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Santa Barbara Film Fest: Ten Takeaways from Movers and Shakers Producers Panel, Award Winners

Santa Barbara Film Fest: Ten Takeaways from Movers and Shakers Producers Panel, Award Winners

SANTA BARBARA, CA – As the 28th Santa Barbara International Film festival wrapped 11 days of screenings, panels and awards events on Sunday, SBIFF executive director Roger Durling and programming director Michael Albright announced the fest awards winners at an invitation-only brunch ceremony. (Daniel Day-Lewis Tribute coverage here.)

The top Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema (which includes a $60,000 camera package) went to “Babygirl,” about a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx trying to adjust to her mother’s unsavory new boyfriend. Gerhard Ertl and Sabine Hiebler’s “Coming of Age” from Austria won the Best International Film Award for its depiction of a blossoming relationship between two seniors. “More Than Honey” by Markus Imhoof took the Best Documentary Film Award for its compelling perspective on the global decline of crucial honeybee populations. The full festival press release follows below – check the SBIFF website for announcement of the festival Audience Award winner on Sunday night: http://sbiff.org/

On Saturday, SBIFF hosted the “Movers & Shakers” panel at the storied Lobero Theater, this year featuring a full lineup of producers nominated for the Best Motion Picture Academy Award. Panelists included Bruce Cohen (“Silver Linings Playbook”), Dan Janvey (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”), DreamWorks’ Kathleen Kennedy (“Lincoln”), Stacey Sher (“Django Unchained”), David Womark (“Life of Pi”) and Working Title’s Debra Hayward (“Les Misérables”), replacing fellow producer Eric Fellner. Conspicuously missing were any of the three “Argo” producers, which after winning PGA, SAG and DGA awards is looking like a strong contender opposite “Lincoln” for the top prize.

In a wide-ranging exchange briskly moderated by The Los Angeles Times’ film writer John Horn, the six nominated producers discussed everything from on-set personality dynamics to the key qualities of successful producers. Among their more notable comments were these ten takeaways:

1. A Movie Production Functions a Lot Like a Family – An effective producer needs to strike a productive and creative balance with the director, the panelists agreed, and sometimes that’s a lot like managing family dynamics. “If you have the right director for a project, your job is getting inside his/her head,” Cohen asserted. “My job was to get inside [David O. Russell’s] head.”

Kennedy’s experience has been similar: “I’m trying to understand the vision of the director,” she said. “The producer is the one who steps back and sees the big picture.” Sher takes an approach that’s distinctly inclusive: “I think ultimately the producer’s job is to serve the film” and everybody working on it, she noted. Womark cited director Ang Lee, who has observed that “The producer is the adult and the director is the child,” in one of the film’s primary creative partnerships.

2. Utilizing Transferable Skills — Producers often bring a mixed set of creative, business and logistical skills to their projects, but sometimes even the combined experience of multiple producers may appear inadequate, requiring some inspired workarounds. Going into his first feature on “Beasts of the Southern Wild” with producers Josh Penn and Michael Gottwald, “We had zero experience,” Janvey said. “We wanted to make a film on the scope of a Spielberg movie,” but they couldn’t afford a high-wattage cast. What the producers did have in common, however, was experience working on Obama’s 2008 presidential bid. After learning on the campaign trail that “empowering other people can change the world,” they used their skills developed while canvassing electoral districts to cast a wide net for actors throughout Louisiana, settling on what turned out to be an awards-worthy cast.

3. The “A-ha” Moment — Sometimes even the film’s producers aren’t quite certain that the team they’ve assembled with the director is capable of pulling off the vision they’ve conceived. In the case of “Lincoln,” famously reclusive Daniel Day-Lewis opted not to share any of his preparation or rehearsal strategy with the cast and crew. So it wasn’t until the first day on set that he unveiled the character and everyone could see what he’d accomplished. Watching Day-Lewis reveal his interpretation of President Lincoln on the camera monitors, “You really felt like you’d gone back in time and were seeing Lincoln for real,” Kennedy recalled about the performance that’s likely to win the actor an Oscar.

4. Trusting the Process – As with any collaborative creative process, differences of opinion emerge between directors and producers that need to be resolved, often quite quickly, and every producer has a method for working things out. “We tried to banish the word ‘no’ from our conversations,” on “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” said Janvey. “It was more of a dialogue” that happened during the preparation and shooting of the film he explained. “The underlying principle is a profound trust.” Sher said that by collaborating with Quentin Tarantino, she’s observed that “He still thinks of himself as an independent filmmaker, he still has that perspective.” What’s more, he’s incredibly responsible, she said, and when there’s a difference of creative opinion, “you have to let people make mistakes or they’ll hate you” for enforcing restrictive limitations.

5. The Undertow of Current Events – Even for experienced producers, generating enthusiasm and financing for a film can become a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Despite working with Steven Spielberg for 34 years on his most prestigious and successful movies, Kennedy says that with “Lincoln” there was initially “not a huge amount of support for the film from financiers.” Then, with Obama’s 2008 election and ongoing Congressional discord mirroring the historic debate over abolishing slavery, “The pull of history put things in place,” she commented. “It’s just been an incredible thing to see it connect with audiences this way.”

6. The Audience Knows Best – Filmmakers get so deeply involved in their projects they often lose a degree of perspective, sometimes not regaining a measure of objectivity until they’re able to share the movie with an objective audience. “You don’t know what you really have at first,” Cohen remarked. “You don’t really find out until an audience sees it.”

On “Sliver Linings Playbook,” director Russell and the producers used more than a half-dozen preview screenings to gauge audience reaction and fine-tune their edit in the cutting room. Facing a high level of expectation and uncertainty adapting the beloved novel and stage musical “Les Misérables” to the screen, Hayward concurred: “You don’t really know until you put it up before an audience,” whether a movie really works for viewers.

7. The Measure of Success – After months, and often years, working on a movie from development through release, producers sometimes find it hard to step back and evaluate their accomplishments, so for some it’s worthwhile having a flexible definition of what’s successful. “If you made what you set out to do, then you’ve done your job,” was how Janvey simply put it. Hayward and others gauge success in part by audience response to a movie. “It’s really wonderful that you’ve made something that audiences are really loving,” she said about public reaction to “Les Misérables.”

Sher acknowledged some mixed reactions to depictions of slavery in “Django Unchained,” but noted that Tarantino’s unique tone and style made many viewers “feel safe” about the horror of the onscreen violence. “All of the rules and conventional wisdom were being broken,” she recalled. “It’s so gratifying to see audiences respond to the film” that way.

8. Where Are the Women Directors? – Industry studies have repeatedly demonstrated the under-representation of women in above the line filmmaking roles, particularly among directors. It’s “such a complicated question,” observed Academy governor Kennedy, a former PGA president and one of three women on the panel of six producers. “It’s not just an issue of discrimination or a glass ceiling. It’s far more complicated than that.” The other women panelists (all of whom are also parents) agreed, noting that once production begins, directors are committed to their roles, which often separate them from their families, and that can be a particularly difficult situation for female directors. “I just think it’s easier for a man to step away from his family and go and make a movie,” Kennedy concluded.

9. Passionate Filmmaking – For producers just starting out in the business, the career path ahead can appear daunting, and even veterans sometimes have their doubts. “You just have to keep the bar really high,” commented Cohen, who sees sales as one of a producer’s primary roles. “You have to have passion and belief in what you’re selling to be successful.” Kennedy agreed that commitment is a key characteristic for success. “Ask yourself do you believe in what you’re doing and if you do, then you’re probably right.”

10. Surviving in the Business – After some initial success, most filmmakers face the dilemma of converting that good fortune into a long-term career. All of the panelists have impressive track records, which provide the kind of momentum that leads to Oscar nominations. Sustaining that level of accomplishment is an ongoing struggle, however. “You just have to be really passionate,” about a project said Sher, particularly with shrinking budgets. “You just really have to be ready to live and die for your movie.” From an indie perspective, Janvey said that “The challenge for independent filmmakers is to make as many features as possible without getting sucked into the studio system.”


Santa Barbara, CA – The 28th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, presented by lynda.com, announced the winners of the 2013 festival competition at a Press Conference and Brunch Sunday morning at the Fess Parker – A Doubletree by Hilton Resort. To the delight of patrons and industry professionals, the festival’s 28th season continued the tradition of presenting purely exceptional films, spanning genres and topics that surpass anything before. Throughout the 11 days, cinephiles from around the globe packed the theaters of State Street, creating one of the most vivacious periods the area has ever seen.

Commented SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling, “Eleven days ago at the start of the festival, I encouraged the audience to treat the experience as an adventure and really explore what our films have to share.  Ranging from Reel Nature to International Features, I am proud to say that our selection of films have both challenged and been embraced by audiences.  Once again, this year’s festival surpassed previously achieved goals in the quality of the films and the attendance of our audiences.”

The esteemed Jury for the 2013 SBIFF included:  Actor Ralph Macchio and USA Today film critic Claudia Puig judged the live action and animated short films; playwright Roger Hedden and producer Debra Martin Chase were on the Spanish/Latin American Features jury; writer/director/actor Brad Hall and director/producer/actor Michael Imperioli were on the Independent Features jury; screenwriter Pamela Gray and actor Anthony Zerbe were on the International Features jury; and SBIFF Founder Phyllis de Picciotto and Mimi deGruy, wife of the late Mike deGruy judged the Documentary features.

The Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema, given to a unique independent feature that has been made outside mainstream Hollywood, went to BABYGIRL, directed by Macdara Vallely.  A Puerto Rican girl in the Bronx sets a trap to expose her mother’s boyfriend as the creep she thinks he is.  Winner received a Panavision camera package worth $60,000.

Independent jurors Brad Hall and Michael Imperioli commented:  “We’ve chosen Babygirl for its honest emotion, true performances and well-observed world.”

The Best International Film Award went to COMING OF AGE (Anfang 80), directed by Gerhard Ertl and Sabine Hiebler.  At age 80, two people prove beyond all doubt that nobody is too old for young love.

Jurors Pamela Gray and Anthony Zerbe chose Coming of Age “because of the stunning performances of lead actors Christine Ostermayer and Bruno Merkatz.  It’s a beautifully written screenplay that skillfully combines a passionate love story between two eighty-year-olds with a sobering look at the ways we devalue and dismiss the elderly.  It was funny, charming, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting.”

The Nueva Vision Award for the best Spanish/Latin American film was awarded to 7 BOXES (7 Cajas), directed by Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori.  A teenage delivery boy working in a Paraguayan market must dodge thieves, rival gangs and the police when he agrees to transport seven mysterious — and highly sought-after — crates to the edge of town.

Jurors Debra Martin Chase and Roger Hedden chose this film “because in a nutshell, it was sly, funny and humane.”

Best Documentary Film Award went to MORE THAN HONEY, directed by Markus Imhoof.  With dazzling nature photography, Academy Award®-nominated director Markus Imhoof makes a global examination of endangered honeybees — spanning California, Switzerland, China and Australia.

Jurors Phyllis de Picciotto and Mimi deGruy said “Using innovative cinematography and compelling storytelling, More Than Honey highlights the issue that threatens our very survival: man’s attempts to control and dominate nature. This well-crafted film looks at the endangered honeybee around the world.”

The Bruce Corwin Award for Best Live Action Short Film Under 30 Minutes went to BARRIERS, directed by Golan Rise.  Uri and two soldiers are manning a checkpoint in the territories. Two women from the “watch” organization try to interfere. Amidst the women’s screaming, Uri receives an order to close the checkpoint because of a bomb threat.

Bruce Corwin Award for Best Animation Short Film went to SLEIGHT OF HAND, directed by Michael Cusack.  Sleight of Hand: techniques used to manipulate objects to deceive. In this stop-motion film about illusions, a man sculpts a clay image of himself.

Jurors Ralph Macchio and Claudia Puig chose Sleight of Hand, which also won the Animation Film Festival, not only for the high level of visual stop action, but because of the ability of filmmakers to capture such emotion and sympathy for the lead character. They were impressed with the visual world created and moved by the journey.

Barriers was chosen for its suspenseful pace, as well as the conflict for many of the characters. The filmmakers created a tense documentary-like feel that fit the genre and embraced the surrounding elements.

The Fund for Santa Barbara Social Justice Award Sponsored by The Fund for Santa Barbara for a documentary film that addresses social justice issues also went to REVOLUTION, directed by Rob Stewart and executive produced by Gus Van Sant.   This outstanding documentary makes an impassioned, angry and enduringly hopeful call to arms against our destruction of our planet’s precious marine life.  The winner receives $2500.

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