Go Into The Story blogger Scott Myers sits down with Fandor CEO Ted Hope to get the “lay of the land of the current indie film world.”
“In an era of no video store, superabundance of titles, total distraction, we have to work harder to make sure that the type of titles that we love will get appreciated.” – Ted Hope
Scott Myers is an accomplished screenwriter and regularly writes about his craft and the film industry at large on his popular blog Go Into The Story, where he shares stories, doles out advice, answers reader questions and offers insight on the creative process of storytelling from his unique perspective. It’s a wonderful resource for film students and aspiring screenwriters from around the world.
Scott recently sat down with Fandor CEO Ted Hope to pick his brain about his experiences producing and marketing independent films. We’ll be republishing Scott’s four part interview with Ted here. Oh, and for those of you interested in screenwriting, following Scott on Twitter at @GoIntoTheStory is a must.
Last December, I was fortunate enough to have an in-depth interview with movie producer Ted Hope, who is leading the charge to give the indie film business what he calls a “systems reboot.” If there is a person best suited for this task, it’s Ted. You can go here to read his Wikipedia page for a detailed background, but the highlights include dozens of movies which he has produced including The Ice Storm, Happiness, American Splendor, 21 Grams, The Savages, Adventureland, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and many more, 23 of which have been selected for the Sundance Film Festival. In 2011, Ted became President of the San Francisco Film Society, then just recently left that position to become CEO of Fandor, a subscription service that hopes to do for festival and foreign films what Netflix does for mainstream films and TV series.
In Part 1 of our interview, Ted discusses what some of a movie producer’s responsibilities as well as the general lay of the land of the current indie film world:
Scott: I’ve been inspired by the movies you’ve produced as well as your blog and social media, championing new ways to look at the independent film business, so it’s great to have an opportunity to talk with you.
Ted: Well, thank you and I love what you’re doing over there too, so happy to do it.
Scott: Let’s start with this, a question I’ll bet many of my readers have: What precisely does a movie producer do?
Ted: [laughs] Well, there are many answers to that. Consequently, it’s why that question will probably remain a great one for a long time. People approach it differently and I think it’s one of the reasons why you can frequently expect to see 24 producer credits on a movie these days.
I sit here and one of the posters on my office wall is for American Splendor. It’s one of the movies I’m most proud of and particularly pleased that it has a single producer credit: Ted Hope.
And that’s what I believe strongly, that the producing credits should represent the people who have been there from the earliest stages through the entire life of the film, contributing in a major capacity on all issues.
When I first started in the business, I felt like I was there to make sure the director fully considered all of their options and recognized what came with their choices, the repercussions of those choices, helping the director get outside of their mind so they could focus on what was happening before the camera. I’d make sure that everything else that was needed would happen in the best possible way.
Along the way, it soon became clear that I also needed to actively package the project. Not just to be alongside the director, I had to bring the crew and the cast to the table.
After producing several movies, I started to bring financing to the table. Then I had to start to do it in a manner that justified the investment, contextualize why this investment made sense, both from a business point of view and a cultural point of view.
Then I started to have to be able to position how the movie would succeed, reach an audience. From there, it grew to taking even greater responsibility for bringing the audience to the movie.
So my role as producer went from being responsible for the film, the director’s vision, to being responsible for what the package was, and being responsible for the money, being responsible to the business plan, to the marketing plan, for the connection to the audience and delivering that audience and then also keeping that engagement active and live.
Beyond all that, I ultimately feel, since we are in the business of cultural production, a producer is also responsible to that culture and community, that we have to reach out beyond our individual projects and do what we can to help make all of that work better together. What is it that makes the culture we love resonate and spread to its fullest potential.
Scott: So your role as producer has evolved over time from creative to packaging to financing to marketing and distribution, all of that?
Ted: Yeah, I think that’s really accurate. What I think I do best, frankly, is develop screenplays and work in the edit. I’m pretty good on my feet on a set, and I think my enthusiasm for work is pretty huge. But it’s working with the writers at the script phase and in editorial I feel is my unique skill-set. But I’m valued less at that nowadays as a producer. Filmmakers want you to bring the money and get the deals and get the film out, and the industry wants that, too.
I was so frustrated by what felt to me to be the industry infrastructure encouraging quantity over quality, not wanting to spend the time to get it right. I saw there was a better way, a better thing that we could do to build it. It’s what led me to leave New York City last year and come out to San Francisco, and leave individual project producing to run the Film Society.
I think it’s a desperate mission to give an overall industry reboot, complete systems overhaul, to our indie films infrastructure. Because I don’t think it’s working in any way other than yes, great movies get made, but many of them don’t get seen and most of them don’t make money.
Scott: Let’s jump in on that because there’s a movie you were involved with through the San Francisco Film Society, Short Term 12, which is a terrific little movie and deserves a wide audience, but it doesn’t appear to be getting it.
Ted: Well, there’s two ways to look at it because I think the film is actually a tremendous success at least relatively speaking. Here’s a film that required a non-profit to help support its development to get made. Right? You look at what our system, what our structure is. The United States is one of two industrialized nations that give no direct financial support to the cinematic arts. The other being Japan.
Art, our cultural identity, is entirely based on market forces. So, for the act of creation, if you want to get your movie made, you are thinking about what the fuck is it that sells and you’re writing for what you think the market is, which means, we have a tendency to regurgitate what has come before. Not to innovate. Not to lead the audience, but to follow the audience, and I don’t think that that’s the right way for an artist to work. I think it’s our role to show people where things should go. We might be wrong, but it’s to take the lead, not to follow.
So, we start to see the need to help writers, creators, remove themselves from that market and be able to create freely. Now, you could argue — and I think it is true — that America has the most diverse cinema culture in the world. So, a subsidy system also has problems with creating what the bureaucracy, the gatekeepers want to see and we might end up with a culture redundancy where we’d lose innovation, too.
It’s no simple fix, but we really do need that non-profit support particularly to help young, emerging artists separate themselves from having to write yet another vampire, zombie, end of the world apocalyptic tale. Not that I don’t love those, mind you.
Short Term 12, like Fruitvale Station, like Beasts of the Southern Wild, they all got grants from the San Francisco Film Society to allow that to happen. What’s very interesting is Short Term 12, like the low budget movie I produced called Starlet, was passed on by the Sundance Film Festival.
The Sundance Film Festival, as wonderful as it is, as much as it helps so many films, is also very much a film market, the leading film market. I would argue that for independent work, you suffer 75 percent reduction in your value, your market value, if you don’t play at Sundance.
But Short Term 12 gets passed on by the Sundance Film Festival and like Starlet, it goes to South by Southwest. Starlet wins an acting award at South by Southwest and later on an Indie Spirit ensemble award. And Short Term wins the Grand Jury Prize at Southwest.
That’s fabulous, right? Cinedigm buys it, does a really nice push. People love the movie. Brie Larson has been getting incredible notices by a lot of the critics. In fact, I just saw the online critics included it in their top 10 movies of the year. It is succeeding. It is getting out there. It exceeded seven figures at the box office.
Here’s a movie that everyone I know, with an exception of a few, who’ve seen it have loved it dearly and have been incredibly moved by it. Why isn’t it catching even greater hold when critics and audiences dig it? That’s the question.
I think what we see is the polarization of our film culture. The promise that the digital revolution brought of a long tail of niche audiences discovering and joining together and keeping work alive hasn’t succeeded because the onslaught of the new and well-funded corporate juggernauts smashed that tsunami. They do not allow that long tail to take shape. It is flattened by that elephant’s footprint very, very quickly.
Furthermore we don’t have built-to-meet fanatic communities. We’ve lost Roger Ebert, we never got our own Oprah Winfrey. We haven’t had the voice that can deliver support for the unheard.
The music industry is kind of making headway with peer review, of having well-known artists provide reviews of unknown artists. There’s no equivalent in the film industry at all. I proposed this initiative, if a film’s going to Sundance, if the filmmakers contact me, tell me a filmmaker they want to review their film, if I think the film’s worthy, I’ll put them in contact and try to make that happen.
I’ll write reviews in gaps of eight, at least, films that I like going to those festivals. We have a website, hammertonail.com, which is pretty much filmmakers covering other filmmakers’ work. We’ll keep that going throughout the year, beyond the festivals, so it’s not just the folks that make that grade.
It is the real challenge. In an era of no video store, superabundance of titles, total distraction, we have to work harder to make sure that the type of titles that we love will get appreciated.
Tomorrow in Part 2, Ted explains why he thinks the indie film model needs a systems reboot and if he’s optimistic that can happen or not.