Powerhouse producer Christine Vachon has run Killer Films for 21 years. The company has produced close to 100 feature films, most notably art house films that play theatrically. She's produced all of Todd Haynes' films, including recent 6-time Oscar nominee Carol, and some of her biggest titles include Boys Don't Cry, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, One Hour Photo, and Velvet Goldmine.
This year, Killer Films brought four titles to the Sundance Film Festival: Goat, which sold to Paramount/MYV; Frank and Lola, which went to Universal; Weiner Dog, which is heading to Amazon with IFC distribution; and White Girl, to Netflix. In the past few years, Killer has also dipped into television. The team made the Kate Winslet-starring mini series Mildred Pierce for HBO, and will begin shooting a mini-series about Zelda Fitzgerald starring Christina Ricci called Z for Amazon this summer.
"If you want to have a sustainable career in filmmaking, the trick is to be as entrepreneurial as possible."
It's safe to say, like always, Vachon and Killer are having a busy year. But that didn't stop Vachon from heading down to the Bermuda International Film Festival, where last year she served on the jury, to teach a master class on producing to the festival's up-and-coming filmmakers. The class sat rapt by her directness as she revealed insights and relayed advice. The following interview is a combination of select pieces from that class as well as No Film School's one-on-one sit-down with Vachon.
Credit: "Far from Heaven"
NFS: What are some key qualities that up-and-coming filmmakers should have before embarking upon a film career?
Christine Vachon: If you want to have a sustainable career in filmmaking, the trick is to be as entrepreneurial as possible. What that means is being open to as many different kinds of storytelling and platforms for storytelling as you possibly can be.
When I started making movies, theatrical was pretty much all there was for low budget. Poison, Swoon, Go Fish, I Shot Andy Warhol — those movies made most of their money theatrically. They weren't worth much outside of the theaters, like on cable TV or foreign; it was all pretty minimal. Now, of course, that's completely changed and reversed.
One thing I like to keep reminding us is that theatrical isn’t the Holy Grail that it used to be. Just because a movie doesn't lend itself to being theatrical doesn't make it not a story worth telling.
"The conversations I have with foreign sales agents are on the border of surreal. We're talking about actors as if they're poker chips or playing cards."
NFS: How big is your producing team?
Vachon: Me and my producing partner Pam Koffler. David Hinojosa is our head of development, and an assistant. That's it. That is Killer films. It is lean and mean. Keeping our overhead low gives us a lot of freedom. But it's tricky.
NFS: How does Killer finance its projects?
Vachon: There are a lot of different ways to make movies. But foreign sales-based financing is, for better or worse — and I'd say mostly for worse — still one of the linchpins of how these kind of character-driven dramas get financed. The reason I'm saying character-driven drama like that is because, 10-15 years ago, the studios were making these $10-$25 million dollar films that were Oscar winners; those movies had a place and they had an audience. They still have an audience, but they're not being financed in any other way except this way.
So the way it works is, you take your script, you've attached your actors, a foreign sales agent will take that package and based on the director's international value — if he or she has a reputation already, maybe this isn't their first movie — and, most importantly, the actors, and they'll bring you estimates. They'll give you two lines: the "asks" and the "takes." So you have a country on each line. For France, we're asking for $500,000. But we'll take $350,000. At the bottom you'll have the figures, and North America will not be included. Maybe you'll have $6 million for the asks and $4.2 for the takes. Responsibly, you should make your movie for less than the takes.
NFS: Why is North America excluded?
Vachon: North America is so difficult to gauge. We used to put it into our budgets, but it went from 30 percent to 20 percent to 10 percent, and now we just take it out completely. You don't know what something will sell for and it's hard to assign value.
It comes down to this bigger question, this almost philosophical question: How do you assign value to a movie? And all it really is is, "Well, she was in the last superhero movie, so she must be valuable." It's that kind of craziness. The conversations I have with foreign sales agents are on the border of surreal. We're talking about actors as if they're poker chips or playing cards.
NFS: Is that the process for each of your films?
Vachon: There's a combo, which is what we frequently do, which is a mix of a foreign sales company doing pre-sales. Then more and more often in the states we rely on tax credits as a portion of our budget. There are states that have more than others, and some that don't have any. So that becomes a big portion of your budget. Sometimes you can make a deal with a North American distributor, who will put up an advance, which is how it worked with Carol. Carol was foreign sales-based on two big movie stars and a director with an international reputation, tax credits from Ohio, and North America, and an advance from The Weinstein Company.
"Carol was foreign sales-based on two big movie stars and a director with an international reputation, tax credits from Ohio and North America, and an advance from The Weinstein Company."
NFS: How do you personally find new filmmakers or new voices?
Vachon: I really just try to keep an ear to the ground. I rely heavily on the younger people that work for me because they can do the leg work. Also part of it is just being open to new forms of expression, new ideas, all of that. When someone I trust says, "You may not realize why this idea is important, but it's important to us; it's important to my generation," I listen.
Most companies like mine don't take unsolicited scripts. There's just too much stuff. Partly because there are also legal issues. Every year I'm sure you read, "That was my idea." At Killer, I have me and Pam, David, who is 27 years old, and then a pile of interns. So don't call me, or email me, because I'm going to be like, "Who the hell is this person?"
But David and the interns are out in the world. They go to all of the film festivals. They're really trying to see who is doing new, interesting work. So the way to get into a company is to really start at the bottom and try to work up. If you have work like a short film or something, get somebody to see it at Killer or the agencies, too. The agencies all have junior agents who are out there looking for new material. When I get a call from somebody who I trust saying, "You know, you should really look at this," I do. I pay attention. If you want to be a filmmaker or storyteller these days, you can do it on your iPhone. Most people should have a solid short film that they can show me that shows they know how to tell a story.
"People should have a solid short film that they can show me that shows they know how to tell a story."
Credit: "I'm Not There"
NFS: Is there anything else in terms of tangible items, like a story packet, that you'd like to see?
Vachon: We executive produced this movie at Sundance called White Girl. $700,000 film. Young, female director. Super interesting script. But David had heard about the filmmaker because he goes to a lot of film festivals and knew people who knew her. He read the script. Then he came to me with something he put it together to present to me because he was very much for it. He said, "This is why it's important that Killer is involved. And these are the things that we can do for it," which was really help getting cast, provide support for the filmmaker to get it made.
"Way before you're on set, make sure you, the director, the whole team, is operating on the same movie. And that includes the financier. You'd be surprised how often that is the issue."
When something makes its way to me, it's usually because someone in my company is very enthusiastic about it and chances are I will respond to it because they know me. Another scenario is, David will say, "There are a lot of reasons why we should do this but I'm not sure," and we'll look at it together. Are we passionate about it? Is it exciting? Are the filmmakers someone we want to be in business with?
NFS: What are some of the qualities that directors have that you gravitate towards?
Vachon: Really, just the ability to articulate their vision effectively. That's it.
NFS: A lot of young up-and-coming filmmakers are in search of people to collaborate with. Is there any advice you'd have to offer?
Vachon: It's all about creating community, and there are a lot of different ways to do that. That's the most obvious thing that film school provides, but people shouldn't go to film school just because of that. You can create community on a set, or by sharing work with each other. Various platforms help filmmakers find each other and create community. That's a buzzword for a reason.
Credit: "Boys Don't Cry"
NFS: As a producer, how would you recommend aspiring producers deal with conflict with, say, their director or actors?
Vachon: Way before you're on set, make sure you, the director, the whole team, is operating on the same movie. And that includes the financier. You'd be surprised how often that is the issue. The financier doesn’t understand the movie is tonally this and the director intends it to be like that. For the most part, the discussions aren't worth having as disagreements. You have to have them as suggestions. Most confident directors, and not all of them are confident, welcome suggestions. They're happy for another crew member to say, "How about this way or that?" If I've signed on to a director's vision, I will back his or her opinion more than someone else's, but I'll certainly make mine known.
Sometimes it's as simple as a director's statement: What are you trying to make and why? But I've had situations where financiers say I signed on to X movie and the director led me to believe we were making a much more commercial movie than they were.
NFS: In the 20+ years that Killer has been in existence, how has the industry changed for you?
Vachon: It's changed in a million different ways, and we've adapted. I don't know what's better. I'm not one of those people who's going to say, "Oh, it was better when we shot on celluloid." I don't put those genies back in the bottles. I'm like, it's a new day, let's embrace it.
"I'm not one of those people who's going to say, 'Oh, it was better when we shot on celluloid.' I don't put those genies back in the bottles. I'm like, 'It's a new day, let's embrace it.'"
NFS: How do you see distribution models evolving?
Vachon: I don't really have that crystal ball. I think it's going to get very specific. What's interesting with what is happening with Amazon and Netflix, is that they're going in such different directions. Amazon is trying out old methods of distribution. Netflix is saying, "We're throwing that out the window completely, and making the window as small as possible." Beasts of No Nation didn't quite meet their expectations as far as awards, but it almost did. It went pretty far. All it's going to take is a movie with a little more push into our eyes as a critical awards favorite and then everything will reshuffle again.
But Killer is interested in everything. YouTube platforms, everything. I have a 16-year-old, and for her, platform doesn't matter. She just wants content when she wants it. She doesn't want to pay for it, and she just finds it whether it's on YouTube or Hulu or Netflix or Amazon. She doesn't care. She's going after that content. The content isn't really branding itself so much. I don't know if she can tell you that Orange is the New Black is on Netflix and Transparent is on Amazon. She can only tell you she likes those shows.
NFS: What attracted you and Killer to turn to TV and online content?
Vachon: Well, it's just another way to tell a story. It allows you to get into a long form that, for a lot of filmmakers, is really exciting and invigorating. Even the networks have realized people like to binge-watch. I think it's all going in that direction.