By Rebecca Green
Nominated for the Producers Award at the 2020 Film Independent Spirit Awards, Ryan Zacarias has worked with acclaimed filmmakers such as Michael Tully, Matt Porterfield, Rick Alverson, Jonas Carpignano and most recently, Annie Silverstein whose debut feature BULL, was an official selection in Un Certain Regard at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
Ryan opens up to Dear Producer about the struggle to stay afloat as a producer, how your expectations aren’t always met even when you’ve set your film up for success, and how we can’t blame everything on distributors.
I’m going to just dive in with some big questions because I’m in that kind of head space…
You’ve made quite a number of films in the under two million dollar range, several much less. I have been finding it really hard to raise money for films at that level because they are not selling at a price point high enough for investors to recoup. I’m curious to know if you’re having the same experience?
It’s always been a challenge. I used to feel more strongly about the sales opportunity for when a film premieres somewhere like Cannes. Then you talk to the all the distributors you assume are going to be the right fit for the film, or be the right people, or have the right mindset, and maybe they are fans of the film, but then everyone is so scared about how it will perform, so nobody wants to pay for it.
You constantly make these films that people really appreciate, but you find yourself in a world there really is no meaningful offer on the table from a distributor. You put together all the right elements, you have an exciting cast, you make it for a price point that’s respectable, you have international appeal, you have domestic appeal, but then you go to sell it and the response you thought you would get isn’t there.
Obviously, the industry is changing. The values are changing. What people want is changing. Why people go to the cinema is changing. It’s made me more wary of everything. I’m still doing films that I believe in, but it is taking a bit of a toll when you’re like, “Holy shit, we’re going to get a no-MG deal again. We’re going to open up in 10 markets. We’re going to do the same shit over and over again.” I know where it leads to.
There was a time when having the right cast, a premiere at a prestigious festival, and great press translated into a solid sale. You could be confident in that. But those things don’t seem to matter the way they used to. I’m finding it hard to raise money because I don’t have the confidence to predict what a sale looks like even just a year out from today. How do we we talk to financiers when we can’t talk about the market?
For me, it’s less about the upfront conversation because you spent so much time convincing, and convincing, and convincing this was the right move for an investor to make. Obviously, it’s hard to bring that up when you’re asking for a certain amount of money to make a movie that you believe in, but in the same breath, knowing you may not sell it. It’s hard to go in with the defeatist mindset right from the start.
I did a film recently with non-professional actors. It’s a difficult film in the marketplace. It’s a difficult film for financiers. You go about it with that mindset, but you just don’t say it out loud. I’m still trying to figure out how to build that conversation into the philosophy and the pitch to the investors because it’s the reality. I just don’t know how to say those things. I don’t know how to articulate it.
It’s also hard to talk about these things with the director and not have them think that you don’t believe in the movie when what you are trying to do is set realistic expectations. How are you having those conversations?
The way I go about it is saying, “I really believe in the project. I believe in you as the director. I believe in your work. I believe in what we’re doing.” The upfront energy is spent on the excitement of the project and the excitement of the possibility. There’s always this conversation when you talk to directors about financing and about the budget because you’re always trying to reach a budget goal, but then you always see yourself pulling back a little bit because the market doesn’t support the budget you need. The conversation that I do have is saying, “Listen, we can’t raise $3 million for this movie. We can try for two.”
That’s the conversation upfront. We’re going to make this and we’re not going to lessen the integrity, we’re not going to simplify it in a way that hurts your vision to hit a certain budget. If this is something we believe in, this is how we peel back. Maybe we take days away. Maybe we look at number of extras. Let’s look at how we can do this with the same idea and the same goals and the same aspirations that we had when we fell in love with the project.
Back around Thanksgiving last year, Ted Hope posted a selfie on Facebook of himself sitting in an empty movie theater and he wrote, “I Don’t Understand Why Movie Theaters Are Empty. I went to visit my mom this past weekend. We went to movies, but it seems like no one else did. The theater was empty. The theater was fine, relatively clean, convenient parking, moderate priced ticket, big screen and good sound. Sure they played too many commercials beforehand and cheapened the experience, but still it did not make sense that no one was there to see what was a good movie with good reviews.”
I read this over and over again and was completely baffled by this post. Ted Hope is the Head of Motion Picture Production at Amazon and once one of the most prolific producers working, was he really asking this question? It makes me very worried about the future of indie film. Are distributors that out of touch with the non-industry moviegoing audience?
It’s funny because you talk to distributors and you’re always talking about the rest of the country. You’re talking about Milwaukee. You’re talking about Albany. You’re talking about Chicago. You’re talking about these other cities outside LA and New York. You talk about your trailer. You talk about your poster art. You talk about the marketing materials. But if you’re with a smaller distributor that doesn’t spend a lot of marketing money, you’re dead in the ground before you even open.
I’ve dealt primarily with the smaller distributors and what filmmakers don’t realize is that it’s not all on the distributor, you often get shut down by the theater chains. If you get shutdown by the Landmark, or the Regal, or AMC, you’re getting shut down by the theater because they don’t think your film can compete with the studio films. You often can’t even compete at Alamo Drafthouse. They put off an indie vibe, but they’re keeping giant studio comic book films for weeks and weeks and weeks because they’re making money. I’m not blaming the distributors as much anymore. I don’t want to put the blame on anybody. I don’t even know who to blame anymore.
The theaters are having to make money. They’re trying to sustain themselves. You as the filmmaker are trying to put your film somewhere it makes sense, that’s the first and foremost. Then if the audience comes, thank God, but if you’re also finding yourself in a position where the booking person at the distribution company has run out of theaters to try because there are bigger titles that are making money that they don’t want to bump.
We’re making movies with as low of budget as possible now to the point where we cannot sustain a living, but why are we even spending any money when we know the majority of films don’t recoup their investment?
It’s hard raising the money and then you have to try to take care of yourself and have health insurance and have a life and do all the things that you need to do to sustain yourself. I’ve been doing this role for so long. In my own personal world, I am thinking of other ways that I can grow out of this budget level. How can I continue doing this without losing my mind and breaking my body and not constantly stressing about dealing with money? It’s been on my mind for awhile.
You hit a certain age, I’m 41, and you realize you don’t have a 401k, you don’t have substantial savings, you’re living paycheck to paycheck, film to film. It’s a very reckless way of living. We’re just waiting for the bigger thing to happen. I think we have to also acknowledge that independent film isn’t what we knew it to be. We were given a false sense of upward mobility because when we got into the game, there was a better shot at making a living, there wasn’t nearly as many films getting made then.
There’s also no shadowing programs for producers. We see directors get plucked out of the half a million dollar film and into television directing. No one calls a producer and says, “Hey, come produce an episode of TV”. That’s not a thing. If we don’t generate our project, we don’t have a job. I think that’s the why I’m so exhausted right now.
I know. I feel you. My dad, it’s funny because he’s like, “Hey, what’s the 401k situation?” He works for a company. He’s an engineer, he’s got that shit. I’m 42 and I don’t. I got to really adapt to a different degree of what I’m doing because the burnout does happen. I’ve been doing this 10 plus years and it’s still the same hustle and same shit. I wake up and you’re working your ass off, but you’re not working your ass off for money. You’re not getting a paycheck at the end of the day. You find yourself at 5:00 PM, 6:00 PM, it’s like, “Holy shit, man. I am drowning but I’m not getting paid for it.” I’m at a point where I think I’m ready to listen to other opportunities that may be out there or something else that could be interesting to me in a lot of ways and actually come with a paycheck.
Do you think indie film is just going to go away because of this burnout or do you think it’ll just belong to the newer crop of filmmakers and we will continue to cycle out when we can no longer work for free.
You look at Sundance, you look a lot of first time films, first time filmmakers, first time producers, second time producers, younger people. I don’t think it’s going to go away. There’s always going to be that excitement. There’s a lot of opportunities for people to shoot cheaply. There’s always a film that sneaks in. I can’t remember the film that was… the kid from new Orleans who shot that film? It was at Tribeca this year?
Yes, BURNING CANE. There’s always going to be a film like that and a real excitement about cinema. I think there’s always room for that, the people grabbing a camera, doing what they want to do or doing whatever is exciting and creative. But I worry about just the excitement around that. How does that work for new investors? You see so many people that put money in films that don’t financially succeed and then those financiers go away. Then you see a new crop of people invest and they get burned out or they get burned and then they go away. How is that a sustainable ecosystem? How do we continuously change and adapt and make sure voices are heard, and make sure people are heard, and make sure the climate is what it is in a positive way to where it’s not a real stagnant situation?
But you’ve got to fight. It’s the way of the world. My dad, a Venezuelan guy from Caracas, he always taught me to fight for what you believe in. Fight for your thing. But then you find yourself after you’re fighting, you’re like, “Oh my God, I’m so tired”. [laughter]
What is the thing that continues to pull you into it and keep you going, what is it you love about producing?
I’m a sucker for great story. I’m a sucker for collaboration and artistry. I get excited by the potential in the collaboration and it still excites me to be able to say I’m working on a film I believe in. I get excited about picking up a book and reading a new story. I get excited about things that generate your passions and make you feel human, it’s like falling in love. That’s the start of it all I think.
But then you become a little bit scared. You’re like, “Holy shit. I love this now.” Now I’ve committed to this. I had this funny conversation with other producing colleagues where we were like, “God, I’m so happy to do this movie with you. How the fuck are we going to do it?”
I know the passions and the loves and the admirations and the influences are always there. Then the realization of it hits. I’m going into this new battle. I’m going to have to fight my ass off to make this happen. I’m going to have to take a bunch of meetings that are going to be 90% unsuccessful. I’m going to become a professional coffee drinker again. Am I ready for that? I truly do get turned on by everything and then you go into it and you’re like, “Okay, here we go again.” It’s deciding if “here we go again” is going to be beneficial for my health.
That’s what I’m trying to decide. I taught all over the world last year and I get very overwhelmed by the amount of people who want to be filmmakers and who don’t understand the uphill battle ahead of them. Anyone can make the thing, but only a small fraction of people get their work out in the world in a meaningful way. The pipeline for distribution is so narrow and exclusive.
That’s the thing that is a little bit difficult. It’s like, “How do I do this? How did I do it?” My own path is that I just picked up a camera with some friends and colleagues and decided to “let’s make a movie” kind of thing without understanding the festival world, not understanding the distribution world, not understanding the finance world. Because those early ones, you scrape together a few bucks and you make whatever you’re going to make.
The way you get in is still kind of a mystery. It is a bit of a dumb luck I feel in a lot of ways. For me, it certainly was because I had done two features before I had a film at Sundance. It’s still one of those things where, I don’t know, I just made some fucking movies.
I still didn’t know how to produce. It took me three films to even understand what sales was about. I quickly learned that you had to just figure it out to get to a certain point, and then you had to figure out a whole new set of things to get to the next point. Just figure it out and do it. I don’t know how to do it any other way.
Ryan Zacarias‘ films include Michael Tully’s SEPTIAN and PING PONG SUMMER, Matt Porterfield’s I USED TO BE DARKER and SOLLERS POINT, Rick Alverson’s ENTERTAINMENT and Jonas Carpignano’s MEDITERRANEA and A CIAMBRA (Executive Produced by Martin Scorsese). Zacarias recently produced Alverson’s THE MOUNTAIN (with Jeff Goldblum and Tye Sheridan), which premiered in competition at the 2018 Venice Film Festival and 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and Kirill Mikhanovsky’s GIVE ME LIBERTY, which premiered at Sundance in 2019 and had its international premiere at the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs section at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
Zacarias’ films have been supported by Film Independent, Cinereach, the Sundance Institute, Cannes Next Step and Cinefondation, San Francisco Film Society, Doha Film Institute, Cinemart and the Berlinale Co-Production Market. His film have been distributed by IFC Films, Kino Lorber, Magnolia, Haut et Court (France), Paramount UK, Strand Releasing, Oscilloscope, and Gravitas Ventures. In 2015, he was nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award for Carpignano’s MEDITERRANEA. Zacarias also produced Harmony Korine’s short films, UMSHINI WAM and SNOWBALLS. He recently produced Annie Silverstein’s debut feature BULL, which was an official selection in Un Certain Regard at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. He’s currently shooting Riley Keough/Gina Gammell’s feature debut, BEAST.