By Rebecca Green
This month, I had the pleasure of speaking with Andrew Corkin, a producer on some of Sundance’s most unforgettable films such as AFTERSCHOOL and MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE. We discussed how being in the theater scene in high school honed his producing skills, how advice from his dad taught him the right and wrong way to ask someone for money, and the value of having multiple producers on a project.
Let’s start at the beginning… I find that directors always have a romanticized story as to how they got into film. That they saw JAWS at the age of 10 and knew then that filmmaking was their dream. Or the version where they picked up a camera at the age of 5 and haven’t put it down since. That was not at all my story, I didn’t explore film until my senior year in high school. When did you realize film was a potential career path for you?
I definitely didn’t grow up close to the film world, by any means. I grew up in Boston, and I went to an all-boys school that was very academic and sports driven; there was barely an arts program. I was an okay athlete, but I wasn’t great, so I got into the theater scene, which I started to really enjoy. But, I was just thinking, okay, this is a fun hobby, not, oh, this is a career path for me.
Looking back, what natural skills did you have in high school that you can now clearly see have translated into producing?
I was always very good with time management, organization. Not only did I put together plays, but I was very active in community service, putting together events, and bringing people together. All of these qualities are part of the producer’s arsenal, that you are in charge of an army of people that all have very different skills, and you are the one that is pointing them in the right direction, to maximize their talents. This is all stuff that I hadn’t realized, in a way, I had been doing for years.
The million dollar question I am always asked is ‘where do you find the money?’ So, what was the first piece of money you raised and what was it for?
When I was at NYU, the guys from Borderline Films came into my class to speak and I was blown away by their talent and drive. I had wanted to intern for them, but each time they called, I didn’t have the skillset they were looking for. Then a year and a half later, when they were ready to make their first feature AFTERSCHOOL, I got a call from Sean Durkin saying, ‘There’s an opportunity and we’d love to have you play a larger role. This is what we need help with, and how we see it working out.’ What it ultimately came down to was they need help raising 50k. So,I turned to the smartest person I knew: my dad. I said, “Dad, you have some wealthy friends, can I start talking to your network?” He grilled me. I knew a bit about film finances at the time from taking some basic film finance classes – I was in the first class at NYU that offered a producing minor and concentration and I was taking about half my classes in the business school starting my junior year.
That’s smart. When I look back on college I really wish I would have taken more business classes and accounting, though my college didn’t offer them, so I could better deal with all the tax filings I didn’t know I would have to handle.
Looking back, all I knew at the time was the rinse and repeat model of ‘120% ROI pro rata pari passu.’ I could just recite that without question, but I didn’t fully understand it, and my dad saw through that. He said, ‘you don’t really understand this, do you?’ I didn’t, but, despite what I didn’t know, I still took those meeting with his network anyways… and I pretty much struck out.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from those meetings?
I think the most important step is understanding what you’re talking about. I had somewhat of an understanding, but when you are approaching financiers you need to know that you are representing an opportunity. I think a problem a lot of up-and-coming producers have is that they view investors as philanthropists, that they are supporting a cause. The truth is, if you have done your homework, you should understand that this is an opportunity for both you and the financier. There is an actual way to make money in this industry, but many more ways to lose it. If you’re going to try to raise money, you really need to understand how money comes into and flows out of a film; know both the best and worst case scenarios.
Also, I tell my students this all the time… In this world, you pretty much have one favor to ask of every person. So, if you do not represent yourself truthfully and honestly from the get go, or if you misrepresent what the expectations should be, you can never go back to that person for any other favor. If you go to someone for a favor, and it ultimately turns into a positive experience, then yeah, there’s a potential of maybe being able to go back to that person in the future. But, you’ve got to start off with the idea that you can ask one person one thing in your lifetime. You have to determine, is this worth asking my one favor on?
On that first film, what credit did you get for bringing this piece of money to the table?
It was ultimately an associate producer credit. In retrospect, today, maybe I wish they had given me an executive producer credit, if I could’ve, because I didn’t realize that no one knows what an associate producer credit is. It really has the lowest standing of any of the producer type credits. But at the same time, I also only equate an executive producer credit with money, so for me, not knowing at the time, I thought, okay, if I have an associate producer credit, hopefully people will know that I actually have this credit because I’m more than just someone that brought in money. I was in the trenches. I was sleeping on a bunk bed in a high school dorm for 4 weeks making the film with the actors, with the crew, down and dirty. AFTERSCHOOL was my master class in film.
What would you say to directors who think that a producer is only valuable if they can bring money to the table?
Writers and directors need to understand that a producer doesn’t need to be able to do everything. Sometimes, they are a sum of the parts of two or three different producers, or different production companies, that all serve a particular purpose. I like to think that I’m a pretty darn good development and talent producer, working with writers, directors, actors. I know a thing or two about film finance and raising money. At the same time, let’s say that in each of these different fields, I’m 80% or 70% strong in one aspect, I need to find some one that’s a 30% to fill the gap. I can combine my strong suit in one area and my weak suit in another with another producer’s strong and weak suits to make a solid team.
I think that the most important part of collaborating with producers is just understanding what your strong suits are, and what your weak suits are. And having very clear expectations and self-awareness. Anyone who thinks, I’m an army of one, I can do it. Great. Go do it, if that is the case, but there’s so much work to go around, whether it’s a one hundred thousand dollar feature or a one hundred million dollar feature.
I’ve had a producing partner on several of my films and have had directors say to us that they feel ganged up on when her and I have both share the same opinion. I always think, wait, you should be happy your producers are on the same page, but that is not how they feel if our shared opinion is different than theirs. What is the fear some directors have of working with more than one producer?
I think it should just feel like there’s more support to go around. I’ve worked on, and you have too, so many projects where there’s a group of producers. I guess what they worry about is that fine line of having enough producers so that everything can be handled quickly and efficiently, whereas, if there’s too many, it just completely slows down the process, because of how approvals work. I think that’s probably what the worry is for most directors. They see many producers, and they think, okay, everyone is going to have a differing opinion, and it’s going to slow down the process. But it’s is the job of the producer to put together a team that does see eye to eye, and they can work as one voice with the director.
When you say clear expectations are important to you, give me some examples, what are conversations you need to have with directors and financiers before everyone decides, okay, let’s do this together. Can you think of some important topics to discuss, or ways to articulate expectations?
Yeah, absolutely. In terms of articulating expectations, you’ve got to start with making sure you are all envisioning the script in the same way and making sure that you see eye to eye on what you read, and where you see it going. Then from there, talking about what you both collectively see as the steps to get it made, and get it realized in the current evolving film market. If one of you reads at the script and says, hey, I love this, this would make a great Netflix Original, and the other says, no I think this is a 20 million dollar Sony theatrical play, you’re totally in two different worlds. It’s making sure there is a cohesion that exists, then from there, talking about what everyone will do to move the project forward.
Working with writers, directors, actors, it’s so important from the very get go, to have a mutual understanding of where a project belongs, where your goals of it going are, and who the audience is. If I go into a conversation with a writer that I really like, or a director I really like, and I say, who’s the audience, and they say, well, I think it’s for every one. Well, how are people going to watch it? It’s going to be in the movie theater. It’s making sure that people have an understanding of the market and how it is changing every day.
How do you choose the projects you produce?
Ultimately, I need to be moved by the content itself. That’s the most important part and also subjective. You shouldn’t have to convince yourself to take on a project. At the end of the day, unlike a director where they spend two or three years on a project, a producer is going to spend many more. It’s about knowing that if you are going to devote your time and energy on a project, it needs to be one that you care about. From there, if it passes that test, I ask, am I the right producer to make it this? For example, if I were to read, let’s say, a 50 million dollar period drama, I wouldn’t know how to make that movie tomorrow. I could love it, and I could want to see it, and wish I could be a part of it, but I would know that I’m not the right person. Ultimately, you have to know what you’re capable of and what you’re not capable of. Third, I ask, is there a place for this film and is there an audience for this film? There’s been a project or two that I’ve taken on just because I really believed in the director, but knowing going in that the commercial prospects were limited. It would be a limited release strategy, or limited box office potential or no box office potential.
And I always say, it is just as much work to make a film that no one sees as it is that everyone does.
Exactly. You need to answer for yourself the question of, what are you getting out of it as the producer? Are you getting out of it the opportunity to work with some one that you believe in and build a relationship? Are you getting into it because you think that there’s oodles of money to be made? You have to be honest with yourself as a producer, because there are only so many hours in the day. You can take on more than one project, but in the end, you’re ultimately the person who is going to have to make that project a priority in order to get it seen, get it realized.
Andrew D Corkin, of Uncorked Productions, is a Gotham Award winning producer whose credits include: AFTERSCHOOL (Cannes 2008), MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (Sundance 2011, Cannes 2011), AN OVERSIMPLIFICATION OF HER BEAUTY (Sundance 2012, Gotham Award winner), WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (Sundance 2013, Cannes 2013), WILD CANARIES (SxSW 2014), BIG SIGNIFICANT THINGS (SXSW 2014), EMELIE (Tribeca 2015), THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK (SXSW 2016), Netflix’s MERCY, and Andrew Renzi’s feature debut, THE BENEFACTOR, starring Richard Gere. Uncorked debuted A VIGILANTE, starring Olivia Wilde, at SXSW 2018, and is currently in post on documentary THEY FIGHT alongside Academy Award winner Common, and elevated horror film, THE BEACH HOUSE. Andrew serves on Boston Children’s Hospital’s Philanthropic Board of Advisors and teaches as an adjunct professor at Boston University and Emerson College.