Emelie‘s Andrew Corkin on Becoming an Independent Film Producer
With over 30 assorted producing credits ranging from Martha Marcy May Marlene to An Oversimplification of Her Beauty to The Benefactor, Andrew Corkin is a constant figure in New York’s independent film scene. Uncorked, the production company he runs with partner Bryan Reisberg, has a filmography encompassing shorts, features, television and web, and the material ranges from auteur independent drama to so-called “elevated genre” pictures like Emelie, in theaters and on VOD platforms now from Dark Sky Films. Corkin’s most recent production, The Alchemist Cookbook, world premieres next week at SXSW.
Last year I sat down Corkin for a public Q&A presented by Filmmaker and IFP at the Tribeca Film Festival. Below is an edited version of our conversation, which focuses on Emelie and, in most detail, his path towards becoming an independent producer.
Filmmaker: How did you get into producing? How did you become a producer?
Corkin: My producing story, I guess, starts in a very traditional way. I realized that I loved the world of film, and film in general, when I was in high school, I was crazy enough to apply to NYU, and I got into NYU Tisch. I went there thinking, “I’ll just try everything first. I’ll act, I’ll write, I’ll direct, I’ll try to wear every single hat.” And just through the coursework and meeting people there, I learned about producing. Going in, I had no idea what a producer was. I just assumed that a producer was like a synonym for investor. It took just one class and one great teacher to really open my eyes.
It was in that class that I met a group of filmmakers who had graduated the year before and who had a small production company, and they were making projects that were exciting and dynamic. The biggest thing that stuck out to me was the fact that they weren’t waiting for people to give them opportunities. They would go and find opportunities themselves. During the class I raised my hand and said, “Do you guys need any help? Do you need any interns?” And they went, “Yeah, absolutely. We’d love to have you come and help us.” So I started literally at the bottom with these guys, working as an intern.
Filmmaker: Were those the Borderline Films guys?
Corkin: I was going to do the reveal, but yeah.
Filmmaker: Okay, sorry about that.
Corkin: Yeah, and so, it was this group called Borderline Films. I started as an intern and worked my way up to production assistant, coordinator, co-producer, associate producer — all of these different things — on commercials and music videos. When I started working with them, they’d just won the Cinefondation Prize at Cannes for Antonio [Campos’s] first short. And so, they had a lot of heat, but as I said, the big thing about them was that there were just so hungry, like me. And so, when they had their first feature, Afterschool, they said, “We want you to come on in a producorial capacity.” And that was sort of where everything began. Along the way, I started producing shorts at NYU. I produced over a dozen shorts during my time at NYU, and I caught the bug. I realized that this was not only my skill set but what I really wanted to do. It was my passion, and along the way, I just kept producing, and I stayed hungry. The greatest day was when I made a film that finally did very, very well and my passion actually started to pay for itself. And so, my passion became the career.
Filmmaker: What was that film?
Corkin: That was Martha Marcy Mae Marlene.
Filmmaker: When you say that Borderline brought you on and asked you to help produce Afterschool, what did you consider then and what do you consider now your strengths as a producer? What did you do on that film, and how have you broadened what you do since then?
Corkin: In terms of the first one, I could probably count my strengths on one hand. There was so much I didn’t know, which was the best thing possible. We had a lot of producers and co-producers, associate producers, executive producers. Everyone was filling a million different roles and wearing so many hats. I raised a little bit of money for [the film], and I took on extras casting, crafty, coordinating, working with the line producer. I learned so much along the way. It was made for very far under half a million [dollars], and it felt like film school. I was between my junior and senior year of NYU undergrad. The guys had just graduated. Most of our crew had just graduated or was still in school. And so, here we are, a bunch of early twentysomethings on a small prep school campus in northeast Connecticut with a bunch of kids, making a movie. It was crazy, as you can imagine. But, it was fantastic. There’s so much I learned from watching Sean [Durkin] do what he did as a producer. Now Sean is an extremely well-recognized and insanely talented director, but he was just as talented as a producer, too. The guy can do everything. So, that was the biggest thing for me. I’m a producer because I’ve learned from great producers about how they do their jobs, and me recognizing what I do want to do like them and where I wanted to sort of branch out.
Filmmaker: I always say that a producing career is about making mistakes and then not making those same mistakes on the next film.
Filmmaker: What are the things that you learned from that film — mistakes, if you want to call them that — that have guided the way you are doing things now?
Corkin: I think that every single film I take on, hindsight is 20/20. I would’ve hired this person or not hired this person. I would’ve spent more here. I would’ve saved there. Even the basic, non-fun producing [activity] of looking at contracts, understanding what I put in there, what I signed, things that I was protective on and things that I was a bit more liberal on. I now know that you have to be able to read every single project in terms of the people you’re working with, who you are choosing to involve yourself with and bring into the world of the film because film by its nature is so collaborative; it is the sum of its parts. And so, I guess that’s the biggest thing in terms of what I would change going back — being able to say, “Okay, this person was super strong and helped the production. This person was maybe a detriment or slowed us down.”
Now, I’m always thinking in the back of my mind, “What would my all-star crew be?” I keep a list of every single crew member that I’ve worked with who I don’t hate since film school — hundreds and hundreds of names from when I started film. I have it broken down by the films I worked with them on, where they’re based, all their contact info. And it’s in order, so every film I start, I go down that list of, “Okay, this is the production designer that would be great for this one. This is my DP. This is my costume designer. So that’s the big thing [I learned] — just, I guess, reading people more, being a bit more guarded. You know, when I started off, I was still in film school, so I was a little naïve about this world. [I thought] that everyone wants to do it for the fun and believes in the same thing. I don’t want to say I’m a bit more grizzled now, but I think I’m just cautious and realistic. [I think], who makes the best version of this film?
Filmmaker: Do you have that list in a database, a spreadsheet?
Corkin: I’m an Excel nerd. I love Excel, like VLOOKUPs, that’s my shit. I have fun with that stuff.
Filmmaker: I believe Afterschool went to Cannes, correct?
Corkin: It did.
Filmmaker: So obviously, that film was a success on many levels. What did the aftermath of that film teach you or lead you to go on to do?
<Corkin: Afterschool was a fantastic learning experience for me, in the sense that, as I said, we filmed it when I was between my junior and senior year of college. I skipped my college graduation to go to our premiere at Cannes. And so, here I am, 21 years old, and I have my first feature in Cannes. I’m on top of the world. I’m like, “I’m a Cannes producer. I’m fucking awesome.” And so, I go to Cannes, and we don’t sell the film at Cannes. I come back and I’m just expecting all these opportunities to come my way because I’m a Cannes producer. Everyone should take notice and be bringing me projects and be bringing me money. And none of those things happened. This was 2008. I’m a recently graduated film student in the 2008 economy.
Filmmaker: The financial crisis.
Corkin: Exactly. So I came home from France. I allowed myself to enjoy the summer a little bit and still ride that high, but then come September, when I don’t have school to go back to, I’m sitting there like, “What am I going to do?” It was very humbling for me to figure out how I was going to support myself and stay active in this space. I started to work for a producer who did more commercial and industrial type of work. Not exactly what I wanted to be doing, but it was still in the film world, sort of, and I was making money to support myself. It gave me some flexibility to take on shorts and other stuff on the weekends. But you know, really, it was a step back in my mind. I was a producer. I produced a feature, and now, I was working for someone in a line that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing. But I needed that to remind myself, “No one’s going to give you an opportunity. You’ve got to go out and get it. You’ve got to be hungry.” Every day, I was in that office doing administrative and menial kind of work, and I was pretty miserable. I kept saying to myself, “I’ve got to find projects. I’ve got to find actors and directors and other collaborators.” And it pushed me. I was there for about a year. I did a bunch of shorts, random stuff along the way. I asked my boss if I could one weekend borrow some of his lights and a sound kit. And I went upstate with the Borderline guys to where Antonio’s parents, his mom’s family’s house is, this crazy old barn, and we shot a short film. And that short film was called Mary Last Seen, which was the precursor to Martha Marcy May Marlene. And it was that short that ultimately got into Sundance and began the whole process of us being able to make Martha Marcy May Marlene. And so, again, this was while I was working for this job that wasn’t what I wanted to be doing; I was making my own opportunities on the side. You’ve always got to be prepared. Luck is timing and preparation. After that, a friend from NYU was like, “Hey, I’m doing a TV show, looking for a producer. Are you free?” I gave my two weeks, went to do that. And then, I went into Martha right after that and things began to snowball.
Filmmaker: And so, you’re working with the Borderline guys on Martha. At a certain point, you sort of became your own sort of entity. When did that occur?
Corkin: It was pretty much after Martha. As I said, I owe so much to them, and Sean is someone who I’ve learned more from than really anyone. But you know, after Martha, I realized that I had grown as much as I could with their company. I mean, Borderline is always going to be Josh [Mond], Sean, and Antonio. It’s not Josh, Sean, Antonio, Corkin. I felt confident and ready to say, “I am going to start finding my own projects. I’m going to be my own producer. I’m going to start my own company.” So it was about two years out of film school. Of course, I had to come up with a name for a company. [I thought,], I’m going to put the branding agenda on my company and begin from there.” So Uncorked Productions really began right after Martha.
Filmmaker: I’m always fascinated by those early steps — picking a name, designing company letterhead. Do you have an office? Do you not have an office? Do you hire assistants? Do you not hire assistants? Do you try to put things in the trades or do you wait? What were your first steps?
Corkin: The first step is just having good projects to be able to determine your brand for you. We of course did all the proper registration so it’s a real LLC with an EIN and everything like that. But I never put up anything on IMDb before it’s finished and in [a festival] somewhere. I never like to announce things in development because it’s a very volatile industry and a million things can happen. For me, I allow the finished product to reflect what we are as a company. In my company, we have no overhead. We are a two-person operation. It’s myself and my partner Bryan Reisberg, who was one of my best friends at NYU. And he was more on the directing and creative track. We really sort of identified each other as sort of the yin to the yang. We compliment each other in so many different ways. We realized that we had similar tastes, and we wanted to do things the same way. We wanted to make similar type of films. On a lot of our operations, the way that we work is he’s there when I can’t be and I’m there when he can’t. There are certain things that I’m great at that he’s not and vice versa. I think trying to shoulder everything on your own is a fast way to burn out in this industry. It’s important to be confident enough to rely on others.
Filmmaker: What do you consider your sweet spot as a producer? Everyone I think has their own certain mode, whether it’s a $100 million studio film or a microbudget feature.
Corkin: I think that it’s going to continue to grow, hopefully. I mean, I’ve done films for as little as $100,000 to $5 million. But my sweet spot is really $750,000 to $1.5. That’s what I like. In terms of the way we find the projects and the content that we take on, it’s usually a three-part system. The first is completely objective; it’s the creative. It has to be a script or a treatment or something that Bryan and myself, we both read and are like, “This is great.” I don’t know what makes it great, There has to be that element that draws us in that we say to ourselves, “I’d want to watch it.” The second is, are we the right people to make this film or get the film made? Because I think it’s very selfish when people find great projects and say, “I really want to do this” knowing,i in the back of their minds, that they don’t know how to make a $20 million film or a film in that genre. So it’s being willing to take a step back and say, “Am I the best producer to make this film? Will I be able to make it? Will I be able to keep my promises to the creative team? How am I going to do this?” If I can check those off, then it goes to the third, which is, who and if there is an audience for this film. I mean, now, more than ever with the evolving distribution windows, arguably you can find an audience for every type of film, whether it’s theatrical or VOD or online or, very soon, on your Apple watch. So it’s just a matter of figuring out, is it worth our time? Is it worth the budget? And, will enough people want to see this movie, and how will they see this movie? Sometimes, we have said to ourselves, “Okay, maybe that third one is not as important if it’s a way for us to launch a filmmaker.” But, it is something that really needs to be taken into consideration from the get go.
Filmmaker: Does that come from gut instinct? Or does certain data inform that decision?
Corkin: I think it just really comes down to staying aware and recognizing what’s going on in the industry and how it continues to change. You know, I read Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Deadline every single day, and I make sure that I’m up to date with what’s doing well, why it’s doing well, how they’re putting it out there. So, right now, one of my films that’s at the festival is called Emelie, which is sort of an elevated thriller. Of course, everyone in this elevated thriller space is turning to the recent success of It Follows, which is a juggernaut in the indie world, a film made at a relatively low budget that Radius picked up at Cannes. They wanted to do it in sort of a more traditional model of what they do with the day and date. And then, they realized that they had lightning in a bottle, and that they were able to adapt and shift what they were going to do with it in order to speak to the audience that they didn’t even recognize they had at the beginning. But, of course, then they’re like, “People love this.” And so, you know, for me, selling a film like that, it’s great to be able to point to those elements and say,”Okay, I know what’s going on in this space right now. I know what numbers are being generated.” So, it gives me sort of a comparative to be able to communicate with sales agents, with distributors [and be able to say], “This is the approach that we want to take to try to find a home for this film.”
Filmmaker: How long, on average, is it between the time that you take on a project to when you complete development on it? After you get a script, is it a year later you think, “I’m ready to go out with this?” Is it next month? Is it different on every project?
Corkin: It’s different on every project. It also comes down to how we get the project. I’ll give you examples of the two films that we have here [at Tribeca]. With Emelie, I got the first draft. As a company, unfortunately, we don’t take unsolicited submissions. It was towards the end of 2013, my dad works in real estate, so he doesn’t have anything to do with film. He was showing a site to some guy who said, “Oh, would it be okay for me to connect [your son] with my friend, who’s a music video director?” And so, I chatted with him. He said, “I have this script. Would you mind reading it?” I had one person on our development team read it, who said, “This is really good. You should check it out.” And so, I read it and I was like, “It needs some work, but this is a good idea.” So we began chatting. This was October 2013 — that’s when we had our first conversation between the director, the writer, and myself. And we started just going over notes. I felt comfortable with sending the script out to an investor, I think, in March of 2014. So that was around five months, six months or so of just getting the script to the best place possible. Luckily, the first investors that we showed it to said, “We want to do this. We want to take on the whole pie,” which was fantastic. And then, we originally were thinking of going over the summer. They had another film that was going into production, so they said, “We’d like to wait until the fall.” And so we started shooting in October, we wrapped shooting November 1st, 2014. That reflects a full year from getting the first script to when we finished shooting it, and it just premiered on Thursday night. So overall, like, about a 15, 16 month turnaround from first script to premiere.
Filmmaker: Now just last question before we talk about Emelie specifically. But, the $750,000 to $1.5 sweet spot — break that down for me in terms of the business model for those films. Not so much on the distribution side, but just in the financing side. Obviously there’s private equity and probably a tax credit involved. What are those different shapes of the wedges in the pie?
Corkin: There are so many. Every project is so different, and that’s how you have to look at it. People usually say, “Are you a business producer or are you a creative producer?” And I feel that I am at least a mix completely right down the line of both of those roles. Even with financing, it really is a creative endeavor in that there is creative structuring that exists in order to make a film. You can get a film financed in so many different ways if you are creative about the financial process. Traditionally, if you’re making the film in the U.S., you have to assume that you’re probably having at least around 60 to 70 percent equity. It depends, of course, how you want to treat that equity. And then, if we’re going into tax [incentives] — which I always will push for unless [shooting in a particular state] does not creatively reflect what the director needs to be doing — then you take on the debt, and someone will lend against the tax credit. But, then I’m doing a lot more outside of the U.S., and that is very exciting in the sense of what it opens up in terms of soft money, tax credits, tax shelters, foreign co-productions, accessing both local, national and continental opportunities in the funding space. So my films have been all funded in different ways. That’s part of the job when you read a script, and that’s part of what I was saying about being the right people to get it made. I have to step back and say, “How would I finance this film?” If I don’t know what that answer is, I’m probably not the right producer for it.
Filmmaker: In terms of the private equity portion, there are friends, family, and then that ring beyond that of new investors, people who want to be a part of the film business and who maybe want to go to Sundance. The investment is some tiny part of their portfolio. And then, there’s a private equity ring around that of film investors who participate in the film space frequently. It’s their business. Companies like Big Beach, for example. Do you work with all these tiers?
Corkin: All of the above. And I’m always hustling to find new or more money. Like my crew list, I have my financiers spreadsheet, which basically is a list of all of the investors I’ve worked with, investors I’ve been introduced to, investors that’d I know people who they have worked with. I have list of the size of projects that they take on and a list of the type of money they put in. Like, I know this person is a traditional “mez” guy or this guy only does debt lending, but here is an example of what they’ve done outside of that.
Filmmaker: And for people who don’t know mezzanine financing, tell us about that.
Corkin: I can never fully articulate the difference between mez and bridge. But it all functions the same, even gap. “Bridge” is exactly what it says: it gets you from one point to another. It’s not traditionally done as a loan. It’s basically treated as equity, but, with security terms on it. If you have [financing] you know will be coming, it allows you to cash flow for the time being to move on to that [next round of financing].
Filmmaker: So, tell us a little bit about Emelie.
Corkin: Emelie is an elevated thriller. We shot it in Buffalo at the end of last year. It’s a low-budget film. It’s less than $5 million, much less than that. It’s about a husband and wife, and it’s their anniversary. They’re going out to dinner. They leave their three little kids home with a new babysitter when the normal one goes sick. And over the course of the night, things become a little more fucked up with the babysitter. It’s a very dark, very creepy, slow burn-type of elevated thriller. It was a four-week shoot in Buffalo, a decent, fantastic crew, a fantastic cast. The cast is led by this girl, Sarah Bolger, who’s a fantastic actress. And then, we had three kids, ages six, 11, and 12. You can imagine, having a film with three of the four leads and kids under 13.
Filmmaker: You know what they say, never work with kids and animals on a first-time feature.
Corkin: Kids, animals, stunts, pyrotechnics. We literally checked off every box of like, “Do not do this.”
Filmmaker: You had pyro too?
Corkin: We had pyro too. We had stunts and animals. The only thing we didn’t have, really, was water.
Filmmaker: So with kids, obviously you had reduced work hours.
Filmmaker: And with the ages, those hours were probably different.
Corkin: Yeah, six is the cutoff. We couldn’t [work with a] five-year-old because then, I think, you only get something like four hours a day. I think we got six hours with the six-year-old. The reason why we wanted to go in the summer originally is because it’s not during school, so you don’t have to do those school hours [with a tutor on set]. It was very difficult. I mean, it’s amazing we were able to shoot four weeks.
Filmmaker: Yeah, I was going to ask you, how did you manage a short schedule when you had such severe restrictions on hours for the majority of your cast?
Corkin: It was really, really tough. I mean, there were days that we were just like, “Wow, what are we going to do?” Our AD put together a good schedule. Luckily, the majority of the film takes place in one location in a house that we tented, and we made it work.
Filmmaker: Going forward, you know, the film business is a constant one of change. There are buyers now who weren’t on the map two years ago.
Corkin: Oh yeah.
Filmmaker: Independent producers have been talking for years about producing for different platforms — not just feature-length films. And now, you are beginning to see people doing it. Going forward, how has your practice maybe changing or evolving, or even from the simple thing of whether it’s adding Amazon or Netflix to the list of people you go out to? Or, whether it’s thinking of different ways to produce films and media?
Corkin: Ultimately, I’m a producer. I’m going to produce content. And then it sort of comes down to the distributors to determine what they want to call it. Because at the end of the day, people will refer to House of Cards as TV, but has it ever been on TV? No, it’s on Netflix. And so, likewise, I think when I make a film, if I make a film and someone says, “This is great. We want to take it and put it on Amazon and cut it up into eight little short films or into a series,” or something like that, if they have the best idea of how to get as many people as possible to see it, and to make sure that we are taken care of financially, who am I to say, “No, this is only a film and I won’t consider any other option?” Likewise, in terms of when people say, “Oh, are you doing anything outside of film?” We’re very open to that. We’ve done stuff in the web space. We do commercials, of course, because we need to survive. And then, in terms of anything else moving forward, yeah, we’re always open to it. It’s just, we approach every project with the same sort of tenacity that we would any of our film projects.