By Rebecca Green

Nominated for the Producers Award at the 2021 Film Independent Spirit Awards, Lucas Joaquin is a founding member of the New York production company Secret Engine and a prolific producer who has produced feature films for some of the most original voices working in contemporary cinema, including Ira Sachs, Tayarisha Poe, and Braden King. His most recent film, Karen Cinorre’s MAYDAY starring Grace Van Patten, Mia Goth, and Juliette Lewis, premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. In this interview, we discuss the difference between content and cinema, the importance of curation, the pros and cons of virtual film festivals, and the pandemic as a game-changing event in our industry. 

Tell me about your company Secret Engine. 

Secret Engine is an independent film production company made up of three producing partners — Alex Scharfman, Drew Houpt, and myself. We founded the company about four years ago to support filmmakers and stories we believe in, and to help create work that has the potential to connect with a wider audience. Often, that has guided us to support filmmakers whose stories might not otherwise have been told, and it’s always guided by a deep willingness to keep the form alive. 

To ‘keep the form alive’ – explain what you mean by that.

I find that independent film production with a focus on features is becoming quite rare. We are developing series, and very interested in exploring that realm, but the core of the company is producing feature films. Even before the pandemic, it felt like that world was contracting, especially in New York, and over the past year that trend seems to have increased. Producing features is our main focus and we’re keeping at it as long as we can. 

Martin Scorsese recently wrote an opinion piece for Harper’s Magazine where he pushes back against the word ‘content’ in relation to cinema saying, “the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, “content.” I found his dissection of algorithms over curation a little hypocritical as he now relies on Netflix to finance his movies because no traditional studios can afford him. I’m curious to know where you fall in the content vs cinema conversation? 

I read that article and I’m personally conflicted by it because I believe wholeheartedly in what he says – I believe in the power of cinema, and I definitely have that same reverence for the films he mentions and for the cinema-going experience – but I also recognize that the world has changed, and I think we need to be able to adapt. Even Scorsese in that article mentions streaming services, like the Criterion Channel, that are more curatorial. What he’s bemoaning is the fact that everything is now considered on the same level. Most of the big streamers release films into the world as one-size-fits-all so that every film and television show is presented to you on the same footing – a thumbnail image in a giant, everlasting grid. Scorsese is asking for a return to a way to curate and single out specific work, to emphasize it and to bring focus to it. I agree with that. 

On the flipside, the idea that so many films are accessible to so many people now is truly fantastic. At the beginning of the article, he’s talking about walking around in downtown New York and going to these different art houses. I live in New York, and I love the art houses there – I personally have learned so much going to those theaters – but the fact is that there are so many more audiences today who are interested in these films who are living outside of urban centers. We still haven’t found a way to highlight movies in a way that can set them apart for those audiences. That’s difficult. I do believe in that fight that he’s talking about, but we really do have to work within this new world and figure out how we’re going to keep making these movies and finding audiences.

I live in Detroit where you don’t walk around downtown popping into various arthouse theaters, most cities don’t provide that experience. What can we be doing in the independent space to better support the type of movies you and Scorsese are talking about? What are the big or even little ideas to make that happen?

First and foremost we need to think about marketing early and often. It sounds trivial, but we have to make sure that we have a great stills photographer on set creating images that are going to make a film really stand out from the pack when it comes time for the release. 

And we need to push to be involved in marketing conversations with the streamers in advance of the subscription-based VOD release. Often we’re at a remove from those conversations because we’re working with a distributor who has licensed the film to a streamer and is the main contact. We’ve worked with wonderful distributors who know their business and marketing very well, and we’re usually involved in all of the conversations around a trailer and poster for the theatrical release, but at a remove when it comes to how the film will be marketed by a streamer.  We should recognize that the decisions made at that stage in this era are where a film can really stand out and find an audience. 

Beyond that, I think we need to advocate for a better way to curate our films to a streaming audience. 

I want to talk about your film MAYDAY, which premiered at Sundance in January. What was the Sundance virtual experience like for you?

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the experience. Sundance did a great job creating a sense of community starting with the opening night speeches. I felt really touched to watch and know that our whole community was watching at the same time. There was something really quite meaningful about that. And a lot of people reached out to me during the festival who had watched MAYDAY so it did feel like there was an overall communal experience of filmgoing (even if we weren’t leaving our homes). 

At the same time, I can’t wait until we get back to in-person festivals, though I know that’s probably not the highest priority on most people’s post-pandemic checklist!

Our business works through personal contact, whether that’s in development, whether that’s in production, whether that’s in bringing films out to festivals and getting them out to the world ultimately. It’s not just that we all want to have a good time and go to parties and rub elbows. It’s that there is something nice about being able to conduct business in a place that doesn’t feel formal, that doesn’t feel like you have to schedule a time to talk. 

When you’re at a festival and you run into somebody on the street and you have a five-minute conversation, in those five minutes you’re able to talk about the films you’ve seen, what you liked, what other people are liking, what you’ve heard about, what sold – a ton of information! Then you multiply that across many days of running into people and having similar little conversations like that. It does something quite different that is un-replicable by a virtual festival. Don’t get me wrong, Sundance did an amazing job. The screening protocol was great, but losing those little micro-social interactions, it’s tough for the business side of things.

I worry that distributors will get used to being able to buy films virtually and will not want to go back to the expensive festival strategy of buying films. Once we can reconvene, will filmmakers demand their films be seen by buyers in a theater or will distributors demand that they be allowed to watch virtually? Who has the upper hand? 

We’ll go back to wanting to meet up. I just don’t–

I know filmmakers will, I’m not so sure distributors will…

I have a feeling distributors will probably feel the same way, that there’s something beneficial about being together in person to feel the way that audiences respond to movies.

By the way, the virtual festival experience is cheaper on the filmmaker side too because we end up not having to travel cast or crew. After we finish a movie and get ready for the festival premiere, usually we go into this tumultuous period of wrangling cast and managing travel and dealing with planning parties. None of those conversations were happening. It was weirdly peaceful heading into the festival.

That’s a good point regarding distributors screening films at a festival, they get to gauge audience reactions. 

Of course, the way the majority of viewers will see your film in this era is on a small screen, so the film has to be able to work on a TV or laptop. Nevertheless, being there in person and feeling the way people react in real-time, it’s pretty valuable. Even if you’re taking that with a grain of salt, even if you’re looking at that and saying, “Some of this is the Sundance effect where everybody is buoyed by this kind of enthusiasm, festival atmosphere — or the altitude.” It’s still helpful to be there, to be focused on the film, and to feel how people around you respond.

Being a year into the pandemic, what have you learned in regard to your producing work?

It’s been an interesting time for us because we’ve really been able to immerse ourselves in development. On most of our projects, we develop screenplays together, all three of us, Drew, Alex, and I. That’s our goal when projects come to us in early stages of development or when we develop them from IP. Ideally, all three of us can collaborate during the development stage, and then, once we’re bringing the project to cast and financiers, one or two of us will become the point producers on it. During the pandemic, we’ve had a lot of time for development and to really be able to concentrate with our writers and with one another on screenplays, which has been quite fruitful.

We haven’t had anything in production during this time. MAYDAY was in post when everything shut down in March and we had to pivot to remote post production. If anything, I would want to take that kind of clarity of thought on development and bring it into the future.  Of course, it’s difficult to achieve that when we’re balancing out the responsibilities of production, which can be all-encompassing, but that has certainly been the silver lining. 

That said, I believe that a lot of the tools we started using in post production during the pandemic are going to carry through into the new world. When the shutdown happened and we had to pivot MAYDAY to an all remote editorial setup our writer/director, Karen Cinorre and editor, Nicholas Ramirez, were working in a cutting room in New York in person together every day.  As the inevitability of a shutdown became increasingly clear, we had to start putting alternate plans in place — I worked with my fellow producers on that film: Jonah Disend, Sam Levy, and Karen — to put together a plan to transition to remote work. At that point, it was always with the idea that Karen and Nick would at some point return to cutting in person as soon as they possibly could. We quickly pivoted to a remote set up before things had fully shutdown, which was fortuitous because it took some in person work to set everything up. We used a program called Evercast that allowed the director and the editor to work together remotely with picture and sound completely in sync. They were both in New York, but they were able to work remotely.

I wonder in the future, even when we return to being able to fully work together in person, if that won’t be a resource that we continue to use. Even if the director and the editor are in the same city, you can use it if the composer is not there or if the sound designer isn’t there. There are all different ways to utilize these tools. I found that using that technology was actually beneficial.

Throughout the last year, I’ve found that there are those who feel like everything’s going back to normal as soon as everyone’s vaccinated – specifically that everyone is going to flock back to movie theaters – then there’s those who think everything’s changed and there’s no going back. I believe that people will come back to theaters for the big tent pole films, but I’m not so sure about independent cinema. I’m curious where on that spectrum you fall?

I hope that people will come back. I know that if I’m looking at myself as a gauge, I really want to go back to theaters, but I know that I’m not necessarily representative of the wider audience out there because I’m particularly a cinephile. In New York specifically, I know that people are going to want to get out of their apartments, go be out with other people, go experience art together, go watch cinema together. I really believe that; I don’t think that that’s going to stop. However, there’s not going to be one day where we all wake up and everything is back to normal. It’s going to be a slow process.

I have a feeling there’s going to be a boom of all types of in-person services. There’s going to be a hunger for it, but as you say, I don’t know if that’s going to only end up being on the larger end of Hollywood movies or if that’s going to continue for more independent-minded films.

I think we certainly have all become even more accustomed than we had been to watching movies at home.  And the fact that the windows seem to be collapsing at the studio level, with the Warner Brothers/HBO Max deal for instance, I’m sure will have an effect at all levels moving forward. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that people will stop going to theaters – I believe there’s going to be a continued theatrical audience, at least in the urban centers of the country. 

I am a big believer that distributors should meet audiences where they are. The collapse in the theatrical window I feel is a great benefit to independent films. In the UK, Warner Bros. and Cineworld have just agreed to an exclusive theatrical window of 31 days prior to PVoD. The shorter window allows for everyone to be having a conversation around a film at the same time, therefore maximizing marketing dollars. 

I agree – the growth in PVoD seems to be one of those beneficial side effects of this pandemic – especially if it acts as you say, maximizing a film’s marketing and publicity campaigns to ensure that during that period of peak awareness about a film, audiences can all have access to the film while it’s a part of the conversation (which hopefully keeps it in the conversation).  

Recently, filmmaker Chad Hartigan Tweeted about his new movie LITTLE FISH saying, “The number of people who have asked me where they can see LITTLE FISH is distressing. It’s hard enough to get people to know a movie exists nowadays and now they can’t even find it to watch when they do. I guess the reality is they check Netflix and if it’s not there, give up.” After a bunch of Tweets back and forth with other filmmakers, myself included, he wrapped up with, “I just wonder how we got to a point culturally where it’s confusing to find a movie. Ten years ago if a movie was out, it was out. You got it where you got movies.”

There are over 200+ streaming services in the US – of course no one can find our films. People turn on Netflix because it’s easy and Netflix is in our face every day on social media and in our inboxes announcing what’s new. We have to make it easier for audiences to find our movies. To me that is the greatest challenge independent film faces right now.

We need curatorial voices. Right now Netflix is the biggest curator in the world. If something is in their top 10 or on their home page for a long period of time, suddenly, you find that every single person in the world is talking about it. QUEEN’S GAMBIT was a huge success and I really believe that was because of their word of mouth and through the marketing of their home page. But beyond that top 10, it becomes a swarm of undifferentiated recommendations.  

That’s definitely the primary challenge in distribution today, especially in independent films – how do you ensure that a film stands out and doesn’t just get lost in a sea of content. 

Switching gears and my last question for you is, if you were just starting your career now, would you go down the same path? 

I think it’s a very different landscape out there to when I began working in this business.  But I do think the path is the same – find the people that are making the work that you like, and see if you can pitch in and become a part of making those films.  

I started as an assistant during a very fertile time for independent film in the early 2000s. Of course, as my career progressed the financial collapse happened and the bottom dropped out of independent film financing. That was a frightening time to jump into the independent film world, but the result was that a lot of really great micro-budget production began to come together. Filmmakers all over the country just hungry to make stuff, joining up with a group and creating something. And really, that’s at the core of every successful production, no matter how big or small. Joining up with likeminded people, finding creative companions, and making great work. And that’s a strong start no matter what you’re going to do. The next step of making a living from that work? Well, that’s the difficult part. It always has been tremendously difficult in this business, and it’s going to continue. But you can be realistic and optimistic at the same time. There’s so much exciting work being created and if you can find good partners and build something with them, then that’s the important thing. 

Lucas Joaquin is an independent creative producer in New York City and a founding member (with Drew Houpt and Alex Scharfman) of the production company Secret Engine. 

Most recently, Joaquin produced Karen Cinorre’s feature film MAYDAY, starring Grace Van Patten, Mia Goth, Havana Rose Liu, Soko, and Juliette Lewis, which premiered in competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and had its international premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival.

Other recent films include Braden King’s THE EVENING HOUR, which premiered in competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and will be released in North America by Strand Releasing; and Tayarisha Poe’s SELAH AND THE SPADES which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and was released by Amazon Studios, who are developing a series based on the film. 

He was Executive Producer of BLOW THE MAN DOWN (Dir. Bridget Savage-Cole & Danielle Krudy) which screened at the 2019 Tribeca and Toronto International Film Festivals, released earlier this year by Amazon Studios; and Ira Sachs’s FRANKIE, starring Isabelle Huppert and Marisa Tomei, which premiered in competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and was released in the US by Sony Pictures Classics. 

Upcoming projects include DUST directed by Karrie Crouse and Will Joines with Claire Foy to star, producing with Alix Madigan of Mad Dog Pictures, currently in development at Searchlight, and included in the 2020 Blacklist; DEATH OF A UNICORNE, written and to be directed by Alex Scharfman, producing with Scott Rudin and Eli Bush, along with Scharfman and Houpt, currently in development at A24; and Russell Harbaugh’s COMPOUND.

Before co-founding Secret Engine, Joaquin produced several features, including Ira Sachs’s KEEP THE LIGHTS ON, LOVE IS STRANGE, and LITTLE MEN.  

Joaquin was a 2012 Sundance Creative Producing Lab Fellow and worked for many years with the prolific production company Parts & Labor.