By Rebecca Green
Continuing our series on the Cinereach Producer Award recipients, Dear Producer spoke with Jessica Devaney, a Brooklyn-based producer and the founder of Multitude Films, which is an independent production company dedicated to telling stories by and about underrepresented communities. Her latest film, ALWAYS IN SEASON (Independent Lens), premiered in competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and won the Special Jury Award for Moral Urgency.
Jessica spoke to us about how her company is creating a training program for emerging producers to thrive, how her background in nonprofit management has taught her invaluable skills in communication and accountability, the pros and cons of distributing your own film, and how it would excite her to see distributors address representation because it is a good business decision, not just the right thing to do.
Tell me a bit about your company Multitude Films?
I started Multitude Films in June 2016. We produce nonfiction features, series, and short form by and about underrepresented voices. We’re creatively and politically interested in representational storytelling and for us that means that the core creative team has a stake in the communities that will be most impacted by that story on screen.
What do you mean by “has a stake in the communities?”
It could mean a variety of things. It could be based on identity, geography, or experience. Maybe we’re doing a film about a rural community in South Carolina and a core of the creative leads are from that area. Or a film about the targeting and surveillance of Muslim Americans by a Muslim director who has experienced that surveillance herself. Or a film about LGBTQ lives made by a largely LGBTQ team. Or a film about the impact of government overreach on journalists and documentary filmmakers by a team of journalists and documentary filmmakers. It can take a variety forms, but boils down to how we evaluate the question: is this the right team to make this film?
Running a company is not an easy feat. What was the decision to build this company versus going it alone as a filmmaker?
There were two things: solidary and scale. While independently producing, I realized pretty quickly the limits to scaling up. Working alone, I noticed how much it helped to systematize the parts that can be “rinse and repeat” in making documentaries. So much is unpredictable in documentary, but if you have an infrastructure in place and people doing the same roles and understanding how to run the same parts of the process in similar ways, it really takes out a layer of the work. With a stable core producing team, I could really start to scale up.
And I don’t mean volume for volume’s sake, but volume allows us to make a bigger impact in terms of representation. As our volume increasing, we’re supporting more underrepresented directors and crew at every level in our hiring process. We’re also able to mentor producers within our own company, by building a training program geared to shepherding production assistants and associate producers through the ranks and preparing them to produce independently or even within Multitude eventually.
And then there’s the emotional aspects of producing. It is a very isolated, lonely role where your job is to foresee and pre-solve continuous problems and address obstacles in real time. If you’re doing your job well, a lot of this emotional work is invisible. Being in it with a team has been amazing. We’re able have each other’s backs when nobody else does. It’s this solidarity in our team that really sustains me.
Do you have full-time staff or do you hire per project? What’s the makeup of the company?
We have a core team of five: my two full-time producing partners Anya Rous and Lisa Valencia-Svensson, as well as a full-time Associate Producer and Production Assistant. We’re hoping to bring on several other junior folks as we formalize – and raise support for – our new program to mentor emerging and aspiring producers from underrepresented communities. There are so many barriers to producing and by creating a pipeline to producing for our junior team members, we can hopefully demystify key elements in the role of a producer and remove some of the barriers of entry for people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, women, people from working class backgrounds, etc. Hopefully soon we’ll be able to bring in a cohort of those folks that are both working on our films and also participating in regular courses based around what we’re doing on a given film, so that we’re slowly equipping producers to take the next step as they grow within our team.
It’s really important because there are barriers as you say, but there’s also no clear path to becoming a producer. The only way to really learn is to jump in and do it, usually without the proper training or knowledge, and so you make a lot of unnecessary mistakes.
One thing we also aren’t trained in is managing large teams of people, but on a film, we might be managing anywhere between 20-100 people. We don’t have a human resources department and yet we’re put in charge and expected to know how to hire people, fire people, and make sure everyone is safe both physically and emotionally… Being someone who has her own company, can you talk about management skills and best practices and what you’ve learned along the way?
My background is in non-profit management, which has really come in handy, whether it’s managing one single film team or our producing team and the company. I think that having a more formal and professionalized management structure is helpful. For example, having feedback and accountability processes in place, understanding where each person’s role ends and the other begins, who is bottom-lining or owning a particular piece of the task and who’s responsible for the big picture of the project. In independent film we often have to be nimble and adapt to the unique needs of a particular project, but having some clear systems in place and communication norms and accountability is helpful.
Do you have any suggestions on best practices for those of us who don’t have management experience?
Something that I’m just starting to lay the groundwork for is to implement a 360-degree review process where each team member receives anonymous feedback not only from your direct supervisor, but from people that you’re managing, peers within your team, and external partners at all levels. So, it’s not a typical review where bosses are giving feedback to junior staff or supervisors to supervisees. It’s a good way to keep the folks holding more power accountable and to receive feedback that reveals how you show up vis à vis power dynamics in a team.
We’re actively trying to engage in dismantling white supremacy, dismantling heteronormativity, and dismantling sexism within our teams so that the way we’re working reflects the values of the films that we’re putting out into the world. This kind of accountability is really important.
I want to talk about your latest film, ALWAYS IN SEASON, which premiered at Sundance this year. How did you come to producing that film?
That project was a little unorthodox for our team because we came on to produce much later than usual. The film was already mid-edit and had been invited to participate in the Sundance Catalyst program which connects a network of investors and funders with films. At the time, we had some shifts in our slate and were revisiting the production timelines of two films. So, I reached out to a couple of our core funding partners to see if there were any projects in post-production and that might be a good fit for Multitude’s priorities and that needed the kind of infrastructure and strategy we bring.
Both of these funders recommended Jacqueline Olive (director of ALWAYS IN SEASON). I usually spend somewhere between six to nine months getting to know a director and advising on a film before we bring them into the fold, but the Catalyst invite and subsequent Sundance festival deadline meant we needed to make a swift decision in order to put the resources in place and lay the groundwork for a post-production timeline that could reasonably land the film at a Sundance premiere (if we happened to be invited).
The film did have the good fortune of premiering at Sundance, but tell me about what happened after the premiere, about the distribution process.
When we teamed up with Jackie, she had already secured 45% of the budget through grants and ITVS funding and we knew the U.S. broadcast would be on PBS. Jackie was really committed to a robust educational and community engagement campaign, so we strategically closed the final 55% of the budget entirely in grants in and donations. Grant support offers maximum flexibility in sales decisions and gave us the ability to carve out a bespoke distribution trajectory based on the goals we had for the film.
We wound up with one strong offer for wrap-around rights out of Sundance, with a theatrical and awards campaign commitment as well as competitive minimum guarantee. We were really pleased with the offer, but ultimately couldn’t get into alignment around windowing and holdbacks that we wanted for our educational and impact goals. It was a great offer, but wasn’t the right fit for ALWAYS IN SEASON. If we had investors waiting to recoup, we would’ve had to take it, but our financing strategy enabled us to partner with the Sundance Creative Distribution Fellowship and release the film independently. With Sundance, along with independent theatrical bookers and impact distribution strategists Mia Bruno and Courtney Sheehan at Fourth Act Film, and Ryan Werner’s stellar publicity team at Cinetic, we lined up a 10-city theatrical release, starting with the New York opening at Metrograph on September 20th followed by a number of art house and AMC theaters across the country, as part of AMC’s independent film program.
We’re simultaneously continuing to monetize our festival screenings in partnership with The Film Collaborative, and have screened at nearly three dozen festivals since Sundance. We’re also launching the film educationally with Good Docs immediately on the heels of the New York and Los Angeles theatrical windows, and holding back our TVOD and SVOD until next summer to prioritize educational sales. Our U.S. broadcast will be on Independent Lens in February 2020.
There have been a lot of proclamations made that this is the “golden age of documentary,” but that pertains to only a small sliver of the films that are getting made, and many films talked about in this conversation have celebrity subjects. What are your thoughts on this?
The question when we hear “golden age of documentary” is golden age for whom? The majority of our slate is made up of emerging directors, and then a smaller portion of our slate is what we call enduring directors and all are from underrepresented communities. Even though we’re gradually seeing more space for underrepresented voices, it can still feel like the ticking of boxes like, ‘here’s our women’s story, here’s our trans story, here’s our Muslim story,’ rather than having a proliferation of stories from within these communities. There’s often a tendency to talk about underrepresented communities as “minority” communities, but women and LGBTQ folks, people of color, people with disabilities, et cetera, we’re actually cumulatively the majority and I would be excited to see distributors’ slates reflect that more.
Access is directly connected to money and while a lot of people talk about inclusion, not many put their money behind the mission. Which distributors are putting the dollars behind these films to get them out in the world in a big way?’
Some folks working within the major distribution companies are well intentioned and want to be doing the right thing in terms of representation, some want to be seen as doing the right thing, and some don’t care at all, but we need a shift where distributors see representation as a good business decision – not just the right thing to do. And I hope Multitude Films can help make that case.
Aside from ALWAYS IN SEASON, have you independently distributed any other films?
We just distributed THE FEELING OF BEING WATCHED theatrically with the same team at Fourth Act Films and Women Make Movies is running our festival, educational, and community distribution.
It will be broadcast on POV on October 14th, and then internationally on Al Jazeera English a few weeks later. We’re taking a similar strategy as with ALWAYS IN SEASON in terms of holding back TVOD – we didn’t get an SVOD acquisition offer – to prioritize the educational footprint. This windowing strategy was strategic financially and supports our impact goals. Assia Boundaoui, who directed the film, is leading a community engagement campaign called The Inverse Surveillance Project, which uses free screenings, participatory storytelling, community town hall gatherings, FOIA trainings and crypto-workshops in key American Muslim communities across the country to create a space for communities traumatized by surveillance to build power, seek truth and heal.
I mean, it’s a lot of work, right?
100%. You make the film and then just when you’re tired from that journey, you roll up your sleeves to distribute it. You have to build and manage a whole new team. You wind up conducting a distribution orchestra, rather than handing your film off to a single distributor. It’s a significant amount of work, and you really have to have the appetite, the money, the capacity and the right team members in place to do it.
But it’s a really amazing opportunity to learn the costs associated with distribution, like award campaigns, or the exact costs of putting a film in theaters, and everything else that goes into a release. Now having done this a couple of times, I know the distribution process really well, which is helpful in co-strategizing with distributors, negotiating contracts, and setting windowing strategies in the future.
I spearheaded an impact campaign on my film AND THEN I GO because the distributor was not interested in an impact campaign and I independent released my documentary 44 PAGES. To do it right, you are putting together a mini distribution company yourself. You don’t just throw the film up on Amazon Video and see what happens.
To be clear however, I don’t want to run a distribution company, and I don’t want to self- distribute the majority of our films. I really like working with distributors. The ideal scenario is strong partnerships with distributors who are in alignment with your goals.
It’s really about what’s the right constellation for each film. Are you selling all rights to one distributor? Are you working with a handful of distributors and holding specific rights yourself and managing that process? With both of those films we’re self-distributing portions of the rights, and we’re managing the overall windowing, but we’re also working with distribution partners who are experts at what they do, and we are setting our strategy in partnership with them.
I want to jump back to what you said about how you usually have a long courting period to get to know a director and a project. What are the specific qualities you look for in a director? What are the signs that tell you it’s safe to go down a path with someone?
I’m looking for the usual flags of like, “Are you a narcissist? Are you someone I want to spend a significant amount of time with over the next many years as we make and release this film?” It’s looking for the trustworthiness and the accountability of a person. Is the director able to follow through on basic commitments? Are they prepared to show up with professionalism?
I also want to know if the director has respect for what a producer does. Does this person know what they want in a producer? Even if they don’t totally know, are they asking good questions? The majority of directors we work with are in the midst of their first or second films, and it’s not really common knowledge what a producer even does. Directors just hear people say, “You need a producer, you need a producer.” So, they decide, “I need a producer. You’re a producer. Why don’t you be my producer?” Or they need money, and are like: “You’re a producer, don’t you want to get me money?”
Obviously, I am also looking at the director’s vision for the film, their access, and whether or not they are the right person to tell the story. Do they have the trust of the folks they’re filming with? Is there real feasibility of this film to be executed in the hands of this director? Do I see the potential of a team around it? Is it feasible financially in the market right now, and if not right now, what would it take for it to be feasible and is that something that I can bring? All of those questions are incredibly important but the truth is that I’m looking for is someone I want to be in this long-term relationship with that’s going to be full of really exciting wonderful things and a lot of really hard messy things too. It’s just not enough to love a film, I have to believe that the director and I will be good partners.
I don’t think a lot of directors realize how much we’re looking for when we consider projects.
It’s so funny when I get emails simply saying, “Here’s my project, will you produce it?” There’s no indication that the directors know anything about me, my team, our priorities, or anything we’ve ever made. Basically, it’s like someone asking me to marry them on Tinder.
That’s hilarious and the perfect analogy. I got an email yesterday where someone said they need to raise 200k to complete their budget and asked if I would come on board the project to put together that money. No indication that this director knew anything about me or my work, not even any info on himself or the project. Just simply, “I need money.” At least ask me if I’m even looking for projects before asking me to raise money for you.
Going to the emotional aspects of producing… Particularly in documentary filmmaking, you’re often dealing with heavy topics and in struggling communities, how do you manage the emotions that come with immersing yourself in another person’s life?
Emotionally, there’s often the layer of the trauma in the communities that we’re working with and then there’s a layer of the secondary, or even direct, trauma members of the team are experiencing, depending on the film. There’s a larger structural conversation to be had about mechanisms of support for managing this trauma. We have had two films where we built therapy into the budget – once for subjects who would be revisiting a traumatic moment as part of production and once for the editor and assistant editor who would have to watch hours of extremely violent archival footage.
Then there’s the emotional rollercoaster that is the embedded into the process itself. Our job as producers is to hold the full team through the emotional ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys. We need to maintain an even-keeledness throughout. We need to be like, “It’s okay. Or it’s about to be okay. Or here’s how we will make it okay.” Even if inside we’re like, “Holy shit. It’s super not okay right now.” Managing that, if done well, is invisible, but it’s also really taxing.
Over time, I’ve gotten better and creating boundaries. For example, being able to mark the difference between “Okay, this is an appropriate crisis for you to bring to your producer” and “This is actually a personal crisis which you should bring to your friends or family” and drawing a line between those. Earlier in my career, I was more willing to hold the any crisis, but it’s just not emotionally sustainable. Or my job.
I wanted to wrap up with community building. You co-founded the Queer Producers Collective and produced Doc Society’s inaugural Queer Impact Producers Lab. It’s a lot of work just to be a producer, but then you’re also building a safe space for producers. Talk to me about the importance of community.
If you haven’t worked under an established producer, it’s hard to know what the parameters of this job are and the right path to take to reach your goals. I started the Queer Producers Collective with Sam Tabet before I started Multitude (which is also an LGBTQ-led company). The aim then was to have peer-to-peer producer mentorship and to create an explicitly queer community. I had the benefit of mentorship in a number of programs that support women filmmakers, and in those spaces experienced a kind of queer loneliness. There’s also the question of who is included in those spaces, which can be very cis- and hetero-focused. At one event, they actually gave out gift bags with Spanx (true story). I was hungry for both producer space and queer space and that’s how it came into being.
I also just want to say that I’m grateful for what you’re doing with Dear Producer and what the Doc Producers Alliance has achieved in terms of lifting up the role of the producer, reflecting different models of producing, and advocating for how producers should be treated in terms of crediting, compensation, and publicity. Other programs like the Sundance Creative Producing Program, the Impact Partners Producers Fellowship, and the Cinereach Producers Award contribute to the visibility and value of the contributions of producers. These things are so important to the sustainability and endurance of producers.
Thank you so much. I can definitely see the profile of the producer rising as more education on the role has gotten out into the world. It’s still baby steps, but it’s happening. Endurance really is the right word to describe a producer.
Jessica Devaney is a Brooklyn-based producer and the founder of Multitude Films, an independent production company dedicated to telling stories by and about underrepresented communities. Her latest film, ALWAYS IN SEASON (Independent Lens), premiered in competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and won the Special Jury Award for Moral Urgency. She recently produced THE FEELING OF BEING WATCHED (Tribeca 2018, POV), dubbed “a real-world conspiracy thriller” by Variety; Cinema Eye-nominated ROLL RED ROLL (Tribeca 2018, POV), and Critic’s Choice-nominated SPEED SISTERS (Hot Docs 2015, NETFLIX), which The New York Times called “subtly rebellious and defiantly optimistic.” Additional credits include LOVE THE SINNER (Tribeca 2017, Amazon), CALL HER GANDA (Tribeca 2018, POV), NAILA & THE UPRISING (IDFA 2017, PBS), Peabody Award-winning MY NEIGHBOURHOOD (Tribeca 2012), and Ridenhour Prize-winning BUDRUS (Tribeca 2010). Jessica co-founded the Queer Producers Collective, produced Doc Society’s inaugural Queer Impact Producers Lab, and was a Sundance Edit and Story Lab fellow, Women at Sundance fellow, and Sundance Creative Producing Lab advisor. She received DOC NYC and TOPIC’s inaugural 40 under 40 Award, the 2019 Cinereach Producers Award, and is an AMPAS Documentary Branch member.