Photo by Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock for the Sun Valley Film Festival
At Variety’s 10 Producers to Watch panel, held March 31 at the Sun Valley Film Festival, the first order of business was defining what it means to be a producer, a title — and a role — that encapsulates a number of responsibilities on a film.
“The way that I describe it is you’ve got to know a little bit about a lot of things in filmmaking,” said Rachael Fung, whose film “Fremont” later won best narrative film in the festival’s One in a Million category, recognizing features made for less than $1 million. “You’ve got to be able to understand and talk to every single person that touches the film at every single stage. And also it’s about finding those directors and filmmakers and understanding their vision and figuring out the best way to get that to screen.”
“There are practical things like getting money for the movie, casting, all the things that are part of the overall creative vision… you’re not just hiring any costume designer, you’re hiring a person that’s right for the project,” explained Karl Hartman, who recently worked with Michael Shannon on his directorial debut “Eric LaRue.”
Said Jamie Gonçalves, who produced Juan Pablo González’ “Dos Estaciones,” “it’s protecting the film — sometimes even from the filmmaker.”
“And [being an] on set therapist,” added Jolene Rodriguez, whose latest project, Anthony Nardolillo’s “Righteous Thieves,” opened March 10.
The panel marked the first partnership with Sun Valley for Variety‘s annual Producers to Watch list, a showcase of up-and-coming creatives whose work is already making waves across the industry. In discussing her path to becoming a producer, Karina Manashil, who produced Ti West’s “Pearl” and the Netflix film “Entergalactic,” evidenced how each person’s path is different than that of their colleagues.
“I went to film school, and I started the mail room at WME right after graduating,” Manashil said. “I represented Kid Cudi, who instead of bifurcating his representation really allowed me to be a part of the creative process with him… and then it became very clear I didn’t want to leave the creative.”
Nikkia Moulterie, who produced Nikyatu Jusu’s “Nanny,” explained that she was inspired — and motivated — by watching producer Effie Brown on the HBO series “Project Greenlight.” “I saw her struggle and I was like, wow, if I’m going to do this, I have to know everything and then more because there’s always going to be someone challenging and questioning me just because of who I am and what I look like,” Moulterie said.
“I just remember watching that and realizing it’s going to be a lot of hard work if I want to do this — so get serious or move on.”
Margot Hand, who produced Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” and Paul Downs Colaizzo’s “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” pointed out how deciding on what stories to tell is just the first step in a much larger process. “I think we’re all drawn to stories that are not told often enough, or not told properly. And then we have to fight industry norms and industry expectations to get those movies made.”
Rishi Rajani, who produced Jingyi Shao’s “Chang Can Dunk,” said that he’s driven by a singular impulse to create stories for audiences that did not exist when he was cultivating his own tastes. “As a kid, whenever I was reading books and thinking about the heroes of those books in my head, those heroes never looked like me,” Rajani said. “Those heroes were always white. And so … for me, I think I do everything for my eight to 13-year-old self, at a time where your self-esteem is being created, your self-worth is being created.”
Gonçalves also pulled from his past to identify a common theme among the stories he likes to tell. “I’m Brazilian-American from Chicago, my family lives somewhere else, and I always felt a little out of the box,” he said. “I made a very purposeful decision to meet other people who were exploring what home means to them.”
“What you’re looking for is something singular that you haven’t seen before,” said Valerie Steinberg, who produced Jake Wachtel’s “Karmalink.” “Often, that does mean a voice that is underrepresented, a person of color, a filmmaker. And female filmmakers, I often am drawn to, and that’s a big part of what I do and focus on. But I’m looking to be surprised… and it really comes down to instinct and having to just go with your gut a lot of the time.”
Rodriguez, who began her career as an intern at Sony Pictures before breaking out on her own, admitted that listening to one’s gut and trusting it are sometimes two different things. “I was on set, my first movie after leaving Sony. I called Clint Culpepper, who was the head of Screen Gems at the time when I worked there. I was like, ‘I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know what the decision is or what choice to make.’ And when you’re a producer you got two minutes to make the decision.
“He’s like, ‘I have a little secret to tell you’,” she said. “He’s like, ‘For 30 years, I had no idea what I was doing. Go back to set and go make the decision.’”
During the spirited discussion, each producer brought a different perspective on the challenges of balancing art and commerce — on identifying which stories can be sold, and which ones must be told. “At the end of the day, it is a business and there is a commerce side to it,” said Fung. “Obviously, we can push the boundaries of the marketplace, we can challenge what the norms are existing right now, but being able to find that balance and understand that sometimes the creative vision also has to be balanced with the business side of things.”
Discussing her experience on “Nanny,” Moulterie countered, “I couldn’t look to the market. I couldn’t look to pre-sales. I couldn’t look to comps because traditionally this industry doesn’t really value the type of story ‘Nanny’ was. …So I don’t look to the market. I just push. That’s a risk because maybe we don’t recoup, and then the next filmmaker of color that wants to take a risk doesn’t get to. But the industry doesn’t really allow for me to try anything else.”
The panelists offered a glimpse of some of their current and upcoming projects, such as A.V. Rockwell’s “A Thousand and One,” which Rajani, who produced it, noted opened on March 31. Gonçalves is helping develop films with director David Osit (“Mayor”) and Oscar-nominated director Jessica Kingdon (“Ascension”). Hartman is working on the directorial debut of Craig Shilowich, who wrote the HBO Max miniseries “The Staircase.” Manashil is preparing to go into production on “MaXXXine,” the third chapter in Ti West’s trilogy that began with “X.” Moulterie is working on a film about the Haitian Revolution, and a “full-bodied” documentary about Donald Shirley, whom Mahershala Ali won an Oscar for portraying in “Green Book.”
Rodriguez has a Christmas movie in development with writers Erick Galindo and Patty Rodriguez, and a romantic comedy in the works with actress Amanda Seales. Steinberg is working on Rochée Jeffrey’s feature debut “Not Your Average Queen” and overseeing postproduction on Ruben Amar’s “Silver Star.” And Hand recently premiered Randall Park’s “Shortcomings” at Sundance ahead of its release later this year by Sony Pictures Classics.
Fielding an audience question as the panel concluded, Hand reiterated the role producers play in the creative process — to breathe life into a film — even as she acknowledged how tough that responsibility can sometimes be. “We’re the squeaky wheel. We’re the people who won’t shut up, won’t stop calling, won’t stop annoying you. We’re going to get this movie made,” she said. “I think that’s why you have to have passion. That’s why you have to love it.
“That’s why you have to also eat what you kill,” Hand added. “There’s nothing more motivating than not being able to pay your mortgage.”
Variety's Todd Gilchrist contributed to this post.