As the spiritual closing of Sundance Institute’s Creative Producing Summit, Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper wrapped up the weekend with the “One Word Challenge.”
Cooper’s challenge to his three keynote guests was simple: “It is 2011, and the most important thing a producer needs to survive is …” Panelists were given this one-word task by email before arriving in Utah and told to bring their best thinking to the audience of creative fellows and advisors. The experiment is both simple and profound, and audience members were invited to play along with cards of their own.
Playing a sort of P.T. Barnum for the evening, Cooper kicked off the presentation by reading some audience cards to himself and remarking, “We’ve got some wiseasses in here.” Laughing, he introduced the evening’s first speaker, Ricky Strauss, head of content for Participant Pictures. Keep reading to discover what these veteran producers had to say on the subject.
“I chose this word very carefully, and I chose it because every mistake is an opportunity for learning,” Strauss told the audience. Citing a quote by James Joyce, he added, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”
He then treated the audience to a notable anecdote from his early years in the industry: “Years ago, I accidentally sent a negative email to a studio executive thinking I was sending it to my producing partner. It outlined my thoughts that she just didn’t get our film and maybe we’d be better going elsewhere with it.
“The studio exec was on my mind obviously because I mistakenly sent it to her. Her simple reply was ‘I don’t think you meant this for me.’” Strauss stressed that the horror of his mistake was only balanced by the learning he took from it. “I never ever did that again.”
Strauss went on to describe some other common mistakes that defined his growth as a producer: “It’s a mistake not to value partnerships in the independent film community. It’s always true that one plus one equals three, and partners are our chance to learn more expertise. It’s a huge mistake not to ask questions. What’s the worst that can happen?”
Cooper’s second handpicked producer was Liesl Copeland from William Morris Endeavor’s global department. “I really wanted to help this community, and when Cooper sent me his email invitation, this word immediately came to mind even though it may at first seem cheesy,” said Copeland, who chose the word “belief.”
“This word is really distinct for me, it’s distinct from ‘hope’ or ‘faith,” she explained. “Once you have the conviction of belief, it can be very, very persuasive. And that’s a great quality for an independent producer,” said Copeland. “When a potential financier looks you in the eye and sees your belief, it can be a powerful tool.”
“Search your soul on your projects. When you are on your set, you believe you will bring the film in on time and on budget,” she passionately explained.
Finally, the panelist who had come the farthest to be at the summit, London resident John Battsek of Passion Pictures, took the stage. “You may think at first that this is tongue in cheek, but I assure you it’s not,” Battsek said as the word “baggage” appeared on the screen behind him. “I believe a great producer must recognize and embrace their own emotional baggage.”
“My working theory is that successful producers have to prove themselves, or compensate for, their own personal emotional baggage,” he said. “In my case, I had such low esteem and deep insecurities that I then also had this deep need for recognition to combat that. Friends screwed me, the films I was working on were bad, I felt all my experiences were frauds, and that only reinforced my insecurities.”
Battsek then told a personal story about his history of producing what he called “bad feature films, I mean really bad.” Feeling down and somewhat ashamed of his own vocation, Battsek was wandering the streets of London one day when he was drawn to a certain art house cinema and suddenly found himself watching Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings.
The screening led him to change his life and transition to producing documentaries. He recalled, “I remember vividly the moment of epiphany watching the film and thinking, ‘This is what I really want to do.’ I wanted to make things made of truth, the magical ingredient that had been missing from my fictional projects. They felt like frauds, but this truth had real value. Even if it was only symbolic of changing the format of film I was working in.”
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2011; it has since been updated.
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