The Girl Team

While there are alarmingly few women helming movies these days, there are more and more behind the scenes. The role of producer is one that seems increasingly open to the industry’s women and here, The Independent profiles female production teams who are changing the industry, one little movie at a time.

Big Mouth Productions
Katy Chevigny and Dallas Brennan

Katy Chevigny and Dallas Brennan sit at desks only six feet apart in their loft-like office space at Big Mouth Productions on 14th Street in New York City. They are separated by a large bookcase laden with the usual small-office paraphernalia: haphazard piles of books and tapes, folders, and binders labeled by hand. They have little privacy and though, as partners, they run Big Mouth, their corner of office real estate is not particularly awe-inspiring. Chevigny, thirty-five, and Brennan, thirty-one, could be any harried young women at the helm of a fledgling business.

But it is this very arrangement—the office, the desks, the trappings of entrepreneurship—that makes Big Mouth such an unusual engine for documentary production. “A lot of people make documentaries out of their living rooms,” says Brennan. “It’s more feasible financially, but the burnout factor is much higher. They make one or two films and then they can’t face it again.”

Chevigny and Brennan work hard to carry the overhead of an office and staff because they want to be more than just independent producers who work project to project. “We wanted a certain continuity of staff across time and films,” says Chevigny, who founded Big Mouth with her friend and college classmate Julia Pimsleur in 1997. She had begun her career as a social worker, and then moved on to film production in Chicago. At Big Mouth, she and Pimsleur produced a series of social issue documentaries together. When Pimsleur left two years ago, Brennan became a senior producer. Big Mouth’s sixth film, Deadline, premiered earlier this year at Sundance.

Big Mouth’s longevity is a sure sign of success, but Chevigny and Brennan still struggle to find funding for their films. “It doesn’t necessarily get easier,” says Brennan. “You don’t have too many laurels to rest on. Of course, we also don’t have to ask ourselves ‘did we sell out?’” Adds Chevigny, “The moral high ground is definitely ours.”

They do see signs that the market for documentaries—especially serious-minded ones—may be changing. 2003 was a big year for documentaries, and distributors are much more interested in the medium. When Chevigny and Brennan sent out the press release for Deadline’s Sundance premiere, they were flooded with phone calls from agents and publicists. That had never happened before. “They must think they will be able to make money on documentaries,” says Chevigny.

Despite their still-chronic lack of funds—for now a fact of life for all documentary producers—the Big Mouth strategy must be working. Chevigny and Brennan don’t appear burnt out. They’ll still fill in as boom operators or craft services on a shoot, and they’ll spend weeks traveling with their film. They often find themselves doubling up in inexpensive hotel rooms on the road. That, says Chevigny, may be the biggest difference between Big Mouth’s partners and their male counterparts: “Controlling for all other factors, guys in our level in the business are not as willing to share a bed.”

Roland Park Pictures
Xan Parker and Elizabeth Holder

A few months ago, Xan Parker sent her mother a rough cut of the documentary she had made with producing partner and co-director Elizabeth Holder. Mama Parker called back, surprised by what she had seen. “She said ‘Wow! This is like a real movie. I thought it was going to be like Xan and Elizabeth do a play on the landing of the stairs,’” remembers her daughter, laughing.

Parker forgave her mother for underestimating how her first film might turn out. After all, she and Holder, both thirty-four, had met in the first grade, twenty-eight years earlier. They really did get their start performing plays on the staircase landing. The women lost touch after the fifth grade, but ran into each other again in New York after college. They were both working in film and they became close again. Parker spent eight years working with legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles as an associate producer, eventually heading up distribution and development for their classic documentaries. Holder began her career as a PA on the set of John Waters’ film Hairspray, when she was a teenager. She has directed plays, two shorts, a feature, and the children’s television show Blues Clues. In 1999, the two founded Roland Park Pictures, named for the Baltimore neighborhood where they had both grown up.

Roland Park’s first project was a documentary called Risk/Reward, which will premiere on the Oxygen television network on March 14. Their film profiles four young women who work on Wall Street, and chronicles their struggles for success and balance in the ultra-competitive, male-dominated world of finance. Both Parker and Holder see an obvious parallel in the path they have chosen. There are few female filmmakers and most of the money is controlled by men or male-dominated institutions. The women in Risk/Reward had to look to alternative sources and encouragement—just what many female directors and producers presumably do as well.

“Women’s networking is actually something that interests us a lot,” says Parker. “On Wall Street, women did not have an informal, old boy’s network in place and so what a lot have done is to create and build formal women’s networks.”

Despite their interest in feminist issues, neither Parker nor Holder wants Roland Park to produce only “women’s films.” Like every woman interviewed for this article, they wanted to be seen as filmmakers first, women second.

To that end, they have three very different documentaries in the hopper after Risk/Reward is wrapped, as well as a documentary they will produce for another director, a fiction feature, and a television pilot. Though Parker has never worked in features or television, she is confident Holder’s experience will get her through—just as her documentary experience got Risk/Reward off the ground.

Her Roland Park partner feels the same way: “I don’t want to do a movie without Xan. I just don’t, no matter what it is,” says Holder.

Diana Williams, Exit 5 Entertainment

Exit 5 Entertainment

Diana Williams and Melissa Bradley

Neither Diana Williams nor Melissa Bradley, partners and co-founders of Exit 5 Entertainment, say they’ve experienced a lot of overt sexism. Nor have they noticed much obvious racism, although they are both African American and one of the few female producing teams of color in either independent or studio filmmaking.

Of course, both forms of discrimination pop up in more subtle ways.

“The one thing that is very prevalent is the expectation that you’re going to do soft little girlie films,” says Williams. “And there are some women who only want to do Nora Ephron movies. But that is just not my thing. Also, being black, people assume all I would want to do are ‘in the hood’ films. But I grew up in the suburbs near a farming community in New Jersey.” Williams would rather develop comic book and horror projects. She isn’t oblivious to these stereotypes, but she isn’t particularly concerned that they’ll get in her way either. “Jerry Bruckheimer did Veronica Guerin,” she points out. “And he’s not a chick, he’s not a journalist, and he’s not Irish.”

Williams honed her just-make-good-movies approach in LA working as an assistant director on studio features. She learned how to interpret what a director had described into shots they could get. “That kind of translation is also a big part of producing,” she says.

In 1994, Williams produced her first film, a documentary. Soon after, she produced a short feature which she took on the festival circuit and quickly met directors who sent her scripts. “I kept thinking I’d go back to assistant directing or development for a studio, but after my sixth film, I thought ‘Huh, maybe I’m a producer.’”

After almost a decade of working film to film, Williams began to discuss the idea of launching a full-fledged production company with her college friend Melissa Bradley. She and Bradley had both studied finance at Georgetown and Bradley had continued to work as a consultant. “My goal is to focus on the deal,” says Bradley. “It helps keep the creative separate, and helps me function in a world that’s very business-oriented, but doesn’t always feel like that.”

Their partnership is now more than a year old and it has only increased the slate of films that Williams is able to devote her energies to. There are between ten and fifteen E5E projects in the pipeline. “It sounds like a cliché, but we want unique voices and unique talent,” says Williams. “But if a film is too personal, it’s just going to be for you and your ten friends. I want to make films that communicate to many people.”

Greenhouse Pictures’ Nancy Roth and Selina Lewis Davidson

GreenHouse Pictures

Selina Lewis Davidson and Nancy Roth

Many production companies take the eclectic approach. Their slate includes a couple of features, a documentary or two, a smattering of shorts, and maybe a television pitch. Often, these producers are even making corporate videos on the side to pay the bills. But not the newly formed GreenHouse Pictures. Partners Selena Lewis Davidson and Nancy Roth wanted to spend their time exclusively on documentaries.

Between them, Davidson and Roth, both thirty-seven, have almost twenty-five years of filmmaking experience. Davidson got her start in TV production in LA, then attended NYU film school, and then went on to edit and produce. Roth spent ten years in narrative features and began making documentaries in 1999, after attending the Hunter College film program. They first worked together at Mixed Greens, a production company that works in a variety of genres. Their new venture is now the documentary arm of that company.

Though GreenHouse is only a few months old, Davidson and Roth already have a full docket. The 2002 film Escuela is about Mexican American migrant farm workers; another timely documentary, Dreamland, is about post-war occupation in Iraq. “There are so many stories that aren’t covered and that’s why we make documentary films,” says Davidson. “We’re interested in stories that are new, that aren’t being told and need to be told.”

Unlike many documentary producers, neither Davidson nor Roth is a director. They didn’t get into the business of producing to fund their own ventures. Both are dedicated to finding good filmmakers and enabling them to make their movies. “We want to use our efforts on stories that we think need to be told, and rather than spend five years on a project that the two of us will direct, as producers at GreenHouse we hope we can make several movies in five years,” says Roth. “Our goal is to try and create a safe place for creativity to happen,” adds Davidson.

It is perhaps this sensibility that is their most feminine. Though both Davidson and Roth say they became partners because of matched sensibilities and similar temperaments, they concede that their supportive style might set them apart from a co-ed or all male enterprise. “We’re very nurturing producers,” says Roth. “We joke sometimes that we’ve fallen to the role of Moms a bit too much,” adds Davidson.

Ironically, as a female duo, they don’t have to worry about traditional gender relationships corrupting their partnership. Both have worked extensively with men—and still do, forming outside production agreements frequently. But with each other, the partnership seems naturally equal.

Fly Films

Kathleen McInnis and Amy Lillard

Kathleen McInnis sometimes wonders why she has stayed in Seattle. Why not just get it over with and move down to LA? After all, as a film producer, that would be the natural place to set up shop. Then she takes one of her monthly trips down the coast to California for a meeting and she remembers. LA feels like a bigger fishbowl with more people judging your every effort.

McInnis and her partner, Amy Lillard, produce films in Seattle and have no plans to relocate to the movie meccas of LA or New York. Though they make sacrifices to be in a smaller market, they like the collegial, supportive atmosphere of the Seattle film community. And they get to focus on new talent, making small low-budget films without the excessive pressure to ramp up commercially that they might experience in LA. “Seattle is a great place to start your career as a filmmaker. People take risks and stretch themselves,” says McInnis. “And I get to work with all these people who are technically proficient but willing to jump off the edge. [In Seattle] we have that frontier feeling of all the things we can try.”

McInnis also believes that Seattle is a better place to be a woman producer. In LA, she frequently feels like the only strong female voice in the room, but in Seattle, she says, “it’s much more 50/50. I end up being in social circles with a lot of female filmmakers, so I end up making relationships that lead to more projects.”

McInnis, forty-five, began her career as a stage actor. She quickly moved on to writing for film magazines and hosted a radio show about movies. She worked in programming and publicity for film festivals and traveled around the world following the festival circuit.

In 1995, McInnis began Fly Films. She liked being her own boss, but the pressures of being the only person keeping an enterprise afloat were considerable. “I could never just enjoy the job that I had because I knew that right after that I had to have another one.”

Two years ago, she met Lillard, thirty-one, while working as a programmer at the Seattle Film Festival. They clicked and McInnis suggested Lillard become her producing partner. As she had hoped, the partnership let her get twice as much done, but it also added an element to producing which McInnis had not anticipated. “We got this rhythm going [as partners]; her input just increased my ability to think creativity, to perceive creatively,” says McInnis. “We had the ability to go back and forth with new paradigms and we had new opportunities.”

Today, Fly Films, the series they annually produce for the Seattle Film Festival, has several projects on its slate, including two features that they are casting now. Both McInnis and Lillard are still heavily involved in their hometown’s film festival and they produce the Fly Filmmaking Challenge for that event. Every year, ten young filmmakers produce a short film, which becomes a permanent part of the series.

Salty Features

Eva Kolodner and Yael Melamede

To many directors and producers, independent filmmaking is all about being the scrappy outsider. Unlike the studio system, there aren’t many institutions with established track records where a young producer can break into the business. You just kind of attach yourself to a promising movie project and hope it goes somewhere. Eva Kolodner, however, is the rare exception to that rule. She cut her teeth as Christine Vachon’s assistant at Killer Films, where she spent five years. She worked her way through the producing hierarchy, putting in time on such indie all-stars as Kids, I Shot Andy Warhol, and Safe. In 1999, she developed Boys Don’t Cry with Kimberly Pierce.

At that point, Kolodner decided she had learned enough from Vachon and was ready to move on to Madstone Films, where she could have her own stable of directors. It was there that she hired Yael Melamede as a production supervisor. Melamede had trained as an architect at Yale, where both women also got their undergraduate degrees, though they did not know each other at the time. Melamede moved into the film industry in 1996, working extensively in post-production.

At Madstone, Kolodner and Melamede, who are both in their early thirties, became close friends and creative allies. “We got together every Friday for breakfast for six months and talked about starting our own entity,” says Kolodner. “We just got more and more excited.”

They launched their partnership, Salty Features, in January 2003, and they premiered their first Salty film at Sundance this year, a movie called Evergreen.

Though both women relish their newfound creative independence, neither regrets their time at bigger, more established production outfits. And while neither Kolodner nor Melamede feel that gender plays a significant role in either their artistic or business choices, they both hope they can act as mentors to women coming up the ranks. “Just by looking more seriously at female directors, we’re already the exception, not the rule,” says Kolodner.

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