READ MORE: 'Carol' Producer Christine Vachon on the Past, Present and Future of Indie Filmmaking
[Editors's Note: Earlier today, producers and Killer Films co-founders Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler were honored at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival's Producers Lunch. Below is their keynote speech in its entirety.]
We are so happy to be here and be asked to give this talk, so thank you Michelle and Anne.
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.
Survival 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 mini series.
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 miracles. Just when you are about exhausted by negotiations and the prospect of backend seems comical, that's when you have to imagine that it’s 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 it’s 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.
Survival 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.
Survival Tip 3: Build community.
Find a support group! There are so many out there -- on line 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 -- 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 needs 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.
Survival 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 $8m. 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, 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.
Survival Tip 5: Love your director and your writer -- especially if they are the same person.
We need each other. Lean into 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. 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 the 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 is why
It's a lonely job. Remember how we started this talk? Not too many thank yous. Lots of rejection. No Indie Spirit or Academy Award for being on budget and on
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 – it has been vital.
This 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 Survival Tip: Be Grateful.
After doing this for 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 5 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, a la James Cain, whether you are making movies, or making pies.
"I’m telling you, Mildred, there’s three things you’ve got to do. You got to cut down on your overhead, so you can live on what you make. You got to raise some money – from Veda, from the house in Glendale – someplace, so you can square up these bills and start over. And you got to cut out this running around and get down to work. You show us some action by a week from tonight and you can forget it, what’s been said. You don’t, and maybe we take a little action ourselves."
The recipients of the 2016 Sundance Institute Amazon Studios Producer Awards are Sara Murphy and Adele Romanski, producers of "Morris From America." Julie Goldman, producer of "Weiner" and "Life, Animated," won the Documentary Producing Award. Through the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program, the Award grants money to an emerging producer of a film at the Sundance Film Festival. The award recognizes bold vision and a commitment to continuing work as a creative producer in the independent space.