By Barbara Twist
Following 17 years as a marketing executive at Paramount and NBC, Diane Quon moved back to her hometown of Chicago with her young family. Years later, after her first trip to the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, and being inspired by the documentaries she saw on the big screen, Diane decided to pursue producing documentaries as a way to honor her late son. Her first credit as a producer was for 2019’s Academy-nominated MINDING THE GAP and she’s been on a roll ever since.
In our interview, we discuss her path to becoming a producer, the experience of premiering two films during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the value of film festivals. Spoiler: it’s about camaraderie and connecting with your audience, something she knows is critical to a film’s success from her days as a marketing executive.
You had two films set to premiere at SXSW in March, FINDING YINGYING and THE DILEMMA OF DESIRE. Can you share your experience of having both those premieres cancelled and how your strategy for those films has shifted since?
We were thrilled to have FINDING YINGYING and THE DILEMMA OF DESIRE premiere at SXSW! Like most producers, I was working hard to get the films ready for their premieres: delivering a finished cut to the fest, getting our PR team on board, working with our sales agents to determine our strategy, coordinating our crew’s attendance, putting together itineraries, getting our marketing materials ready, planning our premiere screening and premiere party…
So…when we found out the fest was cancelled, I felt devastated. I know in the scheme of things, a canceled festival is not life-changing! But I felt very sad, not just for me, but for our teams. It was going to be the first time for the teams to be together in one place to watch the films and celebrate together. Maria Finitzo, the director of DILEMMA, had been working on the film for over 5 years. For FINDING YINGYING director, Jenny Shi, a first time filmmaker, it would be the first time for her to experience seeing her film on a big screen and sharing it with an audience. Also disappointing was the lost opportunity to get the film covered by press and seen by buyers. The films hadn’t been sold yet, so we were counting on the buzz and conversation that surrounds a premiere.
My first thought was that we would just try and kick it off at another festival. However, pretty quickly every physical festival was canceled and most festivals began to explore going virtual. But with virtual screenings, there were a lot of questions: how does the virtual festival logistically work? How does it affect distribution or your premiere status or awards qualification down the road? How do distributors feel about virtual festivals? Will a streamer not want to buy the film because the film is available online? Will the press write about the film if there isn’t a physical premiere? If they do write about it, will it even be helpful? We couldn’t make decisions on accepting virtual festivals right away because there were so many unknowns. Everyone was trying to find answers.
Eventually, we started to see that virtual festivals were going to be the new reality. There was also more clarity from the Academy, press and distributors. We felt more confident about agreeing to virtual film festivals.
Since the cancellation of SXSW, our main focus has been figuring out how to sell the films without a big festival premiere- how to create the buzz that you usually build out of festivals. In both cases, we decided to go ahead and have our PR folks pursue press to review the films. Our PR teams were able to get a lot of great press, which I think has helped our sales teams. For THE DILEMMA OF DESIRE, it is a film festival favorite. We’ve played at film festivals like Hot Docs and AFI Docs and have so many more coming up. The response has been great! For FINDING YINGYING, SXSW decided to still have their jury review the films in competition – and we won the Special Jury Recognition for Breakthrough Voice! We have also found a perfect distribution partner and we hope to announce soon.
What do you see as the value of film festivals?
With MINDING THE GAP, Bing and I also would run into a lot of the same filmmakers from all over the country at different festivals. We were all promoting our new films. Many of these filmmakers were those I had always admired – such as Morgan Neville since WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR premiered the same year as MINDING THE GAP. His documentary, 20 FEET FROM STARDOM was one of the first docs that I saw at Sundance! To be able to meet him, was so special.
As you know, making a doc can be really lonely. It’s really just you and your small team, and you don’t necessarily get to interact with other filmmakers, especially living in Chicago. The festival circuit really helped me build my community which is so valuable as you work on future projects. I really couldn’t have accomplished what I have without the kindness of so many who I met and have helped me along the way.
As mentioned before, festivals also allow you to interact with audiences. You can see how they respond to the film. After MINDING THE GAP screened at Sundance multiple times, we ended up going back and cutting six minutes from the film after seeing what they reacted to or didn’t respond to.
I also was grateful to spend time with the characters from our film. One of the film festivals I’ll never forget was the Milwaukee Film Festival. Keire Johnson, who was in MINDING THE GAP, came with me. It was maybe seven months into the festival run. He had been at Sundance with us and by the time we were in Milwaukee, I could see how much he had grown in confidence. Watching him speak and answer the questions from the audience of 800 high school students was a highlight for me.
And of course, I’ll never forget the special moments at these festivals. After the premiere screening of MINDING THE GAP at Sundance, Bing (Liu) received a standing ovation. Being so humble, he said, “Doesn’t that happen for everybody?” After working on the film for so long, that moment was so special! I hope we still have that kind of moment for YINGYING and DILEMMA.
Prior to your work as a producer, you had a career as a marketing executive for NBC and Paramount. Was there something specific that pushed you to make the jump to producer? How does your marketing background inform your work as a producer?
Even before I started working at NBC and then Paramount, I had always had a desire to make my own films. I don’t know if I knew the word “producer,” but I knew I wanted to be involved in the making of a film. But honestly, I didn’t know how to do it coming from Chicago, from a Chinese immigrant family, and where I was one of the first to go to college. It just wasn’t something that seemed like a path for me unless I became a film student- and for my Chinese parents, this was not an option!
I went to Los Angeles to get my M.B.A. at USC in marketing. I still wanted to be in the entertainment industry and to me, it seemed like I could enter on the business side through a marketing career. At NBC, I worked in advertising and promotion, and then at Paramount I was in marketing. I love marketing, I still do, but it wasn’t quite the same as making a film. I wanted to make a film one day that I could be proud of and my kids could be proud of.
I kept thinking I’d somehow make a jump to production from marketing, but as I got promoted, was given more responsibilities, and received a solid paycheck, it was hard to give it up. I had four kids at the same time, so it was hard to walk away from the stability.
Then my family decided to move back to Chicago, my hometown. My husband had a great job opportunity and at the same time I started having health problems, so it seemed like a sign that it was time to make a change. When we moved back, I thought once the kids were older, THEN I’d finally pursue producing. But then in 2009, I lost my son Chris, my oldest, very suddenly and that changed my life forever. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than getting to the next day and to helping my three daughters. It was really about just surviving for those first few years.
In 2013, one of my best friends, who knew I had always wanted to produce, invited me to go to Sundance with her. It was her way of getting me out of the house. I reluctantly went. The opening night film was the documentary 20 FEET FROM STARDOM. The film team did a Q&A and the subjects sang in person, I fell in love with the whole experience! I left entertained and could not stop thinking about a whole other world of back-up singers and their struggles. I went away thinking, “This is something I’d like to do, make films like this. This is the way I can honor my son, I think I can do this, I can do this.”
I went home and literally Googled “documentaries in Chicago” and I found Kartemquin Films. I reached out to them to see if I could volunteer my help. They told me I should apply for an internship. I told them I was way too old for their internship and they said not to worry, they make exceptions. So I applied and then they turned me down. [laughs]
That’s when I started taking classes at Chicago Filmmakers. I took a documentary class and ironically, the teacher offered to introduce me to a Kartemquin director. She connected me with Maria Finitzo who was finishing up a film at Kartemquin and needed help with marketing! It was the perfect opportunity – I could do something I knew, but at the same time, learn how a doc is made and distributed – and also work really hard and learn. I’ll always be grateful to Maria and the producer, Mary Morrissette, who spent many car rides showing me the ropes. By 2016, I was lucky to be producing three Kartemquin docs.
I think having a marketing background is such a great foundation for a producer. I am always asking and thinking about these questions: who do you think is your audience? Will your film, in fact, resonate with them and how will you reach them? How will you market your film to funders and investors? How will you market your film to buyers, is it marketable? There’s so much we can’t control, however, especially now with COVID and the changing distribution landscape, but it’s important to think about these questions early.
Because you had such strengths on the marketing front, what were some of the particular areas or aspects of producing that were challenging for you?
I did not go to film school, and I know many filmmakers don’t. Bing, for instance, also did not go to film school. But he grew up using a camera, so he’s really comfortable with all the technical aspects of making a film. I didn’t have any of that background and I felt I needed that. So, that’s why I started taking classes at Chicago Filmmakers. For instance, I took an editing class so I could get a feel for what an editor does. Knowing the language and why things take so long or how one change affects the cut somewhere else. I took a documentary filmmaking class, and that forced me to make my own short. It helped me to learn the process in a low risk way.
Another challenge for me I think came with me coming into producing at a later age. In the beginning, I applied to many programs for “emerging” producers. I was in fact a first-time producer with MINDING THE GAP. But I was always turned down. Not consciously maybe, but I don’t think many thought of me as being “emerging.” That’s why I was so grateful to Sundance for naming me a Creative Producing Fellow. Not surprisingly, I hope to make a film one day on women and second careers, and ageism!
Had you always been interested in documentary producing?
No, actually my initial goal had been to produce fiction films. But then when I lost my son in 2009, as you can imagine, things shifted for me. It made me really think about the stories I wanted to tell. After watching so many great docs at my first Sundance, I discovered that with documentaries, you could tell a powerful story, while also making some kind of positive change.
But the desire to make fiction films didn’t go away?
No, it didn’t. I had just started to work on documentaries in 2015 – helping with outreach and marketing. That same year, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign happened. I remember watching the montage at the start of the Oscar broadcast featuring all the major films for that year, not just the films nominated. I did not see one Asian face in that montage. It was a wake-up call for me. I remember thinking, “It’s understandable an Asian was not nominated—we were not even in any films to be nominated for.”
I sat there thinking I could just be angry – or I could try to do something about it. There had been a book I had read when I lost my son. It’s called Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and is about a young Chinese boy, Henry, who falls in love with a young Japanese girl, Keiko, just months before she leaves for the internment camps. Years later, and now widowed, Henry is searching for Keiko. The book had just come out that year in 2009 and I thought it would make a beautiful film. But at that point in life, I thought there was no way I could be the person to make that happen.
So in 2015, I looked to see if the book had been optioned and it had not. It took me a long time to track down the agent and get them to respond to me [laughs]. I finally reached out to the author and met with him and was able to convince him to let me option the book. Having a film with two Asian leads had discouraged other producers, but for me, that’s what interested me!
I’m working on that project right now with two producing partners who I truly respect. The script is being written now and I’m really excited about the film! Since first optioning the book, some positive things have happened. CRAZY RICH ASIANS came out and was a huge success – a film could be successful with Asians as your leads – who knew?!
The heart of the film is a love story, but it also talks about identity and racism which unfortunately, is so relevant today – especially with the rise in anti-Asian sentiment. It’s been a long four years since optioning the book, but we’re getting there…. [laughs].
This has been a really fantastic conversation, Diane. Thank you. Is there anything else you’d want to say about being a producer, especially to people who are working in the field or who are considering becoming producers?
I guess I want to say, if you’ve always had a desire to be a producer, work hard and pursue that dream! Don’t let anyone discourage you. For me, after my career at Paramount, I had chosen to stay home for a little while to raise my four children. When I finally decided to pursue producing in 2013/2014, I started taking film classes. In one of my classes, the teacher asked me what I wanted to do. When I told him I wanted to be a producer, he said to me in front of the entire class, “Just because you can organize soccer parties and soccer teams, doesn’t mean you can produce.” Obviously, it made me so mad! It drove me to work even harder to pursue a producing career.
Oh my God.
I share that story to remind others to follow their heart. I want to especially encourage producers of color. We need more of them, and am happy to help!
Thank you again Diane for taking the time to speak with me. Keep an eye out for FINDING YINGYING and DILEMMA OF DESIRE at fall festivals, and if you’ve been sleeping on MINDING THE GAP, you can watch it on Hulu.
DIANE QUON is an Academy Award-nominated producer who worked as a marketing executive for 17 years at NBC and at Paramount Pictures before moving back to her hometown of Chicago. Diane is producing multiple documentaries for Kartemquin Films including the Oscar nominated and Sundance award-winning film, MINDING THE GAP directed by Bing Liu; The DILEMMA OF DESIRE with Peabody Award-winning director Maria Finitzo (SXSW, HotDocs 2020); FINDING YINGYING directed by Jiayan “Jenny” Shi (SXSW 2020; Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Voice); and FOR THE LEFT HAND along with Chicago Tribune arts critic Howard Reich, and co-directed by Leslie Simmer and Gordon Quinn. Diane is also producing UNTITLED SAM PROJECT, a feature documentary directed by Nadav Kurtz (Paraiso) and executive produced by Jeremiah Zagar, Jeremy Yaches, and Abby Lynn Kang Davis; and WUHAN WUHAN, a feature documentary directed by Yung Chang (UP THE YANGTZE). In addition, she is developing a fiction film based on a New York Times best-selling book. Diane is an AMPAS member, Sundance Creative Producing Fellow, an IFP Cannes Producer Fellow, a Film Independent Fellow, and is a recipient of the 2020 Cinereach Producer Award.