Published in IndiVision News April 2008.
Christine Vachon has produced some of the most acclaimed US independent films, including Kids, Happiness, Boys Don't Cry, and Far From Heaven (nominated for four Academy Awards) amongst nearly 40 other features. Along with partner Pamela Koffler, she runs the iconic New York production company Killer Films whose recent releases include Todd Haynes' I'm Not There (nominated for an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA). She has worked with acclaimed filmmakers such as Robert Altman, Larry Clark and Todd Solondz, and has won several major awards including the Independent Spirit Award in 2003 for Far From Heaven. Christine was an advisor at the AFC's 2008 IndiVision Project Lab.
Christine Vachon: Producing is such an unsung art form. It certainly doesn't get the kudos writers and directors do. The thing is, if somebody says to you, "I am going to invest a million dollars into your film, but I would like a co-director credit", the response would be: "What do you mean, are you out of your mind?" But frequently the request is "I would like a co-producer credit" and the response is "OK, no problem". This is partly why producing is so hard these days, especially since financing has become so complicated and global. On I'm Not There, the financing was literally being pulled together from equity, soft money, Germany, and from foreign presales that were quite substantial. We would have conference calls in four different languages in the middle of the night because it was the only time we could all convene. Having a working knowledge of all the different kinds of ways you can put a movie together and how to best protect a movie so that it can make its way from the page to the screen is a lot. I am finding more and more that I need to work with co-producers so that we can tag team a little bit, especially at the talent end and the financing end.
There are two ways you make your money as a producer. The first way is with your upfront fee on a studio movie - and you could argue why would you defer money when you are making a movie for Twentieth Century Fox, which is what Searchlight is (whatever anyone says it is). The other way is to make a film that you finance independently and then sell afterwards for a lot of money. With Boys Don't Cry, we made it for $2 million and then sold it for $5 million. Nobody really got rich off it but we all got our fees.
Did we have any idea that we could sell Boys Don't Cry for $5 million? It was what we hoped. We hoped we would be able to sell it for that kind of a sum. The equity investors came into it with that end game. That's why it was a big risk for them because there weren't any stars in it. The reason why there is so much pressure to put in those stars is if you take it to a film festival and it doesn't have a big splash, then at least you have got some video box value from your B+ stars.
The thing that is important to remember is that the whole process of getting a movie up and running is so organic. It is like a living, breathing organism. And a director can't be protected from the money people. It is all interwoven and they have to be able to defend their ideas from a creative and financial point of view all the time because they have an incredible resonance with each. You can't just take one away from the other. And if a director tells me he or she thinks that, then they are not the right director for me because I don't know how to do that. When we were making I'm Not There we were in a constant situation of trying to figure out how to make a movie like that with the money that we had and Todd [Haynes] had to be fully engaged in that discussion at all times. At the end of the day money has a personality as much as anything else, and there is some money that has a very strong personality and is more difficult to deal with than others. And some directors are better at that than others.
I want to make it clear that when I say someone gives money, they are not giving me money. I wish they were, but they are not. They are investing money. But the private investors have totally changed the face of independent film. And some would say that is part of the reason for the bad Sundance [Film Festival] - there is this glut of films being made by these guys with money, who want to be players, who are getting these films made and off to festivals, and now there are too many. But some of them want to be real creative producers who in return expect to be listened to. They want to give their opinions on the script and the cast. They want to look at dailies with you. They want to come to the set and hang out with Cate Blanchett. Some of them want all that but it is OK. They actually are decent enough guys. And you know they are almost always, always guys, not exclusively, but almost always.
A lot of it is family wealth, especially the younger ones, or money they made on Wall Street. Some of them are guys who have gone out to get a bunch of different people to put financing together for a slate of films. Then there are guys like Bill Pohlad, who financed Brokeback Mountain and Into the Wild - I think his money is largely family money but no one who has met him would deny that he has a wonderful film sensibility. When he decides to get behind a movie it is fantastic. He is as much a film scholar as anybody I have ever met. Now, when you get right down to it, you also can say why shouldn't they have an opinion? It is their money. What right do you have, Mr or Mrs Director, to think that their opinions are worth nothing? Sometimes it is just about listening. Sometimes it is about being open-minded. It is the same thing with distributor honesty. That process, when a distributor becomes involved in a movie before it is over, can be very hair-raising because there is a pull on the film from another direction - from the direction of the person who wants to market it, get it into the theatres, and get the people into the theatres. You all know about some of the tensions we had on I'm Not There with the Weinstein Co. That was what it was all about. Todd is trying to make the film that he feels the best about and the Weinstein Co were trying to make sure there was a film that they could really market. And that wasn't too long or too confusing and there was a lot of tension there.
Watch the video of Christine speaking at the Lab.