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How to Find a Producer for Your Independent Film

I Used to Be Darker

“How do I find a producer?”

It’s a question asked by many first-time independent writer/directors, and there’s good reason this seemingly simple query is so vexing. Screenwriters selling commercial screenplays and directors seeking employment on Hollywood pictures are guided by standard, usually market-based protocols. But it’s not so easy for budding independent auteurs — those without agents, managers or box-office track records. For them, partnering with a producer is as much about building a personal relationship as scoring a business transaction. At least, that’s what a number of producers interviewed here likened it to. Mary Jane Skalski (Very Good Girls, Hello I Must Be Going) writes in an email, “Feeling the director is someone I can really talk to and connect with plays a big part. I always say it’s a little like falling in love — I don’t always know exactly why, but when I feel it, I trust it.” Writes producer Mynette Louie (Cold Comes the Night), “I know filmmakers will hate this answer, but I say ‘yes’ to projects that have a certain je ne sais quoi. I have to fall in love with the project, be willing to lose sleep for it, be proud to have my name stamped on it.”

The romance comparison is made by directors too. Responds writer/director Ryan Koo, who met more than 50 producers before joining forces with Chip Hourihan for his first feature, Manchild, “Finding a producer is like dating: you need to spend some time getting to know the other person, and you’re not going to like everyone you meet. Nor is everyone going to like you back.”

While there is no OkCupid-like algorithm for directors seeking a producer, there are specific steps new filmmakers can take — as well as mistakes they can avoid — in order to improve their chances of scoring the right connection.

For more established directors, those with a successful body of work, their name is their brand, and it automatically conveys value in domestic and foreign markets. Some of these directors have longstanding producer partnerships, or even their own production companies, and generate material in-house and thus can control the process to larger degrees. Sometimes established directors use their agents to make the right pairings for each individual picture, with agencies sending out projects, perhaps with actors attached, to one or sometimes multiple producers. In the latter case, individual producers are used to approach the studios or funding sources they have existing relationships or deals with.

But independent filmmakers confront entirely different obstacles, the most daunting of which is the uncertainty of the independent film market itself. A Hollywood producer developing a mainstream action film will have from the start an understanding of the value that project will need to demonstrate in the marketplace before a frame is even shot. Depending on the budget, the producer will know that the package must attract a certain level of distributor and foreign buyers, and not only the director but also the cast and screenplay will all be calibrated toward that goal.

In today’s independent world, however, directors are asking producers to envision both the best version of their films and their markets. As most producers know, works from first-time directors are seldom presellable. These projects are often what’s known as “execution dependent” and their production usually relies upon equity financing, grants, crowdfunding and a small number of industry sources willing to take a gamble on a new voice. And because it’s no longer responsible to think, “we’ll make it and then sell it at Sundance,” independent producers will be strategizing from the outset alternative and DIY distribution methods in the event the finished film fails to secure a traditional distribution deal. Indeed, producing an independent film today is often a very long haul, and it’s for this reason that both filmmakers and producers must ensure their pairings are solid ones.

The first step for any aspiring director is to understand what a producer does. Traditionally, a producer is a creative collaborator who builds and oversees a film’s production apparatus, secures financing for a film and rides point on its distribution and marketing. But you see so many producer credits on films today — Lee Daniels’ The Butler has 41 — because, in most instances, these roles are divided, or shared, to some degree. Most producers are more skilled at some parts of the above equation than others and will add partners — sometimes by invitation and sometimes because they have no choice — as projects gather steam. A producer skilled at financing may partner with a producer able to actually “make the movie,” while the opposite is also true. Usually a project’s lead producer will manage this team-building, sometimes it happens organically, and occasionally, depending on their own connections, filmmakers will try to shape the composition of these producing collaborations themselves.

“‘Producer’ is an amorphous term that can mean so many things,” Koo explains. “Are they a physical producer, who knows how to break down a script and do a budget? Are they more of an executive producer who might have access to funding? Do they have a post house and they come on board at the end of a project in exchange for a producer credit and an equity stake? What kind of producer are you looking for, and do they fit that description?”

As Koo suggests, when embarking on a search for a producer, directors should ask themselves what specific producer skills their projects need. A director aiming to make an improvised microbudget feature with non-actors will need a different sort of producer than someone looking to attract names for a more slickly produced film budgeted in the seven or eight figures.

Still, writes producer Jon Kilik (The Hunger Games, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) in an email, amidst the swirl of credits one person will be key. “You have to find that producing partner who is going to get in the trenches with you and stay there until the job is done. That’s the person who is really going to make the movie with you. I don’t mean the line producer. I’m talking about a creative person with good taste who believes in you and your story and helps you make it better everyday. That’s who you are going to be living with for the two or three or four years it might take,” he says.

As for the producing team, Kilik says, “You may also need an executive producer or two. One who could help out with some early development money and another who may have some credits and gives you and the project some early credibility and stamp of approval. Their part-time presence can help with financing and possibly some casting.” But, he reminds, “it’s your peer, the one who might not yet have the money or the credits, that is your day-to-day partner who is so important to your process and telling the world that you are not crazy in thinking that your movie must get made.”

Every producer interviewed here says that a director’s first step in finding such a producer involves research — and, stresses producer Andrew Corkin (We Are What We Are, An Oversimplication of Her Beauty), that research starts at the project level. “When looking for a producer, the first piece of internal research to be done is fully understanding what your film is — genre, content, audience, tone,” he writes in an email. “Many filmmakers know the ‘whats’ but they fail to really go deeper into the ‘whys’ — i.e., why does the film need to look like this? Once you know the ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ of your film, then it comes down to figuring out what films it matches on a macro level. Come up with a list of comparable films — films that have influenced your choices in deciding to make your film — and reach out to those filmmakers.”

Producer Tim Perrell (Love Punch, A.C.O.D.) says, “[Directors] should see who produced films they like, films they admire; they should ask friends and colleagues, particularly other directors and writers. Look for a sensibility match — is the producer making films in the world of yours, creatively as well as size/scope?”

This research might also involve identifying producers who have worked in the regions you want to shoot in, or who are familiar with your mode of production or, perhaps, who have experience attracting collaborators — from actors to key crew — from the talent pool you are seeking. “Watch the movies, read the press,” Skalski writes. “As producers, we don’t actually do that many interviews. If the producer is on Twitter, follow them. Get a sense for who that person is, and use that to form an opinion about whether the project may be a good fit.”

Just as a director will need to be introspective about a project’s deepest needs, he or she will also need to be similarly contemplative about the motivations of potential producers. For producers, signing on to a project usually involves a combination of business and personal aspiration. A less established producer may be hungrier for the experience of producing the film and the credit and will be less concerned about fees. For a more established producer with a higher overhead, financial considerations — i.e., the size of the budget and fees the project will be able to generate — will figure more heavily in their consideration.

Just like directors, producers have tastes that can be discerned from their body of work. Writes producer Lydia Dean Pilcher (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, The Sisterhood of Night), “I’m drawn to a good story with compelling characters and a big idea. The big idea may be one that explores the many profound realms of human nature, and it may traverse the geo-political scale of a globalized world. I’m also very drawn to stories that capture the dynamics of our ever-changing society and offer new perspectives that challenge the status quo.”

Still, producers don’t like to be typecast either. Interests change. “You can get an idea of a producer’s aesthetic in material by looking at their track record, but knowing what their current interest is can be helpful,” Pilcher adds. “A lot of producers will have specific priorities at any given time for themes or genres of material they are seeking. This can be researched by talking to the producers directly or to people who work with producers, their development and creative execs or assistants.”

Skalski recommends directors look for traits in a producer’s body of work beyond obvious content similarities. “I produced The Station Agent, and if you do some research about me, you’ll probably get a sense of why I was attracted to that movie. But I get a lot of emails about films with trains, and, well, that wasn’t the reason.”

“I’m always flattered and excited when someone sends me something that’s up my alley but unlike my prior work,” writes Drinking Buddies producer (and Filmmaker Contributing Editor) Alicia Van Couvering. “I don’t think anybody wants to repeat something they’ve already done.”

“I’m not interested in making the same movie twice,” echoes producer Louie, “or the same movie that someone else has already made.”

Says producer Mike S. Ryan, who has produced such formally adventurous character-based films as The Comedy and About Sunny, “Sometimes directors don’t realize that there are consistent themes to a producer’s work. I hate when people come to me with a plot twister. Don’t they know I don’t like plots!” Formal considerations also hold special sway for producer Steve Holmgren (I Used to Be Darker, The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye), who says he is attracted to films with “transmedia elements, alternative story possibilities and gallery components.”

But how to do the most basic level of research on a producer? There’s always the Hollywood Creative Directory, which lists production companies, producers and projects in development. And, a click away, writes Van Couvering, “IMDb! IMDb knows all. Doesn’t it?” In addition to reaching out to fellow filmmakers, as Corkin and Perrell suggest, Ryan recommends targeting industry mentors. For example, he says, filmmakers who have connections with Sundance can find producer advice from the Institute’s Michelle Satter and her team. Finally, while agents were referenced above in the context of auteur dealmaking, they can assist younger filmmakers as well. Each agency has one or more agents covering the indie scene, and while a hit festival short may not get you a feature deal, it should attract the interest of at least one agent speculating on your future potential. Filmmakers are signed off great shorts, in which case an agent can make producer meetings happen. But even if a filmmaker isn’t signed, a friendly agent may still be willing to make recommendations and introductions.

Before approaching producers, directors should develop a presentation package. Although producers may work in early development stages with a writer/director they feel offers promise, or perhaps who has secured life rights, done important research, or negotiated a book option, in most cases within the independent film world that initial approach will be driven by a completed screenplay.

But while a script used to be all that was needed, these days, as Ariston Anderson wrote about in our Summer 2012 issue, lookbooks and even mood reels are commonplace. A director’s statement — one or two pages detailing the director’s vision and personal interest in a project — is a necessity and can add vital context to a producer’s screenplay read.

Amateur, Ryan Koo's short film prequel to Manchild
Amateur, Ryan Koo’s short film prequel to Manchild

Holmgren emphasizes that by the time they take their first producer meeting, directors need to know their stuff. “You have to be a temporary expert in your subject,” he says. “You should have done your research and know more than anyone else.” This extends to knowing about the subject in the real world as well as how it’s been previously portrayed onscreen. “When people bring projects to me and haven’t seen the films cinephiles would know as reference points, well, maybe check back in a few months.” (Such knowledge should extend to related works in literature, theater and art as well.)

Directors don’t need to drop box-office statistics, news of executive shuffling and IMDb Starmeter scores into their conversation — indeed, such behavior is often a turn-off — but they should have educated themselves in the basics of the industry and the marketplace results of similar projects. (Producers know that a director with an unrealistic assessment of his or her project’s marketplace potential will be a nightmare during the budgeting and production process.)

Continues Holmgren, “To get your project out there, you have to know people who know people, and you have to know how things work. There’s no excuse for not doing your homework. Things are more democratic and open than anytime ever before with all these online platforms.”

What’s the best way to make that initial greeting with a producer if you don’t have an industry mentor or agent on your side? Almost every producer interviewed recommended making it through some form of personal connection. To those who label independent film a clubby group of insiders, Corkin responds, “Especially in New York, the industry is so small that it is very unlikely that any aspiring filmmaker can’t find an introduction to their choice of producer in less than six degrees. Yes, sometimes it’s harder to find these connections, but if you’re not willing to put up the hard work, then, you’re in the wrong field. Even if you have to go through your mother’s friend’s son’s grip, it is always best to make contact with the lending hand of someone who already knows the person.”

Putting a positive spin on the “who you know” approach, Louie writes, “Managers, agents and attorneys send me scripts. But I find that the best projects come through my own personal network of directors, writers and producers. Those of us who are creatively aligned seem to naturally cluster together, so I have this great trusted network of people recommending projects and filmmakers to me.”

Indeed, producers are drowning in submissions, with iPads full of to-be-read PDF files. Recommendations from colleagues can cause a script to rise to the top of the queue. “Getting your project submitted through a recommendation, someone who can attest to the right match potential, is always helpful,” Pilcher writes.

And how should a director approach a producer once that initial connection is made? “Gently,” Skalski answers. “For me, a hard sell doesn’t work. Timing is everything.”

The importance of timing is underscored by Van Couvering. She writes, “Festivals and markets (such as Independent Film Week, AFM, Toronto, and so on) are times when most people are taking six or seven meetings a day anyway, so they’re primed to have another. Also a timeline helps a lot: ‘I am going to be in town at the end of the month meeting producers and would love to meet with you as well if you’re interested.’ And it’s actually really helpful for someone to follow up, briefly, after a week or so, let’s say. If it doesn’t feel urgent to them that I read it, it’s very hard to prioritize. Sometimes I get follow-ups six months later, at which point I just feel bewildered and guilty about having forgotten all about it, which makes it more of a chore than an ‘Exciting New Submission.’”

If a director isn’t lucky enough to spot their producer love match at some industry event, electronic forms of communication come into sway. What’s the best way to query? Succinctly, say the producers here. “Short emails that give me a sense of the person and the project and make me want to ask for more” is what Skalski looks for. “Long emails tend to get overlooked because we don’t have time to read all the way through,” producers Amy Hobby and Anne Hubbell of Tangerine Entertainment (Lucky Them) reply in an email. “A three to four sentence email is best. And we like to see one to two page treatments and/or lookbooks before requesting entire scripts, so filmmakers should be sure to have those ready.” (Make your queries electronic, by the way; snail-mailed query letters with self-addressed-stamped envelopes for the reply are the mark of an amateur.)

“I think it’s important to understand that reading a script, watching a link or even reading a pitch email is work,” Van Couvering adds. “So if I open an email and it looks like a long and complicated thing to absorb, my brain scrambles. Not because I don’t want to read it or that I’m not interested in new material, just because I have so much other work to do already.”

Professionalism counts. While stunts, gifts or crazy introductions may seem like demonstrations of a director’s creativity, they most often backfire. “I have some sort of automatic off-switch when a filmmaker is too gimmicky about getting through,” Perell writes. “I have probably missed some good stuff as a result!” Van Couvering values succinctly expressed clarity of intent — “‘I am X seeking Y and am writing because of Z” — and she advises filmmakers to present themselves in positive lights. “It doesn’t really pay off to be too fawning or self-deprecating,” she writes. “Producers are looking for someone they can partner with, not a charity case. I would advise against something too helpless, i.e., ‘I am sure you get a hundred of these emails a day and couldn’t possibly have the time to write back, but…’”

Many, if not most, producers say they can’t accept unsolicited submissions. “I wish I had the capacity to read them,” Louie writes, “because I do get a lot of joy from discovering unknown talent. But it’s simply not practically feasible (or legally wise).” Still, a director can always try. In addition to following the other advice contained here, directors should make clear in their email why they are approaching a particular producer. What films have they produced that inspired them? What is it about their approach that beckons? Do not go ahead and attach a screenplay in that first query and make sure the font of your salutation matches the body text of your email; failing to do so indicates an obvious and spammy cut-and-paste job.

Social media may create the impression that producers are just a click away, but when first approaching a producer, directors should follow whatever submission protocols are on a producer’s website. If those aren’t listed, email or perhaps LinkedIn can provide an approach. But in general, the 140 characters of Twitter are not an acceptable way to pitch a producer, nor is reaching them via text or through a personal page. “We get Facebook messages on our personal pages, which is not the way to go!” warn Hobby and Hubbell.

Cold Comes the Night
Cold Comes the Night

There’s an alternative to approaching a producer hat in hand, however, and that’s making the producer come to you. There exist various project forums directors can apply to where directors can meet face-to-face with producers, speed-dating style. Some of these forums require directors have at least one producer attached to their project, while others don’t. The best thing about project forums is that producers and financiers go there specifically to look for projects. In short, they’re in the mood. “I go to film festivals and project markets like IFP’s Project Forum and Tribeca All Access; I track filmmaker labs like Sundance and Film Independent; and I read sites and publications like Filmmaker,” says Louie about her approach to finding material. Writes Pilcher, “Script development markets — i.e., CineMart, Sundance, IFP, Tribeca, Film Independent, Berlinale Talent Campus — are wonderful for networking and also reflect an interest in the workshop and the development process, which I have a huge respect for.”

The fact that these forums are curated gives their projects a cachet benefitting both producer and director. “If your project is selected for something like IFP’s Project Forum, you’re being vetted by an organization that is very selective,” explains Koo, who found his producer at Independent Film Week. “Anyone can apply for these opportunities — it’s not a matter of who you know. And don’t be discouraged if you don’t get in — most film grants (and festivals, for that matter) are only accepting 1 to 2% of applications at this point. Just work harder, and apply again the next year.”

Finally, to refer back to the need for personal connections, there’s plain, old face-to-face networking. Interviewed recently in Filmmaker, This is Martin Bonner director Chad Hartigan told his story about meeting his film’s producer, Cherie Saulter. Hartigan’s tale speaks to the fact that filmmaking — involving crews, financiers and audiences — is a social act, so it’s only natural that producers can be met socially, in places such as film festivals. “I met [Cherie] at SXSW in 2010,” Hartigan said. “I can’t stress enough to young filmmakers how beneficial and important it is to go to film festivals, even if you have no reason to be there. I had gone to SXSW the last five years in a row, just to support friends with films, and to try and meet other people. That particular year Cherie was there with The Myth of the American Sleepover. I saw it, liked it and had just finished writing my script. So I gave it to her to see what she thought. She immediately responded to it because her parents work in a similar field, in prison programs … and wanted to start producing it right away … I guess that’s what networking is, but I didn’t really feel like it was that. You just insert yourself in those environments and meet people naturally that you like as people.”

Mesh Flinders is best known for co-creating the “lonelygirl15” viral videos of 2006. For the last two years he’s been developing his feature directorial debut, The God of Rain and Thunder, a story about growing up in a spiritual retreat, and he recently brought it to the IFP’s Project Forum with producer Neda Armian. Their pairing, however, has been long in the making. Flinders says, “I had been tracking her for a while because she had done films I liked, like Rachel Getting Married.” When he spotted her on the set of a friend’s project for AMC, Flinders “walked up, introduced myself, and said, ‘I like your films.’ I basically just pestered her — tried to have coffee with her, have lunch with her, get her advice on other projects. I started a relationship with her long before I had the script. When it came time to give her this very personal story I had spent two years writing, she not only read it but immediately started sending it around and helping put a package together. But it all started with a personal relationship. We liked the same films and just hit it off.”

Once you meet your producer, next steps may involve screenplay rewrites, working with the producer to budget multiple versions of the movie at different tiers, and meeting financiers and collaborators. According to Perrell, a seemingly contradictory blend of tempering of expectations and enthusiasm is required here. “A director needs to be committed to the long road ahead, needs to be realistic about the steps that need to be taken to get the film made and needs to be realistic about budget,” he writes. “And passion, of course, is infectious and always makes an impact.”

Directors must also understand that their work hasn’t ended just because producers are on board. Many producers juggle multiple projects, and a director’s continued work can prevent projects from moving to the producer’s back burner. And the first weeks can be crucial ones in determining if a producer/director relationship will last. “In terms of getting an independent movie off the ground, I find it to be a true partnership between myself and the director,” Van Couvering explains. “Fundamentally, nobody is signing on to a movie because of me. I can get certain doors open; I can get a filmmaker into a room, but once they’re in the room, it all depends on them. The director has to be able to inspire a huge group of people, from the financiers, to the cast, to the crew, to journalists, to distributors.”

For Van Couvering, it’s important that the director inspire confidence from the start. “I think a lot about that part of it: what kind of a partnership will this be, what are they bringing to the table, are they going to inspire trust and confidence in the people around them?”

The ability to work together, resolve conflicts and collaborate are all things that can’t be sussed out from a first meeting or email, but are essential. “We have to like each other,” Van Couvering says of her directors. “This is a long, stressful, scary process to go through together, and if we don’t have chemistry as friends, we probably won’t have that much chemistry as colleagues. No matter how hard it gets, you have to be able to make each other laugh. You have to have something to talk about other than the movie you’re making or you’ll go nuts.” (Needless to say, this advice works in reverse as well — directors shouldn’t partner with producers they don’t connect with on some basic level.)

While experienced producers have a lot to offer — and are necessary for many types of films — some directors are pursuing other routes. For example, recent years have seen a rise in the idea of the film collective, with young directors and producers banding together, as in the case of Borderline Films (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and Court 13 (Beasts of the Southern Wild), to rise up within the system together.

New Orleans-based writer/director Randy Mack (One Week to Bill’s Thing) is currently in preproduction on his second feature, Laundry Day, and, he is actively trying to spearhead producer development in his hometown. He writes in an email, “I find myself in the unusual position of putting together a film in a town with no producers. For all the hype of ‘Hollywood South’ (which is largely true in terms of crew), New Orleans has a barely embryonic (zygotic?) above-the-line community.”

Mack’s approach has been to develop local producers, but it’s been a challenge. “I want to tell stories that can only happen in NOLA; to do that I need an authentic indigenous filmmaking community,” he explains. “I don’t think it will happen without a shove; for the last few years I’ve explored creating a film collective called Above The Water Line (ATWL), which would act as an incubator for project creation and collaboration. However, the precious few films made by, in and about NOLA are dominated by writer/directors who don’t use professional producers but rather corral a team of friends who reinvent the wheel for a few months, then return to their day jobs. This rarely results in films that ‘move the needle,’ so to speak.”

Calling the lack of experienced local producers “an increasingly frustrating and baffling missing link” in the town’s filmmaking infrastructure, Mack has been “testing and discarding wannabe producers steadily over the last year.” He recently traveled to Independent Film Week to make further producer connections. “At this moment I’ve assembled a team of talented locals, but they are so green I’m still forced to look for a veteran to coordinate and oversee them so I can focus on directing.”

Holmgren suggests some filmmakers go a step further and reconsider their need for a proper producer. “I don’t think every filmmaker needs a conventional producer,” he argues. “You just need to think about what needs to happen [on a film]. With Matt Porterfield and Putty Hill, we worked with a photographer, Joyce Kim, who may never produce another film, but she was super organized, first as a location manager and then as a co-producer.”

When some of today’s best movies are being made with microbudget resources, Holmgren says, “If you have an idea [for a film], it’s more about the ability of the people around you to come through and make it happen. At some level it’s not about money or experience. Yes, it’s helpful to have people with experience, but they can come on as consultants.”

In fact, Holmgren says that within certain filmmaking spheres, the need for a producer is greatest after a film is finished. “The definition of a producer is changing from someone who gets a movie made to someone who gets a movie out there.”

Filmmaker Yiuwing Lam thought he needed “a seasoned pro” to guide him on his microbudget feature Prank, currently distributed on VOD/DVD by Image. After noting in an email that the experienced hand he hired and then fired “didn’t work out,” Lam explains that when “making a microbudget film, you’re really reinventing the wheel based on your project’s need, and you need someone who wants to take this unique journey with you. You’re in between being a professional and an amateur, and the perfect producer should be someone like that who knows a little but cares a lot.”

Lam found that perfect person close to home: his wife. “My wife had no experience in producing at all,” he writes. “She’s a graphic designer by trade, but the fact that she really cared about the project and the people making it (mainly me and my best friend who came in as an exec producer) made her the perfect producer.”

Lam continues, “The funny thing is, they say you should never work with your spouse, but sharing this wonderful but arduous journey actually made our marriage stronger! My wife will now be accompanying me on future adventures in filmmaking.”

Whether you’re searching for a producer at industry events, through recommendations or cold emails,  you should realize that you’re asking for a big commitment from someone you may not know very well — and you should develop a thick skin. If all your work fails to reel in a collaborator, consider re-evaluating and improving your project. “There are thousands of scripts floating around at all times, so your project needs to stand out from the rest of them to be able to get a meeting or a read,” Koo concludes. “Not everyone wants to read your script — if you send it to a producer you just met, you’re essentially asking a stranger for 90 minutes of their time for free. Imagine doing that on the street — you couldn’t get 90 seconds! So I think anything you can do to add to the resume of your project is going to help open doors.”

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