This is the year that three Sundance stalwarts — Ted Hope, James Schamus and Christine Vachon — chose to pass on attending the festival. Each had their own reasons: Hope, who has produced more than 60 independent features, has taken a new job as CEO of Fandor. And Schamus, Hope’s former Good Machine partner, is assessing his next moves after leaving Focus Features in the wake of corporate parent Universal/Comcast deciding to take the specialty division in a more commercial direction.
And, as Hope wrote last month in his blog post “I Am No Longer Going To Produce Films For My Living,” he wanted out because he no longer found it tenable to be an independent producer. As he wrote:
…It takes doing things I no longer can tolerate. Don’t get me wrong, I admire all the indie producers I know. They impress me. Maybe they have more faith than me. I look at the way it works though, and I think it is antithetical to quality production.
Another veteran producer, Alix Madigan, who has both “Laggies” and “White Bird in a Blizzard” at Sundance 2014, has a different point of view — one that she presented as the keynote speaker at the Sundance Producers Lunch on January 19. Sundance has kindly provided us with the opportunity to republish her remarks in full. Tell us what you think in the comments.
Thank you, Michelle and Anne, for asking me to speak today. I was touched when you asked me, but it threw me into a panic when I realized I would have to follow Ron and Albert’s great keynote of last year. Their speech was incredibly funny, wise and entertaining and it featured a topic that inspired me: “producers make the most of the opportunities given to them”. This is a declaration I strongly believe in, even though these opportunities can feel so few and far between these days.
Recently, we read that Ted Hope, one of our true greats, sadly does not believe it is possible to make a living doing what he did brilliantly for many years as an independent producer. Given Ted’s observations about how the instability in our business makes it hard to thrive, why do we persist? How do we remain committed to telling our stories in the format of independent film instead of running frantically towards the more loving and receptive arms of high-end cable? Why do we choose to stay in a business that seems too hard, too unprofitable, too undignified, and too unstable to keep at it year after year?
This fall, I went to visit the location of a small film I was a producer on in upstate New York. The crew was bustling and excited and the activity on set was humming and energized. I looked around, took it all in and felt like taking a nap. These days, seeing someone on set who is as old as I am is like spotting an elusive antelope but, fortunately, the nice lady doing crafty looked to be a contemporary. So I hung out with her, drank a lot of coffee and got to thinking that maybe this was indeed the opportune moment to pursue my next career choice of animal rescue. But, like most of you I am sure, I cannot leave just yet.
The fact is: I love the job of making independent films too much to let it go. A big part of what I love about it is the unpredictable nature of what we do and the outcomes that we can never guess. We have all met the person who gets into our business because they thought we were doing it all wrong. They had a better model to ensure an economic upside that had eluded all of us. We were making too risky choices that were completely foolish. The hard learned lesson that most of these guys finally realize is that there is no way of knowing what will work.
Looking around this room, I see many colleagues whom I deeply admire for the risks you took along the way to get here. For the stories you advocated, the first time directors you championed, the unknown actor you gave a leading role to, the amount of money you were able to raise for a project that seemed completely obscure – you have all gambled, and sometimes very successfully. We never know which movies are going to be pushed into production, which ones will resonate with an audience and which creative partnerships will be lasting.
Indeed my first experience of showing a film at Sundance paid off in a surprising way. In 1996, a friend of mine, Jonathan Nossiter, was directing a movie called SUNDAY and had asked me to become a producer, which meant he needed more money. It was a micro-budget production, before there even was such a term, and we were thrilled when it got into Sundance. When we had our first screening at the Holiday Village Theater 2, a very buzzy movie with a notable cast and a highly commercial story had its first screening start unfortunately an hour after our movie did. At 45 minutes in, our entire audience stood up and exited the theater. The only three people left were the acquisition executives, Judy Scott and Bob Aaronson and, a brand new Miramax executive, Jason Blum. Even though they were kind and complimentary, it was the start of a grim week. We ordered in a lot of Mexican food and didn’t venture out much. However, the biggest surprise came when the movie ended up winning the Grand Jury prize for best dramatic feature. Jonathan and I watched the audience members at the awards ceremony look at each other with perplexed reactions as, outside of the jurors, none of them had actually seen the movie.
On a much more recent production, when our bankable star fell out two months before shooting, we panicked, as we had received passes from every other known actress who was remotely suitable. Our investor had enough faith in the project to let us cast an unknown, who had a supporting role on a comedy series on TNT and who gave an astounding reading during her audition. Who would have thought that WINTER’S BONE would showcase the talent of Jennifer Lawrence in the way that it did? So, I have seen risks pay off in wonderful ways.
I know that every risk is not the right one to take and we need to have fiduciary responsibility to the investors who courageously make these bets with us. So all wagers need to be carefully considered. Yet, and I know this sounds like a compulsive gambler refusing to take those 12 steps to recovery, our business can be addictive in the overwhelming joy it brings when we are victorious in the face of such uncertainty. Sometimes, these risks can result in failure but, even then, I have found that there is always something positive in the process that I can take away from it – some knowledge gained, some connection that pays off further down the road or some surprising partnership.
For example, I had not been able to get a movie going in quite sometime when Marcus Hu, who is the universal glue that holds our business together, introduced me to Gregg Araki and insisted we have lunch. One thing led to another and Gregg and I ended up working together on SMILEY FACE. Even though he did not know me that well, Gregg was adamant I was his producer on the movie, despite our financier’s opposing view of this opinion. While we were in production, I would drive Gregg home every night and we would recap our day. He also would make us go to the drive thru at Taco Bell and he would rack up $15 worth of food, which, as some of you probably know, is actually a hard thing to do at Taco Bell. It was during those drives home when I learned an incredible amount about producing, as Gregg is a formidable talent in that area as well. Even though I loved that movie, it got lost in the shuffle between two merging companies and its theatrical release was negligible. Nevertheless, in Gregg, I found an amazing collaborator and I became fast friends with one of the coolest people I have ever met. And here we are again with another movie at Sundance.
Years ago, when I was just starting to produce, I was screening a movie I had worked on for the Sundance Independent Producers Conference. I was sitting in the back of the theater next to Christine Vachon. Sensing my anxiety, Christine turned to me and told me about the great responsibilities we have as producers and how indebted we should be to the filmmakers who choose us to realize their visions. She said that our business was unique in that it allows us to collaborate with extraordinary people, that we get to put their creative work in front of audiences without knowing how it will be received and how exciting that great unknown can be when we are part of that audience.
Christine’s words have stayed with me over the years, especially during those days when I am hearing the word “NO!” all too frequently. It is during those days that I have to remind myself to be thankful, as Christine seemed to be. Thankful that, despite what some days can feel like monumental resistance, I am still here and I am still making movies.
When I consider you, my colleagues in this business, I am always impressed by the specific talents you have as producers. Some of you are able to raise money in miraculous ways, some are able to perform brilliant, incisive work in the development or editing stages, and some of you have an unerring eye for fledging talent. My primary skill as a producer is an acute sense of knowing precisely when my persistence is crossing over into being annoying. So I strongly believe that it is the generosity of others that has played a big hand in where I am today and for this I am also extremely grateful.
I feel one of the best ways of expressing gratitude is to pay it forward through mentorship. I work with amazing, young women, like Lacey Leavitt and Pavlina Hatoupis, who teach me. Even though he would cringe at being called such, I am very fortunate that I have worked for my remarkable mentor, Steve Golin, since what it feels to be the days that TOOTSIE reigned at the box office. I have learned simple yet invaluable lessons from him including the importance of suiting up and showing up no matter what you are going through; wisely choose your battles, as 99 percent of them go away on their own accord because sometimes people just like to hear themselves talk; and, finally, his immortal words “let’s not outsmart ourselves” have had a profound effect on the way that I approach every aspect of what I do.
I am convinced that all of us here today will survive this time and the more savvy among us will find ways to resuscitate our business, starting with Ted Hope and his new gig at Fandor. My greatest hope is that those masterminds who created that eerily accurate Netflix application that tells you exactly what you would like to see (it’s always astounding to me how they know I would want to watch Snoop Dogg’s retooling of CAR WASH) will figure out ways of creating communities where we can sell our stories directly to a likeminded audience. Somewhere, there are other people who share the slightly bizarre, off kilter, dark but not entirely depressing and, admittedly at times, glaringly noncommercial sensibility that I do and, someday, there will be an algorithm that will connect me to them. I find that genuinely exciting.
One last thing, I would like to mention is that in Sundance, we have an institution dedicated to enhancing and supporting the risky profession we love. When I was growing up, I was described as “husky” and had a big red Afro and a lazy eye. In kindergarten, my doctor prescribed glasses and a patch over my good eye. For some reason, he felt that it would make the whole thing palatable if he gave me a 3D sticker of a winking eye to go on top of the patch. I went around like this trying to make friends. Independent producing can still make you feel just as isolated and as much of an outcast sometimes but, like being befriended by the coolest kid in the class, Sundance has a way of making you feel valued by rewarding the risks that you take every day as an independent producer.
So congratulations on all the risks that you took that got you here today – our business wouldn’t thrive without them – and let’s keep on taking them.