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World Premiere: The Entrepreneur

July 24th, 2009 by Rebecca Harper Editor

Our partners at SnagFilms are celebrating their one-year anniversary. To celebrate, they’re partnering with Hulu to provide world premieres of a new film each Friday for four weeks. Each film — streaming on demand from Hulu — will be available exclusively online for one week, before venturing off to festivals, theaters, classrooms and at-home DVD players.

SnagFilms’ SummerFest kicks off today with The Entrepreneur, a documentary that follows an auto industry businessman as he tries to bring the first Chinese cars to the U.S. market. It’s a daunting task, facing up to the giant auto companies, but Malcolm Bricklin has done this before: he brought Subaru to America in the 1960s, built his own line of sports cars (the gull-winged Bricklin), and introduced the United States to a little car (literally) called the Yugo. (If you were around in the ’80s, you’ll remember it.)

Bricklin’s son, Jonathan, directed the film over the course of five years (getting 1500 hours of footage), following his father from boardroom to boardroom, going to and from China as his father negotiated a deal of a lifetime. “I was fascinated with the idea,” says executive producer Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, “because at this point, we were starting to hear rumblings of the problems with Detroit and with the U.S. auto industry. I thought this sounded like a pretty prescient film. It’s something whose time has come.”

“For me, I think that nobody would ever think that we would ever be in the position where some of the biggest names in the auto world, and some of the backbone of American industry would be on the verge of going kaput, on the verge of bankruptcy, or on the verge of dissolution,” Spurlock continues. “We are literally to that point, with these companies vanishing. Who would have thought this would happen? Not me. I find that, this film, when you see the kind of battle this one guy had trying to bring a car company in, and literally how many parts there are — no pun intended — to this business, and what it takes to actually get something done. I think if you like good documentaries, you’re going to love this movie.”

Below, Jonathan Bricklin tells us about his father and his film. — Rebecca Harper (), Editor

Jonathan Bricklin: “The experience people have watching it alone with a DVD versus in a theater is drastically different. With a group of people, the comedy of the film and the sort of irony and the general sense of humor of it and the absurdity really comes out. Usually in the first scene, people are laughing out loud. And then it kind of carries through. It becomes a little more dramatic as the film progresses. [My dad] has a good sense of humor.

Hulu: Why release it online as your world premiere?
Because that goes to the people. It’s very democratic and cuts through the middleman. I think the movie is very unique and transcends a typical documentary because of the educational value of watching someone pursue a very clear goal, and seeing all of the real in-between moments that you don’t ever get to see. There are lots of Donald Trump-equivalent “how to make money” books, and tutorial-type materials. And certainly business school students are all very interested in what it’s like to start a business. And they never really get to see what it takes when you’re waiting in the conference room before the meeting starts, or what it’s like when something happens, and how to react. I feel like it’s so valuable and so encouraging to see a real behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to do a business deal. I feel like, for that reason, and because it’s specifically about how to get money, it translates and crosses many, many more boundaries than a typical independent documentary would have.

It’s also a lesson on how to deal with entrepreneurs from the other side the table, and also to see what it’s like doing business in China.
I’ve been always a little uneasy when there are Chinese people in the audience when I’m screening the film. No one’s ever really taken offense and many Chinese people have complimented it a lot and really enjoyed it, so I’m happy about that. I hope that it doesn’t seem like stereotype, that doing business in China is bad, because it’s definitely not the case. I think business people in general are something to be wary of. Americans are guilty — if not more than anyone, than as much — for being dishonest and breaking contracts and doing things that aren’t completely sincere. A documentary is as honest as documentaries can be. In the end, it’s just a perspective, and one point of view. It’s never the whole truth, even if it’s a documentary. Most people don’t really understand that.

Can you tell our audience about your dad? Who is Malcolm Bricklin?
He’s the quintessential entrepreneur who, in his very early years — like as a high school kid — started businesses. He’s just the personification of an entrepreneur, meaning he’s always looking to figure out a more efficient or clever way to refine something and make it a business. Early on, in his late 20s, he was able to acquire the distribution rights for Subaru cars for North America and was effectively made the owner of a major car company. That was in the late ’60s. He went on to build his own car from scratch with gull-wing doors in the mid-’70s, which John DeLorean did about eight years later. There are only [a few] car entrepreneurs that have built cars from scratch for mass production: Tucker, my dad, John DeLorean. Later on, most notably, he started Yugo, which was the cheapest new car you could buy ever, basically in the last 30 years, from Yugoslavia. Yugo was actually a huge success for him. He made more money on the Yugo project than he made on anything other than Subaru. He sold it after a couple of years and sort of retired. Yugoslavia ended up going into a civil war, sort of, and was put under a trade embargo. The factory was blown up and ultimately that prevented the cars from being imported and sold. A lot of people think that it was a failure of sorts, but it was a huge success, certainly for him. And then after Yugo, which was the mid- to late-80s, he’s spent all his time working on alternative energy projects, like an electric bicycle, a fuel cell company, an electric car company. He’s working on a wind-powered electrical supply company now. He’s very interested in alternative energy sources.

When you started this project, the auto world was very different than it is today. What is your father’s take on the state of the industry these days?
The industry wasn’t really that much different when I started the film than it is now, in its the core, anyway. It just took this long to expose itself. He knew that very clearly then. He feels, from what I gather, he’s happy to see that he was right, and then disappointed in that there wasn’t really anything he could do about it, or capitalize on. It goes back to his entrepreneur instinct. He identified the problem five years ago and was working specifically to sort of fill a niche that he saw was about to exist, which I think is a key element in being an entrepreneur, anticipating a trend or identifying something before others do. He gave many speeches three, four years ago, about where the car industry was going and there’s really no other conclusion than what just happened now. I don’t think he’s particularly happy about it at all, probably more frustrated than feeling vindicated about his prediction.

You went into a lot of boardrooms to shoot this film. How did you get access to all of them?
It was a much bigger deal for everyone else to think about than the actual reality of it. Malcolm is such a strong personality and the fact that he was my dad was probably the main dynamic that allowed it all to happen. If I had just been some guy that was making a documentary about him, it would have felt a little bit more inappropriate, but because of his personality, along with me being his son, overwhelmingly everyone let us film, like 90 percent, I would estimate, including the president of General Motors for Europe. Almost everybody. The people that didn’t let us film, in hindsight, were the least honest and seemingly like crooks in a sense. One of Malcolm’s great strengths is that he’s very open-minded and will meet with the least likely of people, just as a possibility of getting something or learning something. Most people that I know are more judgmental and wouldn’t necessarily be open to hearing something from someone that doesn’t seem credible or meet a certain level of standards. Malcolm’s very open-minded, likes the full spectrum, which I think is a great quality.

Yes, in the film, he even met with the least qualified person at Cherry, simply because he spoke the best English. I can see many people being offended and walking away.
He doesn’t treat people differently, whether it’s a billionaire, the president or a busboy. It’s really great.

Some things your dad does in this film are very striking. For instance, he takes his shirt off in a meeting. Is that something he’d planned, or was that spontaneous?
He’d planned it, because I asked him before the meeting if he would wear a wireless mic for sound purposes. He wouldn’t, and he wouldn’t tell me why — he just told me he didn’t want to wear it. And it’s definitely because of that. He really shoots from the cuff most of the time. He never wrote a speech down for any of the speeches he gave, and I don’t think he prepared very much for any of those. Most of the time, it seems like he just improvs it. I definitely know he got that idea [about the shirt] before the meeting started because of the microphone.

Then there was the time he walked out of a meeting.
I don’t think that was something … I think he was just fed up and I think he over-dramatized it after, after the first couple seconds of reacting. He mainly has success doing international business, and I think that’s because he communicates very clearly with people, especially internationally where English isn’t the first language. He’s refreshingly honest. You get to know him very quickly because he puts it all out there from the first second, and it doesn’t really waver. With most people, it takes a lot to get to know someone and for them to reveal their personality and character. So most of his businesses that have been international have happened quicker than most people, and actually happen because of his nature and his style and the fact that he doesn’t really play games, per se. I guess you could say he does play games, but not really. He operates a lot on instinct.

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