Karin Chien: Producer & Distributor Extraordinaire
Karin Chien is a producer and distributor based in New York. She’s produced ten films to date. In 2010 she won the Piaget Producers Award which honors emerging producers who, despite highly limited resources, demonstrate the creativity, tenacity, and vision required to produce quality, independent films.
Karin’s most recently released film is Circumstance, written and directed by Maryam Keshavarz, who also produced, with Karin and Melissa Lee. Circumstance won the Audience Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and has just been nominated for the John Cassavetes Award (for films made under $500,000) at the Independent Spirit Awards. In post-production Karin has Bradley Rust Gray’s Jack and Diane about two girls who fall in love, and Patricia Benoit’s Stones in the Sun, about exile from Haiti.
Karin is also the founder and president of dGenerate Films. dGenerate Films distributes films from the ‘digital generation’ of Chinese cinema, the current generation of independent filmmakers, which includes “poets, painters, and journalists who use digital video as an aesthetic, social, political, or personal tool”. dGenerate’s blog is a must-read for those of us interested in filmmaking in China. The other day it linked to an absorbing podcast with Karin (including, at the end, a very graceful challenge to the interviewer that had me going YES!). Other current posts cover recent Chinese film festivals, censorship, and the new wave of Tibetan films.
A big thank you to Karin, for being so generous with her responses to rather a lot of questions!
KARIN as PRODUCER
How and why did you become a producer?
I love stories, and I wanted to be part of telling stories. And movies, at least when I graduated college, had the widest audience potential. I think that’s shifted recently to online, socially networked media, but the power of storytelling will always be part of the human race. I also wanted to tell stories about women – honest, complicated, interesting portrayals of female characters were lacking when I grew up and still are. There’s a lack of interesting female characters in most movies. Think about how many major female actresses have had to play either strippers or prostitutes, especially in the 90s? Julia Roberts, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Meg Ryan, Marisa Tomei, Natalie Portman. The first film I produced is called Robot Stories. I took that film partly because it was the first script I’d read without a single female stripper, prostitute or waitress. Hollywood is very male – both the stories they tell and the industry itself – and men’s imaginations around women are very limited. But women make up over half of movie-going audiences in the States, and frankly, we deserve better.
What draws you to a project? I’ve heard you speak about a five-year commitment, a kind of marriage, and your latest three films seem very diverse.
I have to feel that a film HAS to be made. Unequivocally has to be made. That’s the only way I’ll get through the near impossibility of completing an independent film! I also have to believe strongly in the director’s talent. And lastly I have to believe this film deserves an audience, and will find one, with my help. Not every script out there needs to be made into a film.
I’ve also heard you talk about building a team round the director. What does this mean for you? Does it make a difference when the director is also the writer?
Filmmaking is that beautiful messy art of collaboration. You can’t do it alone, like you can make videos and put them on YouTube. Filmmaking generates community in the process of making a film, and if you pick the right people to work with a director, they’ll elevate the film in unexpected ways. It’s that thing about being greater than the sum of the parts. I’ve also worked almost exclusively with writer/directors.
Have you discovered any issues around financing and distribution of films by and about women that are different than those you had when financing your earlier films, made by men?
I don’t think gender of the director makes a big difference during financing or distribution. At those points, it’s about commercial viability of the story, who’s in it, plus, in terms of financing, how determined the director is to make his/her film. On Hollywood films, though, it matters a lot if the lead is male or female. Unless you have Angelina Jolie attached, you get your film financed by the male star, not the female star. I also think that while it’s fantastic for Kathryn Bigelow to be the first female director to win the directing Oscar, it’s also important to remember her films are very “male” – male leads, action sequences, adrenaline-pumping storytelling. The existing power structure can get behind her films without feeling threatened.
Both Circumstance and Stones in the Sun had Sundance support. Has this made a big difference?
Absolutely. It’s a miracle to get any independent film made, so you need every resource and every favor you can wring, and then some. Having Sundance support a project I’m producing is a huge help in every way.
WOMEN FILMMAKERS IN CHINA
From your dGenerate site and your article that compares indie filmmaking in the US and in China (first published on Ted Hope's blog) I’ve understood that there are two separate sources of Chinese cinema, the state studio system and the independent digital generation, with some overlap. I’m unfamiliar with the names and work on your own list of six essential films from the digital generation, but there seems to be just one woman and her work: Liu Jiayin and Oxhide 2 (2009), which featured in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes. Is one in six about the proportion of women who write and direct Chinese film? Is the proportion about the same in the state system and in the digital generation? Are there gender-specific issues for women filmmakers in China that are the same as or different than elsewhere in the world? As in the US and New Zealand, are women in China more likely to make docos than to make narrative features?
One in six is perhaps greater than the proportion of women who direct indie Chinese film. I don’t have the numbers, but it’s also a very male-dominated space. There seem to be more women directors in the state system, though. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about the gender-specific issues for women filmmakers in China to compare to the US or the rest of the world.
The only relevant article I’ve ever been able to find, as an English/French-only reader is published on the Women’s Film Festival in Seoul’s site. It refers to six filmmakers and their films included in the festival: Li Yu (Buddha Mountain), Li Fangfang (Heaven Eternal Earth Everlasting), Ning Ying (Perpetual Motion), Ke Dingding and Guo Jing (When My Child Is Born), Ma Liwen (You and Me), Guo Xiaolu (Address Unknown). Are these representative of the digital generation of Chinese cinema or of the state studio system?
You have both represented in that list.
Who are the women writing and directing in China that you think I should know about?
Liu Jiayin definitely. Also Ji Dan, who has an amazing new documentary called When the Bough Breaks. Ning Ying is a veteran filmmaker whose filmography is essential.
KARIN as DISTRIBUTOR: dGENERATE
What connects your producer self who makes films in the United States for theatrical distribution with your distributor self who disseminates films made in China?
It’s a bit of a disconnect, to be honest. The kind of firefighting, crisis-solving, extreme people management skills you need in producing are not what you need in distribution. It’s hard to think of a distribution emergency other than a tape not working at a screening. I suppose what connects the work is my deep desire to support interesting stories, incredible films, and to add to the dialogue of cinema.
dGenerate distribution includes DVD (institutional & limited home), online home (rental) and institutional (purchase) VOD, and public performance exhibition on DVD, tape, and digital. What are the advantages and disadvantages of distributing such a range of formats?
dGenerate’s job is to create the audience for these films. Most Americans have never seen a Chinese independent film. For some films, the educational market is their best audience. For others, it’s the online VOD audience. And for others still, it’s the public performance audience. Our goal is to grow the audience for these films anywhere we can. As long as there are cinephiles in the world, we will continue to exhibit in theaters, museums, universities and even bars! I don’t think DVDs are going away either. VOD is the buzzword right now, but the truth is that VOD not monetized yet. Nobody is making real money – not at the DVD level – from VOD.
AFFRM, dGenerate, and women filmmakers globally
I loved your tweet on 5 December, after the AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement) released its second movie, Kinyarwanda:
@karinproducer A thought: what if Asian Am indie film had had an @AFFRM, in its heyday? Would our films have made more impact? Is it too late?
I’m a huge fan of AFFRM’s, and I’d sent a similar tweet:
@devt So much to learn from @AFFRM: Could women's film festivals do something similar on a global scale?
It seems to me that you and AFFRM offer hope, and there’s lots to learn from your wisdom. I love what Ava DuVernay says on the AFFRM site: “We simply want to offer African-Americans quality black films, while at the same time create a safe haven for filmmakers of color to share their stories, their way.” This seems very similar to what you already do with dGenerate with films made in China, but for an international rather than a single-country audience. And it’s what I’d love to do with the audience for films by and about women, globally. But are the Asian and women’s markets too diverse for an AFFRM-like project, which focuses on a single niche audience, in a limited geographical area? Can you imagine getting into theatrical release with Asian American indie films (your tweet seemed a little doubtful) and the films from China?
Two things. One, I think the time to marshal resources into theatrically releasing Asian American indies has passed. The arena has shifted online, and Asian Americans are making an incredible impact via YouTube. 20-somethings like Ryan Higa, Freddie Wong, KevJumba, Wong Fu – have something like a combined 3 billion views (yes, billions). My tweet meant to imply it’s no longer smart business to theatrically release indie features aimed at the Asian American audience because theatrically releasing indie features is no longer smart business in the States. Two, the moment for an Asian American audience to coalesce is gone. Asian Americans don’t watch Asian American films. There will always be a tiny die-hard audience of supporters, but nothing that could parallel how Black and Latino audiences, for example, support Black and Latino films.
Does successful grassroots/niche VOD need a different support structure than AFFRM’s, or could it too work with festival support? Can you imagine getting into VOD distribution of Asian American indie films? Or linking with Asian film festivals globally, building on the virtual film festival ideas that Sundance and Tribeca have tried, I think?
There is a company in the business of VOD distribution of Asian American indie films – it’s called Asia Media Rights and they distribute via Comcast VOD. I don’t know how well they’re doing, but again VOD is not much of a money-maker for the industry yet, unless you own the VOD channel too. Asian film festivals unfortunately have very little use for Asian American indies. Asian American indies are often made from the viewpoint of being a minority, which doesn’t resonate at all for Asian audiences. Asia also has its own star system, and it does not overlap with the Asian American star system.
How problematic are subtitles in the United States? Do they limit some films’ reach, or dGenerate’s reach?
Americans have subtitle phobia! They assume anything with subtitles is arthouse cinema, even the biggest blockbusters from China are pegged as arthouse cinema here. So dGenerate’s titles are competing against the blockbusters of Asia in the American market. The other issue with Asian films is they don’t follow American aesthetics of storytelling. They don’t have 3-act structures or even happy endings. And Chinese indie documentaries, for example, almost never have graphics, voiceover, stock footage, or animation – all things Americans need to sustain interest in a feature-length documentary.
A PRODUCER'S LIFESTYLE
I read somewhere that you’ve been without an apartment for a while. And I’ve listened to Maryam Keshavarz talk about how tough it was to make Circumstance. I think it’s extraordinary that you managed to make Circumstance for less than $500,000. Reading between the lines I suspect that what you do is hugely challenging, isn’t making you wealthy and compromises domestic well-being. What are the greatest challenges? What keeps you going?
Tilda Swinton recently said one man’s courage is another man’s comfort zone. Staying in one place and doing things I know is not comfortable for me. Being challenged, being on the move, and encountering the new are my comfort zones. Luckily, indie producing challenges every part of myself. I don’t have much need for security or wealth, and I function best with minimal structure, free and independent. I’m also lucky I have more stable friends who I can crash with! But if you’re going into the indie film industry, it’s best not to put too high a value on wealth or stability.
|Circumstance producers: Karin Chien, Maryam Keshavarz, Melissa Lee|
Shortly after I received Karin’s answers to my questions, she released an open letter to the Producers Guild of America (PGA). The PGA had refused to consider Circumstance for its awards because "unfortunately under the current rule structure, we are unable to accept foreign language films at this time". Karin argued strongly that Circumstance should qualify. And I thought, aha, Angelina Jolie's In the Land of Blood and Honey is also (mostly) in a foreign language. Maybe the PGA will change its policy if Angelina Jolie also argues for change?
But now I've read that In the Land of Blood and Honey has received the PGA's Stanley Kramer Award, named after the producer of The Caine Mutiny, High Noon and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Created in 2002, the award honors "a motion picture, producer or other individual, whose achievement or contribution illuminates provocative social issues in an accessible and elevating fashion". That's one way to get round the foreign language problem I guess. But why doesn't the PGA apply its foreign language rule across all its awards? Given film financing's global future, however, as reported the other day in relation to Cloud Atlas, Andy and Lana Wachowski's (the American-born team behind the Matrix movies) latest project, this issue isn't going to go away any time soon. It seems typical of Karin that she has the vision and courage to challenge a policy that will increasingly exclude some of the most interesting American films from consideration for the PGA awards.
Shadow & Act posted in support of Karin's open letter, and noted that the foreign language rule also disqualifies Kinyarwanda and other recent films. And the Producers Guild of America has also responded. Here's that link.
Underground Critic has published a great piece about why Circumstance deserves award recognition as well as a larger audience, and a 'treatise' about why it hasn't yet had a larger audience.
Women & Hollywood on Karin and the PGA.
Jane Kelly Kosek's All About Indie Filmmaking interview with Karin Chien, about making Circumstance
Women & Hollywood interview Maryam Keshavarz.
Karin Chien with the press after winning the Piaget Producers Award.
Circumstance is now available on DVD.
An earlier version of this interview was cross-posted at Gender Across Borders.