The job of the film producer can range from creative development to financing to guardian angel to taskmaster. Outside of the industry, the question, “What exactly does a producer do?” comes up pretty often. An easy—and accurate—response to that question could be a simple: “Everything.” One of our up-and-coming producers, Mark Sourian, offers a more eloquent answer: “A producer’s job is to do whatever it takes to make the best movies possible within whatever limits or constrains the project has.” Great producers utilize their passion, drive and determination to get projects off the ground—never an easy feat, whether your budget is $2 million or $200 million.
Below, we choose ten producers (and production companies), each striving to bring unique projects to the screen and whose track records are both impressive and promising. The list includes veterans who’ve notched up years of studio experience as well as newcomers breaking ground with their first projects. Altogether, we think they are the next up-and-coming producers.
Here’s a New Orleans-based “ grassroots, independent film-making army—a collective of madcap artists and animators of junk—that seeks to tell huge stories out of small parts.” Court 13’s producers Josh Penn, Dan Janvey and Michael Gottwald should be on your radar. They produced Ray Tintori’s popular short Death to the Tin Man, which toured the festival circuit. They portfolio includes collaborations with Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitllin in film school, where they produced his senior thesis Egg, a “re-telling of Moby Dick that takes place on the restless waves inside a bird-child’s stomach.” That auspicious pairing led to last year’s aforementioned surprise indie hit, a small-budget film whose epic look and feel makes it a true feat of producing and filmmaking—from the casting to the story to the cinematography. Good producers put their money on the screen, and Court 13 did that in spades. Next up for Michael Gottwald is Michael Tully’s Ping-Pong Summer, about a ping-pong and hip hop loving teenager whose life changes when he goes on a family vacation, with Susan Sarandon, Amy Sedaris and Judah Friedlander. Penn is involved in a slew projects, including Zeitlin’s new film, Tintori’s first feature and the upcoming feature from Henry Selick (Coraline, Nightmare Before Christmas). “When we were developing Beasts, most people thought our plan to make the movie was crazy, and very few people would have taken the risk to finance it,” Penn tells SSN. “I think Beasts has given credence to the idea that films that seem unconventional but have populist or universal themes, if done to their fullest potential, can find substantial audiences. We are a team that will make sure projects are seen through fully.”
When Van Couvering got started, she said she’d do anything, from locations to clearances to animal wrangling, just to be on set and get involved. She put in time in a variety of production roles in films like Junebug, with Amy Adams, and the 2004 Tod Solondz film Palindromes before moving into producing shorts. In 2010, she produced Tiny Furniture, the breakout feature by Lena Dunham. Van Couvering recalls, “The biggest lesson I learned was that I have my own taste, and I have to trust it. Tiny Furniture was a terrible, terrible idea for a movie—a girl with no direction comes home after college and has bad sex? We were convinced that no one would even play the movie, let alone see it. But I kept thinking, ‘Well, I like it; I think it’s funny. Maybe someone else will.’” Obviously, her instincts were right. She went on to produce Ry Russo Young’s Nobody Walks (co-written with Dunham) starring John Krasinski and Olivia Thirlby. Then came Joe Swanberg’s SXSW hit Drinking Buddies with Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston, which—like Nobody Walks—was acquired by Magnolia Pictures. What’s next? Some thrillers and ’70s-set historical dramas are in the works and at least two low-budget films set to shoot this summer or fall. “Once you stop listening to your own taste, you’re just operating by fear, copying what everyone else is doing,” Van Couvering says. The best producers take chances—and we’re excited to see what she does next.
These Texas-based producers are proving that you don’t have to be headquartered in Los Angeles or New York to make things happen. Halbrooks, a former member of the band The Polyphonic Spree and whose early producing credits include commercials and music videos, teamed up with Johnston (who is also a vegan chef and owns the Spiral Diner in Fort Worth) to form their company, Sailor Bear. They were recipients of a 2011 Sundance Creative Producing Fellowship and produced one of the most anticipated films at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, directed by David Lowery and starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck. The film is a meditative, romantic saga about an outlaw who escapes from prison and sets off across Texas to find his wife and son. The Hollywood Reporter has called it a “beautiful, densely textured elegy for outlaw lovers separated by their own misdeeds.” The film is being released in August by IFC Films. Halbrooks is a co-producer on Shane Carruth’s sci-fi drama Upstream Color, which enjoyed a strong showing in its opening weekend at IFC Center in Manhattan. Sailor Bear is producing Listen Up, Philip from writer-director Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel) in partnership with Washington Square Films, and Halbrooks is co-writing the remake of Pete’s Dragon with Lowery for Disney. Judging from its past successes, eclectic and exciting times lie ahead for this dynamic team.
Romanski started out associate producing short films, and in 2010, she produced Katie Aselton’s Sundance favorite The Freebie staring Aselton and Dax Shepard as a husband and wife who agree to sleep with someone else for one night—a situation that ends in catastrophe. She also produced David Robert Mitchell’s Cannes debut The Myth of the American Sleepover, distributed by Sundance Selects, a fantastic teen drama about a group of high school students celebrating the last night of summer. The film’s performances and the feeling of authenticity are quite impressive. Then Romanski and Aselton re-teamed for the thriller Black Rock, directed by Aselton and starring Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth, and acquired by LD Distribution. Next up, she’s re-teaming with Mitchell for Ella Walks the Beach, a romantic drama about a single woman traversing a California beach. Judging by what Romanski and Mitchell accomplished with The Myth of the American Sleepover, it’s likely this seemingly simple story will pack a surprising and unexpected punch, and the same goes for Romanski herself as she pursues future projects.
Formerly co-president of production at DreamWorks, Sourian signed a first-look deal with the studio in May, 2012 and already has one film awaiting release, one in production and one in prep. At his name shingle, Sourian has Need For Speed currently shooting in Georgia, a crime thriller set in the world of high-stakes car racing directed by Scott Waugh; the sci-fi teen fantasy Glimmer in prep, based on Carter Blanchard’s spec with Ringan Ledwidge at the helm; and the Vince Vaughan/Chris Pratt comedy The Delivery Man, slated for a fall release. Sourian started at DreamWorks as a development executive in 1997 and worked his way up the ranks. As an executive, he credits include such hits as The Ring, The Kite Runner, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and I Love You, Man. With a stellar record as an executive and promising films coming down the pike, Sourian has all the makings of a standout producer; he’s passionate, determined and mindful about merging powerful material with commercially viability. Check out our spotlight interview with Sourian for more on this up-and-coming talent.
The high-octane actioner The Raid: Redemption, winner of the People’s Choice Award in the Midnight Madness section of the 2011 Toronto Film Festival, put this company on the map. Welsh director Gareth Evans shot in Indonesia where the local-language production became a hit on its way to global success. XYZ (Nate Bolotin, Aram Tertzakian, Nick Spicer and Todd Brown) has “both mainstream American studio fare and internationally financed independent films” on their slate and also have a sales arm, which taps them into the international market. The company is developing Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation with Luke Wilson and Zachary Quinto and co-producing the horror remake Our House with Davis Entertainment and Universal. They’ve also got Gareth Evans’ actioner Heist (also with Universal), and Ole Bornedal’s Death of a Hostess with Endgame Entertainment. Raid 2 is currently in production. Their international scope and fantastic track record collaborating with quality directors make XYZ a company to look out for.
USC graduate Bongiovi met Significant Productions CEO Forest Whitaker several years ago on a China-based production she was developing for him. A few months into their partnership, Whitaker asked her to come run his company—talk about a show of faith. Whitaker made the right decision, because one of Bongiovi’s USC professors, Jed Dannenbaum, heard she was working with Whitaker and told her about up-and-coming filmmaker Ryan Coogler. Bongiovi convinced Whitaker that they had to produce Coogler’s first feature, a bold move for any production company. The result was the 2013 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Fruitvale (now called Fruitvale Station). Fruitvale Station arrives in theaters in July, but already Bongiovi is working on a Richard Pryor biopic, and she’s COO of JuntoBox, the tech company where emerging filmmakers can showcase and share their work. A producer as chance-taking and dynamic as Bongiovi deserves to be on our radar.
Cruze and Marin formed their company, Gadabout, in 2012 after meeting in 2009 and realizing they had a similar passion for storytelling. Just a year after joining forces, the pair is producing their first feature, The Making of Rock Hudson, this fall. Tyler Ruggeri penned the script and Maven Pictures’ Celine Rattray and Trudie Styler have come aboard as producers. Before Gadabout, Marin was associate producer on the comedy Lucky, directed by Gil Cates Jr. and staring Colin Hanks and Ari Graynor, and she most recently worked in development at Cross Creek Pictures. Cruze worked his way up assisting Jerry Bruckheimer, running development for Matt Rhodes at Persistent Entertainment and working at FX Network. Gadabout looks for “commercial films with authentic, interesting and dynamic characters that portray the full spectrum of human experience,” says Cruze. They’re out to directors now for Rock Hudson, and we’re pretty sure talent will be chomping at the bit to play such an iconic figure. Gadabout also has a ghost story, a New York-based romantic comedy and a serial-killer thriller in development. Marin also founded the Little Black Book networking event, held biannually in New York and L.A. and now sponsored by Gadabout. With their high-profile initiatives and in-development ventures, Cruze and Marin have staked out a choice spot in the up-and-coming landscape.
Since starting his career developing films like Swordfish, Gothika and Exit Wounds for Joel Silver and Warner Bros., Olsen has formed his own company, Apocalyptic Entertainment. While working with Silver, he became a horror-movie expert, producing horror thrillers like House of Wax and the notably creepy Orphan with Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard. He last partnered with Silver on the post-apocalyptic The Book of Eli before joining forces with Rick and Julie Yorn at the Fox-based LBI Entertainment. A great producer can nurture emerging talent as well as come up with their own ideas—Olsen has proven to be adept at both. He’s producing an Excalibur remake with director Bryan Singer, a Roman epic called Arminius at 20th Century Fox and an adaptation of George Orwell’s classic 1984 with Imagine, all in partnership with LBI. Apocalyptic forged a financing relationship with Paris Latsis and Terry Dougas’ 1821 Pictures, so you can expect Olsen and his partners to continue to develop their passion projects, carefully shepherding each with an eye for commercial success.
Rickard got his start assisting heavyweights like Scott Rudin and Brett Ratner before co-producing the 2010 Warner Bros. remake of Nightmare on Elm Street directed by Samuel Bayer. Since then, he’s produced comedies like Hall Pass and Horrible Bosses, and delved into thrillers and fantasy-adventures with Final Destination 5 and Jack the Giant Slayer. His Rickard Pictures scored a first-look deal with New Line, where he’s developing the action comedy Spy Guys with Jorma Taccone (MacGruber and the upcoming BFF) attached to direct, Horrible Bosses 2; Rampage, based on the 80’s video game; and Redemption, a Western from Carey and Chad Hayes (The Conjuring). “At the end of the day,” Rickard says, “I ask myself if this is a movie I would pay to see in a theater. I strive to be the kind of producer who bridges the gap between art and commerce.” Finding that perfect blend between a project’s artistic and commercial potential is the Holy Grail for the Hollywood producer, and Rickard is among the new vanguard to have mastered that magic alchemy.
No two producers are the same, but what links our choices together is the shared drive to seek out original stories, to push the boundaries of the medium and to create the absolute best product possible, whether it’s for the arthouse or the multiplex. Thanks to their vision, passion and good old-fashioned grit, our picks have each blazed paths of industry accomplishments to get to this list. We’re excited to follow along in their ventures ahead.