By Rebecca Green
Tory Lenosky is an Emmy-nominated producer who most recently produced the 2022 New York Times Critic’s Pick feature film RESURRECTION, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is distributed domestically by IFC Films and Shudder. This year, she also produced the Netflix comedy special NIGHTCLUB COMEDIAN, starring Aziz Ansari, and is the 2023 winner for Film Independent Spirit Awards Producers Award.
Tory sat down with Dear Producer to discuss how she carved a space for herself as an independent producer, the complexities of the producer-director partnership, and how she defines success, both for the films she makes, and as she looks at her career moving forward.
I think sometimes people see Spirit Awards nominations as going to emerging filmmakers, but the reality is that it takes a long time to get to this moment in your career. I first met you in 2012 when you were a Sundance Creative Producing Lab Fellow and you already had a substantial career by then. Tell us about the culmination of your experiences that got you to this moment?
I’m from Omaha, Nebraska, which couldn’t be farther from Hollywood, so the opportunity to work in film always felt very obscure to me growing up. Ever since I was little I have loved movies and telling stories. I always wanted to be a part of creating that magic. I grew up making plays and stories with my brother, performing for our parents at home, and watching Hollywood films on repeat. I stayed in state for college which was great as I was close to my family. It was a new film program at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and I was able to experiment with making films with my classmates. I was also exposed to many new films for me, both foreign and independent films. It really expanded my view of what filmmaking could be. I fell more in love with the movies then. I also learned that I enjoyed being the person that pulled together the whole shoot, so that led me to pursue producing.
I made it my mission at school to figure out how to work in the industry. I found an internship, which took me to London, where I was fortunate to intern at Pathé Films. From there, I got my first experience in film working on several incredible films as a production assistant. I worked on a reshoot of THE QUEEN and met the producer Tracey Seaward and was able to shadow her on EASTERN PROMISES. After graduating college, my interest in producing was growing.
Once I was back home in Omaha, there was a small indie film being made called LOVELY STILL, which is where I met Lars Knudsen. At the time, I was still learning how the production department worked, and it wasn’t clear to me the path to producing. I was blown away by what he was doing because he was producing in his 20s. I remember being aghast at how young he was to be producing and I realized there was no reason I couldn’t start doing it as well.
After LOVELY STILL, I moved back to London briefly through a brief work visa I obtained. I worked on several features and assisted some independent producers before coming back to the states. I was first learning the hustle of finding work in London before my visa expired and I moved back to the states. I traveled to New York with $200 in my bank account and told myself that if I didn’t find a job, I’d move back to Nebraska. I crashed on a friend of mine’s couch who was working in the art department on a TV show. When there was an opening on his show for a construction PA, I took up the opportunity. Through that job I stayed in NYC.
I worked on films of various sizes in the production department, even relocating to work on several studio films. Lars called me while I was on one and asked me to production manage an indie film with him in Armenia. I was 23.
I remember saying to him, “Are you sure I can do this job?” He assured me I could, so I went to Armenia. That film in Armenia was called HERE, it premiered at Sundance in 2011. After that film, I moved back to New York and from then on, my mentality was, “I’m producing. I’ll produce anything.” I was figuring out through my network who I could learn from, whether it was the producers I knew, or the production coordinators who had hired me. I think you met me at Sundance that year. It was my first time going to the festival and really experiencing the indie community in full. I was super inspired. By the time I got into the Sundance Creative Producing Lab in 2012, I had produced Rodney Evan’s THE HAPPY SAD, and line produced Ira Sachs’ film KEEP THE LIGHTS ON.
After the Lab, I produced a film called LOITERING WITH INTENT with Parts and Labor, which premiered at Tribeca. I moved to LA and produced two features for Pulse Films, LOST TRANSMISSIONS in 2019 and THE HATER in 2020. In 2021, a project I’d been attached to for years, RESURRECTION was able to secure financing. I spent 2021 back in NY producing that project. I met Aziz at the end of the year I worked with him and on the comedy special for Netflix that came out last January.
Early in my career, I learned there wasn’t one path to produce. While that was scary, I also found that exciting. Every producer has a completely different backstory through which they came into the industry. I knew I had to hustle to learn as much as possible to figure out a way to make this a career.
Parts & Labor was a flourishing company, a beacon in independent film for quite some time, but there aren’t many companies left like that. There are only so many projects you can take on without an assistant, or development person, or funding. How are you building your business in a sustainable way that also allows for growth?
I’m open to all sorts of opportunities right now. I don’t have one vision for myself because there are many different ways to produce. Everybody has their own vision of what is successful or sustainable. We all need to make a certain amount of money to be sustainable. For me now, when I’m not producing films, I am producing short-form content. Not only because it pays my bills, but because I find it makes me a stronger producer.
What kind of projects do you look for? What type of story gets your attention?
That’s also a moving target. Early in my career, I used to say I just wanted to be inspired by what I read. While I, of course, want to still feel inspired, I need to know that I can bring something to the table, understand who the audience is, and feel confident that I can get it made and that it can stand out.
I don’t have one type of story I gravitate toward. I love comedies, art house films, thrillers and romances. I want to tell stories I haven’t seen before by filmmakers whom I feel have unique visions. Right now, I am loving stories that use genre. It’s no surprise as this is where the market is, but I find it thrilling how writers are working with genre. When I read those scripts it not only excites me as an audience member, it makes me feel more confident that there is a wider audience for the project which can only help to find the financing and distribution.
Being able to clearly see how to get the project made is so important to me. I recently passed on a project and said to the filmmaker that my reason for passing was that I couldn’t see how I could get the film into production in the next five years. Because as a producer, that five years it takes to get a film put together is all unpaid work. If I want to build a more sustainable future, I have to take that into consideration.
Exactly. The two big things I would really want to know is that I can contribute to the project in a way that supports it and have an understanding that I can get it made in the current marketplace. This obviously comes after belief in the director and desire to tell the story.
How do you define success for you as a producer?
I want to be proud of the work I do. I’ve learned on every project I’ve produced, whether it’s a music video, short film, or feature. As long as I feel proud of the work, no matter the challenges, that is success. I wouldn’t want to do this anymore if I wasn’t proud of the work.
I love telling stories, and as long as I can continue to love telling them through this medium and find a way to make a living, that is success to me.
How do you define success for an individual film?
That is different for every project. For each member of the team – from the writer, director to financiers – there’s going to be a different vision of success and one of my jobs when lead producing on a project is to figure out how to align them.
Success for me on each project is knowing that I’ve done everything I could to make it the best film it can be, while protecting the director’s vision.
I see my job as being the person who is there to push everyone to reach their full potential so that the film can reach its potential. Even if the film does not meet the external success markers i.e. festivals, distribution box office, if you feel the film is the best version of what you set out to do, that’s success.
Shifting gears… There are so many panels about the producer-director relationship, but I find them so disingenuous because the reality is that most directors don’t continue to work with the same producers, they go with the producer who presents an opportunity (big IP, financing, studio), rather than a collaborator they grow with. It’s such a hard partnership. What do you look for in a director when you’re considering projects?
I think most importantly, I want there to be an understanding that we’re a team. I don’t think these relationships work when one person is working for the other. If we don’t understand that we’re a team with the same end goal, I don’t know how productive a working relationship will be. It’s a very close relationship that you’re developing because you are sometimes telling very personal stories and the hours are longer than a regular 9 to 5.
If there is an understanding we are a team, it will also allow them to feel comfortable to truly let me into their creative direction for the film. I always communicate that it’s essential I know how they want to tell the story, because if I don’t, I won’t be able to advocate for them with all of the parties I have to liaise with when producing the film. This naturally leads me to being creatively involved in the filmmaking process. Meaning, once I know their creative vision and sign onto the project, I will be sharing creative input. I’m always clear when meeting a director that I do not want to direct, but that I expect to be creatively involved in order to fully support them. Giving notes on the script, support in pre production – for example during location scouting and casting, watching the shoot and being a second set of eyes for the director, and giving meaningful notes in the edit to create the best version of the director’s vision. These are some of the ways I would expect to be involved.
The creative support would be based on my previous experience and only be in support of their vision. Notes are always a part of the filmmaking process from the producers, financiers, distributors, sometimes talent they are directing, so it’s important to gauge how they will react and work with them as it is always part of the collaborative process of making a film.
Often suggestions are often looked at as criticism instead of, ‘No, I’ve been here before. You’re going to thank me later. I’m really just looking out for what you’re trying to do. I’m not trying to point out that you don’t know what you’re doing.’
You mentioned producing is not a job with normal hours… We talk a lot about financial stability, but this year I feel the conversation is more about emotional stability. How do you take care of yourself as a person and not just take care of your projects and filmmakers?
I spent 2021 making RESURRECTION and then produced Aziz Ansari’s NIGHTCLUB COMEDIAN in 2022. When I finished those projects, I made it a point to make my personal life a real priority in 2022. That meant working less and prioritizing my personal relationships. I have never done that in my whole career.
Every person has a different level of sustainability. A good income for a year might be different from what somebody else might think is a good income, depending on their bills and how their life looks. I have a certain level that I want to attain. For me, it’s now essential that I balance that with time with my loved ones. That’s how I know I will be the happiest and the best producer.
Also, when I’m on a project, I have close friends who are producers that I talk to. We can give each other advice and share experiences. It always helps me stay grounded in whatever situation I’m in as a producer. I’ve had that core group of friends for a few years now and they massively keep me very sane in what can sometimes be a very challenging job.
How are you feeling about the kinds of movies you want to make and where their place is in the business right now?
The ability to make something creative as a visual storyteller has never been more accessible in our lives. Nearly everyone has a 4k camera on their phone now. In that sense, I’m very hopeful and excited about the stories people want to tell and the stories that people can create. I’m very wishful in that respect.
I also think the industry is slowly realizing that new stories are desired by audiences, not just recycled IP. Stories of new experiences or cultures we haven’t seen. More stories told from the female perspective. I am excited for those! These new stories might be a challenge to make, but if I want to see it made, I’m going to do the homework to figure out how to get it made in the market.
We all have different ideas of what will happen within the industry, with the studios and the streamers, et cetera. The traditional model of indie filmmaking, meaning independently financed and bought after by a distributor, is a tough model right now, because distributors are buying less. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth taking a risk to make something that you think could stand out. The market is constantly shifting and while that is challenging to navigate – it also means there are new ways to make and finance work in that shift.
It’s currently frustrating when the trades talk of films either performing or underperforming. They aren’t always clear on what their gauge is for those pieces. Those articles aren’t talking to the financier or the director or the producers or the distributors about how they define success. They seem to still be defining success through published box office numbers only. Distributors always have different ways that they make their money – it’s not just straight box office. As I said before, each team will have a different definition of what success looks like for them.
When I managed the Producing Lab, I remember the concept of the “second bottom line” being introduced, I think it was Paul Mezey who said it. The second bottom line is not the financial return, it’s about what you were trying to accomplish with the film. For docs, that often means impact campaigns and educational sales. For others, it means community screenings in places that wouldn’t otherwise have access to the film. For some, it’s building conversations around the film. And sometimes it’s simply to lift up a particular talent. I feel like we’ve really lost this concept when actually all these goals are the reason most indies are made, it’s never about box office, it’s always about the second bottom line.
You are definitely right! It’s different on each film. Some of my projects have had not only a filmmaker I want to support, but an idea at the core of the script that I thought was imperative to tell. This is what drives me through making a film and working in this business. I have always been a storyteller and I have always felt a need to be part of creating films. I love that one of the powers of cinema is that it lives on past its initial release. When I say I want to be proud of my work, it’s my desire to create art I would be excited to see live on in the film cannon years down the road.
What advice or words of wisdom do you give to the person that’s at the start of their career or thinking about coming into the business at this time.
I always say you must love it. Only try to get into this business if you are passionate about it. Everybody that does any job, whether below-the-line or above-the-line, loves it. Because it is a constant hustle, there’s no straightforward path to any job in this business and most positions are never 9 to 5. You must love it, be very proactive, and hustle to educate yourself on the business and find work. If you’re unwilling to do that, this might not be your business.
I remember being told when I was younger, “It does NOT matter what school you went to. Everybody starts in the same place.” I was shocked because I thought you had to go to USC or NYU. I learned very quickly that it was true- it did NOT matter. I was learning how to find work and opportunities in the business the exact same way they learned. It doesn’t matter where you study and honestly IF you have a film degree.
Look to find and work with people who not only align with you creatively, but are respectful and kind in the way they work. This should be obvious but sometimes isn’t. I thought when I first got in the business that you had to prove how much you’d overwork or put up with tough environments to be successful. My favorite people in the business are those who remind people when the pressure is added that this is NOT brain surgery. We are doing something most people dream of. We are making movies. We shouldn’t be killing ourselves for the work, we should be treated humanely and have fun.
Also make sure you keep a good friend group around you. Mine has always helped remind me of having fun, but also living my life outside the work. It’s a very hard and often thankless work and having people who can support you along the way is critical.
I also always say if you’re not ready to work a second job for the first 10 years, don’t do it. People look up to me, but I’m still juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet. I’ve never made more than a 30k fee on any project I’ve produced. You have to be okay with that; I don’t call it a side hustle now, I call it my “parallel path.” There has to be another income stream to support you.
It all depends on what my needs are financially at any given time. Early in my career I babysat, I worked remotely for a software company, and I used to write indie schedules and budgets to keep my lights on. Now I am able to produce short form content which includes commercials, branded content, short form documentaries, music videos etcetera. As I said earlier, I enjoy doing that work in addition to the other producing, because it is still producing. Every project, every shoot, is not only an opportunity to make a living, but for me to become a stronger producer.