2002, Media Studies

Stephen Feder headshotWhen Roger Ebert hosted the first Ebertfest in 1999, Stephen Feder was a freshman at Illinois. Fourteen years later, Feder returned to Ebertfest as executive producer of his own film, “Kumaré,” one of the last movies Ebert reviewed and selected for the festival.

“Having had that experience was a reminder that the world was open to thinking bigger than I had initially thought I could think,” Feder said. “Meeting him, talking to him about movies, being in the presence of someone who had been so widely influential in a particular field was inspiring. That’s why coming back with ‘Kumaré’ was so special.”

In April of 2016, Feder returned to Ebertfest again as executive producer of the Richard Linklater-directed film “Everybody Wants Some!!”

“It’s a special movie to bring back to college because it’s a college movie,” Feder said. “It’s everyone’s story. You know these guys.”

Feder came to Illinois as a student not knowing what he wanted to do. While he had an interest in media, he did not know where his pursuit in education would ultimately land him professionally. Staying in-state for school seemed like a practical, smart move.

“Beyond a doubt it was the greatest decision I ever made,” Feder said. “My experience here made me who I am.”

During high school, Feder had been involved in everything. College was a different story entirely. He tried out for singing groups, theater groups and musicals, but he didn’t land a single part his freshman year. It was a reality check that motivated him to work harder, and during the next round of tryouts, he earned a part in an Illini Union Board musical.

After graduating, his love of theater and the people he became so involved with during his tenure with the Illini Union Board prompted him to co-found the White Horse Theater Company. The name of the company came directly out of Champaign’s own White Horse Tavern, where at the end of the rehearsal week everyone involved in the production would celebrate.

Feder returned to Chicago after graduate school at the London School of Economics and began looking for work.

“Your education is preparing you for your first job,” Feder said. “When you’re looking for your first job, check your ego and pride at the door. You need help.”

He used every network he had — family, friends, parents’ friends, people he had worked with — anyone who could offer advice and help get a foot in the door.

“If you’re going to sit behind a computer and search for a job, it’s highly unlikely you are going to get anywhere,” Feder said. “People want to work with people they can trust. It is so hard to tell solely based on a piece of paper — a personal introduction from someone that the potential employer knows and respects can go such a long way. You can’t be afraid to ask for help.”

With the help of a contact, Feder was able to get work with “The Jerry Springer Show.” The show was huge at the time but also had high turnover, and working there was challenging. He jumped in and worked as hard as he could. His job was to find great guests — people who were willing to share their stories on national television in an explosive and wild manner. It was a creative job and a training ground for getting people to do the things you needed them to do, which is, essentially, what a producer does.

Along the way he developed a network of people who introduced him to other possibilities in Chicago, options he would have never known about just searching the internet.

Next, he joined Towers Productions, a documentary television production company. At the time they were producing A&E’s “American Justice” with Bill Kurtis. Feder started as a freelancer and worked his way up to producer, working on programming for the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel and The Weather Channel. He had a chance to work in every area of production: developing stories, writing scripts, booking and conducting interviews, staging recreations and overseeing production.

By the age of 26, he had worked his way to becoming a series producer. But he also felt he had accomplished everything he could in Chicago. It was time to make the leap to Los Angeles.

It was a tough transition. No one seemed to give too much credence to the skills and experience he had gained in Chicago. He had to build his network all over again by working every connection and meeting to get to the next person. Those meetings and connections eventually led to Sacha Baron Cohen and his film “Bruno.”

“That was the game-changer,” Feder said. “Now I got my chance to work in movies.”

“Every opportunity leads to something,” Feder said. “You don’t know where it’s going to come from, or who it’s going to come from. As long as you work hard and people want to be around you, and you show them you will do them proud no matter what, they will fight for you and they will want to help you and support you. That came from my work ethic that grew from here at the university.”

Feder added to his credits by helping out Cohen with prep on “The Dictator” and working on his own film “Kumaré” with director Vikram Gandhi.

The connections he built led to a meeting with Megan Ellison, who was starting up her company Annapurna Pictures. He was lucky enough to be one of the first few people hired at the company. That has given him the opportunity to work with filmmakers like Linklater and Wong Kar-Wai and led to him producing the film “Everybody Wants Some!!”

In reflecting on his time at Illinois, Feder noted two classes that were especially important and helped to shape the way he thinks today: Media Ethics with Dr. Clifford Christians, and Media and the Law with Steven Helle.

“If high school teaches you the basics,” Feder said, “then college teaches you how to think about those basics.”

Feder encourages students to look at their classes from a different perspective, to think about the course they are taking and ask themselves, “How does this apply to my life?” Find a way to take the theoretical and make it practical. For example, in Media Ethics, Feder began to understand that he had to stand behind everything he produced. Those creative efforts will either build or destroy your reputation.

Feder’s end goal is a rather simple one. He wants to be the guy who people are rooting for.

“I think that comes with a Midwestern mentality,” Feder said. “It’s built here. Work hard in the right way, be a part of the team, know your role on the team. If you need to lead, then lead, and lead by example. That’s all I want to do.

“If people at the end of the day say Stephen Feder was a great guy and I was glad to have known him, that’s a legacy I would love.”