By Amy SpoonerFeb. 24, 2015
Lawyers don't shy away from a challenge. They carefully construct their arguments, anticipate how to deconstruct their opponents', and present their cases.
Gordon Toering, '91, currently is trying a case in the court of public opinion. Old Fashioned, the first release by his film company, Skoche Films LLC, premiered nationwide on Valentine's Day—opposite the much-hyped Fifty Shades of Grey. Taglines like "Love is Anything but Grey" bill Old Fashioned as the antithesis of its rival—a story of platonic courtship. With a $600,000 budget and an opening weekend of approximately 220 screens, no one expects the film to garner Grey's buzz or revenue. Toering and his partners just wanted to produce a high-quality film that offered a different way of thinking of modern love, and a bit—a "skoche"—of inspiration.
"We wanted to move people, to give them a nudge," Toering said. "The movie involves less-than-perfect characters, and although it's Christian based, it's not preachy. I am proud that it has received very positive reactions in both the faith-based and mainstream markets."
Old Fashioned snagged Best in Fest honors at the Mt. Hood Independent Film Festival in Oregon, was a finalist for the Indie Vision Breakthrough Film Award at the Twin Cities Film Fest, and participated in the Northampton (Massachusetts) International Film Festival and Utah's Red Rock Film Festival. The film has been featured in media outlets as diverse as E!, Time, Fox News, and MTV.
And the opening weekend was a hit. Old Fashioned became the most successful faith-based film ever that opened on fewer than 300 screens. Based on the opening weekend success, the film expanded to more cities on the second weekend.
It adds up to a wild ride for Toering, a partner in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, office of Warner, Norcross & Judd LLP who practices business contracts and bankruptcy law.
Although he was building a successful career as an automotive engineer, Toering went to law school partly because he felt his career lacked a sense of purpose. And although he found his legal practice fulfilling, by 2004 Toering still felt like something was missing.
"Some people in the faith community were boycotting or trying to stop the media's portrayal of things they didn't like," Toering said. "Rather than criticize something I disagreed with, I thought it would be better to offer a positive alternative—but I didn't know how or where to start. It was just a nagging feeling."
As fate or luck or coincidence would have it, Toering saw an article about an upcoming local film conference sponsored by people of faith who were making a positive difference in the media. There Toering met Rik Swartzwelder, a filmmaker who ultimately would become his business partner in founding Skoche Films. Swartzwelder already had written the earliest iteration of the Old Fashioned script, and Toering and his wife sensed a winner. "It was funny, it was authentic, and the story arc was exceptional. It resonated with us, and we thought it would resonate with others."
The trio launched Skoche in 2007, setting an 18-month window to get Old Fashioned completed. But the ensuing global economic collapse provided more than a skoche of trouble. As capital dried up, they contemplated quitting—but a belief in the film's potential kept them going.
Swartzwelder and Toering rebuilt their investor base of "ordinary people, not heavy-hitters, who believe in what we're trying to do." Retooled under a smaller budget, the film was shot over six weeks in 2011. Post production dragged on because the streamlined budget meant that the editing, music selection, and other tasks fell to Swartzwelder, the Toerings, and the existing crew. Toering said the whole process offered learning curves as well as opportunities to tap his legal expertise, from reviewing contracts to seeing the big picture. "You learn all the pitfalls once you see the process unfold, like worrying about financing, illness, bad weather, and equipment breakdowns. But lawyers know how to take a lot of moving parts and piece them together by a deadline. I was the guy who always asked if we'd covered all our bases."
The delay became advantageous when they saw the opportunity to premiere Old Fashioned opposite Fifty Shades of Grey, and Toering is proud to finally have audiences see it en masse. "Even though it was low budget, I don't have to make excuses for the acting, the script, or the cinematography," he said. "It's a beautiful movie that broadens the conversation on what romance is."
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