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Blood, Sweat and Producing, Part I: The U.S. - A Bunch of Junkies

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire May 5, 1998 at 2:0AM

Blood, Sweat and Producing, Part I: The U.S. - A Bunch of Junkies
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Blood, Sweat and Producing, Part I: The U.S. - A Bunch of Junkies

by Anthony Kaufman




"Blood, sweat, and nobody get's paid," that's how independent producer
Gill Holland ("Hurricane Streets", CineBlast!) described his job.
Holland's definition was just as cynical and vague as the rest of the
producers who spoke at a panel held last week at the Avignon/New York
Film Festival
. Avoiding the nuts and bolts of producing, the round
table, moderated by Andrew Fierberg of Double A Films ("Nadja") revealed
an insider's look at the sardonic and dedicated personalities of a
varying swath of producers: Holland, Fierberg, Randy Ostrow of October
Films, Joana Vicente of Open City Films ("Three Seasons"), Robin O'Hara
of Forensic Films ("Gummo", "First Love, Last Rights") and Jeffrey Levy-Hinte
("High Art").


"A hundred years ago, we would have all been in the circus," said Robin
O'Hara, who credits "being bossy at a very early age" and "problems with
authority" as some of the reasons she got into the wacky world of
producing. "Basically, it stinks, it's a bad business," she continued,
"When I would explain to my father the structure of a deal, he would
say, 'But that's terrible.'" Still, O'Hara maintains some of the
benefits of independent film, "If you're doing something for under 2
million dollars, anybody that's involved is there because they want to
be."


Working as a line producer on foreign films shooting in New York as well
as her own productions, O'Hara, like Vicente as well, remains
consistently close to the filmmaking process. Jeff Levy-Hinte,
who works both as an editor and producer, noted this close participation
and controlled environment of the low-budget scene as the very reasons for
his involvement. Ostrow also reinforced the point, "It's interesting
working on independent films because you're a lot closer to the source
of the inspiration of the art and you have a lot fewer layers to dilute
it. You're closer to the process than you would be when you're making
larger films."


"Independent film producers are in it because they love movies," said
Ostrow, "Not necessarily because they like money or big movie stars."
Still, money is essential and these producers have to find that delicate
balance between creativity and cash -- or as O'Hara said, "We'd gladly
sacrifice passion for a paycheck." Holland likened the job of getting
money as a producer like "a dog with a script in his/her mouth" while
Levy-Hinte added, "Yes, there's a lot of begging and often times, also
slobbering."


Regarding financing, O'Hara shared a lesson taught to her by James
Schamus ("The Ice Storm") of Good Machine: "When you're trying to raise
money, the very first thing you are obligated to do for equity investors
is talk them out of it. Really, hit them hard. 'You are 98% throwing
this money out the window. You will not have creative control; if you
want creative control, direct your own movie.'" By doing this, she
maintains, "[You're] getting rid of the people who are more trouble than
their worth." Vicente simplified the point: "The less money you have,
of course, the more control you have."


Ostrow, whose job is now to oversee physical production at October
Films
, contradicted his earlier points about the differences between
larger and smaller producing in a revealing moment of cynicism: "The
more I see how it works from a corporate perspective," he says, "the
more I see how it's all the same thing. Business is business. There's
always the people with money who don't want to give it up. That's how
they got it. That's how they keep it. Then there's the people who want
the money. And they're always going to want the money because they don't
have it. It doesn't matter whether you're selling wire hangers or
movies."


"My rule is: the more people you let sleep on your floor," said Holland,
who considers his producer's role as a nurturer, "the more contacts
you're going to have." And Holland's rule has partly paid off.
Although his Sundance multiple winner "Hurricane Streets" established
him as one of the hottest up-and-coming producers. Holland, who is now
producing "Spring Forward" a new film by Tom Gilroy (co-produced by R.E.M.'s
Michael Stipe and filmmaker Jim McKay), depicts a frustrating picture
for today's independent financing scene. "In New York, at least, two years ago,
it was easier to attract people that were willing to risk -- these high network
individuals that we all stalk, and you say, 'Part of a diverse portfolio is you
have some ultra-high risk investments, and here's my movie project,' but the
S and P went up 45% last year," claims Holland. "So nobody wants to give up
their money from the Stock Market now."


Still, Ostrow contends there will always be suits seeking cinematic
interests, "There are these people who made a lot of money in the Stock
Market who have to pretend they're going to do something with their
money and one of the things they like to do is meet with people in the
movie business, because it's glamorous." Seeking investors from Wall
Street is always going to be a lot better than self-financing warns,
Levy-Hinte: "Putting your own money in can get you into trouble. People
bring family money and friend's money and it's like, you always know
there's a risk, but you don't know how much of a risk until you've spent
$750,000 and you get $50,000 or nothing in return."


Fierberg also cautioned, "More often than not, you'll find people who
think that just shooting it is enough, and nowadays, it's just not true
anymore." Ostrow gives the example of adequately marketing a film,
something that just can't be done in an independent way. "If you're
really independent, you have money that has no strings attached to it --
you have real artistic independence. But that ends when you have to
start marketing it. Because no matter how independent you are when
you're making the film, you have to go over to somebody who has the
ability to get it to an audience."


And getting it to a paying audience is no easy task either. While
foreign markets have always been a safety measure for independents
looking to recoup their losses, Vicente explains, "It used to be that
you could make your money back internationally, unfortunately it doesn't
happen anymore." She noted that films without any U.S. release will now
often be passed over by foreign distributors. "A, B, C. . . Manhattan," a
film which she co-produced, played at Cannes and Sundance, and she
claims, even with the cache of those festivals, foreign distribs walked
away.


"What you have to realize is that it's not only that it takes a
tremendous amount of time, effort, and ingenuity, and inspiration to
find money for these films," says Levy-Hinte, "but for me, I don't find
it very interesting or satisfying." Although profit margin isn't the
most spiritually gratifying part of making movies, Ostrow admits,
"that's the most frustrating part of it and the least interesting part
of it; it's also the most important part of it." And driving the point
home, O'Hara lamented, "Directors are really the only ones who have any
fun."


And yet, "it's kind of like getting high" said Levy-Hinte about the
feeling ones gets when a film is finished and it finally shows to a
responsive audience. After Holland's continual jabs at the process, he
said he still couldn't wait to get back to his office. And echoing
Levy-Hinte, he perhaps summed up the producer's motivations, "We're all
a bunch of junkies."


[Stay tuned for "Blood, Sweat and Producing, Part II: France -- Co-Financing,
Cultural Barriers, and Boyfriends", coming soon in indieWIRE.com]