At a masterclass at the RiverRun film festival, Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler talk about the challenges and opportunities of indie filmmaking today, and how financing something like Happiness might be impossible in 2013.
Killer Films co-founder Christine Vachon said that indepedent producers should have an open mind about new platforms in today’s world where theatrical releasing is becoming tougher and tougher. “Just because it’s getting harder to make theatrical films doesn’t mean you can’t tell a great story. We’re becoming platform agnostic,” she said, speaking at the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, today. “Our films aren’t set in stone. We just want to continue making original, provocative material.”
Vachon continued: “I believe now more than ever thiere is a form of entrepreneruship that filmmakers have to be aware of. It’s understanding all the different ways your stories can reach people.”
For instance Killer has been working more in TV (Mildred Pierce) and for web-hosted content like Mo Ogrodnik’s Tribeca selection Deep Powder, a love story about teenagers caught in a drug ring, which has a feature version but will also be packaged as webisodes.
Of the latter project, Killer co-founder Pamela Koffler noted that it was planned as a larger-budget theatrical film project before becoming lower-budgeted project backed by Vuguru targeted for a multi-platform launch.
Vachon says that Killer started by appealing to films outside of the mainstream. “That was how we were able to build our business, to make movies for underserved audiences,” she said. Koffler added that audiences wanted “a smart, entertaining hour and a half that’s not full of explosions.” Killer has about 70 films under its belt since being founded in 1995.
Vachon said: “We’ve been around for 25 years. Pam says we’re like coachroaches, we survive each nuclear blast. The way we’ve stayed alive is we’ve tried to stay as flexible as possible. We’ve mever gotten very big.”
Vachon added that some things about the way they approach projects hasn’t changed: “For an independent film to succeed right now it has to be original.”
Both spoke of the changing nature of independent cinema in the US as the economic models of film shift in the digital age, and VOD revenue hasn’t yet replaced the previously huge DVD revenues. Koffler said: “That middle range movie not made on a shoestring is really hard. We keep deciding to make them, but becaues the budgets are being pushed down, the palettes of those storeis are smaller.” She pointed to a film like Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich having heft and scale: “It’s really hard to get that now, so we just make them for less.”
Some old-media hangups about web or VOD content need to be modernised, Vachon and Koffler agreed. Vachon said it was “ridiculous” that The New York Times wouldn’t review a film that wasn’t given an initial theatrical launch. Koffler added: “There have been titles that have gone straight to VOD that have done really, really well.”
Koffler said of how they select projects: “First and foremost is the director and how interesting and singular his or her voice is…and is the story really about something, are there layers of meaning about the human experience?
Talking about one of Killer’s biggest successes, Boys Don’t Cry, Koffler said that it was as hard to make as any other film —“everything was a challenge,” she said. “But it was this one that connected to the mainstream.”
Vachon remembered how the producers and director Kimberly Peirce had to fight for the then-unknown Hilary Swank to take the lead role, while the financiers were pushing for a bigger name. Swank, of course, went on to win the Oscar.
Of another Killer highlight, Todd Solondz’s Happiness, Vachon noted: “15 years ago, that was such a different time. There has been a significant cultural shift in that time.” When asked if Happiness could be made in the same way now, she said “No. We’re not in that time anymore.” She added that for Todd Soldondz to make a film like that on his terms today, maybe it would be for web distribution.
Of the US distribution landscape she said, “There are still a lot of buyers, but many of them are working on a smaller scale. It’s rarer to go to Sundance and have a real bidding war. Movies sell after a week, not a day.”
The festival welcomed the pair as this year’s Master of Cinema honorees. The New York-based producers gave a masterclass on Sunday afternoon ahead of the closing-night screening of their production At Any Price, which is directed by acclaimed Winston-Salem native Ramin Bahrani.
The festival’s executive director Andrew Rodgers praised Killer for having “such a remarkable impact on film culture and film festivals.”