[Editors’s Note: Earlier today, producers and Plan B co-presidents Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner were honored at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival’s Producers Lunch. Below is Kleiner’s keynote speech in its entirety.]
Dede Gardner and I want to thank Michelle Satter and Anne Lai. It is extremely humbling to have this opportunity and to follow in a tradition of producers we respect and admire, speaking to their peers in a spirit of solidarity – producers being the boundary-less, restless misfits who clearly do not fit into any other facet of civilized society.
We want to thank Sundance Institute. Standing on the precipice of mass conglomeration, the disruption of the theatrical distribution business, and peak television, all this uncertainty, it is very hard to overstate what Sundance Institute, and the Sundance Film Festival, have given all of us all of these years.
I remember January 1999 like it was yesterday. This is the height of the Clinton impeachment proceedings. I was working an assistant job fresh out of college. I was very passionate about film, but not seeing how or why that had any value whatsoever in the practical sense. It didn’t seem to be advancing one’s career – was starting to feel more like a liability. In my case it had gotten me a special gig: despite being computer illiterate, I was somehow put in charge of my boss’s boss’s two personal computers. In an attempt at a stealthy and subversive move, I tried to make IndieWire one of the bookmarked websites alongside the Variety and THR trades that would be read in the am, but, alas, too sneaky – I was shot down and that bookmark was deleted.
Frustrated, I went to the Sundance Film Festival, with the excuse that a film I had interned on in college, Errol Morris’ “Mr. Death”, was going to be showing there. I arrived in Park City to sleep on someone’s floor and I felt like – wait a second – this is what it is supposed to feel like . . . I went to see a striking film called “Trans” – a film that, oddly like a film we made last year called “Moonlight”, is about a confused young boy coming of age in Florida. I felt exposed to a place where people cared deeply about movies – where idealism about storytelling and taking risks was a virtue, not a liability. And over the years I kept coming back – I saw Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail,” “Girlfight,” “Waking Life,” “Garden State,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” Andrei Zyvagintsev’s “The Return,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and so many other great films too many to name . . . That wonderful rhythm of life – 5 movies a day, pass out on the floor with a script on your face – do it again, get sick – feel like you are at the center of the world.
Let’s hope Sundance Institute and Sundance Film Festival will be here forever…thank you for helping to create and fighting so hard to preserve an artistic ideal in our business.
We keep using this word ideal and at our company, we do like to think of producing as being an expression of a kind of idealism. In a bunch of different ways.
One aspect of that is the occupational hazards of this vocation of producing discourage people who are well-adjusted and who have a rational psychology…say, people like a good input-output ratio. Our input output ratio is totally fucking out of whack. The lack of work-life and business-friendship boundaries are not normal or necessarily healthy and drive many people away, as do years of low entry-level wages and insecurity. In a society driven by money as most are, this kind of daily psychological warfare does leave behind a core fellowship of people who believe in something, some value we want to impart beyond dollars and cents and who come to believe in it all the more strongly, increasingly out of necessity as well because it justifies all the sacrifice and becomes a kind of mantra.
Another idealism embedded in Producing is the basic idea of pursuing the counter-intuitive, the opportunity to reach for that which defies conventional wisdom, which by definition is a part but not the Whole. As the world of filmed entertainment becomes controlled by fewer and fewer companies, the prevailing ideology around what kinds of films are worth investing in and what is deemed, let’s face it, worthless, becomes stronger – fewer and fewer species of films are made. And it is harder and harder to pry loose valuable IP which also clusters in fewer hands. The brands themselves become the movies and inside this psychology, Producer A and Producer B are not so important.
At the risk of sounding too highfalutin’, we as producers, sometimes get to act as a kind of Socratic questioner…That macro structure exists and seems inevitable but does it reflect what audiences want? We know that is what they are saying out there in the marketplace…but is what they are saying out there in the market, about the health of companies, about polling data, subprime loans, about climate change, about what kinds of female leads audiences will accept, about what kind of special skills a male lead must have to be heroic, about the international potential of a film with African-American subject matter, True?
Maybe it is convenient for people to believe commonly held beliefs – maybe it protects existing business organizational practices…maybe it is popular, and so it has come to be accepted as Truth even if it is Artificial. So many vital novelists, playwrights, filmmakers, actors express a different, harder-to-define truth in their work – because they are who they are, because they are as gifted and wonderful as they are, they are uncynically and sometimes unconsciously in touch with an audience and the outside world – if we remain humble and listen to what they are saying, we have the opportunity to show, by believing in them, that there is a broader horizon and challenge the models of what works and doesn’t work – and if you can puncture a hole, the fellowship of producers and artists will be there, because no true idea exists in isolation, doing the same.
And so staying in touch with this anti-authoritarian idealistic strain becomes, in this environment, a very exciting business strategy too.
Another wonderful ideal that the job allows us to pursue – and test: the idea that telling stories in this strange mesmeric medium, if their intent is protected through, can actually affect the world outside the theater or now-theatrical viewing experience, perhaps even for the better…we don’t really understand the mysterious interaction between story and consciousness but we know that empathy and compassion is a virtue..this moment of all moments would not be a time to waver in that ideal.
There is an ideal of love and caring and family-building in this gig. I have really learned this in particular from my partner Dede, of nearly 14 years, who really taught me about the responsibility and potential virtue implicit in this gig – and also from Brad Pitt who continues to inspire us and with his decency, humility, and intense curiosity. On the basis of falling in love with a story, of caring about it so much that you then pledge to protect it in its journey through the world and limit the degree to which its DNA can be altered, you then get the added privilege of being a kind of glue that helps construct families, non-biological families – and then try and convene them again and again over time.
I don’t mean for these ideals to be a false or Pollyanna denial of the daily grind – the nastiness, thankless-seeming efforts, the nomadic lifestyle, the constant battery anxiety, the increasing challenges of fundraising, distribution and marketing in this world of unlimited options, and the ongoing panning for gold that is as exhausting as it is exhilarating.
But I do think that conceiving and believing in producing as an idealistic enterprise protect us from these elements becoming the dominant impression when one goes to sleep at night – and undermining that wonderful, irrational, free, counterintuitive spirit in which Sundance Institute and Sundance Film Festival were conceived, in which our favorite films were conceived and made, and will continue to be made, which producing gives one a chance, every so often, to feel and live by.
Thank you guys so much for having us.