By Joe Williams
She’s a big star on the small screen, but while working on TV’s “The Office,” Jenna Fischer has maintained a parallel career in movies. She was a reluctant temptress in “Blades of Glory,” a rock star’s wife in “Walk Hard,” rascal Michael Douglas’ daughter in “A Solitary Man” and a reeling widow in “A Little Help.” She even directed a movie, the mock-documentary “Lollilove,” before she became a household name as shy receptionist Pam at Dunder-Mifflin.
So it’s ironic that her passion project, a romantic comedy called “The Giant Mechanical Man,” is easier to find on a cable box than a theater marquee. Although the movie premiered at the recent Tribeca Film Festival in New York and screened in Detroit, where it was filmed, most of Fischer’s fans can only see it on pay-per-view.
In a recent phone interview, Fischer said that her experience making the movie opened her eyes to the changing marketplace.
“I love these kind of art-house movies,” she said, “but they’re really expensive to put out in a wide release. Being a producer on this project, I’ve now seen that it costs more to market a movie than to make it. If a movie like this tries to compete with a summer blockbuster like ‘Men in Black 3,’ it will just get lost. When we submitted the movie to distributors, it got picked up by Tribeca Films, which premiered it at the Tribeca film festival and then moved it to video-on-demand.”
Fischer says that such narrowcasting is a boon for the consumer.
“The Tribeca Channel brings the film festival experience to everyone, in their home. They go out and find movies that deserve a wider release than the art houses in the major markets. These movies might play in theaters in Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis, but how does someone in Topeka, Kansas, see the movie—or even someone in St. Charles?”
In the film, Fischer plays a juice vendor at the Detroit Zoo, where she meets an unconventional co-worker (Chris Messina) who moonlights as a street performer. The third leg of the love triangle is a motivational speaker played by Topher Grace (“The ’70s Show”).
“Topher was amazing,” Fischer said. “He sits up at night and watches these sorts of guys on informercials.
“A lot of actors would have made that character one-dimensional, but Topher brought this vulnerability to it and made you feel sorry for him.”
Fischer describes the low-budget production as a group effort.
“All the actors worked for peanuts. They shared a rental car and would just knock around Detroit going to record stores. It felt like being in a college theater troupe. We stayed at an Embassy Suites hotel and we would all go downstairs for the free executive breakfast because we couldn’t afford anything else.”
Fischer, who grew up in Manchester and attended Truman State University in Kirksville, is still hoping to show the movie on a big screen in her hometown.
“We are in the middle of trying to get a night in St. Louis in late July,” she said. “There’s a system where a producer can book a theater for a night, and if enough people want to see it, it will happen. It’s kind of like Groupon.”
But even if it does screen theatrically here, new mom Fischer is an advocate of at-home entertainment. She and husband Lee Kirk, who wrote and directed the film, are parents of a baby boy named Weston and cannot get out to a movie theater very often.
“Once a week we put the baby to bed and cook dinner and get a movie on demand. We call it our in-home date night.”