By Rebecca Green
Having made the leap from an assistant at ICM to an executive at Traction Media and Broad Green to independent producer, Asher Goldstein has forged an award-winning career with notable films such as SHORT TERM 12, GREEN ROOM, and JUST MERCY. In this interview we explore the different pathways and approaches to producing, forging strong relationships with directors, and the importance of community building.
We share similar paths, as we both were executives before become independent producers. How did you get to where you are now?
The truth is that it was a bit pragmatic. When I got out of college I was well over a $100,000 in debt from going to film school. I needed work. I started out as a production assistant and would make stuff with friends on the weekend. Eventually, I worked as an assistant at ICM. I went to NYU, which focused on production skills, and I wanted to know how the business side worked so I could know how to maneuver in that world.I worked at ICM as an assistant for about a year and a half and then worked at Traction Media with Maren Olson (who is now at CAA). Traction did a little bit of everything. We were selling domestic rights, packing financing, and developing films to produce.
The game was about always having a job that would allow me to continue to do this ‘as a producer’ when the time was right. While working at Traction, I saw the short film SHORT TERM 12 and met the filmmaker Destin Cretton who became a really close friend, collaborator, and someone I’m still working with today.
After I produced the feature version of SHORT TERM 12, I had several different opportunities presented to me. One of them was a friend who was working with an independent financier who was building a company.
So much of our time, as independent producers, is spent not doing the thing that we love, which is building things creatively. Instead, looking for money takes up most of our time and energy. The idea of paying my rent while having the ability to actually say yes to a community of people that I’ve been growing up with was really attractive. That’s when I went over to Broad Green, which is when you and I met.
I realized there’s a lot of conversation around who gets to call themselves a producer with a capital P. At times, I feel somewhat defensive when people question if you can be both an executive and a producer. For me, it was the only way I was going to be able to be a producer and still pay my rent. It was that, or do some other job totally outside the business until producing paid off. It’s taken a long time for it to pay off.
What did you learn at Broad Green that you’ve brought to producing independently?
From a financial perspective, I learned the really tragic truth that finding a way to put together a $10, $20, or even $30 million budget, in a crazy way, was an easier path than putting together $1 million for a movie. That was a hard truth to learn. Many of these intimate character studies we love and which draw so many people to independent film really are the most challenging to get made. I guess it clarified to me how much harder I had to work. It didn’t necessarily make me want to go make foreign sales-driven action movies after that. It just gave me some clarity as to the challenges that were ahead if I wanted to keep forging this path.
When you work with a studio or a larger financier or a streamer for that matter – there’s a lot of wants and desires from different parties and departments – without even thinking about all the reps. Plus, everyone has different agendas and angles. Your job then, either as an executive or as a producer, is to understand how to make everyone feel like their ideas and agendas can coalesce. Sometimes it is simply finding a way to make everyone else’s agenda’s align with the goals you have for your project. Essentially, I learned a lot about the philosophy of working within the emotional politics of large groups of people.
Working as an executive gave me even more exposure to different tiers of representatives. Relationships with agents and managers have become so important in many ways. I know there are many conversations about how their roles will be shifting in the years to come. As I see it, I think they’re essential. Frankly, the more that we can count them as allies, the stronger we can become, as much as a part of me fears saying that.I’ve met and developed relationships with a handful of agents and managers that I’m working with today on really thoughtful, artist-driven projects. There are representatives out there who do want to build a better industry, and I think it’s worth seeking them out.
The philosophy I’m pursuing is this idea of community, leaning into the artists that I trust, have relationships with, and can be transparent with. It’s just wildly vital that we keep an idealistic approach to maintaining community- whether we’re being scrappy or making studio films. I really think that the moment I lose that idealism is when I’m lost professionally. It’s something that I’m continuously trying to keep alive, even when it feels dire.
Dear Producer has done that for me in a way that I didn’t expect when I created it. Building community really keeps me motivated and inspired.
I know you’re the one interviewing me, but why did you jump from working for Lynda Obst to working at Sundance? Lynda was one of the leaders of producing in the studio system.
I remember when I interviewed with Lynda, walking into the office and seeing the posters for movies she had produced like CONTACT, THE FISHER KING, HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN TEN DAYS, SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, FLASHDANCE. I knew I could learn from this woman.
At the time, Lynda had a first-look deal with Paramount and I was hired as her VP of Development. What I observed was that Lynda wasn’t given enough space as a producer to take risks and act on potential. Our job as producers is to prove people wrong and to take an idea and build it into a film. But studios want sure bets. They want big IP. They want stories that have obvious marketing hooks.
When Paramount passed on material she really believed in, I asked her why she didn’t take it to another studio which her deal allowed. She explained that the studio pays her overhead and if she sets up all her projects elsewhere, they will be less inclined to renew her deal. I hadn’t thought about that way but it made total sense. With a first-look deal, you’re essentially an employee of a studio there to fill their mandate. Even though I was working for a producer, it was not unlike when I worked as a Creative Executive at Lionsgate fulfilling their mandate.
After a little over a year, I left working with Lynda to produce my first feature film with a budget of 600k. I learned how to make a feature film (I had only done shorts) in the physical sense, but what I realized in the process was that I didn’t know how to build an independent film. Making a studio film is a very different process and approach witha different set of gatekeepers who I didn’t have relationships with.
After that film, I came back to Los Angeles and worked as a festival screener at Sundance and then one of my good friends recommended me for the job managing the Sundance Creative Producing Lab with Anne Lai. Like yourself, every job I took was with the plan to eventually produce when the time was right and the job at Sundance was exactly what I needed in that moment of my career. I got to attend four producing labs and immerse myself in the indie community, which I was on the outskirts of at the time. I left Sundance when I had IT FOLLOWS fully teed up. Anne was so supportive of my producing aspirations and I wouldn’t have such an amazing community of producers supporting me now if it weren’t for that job.
But this is supposed to be about you, not me!
No, this is good, because it got me thinking. I hear you about the struggle that you experienced working at a studio, but I would probably guess that your experience has some correlation to how you pitch your projects. Now that you’re going to independent financiers and selling them on why they should believe in this first time writer-director, who you can’t believe how they haven’t made a movie yet, etc. All of that is because of the faith you have.
That faith carries through. It’s the thing that reminds the crew on those tough days that this impossible element will come together, or that the movie’s going to get finished, or that the cut’s going to be seen all the way through. That people are actually going to see it. I feel like we’re a little bit of evangelists in that way. I take a whole lot of weight in what you said there. It’s our job to make everyone believe in something that doesn’t exist yet.
I find that the bulk of my time is spent just thinking. I have card framed on my desk that says, “Sit quietly, the answers will come to you.” So much of my work is strategy and ideas, the quiet is powerful. Moving out of LA has helped with that. Less of my days are about emails and calls. I’ve really pulled away from the busyness of producing that we create for ourselves.
I do think people approach producing in different ways. I look at my friends who are producers, who are also probably also really good executives – they’re constant, on their email and phone -all the time. I’m not saying I’m not – I am definitely on the phone way too much – but I definitely know that I’m incredibly emotionally-driven and instinct-driven as a storyteller and I really need to be feeling something. Sometimes, that requires me going on a walk to think something through before giving a note or replying to an email, or making a phone call that can affect a project. I do think it’s really crucial and vital to be able to understand how your brain works. I think learning to understand yourself, helps build instinct. You can’t teach instinct, but you can nurture it. As much as I’m talking about learning to take the time you need, I also think understanding yourself is really crucial when needing to make fast decisions from the gut.
Moving up as a producer is extremely difficult. Usually, it comes down to your connection with your director. With Destin Cretton, you were one of the producers on his first feature, I AM NOT A HIPSTER and then again on his second film SHORT TERM 12, but then you weren’t on GLASS CASTLE, which was a big step up for him, but then you were on JUST MERCY. How have you managed this relationship?
The answer is really anecdotal.I could talk specifically about our process, so far as I see it, and why I think it works, but the truth is, and it’s 100% true, Destin’s special – he’s been an incredibly good friend and good partner.
On every project there’s an ever growing family of artists that we’ve continued to work with and not everyone has worked on everything – myself included – but that family is real. I deeply appreciate being part of that. I think that’s a great piece of advice really, whatever part of the business you’re in, build a circle, build a community. And then protect the hell out of it.
I’ve produced small films for directors who then went on to big movies without me. It was a lot of work to get over that heartbreak and realize that it wasn’t personal, it’s about opportunity. Directors have different opportunities than producers. How do we, as producers, focus on our own careers and not put everything into one director who really only wants us to sweat it out on the no-budget movie?
I’ll give advice and mentorship whenever I can. And that never comes with expectations. And by the way, never should. I think that’s important to say.
As far as actually working with a first-time director, I’m now pretty clear about my intentions. I’m most probably not going to make money on their film, and the reward is the work we do, and thus, the hope is that via the work we are doing, we are developing a longer term working relationship. I’m many times driven by someone’s voice rather than solely by their single project, so I am usually hoping to be in it for the long haul, ideally. In some ways, this is said through actions, but it is important to be clear about expectations. There’s always a right time to say something if you’re feeling a certain way – I’ve seen working relationships broken because people didn’t say what they needed to when the time was right. I do think it is healthy to also remember that we don’t own relationships either.
We need to be pretty honest with ourselves about why we are making what are and who with. People are pretty clear about who they are, and if someone seems like they might not be super loyal, they probably won’t be… it’s not always that clear, but I try to pay attention to people’s choices. That’s definitely something I’ve learned (and painfully at that).
When younger producers ask me, “What’s your first piece of advice?” I used to absolutely say…
“Don’t do it!” [laughs].
I’ve never said that. I’ve never done that. But I’ve always said it’s about building community. But now the very first thing I tell people is, “I don’t know what it is for you. I don’t know if it’s running. I don’t know if it’s mindfulness. I don’t know if its meditation. I don’t know if it’s therapy, or whatever it is. Figure out how to create clear spaces in your brain.” I think these are the things that we really need in order to manage the emotionally raw moments that happen. We work in an environment made for people who can thrive during stress, but it doesn’t mean that we’re not stressed. You can thrive in difficult times, but it doesn’t mean they’re not difficult. It doesn’t mean they don’t weigh on us. I started doing therapy in this time of COVID, and it’s been the absolute, most important thing I’ve done for myself in a very long time. It frankly helps me professionally, many, many times over.
I also give mentorship credit. I’ve had several at different times – Gil Netter, who was also a producer on JUST MERCY was incredibly supportive in having me work as an equal on that film. I think the best advice I got from him was him simply reminding me that I do the work and I know what I’m doing.
I’ve at times had a hard time acknowledging my own value, and I think the thing that’s really saved me is peer-mentorship. It’s one thing to be given sage advice, it’s another to keep one another afloat. My life is filled with peers that keep me up, and I hope I do the same for them. I really want to be able to reach back when the timing is right and be that assist to a producer coming up. It’s mentorship yes, but it’s also a level up – we can’t hope to build new voices without building the builders – and so that means being willing to share that credit, give that space for people to grow. I really hope I get to do that in my career.
We really do need to be bringing up other producers, vouching for them, and making space to get more indie producers in the big rooms.
How are you generally feeling right now during the pandemic in terms of what place indie film will have in the future?
Look, I would be lying if I said there weren’t days where I’m thinking, “Man, I think this is going to be impossible.” But if I truly thought that then I would quit [laughs]. I think it’s possible. I’m keeping my head down to some extent. Honestly, what I’ve been doing with this time is developing.
But producers don’t get paid for development.
No, we don’t, which is why I was incredibly fortunate, and wildly lucky, to get this Cinereach Producers Award grant when it came in.
I fear that tactile and grassroots process of simply running into people is getting lost in the fray because there just isn’t an ability for people to congregate right now. I think that’s a real problem and something I’m concerned about. I’m curious about what the solutions are.
It’s great that festival gatherings can still happen on Zoom, but the important part is when the people who have really great ideas, who are idealistic, with no credits to their name, meet in the lobby after a q/a, or if you’re lucky enough to simply attend Sundance, at any given time, you’re probably sitting next to 50 people who are aspiring to have a film at Sundance… It’s getting those people randomly sitting next to each other and hitting it off, deciding they’re going to go make something together. That’s the part that is being lost. It’s that community thing.
The hopeful part of me thinks that in three years, we have a new crop of regionally focused filmmakers who thought, “Okay, what can we do within the confines of where we are?” I do think that we need to expand the pool, so to speak. Perhaps by having more smaller organizations rather than a few larger ones. That’s where the regionalism thing comes to mind. It would be great to have real arts funding in our country.
Pandemic or not it still feels like it comes down to the question of, which boxes do we check? For me there’s been four of them: Sundance, Film Independent, IFP, and the San Francisco Film Society. Someone needs to believe in you enough and have a relationship enough with those organizations to check those boxes – because they’re the filters a producer will point to in order to convince the agencies to find you money, and for the financiers to believe they are going to Park City next year. And by the way, I am forever grateful for the non-profit side of indie film… without those organizations, we would have lost a generation of work coming out of the financial crash.
A challenge for us all is that see a lot of repeat filmmakers in all these programs, and perhaps that’s because the projects are that good- and many are – but I do sometimes wonder if we are losing sight of people that aren’t making themselves visible to these organizations, and thus, all of us.
It’s completely disproportionate in terms of how one festival makes or breaks a career. It’s just not okay and I’m someone who does have both feet in at all four of the organizations you’ve named. I would love to see filmmakers galvanize and create a new more equitable ecosystem for filmmakers. However, what I hear too often and read in every lab application is that everyone wants Netflix to make their film. But like my studio experience, Netflix has a mandate that does not cater to most independent filmmakers.
I will say, while I will always prefer seeing films in the cinema, COVID did show us that there is a way for some films to have a really vibrant release and/or life on streaming that could have easily under-performed in theaters. They leaned into the fact that people might not go out to see a movie on a Friday night, but they will rent the shit out of that movie instead – especially if it’s been properly marketed to them. And in the petri dish of covid, some of these successes point to the fact that smart, targeted, and properly funded marketing will drive audiences to indie cinema.
We love movie theaters, and we love seeing movies on a big screen, but at the end of the day, I think there’s a bit of a generational shift in terms of the validity of seeing something at home as its premiere format. I think there’s also an argument that streaming helps democratize access to cinema. If want a robust indie film community, we need a robust indie film audience.
I have many friends who will probably kick me in the teeth for saying that, but at the end of the day, we’re independent filmmakers. That means we never say die. That’s the ethos. If that’s the way we have do it, then so be it. I know when we had the theatrical release for JUST MERCY with the studio behind it, the film had a definitive resonance, but once it sat in a space where it was invited into people’s homes, it found an entirely different life. That spoke a lot to me so far as when you’re making things that have some activist angle to it, which is a lot of the stuff I have made, I do think that it’s about getting people to see it at all. That’s a big win in any case.
Asher Goldstein is an award-winning producer whose credits include Destin Daniel Cretton’s SHORT TERM 12, which won the Audience and Jury Prizes at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival, along with recognition from The National Board of Review. He recently produced Warner Bros.’ JUST MERCY, based on civil rights leader Bryan Stevenson’s New York Times best-selling memoir, the film was a recipient of four NAACP Image Awards, including Outstanding Motion Picture. As an executive, Asher has packaged, structured distribution for, or overseen production on more than 50 independent features including Jeremy Saulnier’s GREEN ROOM, Terrence Nance’s AN OVERSIMPLIFICATION OF HER BEAUTY, and Terrence Malick’s VOYAGE OF TIME. Asher was a recipient of the prestigious 2020 Cinereach Producers Award. He graduated with honors from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Asher has a deep, abiding love for tacos.