Sundance announces five fellows for new lab for producers
Budding films about a Bronx teenager lesbian, a dysfunctional Boy Scout master, a teenage boy determined to swim in every backyard pool in his neighborhood, two mixed-race sisters drawn into violence, and three young friends and lovers on the Korean countryside are the subjects for the charter year of the Sundance Institute’s Creative Producing Initiative.
The films are in various stages of completion with finished scripts and directors sign onto the projects.
On June 30, Sundance named the producers of those films as its five fellows set to inaugurate a yearlong program for emerging independent producers. Workshops start next week at Sundance Resort with the Creative Producing Lab from July 27-31. The lab will focus on developing the creative skills of producers in all stages of production, according to program lab director Anne Lai.
The fellowship includes attendance at the Independent Producers Conference, and the Sundance Film Festival, year-round mentorship from advisors, a living stipend and pre-production grant, and ongoing support from Sundance Institute staff.
The initiative supports producers with a range of experience and from varied backgrounds. Nekisha Cooper, who hopes to turn the 27-minute film "Pariah" into a full-length feature, played Division I basketball at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and worked in corporate branding for Colgate, L’Oreal and General Electric before deciding about a year ago to work full time as an independent producer.
Alan Chan, the producer of "Quari," a film about friends on the Korean countryside, is a practicing attorney and former commercial banker based out of New York City.
Sundance launched the search for producing fellows during the festival in 2008. The program is meant to complement the screenwriting and directing labs already in existence. In a little more than a month, from the end of January to the application deadline March 1, Sundance received hundreds of applications from aspiring producers. "The basic goal with the producing initiative is to look for emerging artists and producers who have some experience," Lai said, but "no more than two features under their belts."
Lai said the institute looked for "wholesale producers" who have been involved with films from inception. "We want producers to work with filmmakers and become a creative voice in getting the project from page to screen," she said.
Each fellow receives a $5,000 living stipend and a $5,000 pre-production grant for his or her film, which is in pre-production with developed scripts and directors already on board.
Producers are charged with raising funds to get a project started, figuring out the logistics of shoots and scripts, and finding onscreen and behind-the-camera talent to execute a project. Once films have been made and edited, independent producers pitch them to festivals and distributors
"What we are trying to foster is independent filmmaking with producers who are intimately entrenched in a project," Lai said. "A producer is a big partner is getting films made. Their role is as large as a writer and director. Producing is not just financing. It’s related to all aspects of a film, start to finish."
The producing lab that starts next week introduces Sundance fellows to experienced producers and advisors to help the fellows move their scripts forward. The lab, which lasts four-and-a-half days, dovetails with the independent producers conference, also held at Sundance Resort. The latter is a workshop that connects start-up films with independent distributors and mini studios. Panel discussions will help the fellows garner better access to industry insiders for better networking and better advice, Lai said.
The third component of the fellowship is the Sundance Film Festival, where producers have a chance to schmooze distributors, meet industry insiders, and talk to professionals who may have an interest in funding or distributing their films, Lai said.
"We were thrilled with the response," she said. "There has always been a desire with Sundance to support independent filmmaking. Over the years, we asked what are we not supporting specifically. The idea of a producing initiative has been gestating for a long time. We want to give producers support that doesn’t exist out there in the world. The initiative is really a networking tool that can lead to finances and support for films." Lai added, "This is our charter year, so we’re looking to learn a lot from it."
Chasing the dream
Nekisha Cooper has not had one dream job, but three. Her first dream was a hoop dream. She played point guard and shooting guard at the College of William and Mary, where her coaches recognized her as a leader. After her graduation, Cooper’s friends and coaches helped her find a job on the coaching staff of the women’s basketball team at the University of Richmond. They encouraged her to go back to school and get her masters in business administration with the goal of one day becoming an athletic director for a college team.
Basketball taught Cooper to hone her critical thinking skills, and business school gave her the skill set to succeed in corporate America. After finishing a two-year program in Georgia, Cooper took a job at Colgate in corporate branding. In a task akin to selling proverbial ketchup popsicles to women in white gloves, Cooper helped develop and market toothpaste to kids.
She also worked for a time with L’Oreal and General Electric before temporarily leaving the corporate world to help her partner, Sundance directing fellow Dee Rees, make a coming-of-age film called "Pariah" about a black lesbian teenager who helps her family come to terms with her sexuality. Cooper has been involved with the film since its beginning.
It was originally conceived as a full-length film but was shorted because of budgetary constraints.
Cooper has worked to get "Pariah" produced as a feature film for about three years and has worked as a fulltime producer for about a year. "What I realized through producing film is that it’s not that different from selling toothbrushes," she said. "You’re trying to get the message out so you line up expectations with a concept. Everything has been really transferable."
Cooper’s business skills helped the film get made, albeit as a short film rather than a full-length feature. The half-hour piece has garnered critical acclaim, winning the audience award at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2007 as well as being screened at Sundance and a number of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trangender and African-American film festivals. "It’s been incredible," she said. "I really need people to see the film. Audience reactions are so different."
The film has a racy beginning, and Cooper has seen audience members walk out of the theater in the first few minutes. Others have watched quietly, erupting in praise and applause as the credits roll. One of the goals for the film, Cooper said, is to expose moviegoers to a different point of view. "I definitely feel like there’s a lack of attention for gay issues and for people of color," she observed. "I don’t care how you define diversity, but I think it’s important to have it in films. And we’re starting to see audience demand for that."
Cooper submitted a 30-page "game plan" to expand the film into a feature-length story with the short film serving not just as a template but also the first act of the show. She said having the support of Sundance has been a huge asset to "Pariah" and her second project, a documentary in post-production called "Eventual Salvation," winner of the 2007 Tribeca All Access Creative Promise Award and a 2007 Sundance Documentary Fund Grant.
"That nurturing and attention is important when you have people in the mainstream saying you can’t make [a film] because it’s too small a story."
Cooper and Rees haven’t had much income since Cooper resigned from General Electric. She plans to use the Creative Producing Initiative as a chance to give "Pariah" a wider audience. "I’m seeking out mentors," she said. "Trying to create a network of support."
A new life
Alan Chin left a job as a New York attorney making $200,000 a year to pursue a life in film.
In 2006, he produced Cho Eunhee’s "Inner Circle Line," which premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and was awarded a Special Jury Prize at the South-by-Southwest Film Festival in 2006. He most recently produced Jennifer Phang’s feature, "Half-Life," which premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
Chin was awarded the Creative Producing Initiative fellowship to help bring to the screen another film by Cho Eunhee, "Quari," about three young Koreans who form the bonds of love and friendship during a vacation away from the city. Becoming a producer, Chin said, was "a little bit lucky and a lot of hard work."
"It was a leap and a lot of people at the law firm didn’t know why I was doing it," he said. "I wanted to do something more fulfilling. How you spend your time is more valuable than money."
Chin saved money to allow himself to quit practicing law full time and instead focus on film. He still does legal work on the side to pay the bills. "Since we’re indie filmmakers and not studios, I still do free-lance jobs," he said. "As a long-term career prospect you want to be able to have producing be a full-time job."
Chin said he is eager to learn more about the collaborative process of filmmaking. The more people you involve in the dream, he said, the more likely that it will happen.
The Fellows and projects selected for the Creative Producing Initiative are:
* Alan T. Chan / QUARI
* Nekisa Cooper / PARIAH
* Diane Houslin / YELLING TO THE SKY
* Sophia Lin / SCOUTMASTERS
* Joshua Zeman / FOREST GROVE
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