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Sundance 2013: How Producers Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger Found Their “Sweet Spot”

Sundance 2013: How Producers Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger Found Their "Sweet Spot"

The following is the text of the keynote address delivered by Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger at the annual Sundance Film Festival Producers Brunch Sunday, Jan. 20. They are the producers of “King of the Hill,” “Election,” “Cold Mountain,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Little Children,” “Ruby Sparks” and “The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman,” which will have its world premiere Monday, Jan. 21, at the Eccles Theatre.


Ron Yerxa: Good Morning Sundance Comrades and Assorted Friends

We are so grateful that Sundance has created this beautiful ceremony in honor of our 20th anniversary as partners in Bona Fide Productions.

To be totally transparent, this isn’t actually our 20th year, it’s more like 21 or 23 depending on how you’re counting. But our appropriation of this event is in keeping with the central theme of today’s talk: “Producers uniquely make the most out of the opportunities we are given.” So give or take a couple years, this is our 20-year anniversary party, and it’s the only one we’ll ever have — so thank you Sundance Institute.

We’re here today not to bemoan the current plight of producers as victims of market forces and rampant technology. Instead we offer an alternative interpretation — that we producers are the anxious giants of the emerging filmmaking world — embodying the admirable traits of flexibility, spontaneity and resilience.

True, we are cast adrift into the cruel secular world without a safety net. And yet against all fragmentation and downsizing, we keep creating dramatic content. The French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre was perhaps thinking of the lonely struggle of the independent producer when he wrote, “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.”

When Anne and Michelle invited us here, we couldn’t imagine compressing our thoughts on the transformation of the film industry over the last two decades into just 50 minutes. Then they gently informed us that we have been allotted 8 minutes.

Given this draconian time constraint, the rich array of specific and helpful information on new financing models and the future of VOD that we had planned to present here will instead be embedded in the version of this talk that will be posted on Indiewire sometime soon.

But for now, and because it’s Sunday, we want to address a personal question that no one has asked: “What are the emotional and philosophical principles that have guided us over the last 20 years?” During that time, Bona Fide grew from just the two of us in a room sharing a card table, to today, the three of us — each with our own desk.

Just to break that down from a statistical perspective, that’s 50% growth — well over 2% a year — just slightly below the rate of inflation. On a sad note, our fees have failed to keep pace.

Albert will now take you through a painfully abbreviated overview of the last twenty years to illustrate some of these guiding principles.

Albert Berger: Thank you for your warm introduction, Ron. To be precise, Bona Fide Productions had its start at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival on this very day 24 years ago. Ron and I had just made the decision to throw our lot in together as producers. I had been a screenwriter and Ron a studio executive. We arrived at Sundance with one quasi-legitimate project in hand, Toby Woolf’s memoir “This Boy’s Life.”

I say quasi-legitimate because we didn’t exactly have the rights to “This Boy’s Life.” Ron and I went to a book reading a couple of weeks before Sundance and asked Toby for permission to try to set up his book. He graciously allowed us to give it a go — at least until someone made him a reasonable offer. I guess he figured he had nothing to lose by letting us to shop the book.

So there we were at Sundance — aspiring producers armed with a project. It was just before 10 pm on the first Sunday of the festival, and Ron and I tried to get into a party with only one ticket between us. One of us entered, got our hand stamped and promptly exited, attempting the old “rub the stamp on the other guy’s hand” routine. The party bouncer wasn’t amused and refused to let us in.

As fate would have it, we found ourselves across the street from the Prospector and decided to take a chance on a movie. It happened to be the very first screening of “sex, lies, and videotape.” There were 50 people in the audience. The movie started and we were mesmerized. We had no idea who the director was. But you could tell immediately that this was a real filmmaker, completely on his game. There were compelling flawed characters. It was personal and cinematic. Most remarkably, Ron didn’t fall asleep.

In the Q&A afterwards, I showcased my marketing skills by insisting that the title “sex, lies, and videotape” would never work and needed to be changed immediately. After the screening, we maneuvered our way through a throng of well-wishers to congratulate director Steven Soderbergh. We introduced ourselves and told him about “This Boy’s Life.” He said it very much sounded like a book he always wanted to make into a movie called “King of the Hill.” We agreed to keep talking.

By the end of the week, “sex, lies…” had become a sensation, and Steven was being chased through snow banks on Main Street, everyone desperate to hear about his next project. Over coffee, Steven somehow expressed a willingness to work with us. Ron and I read “King of the Hill” and had the good sense to change directions and pursue the book Steven wanted to do. Universal stepped up to develop “King of the Hill.” Suddenly, Ron and I were producers with a studio film.

In looking back, there were many aspects of Sundance ’89 that shaped and defined our path. In our early days, we didn’t have a track record and no one would send us scripts, so we specialized in books like “This Boys Life” and “King of the Hill” that were obscure or had slipped through the cracks. Our later film “Election” was based on an unpublished manuscript that was sitting in author Tom Perrotta’s desk drawer because the publishing world had deemed it hopelessly trapped between literary and young adult fiction. “Cold Mountain” had been passed on by every studio in town before we picked it up at Book Soup. It dawned on us that you didn’t need a development fund to shop material and establish yourself as a producer. You didn’t need rights. If you read a book that you liked and there weren’t a lot of people competing with you, all you needed to do was figure out how to align yourself with the right partner or emerging filmmaker. Years later, Soderbergh joked that when we told him we owned “This Boy’s Life,” he didn’t realize we meant we only owned a copy of the book.

Seeing an independent film at Sundance by a first-time filmmaker, connecting with them and collaborating on their first studio film was a pattern that Ron and I repeated many times after “King of the Hill.” We saw “Citizen Ruth” here and connected with Alexander Payne to make “Election” at MTV/Paramount. We saw “In the Bedroom” here and later joined up with Todd Field to make “Little Children” at New Line. We’re drawn to big and small films alike but our sweet spot has been in the seams between the independent and the studio worlds.

Perhaps the biggest lesson we learned at Sundance 1989 was that it doesn’t always go the way you anticipate but that that can be a good thing. In other words, you show up at Sundance, you get thrown out of a party, you see a great movie and suddenly anything’s possible.

Ron Yerxa: Thank you, Albert. That journey was so vivid I almost feel like I was there.

Now to add some more gravitas. I’d like to describe an epiphany based on an actual recent incident while we were driving from the Omaha airport to our location in rural Nebraska in the middle of the night. We turned off the highway to get a beer and when we got back on the road, the built-in GPS system in our rented Ford Escape scolded us by saying we’d gone off the route and must turn around and go back. But the after-market Tom Tom GPS supplied as a backup immediately started recalculating and said, “Proceed, Old Man. There’s another way to get there.” That was both a life lesson and a teachable moment for our talk today: 1) “There’s never a need to turn back,” 2) “There’s always another way to get there as long as you know where you’re going,” and 3) “Every wrong turn presents a new opportunity.”

So let’s celebrate our spontaneity and resilience and ability to recalculate quickly and learn from even the most mundane experiences. We are free spirits liberated from corporate restraints, with their overbearing bosses and soul-crushing expense accounts. Why fly First Class when you can bring your own mixed nuts?

With each film we make and the way we make it, we answer to our own conscience. Our films can open the door to a fresh, liberating vision or kick it shut with some tired social pornography. We are the new “entrepreneurial existential warriors” — at least until the people atop Deer Valley awaken and descend down the mountain to enter our dreams and demand a “produced by” credit.

Albert Berger: We want to give special acknowledgement to our colleagues from “The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman,” many who are here today. You showed up in Bucharest with a love for the project, a strong point of view and a desire to make a movie that matters. You certainly understand the importance of hanging together through all the unpredictable twists and turns a film can take and that in the end something better comes out of it. It was an exhilarating experience that Ron and I will never forget. Onwards to our premiere!

As the film business shifts and changes around us, Ron and I keep plugging away, trying our best to adhere to our principles, some that we stumbled upon that first “Bona Fide Sundance.” We believe that the audience is important. Movies are an expensive proposition, and we very much value the collective response to our stories. But we don’t want to fixate on a foreign sales paradigm, which limits your choices to the same narrow group of actors and promotes a homogenized cookie-cutter film culture. Our goal is to make personal films for an audience. We don’t want to waste your time. It’s an honor to produce movies, and we take the job very seriously.

Ron Yerxa: We can’t thank the generous people of Sundance enough for being fellow travelers on our journey. More than most people in the room, we look forward to the year 2033, when we hope to be asked to speak here again — at the groundbreaking of the Sundance Assisted Living Facility. Until then, let’s remember the words of Jean Paul Sartre and embrace the optimistic spontaneity of the Tom Tom GPS system — and fight on as proud comrades and competitors!

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