January 29, 2020
Sundance 2020

Sundance Producers to Screenwriters: ‘We Don’t Care If You’re a Nobody’

Two of the best indie film producers explain the most important stuff they do for writer-directors.

Adele Romanski and Dede Gardner know a thing or two about getting films made. With Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, Gardner produced Tree of Life, 12 Years a Slave, and Selma, and together with Romanski’s Pastel the two produced Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. At this year's Sundance, they produced Sometimes Rarely Never Always, Minari, and Kajillionaire.

You’d probably have to be some meteorically rising indie darling or somebody’s uncle’s nephew to get them to read your script, right? Well, according to what Romanski and Gardner said in the Atlantic presented conversation at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, that’s not the case at all.

What does it mean to be a producer, how do producers help directors, and how do they decide which projects are special? Here’s a few takeaways on the most important things a producer can do.

At this year's Sundance, Adele Romanski and Dede Gardner produced 'Sometimes Rarely Never Always', 'Minari', and 'Kajillionaire'.

What a producer needs to sell your script

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a DP or AC or documentarian,” explained Romanski about whether she could sell a script by a screenwriter who has never done anything before. “We can only sell what we believe in,” said Romanski. “I feel like we can only sell things when we believe in [them]. When we believe in a project and a person, it doesn’t really matter.”

“You know when someone has a vision,” added Gardner. “It may be a little harder to finance.”

“But there is power in passion,” concluded Romanski.

How to train to be a producer

“What training?” asked Romanski. “I got a BA in film…but there was no special training."

Gardner added that producing, “Is not what’s in school.”

“Producing is finding someone you love, and getting him/her enough money so they can write. That's how we got Moonlight,” added Romanski.

Dede Gardner stands next to director Steve McQueen after '12 Years a Slave' (2013) wins a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture

How producers know when a project is worth taking on

“It has to do with the writer-director. There’s an electricity, something about that filmmaker exploring potential,” explained Romanski.

“It’s a gut feeling, an essence,” added Gardner. “Tree of Life gut-punched us. Brad [Pitt] and I were new parents…it’s a gut feeling, it’s not A to B to C to D.”

How to know if you should collaborate with another producer.

First, you have to have fun together.

“You need to enjoy the people you are working with,” said Gardner.

And, in addition to being fun, you should find someone whose strengths are your weaknesses and vice versa.

For Gardner and Romanski, it was an intersection of professional lives. “We were singularly complimentary in terms of experience and blind spots,” they explained.

“Together, we became a Transformer power producer thing…that was our origin story,” concluded Romanski.

Adele Romanski with Jeremy Kleiner and Barry Jenkins after 'Moonlight' (2016) won the Oscar for Best Picture

The most important thing a producer can do for a filmmaker

Both producers have relationships with studio partners. They also have strong relationships with their filmmakers. So how do they navigate the relationship between both?

“Protect, protect, protect, protect, protect,” said Gardner. “That’s the gig. Every situation is a different landscape of personalities. You try to know what will be hard at what point, and try to buffer.” They explained how, knowing certain directors who have specific needs, they are upfront with a studio about what they will need.

“That’s how you are ultimately most protective,” concluded Romanski. “Anticipating and not trying to hide the ball.”


For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

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No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by SmallHD: real-time confidence for creatives and by RØDE Microphones – The Choice of Today’s Creative Generation     

Evan Rachel Wood, Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger appear in Kajillionaire by Miranda July, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Matt Kennedy.

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