OUR PROFESSIONAL EVEREST: A Panel Recap on the State of Indie Producing

By Epiphany James

“I feel like the future of indie film is really uncertain right now.” Lizzie Shapiro (producer, SHIVA BABY) shares during The Producer’s Profession: A Creative Balancing Act panel discussion. The first of five sessions hosted by Film Independent in a series entitled Producers at the Table, each session tackled a different portion of the independent film process exploring the question, “How has the global pandemic impacted the way you work within the independent film industry and where do we go from here?”

The answer is far from clear or uplifting. Across five days, Film Independent hosted frank conversations about the vitality of our industry. As it turns out, answering the question, “Where do we go from here?” is a bit like solving a Rubik’s cube in the dark. How do we solve it when we can’t even see where we’re going?

Despite the uncertainty, each discussion brought insights from seasoned producers through the lens of development, financing, production, and distribution to help us all better understand what it looks like to be an independent film producer in today’s landscape, and what our best next steps might look like moving forward. In case you missed it, here’s a recap of each day’s discussion highlights.

The Producer’s Profession: A Creative Balancing Act
The independent producer as a creative force propelling films into excellence has been long overlooked and unappreciated.  While directors and other creatives move up the industry ladder, achieving financial success doing what they love;  many independent producers continue taking creative risks, betting on emerging creators, and discovering new talent, all while struggling to sustain their careers with no safety net. With a long-overdue Producer’s Union now in sight, this discussion explored what a new and healthier vision for the producer’s profession might look like.

This panel was moderated by Avril Speaks (producer, JINN) who was joined by panelists -, Amanda Marshall (producer, SWISS ARMY MAN), Kim Roth (producer, BLUE BAYOU), Rachel Shane (producer, THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE) and Lizzie Shapiro (producer, SHIVA BABY). 

Key Takeaways:

“I usually like to say that the producer’s role is to protect the film as a whole,” replies Lizzie Shapiro (producer, SHIVA BABY), answering Avril’s question about the role of producers. This means “protecting the film creatively, protecting the film as a business and protecting the director.”

Amanda Marshall (producer, SWISS ARMY MAN) picks this thread back up as they discuss the forming of the Producer’s Union to say, “I don’t think people really understand what producers are.” She goes on to explain that producers are one of the only positions that do not have a union to join. “While you’re protecting a movie, who is protecting you? There isn’t anyone.”

This seems to be a core issue running through the discussion as every panelist shared their daily conundrum of how to balance financial sustainability alongside mental health and quality of life. The cost of COVID testing has made even their “small budget” films become “not so small budget,” crunching potential financial gains and creating pressure for producers to cut their fees.

“I don’t know how to divide my time and energy.” Kim Roth (producer, BLUE BAYOU) shares, confiding that every time she spends too much energy on one film on her slate, she feels like she’s cheating on the other films. 

“That’s what becomes difficult for independent producers,” Lizzie Shapiro notes, “You make your fee on your film and then you continue to work on [it] but you don’t get paid for all of the work you continue to do for years to come.”

How else has COVID impacted their process in terms of development? Two key factors are echoed across the board: time and content. The pandemic has slowed down the timeline from concept to conversion, compounding the pressure to create financial sustainability amid a pool of uncertainty. Wondering how the pandemic has impacted content? It comes down to levity and impact. People are not gravitating towards dark and hopeless material right now and these producers are finding themselves less and less interested in spending years in that mental headspace.

Kim Roth shares that if she’s going to spend months away from her family for a production, she’s picking content that has something to say and team members that she enjoys spending time with. Amanda Marshall adds, “Choose the ones that are worth the struggle because there’s always going to be a struggle, but some of them are just not really worth it. I’m evaluating that more.” 

On the Set: Striving for Change
The human cost of box office success has proven to be a high price to pay. This is evident as the IATSE labor dispute pulls back the curtain on grueling set conditions that running a financially profitable production takes on the crew. With over a year of COVID production protocols now in place, this discussion explores what budgeting and planning for a COVID safe set looks like, as well as best practices to help build a more safe and humane production environment moving forward.

This panel was moderated by Summer Shelton (producer; KEEP THE CHANGE, MAINE) and joined by panelists Paul Garnes (President, Array Filmworks), Aron Gaudet (co-director; QUEENPINS, BENEATH THE HARVEST SKY), Pin-Chun Liu (producer, TEST PATTERN) and Gita Pullapilly (co-director; QUEENPINS, BENEATH THE HARVEST SKY).

Key Takeaways:

“Most of my day became talking about, ‘How can we actually get into production?’” Pin-Chun Liu (producer, TEST PATTERN) recalls from her 2020 production, adding that for her, it felt like her job shifted entirely. Instead of focusing on all of the traditional producing elements, it became an 80/20 split on her focus: 80% being about COVID protocol with 20% left for traditional producing efforts.

“I mean really the situation we were in is, if we had a positive COVID case that would probably be the end of the movie.” Gita Pullapilly (co-director; QUEENPINS, BENEATH THE HARVEST SKY) shares from her 2020 production of Queenpins. Nowadays, every penny of contingency is allocated for testing, leaving no money to cover the costs of a shutdown. In story terms, COVID “raised the stakes” for independent filmmaking, in an already tumultuous environment.

Moderator, Summer Shelton (producer; KEEP THE CHANGE, MAINE), asks the panelists what their philosophies and values are that support them in creating safe film sets, emphasizing that safety goes beyond the scope of physical safety, but emotional as well. Gita Pullapilly and Aron Gaudet (co-directors; QUEENPINS, BENEATH THE HARVEST SKY) shared their process of leading their cast and department heads in an exercise of identifying their personal three core values, as well as sharing the film’s overall values as well. This helped facilitate personal buy-in from their film team members in a circumstance where many were not seeing each other face to face until the first day on set.

Gita adds, “That just allows us to say [as a team], ‘Okay, we know what our mission is [and every decision] is going to be in service to the vision of the story that we’ve clearly communicated to you.’”

Paul Garnes (President, Array Filmworks), long-time producer to Ava DuVernay, shared how he has approached staying busy in production during a global pandemic, “I learned really quickly how vast the difference is between specifically being safe and feeling safe… You have to address both of those.” His response was to lean into the community aspect of filmmaking, including taking the time to physically stop and check in with cast and crew members. “I hope that some of those things do stick with us. I hope that we do continue to prioritize time the way that we’ve had to focus on.”

The reality facing production is that having a “COVID pass” on a script is now standard practice. When exploring the long-term impact of this pandemic it always circles back to this theme of, what is actually worth the struggle to make it? Does this scene really need 500 extras? If so, how does this impact our testing budgeting and risk analysis? Pin-Chun Liu brings a silver lining to the table, “Sometimes all those limitations can actually increase your creativity.”

Summer Shelton responds with the financial implications of these limitations, “You’re spending 15-20% of your budget on testing and additional housing time to quarantine people.” Begging the question: where’s the line when the additional financial requirements due to COVID choke out the ability to create in the indie budget space at all?

Aron Gaudet chimed in, “I think COVID exacerbated a problem that was already there when it comes to financiers, especially in the $5-25 million dollar range where everything was already being squeezed.” When QUEENPINS ultimately sold to Paramount for $21.5 million dollars, companies made millions of dollars in profit off of it, yet the creatives like Aron and Gita, and those who were on set, putting themselves at risk for two months, did not get to share in the profit. “I think something has to change,” Aron shares, with Gita adding, “There needs to be some way to make it more equitable. The film industry is very much like the rest of America’s business industry where workers are all suffering and a few people are getting very, very, very rich.”

Is Hybrid Here to Stay? Distribution and Exhibition Strategies
Distribution strategies viewed in the past as unviable business models were accelerated by the closure of movie theaters and the proliferation of streaming platforms. As we emerge from the crisis, and theaters reopen, what is the perfect balance between the virtual and theatrical screens? How are revenue streams aligning with the forced adjustment of windows as we knew them in a pre-pandemic world? This discussion explores the impact of the innovative and improvised practices of the past year and new possible models moving forward.

This panel was moderated by Karin Chien (producer; JACK & DIANE, CIRCUMSTANCE) and joined by panelists Arianna Bocco (President, IFC Films), Howard Cohen (Co-President, Roadside Attractions), Kevin Iwashina (Head of Documentary, Endeavor Content) and Greg Laemmle (President, Laemmle Theatres). 

Key Takeaways:

Considering that festivals and markets couldn’t be in-person for a while, there’s a concern amongst independent filmmakers about the backlog of films trying to get programmed into narrowing festival slots. Moderator Karin Chien (producer; JACK & DIANE, CIRCUMSTANCE) asked Kevin Iwashina (Head of Documentary, Endeavor Content) to address this dilemma. “I think it’s really created a more expansive marketplace,” he responded. Noting that rather than going 10 days with no sleep at a festival, there can be a more paced and thoughtful approach to getting films sold.

Arianna Bocco (President, IFC Films) added, “the one thing that remains constant, at least in my field, is good films and new voices and exciting filmmakers…people still want that, and that’s what drives us.” She goes further to say that ultimately their primary goal is to get films to the people who want to see them and that some films might be better served as day-and-date films, while others may still fare better theatrically. The shift is to not fight the system, or try and change what’s happening, but to be opportunistic and embrace the full spectrum of distribution options available to them. 

Howard Cohen (Co-President, Roadside Attractions) spoke to the theatrical side, stating that one of the positive outcomes of COVID is that it helped release some of the pressure and expectation to spend exorbitant amounts of money on wide theatrical releases. Now everyone understands that the box office is down and you can release a movie for a lot less money than you could pre-pandemic because of those shifts in expectations. “You can get people to go [to the theater], where the movie can play for three or four weeks,” Cohen optimistically shares, “You spend enough that it gets seen, but doesn’t break the bank.”

Greg Laemmle (President, Laemmle Theatres) sees things through a less rosy lens, “I’m not sure that I see opportunity. Our business model is based on people coming out of their house and enjoying a shared experience.” He goes on to share that even if journalists are stating that 10% of theatrical audiences are permanently gone, he could see a 90% return of audiences as a win, except that those numbers don’t take into account whether the audience coming back is all for commercial films, or arthouse as well. He fears it’s going to take a little bit longer to regain their arthouse audience, particularly older patrons. Every new variant creates more fear around being in a small space with people you do not know, delaying the full return of independent theatrical cinema.

Howard Cohen comments, “There’s a lot of uncertainty about what to do if the movie doesn’t get sold to a big streamer and isn’t a theatrical juggernaut. There isn’t that middle space that there was before.”

Later on Arianna Bocco circles back to the “middle space” by adding, “I think that American indie drama is a little bit suffering because it falls into that middle ground and that is why it’s important for festivals, still, to help these films get exposure.” She goes on to say “It’s a bit of a scary time to the extent that I think we’re all looking for stasis right now, but my own personal feeling is that we’re not going to get it for a very long time.” Speaking for IFC she shares that they are no longer looking for any kind of return to normal and instead are focusing on what content works best for their brand right now. Currently, this means focusing on genre films and working a lot more with IFC Midnight and their sister company Shutter.

She ends this sentiment with, “It is really all about curation and making sure that as a distributor, and as sales agents, and as streaming platforms, and theaters…that we’re curating [our content] and that people will come back for that.”

Financing Strategies in Uncertain Times
Since producers have spent over a year now planning for every possible event and scenario, how has the financing landscape changed to accommodate the uncertainty of the times? This discussion explores how the current market is impacting what types of films are being financed at what budget levels, as well as exploring if pre-existing financing challenges have become insurmountable.

This panel was moderated by Angela Lee (producer, SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME) and joined by panelists Cassian Elwes (producer, MUDBOUND), Margot Hand (producer, PASSING), Christine Hsu (agent, CAA), Lauren Mann (producer; THE CARD COUNTER, SWISS ARMY MAN) Tucker Tooley (producer; THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY, CONCRETE COWBOY).

Key Takeaways:

Lauren Mann (producer; THE CARD COUNTER, SWISS ARMY MAN) has spent the last seven years with her business partner investing in films, including most recently Paul Schrader’s THE CARD COUNTER, started the panel off by sharing how the pandemic has impacted how she, as an investor, thinks about things. “Honestly, for me, the pandemic really hasn’t changed anything because I feel like independent film is always an insane risk and a gamble. I think it just really heightens all of my senses in terms of my taste and what I want to do,” she shares with a laugh, “I have to love everything so painfully that we are investing in it, no matter what.”

Margot Hand (producer, PASSING) seconds Lauren’s sentiments, “I think all COVID did for me, other than I saw my kids a bit more and took less plane rides, is that it made me realize that I want to be doing things I feel really passionate about.”

Christine Hsu (agent, CAA) speaks about her perspective on how COVID has impacted financing. “There are a variety of ways to set up a film, and I think all the producers on this panel can attest to, none of them are ever straightforward, or easy, or fast,” The biggest shift she observed was from seeing high activity from streamers at the beginning of the pandemic to, at the last film market, having the majority of her projects financed strictly out of international sales. She adds, “It’s always shifting…but what doesn’t change is that you do need passionate, obsessed partners to get a film made.”

“I think the new thing is that it’s not going to be normal again,” says Tucker Tooley (producer; THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY, CONCRETE COWBOY). “For a while, we’re going to be navigating bumpy waters and…Independent film is at risk, there being a lot less films in the last two years and going forward.”

Margot Hand is also uncertain about the financial sustainability of independent filmmaking, sharing “I think now in the indie space, COVID is just so expensive. A $5 million movie is now a $7 million movie and none of that is going on the screen. It’s all testing and protocols. That’s a big change to the independent film market.”

Moderator Angela Lee (producer, SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME) asks the panelists how the pandemic has shifted the types of packages being bought and sold. Christine Hsu is first to respond and shares that she’s finding people embracing their personal mission more, and surprisingly taking more risks. “I think going through the pandemic has given everyone a renewed sense of why they are in this business.” There will always be a focus on return on investment for investors, but as agents, it’s becoming more about understanding our investor’s personal missions.

“I hate to be devil’s advocate,” chimes Cassian Elwes (producer, MUDBOUND), “Any time an investor puts money into a movie, they want to know how they’re going to get it back.” He goes on to explain that it’s not just about hope, or trying to catch lightning in a bottle, but that it’s breaking down for the investor how the money can be recouped. Traditionally, for Cassian, this comes from tax credits, international sales, and domestic sales as well as a new arrangement called backstops.

Backstop arrangements are when a company will mitigate some of the risks for investors by guaranteeing a domestic sale for the picture if the producer is not able to sell it to a third party later. “That’s a good bet because they put in a million and a half and you pay them $200,000 if you can sell it to somebody for more later.

Agreeing that leveraging soft money and backstop arrangements to mitigate risks is best, Tucker Tooley adds, “I think the responsibility is how do you create an environment that you’re not going to lose everything? Then try your best to make the most compelling movie and swing for the fence.”

He goes on to say, “And in success, it’s great. No one complains about success.”

From Star Maps to Searchlight: A Keynote Conversation with Matthew Greenfield, President of Searchlight Pictures
From his close collaboration with director Miguel Arteta on indie favorites such as STAR MAPS, CHUCK & BUCK, and THE GOOD GIRL, to heading the most prestigious independent outfit in film, Matthew Greenfield has displayed a keen eye for compelling stories and exceptional talent. Throughout his esteemed career, he’s worked alongside some of the most influential directors of our time, including Chloé Zhao (NOMADLAND), Taika Waititi (JOJO RABBIT), Guillermo del Toro (THE SHAPE OF WATER) and Nicole Holofcener (ENOUGH SAID).

In this keynote conversation, Matthew provided insight on this particular moment in our industry from his unique position as an executive, with a perspective deeply rooted in his experiences as an independent film producer. This discussion was moderated by Miguel Arteta (Director, BEATRIZ AT DINNER).

Key Takeaways:

From selling his first feature at Sundance to Searchlight Pictures to becoming a 15-year veteran and President of that same studio, Matthew Greenfield has overseen many of their most successful films to date, including SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, BIRDMAN, THE SHAPE OF WATER and NOMADLAND.

Speaking to how he approaches the filmmaking process, Matthew shares, “I learned at first as a producer, and a lot at Sundance, is the need to be rigorous and to push continuously to make something the best it can be, regardless of what it is.”

He goes on to make the point that nowadays films have to be great. If a film is just good then it will get lost in a “sea of stuff.”

When Miguel Arteta (Director, BEATRIZ AT DINNER) asks what advice Matthew would share to young filmmakers wanting to get their movies made in today’s changing landscape, his answer perfectly encapsulates a sentiment echoed across every previous day of this FIlm Independent series. Simply put, “There’s no secret answer to that. I don’t have a real answer other than making it the best that it can be.” Matthew goes on to say, “The most important thing is whatever movie you’re making…the only way you can survive is making the best version of it that you can make it, and making it un-cynically, and with love, and care, and attention to detail, and as much rigor as you can muster from the beginning of the process to the end of the process to make that movie work for the audience the best way that it can work.”

Driving home the importance of passion and greatness he reminded us all of the personal and professional Everest each independent filmmaker faces. “We’re no longer just competing with the four or five movies that came out on any given weekend, we’re competing in every moment with every movie, every TV show, every piece of music, every music video, every short, every YouTube that has ever been made to get people’s attention.”

With the global pandemic driving viewers inside and streaming platforms on a content buying frenzy, at least for the foreseeable future, this is our new normal.