Above: Diane Quon [right] and Emma D. Miller at Sundance Institute’s 2023 Producers Lab
By Stephanie Ornelas
It takes a village to make a movie — and a strong, valued producer to hold it all together.
That was one thing first-time advisor Diane Quon discussed with fellows last week at Sundance Institute’s annual Producers Lab.
“I learned that I had to be more proactive and remind the directors [I was working with] whenever possible to recognize their entire team,” explains Quon over Zoom. “How do we make sure that producers are valued? And a lot of times it’s up to us to not be afraid to speak up and to advocate for ourselves.”
As a Producers Lab alum herself, Quon recalls feeling “nervous as heck” attending the 2019 lab. Minding the Gap, her first project as a producer, had premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival (and nabbed the Documentary Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking), and she was on to the next: Finding Yingying. The hands-on Producers Lab gave her the tools she needed to bring the true-crime documentary to life.
“It really was life–changing being a fellow,” says Quon, who went on to produce the award-winning documentary Finding Yingying and a number of others, including Wuhan Wuhan, Bad Axe, and Unseen. “To come back as an advisor was really special. It was all around a great time but it was intense.”
Looking back at when she was a fellow, Quon remembers how much of an impact her advisors made on her career. “I knew how much the advisors cared based on my experience, and they continue to help me. I’m still good friends with [them], and I count them as mentors still.”
So when Quon returned to the Sundance Mountain Resort last week to lead the documentary portion of the Producers Lab — alongside advisors and producers Sabaah Folayan, Cristina Ibarra, Andrea Meditch, and Bob Moore — she saw this as a good opportunity to pay it forward.
“Having been a fellow in 2019, now it’s 2023, and I’ve been lucky. I produced many films in between that time period, and I learned a lot. I want to give back to Sundance and all they’ve done to support me.”
As a fellow, Quon didn’t just leave the Producers Lab with a week’s worth of insight, she left with new relationships that she would hold on to for the rest of her career. In fact, Meditch and Moore were Quon’s advisors during the 2019 lab, and Quon and Moore are now working on a project together. It’s safe to say she was thrilled to join them on the mentor side.
“That’s what is so special. I reminded the fellows, it’s not only your cohort that you’re bonding with, but it’s also with the advisors. [The labs are] just fellow producers all trying to support each other.”
Ten emerging producers — of both fiction and nonfiction projects — and ten creative advisors gathered for five days of nurturing and mentorship where they discussed and worked through unique challenges they’re experiencing with their current projects.
“As an advisor looking at the fellows, I’m just so impressed with the work that Kristin [Feeley] and the team did to find the right folks — different projects but all very special in their different ways,” says Quon. “And the fellows, each kind of in different places with their projects. It was a great combination, so I really appreciate the work they went into to find the right cohort to be together.”
Quon may have been brought on as an advisor for the documentary portion of the lab, but one thing she loved about the experience was that doc producers had the opportunity to share their projects with the fiction fellows and advisors.
“We did some combo sessions, and I thought that was so helpful. I love getting a peek into that world,” says Quon. “The first panel that Michelle [Satter] moderated had two of us from the doc side and two on the fiction side. I think we can learn from each other and apply it to what we’re dealing with in terms of distribution. Because these are all independent films.”
This close-knit artistic village thrives from having a wide array of voices heard. Fellows worked on delivering their pitches to each other, one of many responsibilities a producer takes on in addition to keeping all the relationships going on a film. “You’re the person speaking to the crew, the post-production team, to all the funders and investors, and ultimately the buyers,” Quon explains. “I always say the producer is the spoke in the wheel trying to keep it all going.”
And she was thoroughly impressed with the way each fellow took her advice and applied it to their revised pitch in such a short turnaround. After all, advisors and fellows were busy meeting every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“I don’t know when they had time to revise their pitches,” laughs Quon. “I was amazed to see how they incorporated a lot of the feedback we had given them into a new pitch so quickly and how impactful it was. [They] improved so much by making those slight changes. I could see that the fellows really took it to heart.”
Throughout the lab, Quon also spent time talking to fellows about pressing issues producers are often faced with and how indie-film creators are up against a particularly challenging time in the industry.
“I feel like I’ve gone through a lot of what they’re going through because I was just starting out back in 2016. I was in their space not too long ago,” says Quon. “I really thought hopefully they could benefit from what I’ve learned, especially because everyone talks about how hard it is right now in the industry.”
“I like to tell [fellows] that once you get a few [projects] under your belt, there’s a way to balance where you, hopefully, are making money on one film so that it continues to help you while you may have to defer from another film,” Quon elaborates. “It’s just hard on your first film because you’re waiting for [it] to finish. I remind [the fellows] that it’s possible even though we hear all these horror stories.”
“But we also have to be realistic,” she continues. “It can’t be like every sale is going to be this huge giant sale. Also, before even taking a film, really carefully think about what’s the best strategy to get it out. Is it something that you want to take on? [Every project] is not meant for every producer.”
Just as important, Quon is pushing fellows to tell the best story they possibly can.
“I just love telling stories and hopefully stories that make a difference. Films will continue even long after I’m gone and hopefully will still be able to make an impact. Life is short, and if you’re able to do something that makes a difference, grab that chance.”
Quon views her time at the labs as that first impactful grab for storytelling. “I was able to keep making films and do more work, and a lot of that is because of the support from Sundance. I was able to meet so many industry folks that I would not have been able to meet. I really will always appreciate how much they care for us.”