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The life of the indie producer has never been easy — and it’s not getting easier. Financing and distribution opportunities may have multiplied in recent years, but making an independent movie and getting it to the screen is still tough.
According to the Independent Film & Television Alliance, 496 independent films were released in 2011, taking in nearly $1.8 billion in U.S. box office- — but that amounts to only about $3 million per picture, on average. In other words, even after managing to complete a film and find a buyer willing to release it, making a profit remains largely a long bet.
The seven producers or producing teams highlighted here consistently find ways to beat those odds, devising creative ways to develop and finance movies while getting them a berth in the best potential platform for success: the Sundance Film Festival. “You go through all the nooks and crannies of accomplishment, all without a ton of resources,” says Like Crazy producer Jonathan Schwartz. “It’s hard to get it right. It’s a great challenge.”
Daniela Taplin Lundberg & Dan Crown
Red Crown Productions
Film in 2012 Sundance program: Goats, Premieres section
Selected filmography: Lundberg: The Romantics (2010), The Kids Are All Right (2010), Grace Is Gone (2007)
Goats, a coming-of-age story about a teenager who leaves his desert homestead for an East Coast prep school, is the 12th film that Lundberg has brought to Sundance. But the drama, which stars David Duchovny and Vera Farmiga, is the first film Lundberg has produced under her New York-based Red Crown Productions banner, which she founded with Crown in May 2010.
The 35-year-old Lundberg, a Sundance veteran best known for producing Lisa Cholodenko’s festival breakout (and Oscar nominee) The Kids Are All Right, partnered with Crown after getting to know the former theater-circuit owner when he invested in two projects that Lundberg produced, Birds of America (2008) and The Winning Season (2009). She left Plum Pictures and linked up with Crown in the hope that he would “god-father this company and be a true partner to me.” Lundberg says she and Crown came together with different perspectives, but that they are “aligning the more we work?together.”
Crown, 55, who sold the family business Crown Theatres in 2007 for an undisclosed price, was eager to become involved in the production of films. “I find it immensely rewarding — much more so than any other business I’ve been involved with,” he says.
Career highlight: The Kids Are All Right, which grossed $35 million worldwide. “So much of the industry was scared to take that risk,” Lundberg says.
Electric City Entertainment, Silverwood Films
Film in 2012 Sundance program: 28 Hotel Rooms, NEXT sidebar
Selected filmography: On the Ice (2011), Blue Valentine (2010), Half Nelson (2006)
“New filmmakers Are something that I feel confident I’ve brought to the table,” says Howell, who just launched Electric City Entertainment with frequent collaborator Jamie Patricof. Under her previous Silverwood Films banner, Howell championed the early work of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson), Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), Shana Feste (The Greatest) and Matt Ross, whose 28 Hotel Rooms follows a couple through a long-term affair.
The 32-year-old Brit studied at the Liverpool Institute of the Performing Arts, where she received her diploma from Paul McCartney, a co-founder of the school, before working in West End musical theater. A move to L.A. in 2002 with the theater company East of Doheny led to more film industry exposure, and she launched Silverwood in 2005 to start raising money to make Stephanie Daley and Half Nelson, for which star Ryan Gosling earned an Oscar nomination.
She may be moving into higher-budget terrain with Electric City, but Howell says that learning new ways to be strategic with financing and choosing the right partners remains essential. “I don’t believe in the philosophy of: Do anything you can to get your movie made,” she says. “Who wants to do that if then your movie ends up with a crazy person and never gets distributed?”
Career highlight: “Every time you screen your movie for the first time at the Eccles Theatre [in Park City],” she says. “I say to the directors that I take to Sundance, ‘That’s the moment you have to enjoy. This is the reason.’ “
Red Box Films
Films in 2012 Sundance program: The Imposter and Searching for Sugar Man, both in World Cinema Documentary Competition
Selected filmography: Project Nim (2011), Man on Wire (2008)
For most of his adult life, chinn has sought true stories that are “almost unbelievable.”
The 42-year-old Londoner studied history and politics at Newcastle University before diving into documentary journalism. Chinn’s “restless, adventuring spirit” took him to the hairiest of places — the Balkans, Southern Africa, Iraq — in the service of TV programs that he eventually felt were too marginalized in the U.K. Inspired by films such as Hoop Dreams and One Day in September, he saw the possibilities for ambitious nonfiction filmmaking on the big screen. “The best cinema documentaries have the potential to be as powerful, if not more powerful, as the best fiction films,” he says.
For Chinn, finding the most intriguing stories to pursue is a matter of being in the properly receptive frame of mind. Project Nim blipped onto his radar when he came down to breakfast one morning to find his eight-months-pregnant wife crying over an article about the 1970s experiment involving a chimp raised by a human family.
The other key is persistence. Chinn spent eight months convincing French high-wire artist Philippe Petit to sell book rights and cooperate in James Marsh’s Oscar-winning Man on Wire, about his World Trade Center stunt. (The name of Chinn’s production company comes from imagery in Petit’s memoir; “It’s the box in which I keep my projects — my dreams that I hope to bring about,” Chinn says.)
Though he also is developing several TV miniseries and fiction films, Chinn acknowledges that “the documentary form has huge potential to engage an audience emotionally,” he says, pointing to the bizarre, true tale told in The Imposter, about a charming Frenchman who impersonated a couple’s missing son. “So often you find stories that if you told them in a dramatic form, they wouldn’t be credible.”
Career highlight: The moment Petit signed the agreement to make Man on Wire. “My life hasn’t been the same since,” says Chinn.
Jonathan Schwartz & Andrea Sperling
Super Crispy Films
Films in 2012 Sundance program: Smashed and Nobody Walks, both in U.S. Narrative Competition
Selected Filmography: Together: Like Crazy (2011), Kaboom (2010); Schwartz: Douchebag (also co-writer, 2010), Spooner (2009); Sperling: Harsh Times (2005), The Doom Generation (1995)
Schwartz’s UC Berkeley degree in rhetoric may be the key to his success in a challenging profession, since persuasion is crucial to making any movie. Years spent as a sports researcher for NBC, in business affairs at ICM and working for Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios led to a handful of pitches sold to Hollywood and the launch of his Crispy Films in L.A. in 2004.
Sperling took a more direct path. While studying film theory and criticism at U.C. Santa Barbara in the early ’90s, she took classes in guerrilla filmmaking from Gregg Araki, then became an associate producer on his film The Living End. More than two dozen films have followed. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” says the 43-year-old Sperling. “I love having a say in creating pieces of work that might someday be good art.”
Schwartz recruited Sperling in 2008 on the recommendation of a CAA sales agent, and the match was a good one. “She’s invaluable,” says the 42-year-old Schwartz. “I needed someone who could get shit done. And Andrea is capable across the board.” Three movies shot in 2011, including Smashed, about a marriage burdened by alcohol, and Nobody Walks, about a family unhinged by a visiting artist, speaks to the duo’s productivity (with Schwartz enduring hip-replacement surgery in the midst of it all).
Schwartz’s sports-world past helped him secure financial backing from Minnesota Vikings owners Zygi and Audrey Wilf. “That’s what differentiates us,” Schwartz says. “If we love a project, we can say yes right away.” The financing element provoked Schwartz to add “Super” to the company name, and the grand jury prize-winning success of Like Crazy in 2011 solidified the company’s reputation as a strong outfit for quality films. “What I love the most about it is starting with an idea and ending with a fully finished film,” says Schwartz. “It’s fun to see it come to fruition.”
Career highlight: Sperling: The 15-minute standing ovation in the Palais at Cannes for Kaboom in 2010. Schwartz: “Watching Drake [Doremus of Like Crazy] grow into a director who has a command of every aspect of filmmaking.”
Claude Dal Farra, Lauren Munsch & Brice Dal Farra
Films in 2012 Sundance program: Bachelorette, Liberal Arts and Predisposed, all in Premieres section
Selected filmography: Peace, Love & Misunderstanding (2011), Higher Ground (2011)
The Dal Farra brothers may be the only producers in the world who find moviemaking a refreshingly fast process. This is because they come from the world of biochemistry, an “industry that takes five to 10 years to come up with innovation,” as Claude says.
Claude, 40, and Brice, 39, grew up in Antibes, France, and when they sold their biotech company five years ago (Claude has a Ph.D., Brice was on the finance side), the brothers moved to the U.S. to make movies. They funneled their profits into transforming a 35-acre farm near Woodstock, N.Y., into 50,000 square feet of company offices that house an editing suite, a recording studio, color-correction facilities and three soundstages.
Together, the trio (Munsch is a cardiologist) has launched a private equity film finance company and pulled together seven movies in the past 18 months, including three that will have their premieres at the 2012 Sundance festival: Bachelorette, Liberal Arts and Predisposed, a comedy about a piano prodigy. “We’ve always been very interested in storytelling,” says Claude. “Movies seem to be the form of art that people are most interested in, that gets the most visibility.”
Career highlight: The standing ovation Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground received after its premiere at Lincoln Center last year.
Film in 2012 Sundance program: Price Check, Premieres section
Selected filmography: Tadpole (2002), High Art (1998), The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love (1995)
Hall has taken seven films to sundance. Parker Posey has appeared in 15 Park City movies. Despite their overlapping careers — and Hall’s penchant for films with strong female protagonists — the two are only now bringing a film to the festival together.
Price Check stars Posey as a high-energy supermarket chain executive who takes a family man under her wing. The film is different from most of Hall’s festival projects — such as writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art (1998), which examines the drug-filled Manhattan art world — in that it’s a comedy. “It’s not about heroin overdoses; it’s not that kind of full-on struggle on that spiritual and psychic level,” says the 51-year-old Hall.
An independent-film veteran, Hall says she’s seen the business change dramatically in the past decade or so. Back then, producers could rely on “patron saints of the arts,” and in the mid-2000s “go-go money and the hedge-fund guys” were in the business of financing projects. But those resources have vanished, says Hall, who now finances projects, such as the forthcoming thriller The Maid’s Room, through angel investors. “I’ve had to get a lot smarter and be really savvy about whether I can market a project — put it on a meat hook and give it to a distributor,” she says.
Career highlight: Two Girls in Love. “It was my first solo producing endeavor, and it was my first movie at Sundance,” says Hall. “It was incredibly well received. I sold the foreign rights to Rick Sands from Miramax in a basement bar — and I went skiing.”
Film in 2012 Sundance program: Lay the Favorite, Premieres section
Selected filmography: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), The Tenants (2005)
Emmett isn’t the first person you’d expect to see in the Park City program, since he’s best known for macho genre fare like Rambo and Conan the Barbarian. But he says Lay the Favorite represents a turning point for him as he makes more “small, intimate pieces.”
After turning out such action flicks as Catch .44 and Gun in the past few years, the Miami native and his partner George Furla are bringing to Sundance a Las Vegas-set sportsbook comedy from two-time Oscar-nominated director Stephen Frears (The Queen, The Grifters) that stars Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones. “This is one of the most important movies of my career,” says Emmett, 40, whose Beverly Hills-based company has produced 66 movies since he teamed up with Furla in 1998. Emmett says they jumped at the chance to become involved in a “pedigree” film such as Favorite when the project incurred financial troubles. “We didn’t even flinch — we started writing checks to make actors’ dates,” Emmett says.
In September, Emmett/Furla launched a $250 million film fund with Envision Entertainment that will allow them to produce not just mainstream fare such as the forthcoming comedy Rule #1 with Reese Witherspoon but also projects more in line with the rest of the Sundance program.
“The investors we are partners with wanted the opportunity to do all kinds of movies,” says Emmett, who has considered Sundance “the holy mecca” for aspiring filmmakers since he was studying film at the School of Visual Arts.
Career highlight Lay the Favorite. “That was a gratifying experience because everybody was pushing the boulder up the hill together,” Emmett says. “Everybody looks at each other and says, ‘Wow, we did it.’ ”
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