and true stories. We hire writers and directors, bring actors on board, and then put the financing together. We have about a dozen projects in various stages of development. It’s been fun, challenging, and very satisfying. 

Michael Coleman: I continue to live in Las Vegas and work as senior vice president of digital at Credit One Bank. Tom and I are collaborating on A Gathering of Saints — it's a story I have a deep personal connection to, much like Foxcatcher. Since I have a career outside of film, I don't have any financial pressures driving the types of movie projects I might work on. I can choose to help with projects I care about and movies that I would absolutely want to see get made.  

What has Foxcatcher’s success meant for you?

Michael Coleman:  The experience had an incredible impact on me. There is tremendous personal satisfaction in bringing into the world a piece of art that I’m very proud of and that has been so well received. It’s also given me more faith in the idea that anything truly is possible … if you push and work and are patient and have enough passion. It also showed me how important it is to find and collaborate with the right people. Columbia Business School played a big role in helping Foxcatcher get to the Academy Awards. The movie wouldn't have happened had Tom and I not met there and had our time at Columbia to get the whole thing off the ground.

Tom Heller: Foxcatcher’s success has been gratifying on a personal level, since it validated our original instincts about the project. We heard many people tell us along the way that this story would never work as a movie. But we never gave up on it, so its success has taught me to always trust my gut and never take no for an answer. It has also been meaningful professionally, since Foxcatcher is my third Oscar-nominated film. I’m proud of continuing a track record as a producer with this film. It means that investors and filmmakers are now more willing to trust my vision and taste. Most importantly, Foxcatcher’s success has given me confidence to continue on this path. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make more movies like this one in the future.

What was it like to be at the Academy Awards ceremony?

Michael Coleman: I had started this project with Mark Schultz (the subject of Foxcatcher) 12 years before, with us sitting down over pizza, so showing up at the Academy Awards together a dozen years later was really surreal. The experience of walking the red carpet with Tom after everything we had been through and the fact that we were there with our wives all together was really special. Now, when I watch the Academy Awards, I understand when people get up on stage and are so overwhelmed by the moment. I can see how the experience of starting and facing a seemingly impossible task, then finishing at such a celebrated event, can make even the most jaded stars overcome with emotion.

Tom Heller: It was a thrilling experience and a great way to celebrate all the hard work it took to get this movie made. It meant so much for Mike and me, and especially our wives, to walk down the red carpet — alongside Mark Schultz, where this all started. A lot of our friends spotted us on TV so it was fun to get texts and messages while we were at the ceremony. There have been a number of great moments on the Foxcatcher ride: the world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, screenings in Toronto, and the Telluride Film Festival. But the Oscars was the high point of our journey. It was amazing and surreal to see so many famous people in one place! 

Most of us only get to watch the Academy Awards on TV. Can you give us some behind-the-scenes intel?

Tom Heller: We got to the Oscars very early — probably around 3 p.m. — so it was a long day and evening. We were all starving by the end! I knew from prior experience to bring snacks since there is not very much to eat at the awards. Also, there was a lot of security. The red carpet was chaotic but a giant party — even more fun than the ceremony. The commercial breaks are short, so if you leave the theater between commercials, you often have to wait a while until you’re allowed back. 

Michael Coleman: There are two sides to the red carpet. The one where there are nominees and entourages, and then the other side is more executives. (We accidentally ended up on the nominee side.) Throughout the night, it was really fun to mix with some of the other nominees and celebrities at the event, people like J.K. Simmons, Cate Blanchett, Jared Leto, Dwayne Johnson, and Adam Levine, to name a few people. 

Also, it’s very difficult to get a ticket. Since Tom and I weren’t personally nominated, we had to be invited either by someone who is a member of the Academy or who had been nominated. We ended up coming as guests of the writer, but it took being told no by a lot of different folks until we got the tickets from the writers.

I second Tom on being hungry — after the ceremony we all got back in our black car and went to In-N-Out Burger; we just needed food quickly.

Any last takeaways to share about the experience of making Foxcatcher?

Tom Heller: I’ve learned that every movie is like starting a new company, so Columbia Business School was very helpful. I drew on things I learned in management, negotiations, and finance. Like any new business, we dealt with a lot of uncertainty and learned to manage different interests and complex personalities. We were the first producers on the project and the reason it got made, but we had to be adaptable as the movie came together. I’m grateful for the experiences we had along the way and the friendships we made, and am very proud of the end product. If I hadn’t met Mike Coleman the first day of orientation for Cluster Y, Foxcatcher would probably never exist!  It taught me about being a good partner, that great ideas can come from anywhere, and that your future partner might be sitting right next to you. 

Michael Coleman: Anything really is possible. I literally had no connections in the movie business, and when I had the idea that I might want to try my hand at film, I started with nothing — no connections, no uncle in the business. So to start from there and then 12 years later be on the red carpet, it still feels like a storybook ending.

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