Fit for a King

By Stephen Cohen

October 5, 2012

Newhouse's Kohlbrenner produces a hometown story in biopic of former mayor

Newhouse supervisor of production operations and Syracuse native Jason Kohlbrenner is gaining a new appreciation for his hometown in his role as producer for “King Lee,” a movie based loosely on former Syracuse Mayor Lee Alexander.

His involvement with the film came after a friend, co-writer and co-producer Tim Ferlito, asked if he’d like to be a part of telling “a story about Syracuse by people who are from Syracuse.” Kohlbrenner jumped at the chance, delighted to be able to work with Ferlito and partner Jonathan Case, whose first film, “Ivory Bastards Against Extinction,” made a distinct impression.

“It was a no-budget film that was good, and I really appreciate that,” he says, “because they have a passion for filmmaking as well. They could have been writing a sci-fi story about outer space, and I would work with these guys. I enjoy what they do that much.”

For Kohlbrenner, being exposed to the local talent involved in the production has been one of the best parts of the experience.

“What’s surprised me the most is just the sheer talent we have,” he says. “From cinematography to lighting to producing; and the actors and actresses are just phenomenal. The talent that’s locked up here in Syracuse just blows my mind.”

A high level of community involvement has been a hallmark of the project from the very beginning. The filmmakers used Kickstarter to raise nearly $11,000 to get production off the ground. They used Facebook to alert fans and supporters about opportunities to take part as extras in the film or to get involved in other ways, like letting the team borrow a vintage car to add a degree of historical accuracy.

The Royal Treatment

Alexander served as mayor of Syracuse for 16 years, starting in 1970, and was jailed for corruption charges for six years before passing away in 1996. He remains a legendary figure in Syracuse for his belief in the city and for his dirty dealings.

His reckless, energetic spirit permeates the film. Supporters are even encouraged to make “kickbacks” via the “King Lee” website. That playful sense of excess is something that drew Kohlbrenner to the film in the first place.

“They gave me a copy of the script, and I couldn’t put it down,” he says. “It was just out of control.”

It’s been exciting for Kohlbrenner to see the community rise to the occasion, and it has confirmed his belief in the city.

“There’s just so much potential here,” he says. “It makes me proud to live in Syracuse.”

It’s a sentiment Lee surely would have admired.

Stephen Cohen is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism