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Ron Simons (RS): Sure, now they are different types of producers both within film and then also the stage, I presume you are interested in film producers, correct?
MS: Yes, and sort of a general sense of what they do.
RS: Ok, well in general a producer’s responsibilities begin with the inception of the project. We typically collaborate with the artist, and that might be the screenwriter, in the medium of film and we collaborate with them to essentially get the film made. That means everything from finding the money to shoot the film, to helping with casting or making offers through our personal networks. We will do contracts and negotiations for the crew that will be working on the film, we will hire the cast members, so we will do the agreements of those individuals as well.
MS: So you do it all?
RS: Yeah, so think of the producer as the COO [Chief Operating Officer] of a corporation. So when things hit the fan, we are the people that have to resolve the conflict and make sure that the project stays on track and focused towards completion. It’s our responsibility to deliver the film [under] budget and on time.
MS: You have a very strong business background at some major companies before you became a producer for film. How has that influenced your interactions with attorneys?
RS: We work very, very closely with our attorneys and it's very important for a producer to have a really strong relationship with really smart, well-versed lawyers to help with our, many, many contracts because there are dozens and dozens of contracts that we have to execute. Everything: cast and crew… but when we get to the distribution phase, it's the lawyer's responsibility to make sure that the distribution agreements both domestic and international reflect the best interest of the film and the filmmaker. That's our goal. So I put a good amount effort into making sure that I find and work with a strong legal team because if they are not doing their job, then what suffers, at the end of the day is the film. It means that we will be liable for things that we did not expect to be. And this is really, really important for young producers who don't have as much experience: you really want to make sure that you work with a legal team that has done a number of agreements and contracts because the agreements become more and more complicated the further out the life of the film.
So for example, an agreement with a locations manager can be fairly simplistic but as you get closer to distribution, the distribution agreement can be incredibly complex in terms of what deliverables the production must sign up for, whether it's a 35mm print, you know, the varying formats that the film must be delivered in and the many, many technical requirements for delivery. Sometimes major distributors have a 15 page list of deliverables that they will ask of you. Many of which they don't really need… many of which you do not have the money to provide so you have to know what the technical questions and terms are. Working with your line producer (another type of producer in the film world) who might say "they really don't need that, so we're going to do this instead” or “we're going to take out this entire paragraph because it is not applicable to our film”. Because each item that they request means more work, more time, and more money for the production. And of course by the time we get to distribution, we have run through pretty much all of the money that we had for a film, in getting the film made. So by the time you get to that side of the business there are very few resources that are available so you need a really small team.
"...my challenge is to always find the one that balances the commercial viability with the artistic integrity..."
MS: So a lot of collaboration, between attorneys and producers. This is very, very insightful. I want to talk a little bit about Night Catches Us which was your first film with SimonSays [Mr. Simons’ Film & Theatre production company]. That film went to Sundance, so SimonSays was very successful right out the gate. I understand that the film [Night Catches Us] took a long time to be made. Tanya Hamilton [screenwriter, director] went through a lot to get that film made and distributed. Could you talk a little bit about your involvement with the film and how it eventually got distributed through Magnolia Pictures?
RS: Sure. Well I came very late in the game in the life cycle of Night Catches Us. To your point, Tanya had gone through the Sundance Screenwriters Lab 11 years prior to my coming on board. She'd done the heavy lifting for that film for more than a decade. When I came aboard, my role was to bring the money to the table to make the film and then get it distributed.
MS: So when you came on board the film was still at the stage of a screenplay?
RS: When I came aboard it was in the screenplay phase. There were attachments to the film in terms of talent. The Roots had been really interested in the film at that time, and eventually did indeed do the score. But the financing structure had come and gone a couple of times. It had gone through 3 or 4 producers prior to me that weren't able to bring the film to fruition, so when I came on board, I was going to be an associate producer because there were other individuals involved who were bringing in around a $5 million budget to make the film, but that [eventually] fell through as well. So it came to me, at the end of the day to be both the executive producer and the producer and then we finally got the film made together. But to your point of distribution with Magnolia, that film went through a very standard process for Sundance films which is to say you premiere the film at Sundance… it was one of the Grand Jury nominees. There are about 16 every year. And all the distributors and all the buyers come there to see which films might be of interest to purchase. So we screened the film there and we talked to some of the distributors. After many conversations....we had a sales rep, and the sales rep was very helpful in negotiating the agreement. We finally decided to go with Magnolia who distributed the film and did a theatrical release as well as facilitating the DVD and the ancillary rights for digital. It was eventually on Netflix, you know, On Demand, etc...
MS: Fantastic. So I know that you're also an actor. I was reading an interview of yours where you were talking about how your perspective with both a business background and as an artist gave you what you felt was a unique perspective on producing. How do you feel that your perspective as a producer is influenced by the fact that you are also an actor?
RS: Well, I will tell anybody who asks that that there is no other job that I've ever had that gets used more, or anything I've ever learned on a job or any school or practice as an actor than producing. Because as an artist my being an actor allows me to understand story in a very creative way so that allows me to be a creative producer. Is the story strong? Is the arc of a story dramatic? Is it compelling? Does it have legs to be a critical success? ...And more recently, I'm developing my sense of finding a product that's going to be a commercial success and I'm always improving in that area. It's not a science, but I know that my ability to understand story has made me a better producer in a field where many producers come from a technical background. They have interned and come up the ranks as line producers so they know how to do budgets, they know how to hire individuals, they know how to work with distributors to get agreements signed, but they may not understand exactly why the story is compelling or not. So I think that the perspective from me as an actor makes me a better producer, because as an actor I can understand why this is a strong dramatic work and why the storytelling is good, bad or otherwise.
MS: So, I’ve seen several films that you've been involved with as a producer from Night Catches Us to Gun Hill Road to Mother of George, story always does come first with your films--I've definitely observed that. In an industry that's so turbulent with so many stakes attached to every project, how do you as a producer manage to keep story so central to your films?
RS: Well, the good news is that there are a lot of stories out there. So there are more screenplays than I could ever possibly hope to read and we get a lot of submissions. I really rely on my network to help me find work that fits into our mission and is also strong storytelling, so that's the good news. The difficult or the bad news is that sometimes that work is not what all of Hollywood would consider highly commercial, and so the challenge of any producer is always to find a product that can be made at the right price and return the investment to the investors so that they will consider coming back to fund future films and future projects of yours. So, the landscape is always changing but there are a lot of products out there to choose from and my challenge is to always find the one that balances the commercial viability with the artistic integrity.
"...there is power inherent in the simple matter of diversifying."
MS: So, your publicist was kind enough to share your new film, 25 to Life with me, it's a beautiful, fantastic film. Could you speak a little bit about what attracted you to the project and what you hope audiences will gain from seeing it?
RS: Well 25 to Life to me is an important project. I think it has, as always, an interesting story that unfolds for the viewer but more importantly, I think it's a lesson that can be, I hope, learned by anyone who watches the film, especially young people. And because the film deals with a young man of African descent, I'm hoping it will resonate with young people of color. We’re in an age where HIV/AIDS is no longer seen, particularly by young people, as a death sentence, as it had been say a dozen years ago or twenty years ago. It still is a life threatening disease and I think people perceive it as a manageable disease that isn't particularly problematic. With the current regiment of drugs, it certainly can be managed well, but it is certainly no walk in the park. This film, and the reason why I came on this film, is not only because of the good storytelling, but it really resonated with me because I've had family and friends, who’ve dealt with HIV personally, or with someone very close to them. Now, I'm not going to give too much away about the story [of 25 to Life], but how the subject of our documentary got the disease was absolutely through no fault of his own. However, his actions after his diagnosis were entirely his own. So, what I hope is that young people will see this film and take a moment when a decision lies before them. That they will see this man's journey and perhaps ask the questions that they might not have otherwise asked; make a decision to pause or make a different decision that they might not have otherwise made, had they not seen this film. And that might affect their personal health and that of those around them and most important to them. I think that now more than ever is an important time in communities of color where we need to stay focused on what decisions we make. It's an important film at the end of the day--that also happens to be good storytelling.
MS: Our mission at the Council on Legal Education Opportunity is to encourage diversity in the legal field and some of the work that you are doing and the stories that you are telling certainly encourage diversity in the entertainment industry. Film is also a pretty universal medium for all people. My question to you is, from your perspective, what is the importance of diversity?
RS: Well diversity is very important. Having come from a corporate background, I was a huge proponent of diversity in corporate America. Diverse voices help problem solving because through diversity comes different life experiences, different expectations about life, different ideals and goals and that is valuable in everything from how you market a product to what kind of products you develop to how you advertise products. That was true of my work at Microsoft and that's true of my work at SimonSays. I think that people of color, people who have different sexual orientations, different genders…there is power inherent in the simple matter of diversifying. We all bring something unique to the table that we would not have otherwise had by being homogenous in nature. It makes a product stronger, a service stronger, a company stronger… it makes any endeavor stronger if you can have diverse voices to represent how a product is created, marketed, advertised and brought to market.
MS: Well thank you so, so much for joining me for this interview.
RS: You are very welcome, I hope that the people can come out and see the film, support it and hopefully use it and recommend it to others as a way to navigate this particular part of the world in these times.
MS: Absolutely. So 25 to Life is having its World Premiere at the American Black Film Festival, in New York City?
RS: It is. Sunday, June 22 at 11:30AM at the American Black Film Festival, please come out and share the information with family and friends. We're still raising money for the film. So please keep an eye out for our crowdfunding efforts to get the word out about the film and to finish it.
MS: Okay Mr. Simons thank you so, so much for this interview.
RS: I thank you.
CLEO Edge contributing writer Mai Sennaar is a screenwriter, playwright and a recent graduate of NYU. Her latest play The Fall of the Kings premieres at the 2014 Atlanta Black Theatre Festival this October.