“A hybrid of a hippie commune and capitalism,” is how revered indie film producer Effie Brown describes the goal of her new production company, Duly Noted. “A safe place where filmmakers will be able to go and create, know they’re not going to get screwed over, and at the end of the day be prosperous.”
In a time and economic climate when other independent production companies are closing their doors, and wings of the major studios increasingly make “independent” films, starting a production company is a bold move. Yet, Duly Noted is kicking off its first year with eight films on its slate, half of which have already either secured financing or appear close to doing so as of this writing. Brown took a year off producing to find and develop the eight diverse projects Duly Noted will launch and is confident that she’ll be able to add a new project every time one of the films completes production.
Duly Noted has been a long time in the mind of Brown, who has been dreaming and talking about having a production company of her own for years. And the name Duly Noted is apropos of an even longer struggle the producer has had in the film industry. It’s a phrase she co-opted from her days as a production assistant. “Duly noted is what I call an exclamation point on a statement—it could mean a whole bunch of things,” she says. “I had bosses back in the day who told me to do stuff and I couldn’t say what I really wanted to say and I really couldn’t argue, so I would just say ‘duly noted.’ It doesn’t mean that I agree or disagree.”
It’s no surprise that Brown wants to keep the memory of sweeping up cigarette butts on set in the forefront of her company’s identity as she sets out to help aspiring filmmakers make their movies. Brown arrived in Los Angeles with absolutely no connections to the film world. “I was just a black girl from New Jersey, the only person I knew who ever went into film. My family back East were like, ‘you’re going to LA to go to film school? Are you high?’”
But Brown attended the film program at Loyola Marymount University very clearheaded. And she took with her lessons she learned from her family. An army brat, Brown grew up with the conviction that failure was not an option—she would go full force and with all her heart. She also knew she couldn’t afford to be a late bloomer. So once in Tinseltown, Brown called the Black Business Bureau and told the operator she wanted to work on a black film. “It was very ghetto fabulous,” she remembers fondly. “The operator put me in touch with her cousin and her cousin, called someone.” Brown scored her first job as an intern on Robert Townsend’s The Five Heartbeats (1991), and her days of sweeping cigarette butts began.
But what really gave Brown her big break was participating in IFP’s first year of Project Involve, where women of color were introduced to people in the film industry through a mentoring partner. There, Brown met producer Laurie Parker (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, and music supervisor on We Don’t Live Here Anymore), whom she is still working with years later. Despite a potentially bumpy start, Parker went on to open many doors for Brown. She says: “In my first interview with Laurie Parker, I was so arrogant, I said something stupid like ‘I’m going to be as big as Oprah.’ Thank god she thought it was cute.”
While Brown hasn’t exactly reached the billion-dollar mark quite yet, she did rise up in the ranks astonishingly quickly. By her early 20s, she was the director of development for Tim Burton’s production company, living large in a corner office and having loads of creative control—while also producing short films and gaining production experience. When everyone was laid off from Burton’s company, however, Brown learned an even more important film industry lesson. “When I lost my job, I found out all those people I thought were my friends, weren’t,” she said. “They didn’t return my phone calls. I thought those were only stories you heard. So you learn to keep your true friends really close.”
Fortunately, Brown had more than a few of those, including Parker, and with her newfound experience, she started line producing. Her first film as a line producer was Spark (1998), directed by Garret Williams, and she quickly moved on to higher profile projects like Morgan J. Freeman’s Desert Blue (1998), starring Christina Ricci and Kate Hudson, Speedway Junkie (1999), But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), and Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her (2000) starring Glenn Close and Cameron Diaz.
“I had to be really aggressive and take the impossible jobs that no one else wanted,” Brown says. “When I started line producing, I’m sure I was the last person on everyone’s list. Thank God it turned out okay and I could move on. You work your way up and build a reputation.”
Her first turn as a producer came when director Jim McKay approached her to co-produce Cheryl Dunye’s Stranger Inside (2001). Very simply, McKay brought Brown onto the project because he knew she could do it. “Until that point, Effie had been line producing and I felt that she was ready to get involved more on the creative level and have more responsibility overall,” McKay says. “And I’ve got many, many weaknesses [as a] producer, many of which were, conveniently, strong points of hers. So it was a great match.”
Through Stranger Inside, Brown developed a relationship with HBO Films, and went on to produce a few more films with them, including Real Women Have Curves (2002). And then in 2003, she rejoined with mentor Laurie Parker to produce Jane Campion’s high profile In the Cut, starring Meg Ryan.
It’s an impressive roster for a 33-year-old black woman with few role models to call her own. What makes her so successful? According to Everyday People’s executive producer, Nelson George, Brown has unique characteristics that make her an exceptional producer. “Number one, she has a fantastic personality. She is able to draw people in and instill a sense of confidence in the production,” George says. “Number two, she really knows the nuts and bolts of filmmaking fantastically well. So she has great spirit and energy, and she’s also totally on top of the fundamentals of filmmaking—it’s an amazing combination.”
It was this winning combination that saved Everyday People (directed by McKay) from never seeing celluloid light. “[Effie] came in and did a couple of things that were really important,” George says. “She was able to go through the budget and find areas of concern that we hadn’t dealt with. And she bought drinks for the entire crew and made everyone feel a part of the production.”
McKay concurs. “When I got on set with Effie on Everyday People, I had this shocking realization of how wonderful it was to simply direct, to trust and know that someone else was worrying about everything else,” he says.
Both George and McKay believe that the respect and awe the independent film community has for Brown ensures her company will succeed. “She is a force of nature,” George says, “and in a position to be a real major factor in independent American filmmaking.” McKay adds, “Basically, Effie gets the job done, and then some. She is responsible and honest when it comes to dealing with the financiers, and she is protective and supportive with her directors.”
Indeed, starting a production company was the obvious next step for Brown’s career. “As a producer you feel more like a hired gun,” she says. “I wanted something that I was a part of from conception—you find a writer and a director and do the script work and develop it together.” But Brown also had a much bolder reason for starting her own company.
“I went into film because I was incredibly angry,” she says. “I was incredibly angry that I never got to see someone like me, a person of color, on film. I didn’t really see anyone who was different or any different story lines. That pissed me off. So what I wanted to do was bring those types of stories to the screen. I was able to find people who had the same sort of good taste and had the same idea that films can be used to protest, as well as to educate, as well as to entertain. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
And for Brown, it’s important for Duly Noted to bring together an eclectic group of films and filmmakers. Her platform is diversity, and she doesn’t want to get pigeonholed into doing any one sort of genre or issue. “I don’t believe in stereotyping myself,” she says. “I won’t only do films [about] people of color, and I won’t only work with people of color or women. That makes no sense to me. I do good movies. I do stories that are compelling, things that engage me. Because I’m black and a woman, I’m sure there is subject matter I can really identify with and that’s one thing, but I refuse to put myself in the hole.”
And certainly, the eight films that Duly Noted has on its debut slate reflect exactly that kind of diversity. They are: Polish Bar, by Ben Berkowitz and Ben Redgrave, about a young middle-class Jew who leaves his family jewelry business to become a hip-hop DJ at a local Polish gangsta-run strip club; Bobby Zero, by Markus and Mason Canter, about broke and jobless 30-year-old artists and musicians dealing with love and life; American Way, by Marco Orsini, about a Puerto Rican family that arrives in the American South determined to assimilate and succeed; My Place in the Horror, a horror genre flick by Robert O’hara set in a typical remote location but with an atypical all-black cast; Exactly Like You, by Silas Howard, about a man’s pursuit of women, music, and fame all while hiding he was actually born a woman; Powder Blue, about a group of people looking for redemption, connection, and faith in Los Angeles; Rocket Science, by Jeff Blitz (who was nominated for an Oscar for Spellbound), about a high school boy who goes into the competitive world of debate despite his stutter; and Strangers in the Snow, by Zackary Dean, a violent and suspenseful thriller about a family that must run for their lives during a Thanksgiving celebration.
Of course, Brown’s identity as a woman of color feeds her compassion for all sorts of subject matter that other producers might not have. “Being who I am makes me a little more sensitive,” she says. And the same identity also gets her noticed more than some other producers might be. “Being a black woman with red hair also makes me stand out a little bit,” she says with a laugh.
But it is purely her film prowess that got her a first-look deal, support from HBO Films, and a solid starting ground to get her films made. Yet Brown is fiercely independent, making sure that no one owns any part of her company, ensuring she has the option to search for funds anywhere. “I want to be able to go everywhere,” she says. “There’s a lot of places to go and get money. I’m not opposed to going to a studio arm to get money. I’m all for that. I’m all for the billionaire. If he or she wants to invest in film, excellent. I’ll do a co-production. I want to be able to go anywhere that’s the best place to serve my film. Be fluid and go wherever I need to.”
What is equally important to Brown, however, is that she also hasn’t forgotten her roots and makes giving back a top priority. Over a decade after her own experience with the organization, she’s back to working with IFP’s Project Involve. Only this time, she’s a mentor. “It’s a cutthroat industry, but there’s room for everybody and I would love to foster that,” she says. “That’s how I made it. If it weren’t for that mentorship there would be no one looking out for me.” That charitable spark sounds a little like Oprah.
And as for that big-as-Oprah prediction? “You’re not going to be buying your Jaguar or your Beamer in the independent film business, but you might be able to buy a nice pair of shoes,” Brown says. “And I don’t want to do anything else. I’m not complaining. I can go out to eat. I can take my friends out to dinner. I’m good. I’ve always been about the base needs. Can you pay your rent? Yeah. Can you go see a movie? Good. Can you buy a drink? Great. That’s all you really need. Cause I do my own hair so it’s totally fine. I dye my hair, let it nap up, and call it a day.”