Springfield grad plays key role in Jesse Owens movie

Jonathan Faber helped family tell their story.


The television trailer for “Race,” a biopic that tells the story of legendary Jesse Owens’ four gold-medal performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics while exploring the racial climates of both the Germany and the United States of the time, looks the same on Jonathan Faber’s television in Indianapolis as it does anywhere.

But as the movie’s Feb. 19 release date approaches, the former Springfield News-Sun paper carrier grown into managing partner and general counsel of the Luminary Group has special reason to feel the anticipation.

Over the past two years, Faber and his company have represented the Owens family, along with the interests of the Jesse Owens Foundation and the Jesse Owens trust, in negotiations with Forecast Features over the making of the picture.

The 1990 graduate of North High School and 1994 graduate of Wittenberg University was in the position to do this this for two reasons.

First, he is an expert, a drafter of legislation and author of friend of the court briefs about the rapidly changing field of law called the right of publicity.

“It’s a legal right, similar to, say, copyright or trademark” involving “the right to control the legal use of one’s identity,” Faber said. “And those rights extend after death” and are inherited by the next generation.

The second reason is that, at 43, he is also a seasoned marketer of those things protected by the right of publicity.

Faber considers those two skills “two sides of the same coin.”

By leveraging legal knowledge and marketing savvy, his Luminary Group serves as an and adviser – or, to use the legal term, counselor – to people like the Owens family, which Faber said “certainly has a story to tell.”

But regardless of how strong a story is, Faber said, getting told can be a “tricky business” in the complex entertainment business.

As clients negotiate that path, the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law said, “We are with them, every step of the way.”

A Sept. 3, 2015, story in the Atlanta Black Star pointed out, those very complexities played a role in “Race” reaching the theaters before two other competing biopics on Jesse Owens.

The story reported that a version starring Anthony Mackey “fell into development purgatory after barely escaping the Relativity Media bankruptcy quagmire” and that a Disney version directed by Antoine Fuqua, who directed the Denzel Washington hit “Training Day,” appears to be in line for the bronze on the race to release.

The report also pointed out how the national political climate influences the demand for an Owens films. In artfully written sentence, the paper said: “The racial unrest that has festered in America and boiled over in recent years has made racial-driven projects white hot in Hollywood.”

Although the competing Owens films represent an unusual circumstance, Faber explained that “for any of the iconic personalities we represent (Chuck Berry, Princess Diana, Vince Lombardi) there’s often talk and chatter” about a project, but “a good number of them never come to fruition.”

He said one reason is that “at any given time, a production company may have 10 irons in the fire, and three might see the light of day,” he said.

Knowing that, “We help (our clients) understand the marketplace and the business that they’re in. We find good business partners that make sense for them and explore possibilities.”

“With the movie, part of our task was to find a team that would tell the story with integrity and as accurately as possible, but also make an entertaining and successful movie,” he said.

“Casting is important, the script is important. Forecast Features isn’t the biggest player on the block, but they were doing it right from inception.”

“Steven Hopkins is the director. He had done 24, the TV series, he had done things with Nova.”

Although the lead role is played by perhaps a lesser known actor, Stephen James, who portrayed Civil Rights activist and later Congressman John Lewis in Selma, it also features Oscar winner Jeremy Irons.

As important, Faber said, members of the production company were “hitting their (production) marks and absolutely getting things done” through the entire process.

Faber said a company that has all the artistic sensibilities in the world can be a bad business partner in making a film “if they don’t have the necessary firepower to make it happen.”

In addition to advising the Owens family on the business side of the project, Faber said he worked in helping to make sure the film was as true to Owens’ legacy as possible.

“I can tell you that with the Owens family and just about everybody I’ve worked with … the driving force is to do this right or we’d rather not see it done at all.”

“Certainly there’s a compensation component (for the family). That’s a significant piece of it and one that’s negotiated very vigorously,” he said.

But part of the overall picture involves what in the political realm might be called “soft” power.

For Forecast Films, the potential for having the Owens family endorse the picture and serve as ambassadors was a valuable commodity. For the Owens family, the prospect of that endorsement and what it meant to the film company meant having the ears of the filmmakers.

“The Owens family certainly understand there’s a story to be told, and you have to give that editorial license to the creative team.”

The discussions furthermore are carried out knowing that while a biopic is not a documentary, many of those attending won’t, in fact, recognize the difference and will see it as the final word on Owens’ story.

“It’s a balancing act to get it right,” said Faber. “Ultimately, it really comes down to trust. It’s scary in a way to put the story of a loved one in the hands of someone else for a dramatic rendering of the story.”

The greatest reassurance comes from establishing a relationship and “knowing the (movie making) team cares about getting the nuances right.”

Said Faber, “I think they’ve captured lightning in a bottle.”

With the picture’s release approaching, “We’re right at the peak of where the fun begins,” he said.

Although he’s constantly at work on projects involving high-profile people, both living and dead, “I don’t routinely go to movie premieres with Jeremy Irons and Jason Sudeikis,” Faber said.

And in the same way, when playing cards in Chuck Berry’s home, as he has, “I don’t take the cynical position” of the career as a cold business venture.

“It’s fun,” he said.

In a way, the son of retired Wittenberg faculty Arthur and Trudy Faber sees his success as being linked to the paper route of roughly 100 houses he worked for 10 years along Providence Avenue.

In the early morning, the job required discipline to deliver the papers. That was required again when it came time to knock on doors and collect subscription fees.

Only after that could he enjoy the payoff.

With his work for the Owens family largely completed, Faber said, “There’s nothing to do now but watch the movie and enjoy its success.”

And maybe a few months after that, he can watch it again on the same television on which he’s now watching the trailers.


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