NY Indie Guy: Ira Deutchman and the Rise of Independent Film

By Barbara Twist

It is a rare occurrence for a retrospective film series to be dedicated to a producer, but on September 14-16 and September 20-23, 2018, Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for the Arts will host the retrospective series NY Indie Guy: Ira Deutchman and the Rise of Independent Film honoring Columbia Professor and independent film producer Ira Deutchman

Since 1975, Ira has been a leader in distributing, marketing, and producing American independent films, international films, and arthouse films. He is perhaps best known for founding and running the distribution companies Cinecom, Fine Line Features, and Emerging Pictures. Ira has taught at Columbia since 1987.  

Before the retrospective series kicks off, Dear Producer had a chance to talk with Ira about how his producing career came to be and how he believes you should never go into a film festival to launch a movie without having a marketing and distribution strategy.

Producer Ira Deutchman

One of the films screening in the retrospective series is A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE. You actually hosted the Midwest premiere for that film at Northwestern University. How did that come about?

At Northwestern University, I worked as a projectionist for multiple screening series, showing more esoteric films and commercial movies. I was seeing a ton of movies while I was projecting them and it gave me this exhilaration about being the person who was putting on the show. In my junior year, I created a film series called Midnight Madness. By senior year, I was in charge of the entire activities and organizations board which was campus-wide. I was doing everything from concerts to programming movies to doing special series and special events. That’s when the John Cassavetes thing happened.

I just got a phone call out of the blue from this guy by the name of Blaine Novak who worked for John Cassavetes in his distribution department and they were looking to have the Midwest premiere of the film on campus, and I just thought it was a really cool idea. With the promise that John Cassavetes and Peter Falk were going to actually appear at the screening, I attacked it the way that I would normally have attacked a live event and booked Cahn auditorium which was 1,000 seats, pretty bold move.

We did a poster for it that made it look very much like it was part of the ongoing concerts that happened on campus and plastered the campus with it. We did an enormous amount of press including Chicago press, not just campus press, and it got an enormous amount of attention. On the night of, not only did we sell out the thousand seats, but the movie got a standing ovation. Cassavetes and Peter Falk stuck around and did a Q&A, which I got to moderate. I literally had just had my first professional experience, or semi-professional experience, in the movie business.

A Woman Under the Influence
Gena Rowlands in A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974) dir. John Cassavetes 

Since then, you’ve had many roles from distributor to marketing consultant to President of Fine Line Features. How do you see your role as a producer now?

The only part of the production process that I really don’t like is what I call slightly pejoratively, the manufacturing process, which is to say that I really don’t like being on set, I’m bored to death, I feel like I want to be doing something else and in fact, even if I am on set, I probably am doing something else.

The only time that I actually feel like I’m needed on set, if I’ve done my job right, is if something’s going wrong. The parts of the production process that I really like, and that I’ve been intimately involved with, are, in fact, the development process, the getting the film packaged and ready for the marketplace, which does intersect with the marketing and distribution. It’s really not two separate things because you’ve got to be thinking about the marketplace when you’re putting the package together that’s going to go out into the market. I develop material, I take on projects that are looking to be either developed or packaged.

I like working on the casting process and as far as budgeting is concerned, I don’t really get involved with the nitty gritty, but I do get involved with what I call the ballpark budgeting process, which is to say that the marketplace only allows a certain level of financing specific to the project and its packaging and so the budget creates itself in terms of the way that I do it. It’s not a question of it’s going to cost this much to make the movie, it’s a question of this is how much the market will bear and now how do we make the movie for that budget?

How do you assess the market to know what the market will bear for a particular film? What’s that process?

It’s a combination of staying up to date by reading the trades really carefully, paying attention to who’s doing what at what budget levels and trying to assess why a film would have gotten financed. Sometimes it’s about the stars that are involved, sometimes if the director has some reputation, that can make the difference, sometimes it has to do with the genre, it has to do with whether the film is international or domestic and the financing mechanisms are completely different.

All of those things add up and then, when you have enough experience, you have a sense of what a film really ought to cost. I’m a huge proponent of something, but it goes back to a conversation I once had with Robert Altman where he was pitching me a project. After he finished pitching it, I said, “How much is the film going to cost?” He said, “Well, how much do you want it to cost?” Because he truly believed and I believe this too, that any movie can be made for any price, but you just have to understand the compromises that are necessary to make it for that price. The same movie at two different budget ranges would not be the same movie.

How did your work evolve from solely marketing & distribution into producing films and into the packaging and development of projects?

Once you get to Cinecom and every job that I had after that, every company I worked for after that, in addition to acquiring finished films, we were making investments in films that had yet to be made. We were pre-buying the films. That’s when the process really became clear to me because I was one of those potential financiers that was going to green light a movie. Trying to understand the marketplace and what would be necessary in order to make that film commercial enough so that I could, with some confidence, make that investment, that was the learning process. We got very lucky at Cinecom because the very first film that we pre-bought was A ROOM WITH A VIEW.

It turned out to be an enormous success, but we also invested in and pre-brought MATEWAN, the John Sayles film, and SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA, the Jonathan Demme film. In the case of SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA and MATEWAN, you see a trend in the sense that we first distributed films that were by that same director. In the case of John Sayles, we did THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, which was a finished film acquisition and then we co-financed his next film. In the case of Jonathan Demme, we distributed STOP MAKING SENSE, which was a finished film pickup. Then we co-financed, in fact, I think we entirely financed SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA. That was what sent us on that road and it’s a normal evolution for a distribution company to eventually get involved with production in some level.

You keep fast-forwarding through my career and, of course, by the time I get to Cinecom and then to Fine Line, I’m running the company. I’m making those green lighting decisions and very much involved with sitting there, doing numbers in my head about what does it mean if this person is in the film? What does it mean if that person is directing it? John Sayles, at the time when we were investing in his films, reliably, no matter whether the film was a hit or not, reliably did at least $2 million at the box office. You take that into account and then you say, “Okay, but if you put James Earl Jones in the movie and blah, blah, blah, and it’s this genre, what do you think we could do?”

Then it became slightly more scientific as we get into the later Cinecom years and into the early Fine Line years because those were the years when the tail was wagging the dog in terms of home video being where most of the money was made. With home video, you could actually put real numbers on it. What are the last three films by this director and the last three films with this star, how many units on home video did they do based on certain box office expectations? What are your estimates about how much value that film might have? Again, it was just an evolution where I was learning the marketplace starting at the very beginning of the transaction, which is people plunking down their money at the box office.

Then going through the entire food chain and understanding the way that the money worked, to the point where it would be relatively easy with that experience to understand what it would take to make a movie financeable. Once I left Fine Line, is when I actually ran off on my own and became an independent producer and that was the first time that I was literally working on it from beginning to end. Any case, it was after Fine Line and within a relatively short period of time of leaving Fine Line, I ended up producing WAY PAST COOL, ALL I WANNA DO, KISS ME, GUIDO and BALL IN THE HOUSE. There was a period of time where a lot of stuff was happening all at once. By that point, I had a pretty good idea of how to navigate the marketplace and I managed to get all those films financed.

Kiss Me Guido
Anthony Barrile and Craig Chester in KISS ME, GUIDO (1997)

For producers without your background in marketing and distribution, what questions should they be asking themselves in the development phase of a script? Do you think they should be identifying their audience that early on?

They definitely should be and in fact that is a producorial role in my opinion because I feel like the director should be thinking about the creative side of it and while they shouldn’t be burdened necessarily with having the market-place be first and foremost in their mind, I think they do have to be reminded of it along the way. To some extent, if you’re dealing in the traditional marketplace, [it] is going to tell you whether something is commercial or not.

If everybody is saying no, then you know that there’s something wrong. The place where I think people get themselves into trouble is when they start looking in the direction of equity investment because they either know that they don’t have a film that’s pre-sellable or they’re being told that they have a film that’s not pre-sellable and they turn toward equity. The chicken and egg problem is that when you make a really low budget movie, it’s got to be something extraordinary to break through. Because if you’re making a really low budget movie, you’re not going to have movie stars in it.

It just doesn’t happen and the minute you start heading in the direction of trying to get well-known names in the movie, what you discover is that most of the time those people are not worth the money you’re paying them because they don’t change the commerciality of the movie. They may convince an investor that it might make the difference if that investor is not as sophisticated as they probably should be, but in reality, it mostly doesn’t make the difference. You just have to set your expectations really in a producing career that the movies that you’re going to make, you have got to keep the budget as low as possible, you have got to be as clever as possible in terms of giving hooks to the people who eventually are going to be saddled with trying to market this stuff.

You have to deal with material that gives you some niche or some reasonable expectation that people are actually going to want to see it. Then if it doesn’t work and if you’ve kept the budget low enough, it’s not going to matter that much, and you’re going to finally have something to show people about what you’re capable of or what the director’s capable of. It’s all about setting reasonable expectations until you have a body of work. Truthfully, KISS ME, GUIDO would never have been made if I hadn’t been producing it because Tony Vitali was a first time director, there were no stars in the movie whatsoever, but we kept the budget really low and managed to pull in a lot people, and I was the one who was able to give them confidence because of my history at that point.

A producer’s rep can be a key element to your film’s festival strategy. What is that role and what should producers look for when hiring a producer’s rep?

Some producers are qualified to do this on their own, but I would say most producers are not savvy enough about how to get out and make a splash for a film when it’s having its debut and how to deal with distributors. Producer’s reps fall into a number of different categories because the needs for somebody to do that job are;

A) A decent rolodex. Very antiquated term but the idea is you have to have the right contact list of people who are the buyers, who potentially would be interested in whatever it is you’re trying to sell.

B) Relationships with film festivals so that you could potentially talk your way into one.

C) Some marketing sense for how to present the movie and literally how to present it at wherever festival you’re launching it at, to get the maximum attention without necessarily going overboard.

D) Knowing how to negotiate a deal. Knowing what the deal points are.

The idea is all of those combined are the things that need to be done when you’re trying to sell a finished film out of a film festival or a film market and most producers don’t have all of those skills. I grew up doing all that stuff. I realized that not only could I do it for my own films, the ones that I’ve produced, but I could offer out those services to others. That’s how I got involved with SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE. I was initially the producer’s rep and then I was eventually hired to be a marketing consultant on it. I got involved with TO SLEEP WITH ANGER, the Charles Burnett film, as a producer’s rep.

I was hired as a producer’s rep by Whit Stillman for METROPOLITAN, which eventually led to me being hired at Fine Line. Interestingly, some of the movies that I repped ended up getting me into business with the filmmakers and then I went on to produce their next movie. BALL IN THE HOUSE is an example of that because Tanya Wexler’s first feature, I came on as a producer’s rep. The film was finished. It was a film called FINDING NORTH and we went to South by Southwest with it. The film got a really good response and we eventually ended up making a distribution deal on it. Tanya and I hit it off and then she showed me the script for BALL IN THE HOUSE which was something that she wanted to do. Then we ended up making that film together.

Still from BALL IN THE HOUSE dir. Tanya Wexler (2001)

For producers new to the scene, what are some things they should watch out for as they take their first film to market?

From my experience, there are so many things that are traps that people fall into, but everything from making sure that the first festival that you pick where you have your debut is a festival that actually is a good match for your needs and for the film itself; to when you schedule within the festival because that makes a great deal of difference in terms of whether the buyers will pay attention to it or not.

Every festival is a little bit different in terms of the momentum and the time that are the most competitive, the times when you’re almost guaranteed to fail just because of the nature of how that festival plays out. Things like how to schedule your initial press screening, and what sort of information to get on the streets prior to the festival, and how to describe it in a way that will make buyers be interested in going but yet won’t oversell it to the point where you’re setting yourself up to be–you don’t want to be the most anticipated film in the film festival because that film always gets killed, and things like that.

It goes on and on and on. Certain festivals are good for certain movies, certain types of movies. There’s the time of the year issue, there’s what the competitive nature of those festivals are and knowing what stands out and what doesn’t stand out. If you’re going to have a publicist, there were publicists who are really good at specific film festivals. They’re not all good at all festivals. It just goes on and on and on.

It’s so driven by exactly what your film is and then that strategy is going to be very different for each film, right?

That’s exactly right. Really, if there’s any important thing to take away, it’s that you can’t go into a film festival to launch a movie without having a strategy. You’ve got to know what you’re doing and if you don’t have the experience, then you want to seek out help from people who do.

What are your go-to tools of the trade?

My phone has always been the key part of my toolkit. I would say in recent years it’s become email, but I use email as a tool that’s not just about communicating with people, I use it as my to-do list as well. I have it set up in a way in which I’d make sure that no email gets marked as read unless I literally physically mark it as read, because that way, if I haven’t looked at it yet it’s still glaring in my face. Or if I feel it’s something that requires further thought or further action or whatever, I will leave it marked as unread, so that every day sitting in front of the email is my to-do list.

The only other tool that I use on an ongoing basis which is really helpful is Evernote and it’s because it’s on all my devices and it’s constantly synced up and that acts as a more detailed to-do list for project-by-project.

Last question: what’s your morning routine?

It’s a little bit different if I have something in production, but mostly I would say that these days my morning routine is a good hearty breakfast, reading The New York Times from cover to cover, and then diving into email.

You’re the only person I’ve interviewed for Dear Producer who has said eat breakfast!

I don’t know how anybody can survive without at least two cups of coffee like right off the bat.

So true. Well, thank you for being interviewed.

You’re welcome.

Tickets for NY Indie Guy: Ira Deutchman and the Rise of Independent Film can be purchased here. All screenings and panels will take place in the Katharina Otto-Bernstein Screening Room at the Lenfest Center for the Arts, 615 W. 129th St., New York. All films will be accompanied by either an introduction or a Q&A session.