When he was only 7 years old, Joe Knopp and his two sisters were trying to survive on the streets of Philadelphia. On Sundays, the three would slip into a nearby church for free doughnuts and orange juice. They would grow up in orphanages.
But that tough start in life didn’t slow Knopp down. He would go on to join the Air Force, get his finance degree from Wright State University and run his own financial planning business.
And now there is Hollywood.
The 41-year-old Knopp is a producer on the feature film “Woodlawn,” an inspirational true-life tale of overcoming racial divisions on an Alabama high school football team. “Woodlawn,” which stars actors Jon Voight and Sean Astin, is scheduled to open Oct. 16 in theaters around the nation.
“The story just has this relevant timing to where we’re at today,” said Knopp. “It’s this idea that government and other people try to step into the big issues like race, but sometimes it’s just people in the community that step up and try to help, one relationship at a time.”
Knopp’s own life is no less inspiring. But he says his days in an orphanage served as a launching pad.
“They didn’t know what to do with me and my sisters when we were teenagers, so they decided to teach us life skills,” he said. “They made an apartment for us and made us work through high school, pay some rent, buy some groceries. They prepared us for the real world.”
After graduating from high school, Knopp enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, but didn’t even have enough money to pay parking during freshman orientation.
“I was overwhelmed with how to afford food and living,” he said.
So in 1993, Knopp enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, where he worked as an X-ray technician. After getting an associate degree at Sinclair Community College, he enrolled at Wright State, where he got a bachelor’s degree in finance in 2000.
Knopp began working as a financial planner in hopes of helping people manage their finances. But he became disillusioned because the job largely entailed selling insurance and financial products. So he launched his own financial planning company.
Then a few years ago, a high school friend who worked in film production at Warner Brothers approached Knopp about helping make movies that were high quality family films with an element of religious faith.
Knopp was brought on board for his business experience, hired as an in-house producer. He helped with many aspects of the production company and was primarily responsible for the finance and marketing teams.
In recent months, Knopp has been on the road five days a week, meeting in different cities with members of the media as well as local pastors and ministry leaders to try to create a “buzz” about “Woodlawn.”
The film is based on the true story of the integration of Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama, in the early 1970s.
The idea for “Woodlawn” was born when the film’s directors — Jon and Andy Erwin — decided to make a movie about their father, who became the volunteer sports chaplain at Woodlawn. The chaplain, played by Astin, helped bridge the racial divisions on the football team.
“It was this bigger-than-life story the Erwin brothers always hoped they could some day turn into a movie,” said Knopp.
He said that when he finally saw the finished product, it was a bit surreal.
“For the first time, it didn’t look like a project,” he said. “I had this perfect-storm moment of, ‘This is real.’”
Knopp said “Woodlawn” is an effort to create an inspiring, historically accurate film without the profanity, sex and violence so often prevalent in Hollywood productions.
He said the film focuses on how a star African-American player is able to overcome a hostile racial environment and his own isolation to lift the whole team and then go on to excel at the college and professional levels. Knopp believes the movie will resonate with many young people.
“I think a lot of teenagers and college students today are trying to find their way in life,” he said. “Inside, you feel lost and confused and lonely.”
Knopp hopes that “Woodlawn” teaches young people the virtue of thinking for themselves, making the right decisions and not just falling into lockstep with prevailing attitudes.
“I hope the movie gives the country hope — a reminder that we have a lot of great young folks and if they can be reminded of their influence going forward, they have the power to change things that need changed,” he said.