KIMBERLY PARKER: How a Career Intervention Helped Define My Future

By Rebecca Green

Dear Producer spoke with Kimberly Parker, executive producer on THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO (Sundance 2019, U.S. Dramatic Competition) and producer of I AM MY OWN MOTHER, one of two American films in Cannes Cinéfondation 2018. Kim shares the story of how her friends staged a career intervention on her behalf, how she’s facing her fears about having a family, and how she believes that figuring out what type of producer you are is the number one most important thing you can do.

Producer Kimberly Parker

Last summer you participated in the Nevada City Film Festival Residency, tell me about that program. 

Helmed by Karin Chien, the NCFF residency focused on creative producers for 2019. A week-long retreat focused solely on the creative aspects of producing is almost unheard of. It was a meditative week in a storybook part of the country—think bright, rushing water and scheduled creative downtime, for us! Producers! When Karen first described the program to me, it felt almost alien to have my creativity be treated with the same reverence and respect that the writer/director often receives. 

My fellow residents were three women covering the full spectrum of creative producing. Vassiliki Khonsari is an incredible VR and interactive storyteller, Diane Houslin specializes in television, and Christina King and I work in feature films. Karin brought in many great speakers and mentors including Diana Williams, who produced for Lucasfilm. Spending time with the NCFF Producer in Residence, Zhang Xianmin, was also eye-opening.

Karen structured the retreat so that as the week went on, there was more and more space for free time. She is an absolute angel for scheduling regenerative creative time for us, and for forbidding calls/emails during the week. Producers don’t partake in adequate self-care related to work.

I used the free time for a lot of journaling. In the third grade, I was that dorky kid with bifocals and a stack of books between my chin and my hands. It was really great to be able to write, and to make space to just think, in a structured and dedicated way. 

L to R: Diane Houslin, Kimberly Parker, Christina King, Vassiliki Khonsari at the Nevada City Film Festival Residency

From my understanding, there was an emphasis on Asian-American filmmakers, correct?

Yes. Karen focused on Native American and Asian American filmmakers because she wanted to honor the traditional groups from Nevada City.

I don’t know of any other lab where quiet space is the priority. It’s usually the opposite and you’re over-programed and there are too many panels and roundtables and meetings. Focused creativity is a big part of producing that often gets overlooked. 

Absolutely. It’s fun to do a more traditional producing program where you are running from panel to panel, or you’re doing a million speed dates with industry professionals. However, while extremely productive, producers feel drained after a week of that. You connect with potential financiers and new projects, but it saps the energy out of you.

The Nevada City residency definitely gave me more energy, and also gave me space to just think about the process of producing—and what my goals are now that I’m older, and potentially transitioning into having a family. Something that was helpful, though unintentional, was that two of the four producers were mothers. It was perfect because I’m looking for those kinds of role models in my life. Producers who successfully continue work while having kids are so inspiring to me.

Did you have any ‘aha’ moments during the residency? 

One of the breakthroughs I had was that I need to make space for my friendships outside of film. I went through the NYU Film MFA program, and I produce for a lot of writer-director friends from school. I also live in LA, which exacerbates the bleed between a “work dinner” and a “friend dinner.” It sounds small, but the feeling that any social interaction can suddenly become work is really draining. That was a strange breakthrough I wasn’t really expecting.

For me, it’s exacerbated because my romantic partner of almost six years is a writer-director whom I produce for. [laughs] There’s a lot going on. 

Was there any feedback on wanting to start a family and being a mom that was helpful?

Absolutely. Conversation with Diane and Vassiliki, who are both mothers, was so informative and honest. Now that I’m in my mid 30s, a lot of my friends are starting to have kids or freeze their eggs. On the worst days, life seems to be about the hard times, and how exhausted you are. 

For Vassiliki and Diane, a lot of what they communicated in our safe space was the joy and the grounded-ness they feel. No matter how hard things can get professionally, there’s a visceral sense of what’s truly important in this life once you’re a mother. That’s what they communicated to me in so many ways, through the stories and through the ways that they spoke about their families. 

You’ve participated in a lot of filmmaker programs and labs and I’m curious what you say to the person who doesn’t get selected? What are ways that filmmakers can still have community experiences without being involved in an official program? Are they necessary in order to get ahead and succeed? 

I am a total participator. My friend Joey Kuhn makes this joke I’m stealing: I’m like Tracy Flick from ELECTION. I loved extracurricular activities, so of course I love a panel. I love a badge. I love a schedule. 

I absolutely love all these filmmaking programs, whether it be IFP in New York, Film Independent in Los Angeles, or SFFILM up in the Bay area—who have been incredibly generous, and so supportive of me as a producer. However, I would say that for any burgeoning producer, your worth and your value does not rest on other people’s validation. I know that’s so hard to actually internalize, and it can sound like lip service for sure.

The thing is, these institutions are fantastic because producing is so hard, and can be quite lonely if you don’t have a community. However, you’re the one doing the work, you’re the one finding the scripts, giving the notes, making the budget, raising the money. Each young producer needs to figure out where their skillset lies, which is something that you have to do on your own. No one, and no program, can really help you with that. Figuring out what type of producer you are is the number one most important thing you can do as a burgeoning producer.

Are you more of a physical producer? Do budgets come more naturally to you? Do you like hiring a crew and managing sets and making sure you deliver a project on schedule and on budget? Are you more of a creative producer where maybe you also write, or your real value-add to a project is your creativity because a lot of indie projects don’t have the benefit of development executives. Producers have to step in and fill that role for the writers who are often doing it alone in their apartments on the rollercoaster of “Is my script even good anymore?”

Or are you really great at fundraising? That is a whole different skillset. Being able to be comfortable even speaking about money is something that all producers need to work on. Early on, I found that was something I needed to work on immediately. Humans are so socially intelligent that we can see when people are uncomfortable, even if they’re trying their best not to show it. Young producers should practice speaking about money, and start asking for things that they need that aren’t even financial. Being able to speak up and ask for what you need with ease will aid you in the long-run. Those are all things that are essential for producing that these labs and institutions can’t give to you because you have to do the work yourself.

In terms of a community, now that I’m older, I definitely see huge value in being friends with other producers. No one else fully gets it.

What kind of producer are you? How would you define yourself?

When I was at NYU, one of my classmates, Tati Barrantes, would always say, “Kim, you give the best notes. Please, read all my scripts.” I hold this as a golden comment in my life, especially because I’m text-oriented and a voracious reader. I love to creatively produce especially at the script stage. I am also a very strong physical producer. I can take a script and tell you exactly how much it will cost to shoot. I can deliver a movie on budget and on schedule. Those are my two fortes.

Financing is definitely something that I’ve been working on. I have raised funds for movies, but I’ve never raised a full budget alone. In the past couple of years, I would say, I’ve probably shown the most progress in that area. 

On THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO, I was brought on as a physical producer. I had an awesome time on that movie working on set with Khaliah Neal and Christina Oh. Being a part of a producing team that was all women of color was incredible. It was also my most diverse crew since I worked as a 1st AC on Spike Lee’s RED HOOK SUMMER.

You used to be in the camera department?

Yes. [laughs]

How did that evolve into producing? 

When I went to graduate school at NYU, I had come straight from undergrad because I was so scared of being in the real world. Real talk. I was just too terrified, so I had to go to school again. My third year, as I was about to leave classes, I started really panicking about my loans and money. I come from a very blue-collar background. My mom did not graduate from high school, my dad didn’t go to college, drives a forklift, that kind of thing. I was just like, “Oh, God, I need a job.” I decided that since I knew how to load film, I would start doing that for money once I left school. As soon as we left classes, I was like, “Hey, I’m going to load film and you guys all know I can. Hire me, please.” It was before the Red One existed which shows my age.

I started loading film, and then I realized my student loan payments were really high so I need to start pulling focus. I tried that for a while, was terrible at it, and eventually got decent enough to actually be hired on features. On RED HOOK SUMMER, Spike Lee had hired a bunch of my NYU cohort. 

Josef Kubota Wladyka and his writing partner Alan Blanco were both in my class, and one day on RED HOOK SUMMER said to me, “Kim, we need to get a drink after set.” I was like, “Dude, I’m so tired. I’m not drinking.” They said, “No, you have to come, you have to come, you have to come.” They badgered me, and eventually I went with them for a drink. They sat me down, and said, “Kim, this is an intervention. A career intervention.” 

Joe and Alan said to me, “Kim, the time when we were most impressed with you was in writing class. You need to figure out what you want to do. You can’t just accidentally fall into a career. You told us you don’t want to shoot, so what are you doing in the camera department? You need to figure out what you’re going to do with your life because we are not going to stand by and let you just bide your time and pay your bills and barely make ends meet in New York.”

It was one of the most generous things anyone has ever done for me. Those conversations are really hard to have, but it genuinely worked. That was the moment where I was like, okay, I don’t have a lot of financial freedom, I can’t just stop working because this is how I pay my bills, and I have loans. What I’m going to do is I’m going to start doing a bunch of commercials pulling focus to get more money, and then I’m going to figure out what I want to do.

Through that, I realized that I really enjoyed production, and that producing was something I could see myself doing. I didn’t really love the process of writing solo even though I love to read. It’s just very lonely, and I’ve never wanted to direct. 

I transitioned into producing with a lot of help from friends like Jason Sokoloff who works with Spike Lee a lot. Jason was a producer on CHI-RAQ and the television show SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT. He gave me my first job as a coordinator on a feature in production. I owe him such a great debt because he has such amazing skills, and was willing to share them with me. That’s how I transitioned through the intervention.

Where are you in your career now? What are you working towards?

I love films very much. I’ll see anything that’s in theaters, and just walk in and go by myself. I love it. I’ve been prioritizing films a lot. I have been interested in moving into TV. Television has such scope, similar to a novel, that of course anyone who’s text-oriented like myself would love to get into series.

To support myself financially, I’ve been line producing commercials, which gives me the financial ability to creative produce on the feature side.

I also would love to do a horror movie. Just putting that out there, because when I was growing up my dad raised me to be a horror fanatic. If you asked me when I was 12 my favorite movie was, my answer was EVIL DEAD II. 

What do you think are some of the biggest challenges we’re facing right now? What are the things you’re constantly coming up against and finding difficult?

What I’m finding the most difficult is making art and commerce meet. The worst is reading a script that is fantastic, but makes zero sense financially, so I have to walk away. Recouping on independent narrative feature films is always the goal.

When I first started out, I was so text-oriented, I wasn’t even really thinking about the commerce part of it. I was really just focused completely on the art. Now, I’m trying to focus on where art and commerce intersect, because producing is just such a long commitment. I’m going to be in bed with each film for my entire life. I was more casual about commitment earlier in my career because I didn’t really get the full scope of the work I would be doing in perpetuity. 

For where I am in my career, if I don’t see a path to distribution, it’s not worth my time. Its no longer just about whether or not I love a script. And even if the film ends up being critically acclaimed, that helps the director, but it doesn’t necessarily move my career forward in a big enough way to not make money and then also have to keep working on a film for multiple years. 

Exactly. It’s so important to think long-term now. Especially as I’m thinking of having kids. I have to ask, what load can I carry? 

With all the struggles, what is the thing that keeps you in the game? 

If I wasn’t a producer, I’d be a doctor in the ER. [laughs] I really love that kind of high intensity maximum problem-solving—using every aspect of your personality, and every aspect of your brain, to constantly put out fires. I also think that’s why production called me from a very early stage because I really love that super heightened atmosphere.

That really keeps attracting me over and over again because I love to feel useful. I absolutely understand when I hear stories from people where they’re like, “My mom doesn’t want to retire. My dad refuses to retire.” I completely understand why. I just love feeling useful, it gives me so much to get up for in the morning, and just feel like I have a purpose.

I also just really love the whole process of film and how it ramps up. You may be having a project on a low heat for a couple of years—while you’re giving notes, and then you’re packaging, and raising funds—and all of a sudden, it’s in this boil. Then, you get to cool it down again in post. It’s just this really great rhythm that I find to be very satisfying. Of course, making a movie is great when it’s actually all said and done, and you’re at Sundance watching THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO on the big screen. That’s a great feeling, but it’s actually not the premieres. It’s the process that keeps me coming back. Premieres, I find to be weirdly stressful. I don’t know why. I feel like it’s like New Year’s Eve. where you’re expected to have the best time of the entire year, and be dressed up, and take lots of pictures, which I do all those things, but it’s almost like it’s too much pressure to have fun. You know what I mean? [laughs]

At the Sundance premiere for my film, I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, I had said to John Cooper back stage, “Who needs weddings when you have movie premieres?” [laughter]

Oh my God, it’s so true, that’s so good.

I just want to thank you for taking the time to talk, and for everything you’re doing with Dear Producer. I have a new investor I’m working with who wants to learn more about producing. so I sent him to the Dear Producer site which he loves. It’s so good for the community. It’s so awesome that you’ve been doing this.

Everyone in our industry needs to understand the role and importance of the producer more and I love that you did that. 

Born in Seoul, but adopted and raised in Baltimore, Kimberly Parker is a producer who has been freelancing in film for the past eight years. She is the executive producer on a new A24 + Plan B feature called THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO (Sundance 2019, U.S. Dramatic Competition). Parker produced I AM MY OWN MOTHER, one of two American films in Cannes Cinéfondation 2018. Parker also produced KATIE SAYS GOODBYE (TIFF 2016), starring Olivia Cooke (ME & EARL & THE DYING) and Christopher Abbot (JAMES WHITE). Parker produced an interactive, gaze-controlled virtual reality film, BROKEN NIGHT, starring Emily Mortimer (Tribeca, Cannes Next 2017). Her first feature as a producer, THOSE PEOPLE, won Audience Awards at Outfest and NewFest, and was nominated for Outstanding Film (Ltd. Release) at the 2017 GLAAD Awards. Parker was a 2016 San Francisco Film Society/KRF Producing Fellow. She participated in EPI’s Trans Atlantic Partners, Berlinale Talents, and the Sundance Women in Film Financing Intensive. Parker is a three time IFP alum, and an alum of Film Independent’s Fast Track. She graduated with a MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and a BA from Johns Hopkins University.