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GETTING THE FULL SUNDANCE EXPERIENCE
by Susan Royal

There's more to Sundance than catching the best of the new independent film crop, the hot parties and great live music. The panel discussions are also a must to get the full Sundance experience.

At the 2008 Sundance Film Festival panel discussions were held both at Prospector Square and the Filmmaker's Lodge. Among the topics covered at Prospector Square were: the use of humor to address very dark subjects, creative freedom for filmmakers, the latest inventions moving cinema forward and current films coming out of the Middle East.

Over at the Filmmaker's Lodge on Main Street, overflow crowds listened to panels address such subjects as the Latin resurgence in film, the African American experience as reflected in documentaries, the relevance of film critics, and today's human rights documentary movement.

One perennially popular Filmmaker's Lodge panel is the one that focuses on producing independent film, which this year was called "The Producing Cap." The panelists included one agent, Graham Taylor (Endeavor), and eight producers: moderator Danielle Renfrew (American Son), Andrew Bregman (Sleep Dealer), Jeb Brody (Sunshine Cleaning, Little Miss Sunshine), Mike S. Ryan (Choke), Paul Mezey (Sugar, Momma's Man), Keith Calder (The Wackness), Lynette Howell (Phoebe in Wonderland) and Mary Vernieu (Choke, American Son, Downloading Nancy).

The program opened with the announcement of the Sundance Creative Producing Initiative – a new fellowship program for emerging American independent producers. The year-long fellowship program includes a five-day Creative Producing Lab, attendance and industry meetings at the Sundance Film Festival and Sundance Institute's Independent Producers Conference, year-round mentorship from industry advisors and other support from Sundance Institute and its producing fellows.

The panel discussion opened with the question of what the producer does and who deserves the credit. Anthony Bregman began by saying someone who gets producer credit should be integrally involved in every capacity.

Graham Taylor compared a film producer to the CEO of a start-up company. "Every movie begins and ends with the producer. A producer must be able to identify great material, develop it, find the right actors who enhance it, and make it with fiscal responsibility."

According to Paul Mezey, passion is the main element a producer must bring and sustain throughout the filmmaking process. The producer "needs to see something beyond the script – something bigger to go on to in order to last the three-four-year process of making the movie."

Jeb Brody added, "It's really hard to make a movie – harder than brain surgery or rocket science. Unless you're making a slasher movie or a depressing film, it's important to feel good at the end of the day because movies can change your life."

Keith Calder remarked, "I'm young and naïve enough to think I can make a slasher film that will change your life."

Bregman believes his job as a producer is not to give advice. "You should be there to figure out what people need and want from you and deliver it. With [director] Nicole Hofcener, what she wants from me is to gather the cast she wants. She can do 99.9 % of everything else without me. So that's my mission on her movies, and it might mean I need to help modify the movie to get the money to give her the cast she wants."

Mike Ryan felt that the title is given away too easily sometimes. "When Brad Pitt takes the producer credit instead of an executive producer credit it hurts everybody in the van who's doing the real work."

On the subject of exec producing, just when that credit should be given was less clear. The panel agreed that it's most often given to major financiers, but not always. Brody pointed out that it's hard to define. "Even The Producers Guild doesn't have an answer."

Lynette Howell said, "Executive producer has a connotation that you bring something other than making the movie. Let's say that without the casting director's talent you won't have the movie, then don't be too protective of the credit. If people are willing to put their reputation on the line for your movie, you should be willing to give them the credit."

Mike Ryan gave an example: "I figured out how to make a film for one eighth of the money and for that I got exec producer credit, even though I didn't find the money."

Bregman felt the title should be earned. "When people want the exec producer credit I ask, 'What are you going to do?' and they usually say, 'I want to be on set.' My response is, 'Are you going to be at call and at cost support meetings? Can I send you out to deal with some fucking dumpster guy who's blocking our shot?'"

He felt an associate producer credit should mean something, too. "I'm not necessarily against a star's assistant getting associate producer credit, but I explain to them that they now work for the movie and are no longer there just to make the star's life more comfortable. If the star says he's done his 12 hours and is going home, you have to do something about that. In other words, you actually contribute to this process."

On the topic of producers working with agencies, Brody commented that agencies sometimes try to get in on the money raised by the producers. Taylor, the only agent on the panel, responded, "I hope I'm part of the helping – making introductions and making it easier to raise the money."

In Mezey's opinion, "you have to stay in control, don't just hand your project over to an agency. You have to protect the vision as well as get the money. Work with an agency but be cognizant of any decisions being made which might compromise the movie."

When asked what comes first – the financing or the actors – Mary Vernieu answered, "I usually try to send the project to the agents and get them to send it to their clients before going to financiers."

Mezey recommended against attaching actors first in an attempt to get financiers. "You may end up with what is not necessarily the right fit."

Can you say you have talent attached that isn't officially attached? Vernieu said, "You can say you have 'interest,' but agents won't trust you anymore if you say their actor is attached when he isn't."

But Mezey recommended being bold. "I'd rather ask for forgiveness than permission."

When asked if they had any last valuable piece of advice to add, Danielle Renfrew said to do your problem solving as much as possible during pre-production.

Calder's advice was to be sure everyone involved is making the same movie. "We would never make a movie with a director who sees it differently. And when an actor thinks his role is different than the way the director sees it, that's a disaster."


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