By Jay A. Fernandez | Indiewire January 16, 2013 at 4:31PM
For most Sundance Film Festival die-hards, the heads of the major agencies’ sales divisions are well known, even if they spend most of their days tucked into dark corners with phones jammed to both ears and their nights sequestered in condos eating stale popcorn until 4 am.
UTA Independent Film Group’s Rich Klubeck and Rena Ronson, WME Global’s Graham Taylor, ICM Partners’ Jessica Lacy, Preferred Content’s Kevin Iwashina, Paradigm’s Ben Weiss, Submarine Entertainment’s Josh Braun, CAA’s Roeg Sutherland and Micah Green — these are the pros that artfully deliver the filmmakers and their films to the eager buyers promising utmost devotion to their release and sizable fees for the privilege. Most have been doing it a long time, and doing it well, even if the occasional crossed wires and mixed signals scuttle a deal. Their expertise, work ethic and creativity have played an essential part in supporting the best of independent film, nurturing those projects and artists, and making sure they find a grateful audience.
But enough about them.
Who are the hardworking young agents under them training to become the next generation of key dealmakers? You wouldn’t know it necessarily, but they are in every meeting, corralling buyers in the snow, taking part in negotiations — even making late-night snacks at the house to rally the troops. They have their own vast array of tastes, backgrounds, talents and ambitions. And you may need them sooner than you think.
So with Sundance 2013 launching Thursday, Jan. 17, Indiewire has decided to showcase a handful of the most promising as determined by those in the know at the top levels of the agencies. And since we’ve included photos, now you’ll now who to corner in the Yarrow Hotel lobby for that five-minute on-the-fly Q&A that may just give you the insight you need to clear the next hurdle in your filmmaking journey.
Education: Boston University, B.S. Film Studies
Career background: I was an assistant to Cassian Elwes at William Morris then moved to CAA’s Film Finance and Sales Group. I am currently an Agent Trainee and work with the agents and executives within the department to help package, arrange financing for motion picture projects and sell finished films.
Agency tenure: I joined CAA in April 2011 in the Film Finance and Sales Group then was promoted into CAA’s Agent Trainee program in February of 2012.
Ambitions: My goal is to continue to help sell independently financed, commercial films; be involved in the creation of film financing and production companies; and help filmmakers realize their dreams by identifying opportunities for them.
Filmmaking and filmmakers that inspire you: Filmmakers who can be explosive and edgy but also direct films for a more commercial audience, or emerging filmmakers who want to channel their creative energy into bigger projects.
What you spend your time doing at Sundance: Helping to sell films, identify new talent and service clients.
What young or new filmmakers could learn from you in a five-minute conversation on the street in Park City: Ways to best leverage a Sundance film into a new project and guidance on how to navigate agencies to find the right talent for a project.
Best/most useful thing learned from those above you: Always think three steps ahead. Consider each film within the context of the larger market and be nimble in your strategy.
ALEX SAKS, ICM Partners
Education: Wake Forest University, History Major, Film Studies Minor
Career background: Before coming to ICM Partners, I was very fortunate to be able to work for and learn from Mark Gordon and Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, which gave me a wealth of experience on the studio and independent side in both film and television. The possibility of learning how to sell, package and structure financing for films — a world that I had only watched Brian play in from the sidelines — was a path that intrigued me. After sitting down with Jessica Lacy, ICM Partners felt like a perfect fit. She has created such a supportive, collaborative and entrepreneurially minded environment that the opportunity was just too ripe to pass up.
Agency tenure: Seven months and counting.
Ambitions: To work with and foster the careers of talented filmmakers, writers and producers who are as passionate about making movies as I am. Career-wise, I have an entrepreneurial spirit, and I am lucky to work at an agency that supports and encourages that spirit; it was a big deciding factor in my move to the company. I hope to be able to carve out a niche for myself that adapts to the ever-changing nature of this business. In an effort to do so, I constantly surround myself with dissenting opinions and people who are smarter than me.
Filmmaking and filmmakers that inspire you: One of the benefits of working in a group like ours is that I can work with different filmmakers, writers, actors and producers in all different genres. My most recent experience at Automatik fostered a deep love of the horror, action and sci-fi genres. However, working on Marlon Wayans’ “A Haunted House” comedy was one of the most thrilling and beneficial experiences I’ve had in this business to date. In my mind, passion breeds success, and I’m excited to work with anyone whose enthusiasm rivals my own.
What young or new filmmakers could learn from you in a five-minute conversation on the street in Park City: What’s so amazing about our business right now is that a lot of the people that are really exciting are true do-it-yourself filmmakers. With that in mind, my recommendation to young up-and-comers is always going to be to go out and make something. At the end of the day, every young filmmaker should make things, a lot of things, and have something to show for all their unbridled passion and enthusiasm. Raise money from family and friends on Kickstarter or wherever, pull every favor and save your pennies. We, as agents, can be extremely helpful once filmmakers have done that. We can help find distribution. We can broker their next deal. I think the worst thing filmmakers can do is to get lost in the business of it all in the interest of getting an agent or figuring out the system. We, as agents, respond to the work. So go do the work.
Head of your department: Jessica Lacy
Best/most useful thing learned from those above you: As an agent, I have learned how to turn a no into a yes, and that both reading and having a point of view remain ever important. As a personwho also happens to be an agent, I have learned that it is okay to have a life and spend time with family and friends.
The keys to making the most of the junior position, from Jessica Lacy, head of international and independent film:“I can’t express strongly enough that one of the most important things any young agent can do is to read a lot of material. The most interesting voices, specifically for independent film, come out of having strong material. Having a sense of strong material and having a point of view is going to help you excel. The young agents that I’m training, what I look for is their ability to talk about the material in an intelligent way, both to me as well as to the filmmakers that we’re trying to package with for the project, and ultimately then to the financiers. At Sundance, they have to be talking with these emerging filmmakers, they have to be supporting their films, and going to their events and chatting them up. That’s the goal of us going up there is to sign these emerging filmmakers, either before or during the festival, and then also to get on board packaging and selling their next films. I want my young agents doing it all. I want them having those relationships with those filmmakers so that we can be working on that next Benh Zeitlin movie or that next Hannah Fidell movie.”
MEGHAN OLIVER, Paradigm
Education: Cornell University, Communication major, Applied Economics and Management minor
Career Background: When I was a kid, I was a huge book nerd. Story has always been a big part of my life. When I was in college, I took a semester away to check out Hollywood and landed internships at Mandate, the Weinstein Company and Paradigm (it was a busy semester!). When I returned to L.A. post-gradation, my first job was as a talent assistant at the Kohner Agency. I knew I wanted to be back at Paradigm, which I saw as an innovative, growing company, and in a department that involved getting stories out to the world. I moved through a few departments and up the ranks on various desks through the trainee program. In the process, I found my passion in film sales and packaging with the Motion Picture Finance group.
Agency tenure: I have been at Paradigm for two and a half years, though I got the lay of the land my first year at the Kohner Agency. While here, I have been a floater, a TV assistant, a Motion Picture Finance assistant, a trainee, and a coordinator.
Ambitions: I’m the type of person who is always learning and evolving, which is perfect for the world of independent film. I need to have a career that demands improvement and novelty in projects and deal structures. When it comes to specific goals, I have many. I want to package and represent a film like “(500) Days of Summer,” which is elevated, has a fresh twist and becomes a fan favorite. Also on my agenda is creating digital distribution deals that are financially advantageous for our clients — and of course I have my dream list of people to work with.
What you spend your time doing at Sundance: Selling great films! And when I’m not… I’ll be warming up with a coffee to sell some more. I love finding the best audiences and homes for films.
What young or new filmmakers could learn from you in a five-minute conversation on the street in Park City: Distribution is the least understood aspect of filmmaking, but certainly the most important. Before embarking on the journey of creating a film, filmmakers and their teams should ask themselves what their goal is. Is it profit? Exposure? Something else? While it’s important for a filmmaker to be creatively engrossed in his projects, it’s equally important to recognize that this is a business and to have an eye on the horizon for when the film is complete.
Heads of your department: Andrew Ruf, Rand Holston, Ben Weiss
Best/most useful thing learned from those above you: To be selective and specific with material, films and clients that I represent. It’s a multi-tiered process that involves trusting my gut, having in-depth knowledge of the marketplace, allocating time, and maintaining a high level of passion and, above all, commitment. I need my clients to know that I am 100% behind them and my buyers to respect my taste.
The keys to making the most of the junior position, from Ben Weiss, Head of Film Finance and Sales, Paradigm: Every film/project matters and deserves equal attention. It is important to follow your instincts when selecting material. Sometimes the most difficult projects can be the most rewarding. Taking a risk and believing in material will help build your reputation. Always be creative and flexible in deal-making and release plans. Anything goes in today's environment.
ABBY DAVIS, Preferred Content
Education: Western Michigan University, major - Spanish, minor - Psychology
Career background: My roommate at the time was the assistant to Dave Bugliari, a former assistant of Kevin Iwashina. He thought Kevin and I would be a good match and that working for Preferred Content would be a challenge that I would want to conquer.
Agency tenure: I've been with Preferred Content for a year, first starting as Kevin Iwashina's assistant. After six months here, I was promoted to Coordinator of Project Finance.
Ambitions: I look up to someone like Christine D'Souza, who held a similar position at Preferred Content to the one I have now and is currently on the WME Global team. I aspire to achieve her ability to mix a confident charisma with a no-nonsense attitude.
What you spend your time doing at Sundance: My main focus will be to support our existing client films as well as the agendas of long-time collaborators such as Christine Vachon of Killer Films.
What young or new filmmakers could learn from you in a five-minute conversation on the street in Park City: You need to be passionate and stay true to your character. Passion sparks commitment, and you need to be 110% committed. Maintaining who you are will instill an extreme confidence in your abilities and drive you forward.
Head of your department: Kevin Iwashina
Best/most useful thing learned from those above you: Perfection is not realistic, but you will always achieve more when striving for it.
ZAC BRIGHT, Preferred Content
Education: Syracuse University, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Major: Public Relations
Career background: After graduation, I spent three years in New York City at various advertising/PR agencies working with brand clients to make the most of their entertainment spends. Taking what I learned in NY, I was lucky enough to land a job working for David Freeman, the co-head of CAA's Brand Coverage Group, in Los Angeles. During my time at CAA, Dave's primary focus shifted from brands to digital content packaging, which helped expose me to the worlds of non-traditional content financing, windowing and distribution. Once I realized I could take what I was learning at CAA and repurpose it for a more traditional, film-centric career (a direction I was interested in pursuing), Micah Green and Dina Kuperstock of CAA's Film Finance Department introduced me to Kevin Iwashina and Preferred Content.
Agency tenure: I've been the Film Sales Coordinator at Preferred Content since November 2012.
Ambitions: My goal is to help talented artists bring their visions to life.
Filmmaking and filmmakers that inspire you: I respond to filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino and Joel & Ethan Coen who push boundaries with their filmmaking. Being fearless and taking risks, in my eyes, often creates the most interesting cinema.
What you spend your time doing at Sundance: While in Park City, I will be servicing client films, liaising with buyers & financiers, and strategizing new ways to expand our digital content & distribution practice.
What young or new filmmakers could learn from you in a five-minute conversation on the street in Park City: I would tell a young filmmaker how important it is to understand the business aspect of movies. Directors should of course stay true to their visions as filmmakers and make movies that they're passionate about, but at the same time keep in mind this is a business.
Head of your department: Kevin Iwashina
Best/most useful thing learned from those above you: How to not be insecure about saying "I don't know.”
The keys to making the most of the junior position, from Kevin Iwashina, managing partner, Preferred Content: I ask all our staff to watch our documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and to read Patrick Lencioni's “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” These are strong reference points that highlight the core values of our organization — teamwork, leadership, vulnerability and the notion that one should always strive for perfection knowing it will most likely never be achieved.
HAILEY WIERENGO, UTA Independent Film Group
Education: University of Michigan, Communication Studies, Art History
Career background: My first experience in the business was as a college intern at Picturehouse and Greenestreet Films in New York, which was my introduction to independent film. After graduating, I came to Los Angeles and joined the UTA agent training program. A year into it, I became assistant to UTA partner Rich Klubeck, co-head of UTA’s Independent Film Group, which reintroduced me to the indie world from a completely different side of the business. When Rena Ronson joined the agency to co-head the indie department, I had the unique opportunity to work with her and to continue to train in film packaging and the international side of the business. I started attending the Sundance, Cannes and Toronto film festivals and began developing business relationships and my own point of view on material, which UTA really values. When I read “Beginners,” a really special script, and saw how the department surrounded the client and the project to help bring it to life, I was hooked.
Agency tenure: Five and a half years. I started in the mailroom right after graduation, and my first desk was working for two motion picture lit agents who between them covered almost every studio. From there, I worked for Rich Klubeck for two years, then Rena for one year before getting promoted.
Ambitions: I want to build on the skills I’ve developed thus far and to continue to grow in this constantly changing area of the business. The things that excite me about my job are being involved in every stage of the process, working with visionary filmmakers and the challenge of putting films together. It’s a job where people are constantly telling you no — this movie isn’t financeable, that movie doesn’t have an audience — and the onus is on the agent to do everything possible to make it happen. I believe that if I can do great work in this job, I can do anything. And, simply put, my goal is to get more of our clients’ films on the screen.
Filmmaking and filmmakers that inspire you: I love dark and twisted comedy and satire. On the other hand, I’m a sucker for the catharsis from a beautifully rendered drama, and I cry early and often at the movies. I’m also a nerd for production design, so I enjoy period pieces that really transport me to another place in time. The devil is in the details!
What young or new filmmakers could learn from you in a five-minute conversation on the street in Park City: I think half the battle is knowing exactly what movie you are making. This means trusting your creative vision and making difficult choices to achieve your goal. Getting perspective from others is helpful, but in the end the vision has to be your own, and everyone you hire has to be on board with your film. Getting a film finished and in front of an audience is not an exact science and not at all easy, so having the passion for the project and trusting your team is essential.
Heads of your department: Rich Klubeck and Rena Ronson
Best/most useful thing learned from those above you: I’m very lucky to be surrounded by supportive colleagues whom I admire, and they and the rest of the agency have empowered me to push myself and to learn everything I can. Rich has taught me about what goes into representing filmmakers and structuring deals. Rena has taught me everything from the nuts and bolts of film financing to the nuances of the international marketplace. They have both taught me the global reach of independent film, and it has been really instructive to work on projects that involve international directors, casts and financing. Bec and David have taught me perseverance and above all never to give up even when something seems utterly impossible. Rena is also a great example of a woman balancing professional success and a personal life.
The keys to making the most of the junior position, from Rena Ronson, co-head of UTA Independent Film Group: The key to making junior agents successful is to not treat them as junior agents. There is a strong spirit of entrepreneurship at UTA, and we want young agents to feel empowered and supported. They participate in negotiations and key meetings as consistently as possible. The only way to understand how to manage a negotiation for a client or to figure out the most advantageous distribution deal when the best one may not be obvious is to be involved. Training agents is a key part of the agency’s growth strategy, and we view it as an investment in UTA’s future.
Education: I have two degrees from the University of Texas at Austin's School of Communications, one in Radio-TV-Film and one in Advertising, with a minor in Business Foundations from the McCombs School of Business.
Career background: I started at the William Morris Agency in August 2007. Right before the writer's strike, I became an assistant in the agency's independent film department. Work didn't slow down for our department during the strike, so I threw myself headlong into the job and never looked back. A few months after the merger with Endeavor, Graham Taylor promoted me to coordinator, a new position within the department. And within a year and a half, I was promoted to agent in WME Global, in June 2010.
Agency tenure: I've been at this agency, in both of its forms, for a combined total of about five and a half years.
Ambitions: As agents in an ever-changing global financial climate, we need to be in front of these changes, which is a daily goal! But I love it. This job is incredibly fulfilling, and I constantly aim to stretch outside of my comfort zone and be better, every day. I love putting films together, structuring new ways for our clients to make money. And I have an amazingly talented pool of resources at WME that I look to for insight and inspiration. Right now, I don't know of any other career I would like to pursue than the one I'm living.
Filmmaking and filmmakers that inspire you: I love working with teams. I really do think it takes a village — and the success stories that come from those who work in teams are incredible. The Court 13 team that made “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a great example. But I also love working with teams, and individuals, who are passionate about telling a compelling story, in documentary or narrative form. Stories that have a unique voice and say something about the human condition. We should prioritize the impact our stories can have on others, whether told through comedy or tragedy. “Compliance,” “Beginners,” “Pariah,” “Another Earth,” “Blue Valentine,” “Undefeated”… the kind of movies that make people talk, and think. And laugh. I'm still hoping to organize an annual Waynestock event in L.A., where we screen “Wayne’s World” 1 & 2 back to back with a live band and a lot of beer.
What you spend your time doing at Sundance: A very large portion of my festival is spent freezing outside of theaters, looking for buyers under their parkas and, when I can, making someone's day with a leftover ticket. The rest is spent back in the condo, negotiating deals till the wee hours of the night and making ice cream sundaes, pizza and nachos to keep everyone happy. I am definitely the junk food queen of the group! But I've seen Bagel Bites close deals. True story.
What young or new filmmakers could learn from you in a five-minute conversation on the street in Park City: Stand out — for the right reasons. There are SO many resources at your disposal. Use them before you cold-call an executive. Because you only have a few chances (sometimes only one) to get it right, so be ready when you strike, and stand out. Tell a new story. Put your script through screenwriting or directing or producing labs. If you're a first-time director, make a sizzle reel or a short film to showcase your talent. And most importantly, know your audience. Whom are you making this film for? Know the answer to this question. You're going to have to convince actors, executives and financiers that you have an audience to get your film made.
Head of your department: Graham Taylor
Best/most useful thing learned from those above you: Support your team, trust your team, respect your team, and put the team first — and they'll do the same for you.
CHRISTINE D’SOUZA, WME Global
Education: University of Arizona, B.A. Media Arts, Business
Career background: As the vice president at Preferred Content, I was responsible for acquisitions, sales and financing of the company’s entire film slate, which eased my transition into the agency side of the business. Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to work closely with Graham Taylor. From selling international titles for him to co-representing films while I was at Preferred Content, it was finally time to join his team. I’ve always been inspired by his passion and enthusiasm for the film business. Graham is a great leader and mentor.
Agency tenure: I joined WME as an agent in the Global Finance & Distribution Group three months ago.
Ambitions: Though I’ve been in sales my entire career, I look forward to collaborating more closely with talented filmmakers. I want to play a bigger role in shaping the careers of filmmakers and continue to build innovative distribution strategies across many platforms worldwide.
Filmmaking and filmmakers that inspire you: I get most excited when filmmakers really hone in on their personal experiences and passions and are able to make them accessible to a worldwide audience. I think it’s as important to have a unique perspective on a subject as it is to tell a good story. I am thoroughly entertained by every genre of film, so for me it’s really up to the filmmakers to tell stories in new and interesting ways.
What you spend your time doing at Sundance: My focus at Sundance is 100% on the films I am representing at the festival. Sundance creates an environment for young filmmakers to emerge by embracing new distribution models that allow people outside of Park City to see the brilliance showcased at the festival. From pushing buyers to the right screenings to negotiating the best deals on behalf of our clients I’m quite busy, and there’s not a lot of time for sleep.
What young or new filmmakers could learn from you in a five-minute conversation on the street in Park City: Young filmmakers often arrive on the festival scene with films that are cutting-edge, eye-opening and breathtaking. However, they sometimes lack a worldwide commercial appeal. Some questions a filmmaker should focus on would be, “How do I expand the concept of the movie to find an international audience? How do I find the best foreign sales agent to handle the film? What level of cast makes the film commercially viable and a possible breakout at a festival?”
Head of your department: Graham Taylor
Best/most useful thing learned from those above you: I’ve learned a great deal about the value of teamwork. We have a remarkably diverse team with talented agents from many different backgrounds in the entertainment industry. Everyone has different skills and experiences, so we share a wealth of knowledge to work toward a unified goal. Graham Taylor has built the team into a family that values loyalty, communication and friendship. I am proud to be working alongside such driven and thoughtful people. Though I am new to the team, everyone has made me feel at home.
The keys to making the most of the junior position, from Graham Taylor, head of WME Global: Treat everyone like you would your own family/friends and work with vigor and passion. In time the outcome will be magical.