On Sunday, January 22, the producers personally paid tribute to the 2023 festival filmmakers and their films, highlighting the role of the independent producer at the Sundance Producers Celebration.
This annual event, sponsored by Amazon Studios and hosted by the Sundance Producers Program, highlighted the work of the 2022-2023 Sundance Institute Producing Fellows, featured a keynote presentation by producers Heather Rae and Nina Yang Bongiovi, and introduced the 2023 Sundance Institute | Amazon Studios Producers Awards. The award honors two producers with films for their work at this year’s festival. IndieWire is sharing the keynote exclusively below.
Jess Devaney/Multitude Films (“It’s Only Life After All” and “Milisuthando”) received the 2023 Amazon Studios Nonfiction Producers Award, while Kara Durrett (“The Starling Girl”) received the 2023 Amazon Studios Fiction Producers Award fee.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: We’d like to thank the Sundance team – Michelle Satter, Shira Rockowitz, Kristin Feeley for having Heather and I keynote the Producers Celebration!
Heather Rae: I thank Sundance for the opportunity to be with you today. We want to thank you all with movies this year, in the past years and in the years to come. There are two things that Nina and I would like to engage all of you with today: we want to start a dialogue about ethics and values and integrity as it relates to production.
When someone becomes a producer, there is no rule book or formal entry process. In this conversation, I suggest that we as producers develop our own ethical or value system. And there are three values that I invite you to consider; these are values that Nina and I share. And there may be shared values that bring us together as collaborators, and there may be differences in values that drive us apart.
The first aspect is good communication. Communication is essential in any work environment, and at least 60% of communication is listening. Listening is an art form. Treat the study of communication as if we were studying a craft, because as producers we are managers, in leadership positions, and communication skills are key to our success. Whenever there is conflict, it is a breakdown in communication. There is a science to communication, but most importantly, it is driven by the heart.
The second value I ask you to consider is reciprocity. It may sound simple, but it’s a powerful set of values. Our industry is deeply rooted in colonial and capitalist values, values such as “giving as little as possible”. Isn’t that the nature of doing business? What if we subverted the exploitative nature of this practice and instead embraced the values of generosity and reciprocity. One of my working principles is “everyone gets what they deserve and no one gets more than they deserve”. So there is a kind of integrity inherent in reciprocity.
The third value, which I ask you to consider, is recognition, the act of recognition – which we could also say is appreciation in action. A film set is a group of human beings working at an unnatural pace, with tension and heightened emotion. The stakes are high. So there is power in acknowledging those around us, those who contribute to us. We build strength by expressing this recognition outward and creating healthy ecosystems. The film’s cast and crew are an ecosystem. In the Hollywood system, it is structured as hierarchical power. If we turn this pyramid into a circle, we can see that we form a community. It could be something as simple as Sterlin Harjo creating a culture on “Reservation Dogs” where cast, crew and background all eat together. As a community. Alleviating the class layers of hierarchy or perceived power in our industry.
My call to action today is, is there anyone in this room or outside that you would recognize? Make it your next conversation or phone call. And let’s find ways to build power with each other as a community. I’ll start by admitting it, Nina. Your work is hard, timeless and magical. You are an incredible producer and I have really enjoyed our partnership with the projects we work on. And I think our shared values of advocacy and working for systemic change really brought us together.
Yang Bongiovi: I admit it, Heather. Your activism through storytelling and philanthropy inspires me. It elevates culture and fights for fairness. Being in my corner when we build together is a wonderful reality, not just a dream. Above all, I treasure you as my friend and ally, and that is truly a gift.
So I’m here to talk about INTEGRITY. Integrity for manufacturers and production.
For the producers out there – how many times have you been asked what a producer is? What exactly do we do? That’s because in our industry, it’s a title that’s so easily and often given frivolously. Sometimes I feel as though I’m explaining to people what I’m doing, it’s devolved into proving that I have a real career and that it’s sustainable. So how do I define production? In the simplest terms, art meets commerce. But the tricky part is finding a story with a filmmaker who speaks to your heart; then the real producer realizes a project in every sense, from every aspect. And we carry that creative, financial and logistical responsibility (and responsibility) on our shoulders. Someone who guides artists with love and support, sometimes with hard truths, but ultimately we support projects to the finish line. We’re the ones in the trenches, holding on to a thread and a prayer when the sky falls, protecting our filmmakers from all the chaos so they can focus on creating art.
A strong producer must understand the business of film and the language of artists; we need to employ soft skills and really have a sense of humor because navigating entertainment is not easy. I once told my producing partner, Forest Whitaker, that this industry is unforgiving and sometimes I feel defeated—especially because we focus on historically marginalized narratives and live and breathe in the realm of underrepresented communities. in front of and behind the camera… Forest then turned to me and said with a kind smile, “Nina, how does it feel to change lives through storytelling?” fuck it.
So back to INTEGRITY. I want us to protect what we do as manufacturers. Protect the integrity of producer credit. Don’t give it up or dilute what we bring to the table. We’re the glue that holds a film together from script development to financing, physical production, post-production, marketing and distribution (and if we’re lucky, an awards campaign). We are responsible for the address chain, right down to the miserable delivery process. And in indie features, we declare the damn taxes annually after each film’s LLC. We lead by example, we strive for solutions, and we must lead with our hearts.
2023 is the 10-year anniversary of the launch of “Fruitvale Station” here at Sundance, the film that confirmed him as a producer. Over the past decade, I have been blessed to champion some of the most culturally significant films with incredible storytellers who have and will continue to change the paradigm of Hollywood. Independent cinema gives us the opportunity to reach out to these filmmakers and promote their stories – these artists and visionaries need great producing minds to collaborate and excel. So by allowing growers to fairly own our credits, we’re adding value to us.
I know that for those who pursue a career as a producer, this can be daunting at times. Don’t lose sight of the goal of creating art for life. Absolutely doable. I want you to say to me, “I can make art for a living, and isn’t that a blessing?”
Rae: Finally, a recent study on happiness showed that happiness is not really what we are looking for. Instead, we are actually looking for meaning and connection. In other words, a sense of purpose and belonging is more valuable to us than ‘happiness’. This community is a place of meaning and belonging. We can build a collective set of ethics and values rooted in integrity and generosity and change the culture of this industry. THAT is power.
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