Roundtable: New York independents

Carving a name in New York's indie film scene is enough to make a grown man cry. So we corralled five of Gotham's most important female film folk to discuss mentors, rebates -- and the gender gap.

They come from different backgrounds and different disciplines, but Laverne Berry, Michelle Byrd, Merideth Finn, Katherine Oliver and Celine Rattray all share one thing in common: They know what it's like to be a female leader in the New York film community. Each plays a key role in the others' fields: Oliver oversees all film production as commissioner of the NYC Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting; IFP executive director Byrd oversees the country's largest independent film organization, with programs that help many projects get off the ground; Finn is vp production and acquisitions for New Line Cinema and also the designated executive at New Line working with Picturehouse Entertainment; Rattray, co-founder of Plum Pictures (with nonpresent partners Galt Niederhoffer and Daniela Taplin Lundberg), had two films ("Grace Is Gone" and "Dedication") acquired at this year's Sundance Film Festival; and longtime entertainment attorney Berry is the new president of the nonprofit New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT), which has helped women network and train in the entertainment industry for the past three decades. Over afternoon tea with The Hollywood Reporter's Gregg Goldstein at the Algonquin Hotel, this diverse group provided some key insights into the challenges facing the New York indie film community and female filmmakers in particular.

The Hollywood Reporter: How would you compare the experience of independent filmmaking for men and for women?
Celine Rattray: Our mission statement is to make films by women, with female actors and about women's themes. There are only women in our company, so we're a natural place to come to. We've found that it's very, very hard to get these films made. There are very few female directors, and we're actively seeking them out. The other challenge is that when films are financed based on a female actor, it's much harder to get financing.
Michelle Byrd: Women are very talented, but I find that a lot of guys, particularly writers and directors, are extremely mercenary just in their approach about moving forward. I see some of the women who've been in the same programs -- IFP, Sundance, Film Independent -- taking a very long time to go from a script that everyone loves to finally making a first film. I never see that with men.
Rattray: That's a really interesting point, because it's such a bold move for a filmmaker to direct their first film, and maybe that's a trait that a man finds easier to access.
Byrd: Aggression? (Laughs)
Laverne Berry: I do think men sometimes have an easier time saying, "What the hell, I don't know everything, but I know enough" and just moving forward. I'm working with a woman now who is trying to get financing for a feature, and she is being very, very careful. And she is really afraid that she's going to go out before she's ready.
Byrd: Is she afraid because she feels like if she's fails she gets one shot?
Berry: That's very true. And I think that in some ways that's paralyzing.
Rattray: A characteristic you sometimes see in first-time filmmakers is that they're compelling to people in a room. The agencies have chosen someone that comes with charm or charisma or self-promotion. Maybe that's a trait demonstrated more often by a 25-year-old man.
Merideth Finn: One of the things that I get to do at New Line is give awards to Columbia (University) students. In the last round, I think all of the awards for comedy shorts went to women. And that was unusual -- that there were that many girls that were at the very top. I don't think aggression is the right word. Maybe it's ... purposefulness at a young age in having something to say.
Berry: When if you take a look at the (Fox) show "On the Lot," there are four women on the show, and three are from New York.
Rattray: There's tremendous talent in New York, which is yet another great reason we like to make films in New York. It's amazing to me the number of great directors and actors that you can get that are based out of New York and who are dying to work in New York.
Katherine Oliver: And the energy of the city ... that New York can-do mentality with the crews. I think people know that you can get things done here.
Rattray: Two hundred and seventy-six films shot here last year, which is an astounding number. We were shooting in Brooklyn this summer, and we were on one side of the street, and the Charlie Kaufman film ("Synecdoche, New York") was on the other side of the street, and we have something we call "set envy" (Laughs): "Their trailers are bigger than ours! Their craft services are better than ours!"

THR: How tough is it for women in the NY film industry today?
Berry: I think it's hard up and down the line. (NYWIFT) gave a special award to (producer) John Wells because of the work that he had done with minorities and women. And what was the most important was not so much that he had put in place training situations, but that he guarantees employment situations, so that you can go back and say, "Yeah, I'd work with her. Let's hire her."
Byrd: There's a filmmaking mentorship program (NYWIFT) did. I volunteered if someone wanted to contact me, and only once did anyone ever contact me -- a young director working at Killer (Films). She held me very accountable to being her mentor and made me take it very seriously.
Berry: We do have some very great success stories of women who intern in the office and get to be paired with a mentor. We've had someone (Dori Begley) go on to be (manager of acquisitions at Sony Pictures Classics, now director of acquisitions at Magnolia Pictures) who started as an intern (and) someone who got a mentor who was an editor now does editing for (ABC's) "Good Morning America." They do well.

THR: Have mentors played strong roles in your lives and careers?
Rattray: A few mentors really helped me out when I started. There are people in film who are very, very generous with their time and their advice. If anyone asks me, "Can I have five to 10 minutes of advice?" I always say yes, because that's what helped me get started.
Oliver: There's so much more opportunity now. When I was in high school and college, it really didn't exist to the extent it does now. You had to really roll up your sleeves and be resourceful and seek it out on your own, which was a lesson unto itself. But we do a lot of mentoring, and we're involved in a lot of development and training programs. We do free career days in each of the five boroughs. We get some top-tier talent to talk to kids about opportunities in film and television, and then I moderate a panel discussion with people behind the scenes. So there might be a script supervisor, a makeup artist, a casting director, people from different aspects of the business. We're looking to train new people to enter this business. There's so much production that people are saying, "Wow, we're running out of crew." We created the Made in NY Production Assistant Training program to give young people in the city an opportunity to get into the business. It's also a great way to insure that all of these productions are operating under the best practices.
Finn: Most of my mentors are women, starting from when I interned in London for (producer) David Heyman. His head of development was Tanya Seghatchian (now head of the development fund at the U.K. Film Council), and she's the reason I work in film. When I moved to New York, David gave me a list of people to meet with, and, you know, I got a job from a woman and then another job from a woman. And worked for women ... basically essentially till I got to New Line -- and a woman hired me there. I try not to turn down any informational interviews. ... I'm just sort of living through a generation where a lot of my mentors and people I grew up with in my career are moving to L.A., and it's a shame.
Rattray: I think you hit a ceiling in New York. When you get to the vp, svp level, there just aren't that many jobs. There are really three companies that hire at that level. So that's the point where I see my friends moving to L.A. -- they have no choice. They price themselves out of New York.
Finn: There's more ability to hop around there. Every two years they get a new job. It's a little bit harder in New York, because there's a little bit less of a threat, like I'm going to go over to ... where? In terms of jobs that I would consider, the majority of them are in L.A.
Rattray: And you see when there's a job that opens up, let's say at Focus (Films) or one of the New York companies, so many L.A. people want that job, so there is just so much more competition. Because it's a lot of old New Yorkers looking to move back.
Oliver: Most of the major companies are based here -- you've got News Corp., Time Warner, NBC Universal. And you might have the news operations here, but the development and creative departments are in L.A., and I think getting more of the development offices to open up in New York is challenging. But you look at HBO and the significant presence they have here, and you look at people like (HBO documentary and family president) Sheila Nevins, who has gone on to have an amazing career at HBO -- she told me that's where she started. And HBO has had a strong commitment to New York.
Finn: There will always be a presence for publishing, and there are development people who cover publishing, and they have to be here.
Oliver: It will be interesting to see what happens with this whole digital media evolution that's happening now, because all of the magazines at Hearst (Corp.) and Conde Nast (Publications) are thinking about their online strategies, and they have to. This will be the future of what happens with publishing and also the advertising industry. So that perhaps will give New York an edge. People are trying to get their head around that: How do we marry the expertise and the creativity of the independent film community to these online companies that are struggling to find good content?
Rattray: It seems that New York producers or studio people based out of New York really have to forge this separate path, which is based probably more on magazine stories, or rights, or books or European remakes. You're definitely less in the flow of things than you are if you have your offices down the road from CAA.
Finn: I've only bought one screenplay in my entire tenure at New Line. It's all been life rights or books. And I think that's a product of being in New York.
Oliver: But in the past couple of years that we're starting to see the business coming back. Now we're hearing about different postproduction facilities or new businesses that are coming back to New York or thinking about expanding. Maybe some of the studios will open development offices here.
Rattray: The postproduction aspect is a very good point because you know I've seen over the past three years the price of digital intermediaries and all post services have really gone down. I mean you see every six months it goes down in New York as more business comes here, and that will be an additional reason they may come to New York. I really think there's more money than ever flowing into film production, from Wall Street, bonds and hedge funds, companies and from private individuals who want to invest in films. And I think the tax incentives have really helped that -- it's a way to diminish your risk by 10%, which investors like. And another great thing about films in New York is the crews are spectacular. It's not just a job; it's a passion of theirs. We've found that when we've made $2 million films in other cities, what you end up getting is people who didn't get the jobs for studio films. It's a paycheck for them, and they're much less invested.
Oliver: For us, I think customer service is the most important thing. There's always going to be another state that's going to have a better tax credit, or there's going to be a different incentive program in another part of the world. And it's very different for us to compete with that, but if we can focus on our core and continue to serve our customer base and be helpful to them, that will pay off.

THR: How would you like to see these rebate programs evolve five or 10 years down the line?
Rattray (to Oliver): I had a question about the incentive: Do you ever see a scenario where the money would go back as you are shooting, as opposed to a year later? (Currently, New York State and City have a shared rebate system that returns money to the production once it has finished.) That seems to be the main criticism.
Finn: That you have to wait for your money, that you have to get 50% your first year. ...
Rattray: As opposed to being able to flow it into your budget, like in Connecticut.
Oliver: The program is in place until 2011, and I think every year we can look at the program and perhaps improve it, but it's very difficult to get these things passed. You can always find ways to better structure programs, but we've seen $2.4 billion in new business in less than two years and 10,000 jobs created, so that's a great start for us. But we're constantly talking to production and hearing what their experiences are so that going forward we can come up with better programs. But it's very challenging to make changes to adapt these things. The wonderful thing about this is that it's a direct refund from the city and state, and so many other states, their incentive programs are a bit more complicated. Some of our neighboring states, it's a little bit more cumbersome in the process. But this is a direct refund from the city and state. So perhaps you have to wait a year to get the money back, but it's a direct refund, and you're guaranteed that refund.
Rattray: And it actually gets paid, unlike some other states where it seems that people are waiting in line and they are not actually getting paid.
Byrd: Some people haven't gotten paid?
Rattray: I've heard some stories where people haven't gotten paid (from other states' rebate programs). I've heard of filmmakers in various states where they wait in line. ... It seems, in New York, it's a more simple way to do it.

THR: Obviously you are all scouting for new talent. In what areas has the IFP and its programs been helpful to you?
Finn: The No Borders program is great, whether it means that we get in early or co-finance. More often than not it's a pretty invaluable time to meet a filmmaker who's usually on a very long journey.
Berry: From my day job as an attorney for small independents, it's really the place for clients to try and place their films. I've had clients who have been in IFP -- it takes a while, its an arc, but people end up buying when the film is done.
Rattray: It's a great, great place to find talent, and it's an amazing screening process. (Laughs) You read thousands of scripts. The ones that emerge are really, every one that I've read has been among the best ones.
Byrd: It's interesting because when IFP was founded, there was a big debate about equal access. Its an egalitarian organization, and this idea of vetting was very controversial, something that was started probably seven to eight years ago, and increasingly that's what's been the most useful, because the reality is there's a lot of projects out there. There's probably in any given year maybe 300 people in an IFP program, whether it's the IFP Market or the lab. Something we're doing this year is matching up producers who are primarily financiers with first-time writer-directors to see if there's a way of either fostering mentor relationships or producer-filmmaker relationships, so people do business with people they know.
Finn: With writer-directors that come to us, that's probably the first question I ask: Who's your producer? (Laughs) I want someone to produce the movie. One of the things I have seen is that there have been a lot of women producers out of L.A. I've always wondered why women producers don't really form production companies with other female partners. (To Rattray) You guys are kind of the only ones I can think of aside from Killer Films, which I find really weird. Can you think of one?
Rattray: That's really interesting. I think it's a very hard job to do alone, so you know you're right.
Byrd: Everyone else is kind of a solo producer.
Finn: I can think of a lot of male-female teams, but I'm having a hard time thinking of others.

THR: Are there any specific challenges being a female leader in the NY film community? Is it more difficult to get there as a woman?
Rattray: I think it's difficult to be a woman in business in general. There are certain traits that are really admired in a man. He's a great negotiator, he's so strategic ... and those traits are looked down upon at times in women.
Finn: My studio isn't run by a woman, it's run primarily by men, but they really do see their female executives as strong assets. And a lot of the films that are slated to production are targeted towards a female audience, like (the 2008-slated) "Sex and the City" and (the 2009-slated) "He's Just Not That Into You." For a company that's run by men, they really do value their female executives.
Berry: We're still at a time where when we make that caveat, we're still saying "for a company run by men." I negotiate a lot with other female lawyers -- they're all up-and-down business affairs. But we had to have a board meeting the night that HBO announced their new corporate structure, and it was still mainly white men at the meeting. ... So they may be the most wonderful, talented and deserving people for those positions, but they still were men. (Pause)
Byrd: That's a sad note to end on. (Laughs)
Rattray: I'm just going to go back and cry now.

Gregg Goldstein is slated to moderate the IFP panel "Producing Films for the Global Marketplace" on Sept. 18, from 2:30-3:30 p.m. as part of the IFP Filmmaker Conference.


RUNAWAY PRODUCTION: Indie productions head to the boroughs
MARKET PACE: Filmmakers, financiers hook up at IFP confab
TO-DO LIST: IFP Conference highlights
MAKING THE CUT: IFP's Narrative Rough Cut Lab
ROUNDTABLE: NY's female film folk
PAYBACK: Incentive system flows funds
RESERVATIONS: Eatery guide for money-minded indies