JULIE LYNN: Boots on the Ground and Getting Into the Big Rooms

By Rebecca Green

* This conversation was recorded prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Since I began managing the Sundance Creative Producers Lab back in 2010, the name ‘Julie Lynn’ has been brought up as a ‘producer you need to know’ in many conversations. Having made 9 movies with filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia, Julie has been through the trenches on every size of independent movie and most recently graduated out of indie and into studio by producing TERMINATOR: DARK FATE through her first look deal with SkyDance.  

In this interview, Julie and I discuss the incremental steps it takes to move up the ladder, how you maintain and build relationships with directors so that you can produce more than just their sweat-equity, low-budget movie, and how important it is for producers to developing their own quality meter.

L to R: Julie Lynn and producing partner Bonnie Curtis on set for LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT

Before you ask me a question, I was going to tell you this: I hosted a Film Independent panel a number of years ago about micro-budget filmmaking. It was all young filmmakers. It was just before streaming started to be a big thing. They were like, “Damn, we’re just selling the DVDs out of our cars. This is the way to do it. This is how we want to make movies the rest of our lives.” They were all lovely and wonderful and artistic and cool and smart. I looked at them and said, “How many of you have children?” Of course, not one of them had children. I said, “That model is not sustainable.”

I think what I realized a few years after that is that we have a problem in indie land. You’re either becoming one of those producers who is not boots-on-the-ground, who just sets up and oversees a ton of movies, or you’re a boots-on-the-ground producer and you have to find other ways to make a living, or you have to move out of the paradigm all together. We are, in effect, driving our most experienced independent film producers away from independent film and into studio films or into streaming or into television. 

I’m one of those producers who likes to find material and put projects together, but I find that pipeline really narrowing. The people who are able to put projects together in a meaningful way, where they are not having to waive their fee, are people with access to big money and star power. It’s former agents or former studio executives. It’s directors or actors with their own companies. There is a type of producer who is just going to disappear. If you don’t have a film fund or you’re not partnered with A-list talent, you’re not in the pipeline.

The part that I don’t want to do anymore is asking individuals who have some limited amount of disposable money: maybe they have $100,000, maybe they have $50,000, it’s a huge risk for them.

I don’t want to put a whole bunch of those people together, hold the paperwork, personally guarantee all of it, and then struggle to get the film up and running because a top crew is unavailable when there’s so much being made. Then being in a festival marketplace where the minimum guarantees have gone down so tremendously that my chances of getting that doctor or dentist or lawyer their money back after the theaters have taken their split and the distribution company has taken their fee, after the Guilds have taken their residuals, and if there’s a loan, after the bank has taken their money. I can’t sit in a room with those people and say, “I think I can get you your money back,” because I don’t know that I can unless we are one of the very few indie movies in a given year that over-perform past their minimum guarantee.

I want to make movies of all sizes, but I need to deal with a company that is a film-financing company and understands what they’re getting into and will hold the paperwork. It doesn’t mean I won’t make a half-million-dollar movie again. I’m happy to make another half-million-dollar movie.  To go ask individuals who aren’t used to investing money in film, and then watch them get squeezed out of it … I can’t. I just can’t. 

Because of what you’re saying, you then have to build the project in a way where you can elevate its value, which deters you from making certain types of projects. The concern with producers being pushed out is that there are going to be a lot of films that never get made. 

It’s a bummer too, because you lose scope, right? What ends up happening is you can make these tiny little movies as long as they can be shot in somebody’s house and backyard, but what happens to the three-million-dollar movie that has a little bit of scope to it?

I’m also finding that producers in the low-budget space, myself included, get pigeonholed in that budget level. You make one great movie at  one million and then all anyone sends you are more one million dollar movies they want you to turn into a hit. How do we move up the ladder if we’re never brought into the bigger rooms? How did you go from TO THE BONE to producing TERMINATOR Dark Fate?

It’s incremental. It is about being forward about making relationships and having people be clear on your skillset, because what I do think happens is, if you can do your job well, people will talk to other people about it:  “Rebecca did such a good job!” I do think some of it comes from being hired on to things and not necessarily the things that you’ve created, which is something that my partner Bonnie Curtis and I have learned. I can give you a smaller example and then the larger example.

The smaller example is when I was just coming off of NINE LIVES, I met Robin Swicord. She was an advocate for the film which Rodrigo Garcia had written and directed, which we made for a half-million dollars and premiered and sold coming out of Sundance.

Robin moderated a panel we did for the film and we started building a relationship and she learned what I had put together as a producer. A couple of years later when she was looking for a producer who could be both creative and boots-on-the-ground for her movie, THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB, she came to me. This was a big incremental step for me because it was a slightly bigger movie and it was a negative pick-up from Sony Classics. Sony Classics was really nervous about me because I had only made smaller budgeted films. 

I met with them and I told them why the skill sets were the same. What they ended up doing was having the bond company send someone to be on my set, which was funny because that guy didn’t fully know how to make a movie.

The incremental step was that Sony Classics learned, “Oh, right. She knows how to make a movie.” It strengthened my relationship with them on other movies, moving forward.

You find your way into some movies that are “jobs.” Other people originated the material. It doesn’t mean you’re not affecting the script. It doesn’t mean you’re not affecting the choice of casting. All those things.

It’s all incremental, you just have to be really flexible about the direction in which the work comes and goes. That was a huge thing for us to learn. Then we got to the studio movie because Bonnie and I both knew people at Skydance. I knew David Ellison through a friend and Bonnie knew Dana Goldberg. We had lunch with them and they said, “Hey, read some of our scripts. If there’s one that you like and that you think you could help us get to greenlight through getting a director or cast or whatever it’s going to take, you guys can produce that movie. We will go through the process of making a movie together and see how we like it.” Then coming out of that, they offered us a first-look deal because we ran on time and we ran on budget, and most importantly, the movie was good, and so it worked. It was very incremental. 

What film was that?

That was on a movie called LIFE, which was directed by Daniel Espinosa and starred Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds. We had a delightful time making the movie and I learned a lot. I’d never made a scary movie before. I’d never worked with visual effects like that. 

One of the things that was interesting is that in our original contract it said because we had multiple projects going on, if one of us needed to leave set at some point, it had to be Julie that leaves and Bonnie that stays.

I knew why they were doing that, it was because she had done a studio movie before. We came out of that movie and I said to her and to our lawyer, “I can’t ever have that clause again.” 

For me, that was incremental. I had to put my ego to the side and say, “Okay, I understand why they did that.” I was lucky I have my built-in producing partner for life, Bonnie Curtis, we’ve been together 10 years now as producing partners, who had the studio experience. For other folks, it might mean teaming up with somebody who has that experience. Before I had Bonnie, I took one project that I really wanted to get made to Mark Johnson, who I had worked for when I first got to Los Angeles and said, “I will do the work. Can you please just put your name on this for leverage with the studios?”

Then you get to the point where you don’t have to have that person anymore and we’re finally there. It was baby steps,.  Two steps forward and one step back, taking jobs. Just like when you’re trying to get your first indie movie made.

L to R: Julie Lynn and Bonnie Curtis on set for TERMINATOR DARK FATE

I’m looking at the IMDB page for TERMINATOR DARK FATE and all the producing credits…  Who is the producer? The two ‘Produced by’ credits are James Cameron and David Ellison and then everyone else’s listed as an executive producer. How does that happen? That’s what I’m talking about in terms of there not being a pipeline for producers to go through anymore because everyone else is in that space, directors, writers, directors, actors, financiers, they’re all producers now.

That one’s a little bit different because Jim Cameron really controls the TERMINATOR franchise. Bonnie and I came into that very late. We did not develop that script. We did not hire that crew. Skydance called us just before it started and said, “We’ve come to the realization that we need creative producers there to support the director and also to support us.” We went into that movie six weeks before we started filming. That is different. There are movies that we are developing with Skydance where we will be full producers. By the way, I still, to this day, have never met Cameron.  

You’ve been in the game for a while now. What would say is the biggest thing that’s changed in the last decade aside from streaming? Is there one thing that really sticks out in terms of how getting a movie like NINE LIVES made has changed then and now? 

Am I allowed two? I think a big one is what I call the low-middle went out. If you’re talking just about a pure U.S. production, the independent film with scope became virtually impossible and budgets got pushed down. The bottom fell out of the international market and then never recovered, it’s like it went out with the recession and then it never returned. Minimum guarantees from foreign territories never popped back with any reliability.

You’re either making truly a very, very, very small movie without scope or you have to find a traditional financier with the capacity to finance at a higher level. Now, what’s interesting is that streaming has stepped back into that space to a certain extent, but you have to then have access to the streamers and they have to feel that it meets the mandate of what they want to do.

If you don’t have a movie star, it is very hard to break through the noise. It’s very hard to find distribution and to have your financier see their money back on anything above a true micro-budget without a movie star, with the exception of one or two movies every year, whether it’s ROOM or FRUITVALE STATION or MOONLIGHT. Those incredible movies can blow the doors off — and deservedly so —  but they are the exception, not the rule. 

In the last year or two, the thing that has become very difficult for independent filmmakers working outside of the streaming services is that because a lot of these actors can get their artistic passion projects made at the streamers now, they don’t necessarily want to do these indies for no money because they can take their passion project to a streamer, get paid, and know that it’s going to be seen. The possibility of a big movie star taking a chance on a two-million-dollar indie that’s going to go sell itself at a festival has gotten more and more rare. Those are the big obstacles I see.

I’m really feeling that from agents as I’m trying to cast projects. They don’t want their clients to go on location on an indie, make little money, and then also know that distribution isn’t what it used to be. They’d rather their clients hold out for a television show or a movie one of the streamers is financing. 

What are we saying to up and coming filmmakers, or even to myself in this mid-career stage, where it’s hard to see a path to getting a film made and seen? Should we be telling the new crop of filmmakers, just don’t do it?  You’re not going to get paid. No one is going to see your micro-budget film. 

So let me say a couple things about that. First of all, you have to care so deeply about the project that nothing will get in your way. The days of saying, “This is fun. Let me try and get this off the ground,” are over. Either you have a concept that is undeniable, so that you’re making a little indie that’s super commercial and it’s going to break out because of that and you’re going to sell it at Sundance or wherever … or you have to have a burning passion because the work is so important to you.

I look at the work of Barry Jenkins when I think of that. Right? Work that is so important that it demands to be seen, and the quality of that filmmaker demands that you find a way to get it made, and that then you have the confidence that it’s going to get the reviews that will have it be seen and get meaningful distribution. 

You have to really develop your quality bar and you cannot compromise it, because nothing less than something truly remarkable is worth your time anymore. I think that is a paradigm shift. 

Seeing that you’ve worked with Rodrigo on several films, I would love to hear about that relationship. My producing colleagues are struggling with constantly seeing their directors take a jump after they make their first film. It’s not that they aren’t happy for them, but we as producers are not given the same opportunity and it is rare that the producer jumps with the director hand in hand as a team. Directors have so many more opportunities. What are your thoughts on maintaining these relationships with directors so that you can do more than just their sweat-equity movie that feel more like director samples?

I’ve done nine projects with Rodrigo and I’ve been done two with Robin. Rodrigo just made his first movie without me in 15 years and it was material that he optioned with another producer. I’m so happy for them that they got it made. Then his next movie will be with me again. They can’t take you on every film, but if you’re good at your job, and if you make it your life’s passion to be good at your job, they’ll go off and do another movie without you and hopefully they’ll miss you, and, then you start to become part of the deal for them.  But I’m very clear that my beloved directors can’t take us on every project – we’ll just take them when we can get them.

Rodrigo went off to do a small studio film a number of years ago. He was doing it, it was a good paycheck, it was a really interesting film and an interesting star. Then they were into pre-production and they had a bunch of producers, and they called me because none of them had spent significant time as on-set producers.

I went on to the movie. First as an executive producer, and then they made me a producer. You have to keep the relationship really open and supportive, always be there for the phone call, and it will come back around, because you’ll get one more thing under your belt and then they’ll be able to bring you along.

A lot of people do say that if you’re good at your job, they’ll come back around but I’m not really seeing that happen. I think that our role is being devalued and the types of relationships you’re talking about are more with their managers or with particular financiers. There’s more leverage there than with a producer. More and more I see a lot of directors graduate out of the indie space and prefer not having the hands-on producer. Even though it doesn’t make for a better movie, sometimes they just prefer not being challenged. 

It’s so true, but then it’s super good that you’re not working with that director anymore.

I agree, but now it feels like that time I put in for no money was wasted. What happens to all that work I did for very little, what’s the payoff? They’re up another step on the ladder and you’re still down at a certain level. I’ve learned that you have to be very careful with which directors you decide to put your sweat equity into, not just in their talent, but who they are as a human. They’re not all worth it.  

I have one thing to say about that which is: it sucks.

It does. It’s hard. What I’ve learned through those experiences is that my most valuable relationships are with producers. I know you have been a part of a very strong and long standing producers group, how did that come about? How do you utilize it? I published an article a few months ago HOW TO START YOUR OWN PRODUCERS’ GROUP, but not enough people do it. 

Not enough people do it and it is so important. All my young producers that I mentor either through the Academy or Film Independent or through Sundance, I urge all of them to start producers’ groups because I think we’re the only ones that understand and appreciate each other as a whole. You know what I mean? I have plenty of directors that appreciate what we do for sure, but they don’t even always understand all that we do, because so much of it never gets to them. Also, you have to have a place to vent steam and to ask for advice where you don’t feel you look stupid so that you don’t implode into tiny little pieces all over the parking lot. 

The way ours started was a few of us got together, some of whom knew each other, some of whom didn’t. It was a handful of us at a lunch years an years ago. Our group has been together for well over a decade. We had a lunch and we talked about the need to have a group where we could talk to each other, email, or get together for lunch and give each other advice. 

Our group is called Free Shoes and the rule is that if you really significantly help somebody get a movie started, truly significantly, they have to buy you shoes. Sometimes it’s very funny, like somebody will do something small and the beneficiary will bring them socks. When one of us has a movie nominated for an Oscar — and by the way, not best picture, but any Oscar, because we know that the producer was involved in all the work —  we do something for them. There was a while where we were getting people those custom Nikes with their names on them. Then Sarah Green got multiple nominations so we had to move on to something else! 

First of all, no one came into the group unless somebody in the group knew them really well, so that there was no chance of a sociopath. That was really important to us:  that it was a safe space where we could ask a question or an opinion about something and hear the unvarnished truth. .

We decided the group would not get any bigger than a certain amount. We are about 21 people now and we will not grow because after about 20, it starts to be too unwieldy.

The other thing is we have a listserve and we’re on it all the time. It’s very important to have this, so you’re not just relying on meetings, but you can reach out to each other as touchstones all the time. We can just go onto our Gaggle and be like, “Okay, my craft-service person fell out, who have we got?” or, “I need to find an apartment in Atlanta, what do I do?” or, “I don’t know this agent, can somebody please make an introduction?” You can put that up, and within an hour you’ve got a dozen answers. That’s the second component.

The third is trying to get together and see each other.  Not too often, because then it will become impossible to sustain, but often enough that we can have face-to-face time and deepen our friendships and deepen our discussions. 

Those things, some face-to-face time, a listserve so that you have constant access to each other. Then, most importantly, be careful about gathering people who you feel you can be in a safe space with.

Could you define ‘independent producer’? Do you have a definition for what that is?

I think an independent producer is the first one on and the last one off a film project that he or she feels very passionate about. I think anything in-between can look like all kinds of different things. I should even adjust that because sometimes you’re not even the first person on. I think an independent producer is someone who kills what they eat. Do you know what I mean by that? 

No, explain for our readers.

An independent producer makes their work. We make our relationships with the filmmakers, we make our relationships with the financiers, we create out of nothing, a movie that allows the director’s vision to show up on a screen somewhere flickering. We have to do that from nothing. We don’t have an infrastructure for that. We have to kill what we eat. We’re hunters. We’re not housed in a diner with a menu with someone who’s going to bring us whatever we want. That’s not the way our lives work. We have to go out into the forest with our tools, with our knowledge and bring down our quarry and skin it, stuff it, sear it, cook it, knit it into garments and food, and all those things that make the finished product. 

I think that’s a great place to end. Is there anything you wanted to say before we wrap up? 

The only thing I will say is that I think it’s really important that we keep enjoying the work we are doing. Everyone gets frustrated sometimes. They get tired and they stop watching movies or reading books or enjoying the storytelling. That’s my biggest advice to the independent producer: go to the movies or watch them at home or whatever your preferred platform is, for love, for enjoyment.  Don’t just read for acquisition. Don’t just watch because you’re checking out that director. Do it for pleasure. I think it’s truly important for keeping our artistic tanks full.

JULIE LYNN formed Mockingbird Pictures in the summer of 1999, with Bonnie Curtis joining in 2011. 

Ms. Lynn and Ms. Curtis recently completed the 2019 “Terminator” reboot directed by Tim Miller for Skydance, Paramount and Fox.  Mockingbird is in production on its first animated film:  “My Father’s Dragon,” based upon the beloved children’s book by Ruth Stiles Gannett Kahn, which will be directed by Cartoon Saloon’s Nora Twomey for Netflix.

In June of 2018, Mockingbird premiered its first-ever television series with Skydance Media on AMC:  “Dietland,” created by Marti Noxon and based upon the novel by Sarai Walker.

Mockingbird’s 2017 releases were The Skydance/Sony presentation of Daniel Espinosa’s “Life” (SXSW premiere), Rob Spera’s “The Sweet Life” (LAFF premiere), Robin Swicord’s “Wakefield” (Telluride and Toronto premieres), and Marti Noxon’s “To The Bone” (Sundance premiere).

Mockingbird productions include Rodrigo Garcia’s “Last Days in the Desert,” Vic Levin’s “5 to 7,” Mr. Garcia’s “Albert Nobbs” (nominated for three Academy Awards), Arie Posin’s “The Face of Love,” Mr. Garcia’s “Mother and Child,” Robin Swicord’s “The Jane Austen Book Club,” Brad Silberling’s “10 Items or Less,” and Mr. Garcia’s  “Nine Lives.” 

Mockingbird Pictures have played at many festivals, including Toronto, Sundance, Telluride, AFI, SXSW, Tribeca, LAFF, Deauville (Grand Prize), San Sebastian (Closing Night) and Locarno (Grand Prize), and have been nominated for Independent Spirit Awards, as well as Oscars.

Earlier in her career, Ms. Lynn co-produced HBO’s presentation of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “WIT,” and supervised the horse races on Gary Ross’s “Seabiscuit.” 

As time allows, Ms. Lynn serves as a story consultant for Pixar Animation Studios, on films including Pete Docter’s “Up.” 

Ms. Lynn started in Hollywood as Creative Executive for producer Mark Johnson. Before moving to Los Angeles, Ms. Lynn practiced law at the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in Charlottesville, Virginia. She received her JD from the University of Virginia’s law school and a BA from its college.  Ms. Lynn serves on the board of the Virginia Film Festival, the board of The Thomas Jefferson Center, the LA Advisory Committee for Americares, and is active within both the PGA and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Ms. Lynn is married to Douglas Smith, an author and professor of American History. They have two children, Zoe and Jack.