On Sunday, January 23rd, producers from around the world convened digitally at the Sundance Film Festival to celebrate the 2022 festival producers and their films, as well as highlight the crucial role of the independent producer. This annual event, which is sponsored by Amazon Studios, also included recognition of the 2021-2022 Sundance Institute Producing Fellows, a keynote address by producer Karin Chien (“Circumstance,” “Jack & Diane”), and the presentation of the 2022 Sundance Institute | Amazon Studios Producers Awards, honoring two producers with films at this year’s Festival for their body of work and commitment to creative producing in the independent space: Amanda Marshall (“God’s Country” – Premieres) and Su Kim (“Free Chol Soo Lee” – U.S. Documentary Competition). IndieWire shares Chien’s keynote below.
I’m deeply honored to be asked to give the Sundance Producers Keynote address. I know many of you listening could easily be in this speaking position. So first of all, thank you for listening!
When I first started producing, it took me years to introduce myself as a producer without fumbling. I wasn’t sure back then that I deserved that title. Twenty-something years into this game, I know in my bones, in my heart, and in my gut what it is to be a producer. Producing is an identity, a tribe, an act of community and an artistic practice that encompasses more than can be communicated. It is the highest compliment. A producer is someone who makes the impossible possible. A producer solves problems AND creates problems, good problems. A producer questions why things are the way they are. We are independent producers because we subvert and we complicate the status quo with the intention of forwarding new thoughts, ideas, voices and stories. Our culture, our communities, and our industry depend on us to do this.
Expanding the concept of who and what a producer is, has allowed me to embrace an insider/outsiderness that is in my DNA. I come from a family of exiles and immigrants who couldn’t be farther from the film business, yet I was literally born in Hollywood. And at Sundance, every producer knows what it feels like to be “in” the festival and yet still out in the cold.
Whether we are outside or inside changes all the time, from one phone call to the next. There is power in standing in either position. There is a superpower in inhabiting both perspectives.
I know this as well from my work as a distributor where I inhabit a far-away corner of the distribution galaxy. My work distributing independent Chinese cinema for the past 13 years was a natural outgrowth of producing and self-distributing Asian American cinema in the 2000s. The latest manifestation of this producer-distributor work is a coalition-in-formation for distribution advocacy. So, that far outside perspective is rare and valuable – it’s where I can agitate for change and ideate different ways of doing things.
The danger lies in assigning a lower value to being “outside.” It’s forgivable if you do. But, I’m here to tell you, from experience, that if you devalue yourself, others will gladly take what you’re giving for free. And if you/we devalue the outsider point of view, then change will never come.
We’re at a point when more money is available to make movies & TV than ever. Yet we producers find ourselves organizing for the right simply to be paid. We fight to receive a nonzero number. There’s nothing more important we can do for our tribe than to hold onto our value, for each other.
And let me say, solidarity is not an exclusive event. So to the writers and directors who are listening, please ask your producers what we are being paid. And if there isn’t parity, do something! Make noise. Create good trouble. Do the things every storyteller at Sundance is celebrated for – question, subvert, interrogate. This is especially necessary if you stand in greater privilege.
I’m in a fight right now for parity. And I’ll tell you something I’ve learned. The systemic devaluation that I internalized working as an independent producer helped sustain an environment of outrageously unequal compensation when I went to work at a tech company. In Silicon Valley, equity is not a metaphor. Take a moment to google “equity gap Silicon Valley”. The data is just starting to surface.
It was during this time, with my colleagues Jesse Locks and Jeff Clark in Nevada City, I started a conversation around what it would look like to value producers? With their support, I created the first artist residency for indie producers, and we designed a creative retreat where nothing was asked of producers other than to show up! Providing space and support for producers to rest was unheard of. Rest for producers is a radical act.
Here’s a quote I love by the late great activist Grace Lee Boggs: Conversation is revolution. She explains that the most important revolution is the one that happens inside us. I interpret conversation not as debate, but as listening. There is a power to listening. Listening leads to conversations with the capacity to create.
The conversations I like the most are the ones that ask the hardest questions. That must be a producing quality. So, in the spirit of this producers celebration, let me ask you/us this question — what does it look like to value producers?
When you think about financing, what would financing look like to value producers?
Would it look like an equity model that is producer-driven? Imagine equity being invested into producers instead of projects. For any venture capital funders listening, I am giving this idea away for free. There is an incredible opportunity here to invest in brilliant, talented, experienced, diverse producers, who will turn your investment into a wealth of projects with a multitude of writers and directors.
When it comes to the discovery of new voices, what would it look like to value producers?
Would it entail a mechanism to ensure that producers who bled over a director’s first movie, would benefit from the next one? Would valuing producers look like investing development dollars into diverse producers? As a young producer, I rarely had the privilege of being in development. Development takes a lot of time. And only producers with funding, or financial means, can afford it. Think about the producers who don’t have access to development funding and how that impacts what IP is developed. A diversity of IP – which means a true multiplicity of stories and voices – requires valuing producers in the discovery of new voices.
When it comes to distribution, what would it look like to value producers?
This might be the hardest question. Producers hold a community’s distribution knowledge. A community that doesn’t value producers is one that will lack knowledge of increasingly opaque systems of distribution and exhibition. That creates a severe disadvantage in getting independent work to audiences, to impact, and to revenue. And in this epoch of vertical integration and nonstop consolidation, that disadvantage is not a gap. It is a Grand Canyon-sized chasm. Creating more equity in distribution starts with cultivating and valuing diverse producers.
What would it look like for agents, buyers, executives, and most importantly for producers themselves to deeply value producers?
I don’t have all the answers but I’m here for the conversation and I’m here to listen.
Thank you to this tribe of producers, for listening and in closing, I want to thank Michelle, Shira, Kristin, and everyone at the Sundance Institute for giving me this time and platform. I thank my teachers and those who fought hard to create the path that I walk. I thank producers who opened early doors and showed me how to do the same. I thank my colleagues at dGenerate Films and Icarus Films. I thank my allies at Distribution Advocates. I thank my newest producing partners Joslyn Barnes and Danny Glover, as well as Sue, Tony, Sawsan and Jeff at Louverture Films for a new producing home where we can explore these very questions. And I thank my partner, Lawrence, with whom I have the privilege of being in conversation every day.