How to Invest in Famous Properties, Turn Fabulous Profits

People talk a lot about diversifying, but what does it really mean? To some it's investing in a new stock or simply cracking out a brave new pair of taupe khakis. To others, like Oak Lawn couple Mike and Denise Stillman, it means taking on the "if you build it, they will come" mentality -- literally. The pair are leading a group of investors buying the Iowa farm that played a pivotal role in the 1989 Kevin Costner flick Field Of Dreams, and it seems like a sure money-maker: Even if you haven't seen the movie, you surely know the gist of it, and you've definitely heard that catch phrase before.

It's still a ways off until their business, the All-Star Baseball Park attraction is unveiled in 2014 -- for the 25th anniversary of the movie -- but since the deal was just announced, now seemed a good a time as any to speak with Denise Stillman about what goes into making this sort of investment, what sparked the idea, and what their vision for it is.

How long have you been doing this sort of investing?

Denise Stillman: We've been investing in real estate now for about two years, but it's been pretty typical, residential -- we're the typical landlords, so to speak. But we had been looking at this property for over a year now because of its commercial applications.

When you say "typical" landlord, what do you mean?

Denise Stillman: I don't mean to typify landlords, but just residential family housing, that sort of thing. That's not been a stable business of ours. My husband's an attorney, and I've had my own health-care-consulting firm for the last three years. So that's been the primary business that we run, and the landlord thing was just an investment deal.

You said you've been keeping an eye on this property for about a year?

Denise Stillman: Yes. We've been actively negotiating for it for a year.

How did it first catch your eye, and what happened over the year of negotiating?

Denise Stillman: The reason that this even came to light was that my husband and son, they had been traveling to Minnesota to watch the White Sox play the Minnesota Twins. On their way back Mike, too, had been to the Field Of Dreams movie site several times and said, "Hey, let's stop at the movie site and I'll show it John. We'll enjoy the father-son-throwing-the-baseball-around-the-diamond thing, and they did." I don't even know how long how they stayed there because I wasn't with them. On their way back to Illinois, they stopped off at Galena to meet up with my daughter and I.

It turned out a good friend ours named Ed, who was obviously following the sports and entertainment news better than we were said, "Did you know that the movie site is for sale?" He told Mike this, Mike related to me over dinner, and I said, "Oh my gosh, wouldn't that be cool." He said, "What?" And I said, "Wouldn't that be cool to take the Field Of Dreams and make it into an even bigger idea or prospect for the rest of the world to enjoy." He said, "What are you talking about?" I said, "You know, travel, baseball, we do that stuff with John, and all families who have to travel out to the Midwest would really the Field Of Dreams experience." [Laughs.] I said, "Well, I may be crazy, but I may be right." So we just started doing that from there.

Is this the first venture of this sort that you've embarked upon?

Denise Stillman: Yes, it absolutely is. So, as such, we certainly have surrounded ourselves with a team of very smart people who have done this sort of thing in the past. We certainly are letting them guide us and advise on ways to do this right and well and obviously protect ourselves well.

How did you find those very smart people?

Denise Stillman: That's a really good question, David. You know, my journey into becoming an entrepreneur after leaving the W-2 world, as I call it, I've met many people through entrepreneurial groups that I belong to. One in particular is called Live Out Loud -- that's actually a very beneficial group for entrepreneurs or people who want to go from the employed world to the entrepreneur world. Live Out Loud is based out of Nevada, and that group has a wonderful alumni group of people who have gone through entrepreneurial training. They know everything from asset protection to building your legal team, how to build entities, that sort of thing.

The people who are involved with the investment group, do they get a share of whatever money you'll make off this? Or will they only do so until you open.

Denise Stillman: Our parameters that we're setting up for our advisory board in terms of what their compensation -- we're still setting all that up. We're still a very young company. This deal only came together in there last month or so here. We're really focused squarely on working on making the deal possible. To be clear, we have a contract on the property. They haven't closed on the property. There are many steps we have to take to get to the point where we can close. We're focused on that rather than compensation because there's no money to be had yet.

Does it matter if the movie you're buying property from was any good? Do you think that would impact how much it might cost to buy or how attractive it is to tourists and visitors?

Denise Stillman: [Laughs.] It stands to reason that it wasn't a movie site, if you've got a mid-sized town with a well-known property that either the CEO of a local bank or the CEO of a big corporation is going to be losing their house -- those are always going to be more attractive because of the celebrity factor of the owner. I think if it has a celebrity factor and it had a better box-office rating it probably is going to sell a bit better.

Other than it being a pure tourist attraction, what do you envision for the property?

Denise Stillman: The business that's there is based off souvenirs and memorabilia that they sell at the field of dreams. That business will remain, the movie site will remain, and we'd like to add onto that with the All-Star Ballpark Heaven softball complex. That's a completely separate business that doesn't have a connection to the Field Of Dreams other than it being based on it.

Just to make sure I'm remembering correctly, you said previously that you also researched the Amityville Horror house.

Denise Stillman: [Laughs.] There's that and the Home Alone house. Those are a few that we had looked at it. It's very difficult because the uniqueness of this deal is that it's not a home, it's land. In most of those movie sites that we've been talking about, it's all because of the familiarity of the home. It's a little unique.

What did you find when you were researching those other properties? What did you discover?

Denise Stillman: I was trying to find out if there was a trend, if there's a correlation between how old the movie was compared to how high the price of the property was. Does it trend downward based on the age of the movie? There wasn't. It seemed to be that those homes were following typical market prices based on what was going on in the market. They certainly had gone up. It was very difficult to use that as a comp, as they say in the real-estate world. What I found was there was no comparison, so we just had to use our best judgment based on what we wanted to use the property in the future and whether it would generate cash flow.

You would think because it's in a movie it'd be worth more, but at the end of the day it is just real estate.

Denise Stillman: Yeah, if you looked at how it was priced when it first hit the market, I believe the current owners thought, "Ah! It was in a movie: Of course it's going to be worth more!" But then you looked at how long it was on the market and how much more they had to keep taking the price down, it was doing the same thing as the rest of the houses in America: losing its value.

Did you find that people who lived in those houses felt an obligation to maintain their homes so it still appeared as it did in the movies, as opposed to renovating or modernizing them?

Denise Stillman: What I found, especially on that blog [I e-mailed you about], was how some of these houses have changed and renovated and actually been made much better. But, no, those homeowners seem to keep updating to keep increasing the price, and obviously it's what they're living in. In this case, in the home on the movie-site property, it has been kept completely left just as it was when Universal Studios left.

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also the host/creator of GameSpy's recurring web series God Mode News, and a columnist for EGM. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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