His Lot to Lose

Stein ’99 makes movies to make a million, one week at a time

Most Harvard students are used to working under a time crunch.

As a contestant on Fox’s On the Lot—a reality show that pits aspiring directors against one another for a $1 million development deal with Dreamworks—Adam B. Stein ’99 finds himself doing just that.

Each week, he works to create a short film in a matter of days according to a challenge provided to the participants.

“Definitely the intensity of Harvard, just doing lots of activities, keeping busy, prepares you for the level of work that you do on this kind of show,” Stein says in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “I don’t know if it’s the same with Beauty and the Geek,” he laughs.

Stein is the latest in a string of Harvard students and alums to be featured on reality TV shows—ranging from Beauty and the Geek to American Idol to the Apprentice. He says that he was pleasantly surprised that the show actually seemed to be looking for the best filmmaker, rather than trying to create personalities for contestants, as some other reality shows tend to do.

“The other people who were there were genuinely very talented, and they had really legitimate directors as judges and real filmmaking challenges,” Stein says. “I realized that I could get really excited about this.”

Stein’s close friend and former roommate in Eliot House, Daniel B. Kirschner ’99, said that this excitement and passion about filmmaking is both what makes him a good director and what motivated him to apply for the show.

“I could not imagine him trying out for any other kind of reality show,” Kirschner says. “I think his decision was because he cares about his career and he cares about reaching an audience…I don’t think he’s somebody who enjoys fame for its own sake.”

LET’S GO TO HOLLYWOOD

During his time at Harvard, Stein cultivated his filmmaking skill set by acting and directing in Harvard theater productions and serving as the managing editor for Let’s Go travel guides.

“Managing a big company prepared me not only for the show but to be a director.” He says that being in charge of a publication is similar to “directing a whole crew to believe in your idea and move forward with it.”

Stein’s passion for film was evident throughout his undergraduate career. Alma Hadar, another of Stein’s close friends at Harvard, said that she, Stein, and Kirschner would often watch movies together, occasionally going to see films in the middle of the day during exam periods.

As a Literature concentrator, Stein says he had a good deal of freedom with choosing classes to fulfill his concentration requirements. For example, he was able to take a Visual and Environmental Studies course about the classics of world cinema for credit during his sophomore year.

“It was awesome,” he says. “It made me start to think about doing film directing.”

The summer before their senior year, Stein and Kirschner participated in a summer film school at NYU, after which Stein says he was “hooked” on the industry.

“He was extremely talented…he had a natural grasp on how to entertain people,” Kirschner says.

He says that the movie Stein made for the summer program “was all shot on black and white, 60 millimeter film, and even with all those limitations, he was able to create something that looked great and didn’t feel so constrained.”

Stein had come to Harvard from Miami, where he really didn’t know anyone involved in film. Accordingly, he thought a future in film was likely just a “pie in the sky dream.”

After attending his orientation at Harvard Law School in the subsequent year, he decided to “take the plunge” and move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film. Since then, Stein has worked for the Academy of Motion Pictures, gone to film school at USC, and edited several films.

TIME ON THE LOT

This February, at “the last possible moment before the deadline,” Stein decided to apply for a spot on On the Lot.

“I totally thought it was never going to be anything,” he says. “I had heard about it from 12 different places…I thought, of course, thousands of people are applying—it’s probably not going to mean anything.”

But from a pool of about 12,000 applicants, according to the show’s Web site, Stein has beaten the odds and landed himself in the final rounds of the show’s competition.

He says the time constraints of making a film in four or five days can prove challenging, but that the experience overall has been rewarding, and it would likely help his filmmaking ability and career as a whole.

“I feel like I will make better movies than the movies I’m making here… but if I can make these good, I can really make the others good,” he says. “I think it will really help me to have gotten this far.”

Stein adds that initially, he was slightly worried that his having gone to Harvard might affect him negatively with voters—saying that the “Harvard guy” usually ends up being “the dork or the villain” in movies and television shows.

“Now that I’ve gotten past a lot of rounds, I don’t think that’s an issue anymore—hopefully the Harvard people reading this will come to my aid, and stand up for Harvard,” he laughs.

As for his fellow contestants, Stein says the group has developed a real camaraderie from living and working together—delighting in common “film geek” interests.

“Filmmakers are naturally collaborative—that’s what we do,” he says. “None of us are used to working by ourselves, so when we’re working on a script, we enjoy helping each other out. It’s a lot more fun to do it that way than to each be really cutthroat.”

A KEEN EYE AND WARM HEART

According to Hadar, Stein was never the cutthroat type—she says that his warmth is part of what makes him a good director.

“He was always really warm and really, really funny and entertaining,” Hadar says. “It was always fun to talk to him because he’s a really good storyteller. People gravitate toward him.”

She added that an experience that solidified their friendship—which started freshman year—demonstrated this sense of caring. Hadar, an international student, spent her first winter break away from Harvard alone in New York during a blizzard, and Stein made the effort to call her to check in, despite being home in Miami with his friends and family.

“I was really touched,” she says. “I think it said a lot about him…I could see how he would get good performances and inspire a lot of loyalty.”

Kirschner adds that Stein’s ability to be insightful about the people around him contributes to his ability to tell stories through film.

In fact, it was Stein who introduced Kirschner and Hadar. The couple is now married.

Stein says that the path his life has taken since he left law school is something that he is excited to share with others. Stein adds that he was conflicted and unhappy during his senior year, knowing that he wanted to be a filmmaker but not having “the guts” to do it. Looking back, he says, he would strongly encourage people to try to do what they love.

“You can always go back to law school,” he says. “Now is the time to go out there and go for it…if it doesn’t work out, you can always go back to the safe route.”

—Staff writer Aditi Balakrishna can be reached at balakris@fas.harvard.edu.