By Rebecca Green
After moving to the States from Taiwan to attend The American Film Institute Conservatory (AFI), Pin-Chun Liu has carved out a producing career for herself with features and short films, including CONTRAPELO and WONDERLAND, now playing at over 50 festivals worldwide and enjoying widespread distribution. Her most recent film, TEST PATTERN, won the BlackStar Lionsgate/Starz Producer Award, and was nominated for Best First Feature, Best First Script and Best Female Lead for the 2022 Spirit Awards. The film was distributed theatrically by Kino Lorber. Pin-Chun was also one of just three producers nominated for the 2022 Film Independent Spirit Awards Producer Award.
Pin-Chun sits down with Dear Producer to discuss the sacrifices unique to the producer role, the ever-shifting pursuit of “balance” in our industry, and what it looks like to secure distribution and awards recognition for your film even without a big festival premiere or a huge network.
I’d love to hear how you became a producer.
I was born and raised in Southern Taiwan. Film was just not a real profession that people discussed or talked about when I was growing up.
I studied sociology in college – I feel like in my life I tend to pick interests that I have to explain to other people – not a lot of people know what sociology is or what you can do with it after school. Most people also don’t know what producing is or what it looks like to get into that career. Ultimately, I think I’m just interested in stories about human lives.
Then I got the opportunity to act. I went to an audition for a student film in Taiwan as that was the only access I know. That was the first time that I was like, “Oh, okay. I can see what people are doing behind the scenes.” From there I quickly noticed that there was this role of the producer. I was like, “Oh, it’s pretty much a leader putting together the whole team with a lot of communication.” I do a lot of team building naturally since I’ve always played sports. I have a very wide scope of interests, but I don’t like to become an expert on any specific thing.
I thought, “I’ll just learn more about producing.” At the time, only one grad school in Taiwan taught producing, the schools were very much centered on directing. That’s when I decided to apply for schools here in the United States.
I went to the American Film Institute Conservatory (AFI) for producing, and before that, while I was still in Taiwan, I just started by doing. I started to produce small student films while I was preparing to come here for grad school. I got to work on an American feature film that was shooting in Taiwan. The role was a lot more line producing and physical production, but also trying to help the project move forward, find sponsorships and bring teams together.
What was your first job after AFI?
I produced a lot of short films after AFI and most were not paid. I think my first paid job after AFI was line producing for Stage 13 on a show called TWO SENTENCE HORROR STORIES. After school, I started to take on as many projects as possible so that my main income was from line producing, production managing or short film producing.
Was there anything from your sociology degree that you took into your producing?
Yes, my biggest influence for producing was from my studies in college. Before college, everything in education felt like you had clear-cut options A, B and C, and there was only one correct answer. In college, especially studying sociology, I became trained in looking at all of the different perspectives and having independent thoughts, coming to my own conclusion. This was a big learning curve for me, a big clash with my previous sense of the world.
I feel like that actually gave me a lot of the foundation for the stories I want to tell these days. Also, why I tend to get attracted to stories that have unique perspectives. Not a lot of stories have room for discussion. Stories that teach you something and evoke a dialogue after people finish watching–those tend to be the stories that I’m really drawn to.
“Unique perspective” is a phrase that is used all the time, same with the phrase, “singular vision.” Can you explain what those phrases mean to you?
I’m actually still learning. When I hear people say, ‘Oh, this movie doesn’t have a perspective,’ I’m really thinking about what they mean. Because obviously, we all come from different backgrounds. Everybody has a different perspective of the same story.
When we decide who the protagonist of our story is, we decide the point of view from which we want to see the story. As a filmmaker, you have to decide who you are and why you want to tell a particular story. I think for me, that’s also a very important factor in deciding which director or filmmaker to work with. I really want to know their “why” behind the story.
Sometimes I can see that a filmmaker has a clear voice, but then some other people might not see it. It’s all subjective, which is why I’m still trying to really pinpoint what that means specifically for me.
You shared your application for the Spirit Award nomination with me, thank you for that. The thing I most want to talk with you about is how much you wrote about sacrifice. You described how with TEST PATTERN, you did everything they tell you not to do and sacrificed so much to get the movie made. We all make these sacrifices to bring a story to life, but how far should you push? Where are the boundaries and was it ultimately worth it? Producers shouldn’t have to sacrifice their own money and well-being, it’s just a movie. What are boundaries for you?
That boundary is definitely a big thing I’m thinking about these days. I agree, we’re just making movies. There are basic boundaries, like no one is going to get hurt in the process. Then there are much more nuanced boundaries that no one talks about. My parents are not rich whatsoever, and I felt like I was pinched into a position of putting them at financial risk just to protect the crew and the film.
I felt ashamed at the time because it’s not a good position to put anyone in. That was a risk that we pushed a little too far and it put into jeopardy my whole last 10 years of work. That’s a lot of pressure.
After TEST PATTERN, I had the opportunity to go onto another project, but even though I was super happy about the team, the filmmaker said that they still didn’t have the full financing and I had to tell her, “No, I just cannot put myself in that position again.” I’m willing to take a pay cut because it’s my own decision, but if the budget runs out, I just knew that I wouldn’t be able to not feel the responsibility on my shoulders.
In the end, it worked out for TEST PATTERN. We got into the festivals, received distribution and were nominated for three Spirit Awards. In this case the sacrifice is paying off. There’s probably tons of filmmakers that have done the exact same thing and it is not paying off for them. That probably happens a lot more. Another thing I’ve been thinking about recently, and having conversations around, is quitting, and what it really means.
Like you said before, it’s important to set boundaries and decide that there are things you are not willing to do– but those stories are not told as often. I don’t know if you remember the show LOSERS, but people don’t really talk too much about losing. It’s how we handle losing though that determines if we can move on to success. We’re so trained in our industry to just set a day for production and make it happen. There’s not a lot of stories that can remind us that maybe we can quit something, decide not to push through, and it actually ends up being a good thing in the long term.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that these days and feeling like our well-being, and health as a whole, is important to pay attention to. Obviously, there’s been a lot of conversation recently about safety on set. On the next film I’m producing we’re actually doing an experiment where we are paying everyone the same hourly rate across the board.
When we think about low budget, independent work and paying people the same across the board, it’s easy to automatically think we’re talking about minimum wage here. That’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re actually going to bump people so that it’s an actual living wage. It would be union, but it would all be above their union pay minimum rate. All the cast and crew and no hierarchies, we’re just going to do an experiment and see how that goes and we’re doing 10 hours days.
You’ll end up probably in the 3 to 5 million range, right?
Yes. We have a budget between that.
Our industry has this problem where the powers at be are quick now to hire passionate young people that want to get in and don’t seem to care too much about keeping the experienced ones around.
I think financially I’m in just a different place now that I have a little kid, he’s 18 months old. I have different responsibilities. So now I have more people to think about and when I make boundaries, I’m essentially making them for more than just me.
In that vein, what are you doing about sustainability in your own space? How are you paying the bills? How are you balancing jobs versus your projects?
Right now, I’m very lucky. I have a job that enables me to work from home. It’s a producer job, but more in the audio space. I got lucky. I’m also doing some accounting for a production company. That’s why I don’t know how I feel after reading all your Sustainability Report. It’s true that all of the things I do that are actually film producing don’t pay the bills. All the movies that I’ve produced in the past are also not bringing in money yet. Maybe in a few years I’ll be in a different place in my career, but if I didn’t have my job right now, I‘d probably have to find a normal salary position which would give me no time to produce anything.
I actually got a line producing job back in 2018 that supported me for a couple of months. Those two months of not taking on any productions ended up giving me time to brainstorm, strategize, and see how I could get a project moving again. That was almost the only way to do it. I still hate the fact that I wasn’t on set the entire time on TEST PATTERN because I’ve never done that before for any of my other films but again, that’s how we got to make that one work.
So many of us go from project to project and just hope that things change, but we have to be smarter at coming up with a plan and not just hoping it eventually shakes out because I don’t know that it will.
I think that’s why people are turning to TV. It’s a different world. I’m also glad that the Producers Union is focusing on narrative features to make them more sustainable. The industry is not looking great with how it’s shifting through the pandemic.
TEST PATTERN premiered at BlackStar Film Festival and has played at many other festivals. It didn’t have the typical Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, or Telluride premiere yet it found its way to the awards circuit, which is very unusual. How do you explain that plot twist?
There are two films that lifted me up at the right time in my career. One is when I first graduated and my short film, CONTRAPELO, got into Tribeca. That went on a long journey and ended up also on the Oscar shortlist. I submitted it to a festival in Mexico that is not one of the big ones, but one of the jurors called me and asked if this was submitted to the Oscars. When I said I didn’t know that we could, they helped me.
Everybody always talks about the importance of connections and networking, but I am pretty much an outsider. I don’t have connections. And as a new immigrant from Taiwan, I didn’t have any strong community connections or anybody that’s in the industry. I didn’t choose to go to a production company or studio because I was already a little older and also English is not my first language. I just thought that people wouldn’t have that much patience with me at a desk so I just started producing, which kept me more on the independent side.
When I went to AFI, it gave me a network and all my job recommendations come from there. I still think you need a little luck, too. Before we decided to make TEST PATTERN, wrtier/director Shatara Michelle Ford, had already applied to a lot of the labs with other projects and I also applied to a lot of the producers’ labs with other various projects. I just didn’t end up selected for any of them.
We ended up saying to each other, “We just need to go out and make it.” The script was only 37 pages which made it very hard to go the more traditional path. So it was obviously harder to get into the Sundance labs and other programs.
We ended up at BlackStar and then from there we went to New Orleans. It was just a process of picking up smaller festivals. Another key that helped us was that we did a lot of private test screenings. We were like, ‘Well we have this finished film, and we want people to watch it. Let’s see how the audience responds and maybe it will help us talk about the movie.’
We purposefully invited a lot of different people to get their perspectives and thought maybe it would even help cultivate a group of friends from the industry or connect filmmakers who are starting to do the same thing as us. From there, that really helped us feel like we had a group of supporters. Every time we held a screening, people wanted to talk about the movie afterward. This gave us a lot more confidence along the way.
It was actually during that pandemic where I finally had time to participate in a lot of panels. I noticed that Kino Lorber distributed a film that went through the smaller festival circuit and so I cold emailed Wendy Lidell, their SVP, and told her about our film and where we had screened. I think we got really lucky because she did pay attention to it, read the reviews we got, watched it and liked it and eventually picked up the film.
I think you touched on something that a lot of people don’t realize when they get into filmmaking. The big distributors, unfortunately, aren’t paying attention to smaller festivals. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your movie is not good. It just comes down to how you get it in front of the right people.
There are a lot of good movies that are not getting distributed, even ones screening at those top festivals. It’s even harder for films to get seen by distributors at the smaller ones.
So back to the script only being 37 pages…
Yes, it was intentionally designed that way. Shatara had the movie in their head from the beginning and wrote it quickly. They had planned to do a lot of improv with the actors as well. It was centered so much in their relationship, they wanted to catch some organic back and forth between them. We did restructure the movie in post a bit as well. But yes, it was a very short script. I think because I’ve watched a good amount of world cinema, that didn’t scare me.
To wrap up, I’m wondering if you could share some lessons that you’ve learned from the experience of making this film? If there’s only one thing that you take from producing TEST PATTERN to implement on your next movie, what would that be?
I still think that the story is the most important thing. The movie has to be really good. All the other elements like connections and network building are definitely very important, but at the end of the day, you need to make a good movie that people want to see. From all of my short filmmaking experiences, I got to see all of the different kinds of scenarios play out. For me, continuing to believe in the path you’re taking makes a difference. And I would like to set clear boundaries next time so that I don’t put myself in a similar financial situation again.
I realize though, through talking to more people about how we made the movie, that there is a lot of stress that I still need to untie and make peace with so that I can move on. Thinking back, there’s just a lot of unnecessary stress that I’m still trying to get rid of.
I ask the question because we often just race right to the next movie and we don’t stop to assess the experience or talk to our collaborators about what worked and what didn’t work. Especially while it’s all still fresh in your head. It’s good to celebrate and enjoy the work you did. I find it to be really important to take that time before you move on to the next project.
I’m definitely enjoying every single nomination now, just because I know how hard it was to get here. All of this work and sacrifice. I know for many other filmmakers that it doesn’t always equal out in the end, so I’m really enjoying and trying to recognize this full journey that we have come through. We really want to continue to collaborate with the same team. Another takeaway is that having now gone through this whole journey, I know how little it pays and how long it takes. I’m really evaluating what projects I want to be involved in and what movies I really want to make that make it worth it. That has definitely become a very central question. It’s never going to be easier, and even with having current recognition, it is probably still going to be a hard battle for the next one.
I can tell you that it doesn’t get easier.
[laughter] That’s exactly what I want to hear.
Certain things perhaps do though. Do people know your name because they know your movie? Maybe not, but they may know your movie and read your project faster or call you back a little faster. It definitely does open some doors. It doesn’t do the same for producers as it does for directors, but the actual making of it I know will remain so very challenging.
Thank you for this interview, for being vulnerable and sharing your experience with the Dear Producer audience. You telling your story will certainly help someone else along their path.