Posts Tagged ‘Karin Chien’

As we anticipate the premiere of Circumstance (a Cinereach grantee) in New York and LA theaters this weekend, Cinereach asked one of the film’s producers, Karin Chien, to reflect on the struggle behind the now-apparent glory. Faced with a compelling and important story, but a hard sell from a commercial perspective, the resourceful and committed team behind the film charted a harrowing fundraising course — from pre-production to the final days before their Sundance premiere. We hope other independent producers will find the Circumstance team’s experience useful and inspirational. From our perspective, above all else, it is a testament to the dedication and bravery of the independent producers who bring vital stories into being. We’re proud we had a small part in the Circumstance story, and congratulate the team and its supporters, on reaching this exciting milestone at last.


a post by Karin Chien

A post by Karin Chien

Circumstance, a film about teenage rebellion and love in an oppressive Iranian society, could not have been made without nonprofit support. This is a subtitled film spoken in Farsi, performed by an unknown cast, shot in an undercover production in Beirut by first-time writer/director Maryam Keshavarz, with minimal distribution potential in the region where the story was set. Who was going to invest in this project? Even amongst indie films, it was a risky proposition.

The film was too provocative and too lesbian for Middle Eastern investors, too non-commercial for film investors. But while equity investors were turning us down left and right, something extraordinary happened the film received over $300,000 in non-profit support 14 grants and in-kind donations in all.

Circumstance is the fortunate beneficiary of a few extraordinary individuals and organizations who believe in meaningful filmmaking. Cinereach, not least amongst them, came along five years ago and took notice that indies with socially relevant themes were struggling to survive in a commercially driven marketplace. San Francisco Film Society revitalized itself under Graham Legatt and found several million dollars to give away to narrative films. Sundance Institute kept doing its thing and has attracted more grant money than ever. It’s the start of what I hope is a permanent trend.

Grants are a godsend for any indie film. Not only do they not need to be paid back, but they don’t dilute investor profit participation. With grant money, investors receive more profit participation than if the film were fully capitalized with equity, thus making it more attractive to equity investors. Grants also come with virtually never-ending support – amazingly, these organizations gave us money and they kept giving: referrals, introductions, publicity, and advice. No resource went unused.

This is a breakdown of our non-profit support, and a snapshot of how Circumstance got made:

1. Sundance Institute: Circumstance participated in the Sundance Screenwriter & Filmmaker Labs (note of caution: it’s harder to become a Lab Fellow than to get into the Festival.) Maryam met our cinematographer and composer at the Labs. And once you’re a Lab Fellow, you’re eligible for Sundance grant funding from sources like the $5,000 Adrienne Shelly Women Filmmakers grant Maryam received and the $15,000 Zygmunt and Audrey Wilf Foundation Award the film received. Sundance has done an incredible job of bringing in money and partners to ensure their Lab projects get made and seen. Sundance grants enabled us to cast around the world, scout in the Middle East (Middle East Filmmaker Grant), shoot on 16mm film (in-kind Kodak donation), continue editing when we ran out of money (Annenberg grant), and finish with a 35mm negative (in-kind eFilm lab donation). In addition to grants, Sundance gave us notes on our rough cuts, wrote letters to the Jordanian Royal Film Commission when we were scouting, and introduced us to vendors and crew. The value of their support cannot be overstated.

2. Cinereach: This relationship actually started unexpectedly. Cinereach turned down our first grant application. But like all persistent indie filmmakers, we tried again. The second time, we were funded, and at exactly the most crucial moment. Following the massive post-election protests in Iran in 2009, we decided to fast-track the production in Beirut. We were worried the situation would worsen in Iran, and that our window to shoot this film in the Middle East would disappear. Before the protests, we planned to bring art department crew from Iran. In the end, only the Iranian props that a Western journalist brought back from Tehran participated in the film; it was too risky for Iranian-based crew or actors. We wanted to do our part by telling a story about Iranian teens, thousands of whom were killed or disappeared in the protests. When Maryam and fellow producer Melissa Lee started pre-production in Lebanon, we hadn’t raised even half the budget. The $25,000 Cinereach grant came through right before I left for Beirut. It was not only much needed money, but an incredible validation of our decision. In a way, it told me that everything would be ok, though it was still hard as hell. During the final stretch, Cinereach contributed another $20,000 post-production grant, which paid for sound and music costs.

3. San Francisco Film Society (SFFS): We were in the midst of editing the film in LA when we received an email from Josh Welsh, Director of Artist Development at Film Independent (see below), that SFFS had created a film fund and the deadline for applications was the next day. We quickly pulled together an application that included 10 minutes of footage. Incredibly, SFFS granted us $50,000 based on that 10 minutes and our written application. They knew and they believed. We found out about the grant after having paused post-production due to lack of funding, and it gave us a huge push towards the finish line. SFFS told us that Circumstance is the first of their grantees to have finished and the first to have theatrical distribution, and we couldn’t be more proud.

4. Film Independent (FIND): Maryam participated in the FIND Producer’s Lab in LA, which was taught by producer Gina Kwon. Gina brought the project to me. Though my plate was full at the time, I never forgot Maryam’s script. It was one of the smartest and most engaging scripts I had read in a long time, and it spoke to my desire as a producer to work on films about women and about politically relevant stories. Six months later, when my schedule freed up, I made a call to Maryam to see if she still needed a producer. Melissa Lee had just joined the project, and I joined the team right around Obama’s election. I remember that great post-election sense of change and empowerment. In addition to connecting me and Maryam, FIND granted us an in-kind Kodak film stock donation. They also recently hosted a screening for their members to help generate word-of-mouth for the theatrical release. Josh Welsh continues to look out for us for any and all opportunities (see SFFS grant).

5. Women In Film: We received a $10,000 grant from WIF and Netflix that kicked in right when we were completing the post-production for Sundance. It couldn’t have come at a better time. WIF also featured us on a panel at the Sundance Film Festival and will be including the film in their “Fearless” screening series in LA.

6. Fonds Sud:  Thanks to our tireless French co-producer Antonin Dedet we received two grants from France. The first was a $4,000 development grant from Antonin’s home province. The second was a sizeable $40,000 Fonds Sud grant to cover post-production expenses. We had originally applied for development and production grants from the Fonds Sud but we were turned down, so it was a huge relief to receive the post funding. The grant has a very restricted spend – only in France and only for certain post-production items – so we had to factor in travel to France, overseas shipping, and exchange rate increases. But the Fonds Sud grant allowed us to make the 35mm festival print, create laser subtitles on the print, and deliver an interpositive.

7. Hubert Bals Development Fund: A Dutch producer helped the film apply for a $12,000 development grant that was critical to allowing Maryam to hold auditions around the world. We found our principal cast in Canada, France, Sweden, and the US. Without this grant, our casting process would have been severely limited. We applied later for the Hubert Bals Plus fund, which funds production, but were turned down.

The financing of Circumstance often felt like The Amazing Race – Maryam, Melissa and I in last place, and the production budget in first place. We were constantly raising money to catch up to our spend. For the first time, I broke a major producing rule of mine – never go into production without all the money raised  – but we knew we had to. With the massive social and political change about to rock the Middle East, this was the time to tell this story. Even two weeks before our Sundance premiere, we were still locking in another equity investor. It wasn’t until we sold the film to Participant Media 48 hours after that premiere that the producers finally pulled ahead of the budget, after 18 months of breakneck sprinting.

As you can tell from the partial list above, Circumstance was incredibly lucky. Organizations like Tribeca Film Institute and New York University also provided valuable resources and support. But we were also rejected by more organizations than I can remember. More than once we were turned away because of the US embargo with Iran (ironic since Iran would later denounce our film). But we tried every avenue because we felt this film had to be made. In the end, we raised little more than half of the budget in private equity, mostly from friends and family who believed in us, and the rest in grants, in-kind donations and deferrals.

At our Sundance premiere, after the standing ovation and before the Q&A, I read a long list thanking every organization that gave us funding. And, not surprisingly, someone from almost every organization that funded us was in the audience, cheering us on at the premiere. It felt incredible to finally say in public, thank you to the funders who believed in us from the beginning. Their belief was the greatest support of all.

Scene from Cirumstance

A Scene from Cirumstance

Circumstance begins its theatrical run this weekend in NYC and LA. Click here for theaters, screening times, and the official trailer.

Karin Chien is an independent film producer based in New York City, and the 2010 recipient of the Independent Spirit Producers Award. Karin has produced eight feature-length films, including Circumstance (2011), The Exploding Girl (2009), The Motel (2005), and Robot Stories (2002) which have won over 100 film festival awards, premiered at Sundance and Berlin, and received international distribution. Karin is in production on Untitled (Structures), an installation by Leslie Hewitt in collaboration with Bradford Young, and in post-production on P. Benoit’s Stones in the Sun about exile from Haiti, and Bradley Rust Gray’s Jack & Diane starring Juno Temple and Riley Keough. Karin is the president and founder of dGenerate Films, the leading distributor of independent Chinese cinema. Karin is also the director of the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) Fellowship and the curator of the Chinatown Film Project, an inaugural film exhibition for the Museum of Chinese in America.

Cinereach’s 2011 Reach Film Fellowship concluded in April. Now that the fellows have had a little time to reflect on their experience making their films during the program, and because we miss having them around, we’ve asked them each to share something that has stuck with them. The first to report back is Kaz Phillips Safer, whose Jolly Friends Forever More is currently being submitted to festivals.


A post by Kaz Phillips Safer

Kaz during an RFF workshop at Cinereach

Rolling with the Punches
a guest post by Kaz Phillips Safer

One of the defining moments for me in my relationship with my mentor Karin Chien, was a somewhat frantic meeting during the final weeks of pre-production for my Reach Film Fellowship short, Jolly Friends Forever More. I was in the middle of a fairly typical and yet typically terrifying pre-pro crisis. Jolly Friend’s lone location was a public park, and I had a location in Prospect Park in Brooklyn that I really wanted to use.

Having shot in Prospect Park before, I knew that permitting could be tricky, and that due to our low-budget, fee-waivered status we’d be pretty low-priority (read: if the only motivation the parks folks have to process your paperwork is that you handed it on time and properly filled it out, it may well not happen). You have to bug them and bug them, and show up in person and pester and plead until someone signs or stamps or does whatever it is you need them to do. I am not hating on the parks, this is just what my experience has been.

As a preventative measure, and to give us both peace of mind, my producer Christina King and I had reached out to the Parks Department literally months before with our shoot dates and desired location. We were told we should be fine, and that we didn’t need to actually submit the paper work until a few weeks before. A week and a half out, while making what seemed like a routine call to check on something in our permit form, we were unceremoniously informed that our location was absolutely not available for the dates we needed it, as there was a parade through the park that weekend. They weren’t sure why anyone had ever told us it would be fine to shoot that weekend, but it certainly wasn’t, and there was nothing they could do for us.

A week and a half out we had no location, and the very stomach-sinking situation I had been working for months to avoid was suddenly all up in my face.  However, it was made even worse by the fact that, literally the day before, Christina had gotten a call for a short paid producing gig, working on a commercial. Being a multi-tasking freelancer type myself, and knowing that as much as you love any project you’re working on for free, when a paid gig comes around sometimes something has to give, I gave her my blessing to go MIA for a few days. After all, everything for the shoot was pretty much in place.

So suddenly I found myself with no location AND no producer in those critical final days when we needed to re-scout, re-lock, re-shot list, etc. a brand new location. Suffice to say, we did, which is a testimony to Christy’s stellar, nay, near-supernatural producing skills, but in that moment, trying to keep myself together as I enjoyed a nerve-jangling coffee with Karin, I was feeling the weight of working on a low-budget project where the Parks people give you the run around, and your producer has no choice but to say yes when a conflicting paying gig comes up because you don’t have enough money to pay her.

Producer Karin Chien on set with mentee Kaz Phillips Safer

Producer Karin Chien on set with Kaz

And I said to Karin, you know, I know it’ll be fine, but oh man, do I long for the day when I’m working on a project that everyone involved can be 100% focused on, and I don’t have to worry about folks having too much other stuff on their plate.  And Karin just kind of looked at me and was like, Kaz, that’s never the casePeople always have too much on their plate, always have three other projects going on the side, nineteen other places they ought to be, regardless of the size of the project. And I immediately knew she was completely right.  I had been looking at Karin as someone who was blissfully free of this kind of pitfall, and in that moment she reminded me, you’re an indie filmmaker.  It’s always like this.  Success means the MIA producer comes back, not that they never leave in the first place.

And in a weird way, it kind of gave me a bit of a thrill.  To be reminded, yes, you, for whatever combination of reasons, have chosen a career—an entire lifestyle—that is actually sort of designed for disaster.  Built to spill, as it were. And that actually, if you consider the way industries and art forms work as having a sort of evolutionary existence—having the shapes, patterns and tendencies they have for a specific reason—then it’s reasonable to say that the volatile nature of indie film production is actually quite adaptive. It can actually make for better projects, not worse ones.

Jolly Friends set: Owl Creek Park, Brooklyn

Jolly Friends Forever More set in Owl's Head Park

Case in point, my location disaster did in fact require my team to shift into location hunting overdrive, but the park we ended up finding, Owl’s Head Park in Bayridge, Brooklyn, was a vastly superior location than the spot in Prospect Park that we’d initially settled on. The upheavals may not be fun in the moment, but ultimately, they make you think harder, look further, and consider more possibilities.

And I guess it’s a good thing, because as Karin reminded me, there’s no end of the tunnel where it suddenly gets easy. Thank goodness, right?  Where would be the fun in that?

Kaz Phillips Safer is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker & video designer. She studied writing at Princeton University while also taking select filmmaking courses at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.  She is the video artist in residence for internationally acclaimed NYC-based dance theater company Witness Relocation. Her video work has been presented in France, Denmark, Poland, Russia, Australia and across the United States. In 2009 she was accepted into the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women where she developed and directed original HD short, Megafauna. The film went on to win AFI’s Jean Picker Firstenberg Award for Excellence and was released by IndiePix in October 2010. Kaz is currently developing several feature scripts, one of which is the recipient of a 2010 Jerome Foundation Development Grant.

Karin Chien, Kaz’s RFF mentor, has produced eight feature-length films, including Circumstance (2011), The Exploding Girl (2009), and The Motel (2005), which have won over 75 festival awards, premiered at Sundance and Berlin, and have been distributed internationally.

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