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Tribeca Film Festival Interview: Film Producer Gabe Cowan

Gabe Cowan 2014 photog Antonio E. Pedreira One of the benefits of attending film festivals – aside from the buffet of films on offer  – is the opportunity for film fans to sink their teeth into the “business of film.”  Films are sold, buzz is generated, and networking takes place right in front of our eyes. The experience of the independent producer is particularly interesting, as this is where they come to premiere the films in to which they’ve sunk months of hard work and money. Gabe Cowan, best known as a producer of horror films, is at Tribeca to premiere two films, Loitering with Intent and Just Before I Go (he also recently released the black comedy Cheap Thrill). We spoke about the films he has at the festival, his career, and film business at large.

When you look at your filmography, the majority of your films seem to be horror films.  Are you making a concerted effort to move away from genre films or was this just a case of interesting, non-horror films coming to your attention at one time?  

We’ve tended to make films with a three to one ratio towards genre; science fiction, thrillers, horror and action films.  But this year we only have one genre film, a comedy, two dramas and a documentary.  It just so happened that we ran into a couple of projects we wanted to get behind that we could financially justify because they had the right cast, talent behind the camera, and were within the right budgets.  But genre films have always been a way to protect the business aside – and can be a great way to express larger ideas in unexpected ways.

Why do horror films, which do have a limited fan base, continue to sell with such consistency?

There is a sense of community with genre films which just don’t exist in other genres, particularly dramas.  There are sites like Fangoria or Bloody Disgusting which service that community, and that community exclusively.  So if we get mentioned or reviewed there, we’ve already reached a serious portion of our audience.  Horror fans give horror films a try, they’ll make the effort even if they don’t like everything.  Dramas aren’t like that.  There isn’t a way to narrowly market a drama to make sure a specific audience is well aware of it.  So while we have some big dramas getting nominated and winning Oscars, they have to do a pretty broad marketing campaign just to get the right people in the seats.  There is not the same web presence focused on drama, there are far fewer magazines and fan communities.  But celebrities do have that focused market influence, which is why they’re important to have in independent cinema.  They bring in audiences which otherwise wouldn’t have tried a film, or even known about a film. Future thinking celebrities are seeing what is happening in the independent space and are pushing the medium forward. That’s what Matthew McConaughey took a risk doing with Dallas Buyers Club, it’s what Marisa Tomei and Sam Rockwell have done with many of their films including Loitering With Intent and it’s what Courteney Cox did with her film, Just Before I Go.

How do you weigh an actor being fundamentally right for a role vs a star who will add to a film’s cache?

It really is a gut thing, feeling confident that that person is right for the role and can do the role.  And when deciding between a star and actor, you have to be confident enough in the material to go with the actor you think will give the best performance.  But sometimes there are actors you wouldn’t necessarily think of for a role who come in and surprise you.  Katie Cassidy is a good example of that.  She had been doing mostly CW shows when she came in to interview for a film called The Scribbler, but she came in character and blew us away. She was amazing in the movie – and when it comes out in August, audiences will get to see another side of her. Milo Ventimiglia worked with us on a film called Static partlybecause he had been typecast in younger roles and this allowed him to play a man, with adult problems and family obligations.  And Milo’s is another fantastic actor, and he’s amazing in the movie.  David Koechner in Cheap Thrills, who is phenomenal in the role, as written we were expecting a Sean William Scott type of bro-actor to play that character. But David came in and stole the role…I mean he just took it. Katie, David, and Milo took a chance on us, and we were the beneficiaries of their incredible talent and hard work – and, they got to play roles they weren’t getting to play in bigger budget projects – so everyone wins.

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What can you tell me about the two films you have premiering at Tribeca?

Well, I think they are both perfect films to premiere at Tribeca because it’s a New York festival and each festival has a unique vibe, I think. Loitering with Intent was shot all around New York, in the city and then upstate. It’s about two actors who suddenly have the opportunity to write a screenplay for them to star in, but run into their own limitations as writers. Ivan and Martin who star in and wrote the film gave breakthrough performances, and Adam Rapp, who directed it, was inspiring to watch. Just Before I Go probably has the potential to be a real breakthrough for both Courtney Cox, who is directing for the first time, and Seann William Scott in the lead.  There are 39 speaking roles and about 12 or 14 meaningful supporting characters.  Rob Riggle gives one of his best performances in a film, and he’s a fine comic actor already, as a former high school bully who has been through a lot of tragedy in his life.  And Seann is very funny in the role, but unlike some of the quirky parts he’s played in the American Pie movies or Goon, his is a stable, centered character.

How did you get involved in these films as a producer?

Well, my producing partner John and I are tech savvy and have done a lot of the editing and sound mixing for our own films. So when the guys making Loitering with Intent came to us, I think they knew about the quality of our work and how we could help as advisers throughout the process to make high quality material for very little cost. And with Just Before I Go, that was a bit of serendipity.  Courtney was a friend some time ago when I used to play in a band with David Arquette.   Years ago we were close friends, but life happens and I hadn’t seen her in years, when one day I ran into her at a charity event and she asked what I’d been up to, I said “I’m producing movies” and she said “I’m planning to make a movie.”  She gave me the script to read while I was showing Bad Milo and Cheap Thrills at SXSW, which did gangbusters.  So when I got back to Los Angeles and read the script, I met with Courtney, gave her notes, and then she asked us to produce the movie.

What is the value of showing films during a film festival?

Well, there are two big advantages, especially for independent films.  First, the filmmakers get to see how their movie plays for an audience. We all work so hard to make these movies – and there’s nothing like seeing an audience react to your work.And we see those reactions in person, rather than hearing about it second hand.  Second, the festival audiences are the types of audiences we want seeing our work.  They seek out new and different films, they try things outside their comfort zone, and they are active and passionate participants, rather than passive viewers.

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Festival favorites Bad Milo and Cheap Thrills both premiered on demand before getting theatrical runs.  How has that service changed the industry?

Right now, the film industry is going through a big transitional period.  Years ago, a huge percentage of a film’s profit came from DVD sales, but then 6 or 7 years ago, the bottom fell out and the industry, at least in the independent space, is still trying to get back on their feet.  Studios are making fewer films, taking fewer risks, making more sequels and franchise films.  And because of that, few low budget movies are finding traditional distribution.  The on-demand service is filling that gap, either by releasing the film exclusively, premiering a film on-demand before releasing it in theaters, or offering a more traditional “in theaters now” service.  But expect to see that as a more and more common distribution method for even bigger films five years from now. It’s unfortunate because there’s a social experience watching a film with an audience. Maybe one day Apple or Facebook or a combination of the two will figure out how to have that social experience in your living room.

What are the unique challenges of being an independent film producer?

Finding solid screenplays can be challenging. I’d say we make one out of every 100 we read. It’s a cliché but someone once said every great film starts with a great screenplay…or a great idea for a poster. After getting a solid script together, we need to find talented directors and specific, strong actors.  So, the only aspect we can sacrifice to accommodate our financial limitations is the amount of  time we have to produce a movie.  Everything has to get made on a condensed timeline.  But we also have to make the project worth it for the filmmaking team to donate their time to. Nobody is getting rich off these smaller movies. Part of the trick is finding projects that really speak to people.  But that is also the reason my partner and I started a system of profit sharing with the cast and crew, so they have some ownership of the film. We can’t do it on every movie, but we try to.

What are the biggest challenges you have when trying to sell a film?

Dramas are tough to sell.  You never hear a studio call something a drama, they’re always called dramedies or dramatic thrillers or some other variant of drama. I just finished a film called Making the Rules starring Robin Thicke and Jamie Pressley, which Lionsgate are releasing in May. They’re calling it a rom-com, but really it’s a romantic drama.  And it’s a very good one.

Why is it so hard to market dramas?  Is it a deficiency in marketing or are audiences just unresponsive?

Well, it’s a complicated issue.  Independent marketing companies don’t have the money or resources to reach the specific audience they need to.  And few people know how to “sell a drama” effectively or creatively.  It’s easier to sell a comedy or a horror film than an intimate drama.  If you look at someone like Jason Blum, he makes horror movies but he’s branched out, and a lot of his movies have stars, but not all of them.  Yet his films are huge box-office successes because his team is so good at creating solid concepts which can be presented to an audience clearly and get them excited.  We just need to take that same approach with dramas. We need to be asking, how can this idea come across effectively in two minutes? Believe me, we would way rather just be focused on making good movies – but if we don’t find an audience for our films, we wouldn’t get to make more films, so figuring out the marketing side has become necessary. I’m not a genius marketer, I’m just making observations on the industry and what makes it hard for filmmakers to make money on their films.

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Do you think the studios can work with the independents to keep that market place alive?

I do.  Studios used to have a brand; when you went to an MGM film you used to know the type of experience you were going to have. Some studios specialize in smaller, independent cinema, like Magnolia, IFC, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Sony Classics, and others.  Having an independent film company under a large studio allows a studio to offer an audience options.  We know, since Chevy beat the Model-T by offering different colors on their cars, that people want variety.

What made you want to work in films?

I grew up surrounded by the industry.  My great-uncle is King Vidor, who is well known for so much of his work – but I first knew of him as the director of the black and white scenes in The Wizard of Oz. My great-grandfather was George Seitz who directed the original Last of the Mohicans and the Hardy Boys films.  Both my parents are philanthropists, very good generous people, and while I’m involved with several charities personally, professionally I always wanted to make movies. And in 6th grade, in the school year book, we had to write what we wanted to do when we grew up and I said “I want to be a director like Steven Spielberg“, because E.T. had just come out and Spielberg was the definition of a director.  But in high school I started to play music and had success.  I was making money and had a record deal with Geffin music and was touring all over the world, playing with some pretty big names.  But that entire time, I filmed everywhere I went and when I turned 30 and thought, if I want to make movies, I have to make that my focus.  So I gave up touring and focused on my first passion. It has been one of the great joys of my life to be involved in telling these stories.

Loitering With Intent and Just Before I Go are premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival.  Cheap Thrills is currently on limited release.

About Lesley Coffin

Lesley is a midwesterner at heart, who happens to reside in New York City (by way of Queens). Heralding from the hometown of John Hughes (yes, she went to Ferris Bueller's high school and they did have Saturday detention), went to college at Ball State University (that place David Letterman always talks about giving money to) and completed a Masters degree at New York University. Lesley writes books about film and Hollywood and thinks both seriously and humorously about the world of film, television, and Hollywood. "Even as a kid I tended to want to analyze anything and everything I watched, a character trait I still have and channel into my creative pursuits to avoid driving friends and family crazy. My taste in movies are all over the place, but I love interesting films and the film world."
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