INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT: A Dude with a Vision; Jeff Dowd Talks Shop and Strategy
by Matthew Ross
As the American independent film community slouches steadily towards corporate respectability, a few personalities serve as reminders of the movement’s grungier roots. Perhaps the most well known among this ever-shrinking circle of throwbacks is Jeff Dowd, better known as “The Dude.” A fixture on the indie circuit for the past 25 years, Dowd is best known as the man whose pursuit of low-maintenance bacchanalia and espousal of New Left ideology inspired the Coen Brothers to create one of the laziest heroes in film history, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, in 1998’s “The Big Lebowski.”
Admittedly, Dowd has much in common with his on-screen alter-ego. (For the record: he was a member of the Seattle 7, he didn’t write any draft of the Port Huron Statement, and he no longer drinks White Russians exclusively, though there was a phase a while back.) Unlike Lebowski, however, the real Dude has made quite a career for himself in the film industry, albeit one that resists standard categorization. Most often described as a producer’s rep, Dowd essentially functions as a one-stop-shop consulting firm for independent filmmakers, working alternatively as a creative advisor, sales rep, marketing guru, and festival-circuit buzzmaker.
In addition to helping launch or sell a number of indie and studio hits (including “Gandhi,” “Hoosiers,” “The Blair Witch Project,” and more recently “Kissing Jessica Stein,” “Better Luck Tomorrow,” and “The Cockettes”), Dowd was involved in the early planning stages of the Sundance Institute and has served on the Institute’s and the Festival’s advisory boards. He has also held board positions with the International Documentary Association and the Independent Feature Project and was once the co-director of the Seattle Film Festival.
For indieWIRE’s industry spotlight column, contributor Matthew Ross spoke with Dowd about what exactly it is that he does, why so many independent films never live up to their creative and financial potential, and his big plan for rescuing good movies from obscurity.
indieWIRE: You began your career in politics. How did you get involved with film?
Jeff Dowd: In the late ’60s and early ’70s, politics and culture were closely associated. There were civil rights and anti-war rallies, alongside great music and new films. I was very involved in the anti-war movement, which gave me an understanding of what you can do on the grassroots level, which I then applied later when I got involved in marketing, exhibition, and distribution.
When I moved to L.A. in 1981, I came with the intent to write and produce. At the time, there were about 20 to 30 of us who had a sensibility for specialized films that weren’t in the cookie-cutter studio mold. Those films had a few things in common, like strong word of mouth and critical backing, but they still needed special handling in the marketplace. That’s why I started repping films. Ironically, repping had never been my intention. It was really a result of my background in the grassroots political movement, which dovetailed very nicely with niche film marketing. The studios were trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and that doesn’t work when a film has different potential audiences that go see it for a variety of reasons. With “Desperately Seeking Susan,” for example, there were the Madonna fans, the feminists, and the hipster contingent. Each of them needed to approach the film in a different way. Even today, too many independent filmmakers don’t take that kind of approach when it comes to marketing.
iW: Has your job description remained the same over the last 20 years, since you first started repping films?
Dowd: What I’m mostly doing now is getting involved in the creative process — specifically the dramaturgical process — more than the marketing process. That usually takes place during post-production, after I’ve signed to rep a film. Ninety percent of the time, filmmakers think their films are done before they’re ready, and that’s where I come in. It’s not that I have all the answers, but I do have a methodology that I’ve developed, which helps filmmakers address certain issues.
On “Kissing Jessica Stein,” which I co-repped with John Sloss, it was clear from the test screenings that this was a wonderful film that had some third-act problems. One of the producers said there wasn’t time to change anything, and I told them that if they wanted to screw themselves and screw everyone else on the film, then they shouldn’t do anything. Or they could listen to the audience. The producers ended up making some changes and did one day of re-shooting. It made the difference between no sale and one of the biggest sales of the year for a film without stars.
I would say I spend at least half of my day working with people on scripts. It’s much more preferable to fix things during the script stage. There are so many indie films that end up as near misses because they don’t go as far as they could have gone with the story. I try to help them get to the deep end of the pool.
iW: In what capacity are you working when you consult on scripts? Are you producing?
Dowd: I’m a consultant. Some of these people come to me with some sort of momentum, like a cast, or a distribution deal in place. I do a two-part consultation. One is the business/financing part, and the other part is creative. That’s what I’ve been studying for 25 years, working with the best and brightest. The best work I can do is in the early stages, in the gym, so to speak.
The whole reason [Robert] Redford started Sundance, and why many of us got involved with Sundance in the very beginning, was that we kept seeing these wonderful initiatives and ideas from independent filmmakers that ended up as near-misses. We wanted to tell people: No, don’t make your movie yet, you’re not ready. Don’t let the momentum of the deal or the constraints of the schedule make you start too early. We understood that you shouldn’t shoot before you’re ready to shoot.
Here are the two big lies of the indie world. Big Lie #1: The people who succeed are the people who passionately plow ahead without letting anybody stop them. As a passionate plower myself, I understand that feeling. But what happens is that you’ll end up making one of the thousands of indie films that will never get any distribution — not only because of what’s wrong with the distribution system, but because the film doesn’t quite work.
And many of them could have worked. When you go ahead and make a film and it’s not really ready, is that the responsible thing to do? What about all those actors who made the film for scale? What about your parents and friends who put money in? What about the marriage that was destroyed for a movie that will never be seen? Is that really the right thing to do?
Big Lie #2: That you have to go with your vision and be strong, and don’t listen to any of these fools who tell you not to let anybody dilute your idea. What good director is not capable of sorting through information? That’s the director’s job — to sort through often mutually exclusive pieces of information. We’re blessed to be able to work in this industry of magic, rather than wait tables or dig ditches. Part of that job description is to listen to opinions and judge them. The problem with most indie directors — and I mean 90 percent of them — is that they do a token amount of dramaturgical work. One reading? A couple of drafts? Come on! If I see something that clearly doesn’t have a third act but has vision and complexity, then what kind of irresponsibility is that to go out there and make the film? It’s a lot of money and a lot of human investment.
Indie directors have a responsibility to develop their films on a story level as much as possible. if that delays production three or four months, then so be it. Complexity is the nature of what makes film and drama great, and most of these indie films don’t have it. Soderbergh test screens like crazy, as do many of our best directors. I’ve rarely seen successful films that haven’t made all of the necessary steps. It’s only the naïve or the insecure directors who don’t work on their scripts enough or don’t make qualitative changes in post-production.
As for sales, I’m increasingly trying to team up with other people and companies. If I was a filmmaker right now, unless I had a film with a bunch of big-name actors, I would be very cautious about going out on the sales court without a full team, and by that I mean, publicists, sales reps, lawyers, sometimes more than one of each. Michael Jordan wasn’t the only guy on the court when the Bulls won all those championships. You need to have a full team and a full bench out there with you, and if that costs you a few points on the back end, then so be it.
Making a festival run is complex. You need to know what your film is from a sales point of view — and be able to convey that to potential distributors — as well as how that process takes place within the context of the festival. It’s not just “generating buzz.” Independent filmmakers need to make strategic alliances in order to get their film sold.
iW: So would you describe yourself as a producer’s rep?
Dowd: No. I wear several hats, and that’s not wrong. There are people who do a lot of different jobs. I’m writing a book now, and I’ve written screenplays, but I don’t take enough time with my writing. But I happen to understand the craft of screenwriting because I’ve studied it for 25 years with the best and the brightest. I get heavily involved in post-production, I rep films, I finance films, and I consult on marketing for deals that have already been done. I’m terminally schizophrenic and maybe that’s a bad thing, but there are different ways to do business. There are teams for every step of the filmmaking process. As a team member I try to match up where I think I help is needed. I’m also someone who helps build teams — that’s something I’ve done a couple of times in the past year. In some ways, it’s almost like I act as a producer. But you can call it a consultant if you want.
iW: And you do both paid and non-paid work, right?
Dowd: Yeah. I’m an easy touch when something is deeply humanist and political. How could I take money on a film like “La Ciudad,” a film about immigrant construction workers? If I call up a journalist and tell him I’m working on a film for free because I think it’s important, that gives what I’m saying a measure of credibility. I’m there to help build bridges. Sometimes it’s relatively easy for me to say, “Here’s a filmmaker with something really special, and here’s the audience I know is going to appreciate the film.” On the kind of films on which I work for free, if I feel that if I don’t build bridges, then it’s not going to be done, I’ll step in and help.
iW: You’ve spoken about how filmmakers often make wrong choices that impact the success of their film. Yet the current state of distribution is far from ideal.
Dowd: Of course. There are tons of problems with distribution, but I think there is a solution. There are a number of films out there that have worked for audiences — like “Tully,” for example — yet the economic viability of the business made it hard for the producers to get a release. I think part of the solution to this problem is television. I think what IFC and Sundance have done has been really good, but I think HBO, Showtime, Ted Turner, and the networks could do better.
I have a vision, and here it is: HBO, 10 p.m. on Thursday night, and Julia Roberts comes on and introduces “Tully.” I think there are numerous stars, major directors, and cultural heroes that happen to have a cultural consciousness and would not mind lending their names to something like this. And it would be excellent television. What we really need in the indie world is conglomerates like AOL Time Warner — and this is a serious accusation I’m making about these guys because they do have blood on their hands — to start living up to their social responsibilities some of the time. You couldn’t do any better than what HBO is doing much of the time, but they can go further.
Why isn’t HBO using its power to have a great documentary get introduced by someone like Harrison Ford or Michael Jordan once a week at 10 p.m.? You could build up an audience because of an initiative like that? It’s not like they don’t have the room to put something good on. They bullshit you with this and that, but every network has the room — we could lose one bad reality show for two hours a week and put on a good documentary with some real reality. I accuse Bill Gates for not sponsoring something like this. That’s the solution: a combination of corporate vision and stars using their largesse. It makes for better communication. That way all of us don’t have to go to battle every damn time.
iW: It that a realistic possibility or just a pipe dream?
Dowd: I think it’s 100 percent realistic. If I was given a budget to make this happen, it would happen. Do I think the stars could make this happen? Absolutely. They all love movies, and a lot of them give a damn about the state of the world. Do I think some of the people at these corporate sponsors and the media companies would go for it? Absolutely. All the pieces are there. The films are certainly there. We can do it, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be done.