In last year’s surprise indie hit “Swingers,” Vince Vaughn introduces pal Jon Favreau to a Las Vegas cocktail waitress as “the man behind the man behind the man.” While Favreau’s hapless character was anything but, the well-worn line aptly applies to the producer’s reps who, over the last decade, have worked behind the scenes to transform “little films” such as “Swingers” into a booming industry replete with superstar names and multimillion-dollar deals.
“There were only 50 (independent) features made in 1985. There are 950 first features being made this year by my count. I know, I get half of them sent to me,” says John Pierson, arguably the best known and most successful of the elite corps of producer’s reps. Others are Jonathan Dana, John Sloss, Jeff Dowd, Jim Stark and Tom Garvin.
Since first-time and even more experienced filmmakers often don’t know what to do with their films after they’re edited, these reps shepherd the finished or partially finished films through the process of finding completion funds, entering and promoting the films at festivals and dealing with potential distributors.
Predictably, with this astronomical surge in independent filmmaking, the ranks of producer’s reps likewise have swollen, with agents, lawyers and producers all throwing their hats into the ring. Indeed, as Pierson says, “It’s not really an isolated profession or line of work. Most of the people just have it as one part of what they do, one hat that they wear amongst several.”
John Sloss typifies this approach to producer repping. “I’m sort of a producer’s rep by happenstance,” claims Sloss, who represents such filmmakers as John Sayles and Whit Stillman. “I’m a lawyer first and so a great majority of the films I end up selling are for existing clients. I’m not really out there saying, ‘Bring me your film and I will sell it for you.’ ”
Yet even with all the new players clamoring to get into the game, Sloss still sees a dearth of quality producer’s reps. “I have always felt that there are two essential elements to being a producer’s rep. One is creating interest and the other is maximizing that interest. As a lawyer, I’m well experienced in maximizing interest. The other part, creating the interest, the ability to sell, to whip people into a frenzy and to work the press — which is always a big component, especially if you’re going to screen at a film festival — these are things that other people do better than I do and that great producer’s reps do by second nature.”
“My role is to build a bridge from the filmmaker to the audience in a very, very tough competitive world,” says Dowd, who has been at this game perhaps longer than anyone else, helping orchestrate the early successes of Sayles with “The Return of the Secaucus Seven” and the Coen brothers with “Blood Simple.” “There are no right and wrong answers, because each film is like a new car nobody’s ever heard of before.
“One very strong piece of advice to filmmakers,” he says, “is you don’t have many go-rounds with your film, so you should really have your absolute best version the first time you even show it to a film festival. And certainly, no matter what, the first time distributors see it.” Dowd, through his company Palisades Pictures, likes to “get involved before the mix. That’s the best time, short of getting involved with the script.
“Almost all independent films are under-financed in post-production. So what happens is you show at the first film festival — if you’re so lucky to get in — and you realize, holy shit, I should have done this, this and this. So we try to do what I call a little bit of preventive medicine and try to use our networking ability and our resource ability to give people some feedback so they can make these changes before it’s too late.”
Making changes, though, costs money that sometimes the filmmakers and their investors don’t have.
Peter Broderick agrees with Dowd’s assessment that independent filmmakers, especially first-timers, almost always shortchange themselves in post, and set out to remedy that with his startup Next Wave Films.
“A lot of these filmmakers figure out a way to kind of will movies into the can, but once they get into post, they just don’t have enough money,’ Broderick says. “So I thought if there was a way to create a revolving fund where people could come and we could provide finishing funds and then that money could come back and be available to another filmmaker, that could be a really significant new resource.”
Each year, Next Wave will be able to provide up to four ultra-low-budget films (budgets of $200,000 or less) with $100,000 in finishing funds, as well as assuring them an outlet on the Independent Film Channel, which is underwriting the company.
From a producer’s rep point of view, the company will handle “only the films they put money into,” Broderick says, “because we’re a small company and we really want to be able to give our full care and attention to these projects.” Still, Broderick and his staff will look at anything that comes in and will make suggestions even if they don’t select the film for the fund. “We really want everybody to hear back from us with as much feedback as we can give.”
With nearly 1,000 films out there this year, Broderick and his company’s task would seem daunting. Still more daunting, though, is the challenge facing these hundreds of new filmmakers of trying to break through the clutter.
“I’ve seen 50 movies in the last two months which I’ve turned down,” Dowd says. “Many of them would have paid me money, sometimes substantial money, up front, just to work on them. But there would be nothing more depressing than to have to work with somebody for the next six months who you like, and you kind of like their movie, but you don’t think it’s going to quite cut it.”
Even when a film does manage to snag the attention of one of these indie middlemen, that doesn’t necessarily assure its success. Michael Davis’ “Eight Days a Week” was the buzz of last year’s Independent Feature Film Market, combining youthful commerciality with indie chutzpah. After being pursued by several producer reps, Davis finally settled on Dowd, because “Jeff seemed to have one foot firmly planted in the independent world and also seemed to have a background in the studio world. My film actually has appealing aspects to both, so I kind of felt I needed a rep who could walk in both circles,” he explains.
But after failing to get the de rigueur nod from the Sundance Film Festival, Davis decided to screen at the concurrent Slamdance despite Dowd’s misgivings. “Jeff felt that (playing at Slamdance) would tarnish the film, because people still felt that it was a renegade festival. But I felt that Park City is one of the few places where everybody is, that you may have an opportunity to say, “Hey, come in and see my movie.” Davis’ optimism paid off when Roger Ebert attended one of his screenings and then included a glowing review in his Sundance roundup.
Still, Davis is standing in line waiting for distribution behind Dowd’s other films that screened at Sundance, “Dream With the Fishes” and “Prisoners of the Mountain,” both of which already have received domestic release.
“I’m convinced that if I was in Sundance, my movie would have gotten a domestic deal, because a lot of smaller distributors feel they need the Sundance validation,” Davis says. “They’ve ceded too much power to Sundance. It’s not necessarily Sundance’s fault; it’s the distributors putting too much credence on it.”
“The biggest problem on the independent film scene right now is on the distribution front,” Broderick agrees. “People are finding a way to raise a little money. They’re finding a way to get their films made, but then getting them into the world past festivals, I think, is really, really hard.”
“A lot of distributors who historically took smaller things (like Miramax and October) are getting bigger,” adds Sloss. “So I think there’s a real gap in the marketplace among true independents.”
“Can CFP and Strand and wonderful distributors like this pick up the slack?,” Dowd wonders. “The truth of the matter is what’s happened in the last two years is the video market has taken a drastic collapse, making distributors very tentative about the chances of recovering any of their money from video.”
Pierson, though, thinks the problem may lie in something a little more fundamental. “Originality has decreased,” he says. “We’re experiencing kind of a post-modern phase right now where everything that exists only seems to exist because of some piece of pop culture that’s come before.
“So for every time there is a breakthrough first feature, that’s very exciting on a certain level and it’s very inspiring to other filmmakers, but it also just creates that much more of a trap in causing people to decide to start up and make a movie,” Pierson continues. “It also shows what somebody else has done, when the first and foremost lesson that people should always be learning is you can’t do it like anybody’s done it before.”