Roundtable: New York production

Hey, we didn't say it -- they did. Our annual conversation with the cream of the Big Apple's production community gets inspired -- and testy -- over New York nosh.

In Los Angeles, filmmaking might be in the air and the water, but in New York, it's in the blood. Speak to independent producers such as Original Media's Charlie Corwin (who made his most recent mark with last year's Oscar-winning "The Squid and the Whale"), Lee Daniels (whose 2001 film "Monster's Ball" made Oscar history and whose "Shadowboxer" hit theaters last month through Freestyle Releasing), Lydia Dean Pilcher (who also serves as vice chair for the Producers Guild of America East Chapter) and Cinetic Media's John Sloss (who has built a tidy practice finding distribution for indie films with his Sloss Law Office Llp.), and they'll make it clear: They're here despite, and perhaps because of, the challenges of moviemaking in New York. The quartet joined The Hollywood Reporter's New York film reporter Gregg Goldstein in July for lunch at Pastis, where they explored handling the evolving film marketplace, being at the center of the indie film universe -- and just what's broken in below-the-line diversity.

The Hollywood Reporter: What are the most important issues for independent production in New York?
John Sloss:  We had this conversation a couple years ago about this very thing, and (This Is That partner) Ted Hope was talking about getting real teeth in the subsidies there (now) are. The government and the film office have responded. The subsidies have really brought a lot of production.
Lydia Dean Pilcher:  It's true that the tax credits that have come into New York have brought a real boom to production in the film industry, and there are a lot of issues that are now coming forward for leaders in the industry. The (Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting) just recently pulled the (free) parking permits, something that had been an incentive for filmmakers for as long as I've been in the business, which is over 20 years. There are going to be many issues that the community is going to have to figure out in terms of accommodating the boom in production and the growth that the industry is going to have in New York. The legislators of New York and the City Council have been very supportive of the film industry. They were particularly interested in terms of: How does (the tax rebate) increase jobs? How does it increase diverse jobs in our industry? These are things that all of us as a community are in the process of responding to.
Charlie Corwin:  What's great is that there are so many really good scripts written for New York. There's a lot of fantastic crew here in New York, and almost every actor we've ever come into contact with considers it a treat to be able live in New York while they work. I think all of those things make it easier to produce here, especially the kind of films that I do -- the smaller budgets. So long as people in the legislature continue to have a reasonable and rational approach to understanding and supporting New York filmmakers and New York productions, movies will stay here. If that ceases to happen, then they'll go elsewhere. That's sort of obvious.
Lee Daniels:  I also think that there are not enough African-American, Latino crew members around at all, and it's an embarrassment, and it's a disgrace. So, that's me.
Sloss:  Why do you think that is?
Daniels: I hate calling the race card. I think it's a really cheap cop-out. But I don't understand how that is. I wish we had an answer for it. It's frustrating for African-American actresses not to have African-American people doing their hair. It's difficult. It's quite embarrassing. That's my only issue. If you really want to get minuscule about it, for me, yes.

THR: Of all of those things we just brought up, how do you see the increased tax incentives affecting production?
Sloss: From my perspective, there's something interesting that's happened in the United States in general in the last five years. (The U.S.) used to be an entirely market-driven film economy -- purely capitalistic, purely entrepreneurial -- and Europe was largely a subsidy film economy where soft money is what got films made, and co-production fees. There are so many subsidies in the U.S. now, and they're so real that they are now eclipsing Europe. There's so much money in Europe now, vis-a-vis the United States, that they're growing a whole generation of equity investors in the United States that didn't exist before. So, it's almost been like a flip-flop. It's been great for the U.S. If anyone's been hurt, I would say it's been Canada because there's much less runaway production to Canada now because the various states can actually compete with the cost savings in Canada. It's not something unique to New York. Almost every state you turn over has a significant tax credit system.
Pilcher:  I think that pretty much everybody agrees that New York is kind of the heart and soul of independent filmmaking. I'm curious because independents have always been dependent on equity financing; studios are using it more as well. Do you think, from a financial point of view, it's creating more possibilities for filmmakers to be able to choose New York as a location?
Sloss:  I think the answer is (that) equity has gotten smarter, and equity is very sensitive to these subsidies. As a result, at least in part, equity has increased. With more equity competition, it empowers producers to pick and choose and have more control over those aspects of a film. But I do think it's interesting that you say this -- New York is the heart and soul of independent films, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's strictly about shooting in New York. There are films that emanate from New York that are shot in other places. I like to think that New York is where all the independent films (originate) -- whether it's financing, whether it's producers based here, whether it's post done here. New York is popular, but I think other states are really up in production as well.

THR: How does New York fight that?
Corwin:  I don't know that you need to fight it. I love New York City. I think that a lot of the initial creative spark or the seed starts here. If you're shooting partially here, partially somewhere else or somewhere else entirely, New York still gets credit for having birthed it in some way.
Daniels:  I've never shot a film in New York City, but all of them have been conceived from Harlem. I post some of them here.
Sloss:  We point this out to people every year: If you go to (the Sundance Film Festival) and you really parse all those movies, I'd say 70%-80% have a primary nexus to New York. Whether it's Lee living here and producing, or Charlie, or Lydia, or post here or the distributor being here.
Corwin:  If I go to Hollywood and say to a financier or a distributor that I want to make a movie for under $5 million, the general response is --
Daniels:  Not!
Corwin:  "Why would you embark on that endeavor?"
Daniels:  Not!
Sloss:  "That's not even a movie."
Corwin:  You don't get that here. I don't know how much this has to do with New York, but it's all mixed together. The only way it works on those kinds of budgets -- the only way you can even hope to do it -- is if you get the talent to share the risks. You get these actors that believe in the material, believe in the filmmaking team and say, "I'm gonna work this scale plus 10 or whatever, and I'm gonna be compensated if the movie succeeds." Otherwise, it's impossible.
Daniels:  It stems from Broadway. It stems from the actor coming to New York City to roll up their sleeves and work. When you think of New York, you think of thespians -- you think of "not the fluff."

THR: Taking your films to festivals like Sundance is crucial to having them seen. So, what's the importance of using sales agents to get them to distributors?
Sloss:  Absolutely critical. I have to recuse myself. I'm biased.
Daniels:  I've learned early on: It's rough out there for a pimp. So, I sell my own movies.
Corwin:  I don't. I like for there to be a layer of people between me and the buyers because then I get to stay the good guy, more or less. Much respect for doing it yourself. It just scares me because I've taken three films to Sundance, and I've sold all three during the festival and have left my pound of flesh. It's a gut-wrenching experience. A weeklong festival feels like a year, and every hour that you don't get an offer --
Daniels:  It's unbearable.
Sloss:  Part of what makes (sales agents) so effective at what we do is that we don't have that detachment from what the filmmakers are feeling. I go through something akin to the same process when the strategy on the sale of a film doesn't execute perfectly. There was a film this year (at Sundance) that almost made me want to get out of the business, and that is (Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize winner, ultimately picked up by Sony Pictures Classics) "Quinceanera."
Daniels:  Unbelievable.
Sloss:  I love that movie. We had a strategy from a year ago about skipping (the Toronto International Film Festival), taking it to Sundance, letting it stay below the radar, letting the audience discover it and present it to the distributors -- and the strategy worked to an absolute T. It couldn't have been more perfect. It took me a month after the festival to find a distributor for it. Two years ago, I would've sold that film for many millions of dollars in a bidding war at Sundance. We also sold "Little Miss Sunshine" (to Fox Searchlight Pictures), which was the exact opposite.
Daniels:  To die for!
Sloss:  We could've sold that for twice as much as we sold it at, but we went for the deal at the end. That was the kind of film that all the specialized divisions wanted because it's a crossover film. It's not worth their while to pick up a film to gross $7 million-$10 million.
Daniels: I got my investor to distribute my movie because the only people that were interested in my film, "Shadowboxer" (which Daniels directed), was Sony Classics, and they couldn't understand how to market it. "Is it Euro? Is it ghetto? Is it art, or is it gangster?" That was a valid question. The regulars made a pass on all the other films I've done. So, what do you do? I got my investors to simply put a couple million in (prints and advertising) and get a booker to do it. So, now I've learned all about distribution.
Pilcher:  The whole nature of distribution is changing so rapidly with all of the digital technology that's coming forward. I feel like we're in a real state of flux, and because the theatrical windows are collapsing, the independents are the first to feel that the hardest. But I think we're all having to reinvent the way that we create and distribute content because the way people are viewing it is changing so rapidly.
Sloss:  I think that's right, but I do think when it's over, there's going to be a democratization through the Internet where people will be able to get their films seen, where you don't really need this big machine between you as the filmmaker and you as the public in order to get your film out.
Daniels:  Is that a good thing or bad thing?
Sloss:  A good thing. It's going to be about figuring out viral marketing, about getting people's attention without spending $20 million. The only thing these days that distinguishes studios from the rest of the world is their pay-TV output deals. You can hire a marketing person, you can book theaters, you can get a video distributor -- you can do all that. The only thing that studios have that everyone else can't have -- apart from $20 million to spend on P&A -- is these output deals for Showtime and HBO that nobody can compete with.
Daniels:  It's very depressing. It was depressing for (2004's) "The Woodsman." I saw one commercial. I didn't see a poster. For this movie I'm doing now, I've seen two posters. You cannot compete.
Sloss:  But when you have (, when you have people out there who show (NBC's "Saturday Night Live" skit) "Lazy Sunday," and it gets 1 million downloads in three days without any promotion whatsoever, you see a glint of the possibilities. If everyone wasn't spending $20 million, then more people would base what they're doing on reviews, on word of mouth.
Corwin:  ( talks about the difference between push and pull marketing and how it used to be push, (meaning that) you need that $20 million P&A to just bombard people with posters and commercials and everything. Pull is, say you have a page on MySpace, and you have 50,000 friends, and you put a blog on your MySpace page that says "I love 'Quinceanera,'" and then all of a sudden, 50,000 people are pulled into the marketing of this film, which is an entirely different way of doing it.
Sloss:  We made this a partnership with Weinstein Co., and we (were) debating whether to spend a huge amount of money for P&A for the opening (of "Clerks II," for which MGM handled the release for the Weinstein Co.) on 2,000 screens. But (writer-director) Kevin Smith is better than any filmmaker I know at cultivating his audience. His MySpace page has hundreds of thousands of friends and he can get to his audience without spending $20 million. So, do you spend that money or do you save that money since you're a partner in the film and depend on that core audience?
Daniels:  Save it. You have to. Otherwise, we are a part of a system that simply is not going to work.
Corwin:  What's at the root of independent films is being able to make movies for a particular demographic, for a particular audience, so that you don't have to water down your content and appeal to ages 8 through 88, to be on 3,500 screens and spend $20 million on P&A. You don't need to do it because it's a more targeted film. That's at the root of independent film and always has been. Now, with these sorts of interactive avenues, you can get information -- it's like a focus group -- about your audience, and you're able to target directly to them. You can flood a niche and accomplish just as much by taking little parts of all these demographics (as) by flooding this one.
Pilcher:  I think cable television has been at the forefront of that for a while in terms of finding the core audiences and then being able to do material that's not advertisement-driven.
Daniels:  Don't you find, ultimately, that it is word of mouth? (2002's) "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" says it all about independent film because nobody is going to stop the American public from appreciating a good movie once it's distributed. Word of mouth is the end. It's the be-all, end-all.
Sloss:  But you've got to get a big enough core for the word of mouth to be effective. You've got to get enough people talking about it, and that's the tricky part.

THR: According to sources in the mayor's office, the increase in production in New York has made it harder than ever to find top-of-the-line crew members for New York productions. True?
Pilcher:  I haven't directly experienced it. But what happens is, it creates an opportunity to bring more people into the industry. One of the things you guys were asking each other in the beginning -- why don't we have a more diverse industry? Part of it is the film business is very much an apprentice business. You learn it by doing it. Therefore, the doors have to be open from the bottom up.
Daniels:  Say what you mean.
Pilcher:  Traditionally, that hasn't happened in New York. That's something that definitely needs to be encouraged in the industry. The mayor's office has created this (production assistant) training program. Things like that have to continue to be put into effect. People are getting the kind of training that they can get to get in the door and work on movies and then gradually work their way up the ladder. Those opportunities are very important.
Daniels:  I went out of my way to hire a woman, a first-time director woman. Out of my way. 'Cause they got it worse than African-Americans (in terms of being hired). Period. Next. I feel that you're absolutely right, but I don't know how to fix it.
Sloss:  Doesn't (responsibility) lie with the guilds?
Pilcher:  The responsibility is on the (Directors Guild of America), (Screen Actors Guild), the Producers Guild, the (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts), the (International Brotherhood of) Teamsters. Everybody carries that responsibility to look inside the organization and say, "What can we do to make diversity a priority?" What I love about New York is that, for the city, it's a priority. They're turning around to us now and demanding that we respond.
Daniels:  I teach at the Ghetto Film School in the Bronx. One little girl said, "All I want do is make videos." I said, "What about making films?" She said, "Black people don't make films." That is her world. And I said, "No, my love. That's not the way it is." She didn't have a woman to look up to. That was the problem.
Pilcher:  No, it's true. When we made (Fox Searchlight's upcoming) "The Namesake," (director) Mira (Nair) said, "I want Indians on the crew. I want to see my people working and learning."
Daniels:  But is that reverse racism?
Pilcher:  No, it's a way of making something a priority that isn't a usual standard and practice. It's a way of reaching out to mentor a group of people that don't have this opportunity.
Daniels:  You don't feel it's reverse racism?
Pilcher:  No, I think she feels that if she doesn't give this opportunity, who will?
Sloss:  Is affirmative action reverse racism? That's the longer debate for a different day.

THR: How do you all keep your budgets workable when working in New York?
Corwin:  Get a great line producer.
Sloss:  Don't pay. Stiff people.
Corwin:  Do it nonunion. Get a lot of favors.
Daniels:  For me, it's all illegal, and that's the sad part -- that's the messed-up part. We're dodging the law. We're having sex scenes in the forest, praying to God the cops aren't coming. It's guerilla. That's what makes New York brilliant. We're all here and not over in Los Angeles playing the game.
Sloss:  We're outside the system -- it's true. At least, that system.

THR:  Is being outside that system isolating or freeing?
Sloss:  I have assiduously worked for the last 25 years not to move to L.A. So, it's obviously a big priority for me. I think there are different films that come out of New York. I think there's a different mentality. It's an essential part of my approach toward my career.
Daniels:  And don't get it twisted. They, meaning L.A., are most impressed with what comes out of New York. They make the money, but they are most impressed by what comes out of New York because we turn it out, baby.