Sundance: 6 Tips on Surviving as a Producer, from Killer Films’ Christine Vachon and Pam Koffler

Sundance: 6 Tips on Surviving as a Producer, from Killer Films' Christine Vachon and Pam Koffler

This event is really one of the best at the festival. It’s fun to preach to the choir, and know that, of all the audiences we could ever ask for, to speak about why we do what we do, and how, you guys will truly get it. 

A producer friend told us a joke about what it’s like to be a producer: You throw an amazing party. You send out the invites, book the caterer, manage the guest list. And then, not only are you NOT invited, you are expected to pay the tab, and then clean up when everyone leaves! 

Ok, so it’s not all that bad, but there is a kernel of truth there. 

It’s not news that this is a super tough business filled with stress, rejection, challenges, being told no, being taken for granted, failing and being asked to give back your fee. But if you’re like us, you never think about doing anything else. Because, really, it’s the best job in the world. 

In thinking about this talk, and what we have learned in the 20 years we have been in business, we thought we would distill the lessons and strategies we have come by — ways we have learned to stay in it, stay productive and stay excited about the future. Let’s call them "Tips on Surviving as a Producer." 

Tip 1: Figure out how to sustain your career! 
First of all, stop calling yourself a film producer and start calling yourself a storyteller. it’s a new world, and whether it’s the big screen, the small screen, or the screens in between, the skill sets overlap and complement one another. Be open to all of it. We’ve had meetings where we started discussing a feature script and by the time we were done it was a miniseries.

For us, it’s being a volume business. We can make some films like artisans — hand crafting and painstakingly involved in every decision — and some we figure out how we can support/help/bring to life a film in other ways that simply take less time and fewer phone calls. It’s working! 

Fight for your deal — just when you think points never pay out — they do!! miracle of miracle. just when you are about exhausted by negotiations and the prospect of back end seems comical, that’s when you have to imagine that its really worth something. because, as a producer, you are. Hang on to as much as you can. 

Try to be link in that ever important chain of title — if they want the IP and they can’t get rid of you, some way or somehow you will be attached as a producer and get paid. It’s Christine’s fantasy at this point — how to get paid not to do the work! 

Keep costs low — more on that later, but its personal economics 101. Ever since the crash and when things started drying up, we kept overhead super small. It’s just us, plus two, crammed into two small rooms. Live within your means. It works. 

Tip 2: Ignore the bad news! (Even from smart people.) 
You may hear that indie film is dead. Well, guess what, we’ve been hearing that for over 20 years. In fact, here’s a piece from 1995 called "Indie Film Is Dead" — by Ted Hope! It’s an incredibly smart piece of writing and every single thing in it is true — and still true. And yet, here we are. So yes, you will hear bad news and doom and gloom all the time. Listen, think about it, and then keep on working. 


Tip 3: Build community.
Find a support group! There are so many out there — online and virtual or the old-fashioned meeting weekly for breakfast. Find one, or start one. A friend suggested that agents have their Monday morning meetings, and we producers should try to replicate that: ways to share information so we all do better. 

Build community by being a mentor. We have heard from so many female directors that one huge lack for them as they tried to get into the business was enough mentors to open doors. Find the new talent who need access and help them. When Cate Blanchett heard at Cannes that it was the "Year of the Woman," she said, "Is that all we get, just one year?" Let’s make sure we all have a lifetime of work. It’s good business.

Tip 4: Understand the business of film. 
It would be nice if it were enough to have great taste, sharp creative instincts, and leadership qualities. But it’s not. You simply have to understand the marketplace and how your project fits into it, or you are working in a vacuum. 

The financing world speaks loud and clear. We believe it’s like real estate. When a property is listed at the right price, it sells. Same with a movie. "Still Alice at $8 million, not so many takers. The second we whittled it down to less half that (that was fun!) we had more than one path towards financing. And that’s a movie about Alzheimer’s!

And speaking of sexy commercial topics for a film, stay clear eyed about what you have and what it’s worth. But never stop feeling that it’s special, rare, and one of a kind. And know what your buyer’s goals are. Just profit? Branding? Subscribers? Red carpets? Figure out what defines success for your financing partner. Try to deliver it. 

Tip 5: Love your director and your writer — especially if they are the same person. 
We need each other. Lean in to the intensity and dependency and symbiosis of that relationship.

Over the years we have thought a lot about how to make sure we can work with someone. Of course there is their vision, and their ability to communicate that vision 5000 times per day to 200 people and have energy to spare. It’s their gift and skill, and requires endless self confidence.

After all that is in place, we have a very important personality test. Instead of a million questions, we have just one: Do you have a long term relationship with another living thing? It can be an animal. (But that animal must be a mammal.) If a director does not have that? Run. 

But truly, when the going gets tough it really helps to remember that directors and writers are quite special, and what it takes to even be good at it, let alone great, is extraordinary. 

And speaking of that director sustaining one relationship with a living creature, that leads us to: If it’s right for you, find a partner. It’s worked for us! And here’s why: It’s a lonely job. Remember how we started this talk? Not too many thank yous. Lots of rejection. No Indie Spirits or Academy Awards for being on budget and on schedule. Having that person to call when the shit hits the fan, and you just need to vent — or you just cannot bear to call that agent who will be mean to you — has been vital. 

It is one of the most exciting times to be a storyteller. And while everything is changing around us, and quickly, one thing to us remains constant. Being a part of culture, and telling stories that people connect with, is one of the best things in the world. 

So when the going gets tough, we remind ourselves, "I get to do this." 

Final Tip: Be grateful. 
After doing this for this long, we often have people come tell us, "You made one of my favorite movies," and the best part of that is we never really know which movie it’s going to be. The little old lady on the upper west side of Manhattan — It’s "Hedwig"! The Japanese millennial selling karaoke machines down the hall from our office — it’s our Holocaust film "Grey Zone." It’s the best feeling. 

So to conclude, we will share with you a fun game we have been playing for the past 20 years. To amuse ourselves, and to feel old, we quote our own movies to each other. We like to make ourselves laugh. There is a line from episode five of "Mildred Pierce," when Mildred has run her business into the ground and her creditors are on her heels. When it was said on set, we just knew it was one of those lines: A great lesson in survival, à la James Cain, whether you are making movies, or making pies. 

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