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Toolkit | Lars Knudsen and Jay Van Hoy Keynote Speech from Sundance Producers Lunch

Toolkit | Lars Knudsen and Jay Van Hoy Keynote Speech from Sundance Producers Lunch

Independent producers Lars Knudsen and Jay Van Hoy delivered a keynote address at the Producers Lunch at the Sundance Film Festival Sunday afternoon. Their recent credits include Cam Archer’s “Shit Year” and Aaron Katz’s “Cold Weather.” They are currently in Park City with their film “Here” by Braden King. Their production company, Parts and Labor, is based in New York City. indieWIRE is publishing their full speech below, courtesy of the producers and the Sundance Institute.

Sundance Producers Lunch 1/23/11

Jay Van Hoy: Thank you Keri, Michelle, and Anne for asking us to speak.

This is likely the only event in the country that’s officially dedicated to celebrating Independent Producers. I’m sure that since we’ve all arrived in Park City, all of our focus has been split between everything and everyone that’s outside of this room right now: from your cast and crew to your sales agents and publicists. So it’s nice to come here to the annual Producers Lunch and hide out even if it’s just for an hour or so.

When Michelle and Anne called us to speak at the Producers Lunch, we were excited to take on something together that’s completely new. We had no real agenda, so what resulted was over a month of great introspection about how we work, what’s really important to us, and what we hope to accomplish as producers.

As we were in the final stages of finishing Braden King’s film “Here” for the festival, we started to see just about everything with fresh eyes.

The questions that ran through our minds gradually formed into a working list. We talked with other producers and directors and friends and family. It was a lot of fun, and a real learning experience. What has come of it, is an appreciation for how much we have yet to learn. That’s always a refreshing realization.

We make films that we believe in with people that we believe in. That’s a pretty simple statement, but the films that result have had a profound effect on our lives.

A wildly diverse range of projects, the productions have taken us across the world from a tiny village in Korea, the Chechnyan border in The Republic of Georgia, to the Iranian Border in Armenia. Of course, making a film in Los Angeles has it’s own challenges. And immersing a low-budget production in Bed-Stuy can actually be more dangerous than any of these places.

But as we all learn, that’s just the beginning. Our work is to get these films to the audience.

Over the years, that work reminds us now of a central truth, and one of the central challenges, of working as an independent producer: If you don’t look out for yourself, it’s going to have a tremendous effect on the professional choices you can make. If you aren’t able to survive as an independent producer, the films die.

Independent Producers have so many common interests. We’d like to explore how we can better advance our common interests together, so that we can better support our creative ambitions. Lars and I sincerely believe that this will have a profound impact on the future of Independent Film. And it’s probably more simple than we think.

Lars Knudsen: For Jay and me, working in partnership has become second nature. And now it’s impossible to imagine doing this alone. We rarely let each other settle. We keep ideas alive, in meetings, emails, phone calls, and sometimes arguments. It’s far from perfect, but that dynamic works for us because the spontaneity of dialogue fuels creative discovery.

When one of us starts to fixate on some particular detail; the other, fully aware, is looking around, feeling out how that detail fits into the bigger picture. And if there’s any secret to our partnership, it’s that we support each other by pushing each other.

We’re producers after all. We thrive on competition. Competition is not mutually exclusive to cooperation. We’ve come to realize that the most intense and successful competitors are often the best collaborators.

Producers don’t necessarily like to see each other fail, but our films come first; we love that success. And we love to win. It’s a side of producing that I feel is rarely acknowledged. But it makes us better at what we do.

That competition against the elements and with each other demands that we open our minds, and it infuses the creative process with rigor. It drives us to make smarter decisions, achieve more, and make better films.

Now, we’re at the premiere festival in the country; and we’ve all developed, financed, managed and completed our films during one of the most challenging periods of contraction that the business has experienced. We didn’t do it alone. We corralled supporters, mentors and sometimes each other, to embark on one of the most demanding creative pursuits and challenging entrepreneurial ventures in the world.

Jay Van Hoy: It’s called Independent Film and it’s driven by independent producers.

In the past 5 years, Lars and I have produced fifteen films. Nearly every one was a co-production. Each was completely ambitious. But still sometimes you have to reinvent the wheel.

On our first film, “Gretchen,” we partnered with Anish Savjani. The budget was $350,000 so the only way to make that work was for us to fill-in for the positions we couldn’t hire. We ended up doing about everything.

It was actually pretty great, we came up with this interlocking system: Anish had been a DGA trainee so he could support our A.D., and he signed all the checks, which meant that he tracked the bank account. Lars managed the Production Office and the cost report so he and Anish were always cross checking their numbers. And I was on the budget, negotiating the crew and vendor deals and I managed post.

When we started out, we didn’t even know what an LLC was. We had just learned Movie Magic. But by the time we were done, our world had completely expanded.

There was something that happened as we were pulling the film together that was utterly unique. We had worked for over a year to raise the money. Any sensible budget was at least 3 times what we felt we could raise. So about 6 months in, we brought on nearly our entire crew – as volunteers – to help get the film off the ground. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have known that we could actually make the film.

We scouted every location and negotiated nearly ever deal. Along the way we accumulated photographs of everything. As all of the elements came together, we ended up with a pictorial representation of the entire film that we could share with potential investors. The cast, the art, and the equipment were all locked. And it would not have been possible without everyone’s generosity, which was driven by their belief in the film and Steve Collins our director.

Each time we had a production meeting the focus inevitably turned to a start date, because we were asking people to put their lives on hold. There was obviously one missing ingredient: the money.

The pressure was immense. At the time, Lars and I were living in New York, and we were living off of unemployment benefits that were set to expire. We had to be completely transparent with everyone. They were depending on us to come through for this film that we were now all invested in. And Lars and I had never done any of this before, and really had no idea if we were marching all of us off of a cliff.

Lars Knudsen: With our unemployment set to expire, I kept seeing the cover of Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” Me, Jay and a little doggie peering over the edge into an abyss.

You have to choose what you want to see. The financing came through two weeks before our time was up.
We never gave ourselves another option. Along the way we reached out to everyone we knew for help and advice. I’ll never forget meeting Matthew Greenfield during this time. We met on the phone, he spent the entire conversation giving us advice on our film. He helped us see around corners.

The conversation lasted over an hour, and it was exhaustive. He was matter of fact, candid, and when we hung up, we were newly inspired. We rely on our mentors; and the more experience we get, the more we rely on each other.

More recently, we would never have produced Mike Mills’ film “Beginners” had Lisa Muskat not introduced us to Mike when he was looking for a producer.

Jay and I met working as assistants for Scott Rudin. And he has been a constant force in our lives. A true mentor. Scott still holds us to task, and without his advice and that support we simply wouldn’t be here.

The Sundance Institute is celebrating 30 years and has never been more vital. What an uncanny sense of timing—the same year that the Sundance Institute was founded, Reagan was sworn into office. The films that resulted from their mentorship in the labs during that 30 years speak for themselves.

But then in 2008, the Institute began the Creative Producing Initiative on the eve of a worldwide, financial meltdown that permanently altered what it means to develop, make and distribute independent films.

The audience for independent film hasn’t gone anywhere.

That’s probably why we find independent film throughout Hollywood; it fuels the mainstream and we know it. It’s also alive and well among studio executives and studio producers as much as independent producers.

Independent film is the reason that this year “True Grit” will out-gross “Little Fockers”; why “The Social Network,” “Black Swan” and “The Fighter” have out-grossed films like “The Tourist” and “Gulliver’s Travel.” These are inspired films made through the studios with inspired, costly campaigns. And they’ve been successful.

Without question, independent film, director-by-director, film-by-film has shaped the industry, and it continues to have a massive impact on culture. And this year, the film business once again became the director business. Despite the trend of sequels and brand tie-ins, the business has never been more director-driven.

Isn’t that our business?

For us, independent film is a set of practices. It’s what results when you question the assumptions of the industry. It’s often bold, always curious, it’s entrepreneurial, and above all, it should be innovative.

Jay Van Hoy: Right on.

That’s why change is the essence of independent film. When we immerse ourselves in it, we must invest in ourselves. When the chips are down, we stake our livelihoods. When the door is closing, you put your foot in it. We’re constantly adapting. But let’s innovate, let’s embrace the changes that we’re seeing all around us now.

Here’s a few… There’s more information available to filmmakers today than ever. Now, in the past six to nine months, we’re seeing more financing enter the independent film business than there has been since 2008.

Social entrepreneurs are having a profound impact on our lives everywhere. In independent film, there has never been more structural, funded, positive support for filmmakers. The Sundance Institute, Cinereach, The Annenberg Foundation, San Francisco Film Society, Sloan, Creative Capital are just a few. And these organizations have helped make possible nearly 20 films at this festival alone.

Thank you.

Plus, we’re seeing that international buyers are getting increasingly hungry. For independent producers, there’s strength in numbers.

I think we’re all familiar with sharing office space, giving each other cast and crewm recommendations. Calling your close friends for advice. For us, that list has become a close network. We regularly talk with other producers like Lynette Howell, Alex Orlovsky, Hunter Gray, Paul Mezey, Mary Jane Skalski, Dan Janvey, Anish, Ben Howe, Alicia Van Couvering, and the Borderline Films guys: Sean, Antonio and Josh, and more.

At festivals and events like this, it’s a great opportunity to catch up with people we don’t see as often, and share what we’ve been working on and how we can work together. But there are tools now that allow us to expand this into a stronger network. There are more-and-more precedents in other industries that show how opportunities will push us in this direction. Here are just two examples:

The semi-conductors in your cell phones and computers were likely developed by a consortium of competing technology producers called Sematech, based in Austin Tx.

The coffee in your hand is no doubt Fair Trade, which is an organization of competing coffee producers that was designed in the ’90s, to cut out the middlemen when the coffee acquisition market plummeted.

We’ve found that nearly every industry has some example of collaboration among intense competitors.

Lars Knudsen: As independent producers we’re responsible for every transaction made on a film. In this room, we’ve collectively spent millions upon millions of dollars this year.  Independent producers have tremendous bargaining power and we can explore new industry standards to make the business work for us.

Jay Van Hoy: No doubt, every facet of the film industry has some form of structured horizontal linkage, except American Independent Producers. There’s obviously the guilds and unions. In New York the Post Facilities collaborated to get a the Post Production Tax benefit. And documentary filmmakers have D-Word. Internationally look to producer organizations like ACE.

But not us…not yet. We’re slammed, broke, working project-to-project and living hand to mouth. Most of us don’t even have health care.

Lars Knudsen: The truth is, we’re too busy adapting when we should be innovating. Innovation is the difference between working for the business and having the business work for us.

Jay Van Hoy: I think we all feel that there should be a forum for independent producers, who meet on a regular basis, in person, around the country, to have more structured conversations about advancing our shared interests.

So Lars and I are going to be working towards that.

Lars Knudsen: We’re not suggesting that this is a new idea either. Only that it’s one that we should act on now. 

Jay Van Hoy: I’m lucky enough to have been a mentor at the Sundance Creative Producing Initiative. For

past two years, I’m convinced that I’ve benefited as much, if not more, from the fellows in the program. I’ve seen what happens when you put a group of producers around a table for the express purpose of finding solutions. It’s simply a structured dialogue with other producers.

Lars Knudsen: Our instincts tell us that we should be working together to advance our interests. We can use the same skills and imaginations that we’ve applied to the productions that got us this far to take advantage of the opportunities that have arisen during the past 5 years. We can reshape the business, in the interests of independent film, simply by continuing to get together.

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