February 11, 2019

CT execs pony up for film about Willie Pep’s boxing comeback

Photos | Contributed
Photos | Contributed
Several local executives have invested in a production company working to make a movie about the late Connecticut boxer Willie Pep (left), a featherweight champion who holds the record for career wins. Actor James Madio, pictured right at a New Britain diner, will play the lead role of Pep, who died in 2006, if the film makes it to production.
Director Robert Kolodny (left) and producer Steve Loff were scouting in Hartford last month. Here, they are at the Hartford Armory, which hosts boxing matches. In the right photo, Kolodny chats with HBJís associate publisher and movie fundraiser Donna Collins.

Certain movies are inextricably tied to the cities in which they're set — urban geographies that stamp their identities onto the films, just like the actors do.

Boston's got "Good Will Hunting" and "The Departed"; Chicago has "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"; and New York? Too many to pick.

Those are prominent cities, certainly, with major league sports teams and populations many times that of Hartford, but couldn't the Capital City of one of the country's wealthiest states get just one such movie connection?

A New York-based production team says it's ready to try with a film about famed Hartford boxer Willie Pep. A few local executives have pledged their own money to back the production, hoping Hartford can land its own version of "Rocky," the iconic Sylvester Stallone film that boosted Philadelphia's profile in the mid-1970s.

"Pep" is about famed featherweight boxer Guglielmo Papaleo, who was born in Middletown and trained to fight in Hartford, where he had his first professional bout in 1940. Papaleo, who died in 2006 at a Rocky Hill nursing home, is said to have collected the highest number of wins of any boxer in history over his 22-year pro career.

Before Brooklyn-based production company Pep Films LLC can get into any of that story, it needs to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover the film's projected $1.5 million budget.

Last fall, the company bailed on a plan to shoot the movie in Cleveland, Ohio, after it couldn't raise enough money. It soon turned its sights to Papaleo's home turf, visiting twice last month to scout potential filming locations at The Society Room, XL Center, Pratt Street, The Hartford Club, St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, local diners, parks and other spots.

After just a few months, "Pep" has made hay here in Hartford, securing nearly $300,000 in equity investments.

One "Pep" backer is Manon Cox, former CEO of Meriden's Protein Sciences, which Sanofi acquired in 2017 in a deal worth at least $650 million. Cox, who has agreed to invest $100,000, is certainly no boxing junkie, nor a film-production investor.

"It's totally weird, it's not something I've ever done before or thought about," Cox said in an interview.

There's always a chance a major studio buys "Pep" at Sundance and its investors make a handsome profit, but Cox knows the movie business can be tough. She views her "Pep" bet as potentially risky, but worth making.

The reason she decided to kick in a six-figure sum is because she hopes the movie will raise the profile of Hartford and the state.

"We have so many people speaking negatively about the state," Cox said. "It's important for Connecticut to start creating some buzz, and whatever we can do to make that happen is good."

Protein Science's former head of global business development, Daniel Adams, is also investing $100,000.

Adams, an attorney, has some prior experience with film investment contracts. While he's not counting on turning a profit, he feels pretty good about what "Pep" is offering to investors. The terms seem favorable, he said.

"Hartford needs some help, and anything I can do to help, I'll do," Adams said.

Meanwhile, Robert Patricelli, former CEO of Women's Health USA (he sold his majority stake in 2017) and recent co-chair of the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth, confirmed he has also pledged an undisclosed investment in the movie.

"Willie Pep was part of growing up in Hartford and I think we need to celebrate our history as the city finds its footing," said Patricelli, who recalled his father — a longtime WTIC television and radio executive — taking him in his youth to watch boxing matches in South Hartford. Patricelli, who was around 12 years old when Pep fought his final title match in 1951, can't remember seeing the boxer fight live, but recalls meeting him and listening to his fights on the radio.

He thinks the movie could provide a shot in the arm for Hartford's fairly active boxing community. But can it possibly achieve Rocky-esque heights?

"Needs a good theme song," Patricelli quipped.

Local connections

Having a well-connected advocate on the ground wrangling investors has been crucial in Hartford, said Pep Films principal Steve Loff, who is the producer and author of the movie's script, and a studio accountant by day.

For Loff and his team, a key person in Hartford has been Donna Collins, associate publisher of the Hartford Business Journal.

Enthused by the potential boost a feature film might provide for Hartford, she agreed several months ago to take on "Pep" fundraising as a side project, after Hartford attorney John Wolfson of Feiner Wolfson LLC called her to ask for help.

Wolfson's son-in-law, Larry Hummel, is a "Pep" producer and a voiceover talent agent in Los Angeles. When Wolfson learned from Hummel that a movie about a Hartford boxing legend wasn't going to be filmed anywhere near Hartford, he was perturbed.

"This is a Hartford story about a Hartford hometown hero, and you have to do it in Hartford," Wolfson said.

Hummel told him: "That would be great, but we've got to raise the money."

The first call Wolfson made was to Collins.

"She knows everybody," he said. "She's a force of nature."

And indeed, Collins successfully pitched Cox, Adams and Patricelli, and is hoping to add to the investor list soon.

"The investors that we have are investing in the film primarily because they believe it's good for Hartford and it's good for the state," Collins said.

There have been a number of failed attempts by various groups to adapt Willie Pep's story into a feature-length film over the years.

"It's a story that's dying to be told," Collins added.

Crunch time

Loff, the producer, said he's pleased with the quick fundraising progress over just a few months, but he says the film's future remains uncertain.

He had hoped to have enough money raised to move forward with leasing a production office in Hartford by the last week of January, but it didn't happen.

Getting the full funding soon would help ensure filming could happen before the snow melts. The Hartford winter, he said, is a key element of the "Pep" script, which tells the story of the boxer after his 1960 retirement, struggling with family problems and searching for his rightful place in the city. He eventually decides to stage a career comeback after four years out of the ring.

"It's cold and dark and depressing — it's a tough time," said Loff, who has some producing and directing credits to his name, mostly for small-budget productions. "The winter is kind of a metaphor for where he's at."

The film's funding so far is comprised of $275,000 in equity investments and $325,000 worth of Connecticut film tax credits, for a total of $600,000.

That means Pep Films is about 40 percent of the way to its budget.

In order to have a shot at some winter filming in March, Loff said his fundraising deadline is Feb. 18.

There's some leeway, but not much. For example, he would likely open a production office with another $200,000 or so, and then continue trying to raise money. Hitting 80 percent of the budget goal would get "Pep" through the filming stage, but post-production would cost additional dollars.

If investments come too slowly, or not at all, it could mean delaying the project, perhaps until summer, which brings the risk of losing actors and crew to other projects, as well as the potential need to rework the script.

"We are worried about losing talent," Loff said. "Schedules become a problem."

Actor James Madio, who had roles in the 1995 film "The Basketball Diaries," and the HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers," has long been on board to play the lead role of Willie Pep, Loff said. In fact, Loff said it was Madio who first told him about Willie Pep after they became friends years ago in Los Angeles.

Loff said he's also confident that actor Ron Livingston will accept the role of Pep's manager in the film. Star of the cult hit "Office Space," Livingston crossed paths with Madio during their time appearing in "Band of Brothers."

"Pep's" director is Robert Kolodny of New York, who has directed a television series and a number of shorts, according to the website IMDB.

Loff said he's ready to finally get over the fundraising hurdles so they can start announcing talent and making the art.

"I'm confident that we're going to raise the money and get the film done and do it in Hartford," he said. "The timeline is concerning."

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