Every year, a new crop of bright-eyed young filmmakers gets together with their friends, buys cameras, and launches their very own production company. Some make it; others don't. These are the ones that did.
At this year's DOC NYC, five industry veterans gathered to discuss the nitty gritty of running a production company. Panelists were Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Academy Award nominated owners and operators of Loki Films (Jesus Camp, Detropia); Jeremy Chilnick, Emmy-nominated COO of Morgan Spurlock's Warrior Poets (Super Size Me, Freakonomics); and Julie Goldman, Emmy award-winning founder of Motto Pictures (Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry, Best of Enemies). Erika Dilday, Executive Director of the Maysles Documentary Center, moderated. Together, the panelists represented a broad range of possibilities for production companies, large and small. They discussed teamwork, company structure, funding projects, tiptoeing around Disney, and what to do after a successful first feature.
Balance in partnership
Dilday kicked off the panel by asking how Ewing and Grady's partnership works within the company. They do many things together, Ewing answered, such as budgets, casting, developing, and offering edit feedback; but beyond that, they work on separate aspects of the company—even separate films.
With regards to being on location with a shoot, Ewing added that it's far more efficient for only one of them to be there. "The person who wasn't at the shoot is much more objective about the material," she said. "Sometimes you're on location, and you think you got something great and you didn't, or vice versa."
"If you really feel strongly about the way you're making a film, stick with it."
They tend to gravitate towards tasks they're good at. For Grady, that's budgets and treatments; for Ewing, it's gear and technology. "Basically, you try to do things you're good at, and if neither of us is good at it, you try to hire someone who is," Ewing concluded. "That's how you end up evolving to having a sustainable business."
'Detropia'Credit: Loki Films
The way Chilnick described it, The Eagle Huntress came to Warrior Poets in half-completion, and they just simply fell in love. Is that how it normally happens with pitches? Dilday wanted to know.
Let's be real: "It's always subjective," Chilnick said. "I try to only get us really involved in other people's films if they've been shot to a certain extent." With footage to look at, he can really discern if there's "a 'there' there" versus just an abstract idea. He added that it's also important to know if a director has "access, a real vision, and at least a theoretical end to the film."
Other than that, like at most production companies, story is king. At Warrior Poets, Chilnick insisted, if a story is good, they're not too worried about finding a home for it.
OTT is changing the game
"With the proliferation of so many different publishers—Netflix, Amazon—[there are] so many different places you can sell a film to," said Chilnick. "It's a really good time to be part of documentary. There are a lot of different stories that we would take chances on now, that we might have been hesitant to be a part of even three or four years ago."
Middlebrow content is disappearing, added Chilnick. Instead, online platforms are making the way for premium content, and raising the bar for other publishers as well.
"What Amazon and Netflix have done is provide new homes, with deep pockets, that also respect documentary," he said. "So that's made CNN, HBO, and some of the other players have to be more aggressive in terms of how they're positioning themselves and the money that they're spending on films."
It's a "rising tide lifts all boats" scenario.
'Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry'Credit: Motto Pictures
Film vs. TV
Warrior Poets works on many varied kinds of content, and Chilnick went on to discuss the costs and benefits of working on a series versus a feature film.
"The biggest difference is who your bosses are," he said. "The best part about making movies is, in a lot of ways, you're your own boss for a very long time." (Until your financiers butt in, that is.) "In TV," he continued. "That patience doesn't exist whatsoever because there's already an established infrastructure and you're hitting air dates."
"For TV, there's always somebody who's holding you accountable for the ideas and promises you've sold."
More pros and cons: "From a creative standpoint, it's always very exciting if you can tell a story in six hours versus telling it in 90 minutes," he said. "But from an institutional standpoint, it's a much bigger apparatus, there are a lot more cooks in the kitchen, especially if you're working with bigger cable networks like History, A&E, Discovery."
"I think the biggest thing, for a film, a lot of the times you're pretty much alone in your edit room for good or ill," Chilnick concluded. "For TV, there's always somebody who's holding you accountable for the ideas and promises you've sold."
With the problem of Disney licensing Life, Animated staring them right in the face, Dilday asked, how did Motto approach this project?
"I was like, 'We have to deal with this head on,'" Goldman said. Fortunately, they had a connection. "Keri Putnam, who runs the Sundance Institute, introduced us to Sean Bailey, who's a trustee of the Sundance Institute but also happens to be president of production at Disney."
Bailey, Goldman said, understands independent film. "He's bringing in so many independent filmmakers to Disney to do the live action films, it's amazing."
But he wasn't the only one they had to answer to at Disney. "We had to have this phone call with the chairmen of Disney," Goldman remembered. "It was totally surreal. They were like, 'Why are you talking to us about tofu?' It was just not the same wavelength at all. They kept saying, 'Well, that Julian Assange film we did didn't do well,' and we were like, 'hh, it's not the same.' Just this totally bizarre conversation."
Eventually, they assigned Bailey as their point person, and it was smooth sailing from there. They waited until the rough cut stage to screen it for Disney. "They saw it and said, 'Fine. Now you can license the footage.' And we were able to pay and license the footage."
"When you were almost done with the movie?" Heidi questioned.
"Yeah," said Goldman. He felt strongly about this decision to wait so long. "There was a lot of pressure to pre-clear and pre-negotiate. And I knew that if we did that, we were going to fuck ourselves." But if they saw the film in its finished stages, she knew Disney would love it and be good to Motto.
"If you really feel strongly about the way you're making a film, stick with it," Goldman encouraged.
'Dancing in Jaffa'Credit: Warrior Poets
How to pick a project
What considerations must a company make before embarking on a project?
"I really feel strongly about not doing the same films over and over," Goldman said on behalf of Motto. She lamented the sameness of pitches they'll get after releasing a popular film. "Part of this joy of making documentaries is you enter a world and you learn all about it and you move on to another world. I don't want to stay in the same world. If I wanted that, then I would be in a different line of work."
"One of the first questions we ask is: 'Should it be a film?'"
Though Loki makes exclusively in-house content, they still have to seriously think about each film concept. Documentaries, and films of all kinds, are a huge commitment. "One of the first questions we ask is: 'Should it be a film?'" said Ewing. "I find that that's a very important question, for first-time filmmakers especially, but you have to do it every time. You have to hit a lot of marks to make something worthy of a three act feature-length documentary film. Can you stand this topic if it's three years from now? Because you have to know it's going to take that long."
"Of course, we always think about: Should our name be on this?" she added. "Because our name is literally all we have. It's a major question; we turn things down because of it."
Grady agreed. "There are easier ways to make money, is kind of what it boils down to," he said. "We're a small boutique company, and if it's something that we're going to get bored of and loathe... life's just too short. We say no to ourselves and others a lot."
For Warrior Poets, Chilnick said that "it's split pretty equally between private equity and TV pre-buys and sales."
Grady added that "grants are sprinkled in there a little bit."
Expanding on the discussion of TV sales, Ewing said, "Our movies have been funded by HBO, A&E, Ford Foundation, ITVS, American Masters, Netflix... all over. It's true the sources of funding have grown and you have a lot less explaining to do. There's more familiarity with the form, even with private equity, than there was four years ago."
"We look at the landscape for each film differently," Goldman said of their process at Motto. "If this is a film with huge commercial potential, then maybe it's something that we really do try to get private equity and grants for more specifically, so that we do have more ownership and then can have a better financial stake in the film when it comes out, if it does sell in a big way."
However, she continued, "sometimes you don't have that luxury. With Weiner, we had raised around half the money for the film by the time we were finished with it. It was all grant and equity. And then we were able to sell it for money that made everybody whole." Having international partners opens up some more flexibility, she added, finally.
"Dark Horse Nation" was a Warrior Poets collaboration with the History Channel.Credit: The History Channel
How to structure your company
"We're the smallest company, and that's by design," Grady said. "I really don't like being a boss to a lot of people, and I hate computers." The audience laughed.
"It's Heidi and I—we have an Associate Producer, a full-time assistant, and we're thinking we might have to splurge on a full-time Assistant Editor, but besides that, we just grow and contract with projects." By remaining small and self-sufficient, and not taking on too many projects, they have avoided being crippled by overhead.
Warrior Poets, on the other hand, is far from a boutique. "We have about 60 people at the moment," Chilnick said. "The way we built Warrior Poets up was really focused a lot on the back office infrastructure. We have a really incredible VP of Production, a really strong Finance and Production Management. And that's who we had first before we added any additional creative bodies." That way, easier to work overtime creatively, he said. "But the infrastructure of making sure cost reporting is accurate, the nuts and bolts that are the infinitely less sexy—but are ultimately more important—are part of what you need to grow a company."
What to do after finding first-feature success
"This is the thing," said Grady. "At the point when you're almost finished with your film—let's say you get into a good festival or you're getting some good buzz—this is exactly the time you don't want to think or do anything else, however, that is the best time for you to start pitching your idea."
This advice doesn't just come from instinct—they lived it. "We'd shown The Boys of Baraka, our first film, at the SXSW in 2005," Ewing explained. "It was our first movie—no sales agent, no nothing. We're just totally green. We're in the airport and a woman named Molly Thompson approaches us: 'I loved your movie, what else have you got?'"
"Well, guess what," Grady continued. "We had an idea. Six months later we were in production on Jesus Camp, our second film, which made our career. We had it ready, we had something else going. She asked, we told her, she was interested. They paid for the development and the next thing you know we were making that movie. Honestly, the one time we didn't have a movie ready—after Jesus Camp— we both regret that period of time. HBO came to us, and we weren't ready, and that never happened again."