Robert Patriarca doesn’t owe his success as a filmmaker to luck or money. Rather, he credits his favorite Italian pastry for his upward career trajectory.
Under the umbrella of the Patriarca Film Company, his work includes the 2018 documentary Cannoli Stories, a deep dive into the tasty treat, and his most recent release Life’s Better Protected, an adult-geared animated Christmas tale about a cannoli-deprived film producer who isn’t having the best luck on his latest endeavor.
Life’s Better Protected, which recently enjoyed several airings on Comcast 53, Verizon 21 and the Community College of Philadelphia livestream, stars some of Patriarca’s biggest idols in the industry, including Goodfellas and A Bronx Tale star Joseph D’Onofrio as The Producer and Dumb and Dumber’s Mike Starr as The Casting Director.
Patriarca, who lives in Frankford, became self-admittedly obsessed with cannolis years ago when his cousin introduced him to the pastry at Don Giovanni’s Classic Bakery, located on Street Road in Feasterville-Trevose.
“That was where I had my first cannoli and it changed my life. It really did,” Patriarca said. “I mean, if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have made Cannoli Stories, which led me to make Life’s Better Protected, which got me to meet Joe D’Onofrio from A Bronx Tale and Mike Starr, who I grew up watching and adored as a character actor.”
The newest cannoli-inspired release from Patriarca was originally intended to be a live-action commercial, for which he penned a one-page script. Yet as time passed, his vision grew and, in 2019, Patriarca decided that he wanted to make an animated feature. However, due to some adult-related subject matter mixed with Santa Claus and other holiday content, the animator he was working with no longer wished to be part of the project.
He feared his vision would become further delayed in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In fact, a documentary he was set to direct about the Reading Fire Department shut down a day before it was slated to begin filming. While having breakfast with Robert Bizik, who voices Santa Claus in the film, it was determined that, given the fact that Patriarca still had the film crew on hand, they should create something, and Life’s Better Protected was revisited.
A full script was written and pitched to Starr and Bryan Anthony Wilson, who portrays The Narrator, both of whom loved it. Meanwhile, word of the project spread to D’Onofrio, who requested to read the script and, afterward, asked to voice The Producer. Patriarca even reworked the script to gear the cannoli-loving character toward the actor.
This time, Patriarca also secured an animator who felt passionate about the film’s concept. Sean Sanczel single-handedly animated the entire thing over the span of 14 months, the process of which fascinated Patriarca.
“I really got into the animation, the behind-the-scenes of it, and I’m looking forward to doing more animated films with Sean,” said Patriarca. “He’s just fantastic.”
He also praised the cast, who recorded their voice-overs one at a time over a four-day period due to the pandemic.
“For them to have liked what I had written and to expand on it is just an experience that I’m truly appreciative of and will never forget,” Patriarca said.
The cast of Life’s Better Protected aren’t the only ones who like it. To date, the film has garnered 30 award wins, in addition to two nominations.
“I was totally flabbergasted,” Patriarca said. “I obviously never expected it to get as much attention as it has. I’m just truly grateful and humbled. We did great at the New York International Film Festival. That was this previous June, and we won the Diamond Globe Award for Best Animated Film. We won IndieFEST awards for writing, directing, animation. Mike Starr won Supporting Actor for his role as The Casting Director. Joe D’Onofrio won two awards for Best Leading Actor. Alana Fu, she won Best Supporting Actress for her role as The Accountant. It was just one after the other, and I did not expect it at all. I was just grateful to have entered and be accepted to these competitions, let alone win.”
When asked why he thinks Life’s Better Protected did so well in the festival circuit, Patriarca said the outlandish plotline and relatable characters helped it to stand out from the pack. He added, “And it’s just one of those films where you either really love it or you hate it, there’s just no in between.”
Currently, Patriarca is living out a dream that he’s had since kindergarten, when he first had aspirations to become a filmmaker. By the age of 11, he was already beginning to make that dream a reality thanks to a partnership that his school had with the Prince Theater in Philadelphia, which granted students the opportunity to have their original plays performed on stage.
Patriarca’s passion became even stronger in 2006, when he found himself on the set of Rocky Balboa.
“Watching Stallone direct and rewrite the scenes in Kensington was just an epiphany for me, and I knew exactly right there and then, I want to be a professional filmmaker,” he said.
Some financial saving, a college degree and brief military stint later, the Patriarca Film Company was born and Cannoli Stories came to life. He also made it his company’s mission to hire veterans who have video production skills. In Life’s Better Protected, cast member Bizik served in the Vietnam War, and Marcie Ryan, who voices Sugar, is a retired U.S. Navy vet.
Looking ahead, Patriarca has a few goals in mind: He wants to land a distribution deal and have Life’s Better Protected stream on a platform like Amazon or Tubi, secure investors to fund several animated projects that he has in development (including a follow-up to Life’s Better Protected), and work alongside some more of his heroes in the business, including Pam Grier, Eric Roberts and, of course, Sylvester Stallone.
“The scripts that I’m writing now, I’m writing with these actors in mind,” he said. “Though I’d love to come on as a producer for Tulsa King with Joe D’Onofrio, who is a huge Stallone fan, also. What better segue than a great mob drama? I think Joe and I could bring some comedy, as well as interesting violence, to the series.” ••