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Movie Magician of the Main Line
Marc Erlbaum seems just the kind of guy you'd want to hang out with over a cup of coffee -- which makes the premiere of "Cafe," set in the caffeinated grounds of West Philadelphia, an appropriate choice to perk up a conversation on the eve of its premiere at the Philadelphia Film Festival pff10.org on Oct. 16.
Just make sure he's not noshing on brisket when you pour the cream into the coffee: Erlbaum early on chose to become observant and proudly attests to the Jewishness in every bone of his body.
And in every frame of his films. Originally, Nationlight facebook.com/nationlightproductions, the film company he founded -- J. Andrew Greenblatt and David Magerman are partners with Ari Pinchot, development director -- was geared to produce solely Jewish-oriented films.
But in building audiences for such an endeavor, he realized that the backstory may be the best and more practical way to go.
Launched last year with a special Shabbat at Sundance, Nationlight has gone national since, even as its offices remain based in Bala Cynwyd.
Erlbaum's own story has a Hollywood halo to it, even as his feet remain firmly planted in terra firma Philadelphia.
A scion and son of a prominent local Jewish family -- parents Gary and Vicki are longtime communal activists and philanthropists with Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia; sibling Jon is the executive director of the Chevra, which links young Jews to meaningful Jewish experiences; and brother Daniel is in advertising/consulting -- Marc made his mark early on in the family business, the national chain that was David's Bridal.
But he felt more groomed for a writing career, so he pursued a degree in English and creative writing at the University of Michigan, where he graduated in 1992, magna cum laude. He later moved on to graduate work at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania.
But he says he never imagined that he'd be in the movie business -- which he now is, directing and producing his films. After a couple of successful shorts, he went long -- and far with "Buddy Goldstein Live," chosen for the Emerging Narratives Division of the 2006 Independent Film Program Market.
Since renamed "A Buddy Story," it is premiering locally as Erlbaum's second entry in this month's Philadelphia Film Festival, with a screening on Oct. 17.
Erlbaum describes it as "a wholesome romantic comedy," with the main character, undergoing a not-so-Jewish-sounding name change to Buddy Gibson, "struggling with his music career, coming into contact with a woman who has lost her own way."
"It's an uplifting, positive message," Erlbaum says of the flick starring an actress producers are mad to get these days: Elisabeth Moss of TV's "Mad Men."
For those seeking movies that don't go bump in the night -- or crash cars at high speeds -- Erlbaum's company comes as a kind of Jewish relief, ironically reflecting his role in an alternate universe as founder and board member of Philadelphia's Jewish Relief Agency, providing food to hungry families and individuals in the region.
Food for thought is what Judaism provides his movies, according to Erlbaum, as his company's table settings and tableaux increase to accommodate a girth-growing schedule. Nationlight's movies are aglow "with Jewish values, although we are not now a Jewish production company, per se -- which is what we called ourself originally."
Call them successful and up-and-coming, a tzedakah-targeted movie trailer -- with intimations of the value of doing good and giving back as a life mission -- for triumphs with an intriguing slate, including "Everything Must Go," with Will Ferrell, due to play internationally soon.
Everything must go back to his original concern that Nationlight's projects shed light on the human condition. "I'm a ba'al teshuvah" adherent, Erlbaum says of the movement in which Jews take on a strictly observant lifestyle.
"I'm Chasidic and have a job to do, to spread positivity."
If God is in the details, read between the lines and scripts: Answers can be found in sifting through Erlbaum's bio and background. "I grew up in a Conservative household," he explains, and "went to the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr," prominent for its emphasis on the humanities and science.
But in college, he said that he found life wasn't all academic. That is where, he says, "I was introduced to a rabbi who influenced my life."
But isn't there a world apart -- and the heavens, too -- between Chasidic life and the lifestyle of a movie writer/director/producer? Could "Men in Black" refer both to religion and reel life?
The Lubavitcher rebbe advocated "that there be no separation between aspects of life," he says, explaining the yin-yang yoking of the two, rather than the yanking of them apart.
His films don't mix milk and meat, metaphorically, but in one specific case, it does mix musical motifs. Jewish rap star and Erlbaum buddy Matisyahu has a cameo in "A Buddy Story."
Nationlight's schedule is loaded with launched projects, including Erlbaum's adaptation of the book 20/20 Vision, which sets its sights on "a Jewish couple in post-apocalypse New York."
And he has bought the rights to Coming Back to Earth: The Central Park Guru Becomes an Old City Jew.
Media Can 'Change the World'
A rite of passage for any independent filmmaker worth his salted popcorn means fundraising along with the fun-raising. "My focus is on 'filmanthropy,' " relates Erlbaum of reeling in "philanthropists who understand the potential of media to change the world."
What helped change him was not only the influence of that rabbi at college, but the "entrepreneurial spirit of my father and his brothers, which infused me with the importance of being creative and persistent."
And if those fields of dreams are played out in Philadelphia in the next week or so -- with a concurrent premiere of "Cafe" at the heralded Heartland Festival in Indiana, where it will receive a major award -- it's all part of Nationlight's nascent goal of attuning Tinseltown to tikkun olam.
Says the movie magician of the Main Line: "I hope to make a difference in the world."