With the 2023 Sundance Film Festival behind us, Dear Producer wanted to look back and highlight the recipients of the Sundance Institute | Amazon Studios Producers Awards, which honors two producers with films at this year’s festival for their body of work and commitment to creative producing in the independent space.
Presented at the Sundance Producers Celebration, the Amazon Studios Nonfiction Producers Award went to Jess Devaney of Multitude Films (IT’S ONLY LIFE AFTER ALL, Premieres, MULLISUTHANDO, World Cinema Documentary) and the 2023 Amazon Studios Fiction Producers Award was given to Kara Durrett (THE STARLING GIRL, U.S. Dramatic Competition).
You can read their acceptance speeches below in which they shared their journey, their fight for producers, and their hope for the future of independent film.
Nonfiction Producers Award JESS DEVANEY
It’s just completely wild to be up here. In this room. At Sundance. Thank you so much, Kristin Feeley, Carrie Lozano, Maria Clement, and the whole Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program team. Your support and partnership is such a key reason that we’re able to do the work that we do at Multitude Films.
To back up a bit, I gravitated to storytelling as a direct outgrowth of my experience as a young, right-wing evangelical activist and leader. Anyone else in the room? Through that experience, I saw firsthand how stories shape ideas, behaviors, communities; and I also saw how the political right effectively used these narratives to mobilize Christians to back policies and politicians.
Not to give it away too quickly… but I am no longer an evangelical. I’m sharing this part of my background — partly because my team told me I had to be personal — and also because it was stories that interrupted those guiding narratives that kept me embedded in that evangelical community. Those stories created a cognitive dissonance that eventually led me to surrender that evangelical ideology.
Experiencing that kind of reverse conversion gave me an innate understanding of the potency and potential of stories. They transformed me in a way that data or debate simply could not. I spent the intervening years working at the intersection of storytelling and social change until I eventually landed in documentary.
Just seven years ago, I attended my very first Sundance Film Festival as an emerging producer — trying to wrap my head around what seemed like a completely impenetrable industry. On the heels of several years of associate producing, I had just produced my first feature documentary — which was not screening at the festival. My sense of independent filmmaking was that the obstacles vastly outweighed the opportunities.
Barriers to entry in our industry were and are high — especially for folks marginalized by race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability. Making a living as a producer seemed impossible, and the lack of understanding or appreciation of the role didn’t make it any easier. At the time, people regularly said there’s no money in documentary, while the audience for documentaries continued to grow and distributors continued to benefit from filmmakers’ scrappiness, creativity, and labor. Someone was making money, but it was rarely the filmmakers.
Despite the obvious obstacles, that nagging sense of the power of stories kept tugging at me. I felt pulled to make films that centered liberation on screen and in the filmmaking process itself. So I started Multitude Films in 2016. Since then, we’ve grown to a team of 10.
And while I’m up here accepting this award, our work is a real co-creation. This recognition honors our whole team, their creativity, integrity and labor. Especially Anya Rous — who is singular in her contributions to building and shaping Multitude Films. As well as Ameena Din, Sweta Vohra, Colleen Cassingham — my very first member at Multitude, working on my couch with my kittens — as well as Ryah Aqel, Morgan Hulquist, Paula Gonzalez-Nasser, and Jonathan Portee. I want to take this opportunity to share a few concrete ways that we’ve built Multitude Films to make structural interventions in our broader society.
First, we only partner with directors from historically excluded communities: BIPOC and LGBTQ folks, directors with disabilities, women and non-binary filmmakers, indigenous directors, working class directors. Because only when storytellers represent the world we live in, will films fully represent the complexities of our lives.
Second, we’ve created a production pipeline that fills the gap between mentorship programs and the market — serving emerging directors who the market deems risky. Films by emerging directors often have smaller budgets, are funded incrementally, and struggle to compete in a market that has structurally marginalized them throughout the entire process. Where distributors see risk, we see an opportunity to prioritize equity, access and representation and to advantage a wide range of new voices in our field — which remains overwhelmingly white and male dominated.
Third, in a largely unsustainable and quite director-centered industry, there are significant barriers for both entry and growth for emerging producers. As all of you in this room know. To address this, we’ve built an apprenticeship program for our below-the-line producers. Our production coordinators and associate producers are full-time staff members with benefits and have clear paths of advancement to lead producing. From ongoing masterclasses on a range of topics as they relate to our films, to a workplace culture of peer mentorship, knowledge sharing, and intimate access to production company operations.
Multitude Films is actively seeding the field with trained and talented producers from a range of backgrounds and identities. Our apprenticeship program is a direct outgrowth of my relationship with really special mentors like Daniel Chalfen, Julie Goldman, and Geeta Gandbhir.
Finally, we integrate a structural change lens and impact strategy into our projects, with a slate encompassing core issue areas. We engage community partners over time and build impact cumulatively. From addressing racial terror, Islamophobia, and gender based violence. To lifting up LGBTQ and immigrant rights and dignity. To disability justice and government overreach through systems like policing and surveillance. Through our partnerships with leading movement organizations, we build impact directly into our model of producing.
At Multitude Films, we’re as committed to impact as we are to artistry, and we aim to leverage critical and commercial success for social and political change. Since the market doesn’t tend to value structural change, it was very clear from the beginning that we needed philanthropic support to build a thriving, values driven, independent production company. With support from Perspective Fund, Dorot Foundation, Acton Family Giving, Dobkin Family Foundation, Cinereach and Sundance, we built Multitude Films as a hybrid model where traditional production company revenue is augmented by philanthropic support. I am filled with gratitude daily for their partnership and their trust. That enabled me to start a production company with no independent wealth or capital.
Much like film production itself, liberation work is creative work that is most successful when done in community. I have personally been challenged by and learned from so many of you in this room. Colleagues I deeply respect and admire. Given the dominant structural dynamics in our industry and how they mirror those in the broader society, liberation work is always imperfect, incomplete, and aspirational. Our community of producers can sharpen each other’s thinking and practices, and we can offer each other accountability and solidarity.
Let’s continue to help each other do better. I hope you’ll continue to help me do better. I’m so grateful to continue this work together.
Fiction Producers Award Kara Durrett
First, I want to say thank you so much to Shira Rockawitz, Lauren Lukow, Ilyse McKimmie, Michelle Satter and the whole Sundance team. For the past few years, you have supported me as friends and mentors, and made this moment possible. The work Sundance does to support new artists shapes our industry for the better, so thank you for your continued dedication. I also want to express my gratitude to Amazon Studios for this honor. It’s so awesome that part of this award is also a first look deal with you and an automatic green light on all of my movies in the future [laughs].
When I first started out, I had a boss who told me: “you’re not the smartest assistant I’ve ever had, but you’re very funny so you’ll probably go far.” I can now say thank you to that person for not only solidifying my comedy career but also making me work harder to become the person I knew I wanted to be, a Producer. I wanted to become a producer because it felt easier to pick up the phone and ask questions than to sit around waiting for the phone to ring in the first place. I believe everyone in this room was built with that same instinct, though you might not be funny, so I’m sorry but you won’t get very far.
In all seriousness, I feel like I could spend these few minutes talking about the negatives in this industry, commiserating how no one knows how much we do daily or how everyone gets a producer credit, but instead I want to use this time to be hopeful for the future of cinema. I personally have so much hope because of everyone standing in this room right now. The films you’ve produced have made a difference in my life and in so many others as well. Producers are the tastemakers and gatekeepers to incredible stories and I want you to know that I see you and the countless hours you give to your work. The dedication and love a producer gives to a film is unmatched.
We talk a lot about our worries for the industry and the future of our jobs. But time after time we hear stories about movies only getting made because of a Producer who pushed it up the hill for years. For example – with THE STARLING GIRL, I faced a particularly daunting hill. We went through 2 different financiers, the first dropping us due to the pandemic uncertainties. We had 2 different casts, 5 different budgets, 4 different states, 2 possible countries, Sundance Catalyst, Sundance labs, and 4 years of emails, calls, and constant no’s. After all of that, we still woke up everyday and told each other we were making this film. I know so many of you in this room can tell me a similar story about facing your own hill on your own film. Just know that you’re not alone in that fight and again, I see you and all that you do.
For our future as Producers we have to remember that now is the time to stand together and show the industry why these movies wouldn’t get made without us. I want to say thank you to the Producers in this room who are fighting for equitable pay, health insurance, protecting producers creative rights, and defining the role of the producer. They have worked hard the last few years to create the newly formed Producers Union and I’m proud to be a member. The more we work together to make sure we’re seen for our work the further we can all get.
If you know me, you know I’m not someone who focuses too much on awards or even likes to be in the limelight much. I love making movies because they make me feel inspired as an artist and the people I get to work with along the way. However, if I was going to receive any award, this would be the one I’d pick. Being in this room with so many of my heroes, colleagues, and friends I feel so lucky to get to call myself a part of this community.
And finally, I want to say thank you to my past collaborators, you’ve changed me for the better. Thank you Laurel for being such an incredible Director and making THE STARLING GIRL. You did exactly what we set out to do and I’m incredibly proud of you as a friend and partner. Kevin, thank you for making this movie with me. You have been the perfect counterpart and I can’t wait to make many more together. And to the other members of the Starling Girl family (investors, crew, cast) — Jesse, Will, Ben, Sarah. Thank you for your brilliance, love and hard work. I’m so proud of what we made together.
Thank you to my parents for always making me watch the classics and to my husband Lowell. Without your support as a partner in life I wouldn’t be here right now. You truly lift me up every day and make me excited about the work I get to do. I love you and Jonah and can’t wait to spend our lives making many more movies together.