INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT: Taking Risks, and Reaping the Rewards; A Conversation with Susan Stover
by Matthew Ross
(indieWIRE: 07.08.02) — Most good independent film producers got their start in the business doing grunt work. They drove camera trucks, locked-off traffic on shoots, and made copies. (Granted, some we re just independently wealthy and had a knack for meeting the right people.)
Texas-born Susan Stover got her feet wet as a litigator in the rough-and-tumble New York construction world. Then, in January1994, her friend Kelly Reichardt called to say that her first feature, “River of Grass,” had been accepted by the 1994 Sundance Film Festival. She was wondering if Stover might be interested in signing on as associate producer to help oversee the film’s festival life and, hopefully, its distribution deal. Stover agreed to check it out, and two weeks later she handed in her resignation at the law firm.
Since then, Stover has risen through the ranks to become one of the independent film world’s most respected and sought-after producers, and has distinguished herself as having a great eye for unknown talent. In addition to Reichardt, Stover has helped bring to the screen the debut efforts of Todd Solondz (“Welcome to the Dollhouse“), Lisa Cholodenko (“High Art“), and Patrick Stettner (“The Business of Strangers“). Her upcoming projects include Cholodenko’s “Laurel Canyon,” Reichardt’s “Royal Court,” Jim McKay‘s “Brooklyn,” and Mark Bomback‘s “Disturbing the Peace.” For our monthly industry spotlight column, indieWIRE senior editor Matthew Ross spoke with Stover at her Tribeca office, where she talked about the committing a years of her life to a single project, taking chances on risky material, and working with first-time directors.
indieWIRE: How would you characterize the role of an independent film producer? What would you say you spend most amount of your time doing?
Susan Stover: My quick answer for “What does a producer do,” is taking responsibility for finding any and all resources, whether it’s financing or making sure someone has hot coffee ready. I spend a lot of time trying to raise money, and I spend a lot of time doing the fun stuff, which is making the film, and then you spend a lot of time trying to find a home for the film that has just been made. And you spend a lot of time delegating responsibilities, the hierarchy. The job is shared somewhere with the director and the financiers depending on who the financiers are, if they are actually film producers.
A lot of times the directors will say, “Whatever you say.” They don’t really get involved with the business side of things, but that really depends on the director. Some really want to know about it, some don’t. Most directors just want to location scout, rehearse with the cast, storyboard, or meet with the production designer and DP. They get to a certain point where that’s only where they want to be, and they don’t want to know about anything else, unless it’s going to have a heavy impact. I always keep directors informed even if they are very laissez faire, because so many things do happen, which do have an impact.
iW: Maybe we could just take a few examples: “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “High Art,” and “The Business of Strangers.” Maybe you can speak about the different challenges that each film brought out.
Stover: I had various degrees of experience with each one. On “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” my official credit was co-associate producer. But I just did whatever needed to be done at the time. It was a great experience, sort of my boot camp, if you will. I worked really hard on that one, and Todd [Solondz] was such a sweetheart to me. He entrusted me with doing a lot of things, and that was great.
On “High Art,” there was very little money. That was a huge challenge, because we had a lot of locations, a lot of artwork, and a lot of photography artwork. It was a lot of fun making that movie. Everybody worked really hard; the crew gave themselves so hard to that film. Getting artwork, getting location, we had a really good scout on that who found us incredible places, and we just had no money. After we completely delivered it, it cost $604,000, shot on 35mm
“The Business of Strangers” was a tough shoot. I got involved with that because I was involved with Patrick Stettner’s Columbia thesis film, “Flux,” and there was a working relationship. The biggest challenge on that was definitely location, because we were going into a more corporate world with corporate locations, on a small budget. Many of the [representatives for the potential locations] read the script, and thought it was too provocative, but we needed an airport, we needed common public areas and hotels. We ended up shooting in five different practical hotel locations, all in New Jersey. We also built on a stage. We had a wonderful cast on that, and Patrick was extremely well-prepared. We shot at night and that was rough. We would leave through the Holland Tunnel at 5:00 p.m. when everyone was leaving work, and then we would go to Manhattan 8:00 a.m. when everyone was commuting to the city. It was also very hot that summer.
iW: What about financing and distribution challenges for those films?
Stover: They were all privately financed. “High Art” was a movie that no industry financier would come near with a 10-foot pole. So it was privately financed, as was “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” I wasn’t involved with the financing on that one. Over the years I’ve found that selling a film and getting domestic distribution is getting more and more frustrating with the elements — poor economy, expensive P&A — that are still out there. Other frustrations include acquisitions executives and marketing executives understanding the movie and knowing how to market it. There have been films I have been involved with that have been made without distribution in place. You get into a film festival, and then you sit down with a distributor, and then they ask you how you would market it, and you say, “Do I have to do everything?” There is a real lack of creativity and guts on the distribution side. And I know what they are faced with. I know it’s extremely expensive to put a movie out, but I think that [aspect of the film business] has been continuously disappointing and frustrating.
The same could be said about how production and distribution companies evaluate a script. The script is not unlike the finished film in how it is treated in its evaluation. The person making the evaluation needs to see the tagline, the hook, the obvious targeted demographics, and the one sheet. They will deny this, but if they don’t see it by the last page it’s not going to be made by them. Even if you have a filmmaker that’s not a first-time filmmaker, even if you have an interesting cast, so many people are in fear of their job security that they won’t get involved.
The risks in the business are numerous and inherent. When I think about the risks that all independent producers encounter everyday and take every day, versus the person who has a salary and gets all their travel paid for and has an expense account, it’s annoying. It’s frustrating when you run into fear, and that’s probably the biggest frustration out there, people being fearful of losing their jobs, and being fearful of making wrong decisions.
iW: Every film you get involved with is obviously going to be a huge commitment for you.
Stover: Yes, Yes years. In fact, I always joke that you never finish the film. It’s a huge undertaking even when the film gets financed quickly, even if it already has financing in place by the time it gets to me. It goes on for years. You always get calls for something, a new deal that’s been made. It goes to video, and now some airline wants to run it, and they have some bizarre requirement that you never had to deliver initially. It can just go on forever, it’s a huge undertaking. I think that’s something that a lot of emerging producers don’t realize: how labor intensive it is, and how long these things go on, which is forever.
iW: Given that commitment, what do you consider before deciding to get on board with a project?
Stover: Good question. Well, it depends. If it’s someone who has made films, I usually know something about his or her work, that’s an easier one. Someone who has not made a film, I’m open to working with them — I am extremely excited about a project I have right now, which will be Mark Bomback’s debut directing gig. Working with a first-time director is often more rewarding. I can go off on why sometimes the first films are the best films.
How do I decide on which first time director to work with? It’s kind of like a sixth sense I joke that I have developed; a lot of my decisions are based on the director’s ability to articulate what it is they are trying to say and show with the film. If I like the script, then I want to meet with the writer, the director and get a sense that they have an idea of how they are going to get it from paper to film. It’s not that first-time directors need to understand production completely, I don’t think that that is a necessarily a requirement, but they need to be able to articulate their vision and what they want to do.
I also want to get a sense if I can work with the director, because it’s such a long commitment. Am I going to be able to work with this person for three years? It does ultimately become an intimate relationship in some ways. They need to be able to communicate to you and you need to be able to communicate to them. There is a personality that you need to like. Not that they need to become your best friend, not at all, just that there is a mutual respect, and an understanding of what I do. I’m not just a hand servant, and I want to get a sense of how collaborative they are. A lot of it is articulation, communication and collaboration.
iW: What about the less-wonderful factors for getting involved with a film, like deciding whether there’s an audience for a movie?
Stover: Oh yeah, that. I do have to consider that, it’s part of what I do as a business. It doesn’t have to be mainstream, but is there an actual audience? Is what the story is interesting enough and compelling enough that people are going to want to see this? Is it not just catering to some rarefied, or some obscure, segment of the population? You can do a film on something that is obscure and weird and non-mainstream, but if it’s done well it can be seen by a lot of people. But then there’s that fear factor…
It really comes down to the filmmaking. Obviously there are times when it’s not so much about the subject but more about whether the film is poorly written or uninteresting. I certainly would pass on a film that doesn’t seem like it would speak to more than a few people. If there’s cast attached, they don’t have to be A-list, but are they good actors? I get pitched these projects where they have attached B actors or so-so TV actors, and that’s just not interesting. I’m willing to take risks, but there has to be a potential upside.
iW: Who pitches you projects?
Stover: I get agents, friends of filmmakers, filmmakers that I know and I might have worked with. And I get pitched by people I’ve met at panels, or who have worked as a PA for me years ago. It’s kind of all over the place — there is no concrete avenue of getting a script to me.
iW: Has the business changed a lot from when you started eight years ago?
Stover: Well, I think I would have to be around for the last 20 years to make a grand sweeping statement on that. What I do sense is that it has become much more expensive and competitive to put a film out. It’s really the distributors that have lost their sense of adventure and creativity. I don’t think they are as gutsy as they used to be. It’s pricier to put films out than it used to be. On the other hand, I think filmmakers have gotten more savvy. There is so much more access on the internet now, and producers panels, and filmmakers workshops and stuff like that, which is making them much more savvy in the business. That’s a good thing.