Since founding Open City Films in 1994, producers Joana Vicente and Jason Kliot have earned a reputation for making unique and popular films that would probably not have received financing elsewhere. Whether they sold the film to a studio—like Down to You (Miramax)—or produced a gritty independent—like Chuck and Buck through their subsidiary, Blow Up Pictures—they’ve always found a way to get the film made with what little they have. Recently, Vicente and Kliot got the additional resources they needed to expand their company and greenlight more films.
Explain the changes that have happened to the company? Kliot: Up until September 2003 we had Open City Films and our digital company, Blow Up Pictures. It’s now called Deutsch/Open City Films and HDNetFilms. Donny Deutsch is now our partner, which means we have someone with very deep resources who supports us in developing material. We have money to pay writers, and to option novels or plays or magazine articles, and take those and develop them with other financing partners. These are films that are going to be $5-10 million or higher.
Vicente: The one thing that’s exciting about the partnership with Donny Deutsch is that now we have the resources to get those films to a better level before we go to any financing sources. If you go to a studio with a project and they think it still needs work, you end up in what filmmakers commonly call “development hell.” That’s the gap that we’re filling. We want to go to studios with finished scripts, scripts that are completely ready to go. Then we can drive a harder bargain with the studios or the equity sources that we’re going to. We can say, “This movie is ready to go. We’ll work with you, but within a few months we want you to be casting, and/or in pre-production on the film. And if you’re not doing that, we want the movie back and we don’t want any turnaround costs on it.” We want to help directors and writers leapfrog that whole “development hell” cunundrum.
Talk a little about HDNetFilms.
Kliot: In 1998 Joana and I founded Blow Up Pictures. Blow Up Pictures was the first digital production company to make theatrical films in this country. Some of them are Chuck and Buck, Lovely & Amazing, Series 7, and Love in the Time of Money. Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner saw what we did with Blow Up, came to us and said, “We’re starting a high-definition film company; we want to make pictures up to $2 million; we have all the money we want to make these movies; do you guys want to find those movies and put them into production?” So we have the ability to greenlight as many movies as we want to in a year up to the $2 million level. That’s what we’re doing with HDNetFilms, making movies that we can bring to festivals and have them sold to distributors, the way we did with Blow Up.
What types of projects do you seek?
Kliot: We’re going to focus on films we’ve always made: ground breaking, innovative, very director-driven independent films that are for theatrical distribution.
Do you attend festivals? If so, why and which ones?
Kliot: At Sundance this year we [went] looking for talent. We’re looking for filmmakers who are established and want to develop films with us. That could be someone who’s fed up with the studio system and wants to make a low budget film. It also could be a kid who’s made an ingenious short that we really love and whose first feature we want to make. We go to Sundance, Toronto, Rotterdam, and Cannes. We’ll be at a few regional fests too, but it all comes down to what our schedules permit.
How do you prefer filmmakers to approach you?
Kliot: I like filmmakers to email us a synopsis of their project. That’s the best way to get to us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
What’s the most common mistake a filmmaker makes when they approach you?
Kliot: Thinking that it’s very important for them to make contact with me, to know who I am, to get my card or my address. It doesn’t matter if I have met them. It’ll have no bearing whatsoever on my reading their script or not.
Vicente: The real problem that occurs is people send us scripts that we would never make in our lives. We don’t make slasher movies.
Kliot: You should know your basics. But sometimes I see people overshoot and focus so much on the industry and the connections. You’d be amazed how few good filmmakers know how to shmooze. I really don’t believe this business is about shmoozing. You should do your basic homework, you should know who you’re going to so you’re going to the appropriate people for your project. But don’t let that eclipse the fact that you should be focusing on the project and making sure that if you expose your film to anybody, that it be in the best possible condition it can be in.
So filmmakers shouldn’t have a keen eye on the business?
Kliot: It’s important, but Joana and I are really content driven. We’re really about the material. So I always say to filmmakers, don’t focus so much on the business. Find someone in the industry who knows who the players are and ask their advice about who you should go to with your project. The real energy should be placed into writing an extraordinary project or finding that perfect project. Because if you have a really great script I know a lot of people who want to make that movie.
What types of projects are you working on now?
Vicente: We can’t say what they are but right now we have three films we’re about to make. There’s a documentary, a comedy, and a very, very serious political film.
What’s the biggest sacrifice you have to make when dealing with a big studio?
Kliot: I think the biggest sacrifice you make is getting your vision watered down. By nature, film studios, independent or major, are corporations that rely on a number of people working together to guarantee that the product they’re making is acceptable to the corporation. Its very nature, I believe, eliminates some of the elements that can make projects unique.
Where are we in the digital revolution?
Vicente: The digital revolution has just begun. The freedom that digital production allows to independent filmmakers is a remarkable thing and it’s what’s going to break open the independent barriers.
Kliot: What’s exciting with high-definition films is we can make the exact same quality product that any of the big studios are making for a fraction of what they make it for. I think that the significance of that huge transformation in technology is only beginning to be acknowledged.