By Rebecca Green
After stints at Sony Classics and working alongside industry greats like Tanya Wexler and Yael Melamede, Holly stepped out on her own in 2015. Her most recent film JACINTA, presented by ABC News and Impact Partners, won the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2020 and was distributed by Hulu. An intimate portrait of mothers and daughters and the effects of trauma, JACINTA follows a young woman in and out of prison as she attempts to break free from an inherited cycle of addiction, incarceration, and crime.
Holly sits down with Dear Producer to discuss the surprising costs, both financial and personal, that independent filmmaking incurs, as well as the various elements it takes to get funding, clout, and eyeballs on our work in an ever-changing landscape.
I start most interviews by asking, how did you find your way to producing?
I was one of those kids that was very focused and a planner, which certainly influenced my path to producing. My mom, Cindy Meehl, also launched her filmmaking career in her 50s at the same time I decided to major in film studies in college. Right before I graduated, I got to go and see her first film, BUCK, premiere at Sundance, which was so surreal and special.
To got to go watch movies at Sundance for 10 days surrounded by all these filmmakers so excited to release their work was a dream scenario. I was just like, ‘I want to do something in this industry, but I don’t know what that is yet, or how I’m going to do it.”
After that, I moved to New York City and started applying to jobs. I was hired by Sony Classics in 2011, which was an incredible place to have your first real industry job. I was so excited because I loved their movies, the creme de la creme of indie film. I worked in the publicity department and although I was surrounded by great films, I soon realized that publicity was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to be on the filmmaker side and not the distribution end of things.
I then got a job working for feature director Tanya Wexler as her assistant, which was wonderful. I got thrown into the development space with Tanya who was doing such interesting things. She had just finished the film HYSTERIA.
Tanya kept saying, “You should be a producer.” Just because she thought I was organized, [laughs] even though I don’t ever feel that organized, I feel like it’s an organized chaos in my brain constantly. I’m sure other producers can relate—
You don’t want to see the browsers on my computer screen, the tabs are insane. Anyways, Tanya was actually the one who introduced me to Yael Melamede at SALTY features, where I went on to work next. She really needed someone to jump on her feature doc, (DIS)HONESTY – THE TRUTH ABOUT LIES. Yael and I worked closely together and she kind of threw me into the deep end on managing a big budget, on running a Kickstarter campaign for $137,000, things I’d never done before. I worked with her on that film for a year and a half. While at the same time, I was working with my peers on side projects on the weekends.
I made a web series and then a friend of mine introduced me to Richard Miron. He’s a director/editor and was working on his first feature, a documentary called FOR THE BIRDS. I was looking for documentaries that felt more like fiction films and his film was that, a stranger than fiction story.
I immediately jumped on to help produce with him and started applying to grants, brainstorming ways to raise money, that sort of thing. Then I also took on an absurdist romantic comedy called IN REALITY with a director friend, Ann Lupo, which started as a digital series and morphed into a feature film.
My producing path was getting into the weeds and helping people, and not really knowing where it was going to go. With those two projects, I ultimately decided that I was going to leave SALTY Features, and was very sad to stop working with Yael, but wanted to give my all to these two projects. That’s when I started my company, Lunamax Films.
I know you were only at Sony Classics for a short time, but was there anything you learned that you took with you going forward as a producer?
I learned about a side of the industry that I hadn’t really realized existed, the marketing materials, the press conferences, the push of publicity behind an actor or a filmmaker, and the layers of people involved in press campaigns. It’s a huge industry. It was eye-opening seeing just how much money was spent to get someone their favorite hotel room. I was always going to hotels and meeting with people, which was actually a really fun part of the job. I would get to go to a fancy hotel, like the Crosby-
Or the Four Seasons [laughs].
Exactly. But I didn’t feel as creatively fulfilled on that side of things, even though I realized how important those PR jobs are.
I don’t think filmmakers realize how much money goes into press and awards campaigns. We all want the attention on our films, but the money that is spent is a recoupable expense for the distributor which comes out of any profit that goes to filmmakers.
It seems like there’s a certain way that we do things in this industry involving glitz and glamor, even though so many pieces of the industry don’t have that. I remember one of the assistants sending out individual cards to all the Academy members and I was like, “Wait, are you sending one to each person? That’s so much work.” [laughs] Now that I’m in an awards campaign on my own, I see how it works and I honestly don’t know how I feel about it all.
JACINTA has received a lot of awards and special recognition. I’m curious to hear what your take is on whether or not you feel it adds value to the film and also to you as a producer.
I definitely have mixed feelings about the awards thing. It has become so much about money and funding these days. An award is wonderful, it helps your career, but I’ve noticed that the best thing about an awards campaign is just getting more eyes on your work. A perfect example being, we found out that Sarah Paulson was a really big fan of JACINTA and so we had a conversation with her, Jacinta our subject, and director Jessica Earnshaw to help build buzz, and because we love Sarah Paulson. Sarah has so many fans that have nothing to do with the Academy so doing that helped get the film out there to many other people that may not have noticed it before.
It’s great to have more people watch the film because that’s always the goal for me. It doesn’t matter if it’s an Academy member or not. If one more person can watch the film and feel something for it, then recommend it to someone else whom it may really affect—that’s what it’s all about.
I think that one of the missteps by distributors is the push for awards rather than the push for community and educational screenings. I’ve talked to a lot of documentary filmmakers who have impact-specific films and their distributors just don’t want to engage in that outreach.
For community screenings, we specifically carved out those rights to be able to exploit them ourselves and it’s been wonderful because we’ve been able to do tons of them.
Sure, but you have to then coordinate all of that which is work you usually don’t get paid for and it only prolongs your work on the film rather than putting that energy toward new projects.
That’s very true. We hired a social impact producer and had a specific fundraising strategy for impact. However it’s still a ton of work and we’re often volunteering our time when funding gets low and you have to be prepared for that. I hope that more distributors will get behind these types of screenings, and help organize them,because I feel like it’s so important.
How did you come to produce JACINTA?
Jessica Earnshaw and I met on Facebook through the Video Consortium group. She wanted help with a budget and I was figuring out how to charge for my “producing services” separate from my passion projects. I thought it was a good opportunity to take on a side job and meet new people. I think I gave her such a low rate, like $25/hour or something around that. I didn’t know what I was worth at that time, because I felt like I didn’t have a lot of experience on my own. She’s Canadian and had a wonderful Canadian producer, but Canadian budgets were not the same as American budgets and she was shooting in the US.
We met for coffee, and I didn’t even really ask about the film, but in order to do a proper budget, I had to understand what her shooting needs were and I started to learn more about the film and talking to her about what she could be doing and raising money. She hadn’t raised any money at that point and had been self-funding. She worked as a photojournalist so she would work, get money, then go shoot up in Maine, and then come back, make more money, go shoot up in Maine. That was her funding process.
I was talking to Jess about her various funding options and she said she could really use someone like me. She sent me 15 minutes of very raw footage of Jacinta and her mother in prison at Maine Correctional Center. Jess had been shooting for about a year by then. I immediately felt there was something really special about the relationship that Jess had captured, the access that she had. It seemed like she was really close with these people. I could feel the love that she had for these subjects, even though it was some dark stuff that she was filming involving cycles of addiction and trauma.
As I was looking at the footage, I saw the social impact-ness of the film, but I wasn’t very interested in making films that had a specific message. I was more interested in character pieces and morally complex situations, which is what the last documentary I’d done was about. Jess and I definitely were in sync about what she wanted the film to be and that she didn’t want this to be experts talking about addiction.
So Jess and I started meeting more and more. I have these long emails that we sent to each other for about two months and then we decided that I’d come on board. She really wanted someone that she could call all the time. She was alone in the field on that film and she needed another person to support her in that space and stay on top of the day to day. That’s how we started working together, and now have been working together ever since, and have another project together. Jess and I are very different people and I feel like we really compliment each other in what is needed on a film.
How did Jess meet Jacinta?
Jess is a photojournalist and she was doing a project about aging in prisons. She didn’t necessarily choose Maine. She was calling a bunch of prisons across the country to try and find the best access, she wanted to spend every day in the prison taking photos of older individuals, and Maine gave her really good access,
Then one of her subjects was friends with Rosemary, Jacinta’s mother, and that’s how she met Rosemary and then Jacinta and when she started seeing them together she felt compelled to be filming as well as taking photographs of them.
There are conversations in the documentary space about filmmakers who come into communities to capture a story and then leave the community behind. What do you believe is the filmmaker’s responsibility to a person or community once the film is done?
I definitely think there’s a responsibility. Particularly, in a story like ours where Jacinta trusted us coming into her world. Now that her story is out there, we feel very lucky because Jacinta has been with us on the release of the film, which was always our intention. If she was healthy and ready to be representing the film with us we wanted her there.
I’ve learned how you need to be mindful of where your subjects are at in life and be aware of how the film can impact them. I know that Jess cares so much about that and particularly with Jacinta’s daughter, Caylynn. How the film would impact her was a concern throughout the development of the film. We really wanted to make sure that she would be alright. To do this, we budgeted therapy for Caylynn and had her work with the therapist for about six months until the therapist said she thought she was ready to view the film.
Then Caylynn and Jacinta and the therapist watched the film together. Caylynn really likes the film. Obviously, it’s hard to watch certain pieces of it, but she wants to help other kids like her. We’ve been mindful that Jacinta is also still in recovery, and she’s also aware that it’s a day to day thing. The whole release process was really special though and I think it was amazing for Jacinta and her daughter to do Q&As together.
On our impact campaign side, we have an amazing impact producer, Erin Sorenson, and her company, Third Stage Consulting. We also partnered with Dream Corps, which is an amazing criminal justice initiative group who is using the film to help pass The Dignity For Incarcerated Women’s Act. It’s been great to have Jacinta get involved with that as she really wants the film to have an impact.
I saw the ABC News logo on the film. What was their involvement?
They are our distribution partner along with Hulu. Jackie Glover at ABC News (who was at HBO for many years) was a huge fan of the film. They came on board first and set it up with Hulu.
I would love to get your thoughts on sustainability as a producer. I don’t feel I was prepared when I chose this career path so it’s important for me to now be transparent so that others understand what lies ahead and can make informed career decisions.
The role of a producer is unknown to so many people. It’s years of work and you’re usually the last one to get paid. I was very fortunate to have some financial support while I built a more sustainable career working on my own projects, but I recognize that is often not the case for most people. It truly is difficult to make enough money to live, especially in the beginning. You’re always trying to find money to pay someone else and not yourself.
So many people say, ‘make sure to put a line in the budget for yourself’ but it’s not that easy on a film where you have a finite budget and the same person telling you to pay yourself won’t invest the funds to make that happen. It’s a tricky topic. I remember seeing your sustainability survey on Dear Producer and seeing the results, and just being like, “Oh my God, this is so sad.”
I really don’t have an answer to the solution, but I like that you’re asking these questions and continuing to remind people about the issues producers face. Perhaps if funders could give bigger development budgets, that’s one way that producers could pay themselves while they wait for larger amounts of funding to come in. And there’s always commercial producing, but that takes time away from your personal projects.
My hope is that with each successful film I produce, the faster I’m able to get financial support on the next ones, and I’ll be able to put in a producing line that doesn’t get eaten up by something else first.
We often hear that there are more opportunities to make films than ever before, but I personally don’t feel that way. How are you feeling about the state of independent filmmaking?
My opinion on this changes on a regular basis. There’s a lot of space for certain types of films and certain types of filmmakers, but I feel like it’s still very challenging to push a first-time filmmakers’ film, especially if the subject isn’t a hot topic or about someone famous.
I want to be optimistic, but there’s still so much that can be improved within the system of independent filmmaking and it has to come from the top and the people who are controlling how money is spent. If distributors take more risks on smaller films and maybe spend a little bit less on an awards campaign, perhaps that could help.
I feel very lucky with where I’m at right now and that JACINTA received a big release through Hulu, which allows for so many people to see it. I didn’t have that kind of distribution on my last films, so I consider that a big step forward. Jessica and I are working on a new film and the success of JACINTA helped to secure us funding on this next one. We’re in production and I’m able to pay us both right now, which feels great, but it still took a year and a half of unpaid development work to get to the place we’re at now.
I want to ask what you do for self-care and wondering if it has anything to do with your dogs who you named your company after?
[laughter] Dogs are a huge part of my life. My company is Lunamax Films, named after the dogs I grew up with, Luna and Max. I feel like I was a five-year-old naming my company, but it just sounded right. I think I become my best self when I’m with a dog. There’s something about their curiosity, energy, and boundless joy that I can’t get enough of. I have a really funny-looking dog who, [chuckles] I think he’s very handsome, but he doesn’t have a nose. He’s a rescue, and before I rescued him, he got in an accident and had to have his nose amputated. I didn’t go out looking for a nose-less dog, but my husband and I were on Petfinder and we thought he was so perfect. He looks like a bat. Just being with him and my other dog Lucy, and going on hikes is major self-care for me. Also, I need to keep reminding myself how much I like cooking, because I’ve found that it’s so meditative. I just got married last month, so I’m also excited to not have to worry about wedding planning anymore, even though it was all worth it on the big day.That’s a whole producing job that I definitely didn’t understand until I had a wedding. I don’t ever want to do events. I’ll just say that!
I’m not into weddings but have always joked that if this producing thing doesn’t work out, I’ll be a wedding planner.
Yes! Though it’s so much anticipation for just one day, and then you’re immediately on to the next. I respect the job and I had an amazing planner helping us, but it’s a different kind of chaos. I like that films have phases, and a lot of the time you can work from home. I’m such a homebody, partially because my dogs are endless entertainment.