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‘There’s No Rulebook for Producing’: Sundance Keynote Celebrates Indie Producers

Sundance honors producers Heather Rae and Nina Yang Bongiovi on Sunday, and you can read their keynote address here.

PARK CITY, UTAH - JANUARY 21: Attendees stand outside the Egyptian Theater under the marquee during the Sundance Film Festival on January 21, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Jim Bennett/Getty Images)

2023 Sundance Film Festival

Getty Images

On Sunday, January 22, producers came together in person to honor 2023 festival filmmakers and their films, highlighting the role of the independent producer at the Sundance Producers Celebration.

This annual event, sponsored by Amazon Studios and hosted by the Sundance Producers Program, shined a light on the 2022-2023 Sundance Institute Producing Fellows, featured a keynote address by producers Heather Rae and Nina Yang Bongiovi, and presented the 2023 Sundance Institute | Amazon Studios Producers Awards. The award honors two producers with films at this year’s festival for their body of work. IndieWire shares the keynote exclusively below.

Jess Devaney/Multitude Films (“It’s Only Life After All” and “Milisuthando”) received the 2023 Amazon Studios Nonfiction Producers Award, while Kara Durrett (“The Starling Girl”) received the 2023 Amazon Studios Fiction Producers Award.

Nina Yang Bongiovi: We want to thank the team at Sundance – Michelle Satter, Shira Rockowitz, Kristin Feeley, for having Heather and I keynote the Producers Celebration!

Heather Rae: I echo the thanks to Sundance for the opportunity to be with you all today. We want to acknowledge all of you here with films, this year, years past and in the years to come. There are two things that Nina and I want to engage you all with today — we’d love to initiate a dialogue on ethics and values, and a conversation on integrity as it pertains to producing.

Nina Yang Bongiovi

Nina Yang Bongiovi

Courtesy Gold House

When one becomes a producer, there is no rule book or formal on-boarding process. In this conversation I am proposing that as producers, we create our own set of ethics or values. And there are three values that I invite you to consider; these are values that Nina and I share. And It can be common values that bring us together as collaborators, and it can be a difference in values that takes us apart.

The first value to consider is good Communication. Communication is fundamental to all working environments, and 60% or more of communication is listening. Listening is an art form. Take on the study of communication as one would study craft, because as producers we are managers, in positions of leadership and the skill of communication is crucial to our success. In all instances where there is conflict, it is a breakdown in communication. There is a science to communication, but most importantly, it is moved by the heart.

The second value that I would invite you to consider is Reciprocity. It may sound simple, but it is a powerful value set. Our industry is deeply rooted in colonial and capitalist values, values such as ‘getting as much as you possibly can, by giving the least you possibly can.’ Is that not the nature of dealmaking? What if we subverted the extractive nature of that practice and instead took on the values of generosity and reciprocity. One of my working principles is “everyone gets what they deserve, and no one gets more than they deserve.” So, there is inherent kind of integrity to reciprocity.

The third value that I invite you to consider is Acknowledgment, the act of acknowledgment — which could be said as, appreciation in action. A film set is a group of human beings working at an unnatural pace, stress running high and heightened emotions. The stakes are high. So, there is power in acknowledging those around us, those who are contributing to us. We build power by outwardly expressing this appreciation and we create healthy ecosystems. The cast and crew of a film is an ecosystem. In the Hollywood system it is structured as hierarchical power. If we invert that pyramid to a circle we can see that we’re a community. It can be an act as simple as Sterlin Harjo creating a set culture on “Reservation Dogs” where cast, crew and background all eat meals together. As community. Mitigating the class strata of hierarchical or perceived power in our industry.

My call to action to you today is, if there is anyone in this room or beyond this room that you could acknowledge? Let that be your next conversation or your next phone call. And let’s find ways to build power with one another as a community. I will start with acknowledging you, Nina. Your work is fierce, timeless and magical. You are an incredible producer and I have enjoyed our partnership so much with the projects we are working on. And, I stand that it is common values of advocacy and working for systemic change that have really brought us together.

Heather Rae

Heather Rae

Sara Terry

Yang Bongiovi: I’m acknowledging you, Heather. Your activism through storytelling and in philanthropy inspires me. You uplift culture and you fight for equity. To have you in my corner when we build together is a wonderful reality, not just a dream. Above all, I cherish that you are my friend and ally, and that, is truly a gift.

So, I’m here to speak about INTEGRITY. Integrity as it pertains to producers and producing.

For the producers here – how many times have you been asked what is a producer? What do we do exactly? It’s because it’s a title in our industry that is given away so easily and often frivolously. I feel at times while I’m explaining to people what I do, it veers into justifying that I have a real career, and that it is sustainable. So how do I define producing? Most simply put, Art meets Commerce. But the intricacies of finding a story alongside a filmmaker who speaks to your heart is at its essence; then bringing a project into fruition in every sense, every aspect, is what a true producer does. And carrying that creative, financial, and logistical responsibility (and, the liability) on our shoulders, is what we do. Someone who guides artists with love and support, and at times with hard truths, but ultimately, we bolster the projects to the finish line. We are the ones in the trenches, the ones holding onto a thread and a prayer when the sky is falling while shielding our filmmakers from any turmoil so they can focus on creating art.

A strong producer needs to understand the business of film and the language of artists; we have to employ soft skills and should really possess a sense of humor because it’s not simple to navigate the business of entertainment. I’ve once said to my producing partner, Forest Whitaker, how this industry is merciless and at times I feel defeated — especially for the fact that we focus on historically excluded narratives, and that we live and breathe in the realm of underrepresented communities, in front of and behind the camera…Forest would then turn to me and say, with a kind smile, “Nina, how does it feel to change lives through storytelling?” fuck.

So going back to INTEGRITY. I want you, us, to protect what we do as producers. Protect the integrity of the producer credit. Don’t waiver on or dilute what we bring to the table. We are the glue that keeps a film together from script development to financing, to physical production, through post-production, to marketing and distribution (and if we’re lucky, an awards campaign). We are in charge of the chain of title, all the way to the miserable deliverables process. And in indie features, we file the damn taxes for each film’s LLC, annually. We lead by example, we are solution-driven, and we should lead with our heart.

2023 is the 10-year anniversary of launching “Fruitvale Station” here at Sundance — the film that solidified me as a producer. Through this last decade, I have been blessed to champion some of the most culturally significant films with incredible storytellers who have and will continue to shift the paradigm of Hollywood. Independent cinema gives us this opportunity to seek out these filmmakers and push their stories forward – these artists and visionaries need great producing minds to collaborate with and to excel. So, in allowing producers to own our credits with integrity, we give us value.

For those pursuing a career in producing, I know it can be daunting at times. Don’t lose sight of the goal of creating art for living. It is absolutely achievable. I want you to be able to say with me, “I get to make art for a living, and isn’t it a blessing?”

Rae: In closing, a recent study on happiness showed that happiness is not actually what we are seeking. Instead, what we really seek is meaning and connection. In other words, having a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging is more valuable to us than “happiness.” This community is a place of meaning and belonging. And we can build a collective set of ethics and values, rooted in integrity and a generosity of spirit and change the culture of this industry. THAT is power.

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