Christine Vachon on Hollywood Strikes, COVID Indie Film Impact: KVIFF 5

“In a funny way, the strikes had a much more profound effect on changing the business than COVID did.” That was the assessment shared by legendary independent film producer Christine Vachon during a session at the Industry Days program of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival on Tuesday.

Her comments came during a fireside chat on the topic of “The Independent Film Ecosystem and Production in the Changing Industry,” in which Vachon was joined by Jason Ropell, chief content officer of arthouse streaming service Mubi.

“Disruption creates opportunity, and it creates evolution,” Ropell argued. Vachon echoed that. “Jason stole one of my favorite lines,” she quipped. “Out of great disruption comes great opportunity. I have seen people dance on the grave of independent film so many times.”

But she argued: “It is a business essentially as long as people want truly original stories, and I think that the business shows us that again and again. Somehow there will be ways to make them and get them out into the world.”

Vachon also warned: “There’s a lot of doom-saying because there’s so much disruption. There were the strikes, which definitely were difficult. I am not going to put an optimistic spin on that. [They] definitely changed the business in a lot of ways.” She didn’t elaborate on those various ways.

Instead, she highlighted the positive signs. “Every month I see evidence of people flocking to those truly original stories, and I see them going to the theater,” the industry veteran emphasized.

She also touched on the disruption to the film industry caused by COVID, saying: “It almost seems like a fever dream now how we made movies during COVID, but we did.”

Jason Ropell, chief content officer of Mubi (left), and indie producer Christine Vachon at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.

Courtesy of Georg Szalai

Ropell also said that talk of the death of indie film was premature. “I think the independent sector is remarkably resilient. Over the history of independent film, there have been challenges before, there have been disruptions before,” he said. “And the business has come through, and it’s survived and thrived. I understand that the current disruptions that are affecting the business feel daunting. They always feel daunting.”

His conclusion: “Things evolve. And the best time is always the present time. This is the real-time. … I think optimism is warranted, based on what we’ve been seeing in the very, very recent past, Cannes being an example. The mood at Cannes was very positive, which is great. It bodes well for the future. The positive kind of viewpoint for evolving into the future is something that’s necessary for us to do that.”

Vachon summarized the role she, others in her position and filmmakers play this way: “We try to figure out a movie’s path to marketability, and the path changes as the times change.”

For her, it’s about some key features though. “It’s really a combination of the script and its originality. Is it zeitgeist? Is the filmmaker somebody who has reputation? Or are they somebody new, young, audacious, that we really believe in and can attract a cast of a certain caliber?” Vachon explained. “All of those things go into that sort of hopper, and then we start to see the path. And that path is all about what makes something commercial, what makes something financeable, what will attract financiers, what kind of financiers, what is the price point for something like this all while trying to, because this is very important to us because it’s also part of the commerciality of what we make, maintain that sense of auteurship and originality.”

Do creatives have to focus on all this when pitching projects? “I don’t think really great writers reverse engineer,” Vachon shared. “They usually bring us things that they’re incredibly passionate about. And I do find, not always but often, that if somebody is very passionate about something, there’s a reason and that reason has a kind of ripple effect.”

Asked about industry changes in the streaming age, Vachon told the KVIFF session on Tuesday: “When we first started making movies, theatrical was all there was. That was it. And in fact, even some of the ancillary markets that were typical for movies being made in those days, such as cable television, didn’t want our movies. So our movies lived and died by their theatrical success.”

As this has changed and shifted, young filmmakers “have really started to have some kind of nuanced idea,” Vachon said. They’re like, “I have an idea for a theatrical film, I have an idea for a television series, I have an idea for a miniseries, I have an idea for something that I think would play well on a streamer. That kind of nuance is something that we discuss all the time.” After all, she emphasized, a key question is whether a film is theatrical and what makes it theatrical. “What is going to give you that sense of urgency to go to the theater to see it instead of waiting for it to come to your home,” she added.

Ropell on Tuesday also discussed the role of streaming in the evolving film space. “The streaming component of the ecosystem has actually broadened the audience for multiple kinds of film, including independent film. There’s a generation of viewers, of customers, of cinephiles that have been exposed to films, which they would not have but for that technology, for the access to streaming.”

His takeaway: “There is a lot more demand and familiarity and fans of this type of cinema that have been fostered by the early days of streaming. A lot of negative things come from the disruption that that technology has created, but a lot of positive things as well.”

How does Ropell see Mubi? He described it as “an evolved studio, a modern studio, a modern globally scaled studio.” Explained the executive: “It has all of the components that a modern studio has or should have — from development through production, distribution, agile distribution through to a platform, which we own, and sales thereafter, as well as foreign sales through Match Factory. It has the entire ecosystem of a film from conception all the way through to distribution 10 years down the road. That’s meant to aggregate the demand globally for all independent film and be able to have multiple ways of saying yes to being involved in a project that we’re interested in.”

And he emphasized its ambition to continue growing. “We want to scale to meet the demands of the audience,” he said. “And the ambition is to scale to meet that size, which means we need to be global. And we need to have global theatrical distribution capabilities as well as, on top of the global streaming ability which we have. And I think over time, you’ll see us moving in that direction.”

Vachon was also asked about key current projects. “We just wrapped Celine Song’s new film, Materialists. She made Past Lives, which was here [in Karlovy Vary] last year, and getting to work with her for the second time and seeing how she grew as a filmmaker was really great. I’m really looking forward to post-production on that film and getting it out into the world.”

Vachon is also “about to shoot Todd Haynes’ new movie with Joaquin Phoenix,” sharing: “Todd is one of those filmmakers who never makes the same film twice. So each one is an adventure. This one will be as well. So I don’t think much further ahead than that.”

What’s her take on the state of indie film beyond her own work? “I’m really anti-nostalgia,” Vachon replied. “I am absolutely certain that there’s a whole group of young filmmakers, storytellers, whatever word we want to use who are doing incredibly exciting things. And we didn’t invent it. My generation didn’t invent it, and we don’t own it. So that’s just something I think is important to say, I know that those stories are out there, and they’re not always making their way to me, because I’m not 25, but I know they’re out there. And I’m excited that they are.”

Vachon is back at KVIFF as a member of the main competition jury this year after last year being honored by the festival.

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