Hollywood loves success stories, especially those where a scrappy protagonist starts from zero and overcomes many obstacles to achieve their goal. Often, film directors magnify the hardships and exaggerate the effort expended along the way. We are all familiar with the grimaces of concentration and the look of dramatic defeat on the protagonist’s face following an unsuccessful attempt to perform the perfect jump or yet another blow of fate.
Alex Kenanov’s story requires no amplification for dramatic effect. Not only is his life Hollywood script–ready, he’s got the air and the blue-eyed charisma of the idealistic hero who is bound to hit rock bottom before soaring to success.
Today Alex is managing director and co-owner of one of Bulgaria’s most successful film production companies, B2Y Productions, and the only Bulgarian to have received a sports scholarship to play American football in the United States (out of 78 Europeans). To get here, though, he’s been through his share of pain, privation, and difficult decisions, including a year living in a nursing home in Serbia, a car crash, a clash with a bureaucratic Goliath, poverty and a stint as demolition worker in the United States, tornadoes, floods, escaped tigers, and finally the decision to turn his back on a career in American football and return to Bulgaria to work in film production.
Alex was born in 1989, a year of dramatic change. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and street protests in the capital, Sofia, Bulgaria’s Soviet-backed government collapsed, and the lives of ordinary Bulgarians were turned inside out. Although Alex’s childhood in nearby Samokov was relatively peaceful and carefree, the turbulence of his birth year left a mark on his life as well.
Alex grew up in a loving household. In the 1990s, driven by dwindling employment opportunities, his engineer father and his mother, a primary school teacher, got involved in art and opened a gallery, which expanded Alex’s horizons and spurred his interest in various art forms (although it was his uncle who introduced him to the world of cinema). One of his childhood heroes was his grandfather, who, despite having held senior positions in the communist party his entire life, is a good, approachable man respected by all. “I meet people in unexpected places who tell me what a good man my grandfather is. This is the man I want to be.”
At 15, Alex moved to Sofia to study at the Spanish High School and look for more opportunities to do sports. His preference was for contact and combat sports, despite his calm, easygoing personality. “The more relaxed you are, the better your reactions on the field,” Alex explains. At that time, he started watching American football games and was enthralled. Despite several attempts over the years to start American football clubs in Bulgaria, the sport didn’t really catch on. That’s until the Sofia Bears showed up. So, when Alex came across an advertisement for the club one day, he signed up immediately.
The Bears were a welcoming club, and most of its members defied the American football player stereotype. There were varying levels of physical fitness, most members had steady jobs (there was a lawyer, several programmers, a dentist, and some journalists), some were over 30, and at some point, the club even had a female member. Everyone played to relax or because they thought American football was fun. Alex has wonderful memories of that period, but he dreamed of playing with the best in the United States. To improve his technique, he watched videos on YouTube and imitated famous players’ movements. Chain workouts in the gym, kite flying in the park, and a special diet helped him increase his body mass and get in shape. He sustained multiple injuries, but they didn’t stop him, and he became the best American football player in Bulgaria in just a few years. Meanwhile, he started studying film production at the National Academy for Theater and Film Arts in Sofia, and when he was not in training, he was making commercials and short films. But this wasn’t enough.
He found an opportunity in neighboring Serbia, which has a strong football league. College football coaches from the United States visit Serbian clubs to scout for local talent, so when Serbian club Kraljevo Royal Crowns invited him for a tryout in 2011, Alex said yes right away. To save money in Serbia, he lived in a nursing home and ate with the home’s residents, supplementing the scarce offerings at the home with whatever was available at the local “store,” a shack made of construction waste, according to Alex’s description. The public bus that took him from the home to the training grounds and back every day had a hole in the floor, but it was cheaper than driving.
Several months into the Serbian adventure, a US team came for a training camp near Kraljevo. This was the break Alex had hoped for. And then something terrible happened: Alex and his girlfriend had a car accident, which left her with a fractured pelvis. Miraculously, his injuries weren’t so severe as to prevent him from playing. His performance so impressed the scout observing the match he offered Alex a sports scholarship to study and play American football in the United States.
After nearly a year of struggling with entrance exams and academic bureaucracy—initially, he’d been told there was no way he could transfer any of his college credits, but that he couldn’t start as a freshman either—he finally came up with a solution and left for Bethany, Oklahoma, a place better known for destructive tornadoes than for American football. Alex remembers how he was doing homework one day when he got an alert about an approaching tornado and instructions to get to the building’s underground shelter immediately (almost all Oklahoma buildings have them). In a few minutes, he got a second alert, this time about a flood, and a warning that staying in the shelter posed a drowning risk. The third warning was the really unusual one, though: the tornado had passed through a tiger reserve, and several tigers had escaped! Thankfully, he lived to tell the tale.
Alex also survived the grilling routine he forced himself into for two years: 16-to-18-hour days that began with training at the gym, continued with classes and more training with the team and ended with homework and additional workouts. Alex ate the cheapest food possible to be able to afford large amounts of it, and in order to save on tuition, he took overloads each semester. He made extra money by working hourly as a demolition worker. “I’m not the best cameraman or the best football player… My real talent is that I never stop. When I start something, I don’t give up until I finish it,” he says.
In 2015, Alex earned a master’s degree in business administration from Southern Nazarene University, and despite receiving offers to continue playing football in Canada and Colorado, he decided to return to Bulgaria. What was meant to be a two-week vacation back home proved decisive: a chance meeting with Yariv Lerner, CEO of the Sofia-based Nu Boyana Film Studios, one of Europe’s largest motion picture studios, convinced him to give Bulgaria a try. He’d also done what he had set out to do: he had played with the best, and now it was time to pursue his other dream, cinema. The collaboration between Alex and Lerner gave rise to B2Y Productions, a production company with the ambition to become one of the biggest players on the European market. Four years later, they are living the dream: B2Y has produced TV commercials for almost all luxury car brands in the world. Its portfolio also includes documentaries, music videos, short films, and a full-length feature film called The Dare. B2Y also co-produced Loving Pablo, a Spanish film starring Oscar winners Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem.
Success hasn’t changed Alex much. When you talk to him, you quickly forget that you’re talking to one of the most successful film production managers in Bulgaria today. Alex’s boyish charm and easy, positive demeanor put everyone at ease. His grandfather has taught him well—that success is not everything and that how you’re remembered is important too. That’s why B2Y strives to be socially responsible as well and invests in projects aimed at protecting the environment. In addition to organizing thorough cleanups of filming locations, B2Y produces organic jam and honey. The B2Y office is plastic-free.
This summer, the company will release its From Zero to Hero series—the stories of ten self-made Bulgarians. Alex and his team created the series because he doesn’t like it when people use the expression “made in Bulgaria” derogatively. He believes that there are many Bulgarians who do really good work and thanks to whom “made in Bulgaria” can become synonymous with professionalism and high quality internationally. “Everyone who says you can’t make it in this country without even trying is part of the problem,” he says.
So far, B2Y has no plans to bring Alex’s story to the screen, so it’s up for grabs!
From Zero to Hero was produced with the support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation.
Photo 1 by Tsvetelina Belutova, Capital Weekly