Earlier this month, we announced the launch of an exciting new venture, Pretty__Ideas. Its objective—to support a film, financially and otherwise, from inception to theaters—is lofty, but we think it just might be what the doctor ordered for struggling indie filmmakers. Under the banner of sales company Visit Films, founder Ryan Kampe hopes to preclude problems in post-production, sales, and distribution by getting involved with a project while it is just a twinkle in its mother's eye.
No Film School spoke with Pretty__Ideas' first hire, Jennifer Sperber, who left a position at the Weinstein Company to head up development for the new incubator. In the midst of IFP Film Week's back-to-back pitch sessions (which are often likened to speed dating), Sperber discussed the company's process, the films and filmmakers it's looking to invest in, and the problem with waiting too long to think about distribution.
"Filmmakers might not be thinking about their film’s festival life or its international value. We want to be thinking about those things for our filmmakers early on while we can still maximize their potential."
No Film School: You were at the Weinstein Company before signing on to manage Pretty__Ideas. Why take such a different job?
Jennifer Sperber: I was at The Weinstein Company for a few years in production and acquisitions. The studio system is a unique and oftentimes frustrating model, especially in this day and age with a lot of changes in the industry. I was looking to do something else and take some time to really find what I wanted to work on next. When Ryan and I connected about this, he was so excited to be working on something that was filmmaker-friendly, to get involved from the beginning, to be able to say yes to projects instead of always saying, "We have to wait." I was really excited about the venture from that first conversation.
We're hoping to bridge the gap for some of these really talented emerging filmmakers who have a lot of trouble on their second and third feature. They've used up all their favors on their first feature and now it's a matter of, "I need more money, I need more time, I need more eyes on this project," and most of them don't have those resources. To be able to provide them with those—that's why I wanted to come on board.
'Claire in Motion'Credit: Visit Films
NFS: Was that one of the main problems that you thought needed solving in terms of your time at Weinstein, thinking about how to improve the industry?
Sperber: In a studio, things move a lot more slowly, and you're not able to take quite as many risks. It is a little bit more about the bottom line. Weinstein has a great track record of working on incredible films with incredible filmmakers, but you usually have to do that with people who you're absolutely positive are going to win you an Academy Award or are going to really make a return at the box office.
For example, when you're at a studio and taking meetings at IFP Film Week, you're meeting with all of these great filmmakers who've maybe done a movie or two that you love but are still a little too small-time to get involved with. Sometimes those are the more rewarding projects to actually work on.
NFS: When you were taking meetings this week, were you taking meetings for Pretty__Ideas?
NFS: This must've been your first round of pitches for this company, right?
Sperber: Yeah, it was. It was a really incredible response that we got from all of the filmmakers there. It was just really nice to feel like they understood what we're trying to do, and that they were excited about it and they felt the need for it too was just really encouraging.
NFS: When you hear a pitch, what are you looking for?
Sperber: As far as genre or type of film, we're really open. I think it just has to be a filmmaker that we are excited about. [Ryan Kampe and I] keep saying to each other, "Let's not ask them what they're working on now, but what do they want to be working on?" That's what we want work on with them. We want them to be so incredibly passionate about the project. We want them to get us excited about it.
"A lot of filmmakers we meet are talented people who make one film and then have to go direct commercials and music videos for six months. They aren't able to actually work on their projects. The idea is to say, 'Stop doing that.'"
We're looking for filmmakers have a bit of a track record—maybe have had a film premiere at a festival before or have been distributed before, or in some cases have done a few shorts that we just think are so incredible that we really believe that it will translate to a feature. This is just to make sure that the vision, the talent, and the dedication is there. It's going to be a matter of that proof of concept combined with whatever it is they're working on next—if it's exciting to us and we see real potential in it. There are filmmakers that you've seen premiere somewhere and then you don't hear from for a few years, and you're wondering where they are, or what they're doing. We want to reach out to those people.
NFS: How do filmmakers get in contact?
Sperber: Visit our submissions page!
'Morris from America'Credit: Visit Films
NFS: Ryan had said that the funding models would be different; that Pretty Ideas could even provide living expenses in order to facilitate the creative project in the first place. What would that look like? What would your expectations be?
Sperber: It's going to be really different for every project. They're going to be in slightly different stages of development. There are going to be filmmakers with slightly different years of experience. Some people might approach us and say, "All I need is to be able to pay rent for the next two months and live somewhere specific and really immerse myself in my subject matter, and that's how I'm going to best be able to finish my writing." So we'll fund them to do that.
Also, a lot of filmmakers that we meet are talented people who make one film and then have to go direct commercials and music videos for six months. They aren't able to actually work on their projects. The idea is to say, "Stop doing that. Sit in your room, go to where you need to go, and write your project." Then we'll be in touch with them as much as necessary over those weeks to develop a timeline with them that feels realistic but also productive.
NFS: What are the benefits of staying with a film throughout its entire lifetime, in terms of trying to preclude potential problems down the line?
Sperber: When you get involved with a project once it's completed, most things can't be reversed at that point. "If you'd had the strategic guidance to cast up one person in this film, maybe sales and distribution potential skyrockets, maybe your potential for global sales are that much better." Same with the little things: when you're a first-time filmmaker, you might not be doing the proper photography that your marketing guys will need six months later. Filmmakers might not be thinking about their film’s festival life or its international value, and so on. We want to be thinking about those things for our filmmakers early on while we can still maximize their potential.
"Sometimes the writer/directors get lost in the process. You're just talking to big producers or financiers—the people that hold the power—so I'm excited to put that back in the filmmaker's hands."
When you're reading those early drafts of the scripts, it's not always necessarily creative notes as much as, "Focusing on scenes like this or these types of issues are going to make your movie appeal to a wider audience, or an audience in Russia or Germany." [We want to] point those things out for filmmakers who might not have ever thought about their film playing beyond the US, or beyond the country that they're currently in.
NFS: How do you guide filmmakers through the process of connecting with other companies?
Sperber: We're not going to be a producer on the film. We're not taking rights to the film as Pretty Ideas. That's why we're calling it an incubator. The idea is to provide the initial development money, but also to nurture the film so they get the financing that's right, so they can explore possibilities like co-productions, so they can understand the value of their cast, and so on.
Sometimes filmmakers can secure financiers, but it's just a check, and that's it. Maybe they'll get mentors throughout part of the process, but they don't have anyone that's with them through the whole thing, just to make sure it's headed in the right direction. With Visit on the other end of everything, they're always going to be looking out for, "When should this shoot? Let's think about that in terms of what festivals it should play at. Let's already be thinking about what the best distribution plan for this might be really early on." This should eliminate a lot of those tense conversations later in the process between filmmakers and their sales agents or distributors, when people say, "I wish I'd known this two years ago when I started this process."
'My Revolution'Credit: Visit Films
NFS: This is definitely filling a big need in the industry, and I think that you guys are not going to be the last company to start on this path. Do you think that if other companies were to galvanize and try to fill this development need?
Sperber: In a lot of ways, this is a proven model with some of the work that Visit has done and Ryan has done in the past few years with Always Shine. Every step of the filmmaking process is so different for everybody. Every company is doing something new nowadays. It's hard to say what the next few years in film will hold with Netflix and Amazon changing the environment. There's so much happening right now that I think the best we can do is just support the people that we think are talented. Nowadays, the creator is king, but you want your project to rise to the top. You don’t want your work to get lost or buried.
"You see a movie on Netflix or in theaters and you think, "That person's probably fine now because their movie was made." Most people don't realize it's film-to-film in the same way that it's paycheck-to-paycheck."
NFS: So Always Shine was a test drive for this model?
Sperber: Ryan is one of those really straightforward and forward-thinking guys in this industry, which is really rare, and he had the opportunity to get involved early, which is not usually the case for sales agencies. I think he realized that to continue doing that—because it was a success—he was going to have to create or back a new entity, which is where Pretty Ideas came from.
NFS: What are you most excited to do in your new role at this company?
Sperber: Gosh, all of it. Honestly, I'm most excited to be working with filmmakers on a one-on-one basis more. Sometimes the writer/directors are the ones that actually get lost in the process. You're just talking to big producers or financiers—the people that hold the power—so I'm excited to put that back in the filmmaker's hands.
I felt that way especially this week. At the meetings we've been taking at IFP, we're talking to people who are really struggling and it's unbelievable. You see a movie on Netflix or in theaters and you think, "That person's probably fine now because their movie was made." Most people don't realize it's film-to-film in the same way that it's paycheck-to-paycheck.
I'm really excited to work closely with creative people and make sure that their movies maintain that artistic integrity, but that we also keep an eye out for them for the business side of it, so they can be shepherded towards a viable commercial outcome. We don't want anyone living off cans of soup and working as a barista while they're directing these amazing movies on their days off. That shouldn't be the case.
Editor's Note: The images above are from Visit Films' slate.