Playing the Long Game: Producers on Sustaining a Career in Independent Film
When legendary producer and studio executive Robert Evans penned his autobiography — later adapted into a documentary — he picked a telling title: The Kid Stays in the Picture. You would think that after producing films like Chinatown and Urban Cowboy, Evans could happily rest on his laurels, but his book’s title, with its defiant use of the present tense, speaks to the ambitions and anxieties affecting every filmmaker with producer DNA. These, of course, are issues of continuing relevance and professional durability — or, to use the independent film parlance of the moment, sustainability.
Contrary to the imagination of outsiders, producing is a tough job that requires hard work, good taste, a bit of luck and an appetite for economic brinksmanship. One particular problem facing independent film producers has been the comparative lack of institutional support. There have long been grants and fellowships for directors, but few for producers. Fortunately, that’s changing. Sundance’s Creative Producing Initiative gets more robust every year; Film Independent, the San Francisco Film Society and Impact Partners, among others, all now have producer fellowships; and IFP has programs and workshops, like its Labs, that offer mentorship to director/producer teams.
Flying more under the radar has been the work of nonprofit producing and granting organization Cinereach, which recently established a Producers Award providing direct grants of $50,000 to producers who have demonstrated exceptional vision, integrity and dedication to cultivating new filmmaking voices. According to Cinereach, the intention behind the no-strings-attached grant is that the awardees can continue to do work that enriches the field with less personal financial strain. The organization notes that their producer initiative is in solidarity with Sundance, SFFS, Film Independent and others who are recognizing and supporting the work of independent producers.
As Cinereach goes public with this award, the organization and Filmmaker brought together its inaugural recipients for an in-depth and wide-ranging conversation about the work of a producer and the challenges of maintaining a producing career over time. New York-based producers and Parts and Labor founders Jay Van Hoy and Lars Knudsen were actually the first producers featured in Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces series, back in 2006. At the time, their credits included Cam Archer’s Wild Tigers I Have Known and Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy. In the intervening decade, they’ve built Parts and Labor into a preeminent independent film production company, with titles like American Honey, The Witch and Beginners. Los Angeles-based Karin Chien’s credits include Greg Pak’s Robot Stories, Michael Kang’s The Motel and, in 2009, a Filmmaker cover film, Bradley Rust Gray’s The Exploding Girl. Her career has taken its own unique path as she has broadened her producing practice to include work in new media and even festival production. Finally, Julie Goldman’s Motto Pictures has literally dozens of producing and executive producing credits, including Weiner, Buck and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. The conversation took part in July at the IFP’s Made in New York Media Center.
SUSTAINABILITY AND LONGEVITY
The four of you have been in the magazine over the years as subjects, or as writers, or, simply, your films have appeared in our pages. And now you’re all sitting here at this table to talk about the art and business of producing. But I can’t help but think of all the producers who have also been in the magazine and who aren’t sitting here — people who are just not in the producing game anymore. So I thought I would start by asking each of you, if you had to identify a reason or two why you’re still here, why you’re still a producer, what would those reasons be? Van Hoy: That’s a question Lars and I ask ourselves all the time. Part of the reason why we’re here is because we created, I think, a dependency on one another, and then we extended that dependency to the directors we work with and then to the people at our company. If we were to vacate our obligations and that relationship, we would be doing damage to the people we care about. You know, it’s almost a violent act on the other for one of us to take a vacation.
Knudsen: The one thing that’s been consistent in my life has been wanting to produce. I’ve never wavered from that. All kinds of other things in my life and personality have changed, but the one thing that I think I’ve never questioned is that. And so we [produce] because that’s what we do. It’s a blessing and a curse, I think. Also, we have a production company, and a partnership, and even through really hard times, we’ve at least had some success in some way. We’ll have a film at a festival, or a director is successful, or we’ll get a movie made that we didn’t think we were going to get made. We have continued to grow and grow and grow, even though we couldn’t pay our rent.
What about you, Julie? Goldman: I had something happen in my life, and I made a decision to leave where I was and start Motto. And part of that decision was to work on films and stories that instinctively appealed to me, but also to work with people I like. The people we embark on these five-year journeys with, they better be [people] with whom we’re going to enjoy the experience. You kind of have to love what you do, and even if it doesn’t go the way you want it to, even if you’re struggling to do it, you’re loving it together. And that kind of keeps me going.
Chien: When I first started producing, I don’t think I knew what I was getting into. I mean, most [producers] don’t. It’s impossible to be good at every aspect of the job, and I love that. There’s always something that I can learn as a producer. Another major reason [I’m still here] is the idea of community. I’ve produced 10 features about women and people of color, Asian Americans. When you’re producing work that is not at all easily financeable, marketable or sellable, you have to rely very much on your community for support, and you go on your own quest as a producer to find meaning in your work. That engagement, that responsibility, that kind of collaboration with my communities really drives me, in addition to the desire to keep learning and growing.
And to speak to what Lars said, as I grow, my conception of producing grows with me. A few years ago, something really difficult happened: my twin sister was diagnosed with late-stage aggressive cancer and I became her caregiver. Something like that brings into question everything that you’re doing — most of all, your work. It forced me to kind of redefine a new relationship with my work, with producing. She passed away two years ago now, and since then, I’ve had to recalibrate how I decide what to work on and how I relate to it.
In what way? Chien: Sustainability is less of a question when you’re 22 years old and you can sleep on the floor and you have so much energy. But as you get into your 30s, and, for me, now my 40s, it’s a big question: How do you sustain yourself financially but also creatively, emotionally and spiritually? There is, for me, a huge awareness now that time is very limited. And time, as we producers all know from being on set, is your most important commodity, right? So what I choose to work on as a producer has really changed. Before, I’d look at the script, the director, the people involved and make a decision. But now, it’s become this kind of bigger spiritual or existential consideration as well.
The primary reason I became a producer in the first place was to be able to work on what I wanted, with who I wanted and how I wanted. And now I have a lot of choice in those processes. An example is the most recent project I had, Cinema on the Edge. All the independent film festivals in China had been shut down by the government. Someone suggested, “It would be great if we could just take that festival and put it on in New York City.” So I thought, “I’m a producer. I can produce a festival. Why not?” So we did that last August and September in New York and it was a great success. We were able to take it on a tour around the world with the support of Open Society Foundation.
SELECTING PROJECTS AND RUNNING A BUSINESS
To widen this conversation out to everybody, what calculus do you apply when deciding to take on a project in terms of its ability to sustain yourselves financially but also emotionally or even spiritually? Van Hoy: We have a pretty developed methodology for it because we have been faced with these questions on so many films. The sustainability question begins with how much money you earn on a film versus how much your rent and your life is.
And for you guys, the expenses of your company. Van Hoy: And the company, certainly. That’s the next step. The first step is: Can you work from your apartment on your producer fees? How much are those fees, and then how many films do you have to make to support [yourself] on those fees? If you’re making a $1 million film and you’re getting $50,000, I can [explain] why that doesn’t work. It shouldn’t be that little — let’s say $100,000 is available to the producers for a $1 million movie, right? There are all sorts of pressures against your fee, and not just from the agents [arranging financing], but also from how you’re perceived by the crew. I’m talking about fiction films here, not so much documentaries. The accountant who is taking care of the cost report sees [all the fees], and word will get around: “Oh, the producers are making 100 grand.” And then the director needs an extra day, which is a normal need and pressure on a film. [All of that] brings your fee down, so [making] $100,000 for one person on a $1 million film just isn’t necessarily that realistic. But if it was, you would say, “Okay, I made $100,000, and it took me two years to make that movie. I could maybe work on two or three movies at the same time by myself in my apartment without a partner.” If you bring in a partner, you’re cutting [your fee] in half automatically, right? So now, you gotta make four or six films. And you’re not even at the mean income level, according to The New York Times, for New York City!
And so you’re producing movies and are responsible for millions of dollars in production costs, and you’re not really making enough money to get by. Then, I think, the cheapest you can get an office with an assistant and a desk is somewhere around $100,000 a year, if not more. So then, then, this is how much really it costs to produce these movies with a partner and so on, something around the order of what — $300,000 a year, minimum? How many $1 million films do you have to make to support that? You can’t.
Knudsen: And all of this assumes the financiers and cast are stable and that the movies don’t push [their schedules]. I mean, this assumes that these movies will happen.
Van Hoy: The normal reaction then is to work on a slate of 10 movies. But, especially if you’re just learning as a producer and trying to understand the craft, it’s hard to balance that many films. It’s exhausting. You’ve got to learn how to work seven-day weeks, which is hard, and then you end up inevitably with the quality/quantity problem. And that’s kind of what we’re talking about here. How do we understand the risk we’re taking at the beginning [of a project], who the audience is, how we get it to the marketplace and how we get people’s money back, while also, along the way, paying ourselves something?
If the story, the subject matter, is something we really care about and believe in, then it creates meaning in our lives. And if the director is somebody we trust and feel a mutual investment in, and who we’re going to have this relationship with over the long term, it [becomes] like, “Well, the economics kind of suck, but it’s an amazing story and the director is also great.” That’s kind of a win. But it’s rarely all three, you know?
Within our office, we are trying now to set goals that are about our own growth. One goal is creative growth, one is intellectual growth, one is health, and again, one is economics, because they fuel each other. And these become principles for our collaboration with each other. Of course, this [analysis] is just where we are right now, and after 2014, which was one of the hardest years we’ve ever experienced.
Why was that? Van Hoy: Some significant portion of financing dropped out on, I think, five films in a row, and our fees were in jeopardy. We managed to claw them back over the course of the next couple of years, but it was at a point when we were really thinking, “What are we committed to within our company? How do we take our producing to the next level? How do we do teamwork producing?” Now our office probably sits at about the $1.5 million level [of annual expense], so that puts a lot of pressure on us as a group.
Knudsen: We’ve done about 30 movies over the past nine years. And what we’ve learned is that it’s okay to say no to a movie that we love and not let outside factors influence our decision early on. When you [turn down] a movie that has a big success, it hurts, and we’ve all gone through that. But as we’ve done more films, we’ve come to realize that that stuff doesn’t matter. What matters is staying true to making decisions based on those parameters [Jay mentioned]. We are seven producers in the company and nine people, so we can say yes to that movie that we all feel is going to be really great but that doesn’t pay. So in a way, that [overhead cost] Jay said, it’s a lot, but we’re also seven producers capable of producing—
Van Hoy: Five to 10 movies a year.
Knudsen: And at various budgets.
Goldman: As you were talking, Lars, I was thinking, we have a project that we’re evaluating now that we’re kind of in already, but the director’s not collaborative, we’re not able to have a voice in the project, and we’re not getting paid for it. We started to do a list and we’re like, “Yeah, [this project] actually doesn’t tick any of the boxes.” It was a project that was inherited from a previous commitment, and we [finally said], “Okay, wait, this has literally nothing that we look for in projects, so it’s time to move along.”
Julie, tell me then about your own calculus in terms of picking projects and also growing your company. Goldman: Basically, what we are trying to do now is to find projects that are fully funded, documentaries with someone like HBO that are fully commissioned or that have some sort of financing — projects that we can basically walk into and have fees for everybody in the company. And a lot of times we mix producing and executive producing, which is really helpful because with the EP’ing, we don’t have to have daily involvement, which helps a lot with our time and what we can actually manage with five people.
And when you say, “we,” tell me about the company. Goldman: Chris Clements is my all around partner. Carolyn Hepburn has been on from day one, pretty much. She and Chris are producers. And then, Marissa Ericson and Sean Lyness started out as interns, and now they are APs and coordinators. We’ll have conversations with them pretty regularly: “What do you want to do next?” Carolyn wanted to produce, and so 3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets was the first film where we had the ability to say, “Okay, why don’t you do that and we’ll EP it?” It’s about keeping everybody growing, and then getting new interns who can hopefully take that same trajectory. We have the luxury at this point of having enough films in front of us that we can kind of choose. [We’ll say], “We’ll do this project, it’s fully funded, we like it. It’s going to take X amount of real hands-on time. And then, there’s this project, which we adore, it’s a great story, we love the people, and it’s going to take an enormous amount of time to raise every dollar for it. It’s going to be tough to get distribution. But we love it so much, we have to do it.” If we can balance those [types of projects] out, then we can actually have a slate of films and make a living.
And when you say “fully funded,” these are films that are coming to you with financing attached? Goldman: Yeah. For HBO, we do films with Greg Barker directing and John Battsek producing. When we finish one, we go and have a conversation about the next one. But there will be other projects that we do with HBO as well. And there are other funders that come and say, “We have this project. We want you guys to produce it.”
Does everyone here pay themselves a salary, as in a paycheck auto deposited in your account every two weeks? Knudsen: Now we do.
No? Chien: Unlike the other three here, I don’t make a living from producing. I never have. And that maybe is my own choice [due to] the kind of projects I choose to produce. I mean, at best, what I’ll do is look at how much time I would have to be full time in preproduction and production, and how much my personal overhead is, and then, I’ll try to make sure that my producing fee will cover that. But you know, on a $400,000 or $200,000 or a $1 million film, even that’s difficult. This is always how I’ve maintained my career, and I find my money somewhere else.
What kind of places? Chien: I’m very grateful to every single nonprofit in the independent film world because they’ve hired me as a consultant. I also teach at Temple University and Loyola Marymount University, helping them build out their [film] programs. But at some point, my living expenses are going to increase, right? The award from Cinereach is a complete game changer for me. I’ve never earned that much money in a whole year as a producer. When I was living in New York City in 2005, I was Airbnbing my room before Airbnb existed. That’s how I paid my rent.
Goldman: I grew up in New York, so I learned how to live here very frugally because my mother had to live paycheck to paycheck. I had a great example of how to exist in New York City on nothing.
Van Hoy: I was lucky. I somehow found rent for $600 a month. The place was under remodeling, and I was able to stay in that apartment for 10 years.
Goldman: It’s all about rent stabilization.
Knudsen: I was just going to say that as everything is changing around us, like distribution, that producers should be able to make money in other ways than just our fees. It’s like you said, Karin, if you can produce a movie, there are a lot of other things that you can do. I think it’s up to us to be able to change the perception of what a producer does and how we make money. Everything else is changing, but the producer still [faces] a situation of cutting their fees [in order to get a movie made]. Oftentimes on a big movie, a line producer makes a lot more than a producer. Or the DP.
Chien: The editors, especially.
Goldman: Often, we’ll get paid for our producing fee [on a film] four years after we started doing it. And if we go over [budget], our fee is always at risk. And it’s always, for some reason, [part of] the last monies that come in. So you have to think, “Okay, for this year, how are we going to get paid from these films from two years ago? And how’s it going to work for next year?” The thing is to keep trying to think ahead. What are we going to do in 2018? What’s the plan?
Up until this year, because of the Cinereach award, I always had to consult. I had consulting jobs at some very weird companies, and I would just do them because they would cover our overhead cash flow. But it was taking away from what I really want to do, which is to produce.
I know a lot of people who don’t produce, or work in a creative field, because they aren’t able to live paycheck to paycheck, or in a state of uncertainty, or they can’t put their families through that turmoil.
Chien: It’s very common, especially in immigrant communities, to be bred with security as being this supreme value. It’s the whole reason why [parents and grandparents] immigrated here. I have a lot of friends who have a lot of talent, are very creative, but who could never live with the anxiety of the way I live. I do think it’s a little bit personality driven, how much of that uncertainty you can sustain. But television right now is providing kind of a safe haven for a lot of independent filmmakers. Almost every independent filmmaker I know is trying to direct or write [TV], and a lot of producers have migrated over there, too. And I look here at Jay and Lars, on the fiction film side — they’re really at the forefront of innovating to make this [profession] sustainable, because nobody has really figured that out.
Van Hoy: I think we are figuring it out. But it’s taken all the money that Lars and I [have made]. We put [the Cinereach grant] into The Witch, which gave us an equity position [in that film]. And then, we took all of those earnings from our backend — because, really, that’s the film that has produced real significant earnings for the company — and put them back into the company. We’re trying to create a sustainable floor, one that’s reasonable, for what the producers in our office need to earn in this city.
You doubled down, in other words. Van Hoy: We fucking totally doubled down.
You could’ve paid yourselves bonuses, or, like a nonprofit, created a kind of endowment to get yourselves through lean times. But you actually upped your overhead. And now the company needs to be operating on a higher level than it did last year. Van Hoy: Absolutely. And when we were going through this dark period, in 2014, we thought our company was going to go out of business within two months. And we realized, wait a second, our overhead isn’t high enough. That’s why we’re always struggling. We’re living according to starvation mode when we really need to get ourselves to where [the business is] sustainable. I think the innovation that began then, and that we’re still working toward, is creating volume with producing teamwork — overlapping films and still having a continuity of method and process. And bringing up people who started as interns and assistants faster, and making it not about the films I want to make but what they want to do — to let their goals push the company’s growth. Lauren, when she comes back from maternity leave, wants to focus on television, which is cool.
The irony with you guys at Parts and Labor is The Witch on paper would not seem to be the film that would deliver those rewards. Van Hoy: No. I think if you were to have a consensus about the films that were the successes for our company, they were the ones that didn’t seem like they would be the successes at the outset. After we made Beginners, everyone was like, “Well, what’s the next Beginners?” And The Witch was the next Beginners.
Both of those films were, I believe, equity-financed films. After the success of The Witch, are you now looking to continue to make equity-financed films where the back-end might allow for a greater upside? Or are you thinking about the more financially stable world of studio production? Van Hoy: The idea of independent film that has always been strange to me is that an independent film typically is seen as a success when it’s bought by a studio. How independent is it, if, ultimately, the measure of its success is whether or not Fox Searchlight or some other big corporation bought it? And I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. But I feel that the antagonism between suppliers, or producers, and distribution in this business is a weird mistake. We should have more fluid exchanges with distributors so that we understand how we’re compatible, and so that they trust us. For us, that will enable a more stable environment for the filmmakers, because that’s our real investment, in the relationship with the filmmaker over the long term. That’s what yields the most value for us. It’s not “playing in the casino” at Sundance. I mean, we’ve never gotten some big payday at a film festival. I much would rather have close relationships with a distribution company, where they trust us, understand what we’re doing, and then we can go into it supporting one another from an earlier stage.
THE PRODUCER/DIRECTOR RELATIONSHIP
Could you all talk about your relationship with directors and how that is a part of your overall philosophies as producers? Goldman: It’s really important to us. Sometimes we’re involved with very early films [by a director], like Alison Klayman’s first film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. And then we did a short and now we’re doing a feature with her. We’re always having that conversation: “What are you developing next?” Or, there’s an idea that comes together between us that we bat back and forth. With Roger Ross Williams, we did his first feature, God Loves Uganda, and then we did a couple of shorts. That was a nice and kind of fertile way to figure out different ways that we could work together so that when he found Life, Animated, the book, he called and said, “I found our next film.” It wasn’t like, “I found my next film, do you want to be involved?” It was, “I found our next film.” And we optioned it together.
That kind of relationship and growth changes the trajectory of our company. But what is also happening, because we’ve done more and more films, and people want to do their second film [with us], it kind of crowds out working with the new people as much as we’d like to. Our slate fills up with repeat relationship films — working with the same directors.
Chien: I deeply value my collaborations with the directors I work with and I try, from the very beginning, to establish a deep sense of trust. If I feel that that’s not there, I try to cut that relationship off pretty early. So, by the time we’ve been through the war and made the film, it’s a pretty battle-tested relationship. That said, with the directors that I’ve worked with, I still consider it on a project-to-project basis. It really depends on what they’re working on next. For example, we did The Motel with Michael Kang, and his next film was a Koreatown gangster film with a much bigger budget. It’s a good film, but it wasn’t my kind of thing. So, I look at the content, and I don’t want working with me to constrain the director’s creative growth.
But there are directors like Greg Pak, who did Robot Stories, the first film that I produced. We did a short together later on, and then he made a graphic novel that ITVS funded to become an interactive app. I jumped at the opportunity to work on that because it was an opportunity to learn.
Van Hoy: A collaborative relationship [with the director] that’s based on trust is also what enables us to be good producers. I think the industry is set up, or dominated by, the transactional progression of a director’s career. And the fastest way to transact on a director’s career is to get them [attached to] some other intellectual property, or move them into original content with people who can pay them, right? That sounds so obvious, but it’s just the status quo to cleave the original producers away from that director.
And I mean, it’s challenging for directors, transitioning from their festival film. The demand on them creates pressure, and they’re taking a risk by committing to us for a second film, or for longer-term relationships. They can get a payday and put their life in order as soon as they get that studio film. It’s hard to say no to that — really hard. It’s hard to say, “My producer needs to come with me.” But that’s something that, if [a director is] successful, is a lot more possible than you might think.
So tell me how you start building that strong relationship with the director. Van Hoy: We’ll meet with the director before we commit to a project, sometimes a couple of times. It’s like “Hey, we’re having this meeting because we really want to make sure that we’re on the same page with you about your film — that we understand each other about what we want to do and the timeline.”
And it’s a double evaluation. Sometimes, directors will come into those meetings and be like, “Hell no. I don’t want to work with those guys. I want to do my thing.” We’re not able to just be those people who are like, “Whatever you say goes, and we don’t have to understand how you’re going to make your movie.”
For the directors who are reading this, what are the two or three things that a director can do in a meeting that impresses you off the bat, that makes you think, “I want to work with this person”? Goldman: Somebody who is really passionate about their film, but intelligently passionate, not crazy passionate, which can be a little bit scary. Someone who really knows and loves [their material] and can make you fall in love with it. And someone who wants to have it be a conversation. They want to see what you think. They want to go back and forth, as opposed to doing a monologue.
Chien: On top of all of that, I look for a real strength of vision. But when people Facebook message me and say, “Will you produce my film?” I’m like, “You just asked for three to seven years of my life in a Facebook message. Take what I do seriously. I’m not a prop or an assistant.” So many directors come in and say, “I just need you to raise about $800,000 and then you can run the production, but the script is there. I don’t really need any creative input.” I don’t want to say it’s disrespectful — it’s more of a lack of understanding, or taking seriously, what a producer does.
SEMINAL EARLY CAREER MOMENTS
Looking back on your career so far, was there one thing, whether it was a mentorship, or an internship, that you feel really gave you a foothold in the business? Or something that just inspired you and gave you that drive? Goldman: For me, I think it was going to Berkeley, which I did just for financial reasons. Berkeley has a requirement that you take an ethnic studies class and, as a freshman, I took a class called “Protest Movements of the ’60s.” It completely blew my mind open, and I felt like I spent the rest of my college trying to un-learn everything that had been indoctrinated into me. It politicized my consciousness in a way I didn’t expect. And that’s driven all of my choices toward the kind of content and scripts and work and even people that I participate with.
I also have to say that from the beginning of my career, [producer] Diana Williams would constantly put my name up for fellowships, or programs at IFP. And without those things, I feel like I wouldn’t be here.
Chien: I guess it was my first job in film, which was in distribution. I spent five years at First Run Features, and while I was there, the person who did the international co-productions left. And so, I stepped into that, while I was still in film school. Learning about financing and distribution, everything from theatrical to VHS, was incredibly valuable. When I left, I could figure out how to pre-sell my own films, and I could raise financing. Having a real grasp on distribution and sales helps to this day, and it has also made me different as a producer.
Jay, I know that you guys worked early on with the producer Scott Rudin. Van Hoy: Undeniably, Scott provided years of mentorship and support. But if there was one event for me, it was when I interned at Killer Films after working for Scott. They needed someone to handle postproduction coordination on [Todd Solondz’s] Storytelling. I was going through a period of [thinking], “Why am I in New York? Am I going to have to move back to Texas? How am I ever going to earn money?” And [coordinating postproduction on Storytelling became] my job. I was like, “Thank god I have a job here.” I mean, I couldn’t get hired as a bus boy.
It was at [the postproduction house] Good Edit, which was downstairs from Good Machine. My first day there, Ang Lee was in one edit suite, working on a BMW thing. Noah Baumbach, who was making some shorts, was in another one, with Tim Streeto, who was coming up as an assistant editor. And there was Todd Solondz and [his editor] Alan Oxman and Sarah Flack, who edited The Limey. It was a casual working environment, where people were talking to one another and could be weird and strange. And I thought, “Okay, I feel at home.”
A LANDSCAPE OF CHANGE
Now let’s zoom out. What are some of the ways films are being financed or distributed or viewed today that are impacting materially the way that you work as a producer, whether that’s for the positive or the negative? Van Hoy: I don’t know how you benchmark, even in an artificial way, the value of a $1.5 million dollar film, which is where the sustainable level is now for non-union production, without foreign sales. Foreign distribution, territory by territory, is so polarized — [there are either] $300,000 films or [films costing] millions of dollars. Independent film — certainly fiction — was driven in the 1980s and ’90s by the boom in the ancillary markets, and that includes international ancillaries — broadcast as well as subsidy assistance. All of that has become fragmented because of competition. But the positive is that we probably already have more access to our domestic marketplace than ever before as independent producers. There’s more demand from [companies] like Amazon, Netflix, Universal, Sony, who have big, worldwide output ambitions and need films. It isn’t always the theatrical experience, though. Then again, I don’t see the theatrical experience going away. Maybe it’s declining a little bit, but the cultural event [nature] of a film is still integral to it being successful.
Goldman: I feel like [the theatrical experience] has been declining for documentaries over the last year.
Van Hoy: Is that because you feel like the audience is moving away from it?
Goldman: I think audiences are so used to consuming documentaries on Netflix and Amazon now. That is their sweet spot. When you tell them about a film, they’re like, “When’s it going to be on Netflix?” It’s not, “When is it coming out?” The paradigm has shifted. Now, when you’re getting financed, part of the model is [figuring out whether a film can] do well theatrically, which is going to drive the rest of the ancillaries. But if it’s not going to do well theatrically, who are the distributors, and how smart are they about releasing digitally? All of these things are very much in flux right now. I don’t know if there’s such a good chance that people will start going back to cinemas to see documentaries.
In terms of the positives, the documentary community is amazing. It’s stronger and stronger, and people really care about supporting each other. It’s grown bigger, but it’s also super, super small. We all know each other; we all help each other out.
Chien: I think for me, the big question on a macro level is sustainability, which we’ve spent a good portion talking about, and we’re still trying to figure out the answers. On more than just an individual level, how much of filmmaking is a privileged space? How much does it cost to go to film school now? I mean, it’s not that you have to go to film school. I didn’t go to film school. But if you do go to film school, that’s where you meet your collaborators and you make connections and [build your] networks. And the ability to train [within] your craft is as important as the connections that you make when you’re at film school. So how much does it cost to go to the top two film schools in New York City, for example? And who can afford that? For me, that’s a real negative and a real concern, this trend toward making filmmaking an even more privileged and even more elite profession than when I started.
On the flip side, technology has created all these different platforms. I first noticed it probably in 2006, from having worked so specifically in the Asian-American community. Around 1997 we had three Asian-American films a year, and then by 2006 YouTube was invented and five of the top 20 YouTube stars were Asian Americans getting a billion, and now several billion, hits. These were voices that couldn’t get through the gatekeepers in independent film.
And then there’s what’s happening in television, especially Netflix. I look at Master of None — that’s what we were trying to do in the independent Asian-American space. [Aziz Ansari] did it. And how many millions of people have watched that series? It’s brilliant. So the flourishing of voices and work and platforms is happening at the same time as this other growing elitism in independent filmmaking.
I believe we should be platform agnostic. Audiences that go to theaters or watch Netflix or watch YouTube are all very different. So as a creator, you have to think, where is my audience these days and how do I best reach them? Is it by making a full-length documentary? Is it by making a series?
Goldman: And how do you take the material that you have for a film and create other work, short pieces, that can bring people in? That’s a lot of what we have ben talking about in documentary — outreach and audience connection. You can come out with a New York Times Op-Doc, or a [short] at The Guardian, and it can drive people to the film, or just connect with it on its website. But if you’re doing something that’s not [issue-oriented], then it becomes a little more complicated.
Okay, we’re out of time, but I’ll ask a final question: for the New York filmmakers, what is the L train shutdown going to do to the independent film business? Van Hoy: It’s going to make a nice little island in Brooklyn where we’ll shore up all the talent and all come together.
That’s a nice note to end on. Thank you all.