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Indie Film Producers Gather During Sundance to Talk Lobby Negotiations, Breadth of Janitor-Like Skills: “What Don’t We Do?”

“Everything.”

That’s how veteran producer and PGA president Stephanie Allain kicked off a special panel about the ins and outs of the Sundance Film Festival and all things producing, presented by Hyundai. Taking place on Jan. 19 inside The Hollywood Reporter’s studio (sponsored by Heineken, Hyundai, Bogner and SIXT), Allain was explaining how best to describe a producer’s job and the all-encompassing duties they shoulder.

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“What don’t we do? The producer is the uber champion of the film, and what that means is when I have a project, no one gets in that circle unless they love the movie, they understand the movie, they can contribute 150 percent to the movie,” said the Hollywood veteran, who returned to Sundance for the world premiere of Titus Kaphar’s Exhibiting Forgiveness, starring Andre Holland and Andra Day. “We work on the script, we work on casting. We go by the costume department, we work on the budget, we work on the locations. Everything that happens on a movie, a producer touches.”

The nearly hourlong panel discussion touched on many of the aforementioned subjects thanks to contributions from a roster of experienced panelists. Those included Allain alongside producer Datari Turner (Luther: Never Too Much), actor Fred Hechinger and producer Zoë Worth (Thelma), producer and Imagine Documentaries president Sara Bernstein (Frida), producer Shivani Rawat (Love Me, Winner), and producer Stacey Reiss (The Perfection), the latter of whom joined RadicalMedia as an executive producer in late 2022.

Worth, who collaborated with longtime friend Josh Margolin on his feature directorial debut, was still processing the overwhelming experience of presenting their world premiere the night before the panel. “Josh, the writer director, escorted June Squibb, the lead titular character, Thelma, down the aisle and it was to a standing ovation, full tears,” Worth detailed. “It was just a really magical moment and electric Q&A and a with a lot of great questions.”

Speaking of questions, Hechinger was asked if he can see himself doing more producing as he moves through his career. After breaking out in The White Lotus, Hechinger has segued to blockbuster fare and next appears in Gladiator 2 and Kraven the Hunter. “At the end of the day, I think we’re all probably just movie nerds. The feeling of being in a dark room and seeing something that’s alive and shocking and makes you feel in that way, that’s what you’re chasing,” said the actor, who also has some credits under his belt after producing Hell of a Summer.

Reiss, whose Sundance experience includes Spaceship Earth (acquired by Neon) and The Eagle Huntress, said, “Some of the actors I’ve worked with are the best producers.” As an example, she cited an actor she worked with who went on to have a short film in the lineup last year. “None of us should be in any [box that says], ‘We’re a producer, we’re an actor, we’re a director.’ We’re all creators, and I think it’s a very fluid process.”

Bernstein has navigated multiple roles at Sundance, a festival she has attended north of 20 times. Citing one of her early Park City memories, Bernstein said, “One of the first films that I was part of at HBO was a film called Born Rich, which I don’t know if anyone remembers this, Ivanka Trump was in it. That’s all I’m going to say,” said the executive. “There were lines around the block to get into the screening at Sundance. HBO was probably one of the only places that could buy that film, but nonetheless, it was still like a lighting acquisition because you could feel that the film was going to blow up and be something big.”

Turner, who has taken 11 movies to Sundance, including this year’s Luther doc, singled out four attributes that combine to make a good producer. “You’ve got to be an entrepreneur because you got to go out and raise money,” said Turner, who is producing partners with Jamie Foxx. “You’ve got to be a janitor. It’s a blue-collar job. You’re cleaning up — excuse my French — shit all day long. You got to be a therapist especially working with first-time filmmakers.” And lastly: “You’ve got to be a coach as well. … If you have those things in your mind, you can tackle every problem.”

Rawat is another producer with experience working with first-time auteurs. “When I started my company ShivHans Pictures, I promised myself I will work with first-time directors,” explained the insider, who also executive produced the Sundance title Hit Man for filmmaker Richard Linklater. She said when she works with directors who are passionate about their vision, “It makes my life as a producer easier because I’m believing in the project.”

See the full conversation, presented by Hyundai, above.

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