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Lynette Howell: “Are we looking at every option, or are we taking the easy way out?"

By Indiewire | Indiewire January 24, 2010 at 9:03AM

The following is the text of "Blue Valentine" producer Lynette Howell’s keynote speech (as prepared and delivered to indieWIRE today) from the Sundance Producer's Brunch on Sunday, January 24 at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
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The following is the text of "Blue Valentine" producer Lynette Howell’s keynote speech (as prepared and delivered to indieWIRE today) from the Sundance Producer's Brunch on Sunday, January 24 at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

Welcome! I want to thank Michelle Satter and the Sundance Institute for asking me to speak here today. I definitely wish she would have required a two-drink minimum, but I am happy to be here nonetheless.

As we all take stock at the end of the year and over the holidays, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on what it means to be an independent producer today. This has forced me to really focus on the fact that we have all been told time and time again that this is a challenging period for independent film and independent film producers. Well where does that leave us? I don’t know about all of you, but I can tell you that on a daily basis that makes me want to stick my head in the sand.

Independent producing is not a job you can interview for, nor does anyone really give us a road map. But what we all have in this room is an entrepreneurial spirit that you cannot teach. And I know most of the producers in the room have it, because despite all the challenges out there, you figured out how to get your movie made and now it is at Sundance.

I was born in Liverpool, England, to a wonderful, working class family. I have been producing since the age of 11, whether it be selling candy to my neighbors, or charging relatives to see my brothers and sisters put on a show in the backyard.

I don’t have the wisdom and experience of Ted Hope, Christine Vachon or Anthony Bregman, and I definitely do not consider myself an expert on the independent marketplace. I have only been making movies for 5 years. But in some ways the unstable economic climate and continuing change in our media delivery systems is all I have known since I began. Maybe there was a magical time when they just handed out money for movies and you could see unicorns at the Yarrow, but that certainly is not the case now.

At the Sundance Film Festival producers brunch today: Anthony Bregman and Jeb Brody. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

So how does one get a movie made? Like you all, I get asked that question about my own films. Every movie I have produced came together under a different set of circumstances and no practical, financial or creative experience was the same on any of them. Whether it be hedge funds, private investors or brand integration in the form of equity, I would, and will ask the same thing of every single person in this room over the course of the next week: how on earth did you get your movie made right now in this climate? Somehow you made it happen and even if it’s your first movie, you have a story to share and something that I, and everyone in this room can learn from. It is also highly unlikely that most of you would be able to repeat exactly the way you got the movie made again. Instead you will need to come up with a new approach and a new plan of attack for your next project. Independent film producing requires constant innovation and out of the box thinking. So before you leave this room today, make sure to ask at least one person how they got here and their answer may inspire, enlighten or just make you feel less alone in your daily struggle, because their story, too, is somewhat crazy.

Despite the fact that it has gotten harder to raise money for independent film, the following is fact: “For the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, 113 feature-length films were selected representing 36 countries by 44 first-time filmmakers, including 24 in competition. These films were selected from 3,724 feature-length film submissions.”

For this past year, Withoutabox has averaged between 4,000-6,000 new member signups for feature projects each month. A reasonable estimate would be that 60,000 new feature films were submitted to festivals around the World last year. That’s a pretty staggering number. And regardless of budget size or audience reached on each of those movies, that is a lot of independent spirit right there.

Now I grant you that a lot of these movies were made on a micro budget, but so were "Humpday" and "Paranormal Activity," both of which found distribution and had a big impact on cinema this year.

Rachel Wexler, producer of "My Perestroika," with the film's director and producer Robin Hessman. Photo by Eugene Hernandez

I also take tremendous comfort in the fact that no one has ever been able to truly predict what movies are going to work. We are all always speculating and then continuing to be surprised by movies that break out that would never have seemed to fit into any financiers’ model. Last years Sundance hit "Precious" is just one great example. We are lucky that there are people willing to take a risk on daring material because of its exceptional storytelling. This year there will be new stories to tell, new films and filmmakers with inspiring tales of their road to Sundance. This festival and others like it will continue to be essential to the discovery of new talent. It is our responsibility to keep believing in filmmakers and projects we are passionate about and push them to fruition.

It’s no secret that the boxes we are all trying to fit into these days seem to be getting smaller. Who in this room loves hearing the words “cast an actor that has a 75% pre-sale value” or “why cant you relocate this period French costume drama to the slums of Detroit? I don’t understand why that defunct General Motors Plant can’t double for Notre Dame?”

I love making movies; sometimes I hate the business of making movies. Foreign sales estimates make me think of actors as walking around with $$ signs above their heads. Our role now is to fight for creative integrity, while still working within the boundaries of today's financing opportunities.

But asking how to get movies made is only one part of the conundrum. We need to make distribution our responsibility too. Last year we listened to inspired and highly educational speeches on new distribution and we all understand that everyone is still in the process of figuring out how to truly monetize this. So I am not going to repeat the words of Jim Stern or Liesl Copland (mainly because they are so much smarter than me with a much greater understanding); you can go read their keynotes for yourself.

[Liesl Copland's keynote | Jim Stern's keynote]

"Last Train Home" producer Mila Aung-Thwin and production supervisor Bob Moore. Photo by Eugene Hernandez

What I will say is that using the internet for targeted marketing is a not-so-new wave, but an ever-increasing one, that we can all be a huge part of, no matter what our budget size. It has always been a given that we are expected to know how to develop material, raise money, collaborate with a director and deliver a film. But I believe that now more than ever, we are responsible for the life of our movies long past their delivery date. Not only should we be thinking about the end goal and our audience, which again, is not a new concept, but also we have the opportunity to take matters into our own hands. The internet is ours for the taking. You can facebook, Twitter, blog, create your own websites. Get the word out there yourself. Online marketing is so much more affordable than TV spots. And this is just scratching the surface of how we can all be more proactive in promoting our films.

As for our distribution outlets and opportunities: the important thing for us all to remember is “are we looking at every option, or are we taking the easy way out?” Are we thinking about all the rights we control and how we can maximize them? Last year Mary Jane Skalski talked about this notion of how “missing things” as a producer stresses her out. This year I want to stress about applying that same notion to the distribution of your movies. Now that traditional MG’s are down, instead of just selling all rights to a distributor for less money, consider bifurcating the rights yourselves and sell off free TV, DVD and streaming and theatrical all to separate parties if that makes the most fiscal sense. I did this on a movie and it allowed us to maximize our revenue stream and still achieve a theatrical release.

Something else to strongly consider: choose your distribution partners carefully. I don’t believe there is a shortage of buyers for movies, there is just a shortage of buyers who will pay a satisfactory MG and then put your movie onto 1,000 screens. But there are other distribution opportunities available and so take the time to get inside a distributor's plan for your movie and never underestimate the power of a passionate, out of the box idea, even if it has less dollars behind it then would be ideal.

With all of that being said I have neglected to mention one very important thing. Quality. What is at the root of everything we do is the quality of the movies we are making. If you are going to spend a minimum of two years or more of your life cheerleading and fighting for a story you had better believe it is something you would actually pay $12 to see yourself. I’m not living in a fantasy world where this is possible all the time. For many of us sharpening our producing skills sometimes means taking on projects that are good and not great because it is hard to find strong material. But I guarantee you that if you know in your heart the movie is not great, and you let it continue on that way that your passion will fade and the movie will not find its way magically into being an impactful film. There are so few fresh ideas and we are competing with 3D and special effects and so our stories and characters have to be truly unique and engaging these days.

"All My Friends are Funeral Singers" associate producer Jason Tyrrell from IndiePix with Suzanne Lettrick and the film's executive producer Glen Sherman. Photo by Eugene Hernandez

So then why do we all do it?

I don’t know why each of you individually does it, but I know why I do. I love being an Enabler. To me, that has always been what producing is about – it’s about enabling a process, enabling people, enabling art.

I love when I can help a writer crack the third act, or a 2am sound mix when the piece of music we can barely afford works just perfectly enough to tip the emotional balance of the scene, or the first day of principal photography when "action" is called and the years of frustration getting there dissipates.

I am here this year with a movie that is premiering in a few hours that has been my most valuable professional learning experience to date. "Blue Valentine" has taught me many things as a producer, but primarily about how persistence and unwavering belief and commitment to a screenplay and director that got under my skin four and a half years ago, is one of the reasons we are at the festival now. We all willed this movie into being. My producing partners and I have joked many times that we could write a book on the making of this movie. No project I have done has been harder to bring to fruition with so many stops and starts along the way for every reason imaginable. I got so stressed out doing our end credit "thank yous" because it took the help of so many people along the way and without every single one of them we wouldn’t be here. It has also taught me that when you make something the way you intended from the very beginning, despite the numerous other versions that almost got made, that there is no greater feeling of achievement and pride. It also taught me to truly value my partners. I love producing with others. These days our slates need to be full because its hard to know which movies are going to get greenlit and when you are basing your living off of these fees, you need to have many balls in the air. But no independent film happens without an immense amount of work and constant cheerleading and so I found a truly effective way to balance these things is to have partners on movies. Someone else to share the burden with and motivate each other. If it wasn’t for the support of my partner Doug Dey I wouldn’t have ever made one movie. On "Blue Valentine," there have been 3 of us all working together for a long time to push this movie with every ounce of our being into production. Jamie, Alex and I needed each other to keep the faith.

All of this brings me back to Sundance. It was only in 2006 that I came here for the first time with two movies, stood in this room and listened to Michael London speak about his experiences as a producer and, as a huge fan of "Sideways," I was motivated to be the sort of producer who could speak passionately about the movies that I would make. This brunch had a profound effect on me. It didn’t take more than one festival to immediately become a member of this community.

"Lovers of Hate" co-producer Chris Ohlson with filmmaker David Zellner ("Fiddlestixx"). Photo by Eugene Hernandez

Mary Jane also spoke about "producer solidarity" last year. I have built so many relationships with producers I respect and admire because of the Sundance network. It can be extremely lonely doing what we do. Sundance connects me to other producers and provides me a community of individuals I respect, admire and can continue to learn from.

One of my favorites experiences of this past year was being invited to be an advisor at the Sundance resort this summer for the Creative Producing Initiative.

The producing fellows that have been selected this past year are so impressive. Each one of them is coming to the table with fresh ideas on how to approach independent filmmaking, and are already putting them into practice.

Thomas Woodrow who has his movie "Bass Akwards" in the NEXT section this year is using Sundance as a platform to capitalize on the films exposure and do a nationwide day and date release of the movie in conjunction with the festival.

Similarly I have witnessed Mynette Louie’s unrelenting targeted promotion of her movie "Children of Invention" from last years Sundance film festival. They have played over 40 film festivals using this as a way to self distribute DVD’s and are using Sundance as a platform to premiere their online VOD YouTube partnership.

Julian Favre is using his international connections to work the co-production system and his company just wrapped a feature that combined a mixture of private equity, government subsidy, tax credits and local incentives.

I don’t think myself or my fellow Advisors Paul , Jay, Mary Jane and the Sundance team had ever witnessed a producing team with quite the uniqueness and tenacity of Dan Janvey and Josh Penn who galvanized and inspired a huge team of people to make their ambitious short film "Glory at Sea," which they are turning into a feature as we speak.

"Douchebag" producers Marius Markevicius and Jonathan Schwartz. Photo by Eugene Hernandez

And I was so impressed with the dedication and out of the box thinking of Cara Marcous that I am now involved in Andrew MacLean’s project "On the Ice." Cara continues to come up with ways that the community of Barrow, Alaska can be actively involved in the making of this film and has secured numerous grants and support from all over.

I think it is safe to say that the advisors got as much out of the labs as the fellows. The Sundance Institute has always recognized the value of what we do, but their acknowledgment of our necessary "soup to nuts" approach is exceptional. I love how dedicated the staff is to supporting and nurturing all of us and I want to take a moment to say thank you.

The great news is that whenever I feel full of despair with the challenges, I think back to when I was producing theatre. My film friends would lament about how the business had changed. I feel like every year I have been at Sundance people are saying that the business has changed. Well that's true; it's always changing. It just happens to be changing at a more rapid pace right now. I believe we have to adapt, not change, adapt. It is so much easier to reach audiences all over the world now with the movies we make because of the digital and online revolution. This is nothing but encouraging for all of us so lets embrace it.

It has never been harder to get movies made, but someone in this room will have made this years "Precious" or "An Education," and that continues to be the strongest driving force shaping independent film. And once we have made that gem, there has never been more opportunity to reach wider audiences and take this matter into our own hands.

Let's not waste that.

Lynette Howell is a producer of "Blue Valentine," "Half Nelson," "The Greatest," "Phoebe in Wonderland," and "Stephanie Daley".

This article is related to: Features, First Person





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