C-Suite Network™

Leadership, Creativity…and Burt Reynolds

Burt Reynolds and Ariel Winter in
Burt Reynolds and Ariel Winter in “The Last Movie Star”. Source: IMDB

As an independent film maker, Adam Rifkin is in the dream-making business. Come to think of it, if you’re a C-Suite leader, maybe you are too.

Leadership is about bringing your dreams to life – not only for yourself, but for your team… and your customers.

Here’s how a seven-year search for financing – and the patience of Burt Reynolds – brought Adam’s boyhood dream to the big screen. An excerpt from “Leadership Language” by Chris Westfall

As a kid, growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Rifkin was practicing for his career in Hollywood by making movies with his junior high pals.

Back in those days, if you could ride your bike to Adam’s house you could be in a movie.

Rifkin commandeered his father’s video camera and began producing middle-school masterpieces like MURDER CAN KILL YOU, PAPERBOY CRIMES and THE BURGLAR FROM OUT OF THE DISHWASHER.

Adam Rifkin
Director Adam Rifkin

Adam explained, “I didn’t realize it at the time, but out of necessity I was actually teaching myself the basic principles of leadership.” Even at an early age, he had a knack for getting his fellow middle schoolers excited about the next opus.

“My enthusiasm must’ve been infectious because each project began the same way: I’d tell my core company that I had a cool idea for a new movie. This was inevitably met with a chorus of ‘no thanks’, ‘not this time’ and ‘I’ve got soccer practice’.  Yet somehow, after a few more minutes of colorful discussion, where I’d wax poetic about the glories of the new idea and the fun that was going to be had bringing it to life, everyone signed on yet again.”

The Secret to ‘YES’

“Here’s what I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt: if it were to cease to be fun, my team would disperse. As a leader, even when I didn’t really know what that word meant, I had to develop a unique set of skills that enabled me to be able to speak to each cast and crew member individually. I had to get the most out of them creatively, also keep them engaged.” And that conversation is where leadership and creativity came together.

From backyard movies to the backlot in Hollywood: cut to Rifkin’s latest project, The Last Movie Star, featuring his childhood idol, Burt Reynolds.

More Burtastic than Ever

“Burt Reynolds was my hero. Not only was he the biggest movie star in the world when I was a kid, he was funny and self-deprecating and approachable. He made being famous seem fun, and I dreamt that someday we’d not only be friends, but that we would work together,” Adam shared. A film buff from a very young age, Smokey and the Bandit made a lasting impression on Adam.

“I wanted to create a role that would remind movie fans just how great of an actor Burt Reynolds is. Selfishly, I also wanted to make good on my secret dream of getting to work with The Bandit.  I didn’t know Burt but I felt it was worth rolling the dice. So after writing the script I submitted it to his manager.  I shared my passion for all things Burt and asked him to please send Burt the script. I also told him to let Burt know that if he wasn’t interested in playing the role I wasn’t going to make the film. I wrote it solely for Burt. My impassioned pitch was apparently enough for Burt’s manager to agree to send over the screenplay that day.

Smokey and the Bandit and Leadership
Do you remember The Bandit?

“Much to my shock and delight, the next afternoon I got a call from none other than Burt Reynolds. Suddenly I was transported to that fateful day in 1977 when I was watching SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT for the first time, and dreaming of Burt and I becoming pals. And now, here I was, talking to the man himself.

“Little did I know in that instant, things were about to get a whole lot more Burtastic.

“Burt accepted the role and attached himself to play Vic Edwards.

“Now, the only thing left to do was everything.”

An initial success created a new vision: namely, how to get this project funded.

The Search

“When I approached Burt I didn’t have any of the money secured to make the film. I naively believed that with Burt attached to this particular script, in this particular role, finding the cash would be easy. I was wrong. It ultimately took more than seven years to finally find the money,” Adam explained.

A creative journey, indeed. How can you maintain your vision, even when it seems like you’re not getting closer to your goal?

“It had almost gotten green lit multiple times along the way, but each incarnation fell through. Every time the financing dropped out I had to call Burt and give him the bad news. I always expected him to use each disappointment as his opportunity to graciously bow out, but instead, each time the financing disappeared, Burt seemed more determined than ever to stick with the project and see it through to fruition. His enthusiasm inspired me just as I believe my enthusiasm inspired him.”


“Each cast and crew member is required to focus on a particular task that services the whole. As the director, it’s my job to not only keep a focus on the individual components needed, but more importantly, keep an eye on the macro task of how all these countless pieces will fit together. From carpenters to fine artists to performers to financiers, a movie brings together a very disparate group of individuals who might otherwise never have a reason to interact. The director needs to not only understand how to best communicate with each as an individual, but also inspire this eclectic team to work well together to essentially create this temporary movie making bio-machine.”

Can you relate?

From childhood dream to reality: a lifetime of leadership lessons on contagious enthusiasm, and a seven-year journey to bring this project to the screen. From a place of understanding, Rifkin made it all fit together.

“Leading by example, and being passionate and enthusiastic about a project is fundamental to getting the very best out of your crew,” according to Adam.

Fun is what makes it functional, when it comes to making movies. What about in your industry? Rifkin points to loving his work, time and time again. From that place he found new results for himself, his crew and his actors. “The director needs to be well versed in how to talk to all manner of cast and crew member to get the very best out of him or her.”

Do you see the creative spirit inside of yourself? Whether you are making movies, or making gadgets, your creativity is what makes a difference.

In fact, that creative spirit is the foundation of leadership.


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