Perfect fit: Filmmaker Fennell joins ATO Pictures

Quick– what do video producer Marcus Nispel, game show maven Julann Griffin, and actor John C. Reilly have in common? Answer: Charlottesville native Temple Fennell, who has a talent for running into the right people at the right time.

Now Fennell, 39, is linking arms with Dave Matthews and leaving the cyber world of Internet gaming, where he's spent the past nine years overseeing the highs and lows of Boxerjam, to enter the celluloid world of ATO Pictures, Matthews' fledgling film production company.

The move to movies is actually a return to familiar Fennell territory. In the late 1980s, a UVA diploma tucked under his arm, he headed to New York to become a consultant. "But I very quickly transferred over into doing conceptual design for the music video business," he says, explaining how he came under the tutelage of the cutting-edge Nispel.

In his off hours, Fennell wrote and filmed a short script entitled Howard Black that featured, among others, Fennell's Lower East Side roommate, John C. Reilly. (Yes, that John C. Reilly, currently nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Hours.)

Film festivals picked up Howard Black, and it won an award in Chicago, which was enough to get Fennell into the American Film Institute's elite directing program in 1991-92.

While he was in California pursuing moviemaking, Fennell kept track of Charlottesville music scene. "When I was out in L.A. at AFI," he recalls, "Haines Fullerton [late guitarist for The Deal] sent me tapes and said, 'You've got to listen to these guys. They are really amazing.'"

Those "amazing guys" were gods-to-be, the Dave Matthews Band. When Fennell returned to Charlottesville in 1993, he called Matthews, and the two became friends.

Meanwhile, Fennell founded Boxer Films with Allen Cunningham, but Charlottesville proved slim pickings for moviemaking ("That was tough," Fennell sighs). The partners were open to other ideas, however, and after meeting Jeopardy! inventor Julann Griffin and her sister Maureen Roberts (Julann And Maureen=J.A.M.), they created Boxerjam and hitched its interactive gaming hopes to a tiny company called AOL in 1995. The rest is history.

After Media General struck a deal to buy Boxerjam last year, ATO Pictures invited Fennell to come on board full time. The company's first film, Amandla!, a documentary about anti-Apartheid music in South Africa, opens nationally this week. With fellow ATO Pictures members Matthews, Coran Capshaw, Johnathan Dorfman, Chris Tetzeli, and Michael McDonald, Fennell says his role is to "find really great projects," although he'd eventually like to direct, too.

"We look forward to working with Temple in establishing ATO Pictures as a viable, well respected company in the film industry," says Capshaw. "It's great to work with someone who's both qualifed and a long-time friend in this exciting new business."

Leaning back in his chair, Fennell smiles, "The timing and the opportunity were basically a perfect fit... I really am excited about getting back to film."

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