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Art or Commerce? Some Execs Balance Both

Like indie Clark Kents, these folks have found artistic success mining their alter egos

Film industry pros usually choose between being a “suit” or a “creative,” with business execs rarely attempting artistic careers and vice-versa.

But as traditionally low indie film budgets become microbudgets (with proportionately decreasing salaries), and inflation makes being a struggling artist a bigger struggle, more artists are taking on suit positions as their day jobs. And more film execs are having their cake and eating it, too, by juggling artistic side projects with full-time biz careers.

People from both camps have discovered some inventive opportunities for cross-pollination while maintaining church/state lines in their pursuits. Here are a few who’ve successfully carved out some unconventional career paths.

Nikki Levy

By day, Nikki Levy develops and produces features as VP at Fox’s Wedge Works banner. By night, she works with some of the same writers on a monthly comedy showcase she founded and hosts called Don’t Tell My Mother.

“I realized that I know all these fabulous screenwriters who might like a more personal medium in which to express themselves,” says Levy, who launched the L.A.-based series in October 2011 with co-producer Lizzie Czerner that presents mom-related tales of dysfunction. “I see drafts and give notes just like I do at Wedge Works.”

Several performers have been signed based on appearances at her industry showcase, she says, but the evenings have also featured some big names. The showcase has travelled to New York for a night featuring “Saturday Night Live” star Kate McKinnon and “Daily Show” co-creator Lizz Winstead, and boasted producer Lynda Obst and actress Traci Lords in its recent season finale. It’s also a podcast on iTunes.

Next up: another Gotham show in September, a new L.A. season launching in October, and a Chicago benefit for Northwestern U’s LGBT program Impact in November. It all serves to enhance Levy’s daytime Fox gig. “Having to write and perform a piece every month taught me to be much gentler with writers, and give notes in a way I totally didn’t before,” she says.

Dana O’Keefe

For a little more than a decade, Cinetic Media sales agent and manager Dana O’Keefe has facilitated some of Sundance’s highest profile deals, including this year’s sale of David Gordon Green’s “Prince Avalanche” to Magnolia. But despite his hectic schedule, O’Keefe has helmed three comedic shorts: 2008’s “The New Yorkist,” 2012’s “Aaron Burr, Part 2” and this year’s “Vladimir Putin in Deep Concentration,” which preemed at SXSW and is set to screen again at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival (July 30-Aug. 4).

At the same time, his role at Cinetic has grown to overseeing releases for their Producers Distribution Agency, such as “Senna,” managing helmers such as Justin Lin and exec producing projects like Richard Linklater’s Hulu travel series “Up to Speed” and a yet to be titled Ground Zero doc for CNN Films from helmers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein (airing on Sept. 11).

“Across the board, all of it is defined by creative problem solving,” O’Keefe says. “Maybe I’m a filmmaker masquerading as a film executive, or a film executive masquerading as a filmmaker. I’m not really sure yet. I’ll get back to you.”

Jonathan Lisecki

For more than five years, Jonathan Lisecki has searched for new talent at film fests as a creative consultant and manager at Washington Square Arts & Films. But with his 2012 feature writing/directing debut, “Gayby,” the scout has become the scouted. His straight/gay co-parenting comedy nabbed a low-six-figure ancillary deal from Wolfe, a four-city theatrical run via the Film Collective and a 2013 Independent Spirit Award nom for first screenplay. The rep has even landed his own reps, recently signing with CAA and Anonymous Content.

Like an indie Clark Kent, Lisecki has kept his day job on the down low while collecting several fest awards around the country. “It’s nice to not have to deal with that side of the business when you’re there for yourself,” he explains. Washington Square has been supportive of his pursuits, letting him take a month off to helm and act in “Gayby.” “Because of my job, I know how to contact an agent to get a client on board for my movie,” says Lisecki, who’s now penning a follow-up to his debut feature and consulting on a studio comedy. “Knowing the industry certainly helps.”

Irene Cho

Few in the industry have taken as circuitous a career path as Irene Cho. Her late-90s PR gig at DreamWorks and liaison role with its Korean investor CJ Entertainment led her to produce a $100,000 web contest-winning short and cooking show pilot. While waiting for the show’s pickup, she moved to Park City in 2003 to help revamp Sundance’s ticketing system, then managed the fest’s publicity office and married local restaurateur Soo Chyung before leaving the Institute in late 2008.

“When I was pregnant, my friend had this great idea for a zombie coming-of-age melodrama,” Cho recalls. After her son Ethan was born, the pair raised grant money, developed a script and shot her first feature as a producer, the Korean-language thriller “Let Me Out,” in 2011. Its fest run led to a U.S. distribution deal with Funimation Entertainment, a Korean deal with Baekdu Film Co. and theatrical bows in L.A. and overseas next month.

Cho is now juggling a wide array of projects: producing the festival-touring radio show Film Society’s Daily Buzz with Eugene Hernandez for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, serving as president and board chair of the Park City Film Series, taking on part-time PR gigs for friends (and her husband’s eatery, Yuki Arashi), and developing a new feature — an adaptation of Puccini’s opera “Turandot” — with a Bejing production outfit. She says her varied background helps her “think like a publicist and marketer without having to spend the money, because I know the end result we want to achieve.”

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