The name SimonSays Entertainment may not immediately register with you, but I’m sure film titles like Night Catches Us, Gun Hill Road, Blue Caprice, and Mother Of George, most certainly will – at least one of them, especially if you’ve been a reader of this blog over the last 2 years, as we’ve celebrated every single one of those titles.
It’s quite an impressive resume, and one that I think most independent production houses would envy – well-directed dramas, telling well-written stories about a diverse body of interesting characters, brought to life by a selection of strong actors. A critically-acclaimed library of positively challenging projects, with the icing on the cake being that 3 of the 4 titles (thus far) found theatrical distribution – a dream for most filmmakers; although, if I were a betting man, I’d say that Blue Caprice, despite its controversial subject matter, and we could even say, controversial star, will attract interest, given how well it’s been reviewed, as well as the conversation starter it’s been, since its Sundance Film Festival debut last month.
And it’s fair to say that the Sundance Film Festival has served as something of a baptism for the company’s existing library of films, as every single one of them made their world premieres at that top-tier festival – universally accepted as one of the most prestigious in the entire world. Night Catches Us premiered in dramatic competition at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival; the company’s second feature, Gun Hill Road, was a Sundance Grand Jury Prize nominee a year later, in 2011; and its most recent titles, Blue Caprice and Mother Of George, both premiered at this year’s installment of the festival, in the NEXT category for Innovative Storytelling and in Dramatic Competition, respectively.
Add to that list of film titles, production of 2 recent acclaimed theatre – specifically Broadway – projects: the Tony Award-winning longest running Broadway production of Porgy & Bess, as well as the all-black Broadway production of A Street Car Named Desire; and with a growing library this rich, built in a matter of just about 4 years, some public chest-pounding likely wouldn’t necessarily be frowned upon by the public. But it’s just not the kind of self-congratulatory act that interests the man who is the face of SimonSays Entertainment – Ron Simons, founder and president of the company – at least, it hadn’t been, until this year. Unfortunately, the climate dictates that focusing strictly on the work itself, toiling away in a kind of anonymity, no matter how impressive the product is, isn’t always enough; and a little showmanship can go a long way – hence this interview.
Although Simons hasn’t suddenly developed a flair for the dramatic or ostentatious; it simply comes down to a matter of ensuring that the audience paying to be entertaining and educated by these films and shows, recognizes the people responsible for them; but also, and maybe more importantly, attracting those who understand and appreciate the company’s goals, who are in any position to assist or join them in seeing each film, or stage production through completion – whether that be co-production, financing, casting, marketing, distribution, exhibition, etc.
SimonSays Entertainment, both a film and theatre production company, was founded in 2009 by Simons, with a mission to showcase an eclectic variety of stories (Tell Every Story™ is its trademarked tagline), particularly those that center on under-represented groups of people, that are innovative and unique.
And with a producing team who are, first and foremost, artists themselves – Simons, an actor with stage, TV and film credits; and Producing Associate, April Yvette Thompson, a writer and actor with stage, film and TV credits as well – the work that the company produces is a reflection of their artistic sensibilities, demonstrating a critical eye for intelligent, well-executed, engaging, and entertaining storytelling – identifiable elements of what is becoming the SimonSays Entertainment brand.
Their enthusiasm and confidence that there is not only room for that brand, but also room for that brand to expand, are palpable, and even contagious, in conversations with the selective duo, who are sensitive to the precarious terrain they’re building on, and remain fluid enough to adapt to change, while still staying true to their brand.
So how exactly does a team of primarily actor/writers successfully transition to film production, moving from the “show” side of what we call Show Business, to thrive on the “business” side, and manage to navigate a firm and steady course, with product that, for all intents and purposes, exists on the fringes, in a rapidly-changing, uncertain, though exciting industry climate?
I had the pleasure of speaking with Ron Simons and April Yvette Thompson, as 2 of their most recent films – Blue Caprice and Mother Of George – were making their debuts to mostly rave reviews at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. In that lengthy conversation, Simons and Thompson answered that specific question, and several others I posed, including, how and why the company was created, what the company’s focus is in selecting its projects, how it goes about selecting its projects, questions about each of those 4 film projects themselves, challenges and obstacles they face in film financing and distribution given their project preferences, predictions on how cinema will evolve in the near future, and more.
A transcript of that long and insightful conversation follows on the next page:
Tambay Obenson (TO) – I’ve been following your progress since Night Catches Us; correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to prefer working under the radar; you’re not out there screaming from rooftops about the work that you’re doing. Generally, you tend to know the director, the cast, and you might know the producer, although I think the average audience member probably wouldn’t dig that deeply. There are those super producers like Harvey Weinstein, Brian Grazer, Jerry Bruckheimer, and even Will Packer, who seems to be heading towards those heights; these are producers who are kind of celebrities themselves. You seem like you’re really just all about the work itself, and not necessarily the glamour, and I wanted to first know if that’s accurate of me to say, or if I’m completely out of line.
Ron Simons (RS) – I think that’s pretty accurate. We’ve never really had a press agent; we’ve always had a press agent for the project that we’re working on. And it’s true. It’s all about the work. I’m an actor, and that’s also the same for April who’s my co-producer. And we’re all about the stories, so what you perceive is exactly right. One of the things that we started to look at in the last several months is actually determining that raising the profile of the firm will make it easier for us to make films. It might become easier for us to either get a door open or call prospective people, and they say, ‘hey, you know, I’ve heard of this SimonSays company, and they do some quality work;‘ and we decided that it’s probably time to start getting the word out about the company. Because that might help us in our endeavors to make more films, produce more plays, to get more work out there.
TO – And, so far, what would you say are the pros and/or cons of this change in philosophy?
RS – It’s a double-edged sword. I don’t want to be one of these people who are hounded by TMZ, you know, the movie mogul. It’s really about the company for me, and branding the company. So that when people hear the word SimonSays, or when they hear a film is being produced by SimonSays, they have a certain expectation of that film. They have a certain expectation about the quality of the product, and that it’s not just going to be some typical sugar-coated Hollywood coming-of-age teen comedy movie, or a vehicle for up-and-coming stars, or something like that. So the downside for me is, and the reason why I resisted it for a while, is that I don’t want people to start hounding me just for the sake of hounding me and getting me out there. But people have been pretty clear to me that I need to get out there, because if you want to make more movies, then you need to up the profile of the company, and the company is headed by me, Ron Simons. So I’m kind of, sort of the reluctant press person coming into this. I’m a little nervous about what this might mean. Because I do like working under the radar. I like working without a lot of folks interfering, or a whole lot of people sort of beating down the door, so I’m hoping it ends up as a positive, so we’ll see.
April Yvette Thompson (AYT) – If I can piggyback on that. In terms of some questions when we screened Night Catches Us at Urbanworld [Film Festival], it really struck me at that time, the questions were really moving towards: how did you know this was a good story, how did you make these complicated characters, I’ve never seen work like this. And it struck me at that time that this was why I was initially drawn to Ron’s work. It took me some time to figure out where his tastes landed. It just wasn’t about people on the outside of society; it was about the narrative. it was about complicated layered characters who are telling important stories, who are sort of impacted by history and politics. But his ability to recognize story, has everything to do with Ron being a brilliant actor, as well as a business man. And in looking at projects, we’re thinking, wow, there are some great actors of color that we actually know, and people don’t even know that they can do that. It was just a great story, the narrative really works, our hero has complications, and he’s not just one-note. And part of the reason we know that is because we’re artists, with years of experience at really solid storytelling. I’m a writer, and I need the story to be on the page. You can’t be making it up as you go along the way. And I think that element of how we look at projects that need to change the world, these aren’t stories being told. But these are stories that artist are asking questions like: why aren’t we seeing that, or, why haven’t we gone in for that, or, why haven’t I read something like that, or been inspired to write something like that. All of that informs our choices and I think that’s unique about SimonSays.
TO – So you started with Night Catches Us, then Gun Hill Road, and now Blue Caprice and Mother Of George; you’re building a strong library of work, and these are films that get me excited about cinema, black cinema specifically, especially those that are somewhat off the beaten path, that take some risks. I’d like to get into your head and get to know more about how you make the choices you make, and why you make them, when you’re looking for projects. Do most of them come to you, or do you actively seek them out?
RS – Most often, projects seem to find me. I think the universe conspires to bring projects into my purview. It was certainly the case for the 4 films I’ve produced thus far. As April said, because I come from an acting perspective, I first look at story. So I read a script and I want to know, am I interested in the characters, does the story have an arc, is there a journey that I’m taken on; it’s the same thing when I’m reading a book; when I get lost in a book, I forget about everything else, and I’m just immersed in the story. It’s the same approach with scripts. It’s a very guttural thing, and eventually, when I really start to get excited about a project, then I start to understand the writer’s motivations. I read from an actor’s perspective, and so after I first understand what’s happening, I then want to know why it’s happening. It’s never all 100% there, and there always has to be some tweaking, and I get lost in some of the minutiae. So those are the kind of things that occur after I decide to take on a project. The story is number 1, and then I have to feel like I really want to make this project because it’s a story that I haven’t heard before, or it’s a story that hasn’t been told in the same way that we’ve seen before, then I start to work with the writer/director, trying to figure out how we can improve this and make this a better story, so that when we get to filming, it’s going to be an easier process, and then we’ll know what we really have in our hands. One smart, influential person once told me: you make 3 films – there’s the film that you write; there’s the film that you shoot; and there’s the film that you edit. And that’s absolutely true. And every project that I’ve ever done has followed that formula. They always have to begin with the film that you write. Because if it’s not on the page, then you are lost, and I don’t think you’ll ever be able to get it on the screen.
AYT – That’s totally true because there are often times I’m watching films constantly, and there’s something that’s sort of amazing about them and I want to go back and read the script to see if that was actually on the page. Because you never want to get into a situation where you have something on the page, you had a great idea, when you were out shooting and then you get back, and into the editing room and you think, “oh, it’s actually that character’s story” and you go back and look at the footage, and then you realize you don’t have enough of that person’s arc. Or you didn’t see them do this, or you didn’t see them do that. Or what could be even more amazing is when you get to the set, and because an actor has really done their script analysis of their character, they see places where they can go deeper, and they say, ‘wow, I think that’s exactly what’s happening here in the script.’ And I actually saw some of that on Blue Caprice, which was amazing; like when Isaiah [Washington] once came to the set and said to Alex [Moors, the director], ‘that’s what’s happening here,‘ and Alex says, ‘oh my goodness, you saw that, because that’s what I was thinking, and I was hoping that somebody else saw that.‘ And they shot that same scene from several different angles, and it was amazing just to see the two of them play. But that’s because that was on the page. That was the thing that jumped out at me when I read it, and talked to Ron about it. And I was so glad to see that was actually the director’s intent. It’s a very complicated thing, character development, in indie film, which is all driven by character and the psychology of character. And when it’s done well, wow. You can’t move. You don’t want to get up after the film is over. That power is on the page.
TO – Speaking of the story being on the page, before we get too far ahead, let’s actually go back a little bit, because I want to make sure I get some back-story here; I know your background is as an actor; so how did you, Ron, get to the point where you decided it was time for you to form your own production company? What was the inspiration for creating SimonSays Entertainment and how did it all come together?
RS – I was an actor, based in New York for a number of years. When I graduated from college, I then moved to New York like many actors do, to follow my career. So I started doing stage work, it took me a couple of years to get an agent, and once I got an agent, I started doing TV shows, as well as some plays; But then I talked to some really amazing writers and really amazing actors, an really amazing directors, and people who were about the story. And so I met these artists who were so gifted, whose scripts ended up in this continuous circle of readings, but never quite made it to the stage or never quite made it to the screen. And, at the time, about 2008, is when I decided that I wanted to do something about these stories, because I had decided that the stories I hadn’t seen, but wanted to see were not being given any kind of exposure. So in 2009, I said to that I was going to start putting my money where my mouth is. I said, I’m going to start helping to get these stories out, and put them on the screen, and on the stage, and so I kind of put that out there into the universe. And at the time, I really didn’t say that I wanted to start a company, or had any long-range goals of being a big producer type. I just wanted to make sure these stories were told. So I put that out there, and then I started working with a friend of mine. I commissioned him to write a screenplay in the sci-fi genre, which is one of my favorite genres. And while we were doing that, a schoolmate friend of mine said to me, Ron I heard you’re thinking about producing; I think you should read this screenplay called Stringbean & Marcus, which is being produced on the east coast. So he made the introductions and I read the script for what was to become Night Catches Us. And I thought, wow, this is a story I have not seen. And I got really hyped about this project. I thought, this is really well-written, the characters are really interesting. It’s tragic, it’s funny, it’s unnerving, and I said that I was going to work with the existing producers to see what I could do to make it happen. Initially I was just going to come on as an associate producer, because I thought, what do I know about producing? And then, after several more months, the writer/director Tanya Hamilton came to me. We met at a Starbucks in New Jersey, and she said, Ron I want you to produce this film; will you consider producing this yourself? It already had some producers, but they eventually dropped out. And I said, well, Tanya, I don’t really know anything about producing. But maybe we can hire someone to work with us, etc, etc… and maybe we can figure it out. And then, basically, after weeks of back and forth, I said, you know what, let’s do this. I then went and bought 5 books about producing, and read them all. We did find another producer that we hired, and next thing I knew, I was negotiating contracts, I was reviewing scripts and giving feedback for characters and story. By the way, as an side, April and I are more of what you’d call Creative Producers. There are the producers out there you just hire to help you make your film. We can do that; but that’s not our wheelhouse; our wheelhouse is actually storytelling, and that’s where our priorities lie.
AYT – I remember, we were walking through Union Square [NYC], Ron and I; I think Ron was working on Night Catches Us at the time, and I had just finished writing, directing and producing my first Off-Broadway play, and we were talking about all the things that went into that, and what I learned, one of them being how to negotiate contracts. When I first got this offer to produce my own show, and I got this 25-page contract – standard contracts are 10 pages maybe – but this was 25 pages. I was an English major in college, and I didn’t quite know what to do with this. So I called every produced playwright that I knew, and I asked all these questions; and every single one of them said something like, oh, I just let my agent handle it. And I said, what? You don’t read them? I said, I actually need to understand this. I was discussing this with Ron, and I said, I’m very disturbed that we as a people don’t know much about the business side of things. That’s disturbing to me. My story is being told up there on the screen, but I don’t have a beat on how the money is being distributed, and other people are going to get all of that money? I need to understand that, and understand that really clearly. You need to be able to control your product on the business end of it. Another conversation we had that day was how frustrated I was about the work we were being seen for as actors. I told Ron about being a sophomore in college, when Wole Soyinka came to speak, and he said, if you don’t remember anything else I tell you today, remember this: when you’re telling a story, you’re either the subject, or you’re the object. The subject has a journey, they learn and they solve their problems; all the objects exist to help the subjects tell their story. So you ask yourself, are you the subject or the object. And I said to Ron, we are always the object. We need to invest in some stories in which we’re the subject. And that began our ride.
TO – Are you primarily interested in films that tell stories about subjects, if you will, who belong to under-represented groups – Blacks, Latino, LGBT, etc – or do you plan to expand beyond that?
RS – Well I see us as expanding from what we know. I think that’s who we are at the core, but we’re always looking to expand beyond that. For example, there was a screenplay that I was considering becoming the producer for, which had to do with Japanese cowboys in the Midwest. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d never even heard any stories about Japanese cowboys in Japan, let alone Japanese cowboys in the USA Midwest. And I got really excited about that story, because I hadn’t heard that story before. I’m not Japanese, I’m not a cowboy, though I am from the Midwest. But that’s definitely an example of the kind of story I would be interested in telling. But with almost anything, you always start with what you know, with who you are, whether as a person of color, or from the LGBT community; you know what rings true, or false, and then you go from there. So I think what you’ve seen so far is where our wheelhouse is, but we’re hoping to expand beyond that, to tell other stories that you rarely see or hear.
TO – Essentially, going down the path less-traveled, and taking some chances. But any ambivalence in taking on a controversial project in Blue Caprice, for example, given the tragic real like story that it tells?
RS – Yeah that was a very disturbing piece; I remember when those shootings were going on, and from a business perspective I was nervous – would it sell, etc. And from a personal perspective, it definitely made me uncomfortable. But I have to say, as an artist, anything that makes me feel uncomfortable provides opportunities for even deeper understanding, of the human psyche. I remember thinking, who are these people? Who are these natural born killers, who are so heartless to shoot down people indiscriminately? I wasn’t even in DC, but I was caught up in the grip of that fear. But I have to say that, if it wasn’t written in such a way that gave me a new understanding, or that it was exactly the same story, told in the say way as it was reported on the news, then I probably wouldn’t have undertaken the film. But the film I think seeks to understand how such a person might come about. I don’t know enough about psychology to comment, but I sensed that they become that way because of the environment they are in. Because of how they’re treated, how they’re loved, or not loved. But to me, what was particularly fascinating was how this kid went from being essentially an abandoned youth, to being a natural killer. So, it was riveting. But again, at the end of the day, it was the story that really got my attention.
AYT – I feel that we all know that the incident was so horrible. But we can’t just say to ourselves, oh that happened. We need to know exactly how that happened, as a society. Especially when it happens often. What makes a person think like that? How does that happen within a person? How do we recognize that. Some people were asking if there was going to be a lot of killing in the movie. But that’s actually not what the movie is about. It’s instead asking, how does someone become someone like this. What are the inner workings? We rarely see that. We rarely see the moment in which the person really goes dark, even when people are trying to reach them. How do we recognize that? And that was what was really fascinating about this for me.
RS – And also I’ve never really heard about African Americans becoming serial killers. That to me was a brand new construct. When you hear about a serial killer, you just assume a specific profile – usually a white man, who went off for one reason or another. But to have a similar kind of occurrence with African Americans, or for people of African descent to become that kind of a killer, is rare.
TO – There’s definitely a racial element to it, and I think that makes it a hot-button project, and I’m looking forward to seeing the conversation that it inspires after more and more people see it. I’m especially looking forward to seeing Isaiah Washington’s performance, which some are saying might be mentioned a lot during awards season later this year, into next year.
With regards to Mother Of George; this is a whole other world for you, we could say. A first for you in terms of the part of the Diaspora that it focuses on. I like that you’re moving around the Diaspora. And, with Andrew’s background in Fashion photography, as well as Bradford Young’s cinematography, I’m expecting a beautifully shot film, like their last collaboration, Restless City, but with a more conventional story line than Restless City‘s. Speak on how you got involved with Mother Of George, your interests in it, and your expectations for it?
RS – It was actually mentioned to me by Tanya Hamilton who said, Ron, you really need to read this script; it’s called Mother Of George, and it’s really, really, well-written. I was working on Gun Hill Road then, and didn’t really have the time to get knee-deep into it. But eventually I read it, and when I read it, I thought, wow, it’s an incredibly well-written story. And it also had to do with a part of the Diaspora that I wasn’t very well familiar with, about an African immigrant. And the uniqueness of the storyline as well; although any well-told story could speak to universal human challenges. But for me, the fact that the story was so well written, and required so little tweaking and adjusting, really drew my attention to it. And the fact that Bradford Young was going to shoot it, also got my attention. I’m a huge fan of his work, like Andrew’s Restless City, which was so beautifully dark. I actually went to see Restless City at Sundance that year, because we actually had the same sales rep for our films. One of the producers on Restless City was my line producer on Night Catches Us. And so there were some things that tied us and our projects together. So, at the end of the day, I read the script, fell in love with the script. I thought it was a story that had to be told. And when I was about to come on-board, and I learned that Danai [Gurira] was going to play the lead – Danai who I think is a gifted actress, with her own personal aesthetic, her background, her just natural raw talent – I just knew that this was definitely an amazing project to get involved with. So I wasn’t all that surprised when Mother Of George made the [Sundance] competition because it is so beautiful, and the colors, the clothing, are so rich in texture, rich in color. Bradford seems to catch every single light, he picks up every single color in the spectrum. It’s just really extraordinary to look at. Even if you don’t have the sound on, or you’re not even really sure what’s going on as you’re watching; just to watch the film – it’s a work of artistry.
AYT – The script is beautifully written; when I read it, I said, a serious writer wrote this. A serious writer who writes novels. I knew Danai’s work. She’s a brilliant actress. So that certainly helped. And I’d never really seen this story; even though I had written about lives that are very similar to this. I’d never seen it told with as much integrity and complication, and the struggle of merging this totally western identity with *home.* This was a no-brainer.
RS – Also in reading it, I felt almost like a fly on the wall, or a peeping Tom into the world of these individuals. And I know Andrew and Darci [Picoult, the screenwriter] were able to give us the privilege of looking into the lives of real people; not archetypes; not stereotypes, but real people. It all feels real. You feel like you’re really there.
TO – I can’t say enough about Andrew. I’ve seen his work, and I got to know him a little bit as a person from the few moments we’ve actually been in the same physical space, as well as interviews I’ve watched with him, and he’s definitely got my attention as an artist, and I’m looking forward to seeing Mother Of George, and what he does next. So, it’s good to get a little bit of the back-story on how you guys linked up to work on the project.
I’m sure you’ve heard all the stories about how hard it is to get financing and distribution, especially when it comes to films that tell stories about people of color. I’m not certain if as producers, if you choose when your involvement ends at some point, or if you’re with a project all the way through and even after distribution. So just talk about challenges, obstacles, and overall experiences in getting your films financed and distributed – especially as almost every single one of your films has been picked up for distribution, theatrical and after.
RS – When I first started this, I said to myself, the timeline for producing a film is a year-and-a-half to two years. You find the money; you go into production; you shoot it; you edit it. And even though I had read all those books about producing, I was ill-prepared for the length of time it really takes to take a film from script to screen and then home video; and I realized that it’s really more like 4 or 5 years of your life that you’re basically committing to any one project. And honestly, if I had to do it again, I probably would’ve done my second film maybe 2 years after I did my first film, to give myself some breathing room, and get that first baby out into the world before I got started on the second one. But to answer your question, we’re involved from the very beginning, at the script stage, up through and passed distribution, until you see that film on Netflix, Amazon or Showtime. I get reports on how sales have gone through ancillary rights, so we’re always there. In terms of film financing, there’s never one way to do it. In the case of Night Catches Us I was able to finance much of the film myself, which was, for me, a huge investment. But I was so in love with the project, and I really wanted to be involved with it. And you always hear that in the international marketplace, black films don’t translate… the don’t travel well, which limits their potential. As a general rule, I’d say it’s true, but because people make it so. It’s not because the films aren’t as good, or as smart, or as complicated. It’s because people have that as their mindset, and therefore it becomes the rule, which I think is one of the things we need to change. But with my films, we were very lucky, because all my films got distribution. And I think it’s because we’ve produced really interesting work. They’re really well written; they’re well executed and well directed, they’re well acted. And I feel really lucky to have been around really talented artists. And good films can go places if you let them go. The odds were stacked against us for every one of our films. With Gun Hill Road, no one wanted to go see a film about a high-school transgender person of color. But ultimately it’s a family drama. It’s about love; and how does a family hold together, despite all its issues. It’s a universal story, and I think all of the stories we tell have universal themes. They’re strong stories about real people, and they just rise; and I think that’s what draws people to our work, and why I think we’ve been lucky so far (knock on wood) to have our films distributed. Now, about raising money – it’s hard to raise money. Part of the reason why you and I are on the phone right now, is because I’d like to believe that there are people all over the world who’d like to see these kinds of stories told on film more often. And some of them are people with money, or organizations with money. And I want them to know that we’re committed to a certain kind of storytelling, and if they’re also committed to the kind of storytelling that changes the world, one film at a time, then they can help us with our endeavors. So, with Mother Of George the Ford Foundation was involved, and this is the first feature film that the Ford Foundation has ever put money into. They’ve put money into documentaries. But not scripted fiction feature films. And I think that speaks to the strength and the originality in the storytelling. So I’m hoping that more people, more organizations (for profit or non-profit), wealthy independent people, will learn more about what we’re trying to do, and say, hey, these people are trying to do something interesting, they’re trying to change the world, let’s find out what they’re doing; maybe we can be involved.
AYT – We do look at what has been the creative history of a project. because the more places a script has gone, where people have weighed in and tried to develop it, those same people are invested in the script’s success. So, down the road, fundraising isn’t only about money. When people can’t give you money, they can give you goods and services to help get your film done. So that’s part of it, to be connected to a network or a series of film labs, or schools or mentors. You have to look at the background of the people who are making it, even if it’s a first-time person, which we’ve done quite a bit of work with. You sit down and talk with them about their ideas. You also look at their past work, whether it’s feature film or not. It’s a clear indication of how their previous projects got made, and how they could continue to work with you with a level of accountability and investment in a project. And so that’s another determining factor. And in terms of getting a film distributed or sold, just as a writer, I believe strongly that in specificity is universality. So the more specific you make a father’s struggle, in dealing with his son who’s going on this journey that doesn’t look anything like his traditional definition of manhood, every man everywhere can understand that fear and anxiety for your child. Every parent gets that. So when you’re pitching the script, or when you’re sending it out for people to look at, what people are looking for is the specificity of those relationships, and how that same fear of love and anxiety and desire for the best for your child, reflects in their own life. Night Catches Us is a love story between 2 people who want to believe that they can change the world. Everybody gets that. And I think that’s key in any great story.
RS – I have to also say that none of these films would’ve been made without the help of so many people. It’s never just one person. For example, these films wouldn’t have been made without the IFP, Tribeca All Access, the Sundance Screenwriters, Producers and Directors labs. All these organizations provide us with interesting ways to either find the money, or film stock for film projects, or a camera, etc. You can’t just do it on your own. So without those organizations, these films wouldn’t have been made, so that’s very important for a new filmmaker or producer; you have to know what the landscape is, and what organisations and people out there are interested in helping new filmmakers make films. And if you’re lucky, and they support your film, they can go a really long way to making sure your film comes about. I don’t really know how exactly it’s done in Hollywood. But in Indieworld, we talk to each other, and we share resources, and I think that’s how we get our projects made.
TO – So, given how immersed you have been in the work itself, do you pay close attention to trends? Do you concern yourself with what others are doing? Do you worry about what might be keeping others up at night, like shifting market trends, the web and how that’s changing the business of cinema, in terms of content creation, distribution and exhibition?
RS – Absolutely we are paying attention. For example, we follow what genres of film that are making money and are being sold, so that does have an effect on the projects that we’re looking at. I also care about the ever-changing landscape of distribution. When I first entered the business, the concept of day-and-date releasing wasn’t common, but a lot of producers now are even distributing their films themselves. And when it comes to the web, as an example, right not I’m a big fan, supporter of and investor in this indie African American web series called The Abandon, by Keith Joseph Adkins. He’s actually the person that wrote that first sci-fi screenplay that I still want to develop into a feature. And I’d love to shoot sci-fi, which is one of my favorite genres. So, yeah, I definitely pay attention to all those things as well. We definitely make an attempt to keep our heads above water.
TO – Predictions on where you think the industry as a whole is heading; you’ve likely heard talk about the death of cinema, amongst some people anyway, and how some new platform is going to emerge from this web/cinema/tv mish-mash, and nobody really knows what that’s going to be exactly. So how do you think we’re going to be making, consuming and distributing films, looking out over the next 5, 10, 20 years.
RS – I think, somewhere down the line, the methods of delivery are going to get smarter, faster, and so we’ll be able to consume media regardless of where we are. I envision being able to have some kind of apparatus where I’m able to be more immersed and involved heavily in the experience of consuming media. I think with gaming through X-Box 360, holographic imaging, streaming over the internet, and all that, we’re all going to arrive at one place where eventually we’re all going to be part of the storytelling. So I don’t think it’s that cinema is dying; I think it’s always going to be transforming – in terms of where we see it, how we interact with it, and who’s creating it. I think that no matter where we go in the future, there’s still always going to be a need for interesting artists who are creating interesting content. I think reality TV has its own place in the world. I think they’re always going to be there. But I think that artistic storytelling will always be part of our culture, and how we consume content will continue to be ever-changing. With social media, Facebook, Twitter, and technologies like Facetime, all happening in real time, I think there’s unquestionably going to be a strong need for us to be heavily involved in whatever new media exists.
AYT – People are always going to want a good story. And I think everyone will start adapting in the same way that Amazon and Netflix are starting to make their own projects. I think the various mediums will adapt and find different ways to get stories out to people. And the creators of those stories, all they’ll have to do is worry about telling them.
TO – I know we’re running out of time, so finally, any last words, or words of wisdom to share, information audiences need to have, etc…
AYT – I’m always saying this in my blogging, or when people ask me about the business: The time you spend complaining about someone else’s story, is time you can spend either writing yours, or supporting one that you do like. Stop yourself, and find something good, and invest in it. There’s lots of brilliance and goodness if you look for it.
RS – I just want to say that Tambay, I really appreciate your blog commentary on what’s going on out there, so I’ve always learned from following your writing – who I should pay attention to, who should I go see that’s off the beaten path, or not quite made it up yet, but have some artistic merit. So, yes, I’m really glad that you’re out there doing what you’re doing, because it’s very much needed and appreciated.
AYT – I also like the way that you link different sources that are non-traditional; and you have a spin about what one particular artist is doing, whether it be an actor, filmmaker, cinematographer – you engage in conversations across disciplines. And it’s a wide and extensive view, which I find very interesting.
Naturally I immediately expressed my many thanks to both Ron and April for their very kind words, which are always good to hear. When one is so immersed in the work, it’s nice to know that it’s appreciated, especially from those you appreciate and respect.
And on that note, I’d like to thank Ron Simons and April Yvette Thompson for spending over an hour with me. It’s always great to talk to those who are on the inside, but still existing, and doing so with success, somewhat on the outside.
And I also would like to thank publicist Adam Kersh for arranging the conversation.
Night Catches Us and Gun Hill Road are currently available on a number of home video platforms, so look for it if you haven’t seen it yet. will be available in a month or so.
As for the company’s recent titles, Oscilloscope Laboratories acquired North American rights to Andrew Dosunmu’s Mother Of George, at the Sundance Film Festival, to release this fall, and Sundance Selects picked up Blue Caprice, also for a fall release.
In closing, I’ll echo April in reiterating that, if there’s one thing to take away from this entire conversation, it’s to be aware that the negative energy you invest in films that tell stories, or depict characters you reject, is much better off invested in films that tell stories, or contain portrayals of characters that you appreciate.
As Ron Simons rethinks his approach to branding his company, reluctantly entering and embracing the public spotlight, maybe we should all consider rethinking how we react to the content we consume.