Producing a non-profit film can be difficult because the work is so important. There’s a looming social/humanitarian/environmental problem and taking a chance on a film production isn’t always in the cards. Also, words like “capital” and “budget” tend to complicate the matter, too.
As filmmakers, particularly documentary filmmakers, it’s our job to do the digging. It can be uncomfortable and it’s never clean, because the truth is never simple. This is why documentaries are so important—they offer the time and context needed for the truth, as long as we can extract it.
Take Stink Studio’s Executive Producer Omid Fatemi, for example. He’s behind the TUMI x Chris Pratt spot, which is simple on the surface, yet infinitely effective—a funny film about a man packing for his first trip to Hong Kong. Of course, it helps to have Chris Pratt as your talent—but, there’s so much more to this project than that. And that’s where Omid’s magic tricks come in.
Amanda is the director of integrated production at Wunderman Thompson in Chicago. If you don’t know what that title means, it roughly translates to “person who does just about everything.” Our conversation about her producing philosophies is an apt reminder that if you’re in the film industry, you’re a creative. You have to be. She’s a veteran in an industry that’s always changing—and she seems comfortable riding the wave of that change way out in front.
Building a production budget is arguably the most important part of the filmmaking process. It creates the framework for the project, a rough outline for what will eventually be a film. But, it’s also one of the least fun parts of the process as well, probably just because it’s so damn difficult. There are an infinite amount of moving variables and unknowns — yet another reason building one is so important.
Micro-budget filmmaking is not for the faint of heart. You end up wearing multiple hats, taking on debt, asking friends to work for free, and toiling away on a project — likely for years — without seeing much (or any) monetary return on your investment. Not to mention it’s highly unlikely you’ll attach a star of any kind at this level, so getting press or festival attention for even a great film can be challenging.
On certain levels, developing a production budget is the same regardless of the type of film, whether you’re diving into a personal project or developing branded content for a client. We’ve already tackled a few notes on developing a production budget on the personal side, but after speaking with producers Sarah Schutzki (Feral Creative) and Zanah Thirus (BBDO Atlanta), we decided the commercial side deserved its own article.
A music supervisor isn’t necessarily a household title, partially because it tends to be a “high-end” job, reserved for agencies and in-house brands that not only see the value in music but also have the budget to pay someone to seek it out for them. Still, Alec Stern, music director for DDB Chicago and We Are Unlimited, thinks the heyday for music in film is right now, and not just for iconic ad agencies:
It takes a lot of people to make a film, but only a handful of them get much credit. Director. Cinematographer. Editor, if he’s lucky. The end credits go on and on, but few people understand what all of these people even do. For example: the producer. It’s a nebulous, seemingly catchall term for someone who does the nitty-gritty work of putting a production together. But while the title might be ambiguous, it requires a very specific type of person. A mix of optimist and realist. A relentless self-starter. A serial entrepreneur. A person like Jens Jacob.
Carl Sprague is a busy guy. You can see it in our conversation with him below. But, more importantly, you can see it on his résumé. Since he began building theater sets at Harvard University (he says it was more rewarding than directing actors), Carl has worked in the art departments of more than 30 films, including Oscar winners like The Social Network, 12 Years a Slave, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. While his collaborators include Stephen Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson…
Making a film is one thing. Making money on a film is something else. And nobody knows this better than Mia Bruno, producer of marketing and distribution for Seed&Spark, a new crowdfunding, direct to consumer platform that’s currently disrupting the more traditional, entrenched distribution models. “Most filmmakers want the same thing,” Mia told us. “They want to pay back their investors, and they want to make their next film. So the question is how do you do that?”
Wendy Cohen has dedicated her life to promoting films that make a difference. You might call them advocacy films or socially conscious films. Or it might just be easier to call them by their names: Food, Inc.; The Cove; Inequality for All; Rich Hill; Waiting for “Superman” — just to name a few.
What’s a more accurate term: passion project or obsession project? If you’re talking about Variable’s latest film, Rocket Wars, then obsession is definitely the right word to use. And not just for the filmmakers, but for the subjects of the film too.
From the outside, it’s not always clear what a producer does. Turns out it’s the same on the inside. “There’s no manual for it,” Nicole Irene Dyck told us, a prolific producer who, at the time of this interview, was working on no fewer than six films. “When people ask me what a producer does, I laugh and tell them, ‘Oh, everything’s my fault. That’s what I do.’” It’s an essential role. And as anyone who’s ever made a film knows, a good producer is the unsung hero behind every successful project, and the scapegoat for every failure. So it goes.
There are few people more experienced in cause-based storytelling than Ashley Gutierrez, creative director and founder of Cliff Co., an Impact Storytelling Agency. And that’s due to not only how long she’s worked on these types of projects, but also the specific projects on which she’s worked. Namely, Kony 2012 — arguably the most viral video of all time (at least according to TIME). If nothing else, the Kony film was a testament to the power of storytelling and the relevance of online films — particularly when it comes to causes.
It was tempting to open this interview with some sort of dog cliché about learning new tricks or letting them out or barking up the wrong tree. But the truth is, any cliché used in relation to Animal Studio’s web-series-turned-TV-show, Downward Dog, would be tone deaf. The show is the opposite of a cliché. It’s a fresh, dark, genuinely funny spin on what could easily have been a farce: a talking dog named Martin. “I got Samm [Hodges] involved, which is ironic because he thought it was the worst idea in the world,” writer/creator/director Michael Killen told us. “We landed on this very self-involved, Millennial-toned dog who’s looking back on his life and trying to decide whether or not he mattered. That gave it this dead serious tone, which is actually what makes it so funny.”
On December 7, 1972, floating 28,000 miles above the surface of the Earth, the crew of Apollo 17 snapped the photo that would become known as “Blue Marble.” This photograph — a simple shot of the Earth — would fundamentally change the way humans saw themselves and their place in the universe. That’s what going to space can do. And that’s what taking a picture can do: it can change things. The power and significance of both these endeavors is at the heart of the spectacular new short film, Others Will Follow, written, produced, and directed by Andrew Finch.
Documentary filmmaking takes a lot of grit, to say the least. The conditions can be anything but favorable, the stories you’re hunting for can feel just out of reach, and the characters can sometimes be at their breaking point. After two devastating hurricanes hit the island of Puerto Rico in 2017, knocking out their power grid, awareness around the island’s situation surged before steadily tapering off.
There are a lot of action-sports films out there. A lot. Maybe that’s because in extreme sports the drama is baked in. High stakes (failure, injury, death), conflict (man vs. nature, man vs. skate park, man vs. gravity), and dynamic characters (who does this stuff anyway?). But despite all of this, these films often lack the basic element for a lasting effect: relatability. They are awe-inspiring, yes, but don’t connect. Spellbinding, sure, but hard to remember. They are — not always, but often — lightning minus the thunder.
The first thing Jesse Edwards tells us when we sit down to talk is that he’s a little sleep deprived. He and his brother Joel, the creative duo behind the Emmy Award–winning production studio Evolve, just got back from a six-day shoot in Portugal, a shoot that involved capturing every sunset and every sunrise. “It was super fun,” Jesse says, describing multiple 30-plus hour days. “The whole crew was having the time of their lives.” It was our first glimpse at the MO that permeates everything Evolve does: enthusiasm, adrenaline, fun. They push their work to new, often dangerous extremes not because that’s what their company has become known for, but because that’s just who they are. They’re the type of guys who jump into glaciers. They get close-ups of lions.
The hardest part of making a film isn’t the grueling days, the logistical Rubik’s Cube, or the 10,000 problems that arise over the course of production. The very hardest part is getting started in the first place. How do you go from having an idea to doing something about it? And then how do you keep doing something about it? The great garbage heap of abandoned ideas is both deep and wide. We’ve all contributed to it. But at some point, if we’re ever going to make the film we want to make, then we’re going to have to actually make it.
The way people make films has changed a lot over the past few years. But the way people watch films has changed even more. Video on demand, mobile viewing, subscription services like Netflix and Amazon Prime — all of these things have fundamentally changed our relationship with movies. They’re less of an “event” now and more of a constant presence. Easy to access and just as easy to ignore. What does it mean for filmmakers when massive theatrical distribution is no longer the gold standard, but the goal is still the same: to get as many people as possible to see your film?
Win, lose, or draw, there’s something respectable about diving headfirst into something — going for it. The great Annie Dillard puts it nicely: “You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” It’s the tension between gravity and impact that forces us to get creative, build processes, and maybe even escape disaster. Because, let’s face it, there’s nothing quite as motivational as imminent failure.
Defining the role of a producer is like trying to hit a moving target. One day they may be drumming up funding and the next day they may be booking flights for their team. Or, in Lindsey Hagen’s case, doling out ginseng tablets to help prevent altitude sickness and climbing a 19,000-foot volcano in Ecuador. As the executive producer on La Cumbre, she played a decidedly hands-on role from start to finish. In fact, she formulated the film’s concept herself on a 3-month hike across New Zealand. Her goal: to bring a group of adaptive athletes to a region where “adaptive athlete” wasn’t even in the vernacular.
There’s maybe no one more qualified to be leading the charge for independent filmmakers these days than Jim Cummings. Since we talked to him a year ago, he’s gone on to make his first feature, Thunder Road, and win the Grand Jury Prize at South By Southwest. The film is currently sitting at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s already generated $500,000 in ticket sales in France alone. Maybe most notably, though, he and his crew made it on their own — no major studio, no executives, no distributors. It’s an independent film in the truest sense of the word. Let’s just say, he’s fired up about that:
For the past year we’ve been traveling around the world making short films about filmmakers and musicians, capturing amazing creatives in their environments, digging into what exactly makes artists tick. We’ve gotten pretty good at telling other people’s stories. But one thing we haven’t done much of is tell our own. We haven’t made sales-y commercials about Musicbed. We haven’t put out slick promos announcing new features. And the reason for that is — at least for us — Musicbed is about so much more than just licensing music. It’s about creativity and artistry. It’s about creatives and artists. To talk about Musicbed and not talk about artists seems sacrilegious — close to impossible, actually.
Where Tim Pierce and Toby Crawford are tells you a lot about who they are. It’s not just that they live in Wanaka, New Zealand — population: >7,000 — it’s that they stayed in Wanaka, New Zealand, when most other production companies would have packed their bags for New York or London by now. But to leave their hometown (both Tim and Toby grew up and went to school in Wanaka) would be to commit the gravest Two Bearded Men sin imaginable: not being themselves.
“Ignorance is bliss,” Isaac Testerman says. “Everything we did was taking the bull by the horns, not knowing if what we were doing was the best way to go about it. We were just doing things the best we could.” After making his first short film with zero filmmaking know-how, Isaac went on to cofound Delve, one of Facebook’s lead creative agencies. Now, seven years later, what Isaac and his team lack in formal training, they make up for with gusto and experience.