sundance 2014

Three Films for Sale in Three Days: The Tell-All Diary of a Sundance Producer

Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by Getty

It’s late Friday night, January 17, and I’m at JFK to catch the red eye to Sundance. The airport is fairly empty, but ahead of me in line I count two producers, two sales agents, one lawyer, two actresses, and one assistant. Fancy parkas? Check. Ugg boots? Check. Blinking mobile devices that could re­route the airplane? Check. Wild glint of excitement in our eyes? You betcha.

I know well the crowd that frequents this annual air­travel route: It’s my tenth time going to the festival. I’ve been producing indie films since I was 19, and I’ve brought eleven of them to Sundance. This year I am a producer on three out of the sixteen films in dramatic competition, and I’m arriving with three very different predictions for how they will fare: One will please audiences, critics, and distributors; another will please critics but likely garner a smaller deal; the third will probably struggle to get bought — and while the unsuccessful outcome will be a financial disappointment, it will be bittersweet vindication for me.

But I’m jumping ahead. The three films I produced — in no particular order (because what film reveals its twist in the first five minutes?) — are: Infinitely Polar Bear, a drama about a bipolar man (Mark Ruffalo) who must take care of his children while his wife (Zoe Saldana) goes to business school to save the family from poverty; God’s Pocket, a dark comedy that marks the directing debut of Mad Men’s John Slattery, about a husband (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and wife’s (Christina Hendricks) attempt to secure a proper burial for their dead son; and Jamie Marks Is Dead, in which the ghost of a bullied teenage boy returns to haunt the town that tolerated his abuse.

None of these films quite follow the template of what has come to be known as the archetypal “Sundance hit.” While the festival always introduces many dark, unique breakouts (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Winter’s Bone, Blue Valentine), there’s a certain kind of lighter dramedy that is catnip for companies like Fox Searchlight, Focus, and the Weinstein Company, films like Little Miss Sunshine, The Kids Are Alright, Garden State, The Way Way Back, and, going farther back, Pieces of April and Welcome to the Dollhouse. These kinds of films often win the Audience Award and have higher sales, with the hope that the pairing of laurel leaves and laughs will combine to create a mainstream hit. (Note: While these often sell for big money, their ultimate success will be determined by other forces once they leave the playground of Sundance and forge out into the wild world of domestic box office.) These films all follow a similar narrative: The story begins with frailty and ends in strength. The protagonist — and his triumph over outside and internal forces — bears out the hope that good prevails over evil, enlightenment over darkness, family unity over dysfunction, so long as there’s a will and a way. There’s a quixotic quest — windmills abound — with a motley crew on a mission: Mom, Dad, and a kid, a clan with serious quirks. Their goals, weird enough to be funny but poignant enough to be universal, make the family circus appropriately zany. Select another ingredient from this list: a bike, a sidecar, a van, a yellow VW bus, a suitably zany destination, be it a dance contest or an amusement park. You will need a larger, loftier, unspoken goal: the healing of pain, the reunion of estranged family. (Oh, and it should all be marketed with a yellow poster. I can’t tell you how many films I’ve sold to distributors that do not quite fit this mold, but they still insist on advertising via a poster with a submarine yellow background. Check out the one for a film I produced called Robot and Frank. Zany family comedy? Not exactly. Submarine yellow poster? Yes.)

These onscreen triumphs are paralleled by the long-established offscreen narrative of the Sundance Director. He has lived out a Wheaties-commercial­style dream, maxing out his credit card to leverage his savings on his film, road­tripping to Sundance, crew in tow, and finding out (while sharing a rented condo with his DP, PAs, grandparents, and craft service team) that his movie has sold for many millions and that he, the director, will never have to beg friends to work as PAs again. It’s Cinderella for guys. Indie-ana Jones.

That narrative is inspiring and occasionally true, but as a working producer over several years, I have a more realistic view: Most indie films do not sell. And even when they do, producers get paid modestly at best or, more typically, last, after the actors, director, screenwriter, and investors — if there’s any money left over. Most directors will struggle to get their second film made. And the average crew member in New York’s indie film job pool will make less than $25,000 a year.

I land in Utah late Friday night, with my significant other and our baby. (My two older kids have stayed at home with my ex, their dad.) The altitude and a sleepless flight combine to hit us like a drug, affecting depth perception and creating a sudden sense of giddiness that veers toward nausea. The elevation increases so suddenly on the drive from the Salt Lake City airport up to Park City (which sits at 7,000 feet) that I feel like I am tripping when we arrive in the antler-laden lobby of our hotel. This sensation explains why everyone at Sundance acts as though they are on an altitude high, from the emotional and sometimes overly favorable reactions people have to the films, to the frenzied, often irrational bidding on the films themselves. It’s as though you turned off the air, gave everyone cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, and asked them to negotiate.

The next morning, I’m standing in the hotel buffet line, balancing the baby and a slab of bacon, when I hear an unmistakable rasp. Harvey Weinstein is there, surrounded by a hornet of manic minions, briefing him on the developments of the night before and priorities for the day ahead. I turn my head, wondering if he’ll remember me. The last time I saw him was the 2005 Sundance festival, when, determined to buy my film Grace Is Gone but stuck in a dead-heat negotiation, he followed me, six months pregnant at the time, into a bathroom.

He greets me and says, “You’re gorgeous, you know that?” I drop one slab of bacon on the floor. I’m pleased to see him and happy he has recognized me — this time with my pants on

Infinitely Polar Bear will be my first movie screening, on Saturday at noon at the 1,000-seat Eccles theater, a high school auditorium taken over by Sundance for the fest’s biggest screenings. The film is written and directed by the passionate and plucky Maya Forbes, based on her experience as a child. This is the film for which I have the highest commercial hopes. I can tell it’s going to be one of those feel­-good screenings that people write home about, and indeed, before the opening credits have rolled, most of the audience is in tears.

After the film, Maya goes onstage for the Q&A, and I think of the first time I stood in front of this crowd. It was in 1997 for a movie called Hurricane (later changed to Hurricane Streets), written and directed by Morgan J. Freeman. To our incredible shock, it won the Audience Award, the Director’s Award, and the Cinematography Award. (And then, at lower altitudes, grossed just $376,000 in theaters.) In 2010, I was on this stage again, conducting the Q&A for The Romantics, starring Katie Holmes and Anna Paquin, a movie I wrote, directed, and produced based on my own novel. It was an experience that remains the most rewarding in my career — despite the fact that, even though it got strong reviews, it was recut by the distributor into a film I barely recognize. There is no feeling like this in the world: the whirl of adrenaline, the overwhelming pride, the sense that you have shared the contents of your heart and moved another person’s. It is powerful, and it is a gift.

Glowing reviews of Maya’s film hit the Internet within hours of the screening, and yet the storied Sundance bidding war does not erupt that night. The media is pushing the through­line that the muted sales and lower prices reported to date at this year’s festival are because the films have been just “meh.” In my opinion, the more mellow market is a function of several factors:

1. Distributors have learned to hang back and unite — not in a traditional collusive sense, but because they’ve been burned in the past and now know better than to fall prey to the festival’s second­-best commodity, hype, and its third, hysteria.

2. Recent box-office numbers prove that theatrical domestic release is but one, and an increasingly minor, source of a film’s total revenue. Foreign markets remain strong, and the growing VOD and streaming markets continue to vie for their share. These are typically sold at the various film markets over the year (Cannes, Toronto, AFM).

3. Thanks to digital cameras, and advances in editing software and sound, key costs of production have decreased, while the quality of the final films have improved — making it possible to make a film for less money, with fewer people and less equipment. Distributors know they don’t have to pay as much to cover production costs.

4. Internet and mobile apps can now exhibit or stream content for free, cutting out the exhibitor or movie-theater experience or rarifying it.

5. Most important, artists are beginning to realize that they have leverage that they did not enjoy before owing to the high cost of film production. This will allow artists to retain more and more of their rights, more creative control, and more participation in the revenue of their films. Increasingly, I predict, directors and producers will make films for less money; retain more equity in their films; make more aggressive deals with distributors; exhibitors, and streaming platforms; and enjoy more of the profits derived from their content rather than forfeiting the rights to their equity up front.

Gone are the days, it seems, when a pregnant producer might find herself locked in the bathroom with an ardent male studio head. Ah, the golden glimmer of Camelot.

Galt Niederhoffer with (R to L): Producer Wally Wolodarsky, Executive Producer Austin Stark (behind Niederhoffer), producer Benji Kohn, Zoe Saldana, Mark Ruffalo, and producer Bingo Gubelmann Photo: Galt Niederhoffer

That night there is a party for Infinitely Polar Bear, a pleasant, crowded affair that resembles a college party with expensive appetizers. Chase Bank has sponsored the event, so the food is better than usual: tuna tartare nachos and scallops on horseback. It is a happy moment to see Maya, the director, along her  husband, producer Wally Wolodarsky, their 12-year-old daughter, Imogene — who stars in the film and tonight looks fetching in a blue velvet dress — and Maya’s talented sister, singer-songwriter China Forbes, celebrating together. We share a toast with Maya and lead producers Benji Kohn and Bingo Gubelmann. It would be great to be toasting a major sale, but the outcome is undecided at this point, so we stick to cheering the screening and the first reviews.

After the party, a group gathers to head to a bar and dance club called TAO; the New York nightclub has set up a pop-up outpost at Sundance. Ten years ago, when Paris Hilton first discovered Park City, venues like this realized they could make big money if they set up Park City oases, and imported D.J.’s and bouncers from New York. This was around the same time that Internet companies (then called dot­coms), realized that Main Street during Sundance is basically a mile-long billboard, and soon herds of seemingly unrelated companies descended in search of branding ops. We are tired and so sit out the after-party, but stop for some grub on the way back to our hotel at the “Airbandb Haus” for fancy coffee and falafel at the “Sabra Hummus Shelter.”

Sunday finds the first screening of Jamie Marks Is Dead, a story about bullying, homophobia, and teenage life. Director Carter Smith and gifted producers Alex Orlovsky and Hunter Gray have created an original and powerful film. The film looks and behaves like a teen gothic tale, but to me, it is about something darker; the victim of a hate crime is killed and comes back to haunt the town. It’s a story about vindication and moving on, about hazing and learned resignation, about the way people tolerate, condone, even encourage the brutal treatment of someone in their midst. It’s also a story that reflects and hopefully affects a timely hideous social epidemic.

The audience is somber as the credits roll. Silence is palpable when people are both moved and stirred. This is not a typical Sundance film: No oddballs on a mission, determined to dance. It’s a film that fits more in the tradition of Pi or Donnie Darko, an innovative blend of the horror, ghost, and zombie genres. To me, it’s a film that captures the true violence and disorder of teenage life.

Many reviews have been loving and sincere, if unwilling to forecast the film’s breakout potential. I feel the film should be screened in every high school across the country, delivered in the form of a ghost/horror movie only to arrive with its unexpected emotional hit. Offers take time to refine over the days ahead. Two weeks later, the film will be close to sealing a deal with a passionate and perfectly suited distributor.

All my screenings are now done. My third film, John Slattery’s God’s Pocket, screened Friday, but I did not attend. During preproduction, I expressed reservations about the film, including its budget, maybe a bit too loudly. Slattery and I parted ways just before filming started, and I severed my ties with this film in all ways but in name, which lives on in the credits as an executive producer.

The reviews of the film have been less than positive; the Variety review suggests an alternate title for the film: “Sad Sacks R Us.” Justin Chang also writes, “Sans critical support, this ‘Pocket’ should be tucked away in short order.” This film’s fate crystalizes the central quandary producers face: I like the idea that we make art for art’s sake, that we have a diehard commitment to the director’s vision and to ourselves to make films with artistic integrity. But producers are also business people with real legal fiduciary responsibilities to their investors. Our business is to make salable, commercial films that make a profit, or at least make back their cost. And so, when we make a movie that does not recoup, or worse, loses, an investor’s money, then, on a basic level, the whole endeavor has failed. And there is professional consequence: A film that loses money means your rather disgruntled investors will likely not rush to finance your next film.

God’s Pocket eventually closes a domestic deal with IFC that does not cover its budget. My satisfaction in this case is the cold comfort of Cassandra; this has an effect on everyone with a financial stake in this film. Oh well, there are always foreign rights …

By Sunday night, with a week still left in the festival, all three of my films (well, one ex-film) have screened, one to pans, another to raves, another to tears. God’s Pocket has announced its modest deal; Infinitely Polar Bear will soon announce its home with a prestigious distributor. Jamie Marks Is Dead, made for half the budget of the other films, will likely recoup its total budget and enjoy a platform release.

Our flight back to New York leaves Salt Lake City at midnight Monday night. With a few hours to kill, we stop by the party of storied Sundance sales agent John Sloss; it’s historically one of the better bashes at Sundance, a kind of annual prom of the festival. It is nothing if not efficient, for I see lawyers, distributors, and the new kids in town, socia-media crowd-sourcing execs, all enjoying the same canapés.

There I run into John Cooper, the head of the festival, who has been with Sundance for 25 years. I ask him what this year’s festival means to him, and he says that leading up to it, he “was really inspired and humbled by [the] selections, which stood out to me as having particularly high levels of quality and originality.” I almost tear up and I feel like Jennifer Grey at the end of Dirty Dancing, as the audience realizes that old dances like the foxtrot and the lindy will soon give way to newer forms. But then again, Dirty Dancing’s “lift” has been referenced in film as recently as Crazy Stupid Love and Silver Linings Playbook, so perhaps things don’t change as much as we think.

We fly home on the red eye, and as I make my way back to the city from JFK, my Sundance story fades out with a quintessential ending, appropriately enigmatic and annoyingly ambiguous. An “indie darling” staring into space, head on her loved one’s shoulder (two kids at home and a baby sleeping on her lap) in a maroon airport bus, lessons learned, movies made, tears shed, outcome still unclear, poster yellow.

The Tell-All Diary of a Sundance Producer