It has been noted before that producing indie films—and then securing distribution for a movie and guiding it so it is seen before an appreciative audience—takes a special kind of dedication. And now, amidst razor thin margins and a film market that is in a state of flux, it takes a producer who understands the process from top to bottom: how to secure foreign market sales, film incentives to help offset a budget, and what is even considered an indie film these days.
That is where Cindy Cowan comes in. Cowan is the executive producer on the recently completed “Red Lights,” which will have its premiere at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. Written and directed by Rodrigo Cortés (best known for “Buried,” starring Ryan Reynolds), the film centers on a psychologist and her assistant whose work with paranormal activity leads them to investigate a well-known psychic. “Red Lights” boasts a cast headlined by Robert De Niro, Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy, Toby Jones, and Elizabeth Olsen, who impressed Sundance audiences in 2011 with her performance in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”
Cowan has an extensive track record as a producer and executive producer. Films on her resume include “Very Bad Things,” “Dr. T and the Women,” and “Scorched.” She co-founded and was president of Initial Entertainment Group (IEG), and now heads Cindy Cowan Entertainment. Cowan came to film and television production almost by accident; after graduating college with a degree in psychology, it was during her “infamous year off” where she took a job with a CBS affiliate in Miami, Florida, that started her in the industry. She moved to L.A. and found success initially as a songwriter before working her way up the production ladder.
Cowan took some time to discuss “Red Lights” with Film Slate Magazine as she and her production team prepare the film for its premiere at Sundance.
Film Slate Magazine: So how did ‘Red Lights’ come about? Was it something that you had for a while or was it something that Rodrigo came to you with?
Cindy Cowan: UTA (United Talent Agency) actually sent the project over to me to read the script and I had just seen ‘Buried’ and kind of became just a little bit obsessed with what Rodrigo pulled off in that film and really wanted to work with him. So it was great and Rodrigo was coming in to town about a month later and we met and decided that that would be the next film that I would finance.
FSM: When you set a project like this up, do you see it all as one process, or do you kind of segment things out as the executive producer? How does that process work, especially with an indie film?
CC: With an indie film, I always look to see where I can get my returns, as far as my equity is concerned. The first thing that I usually do is figure out where we’re shooting at. Nowadays, especially with independent productions, you have to take into account soft monies—it’s such a big factor in what we do nowadays. And so, this particular film was great because we could shoot in Barcelona. There was X amount of money that we could get out of that, won’t have to be paid back to Spain, and then we could start piece-mealing the rest of the financing together with some pre-sales, etc., so I could figure out what the equity would actually be.
FSM: And if you’re filming in the U.S., or even overseas, when you’re looking for grants or film incentives, how important is that to a filmmaker now?
CC: Yeah, it’s very important now. It’s very rare that we would get into a film where we didn’t have some kind of soft monies attached to it. It’s just that it’s unfortunate; the market is a lot different than it used to be 10 years ago. It’s just become a very important factor.
FSM: Speaking of ‘Red Lights,’ in the casting department, were there roles that you wanted specific people? How did that go, with Robert De Niro, Sigourney Weaver, Lizzie Olsen even, who has gotten a lot of buzz from ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene.’
CC: We got really lucky with the cast of ‘Red Lights.’ The casting process became very easy. The greatest find which we had, which I have to attribute to our casting director (Ronna Kress) was Lizzie…We were thrilled to have her. She’s an amazing actress.
FSM: She really is. I had the chance to screen that film, and that’s a role that really needed to hold that film together, and she did quite well.
CC: We also got very lucky with Toby Jones. Toby’s been in various movies that people have all seen. But the biggest thing is he’s one of the leads in ‘Hunger Games’ coming out. So even our smaller roles became filled by very notable actors.
FSM: And working on big budget pictures and indie productions, besides the obvious, like a larger catering bill, what are the biggest differences between producing big budget vs. indie films?
CC: I think they’re really different. Most of the big budget films nowadays are going to tent-pole films which is a feat unto its own, a world unto its own. I think most of the studios are gearing that way. The difference that used to be, from ten years ago to today, are a lot of things that wouldn’t have been called indie ten years ago nowadays are because studios don’t want to run the risk of financing them, which is kind of unfortunate, so the studios are offsetting some of their monies into the independent film world. The challenge is bringing something that looks like a studio film in for an independent price. It gets really tricky.
FSM: Right, at one time, studios made medium sized movies. And of course now, if you don’t have a big opening weekend, you’re probably not going to open your film.
FSM: And indie film, which used to be considered very low budget, has stepped into this medium sized world, hasn’t it?
CC: It has. Yeah, and in many respects, sometimes it’s safer than doing the very small ones. The very small ones are the Oscar winning movies, the ones where the scripts are just so incredible and you try and bring them in for six million and under if you can get these mega-stars attached, and half of them are what you’re seeing as Oscar nominees for the past couple of years.
But on the other hand, there’s the world, kind of where I’m sitting in, with ‘Red Lights’ which was just completed, and the one that I’m going to be doing next, which are these, kind of, 10-30 million dollar movies. So they’re still considered indies but they’ve got everything that the foreign markets want. They’re either action or thriller or a comedy that translates internationally. You can still get the big name actor, but they’re impossible to do for a price. And yet they’re…the movies that are done for under 30 [million dollars] nowadays aren’t considered studio films anymore.
FSM: And do you think that filmmakers have figured it out now, with technology, with films being shown on the Internet, VOD—is it starting to come around? Because for a long time it seemed that it was kind of a vacuum, with getting films produced and distributed, and I don’t think that people understood the new way of distribution. From a producer’s standpoint, do you think that people have started to figure it out yet?
CC: I don’t think so, to be honest with you. I do think it’s working for the micro-budgeted movies, I think that’s a big factor for those films and what they do. I think the larger films–we have a ways to go. I think it definitely helps; I think that we have a way to go. And again, with the markets fluctuating as much as they have, I think everybody is re-thinking the films that they’re making based on what performed or what didn’t perform last year.
FSM: When you take a movie through the festival circuit, what do you see your biggest role as being a producer?
CC: ‘Red Lights’ is interesting because we haven’t wanted to show it to anybody. We’re using Sundance as a premiere. It’s the first time that anybody outside of those that worked on it will see it. And my next phase as a producer is to sell this. And sell it to the right buyer who we think will handle the film in the best way.
FSM: And having gone to Sundance before, what is the difference between Sundance and other festivals? Because the festival movement really has risen up, and now there are a thousand festivals, how does Sundance still maintain its uniqueness and its stature?
CC: Sundance is great. First of all, it’s one of the few local festivals that really mean something. It’s the start of the new year for someone like us. We debated—we got invitations from a few other festivals that were also very notable to come. We’d like to sell this film at the first festival so we’ve got the appropriate amount of time to figure out its time slot for next year, which is also a big factor in films nowadays. If you get the wrong release slot, you’re dead in the water.
There are things that you just can’t compete with anymore. So Sundance is great because it starts the year off; if there’s a buyer that buys it early on they’ve got 11 months to play with a release date, which actually helps everybody. And it’s still so noticeable. It’s amazing how that festival has grown.
FSM: Any final thoughts about ‘Red Lights,’ the producing process, or Sundance?
CC: I love the film, I hope everybody else does. You know, (laughing) what can we say about producers? We love it, we hate it, it’s in our blood; we wouldn’t be able to not do it. But I have no complaints. It’s given me a great life.