Producers Award: KRISTA PARRIS

By Rebecca Green

Wrapping up our series with the Producer Award nominees from the 2020 Spirit Awards, I spoke to Krista Parris who is most known for producing Josephine Decker’s MADELINE’S MADELINE, which premiered at the Sundance 2018 Film Festival, was nominated for two IFP Gotham Awards, and two Film Independent Spirit Awards. 

Most recently, Krista produced LUCKY GRANDMA, winner of the million dollar Untold Stories prize from AT&T and the Tribeca Film Institute. LUCKY GRANDMA is currently in virtual theatrical release via Kino Marquee and will be running a week long iTunes promotion starting August 4 with the non-profit Welcome to Chinatown who will receive $1 from every iTunes sale. 

* This conversation was conducted in January 2020 prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

I want to start by asking ask you about your experience with MADELINE’S MADELINE, which wasn’t a huge film financially, but really put your director Josephine Decker on the map. My question for you was do you feel the film also put you on the map?

I’m hoping this can be a conversation as much as an interview because I’d love to hear more about your experience as a producer to date and how you’ve navigated different challenges. 

I’m curious to hear your experience specifically with IT FOLLOWS – which I loved and was a live wire watching, bravo –  where you made a breakout film for your director, and how it helped your career relative to the director’s. 

On low budget films you don’t tend to take a big fee to begin with and even things like the management of taxes and the LLCs for years end up really adding up in terms of work and time. 

I came off of two successful movies, IT FOLLOWS, which everyone knows, but I’ll also produced I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS released the same year, which was a film we made for 500k which grossed 7million at the box office. The directors on both films went on to direct films over 5mil, but I did not make that jump with them. 

MADELINE’S MADELINE definitely helped my career overall because of the critical acclaim and in that I think people recognized it wasn’t an easy movie to get made. Since Josephine is always pushing boundaries and arguably even creating a new cinematic language, creatively it was also inspiring for directors. One result of that though is that a lot of the projects that people contact me about are perceived as challenging in some way – whether it’s the concept, or it’s a debut feature, or both, and that tends to translate to the budget, i.e., $1.5M and below. Pragmatically I have to pick what projects I work on very carefully these days because I became a single mom last year. 

You get the same level of projects rather than people thinking of you for projects at a higher level. It’s, “You can do the million dollar movie really well so let me send you another million dollar movie to do.”

When I got into the business in the late 90s, it was a different business for producers. The golden age of TV was just beginning with THE SOPRANOS, but there weren’t nearly as many series being made. Also studios made a lot more mid-range movies. There were tentpoles and franchises but they weren’t as narrowly focused on those. The first movie I worked on from start to finish was ADAPTATION, financed by Columbia Pictures, and I don’t think a studio would make that movie now. Maybe one of the streamers or A24?

But not at that budget level.

Probably not. It was a $25 million movie. Foreign sales can also be challenging for independent films, especially if the cast aren’t perceived as stars. That’s one of the things that we’ve come up against with my film LUCKY GRANDMA. Tsai Chin is 86-years-old, delivers a wonderful, multi-faceted performance and has had an absurdly accomplished career, but we had a hard time financing the movie and then we’ve come up against it again in selling it because she isn’t a household name. Luckily, there is a genre element in that it’s a dark comedy. We hope the success of THE FAREWELL will help us, but Tsai Chin isn’t Akwafina in that she’s not on social media at all and she doesn’t have name currency as broadly with young people – even though audiences in their 20s and 30s have loved her performance and character as we’ve been playing the festival circuit. 

But I got sidetracked… I was saying that when I came up in the business, you had these mega producers (who are still operating) like Scott Rudin and Brian Grazer. I started as Ed Saxon’s assistant. Ed had won an Oscar with Jonathan Demme. We had a cushy first look deal with Universal and it was just a very different time. Those deals still exist, but more so for directors and actors or former studio or agency heads, not producers. 

I was Vice President of Development for Lynda Obst when she had a deal at Paramount and I got to see what that life was like. Do you feel producers are becoming obsolete? There was that Hollywood reporter article last summer, How Film Producers Became the New Expendables… 

I do think creative producing has real value and would love to see that recognized. It is the director’s vision for sure, but creative producers do a lot of critical things to enable the vision to make it to the screen. On the past two features I’ve produced one of my roles has been talent support. Trying to create an environment where the talent can do their best work within the constraints of indie filmmaking, which, as you know, is not luxurious. That requires being a good listener, problem solver, generally being upbeat and trying to make people feel valued even if the physical resources are limited. Hopefully then the director is freed up to focus on the many creative aspects they’re juggling. It’s important work though because if the talent isn’t able to do  their best work, there’s only so much you can save in the editing room. 

With MADELINE’S MADELINE since it wasn’t a straightforward linear story, it was a difficult and long editing process. Part of Elizabeth Rao and I supporting Josephine was making sure she didn’t give up too soon. It was a fight to find the movie. After editing for months, she realized we needed to film a few additional days. So it’s being a creative partner, sounding board and supporter in that way. 

A big part of producing is enabling everybody else to do their job and solving problems behind the scenes. If you’re doing your job well, people might not be able to see a lot of what you are doing. 

When I am stressed about money, my friends say, “How could you be stressed about money given how much you work?” Well, because when you make a movie like MADELINE’S MADELINE, the fee that you get is basically your first month of work for a movie that took three years to make and deliver.

I actually got fiscal sponsorship for my company and have had several friends who’ve generously donated to me personally to help supplement my income.

That is why I speak very openly about my own financial situation because I want people to understand how much we’re working compared to how little we’re making. I think it’s important, especially for those just getting into the business or deciding their career path. 

I’m a little tired of hearing the sustainability model for independent films conversation. I remember going to this event as part of the Tribeca Film Festival last year that was yet another conversation about women and money. And it’s not a criticism of the panelists who were all intelligent and donating their time, but it would have been much more valuable to have us all mingle and make sure everyone met and was given access to capital. Because that’s where the opportunity loss is.

I recently missed out on an option to a book, which ended up selling for mid-to-high seven figures and the company that got it was connected to the author’s publisher. As a creative producer one way you can get ahead is to control the material, but without ready capital you have to be more inventive about that, come up with original ideas, or find people earlier in their career, which is a harder sell. 

But those people who haven’t broken out don’t get projects set up in a bigger way with bigger budgets. You can take a chance with somebody who’s going to write it on spec, but that might not yield the best results. 

It also might just take a lot more time, because you’re doing 20 drafts, instead of four.

Or the writer can’t fully focus on your projects, because you’re not paying them.

Exactly. I worked on a documentary series in 2017-2018 and one of my big goals for this year is to try to get a narrative series set up. That’s mostly what I watch these days and creatively I’d love that challenge from the standpoint of developing structure and characters over time. 

In terms of burnout, I think there’s a different level of burnout happening right now. There’s the burnout out from projects, but there’s also burnout of this entire conversation and wondering if there is a way forward. I’m not the most positive right now in terms of whether or not there is even a place for producers outside of the two million and under indie budget range, which does not sustain a living. I love what I do but if I’m not being compensated for my work, I don’t consider it a career. 

In order to work in  independent film you almost have to have independent wealth. It’s a high risk endeavor. Oftentimes the producer’s fee is one of the first to be cut, even though on an independent film you’re taking on more work and wearing more hats because the budget doesn’t afford paying other people, which also limits how many other projects you can take on.  

I think the success stories are when you can find some entity to back you that’s providing you with some minimal salary to be able to live while you’re waiting for these projects to gestate and hatch. And then you hope for a film that breaks out commercially to help propel you to the next level. Or a lot of people work in commercials, but that is easily a full time job unto itself, especially if you want to remain relevant and someone people think to hire. 

I have a friend who had a studio movie come out last year and everyone said it was a flop, but I had to remind her that it is so hard to release a movie right now. If your movie is not a hit the first weekend, you don’t have a chance, that’s just the world we’re in right now. 

This has been part of the conversation for a few years. Our attention is so divided nowadays because we can stay home and watch whatever we want. As filmmakers, we have to find ways to make something more prominent in the cultural conversation if we want to push through. If audiences only have time for three things, what three things will they pick? Or a work that has an evergreen, long-tail quality. 

So do you know, have people been banding together? Do we form a union? We’re definitely not alone in feeling some of these frustrations. 

There are conversations happening, I’m having them. The struggle I see is getting producers to put time and energy into themselves and stop undervaluing themselves when creating budgets. I think it’s a big struggle, because we’re just scraping by all the time. But yes, I think something big needs to change in order to protect a space for ourselves and our work.

So now that we’re drowning in the deep end… Let me pull us back up to the surface by asking you, with all of these challenges, what do you love about producing? Why are you in it? 

I actually love what I do most of the time. I love the creative aspects, I love the collaborative aspect. I really love that we wear so many different hats. I like negotiating and contracts. I like that most days, you’re doing a mix of things. I love partnering with people who love accounting. 

It’s gratifying when you can make things happen too. Especially if the director recognizes that and is grateful. That’s a gratifying feeling. 

A 2020 Independent Spirit Producers Award nominee, Krista Parris produces narrative and documentary films and series. In 2018, she premiered Charles Ferguson’s Watergate at the Telluride Film Festival and New York Film Festival, which then aired as a six-part series on the History Channel. She also premiered Madeline’s Madeline, written and directed by Josephine Decker, at the Sundance Film Festival. Nominated for two IFP Gotham Awards, Best Feature and Breakthrough Actor for Helena Howard, and two Independent Spirit Awards, Best Cinematography and Best Female Lead, Madeline’s Madeline was named on over two dozen Best of 2018 critics’ lists and The New Yorker named it one of the Best Films of the Decade. 

Most recently, she produced LUCKY GRANDMA, co-written by Sasie Sealy and Angela Cheng and directed by Sasie Sealy. Winner of the million dollar Untold Stories prize from AT&T and the Tribeca Film Institute, Lucky Grandma is currently in virtual theatrical release via Kino Marquee and Certified Fresh with a 98% critics rating on RottenTomatoes. 

She is currently developing two features with Emily Carmichael (Jurassic World III) and producer Adam Spielberg — The Licking County Giants to which BAFTA-winner MJ Delaney is attached to direct,  and EON, which Colin Trevorrow is executive producing — as well as a narrative series of Lucky Grandma.