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Mary Jane Skalski: “Producer Solidarity” and Making It Happen

Mary Jane Skalski: "Producer Solidarity" and Making It Happen

The following is the text of Producer Mary Jane Skalski’s keynote speech (as prepared and delivered to indieWIRE today) from the Sundance Institute’s Annual Producers Lunch, which works to strengthen the connections between independent artists, on Sunday, January 18th at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

I was really glad to be asked to do this because I love events for producers. I love meeting other producers and finding out how you all do your job – how you structure your days, what your to-do lists look like (boxes or check marks or whatever), do you read scripts early in the morning or late at night and how do you find time to watch DVD’s? Do you have an office or work at home? A paid assistant or an intern or no one? An iPhone or a Blackberry? File folders or binders? A desk or a round table? I’m curious about all these things and more because I love the details of what I do as much as I love the big picture.

No one understands what we do – that we all have figured out by now. No one understands it and there really is no short answer, at least none that people want to hear. The truth is, producing is an awesome responsibility. Quite frankly, we make things happen. We take a dream and an idea or some words on a page and producers are the catalyst that brings it all together and make it come to life. But the flipside of that is what I think gives us our biggest source of fear and anxiety – or at least it does for me – as producers we also have the ability to squash things, either by saying no or by not presenting options or being too lazy to think of options. So often that’s the major element of my anxiety – what am I not thinking of, when is the point where I have to put a stop to something for the integrity of the greater dream – when we can’t find the perfect location, do we keep looking or do we settle for something we’ve seen that’s sort of ok. If we put resources towards scouting and find the perfect place it was the right decision but if we keep putting resources there instead of somewhere else and we don’t find it we’re sacrificing that location and all sorts of other things too – art departments get behind, the AD’s are in a muddle. You all know what I mean. But someone who isn’t a producer will say: you couldn’t sleep because of THAT?! If it’s got four walls and a floor — shoot it? But these are the dilemmas we face constantly. Do we send the script out yet? Can we push for another pass or is the writer exhausted right now and pushing more notes won’t really yield results? Do we spend a little money on a casting director or on getting a solid budget and schedule put together? What will make things better? That’s really always the question isn’t it – is this a decision that will make things better? Is this an idea that will make things better today, tomorrow, and in the long run?

The people in this room understand it.

I am really lucky. I began my career as a part of company called Good Machine. I preface it that way because nowadays not everyone remembers Good Machine but it was a company started by James Schamus and Ted Hope in the early 90’s. The company produced 49 films in 11 years. The first film that was a ‘Good Machine Production’ was a long short film or a short feature – however you want to think of it – by Claire Denis called “Keep It For Yourself”, and the last film was Ang Lee’s “Hulk.”

At Good Machine, I was surrounded by people who subscribed to the theory of tough love. As the company matured many of us were producing films – and we were all really director driven producers because we were learning from James and Ted, who really are the masters at that. So often I’d work with a writer-director on a project, sometimes with a few other people at the company other times just alone. But then there’d come a moment when I’d think – ok this script is really in great shape! I can’t wait for everyone to read it! And then, that tough love brutal honesty would kick in. There would be what felt like HUNDREDS of notes, page of criticism, lots of comments from my Good Machine colleagues. It was completely devastating and truly a blessing. Because once that script was ready – whatever that means – and went out into the marketplace, the script was better, the pitch more well honed,. I rarely had a question posed to me from someone ‘outside’ that I hadn’t already thought about and had to answer. The projects were better because of this and as a producer I was more confident. I’d already been through the worst. But I’d been through the worst with the best – with other producers.

When you get a group of producers together you will always get suggestions. Producers are about finding solutions. And that is inspiring to know there almost always is a solution.

This summer I was part of Sundance’s first creative producing lab and it reminded me of those days at Good Machine. Everyone who participated read all the projects and came to them as producers – a lot of criticism, a lot of questions and an amazing number of possible solutions. There was a level of brutal honesty that everyone brought to the table and because of it, I found myself truly inspired by everyone who participated. Inspired to work harder.

And as much as I love Sundance, that experience can happen without Sundance and the beautiful mountain and the plentiful catered meals. All you need is a few other producers who are willing to take the time to be brutally honest.

Because that is the key, I think, to success for all of us. PRODUCER SOLIDARITY.

All times are tough times, but these really are tough times. How do we survive? I find that nowadays there are fewer places like Good Machine where a group of producers work together. A lot of us now are really just single proprietors working along in isolation and that’s hard. How do we survive the combination of tough times and isolation? I think we stay the course, we work harder, maybe focus a little more. In all these things having other people who you can lean on/lean with will help you. People who will be honest with you. People who will inspire you – not necessarily creative inspiration but inspiration to work harder. People who will kick you in the pants sometimes. Someone you can reach out to so your own anxiety won’t do you in.

A book I read to my kids called ‘If You’re Angry and You Know It” gives them all these tips for what to do when you’re angry. I need an ‘If You’re Anxious and You Know It,’ ‘cause it’s my own anxiety that causes me to do stupid things. And that’s when I need to pick up the phone or iChat or email – just somehow reach out to someone else who understands. They don’t need to understand the problem; they just need to understand the anxiety. Sometimes just hearing what they are doing in any given moment grounds me.

And with all the technology available to us today there really is no excuse not to find some producorial soulmates. You can have an email group, you can Skype, you can do all sorts of things that I don’t know about or understand. Back in the olden days all we had was the phone and a fax machine that spit everything out on very expensive curling paper that faded with time.

These don’t need to be huge groups – they don’t even need to be groups – but you should make friends with some other producers, develop relationships. And know that you have to keep up your side of it too: be brutally honest, really listen, truly share information – hopefully any people in this room are going to end up with films in distribution this year – wouldn’t it be better for all our films if we were able to keep in touch and learn from one another so when we were each on the phone with our distributors we were more informed and could say more than ‘that sounds great’ during those marketing phone calls. And lastly, I think it’s important to give your enthusiasm when your fellow producers need it. It’s our enthusiasm that keeps us going but honestly, everyone needs a boost at one time or another.

I look around this room and I could name names of the people here who have done that for me. Who are this to me

It’s not a networking strategy – it’s not about who do they know and can they introduce me. It’s about finding people that make you better.

A few years ago my life changed when I had twins and I tried to figure out how to continue to work. Obviously it’s possible – people with children produce movies – but I had to figure out how it was going to work for me. I tried a few things and it didn’t really work for me. But because I came from this background of having true partners it became clear to me that for my life, true partners would be necessary for me to continue to make movies. This year I have two films here at Sundance that I would not have been able to be involved in if it weren’t for my fellow producers on those films. Josh Zeman and Jason Orans made it work for me – and hopefully it worked for them too. They made it a joy and they both inspire me. And I’m truly thankful for them.

As producers we are not one another’s competition. Mediocrity is our competition. Bad movies poorly made will beat us. There are more good projects than good producers. We’re stronger together, we’re happier together, we’ll be able to do it longer and I know we’ll all make better movies.

So….. mingle!

Mary Jane Skalski is a producer based in New York City. She has been highlighted as one of Variety’s Producers to Watch and has most recently produced Tom McCarthy’s film “The Visitor”, as well as films such as McCarthy’s “The Station Agent” and Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin.” She has two films she produced at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival: “”Against the Current” and “Dare.”

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