Dear Producer held its first ever panel in partnership with the LA Film Festival on September 23, 2018. Moderated by Rebecca Green (IT FOLLOWS, I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS), panelists Steven J. Berger (LORENA, THE PRETTY ONE), Lacey Leavitt (SADIE, OUTSIDE IN) and Avril Speaks (JINN, AMERICAN RACE) spoke to a sold out audience about the highs and lows of being an independent producer in 2018. It was a truth-telling, tough love conversation filled with lessons learned, new ideas, inspiration and lots of laughs.
For those of you who were not able to attend, Dear Producer is publishing the full transcript below so that everyone, regardless of where you live, or whether or not you had the resources to attend the panel, can have access to the incredible wisdom and knowledge the panelists shared in the room.
Many thanks to the LA Film Festival for making this panel possible and supporting the work of producers and a very special thanks to the panelists for their generosity.
REBECCA: Last night I ran into a producer friend of mine who has produced a few notable films at major festivals and when I told him the name of this panel, The Future of Producing, his response was “Rebecca, the future of producing is looking bleak.” He’s not wrong, but I’ll do my best to make sure we don’t go off the deep end here and discuss ideas that could make our futures a little more bright.
I’m going to start with a pretty basic question, why are you a producer and what do you wish someone would have told you before you started producing?
STEVEN: I’m a producer because I discovered early on that I’m really terrible at a lot of things, but I’m really good at seeing when other people are really good at things. You can have a career and make really cool shit if you encourage and empower talented people to do their best work. Suddenly, I was shepherding ideas from concept all the way through an experience for an audience and that got me really excited.
REBECCA: What do you wish somebody would have told you before you started producing?
STEVEN: I’m actually going to do the thing that most moderators hate, I’m going to flip that. I’m going to tell you the things I’m glad people didn’t tell me, which is I’m glad nobody told me how fucking hard it is. What we do as filmmakers requires a healthy dose of amnesia and a sense of eternal optimism. We’re in a business where we’re constantly being told no, we’re constantly being told our thing isn’t good enough, it’s not marketable, it’s not x y and z. Then when you push past all that and make something you’re really proud of, you get it all the way across the finish line, then suddenly it doesn’t premiere at Sundance, it doesn’t get bought by the distributor that you want it to be bought by, and not everybody in the world on Friday night goes to see your movie or watches it on Netflix or clicks on iTunes the Tuesday it’s available. We all dream that a lot, and that’s okay, but I’m sorry to say that today we’re going to tell you all the ways in which it is really, hard but I’m glad that nobody told me that.
AVRIL: In terms of why I’m a producer, I would say I get really excited about helping filmmakers realize their vision. I started out as a director and then I taught for a long time, about 10 years, and I started realizing that producing is an extension of teaching in a sense, helping filmmakers realize their vision on a different scale from teaching in a classroom, but it’s very similar. For me, that’s a big part of what I love about producing, being able to see someone’s work come to fruition and to go through the journey of making it happen. It’s really exciting and gratifying for me in certain ways and also upsetting and daunting in other ways.
LACEY: Going into film school, I assumed that I was going to want to be a director because that was the only thought I had, you make movies that means you’re a director. What I found is that I don’t want to talk to actors on set. I’m actually turned on by the the business part of it all that protects and cradles the creative process, that is where my skill sets naturally go. I love the collaboration with the director on her or his vision and making sure that we are making the same movie, that’s the part of it that really turns me on.
REBECCA: And what do you wish someone would have told you before you started?
LACEY: Oh man, I would almost say I wish someone would have told me how hard it was going to be, but honestly, if they did, I probably wouldn’t have gone down this path so I’m glad they didn’t. You only make independent films if you ignore how hard it is at first.
REBECCA: I want to ask each of you, what do you look for in a project and what is it about the script and the filmmaker that excites you?
AVRIL: Well, first of all, going back to the question about what we wish someone would’ve told us because it relates to this question, I don’t think I realized how difficult it is to find good scripts. In terms of what I’m looking for, good scripts with great dialogue in character-driven dramas. When I’m watching a film, I always ask, ‘Does that person sound real? Are these characters believable?’ I also look for stories that have a specific voice and point of view that we haven’t heard from before.
STEVEN: Finding something with a unique voice is so important. What’s going to cut through all the noise and make it undeniably different from everything else? You really need to run your elevator pitch by real people – your grandmother, friends and family. If the other person isn’t freaking out about how awesome your idea is, you should ask yourself: am I going to devote the next five-plus years of my life to this?
One thing I’m personally not always looking for is the perfect idealized version of a project, whatever that might be, because that’s part of my job as a producer. Sometimes you read a script and think it isn’t there yet, but I know that if I put in the sweat equity with this writer and I find the right director, get the right cast in there, suddenly this thing’s going to fly off the page. That’s part of the magic and part of the amnesia, that suddenly you forget about the hard stuff. It’s really about that potential.
LACEY: There’s not as many great scripts as I would have assumed going into this. For me, I ask ‘is this a movie I really want to bring to the world?’ If it’s a movie that feels like ‘Oh yeah, I’d watch that on the plane,’ that’s not enough for me to devote the next five years of my life to it. Also, if someone is only looking for financial investment but not creative collaboration, that’s not the kind of project I’m looking for.
Another criteria which I’ve had from the beginning, I do not want to work with jerks. Even if they’re not jerks, if their working style is not going to jive with my working style, if we’re not going to be a good interpersonal fit for the next five years, that’s not going to be helpful to anybody. Then tailored to that would be, ‘What can I really bring to this project?’
REBECCA: Getting to know the people you’re going to be working with is a really important and a step a lot of people miss. Also asking recommendations of other people is important and something I’ve overlooked in the past. You think it’d seem obvious, everyone else does it in every other business, but I’ve made mistakes where I’ve not gotten recommendations on various levels and chose the wrong person to work with, which probably could have been avoided with one phone call.
What is it you think that audiences want?
LACEY: Character. Even when we’re talking about action films. I think everyone is really interested in character, even if it’s an action movie. I love The Rock, I will honestly watch any movie that The Rock is in. There’s a reason why a movie like DIE HARD is one of my favorites movies of all time. When you can take an action movie, but put real characters and real people into extreme circumstances, whether that’s a big-budget Hollywood film or a small budget independent film, that for me is the crux. Movies like BLACK PANTHER and CRAZY RICH ASIANS have proven that not only do we want to see better representation, we also want to see real people in unreal circumstances.
STEVEN: It comes down to two things for me. I want to make movies that make people feel something. The other element is a shared experience. I’ve made movies that nobody in this room has heard of, but there is fan art about the films on Twitter. That’s a magical thing to me, that people love a movie so much that they’re sharing their experiences with other fans. I know one of the big conversations for filmmakers is the theatrical environment and wanting their films experienced in theaters for that shared experience. I think that something that’s so interesting is, as an independent producer, watching how that really has extended to social media and how we’ve redefined the shared experience.
AVRIL: I think people want to see characters and people they identity with and can relate to. With BLACK PANTHER and CRAZY RICH ASIANS, you can see the impact of the viewing audience saying, ‘We just want to be included in the stories. We want to see variations of that and the nuances of real people.’
REBECCA: One question I always like to ask the filmmaker is, ‘Where’s the movie?’ Meaning where is the entertainment value? Filmmakers are very passionate about their movie being personal to them, but they often miss the mark of why that should matter to anybody else. In order for an audience to care about your particular story, you also need to make sure it is entertaining.
Okay, we’re going to shift to some of the harder truth telling stuff now. That was our warm up.
STEVEN: It’s about to get downhill.
REBECCA: It’s about to go downhill. In this idea of the future of producing, I think that the future of producing lies in the future of distribution. Distribution is changing dramatically and quickly and we’re not keeping up with it. Distributors certainly aren’t keeping up with it.
Sundance has an amazing resource online called 34 Years of the Sundance Film Festival, which lays out how many film screened each year, how many people attended, how many venues and how many films are submitted each year going back to the inception of the festival. In looking at the numbers, you’ll see that 20 years ago, in 1998 there were 2,538 films submitted to Sundance (1,059 features, 1,479 shorts). 187 films were accepted which means you had a 7.4% chance of getting in the Sundance in 1998. This year, there were 13,468 films submitted (3,901 were features, 8,740 were shorts), which means you had a 1.4% change of getting into Sundance.
Also keep in mind a lot of the films invited already had distribution or were established filmmakers who already had films premiere at Sundance in the past.
However, despite these numbers, the strategy for just about every filmmaker is to premiere at Sundance and sell at the festival. But with the odds of that happening being so slim, why aren’t more producers creating a contingency plan for when their film doesn’t get distribution out of a festival?
STEVEN: I think the other part of that is that even of those 200 or so movies that get into Sundance, the 1% or less, you can count on two hands how many meaningful sales there were. Which is more tough. Just because your movie got into Sundance, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to reach an audience or that it’s going to make its money back. Which ultimately as a producer I think are the two things that you really want to happen.
I think there’s two things here. One is, I think from the beginning conceptual stage we need to think about what the back-stop plan is. Okay great, of course submit your movie to Sundance and hopefully it gets in. It’s okay if it doesn’t, it doesn’t mean that you made a bad film. It just means that the odds are stacked against you. Think about the other options for how you can get your movie to an audience and how to put your film on a path towards break-even at a minimum.
If you look at any other business – speaking to both the festival strategy and just the general economics of filmmaking – if we were people who made widgets, if it costs $100 to make the widget and we know that we can only sell for $50, we’d have to ask ourselves should we be making this widget? Is there a better way to do this and how can we actually skew this in our favor so that we can at least not lose our shirts in the process?
I think that’s something we need to be really be thinking about, as we’re also thinking about whether or not this is a story I want to tell. What’s the proper environment for this film or show, whatever it might be. Whether it’s that you feel it needs to be seen on the big screen because it begs for that experience or it can just be straight to iTunes or Netflix. Maybe you host your own website and you sell direct to consumer.
Then even when your movie doesn’t get into Sundance or even SXSW or Tribeca, there’s a plethora of festivals to choose from.
One of the last movies that I made was THE FEELS with Constance Wu and Angela Trimbur as part of the cast. We were pretty sure the movie wasn’t getting into Sundance for a lot of reasons, but that was okay because we actually made something with very mitigated risk for the right amount of money. We’re very proud of the movie, we’re very proud of the storytelling. It’s not to say that we engineer a business model here but–
REBECCA: But you should.
STEVEN: We should, right, yes, that’s part of it. The movie wasn’t highly successful. You can go on Netflix and watch it this weekend, I’m not going to get a penny from any of your Netflix views, but having it on Netflix was part of our plan so it could reach a wide audience. You have to think about that. Not just as a means of am I doing good business here, but am I serving this piece of art and the story in the best way to set it up for the best chance for success.
AVRIL: People don’t think about the value of each festival and what each different festivals can bring to your movie. Think about what is your movie about and what audience are you trying to reach? Then think about what festival is appropriate for your film. Sundance has become a default for a lot of filmmakers. I talk to filmmakers all the time that send me projects and when I ask, ‘what’s your goal?’ the response is always ‘I want to premiere at Sundance,’ it’s always the thing.
We premiered JINN at SXSW, which ended up being fantastic for our film. It was such a great platform for us for many reasons. People have rankings of film festivals and even where Sundance falls in that ranking is not necessarily at the very top, depending on who you talk to, depending on what your film is about. Sundance is not the end-all, be-all of all film festivals and I think a lot of people come into the process only knowing that one reference.
REBECCA: This is a good segue to Lacey who is in the middle of a self-self-release of her film SADIE, why don’t you talk to us a bit about that experience and why your team chose to go this route because it is a lot of work.
LACEY: It is a lot of work. Megan Griffiths, who is the writer/director of SADIE, we have made several dramas before. We had the indie drama THE OFF HOURS, which played at Sundance 2011, which didn’t get into a bidding war because it’s a drama. The ‘D word,’ but we had a really great experience and Sundance was a great platform for that and we did get distribution afterwards. But at a certain point when we were raising the money for SADIE we realized we want to make sure that we put together some money for P&A, regardless of who’s distributing the film. We actually built that into the budget of the film.
I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of films find distribution and find good homes, but we’ve also had the experience of distributors telling us everything we wanted to hear, but not delivering. They would say, ‘we’re going to tell you everything, we’re going to say we’re going to do this this thing, we’re not going to write it into the contract, you’ll get your meaningful consultation, but yes, at the end of the day, we’re going to take your film and we’re going to put it on our channels we always put it on and we’re not going to do anything special that you asked us to do, we’re going to take your notes for the trailer, but that’s all we’re going to do and then we’re just going to do the thing that we do with all of our films and we don’t have the time to specifically market the individual qualities of these films and actually tune to the audiences.’
Because there’s so much now that you as a filmmaker can do or anybody can do, no matter what your business in terms of targeting on social media ads, you can get very granular and specific and you can reach your audience very, very easily. With SADIE, we did not think that we would be allowed to do that with the distributors we were talking with unless we had a little money set aside that we could use to do our own supplemental campaign, concurrent to whoever we thought we would work with for distribution. We were already planning on being very hands-on going into it because we’ve been through this cycle several times and we know how it’s important for every film, particularly for a coming-of-age drama about a young girl. We just knew we were going to need to bring more to this and we’re going to have to put in our own efforts.
We premiered at SXSW and had a great experience, which elevated the offers we received, but it was clear that we would be going down the same road we had been down before with our previous films. We had an Amazon offer, which was only for the VOD portion and we thought, ‘we’re already planning on doing something on our own, let’s explore what it would be like if we did much more, if we did our actual own theatrical release.’ In doing our due diligence, we knew it was going to be a lot more work, but after talking to one of the producers of COLUMBUS, we said, ‘Let’s do it.’ And it turned out we’re not the only filmmakers who had been thinking about this. Jim Cummings and his film THUNDER ROAD, which also premiered at SXSW, are doing the exact same thing .
REBECCA: And this experience of feeling like your film is being dumped into the digital space without any marketing efforts is very common and not specific to any particular distributor. I’ve experienced it and I know others on this panel and in the audience have as well.
The idea I want to plant in your heads is that we all should really be thinking about creating a second contingency in our budgets and raise a portion of money from the get-go for distribution. Lacey is the first person I’ve heard say that they did this from the very beginning of the financing process. On one of my latest films, AND THEN I GO, a coming-of-age drama about a school shooting released by The Orchard, we did not have a Sundance premiere, which we budgeted for, so we had money left over in our budget that we were able to put towards an impact campaign for the film, which was something that The Orchard did not feel was valuable. We partnered with Picture Motion and put together about a dozen screenings across the country with partners such as Moms Demand Action, which was a great way to get the film in front of audiences who cared about the subject of our film and create word of mouth. And it was through these impact screenings that we received the majority of our press. But given the subject of the film, we should have planned and raised money for an impact campaign at the very start rather than crossing our fingers that we were going to get a big distribution offer and that a distributor would handle all of it. We should have planned better. Also, had we known we were going to spend money on marketing, we could have negotiated a better acquisitions deal for the film and had more involvement in the process.
STEVEN: I guess the reason everybody talks about wanting their movie to sell to A24 is because they actually know how to market movies. They’re actually passionate about the titles that they do produce or buy when there are so many of these volume distributors where it’s a turn and burn model. I think at the end of the day, you should recognize that nobody will be more passionate about your film than you are and regardless of whether or not you’re working with a big distributor, you have to be willing to step in, voice your passion, voice things that are important you and maybe even supplement what they’re doing. If you are in the best case scenario where you find yourself at Sundance and there’s a midnight bidding war, I would even look for you to say, don’t go with the dollar figure always, go with the passion, the people who are going to know how to get your movie out there.
REBECCA: Avril, talk to us about your experience with JINN, where you guys are now with the film?
AVRIL: We premiered in March at SXSW to sold out crowds and after SXSW, we played a bunch of film festivals in a number of different cities and continued to sell out theaters. We did get an offer for distribution and in our case, we thought , ‘Oh, this is great, we have this studio that wants to distribute our movie’. We accepted an offer and what we’re finding out now is that the conversation Lacey described in terms of what the distributor is doing to promote the movie is not happening. The movie is scheduled to come out in November and we’re in this position where the distributor is not really pushing the movie like we thought that they would.
I also want to piggyback on what Steven said, nobody knows your movie like you do, and no one knows your audience like you do. The director and I have been going all around the country to film festivals and meeting audiences face to face and having Q&As and seeing first hand who connects with this movie. Our distributor does not seem to value the feedback we’re giving from these screening and is not evaluating the festival response in terms of the marketing strategy.
This is one of those things that keeps me up at night, because I don’t understand the logic behind it. We made an ultra-low budget film, obviously we know how to stretch a dollar. If we have a little bit of money and we know who our audience is we can, if we were to put our heads together, come up with a strategy as a team and do really well, but that’s just not what’s happening.
REBECCA: It is a very weird feeling once you get to distribution. For years you have been working on your film from the inside out. And you do know who your audience is for the film, if you didn’t, you probably would have not been able to raise money. But yet once you hand your film over to a distributor, they act as if they know what’s best on all fronts and you’re just the person who made the film, that you have no knowledge of the distribution process, which is just not true. It’s so disheartening and makes it difficult to go into your next film, knowing you’ll land in the same place in the end.
But this is why I’m introducing the idea of having a distribution contingency. If you know going into selling your film that you are also bringing marketing dollars to the table, it changes your involvement in the process. You then can negotiate your deal differently so that you have mutual approval over decisions and you can be instrumental in the release of your film rather than just handing it off and hoping for the best.
AVRIL: To that point, it’s actually a lot harder to do that once you are already in that relationship.
REBECCA: It’s not that distributors are lazy, I just feel that they are stuck in old ways of doing things. I worked as the assistant to the Head of Acquisitions and Home Entertainment at Lionsgate in 2002 and I can tell you that the people who were leading the acquisitions teams then are pretty much the same people leading them now. But the way we make movies now vs in 2002 is completely different. More importantly, the way we market movies now is completely different. Facebook and Twitter didn’t even exist when I worked at Lionsgate. For example, I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS was made for 500k so why was the press junket held at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills? Distributors’ spending habits are completely out of line with what we spend to make these films and in the end, that distributors’ spend is why filmmakers don’t see profits from their films because distributors get to recoup marketing expenses before money flows to the filmmakers.
STEVEN: Also, the best place to be in a negotiation is to get a position where you’re willing to walk away and say no.
LACEY: I felt so good to say no. I’ve never felt like that before.
REBECCA: I want to shift to another topic, which is what is the strategy for your career? Ideally, producer/director teams continue to work together after their first movie, but that doesn’t always happen. Directors often go on to bigger movies with different producers or to direct television.
I think it’s hurting a lot of us by thinking that we’re only going to work with one filmmaker. There are some producers who started making films in the 90s and have built their careers hand-in-hand with their director, but that was when the volume of films being produced wasn’t so great, it was a different time. It’s so very hard to raise money and even harder to find distribution, which I feel has created a sense of desperation. Filmmakers do jump at projects with other producers when money is on the table because they just want to get their projects made. The truth is, not all directors are going to care if you come along or not. So how do you build a producing career so that you’re not relying on directors to generate your next project and you’re creating your own path?
STEVEN: Well, I think you bring up a lot of interesting points. One which is to diversify your portfolio, work with a number of different filmmakers that you’re passionate about. I know you recently wrote about needing a side hustle and the more you can be in a position to not have to rely on having a project that’s financed to support your life, then you’re not making choices out of desperation, you’re making choices out of the idea that this is the thing that needs to exist. We talk a lot about the trajectories of writers and directors and where they’re going to be in five years, but we just don’t have that conversation about the producer.
How do we make ourselves valuable and pertinent to the process? I think part of that is to actually control material that other people want. When I’m producing something, I’m always thinking about what else I would want to make with this particular filmmaker. I’m really lucky that I get to work with so many of my best friends, but I can’t always do every project with everybody all the time and vice versa. For example, I have a friend who I feel like I’ve invested in her career for the last 10 years and right now I’m producing a television show and she’s off directing tons of episodes of television, we’re both doing well and that’s great. It’s with the idea that we’re going to come back around and work together again. We don’t have to always be on the same journey at every step. If there’s a book, there’s an article, there’s something that’s interesting that I can get the rights to, then I can plug in any of these filmmakers I love working with and I don’t have to hope that they’re going to get a Marvel movie and then beg that I can be their personal assistant.
AVRIL: Agreed 100%. In terms of diversifying the portfolio, that’s one thing that I’m working on, I’ve already produced another movie this year that’s in post and going into the festival circuit and I’ve got a few other movies that are in the mix and that are in development that we’re trying to get up off the ground. Nilja, the writer/director of JINN and I have another project that we’re trying to launch as well. Nilja’s directing QUEEN SUGAR, which I’m very happy for her and she’s trying to get other directing projects going as well. One of the things that I’m learning about this business is that it is hard. Until you get that Marvel check, it’s going to be hard and so you just have to keep working and stay in the mix. I have a handful of projects that I’m working to move forward with various filmmakers and at the same I have my side hustle jobs to pay the bills while I’m getting these projects up off the ground.
LACEY: Also, I think it’s important to know what your expectations are and actually communicate that with your filmmakers. I’ve seen there be instances of other director partnerships where the director started to go off in one direction without the producer and the producer was very upset about it, but also they had never had the conversation, and the director didn’t know there was an expectation of, ‘We’re doing this together’. Megan and I early on talked about what our expectations were. When she takes on a project she always checks in with me and there are times when it makes sense to ask to bring me on board, but other times it wouldn’t make sense because I’m doing something else with somebody else at the same time. Like anything in filmmaking and life, communication is key. Also as Summer Shelton wrote about for Dear Producer, just like you need to plan out your life, you need to ‘produce’ your career and think about what you want to be doing. My production company has been producing some VR films, and it’s been bending my brain in all sorts of great ways and it’s paying me. I’m also doing some pilot dramas for TV. So you have to produce your own career, not just your films.”
REBECCA: I’ve gone back to my early days as a development executive and have been digging for great material, mostly books, to bring to filmmakers rather than waiting for them to bring something to me. I often hear filmmakers complain that their agent never sends them anything good so I’m spending time getting to know the filmmakers I’d love to work and hearing what kinds of stories they want to tell and then I go out and find it. Don’t wait for filmmakers to bring material to you–seek it out yourself.
STEVEN: That’s a how you can make yourself super valuable as a producer. The other side of it is, and this may be antithetical to a lot of things we’re talking about, don’t worry about it too much. Worry about being the best producer and the best person you can be. For me, I think one of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten was, a director that’s gone off and worked on bigger projects came back to me and said, “It wasn’t as good of an experience, I really felt the absence of you.” That’s the highest compliment. That makes that person want to fight more for all of us to be involved in the future, and it’s validating that to know that you’re doing the right thing and if we keep plugging away at this, we will get to that level.
REBECCA: I wear this necklace that just says, “Keep going” because I really need the daily reminder. This was a hard conversation today, there are so many aspects to producing that are daunting. So that’s my last question, what is the thing that keeps you going that helps you get over these hurdles and continue to tell stories?
LACEY: For me, it is the thrill of making a great film or show that you love and you’re excited that exists in the world and the amazing people that I work with.
REBECCA: And I’ll chime in and say, if you haven’t already, go to www.sadiefilm.com and follow Lacey’s blog about the distribution journey of SADIE.
STEVEN: I’m going to go off the rails for a second-
STEVEN: – because I think this is interesting. I think we have to take away the shame in the idea of self distribution. It doesn’t mean that you failed because nobody wanted to buy your movie or wasn’t offering enough. You did not fail, and I think that these case studies, in talking about SADIE and THUNDER ROAD, when people see that these films are actually making money without a distributor taking 30% off the top, then it’s gonna be really sexy. So thank you Lacey for taking the time to share your experiences and educate all of us.
I think the thing that keeps me going is just great storytelling, the excitement of that, and reaching an audience and hopefully doing something that can affect somebody in some way, something that will make them examine their world a little differently or relationships they have with other people, or something that really can have a lasting effect.
AVRIL: Yes, good storytelling. That’s always the kicker. It’s being able to tell good stories, I think that’s what always keeps me going and the possibility of being able to continue doing that.
REBECCA: For me, audiences keep me going. Seeing my films affect people whether that was scaring them with IT FOLLOWS or helping older women see their lives with a different lens in I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS. That’s what keeps me going. That and I don’t have a plan B.