Beer at Sundance

The subject of producers’ reps—who they are and what they do—is one that a lot of us find confusing. And yet, most films that secure distribution during festivals, especially in recent years, have done so through the help of a producers’ rep.

I decided it would be both useful and important as a filmmaker to learn exactly what it is that a producer’s rep does. The following is an account of the day I spent at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival with Steven Beer—who has served as legal counsel or a producers’ rep for films ranging from lesser-known independents like Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist to the Academy Award-nominated Tumble-weeds. Until recently, Beer was a co-founding partner in his own firm, Rudolph & Beer. In 2003, Beer dissolved his firm and teamed with Greenberg Traurig, one of the country’s largest law firms with multiple offices across the US and Europe. He is president of the Executive Board and a member of the National Board of the Independent Feature Project (IFP).

Mid December, 2003

New York City

Following the announcement of Sundance’s 2004 line-up, I arranged a pre-interview with Steven Beer at Greenberg Traurig’s midtown offices in order to get a feel for what his plans are for the festival. He has brought in a team that includes former IFP/New York programmer Mindy Bond to help contact filmmakers and to select a roster of films for representation. During that preliminary meeting, I asked him about the purpose and necessity of a producers’ rep going into a festival like Sundance.

“It’s a complicated and specialized market,” Beer explained. “And if you haven’t done it before it would be like driving cross country without a roadmap.”

He continued, “I think that there needs to be people to brainstorm with and deliberate and that’s why having a rep—who could be an agent, could be a lawyer—is important. Someone who’s done this before many times over and who’s going to appreciate how events may or may not unfold.”

When I asked him about the number of films he would be representing, he said that compared to fellow producers’ reps and attorneys, the number of films he planned to take on was small. “No more than a handful. That’s different than some of my colleagues who believe a mass-market approach is appropriate. On a personal level, I don’t think more than a handful would be something that’s respectful to the filmmakers and would let me accomplish all my goals, which is to give every project the maximum attention.”

January 16, 2004

Park City, Utah

It’s 8:30 a.m. on the first day of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and Main Street is uncharacteristically quiet. I buy a cup of coffee and make my way to the top of the street to Beer’s condo, where Beer’s assistant while at Sundance, Eric, greets me at the door. Eric motions me in as he continues to talk on his cell phone about various Fed Ex packages that have or have not arrived, before then disappearing into the kitchen. I stand in the front room of the condo, which is relatively modest, if perhaps more polished than the average Park City rental.

After a while, Beer makes his entrance, wasting little time in telling me that I’m ten minutes early.

The day starts with a meeting between Beer and his team, which consists of Eric, an assistant attorney, two interns, Arthur Chang, COO of Greenberg Traurig Advisory, and another Greenberg attorney, Mary Miles. As it turns out, the films that Beer is repping (Imelda, Let the Church Say Amen, Farmingville, and Persons of Interest) will not be screening until a few days into the festival, so Beer instructs his team on what needs to be done for the day ahead, which includes the need to “make contact” with acquisitions executives from various distribution companies.

At 10 a.m., we all head down to “Schmooze Fest”—a free coffee and bagels affair given daily by the New York State Governor’s Office for Motion Picture and Television, and co-sponsored by Greenberg Traurig.

Later Beer meets with filmmakers. With Farmingville’s Catherine Tabini and Carlos Sandoval, the discussion turns to early interest from buyers after an appearance the filmmakers made the night before on CNN’s Lou Dobbs Show. Beer suggests that they hold off on talking to buyers until after their first official screening on Sunday. Next, Beer meets with the filmmakers of Let the Church Say Amen, who are concerned about their screening. Their issues seem to have little to do with selling, which is ostensibly what Beer is there to help with. But Beer handles their concerns with a calm demeanor and offers what is clearly a necessary reality check on a situation.

In between clients, I asked Beer about this interaction and whether he sees mediation as part of his job. “Well, that’s not what I signed up for. But that’s a big part of this business to be accommodating and flexible in relationships [that are made here],” he says. “It’s part of the fun. Everyday is an adventure at Sundance.”

Around 3 p.m., Beer meets with Imelda director Ramona Diaz about the reality of her doc being picked up for theatrical distribution. Beer gives her an honest appraisal of the situation: For most docs, wide theatrical distribution is not a reality, but that a very healthy life exists for docs in public TV and the educational market. As he goes into detail, I realize that what strikes me the most about Beer is his consistent ability to put his clients at ease.

After a long day, we regroup at the condo for the first of three cocktail parties Greenberg will host throughout the duration of Sundance. I lose sight of Beer shortly after the condo begins to reach its maximum capacity, although I do notice different filmmakers that I’ve met throughout the day. Business cards fly. Matt Dillon makes an appearance.

January 25, 2004

Brooklyn, NY

Back at home I learn Farmingville has won the Documentary Jury’s Special Jury award and that the doc cinematography award went to Imelda.

I think back to my original goal of learning the exact role of a producers’ rep, and I realize the role and subject still remain elusive. Obviously, it involves the sale of a film. But maybe it’s not important to know the exact role of a producers’ rep; maybe this is an integral aspect of the indie film world’s natural order—filmmakers know filmmaking and reps know about repping.

None of the films Beer represented at Sundance sold during the festival, but Beer, in what I now recognize as a calling card of steadfast composure, did not seem worried. “I’m realistic about the process. [Sundance] is a presentation opportunity but a lot of the business happens after.”

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