To make her latest movie, the film producer turned to crowdfunding
Stacey Sher Amanda Friedman for The Wall Street Journal; Hair and Makeup by Stephanie Daniel
Movie producer Stacey Sher is no stranger to the Sundance Film Festival, the independent film event where she premiered her popular romantic comedy “Reality Bites” 20 years ago. Since then, she has helped produce nearly 30 films, including “Pulp Fiction,” “Django Unchained” and “Get Shorty.” But the film she will debut at Sundance next week, “Wish I Was Here,” is her most unconventional yet: Without studio backing, she made it through crowdfunding on the website Kickstarter. “I call it filmmaking by any means necessary,” she says.
“I’ve been blessed to do things that are kind of iconoclastic,” says Ms. Sher, 51, during an interview in Eden, Utah. Dressed in tie-dye stretch pants and a T-shirt, she looks like she could be a character in one of her own indie films. She has just spent the morning traipsing around a mountain encampment, where she is participating in a networking retreat, and has come to rest in a makeshift cafe while waiting for her husband, musician Kerry Brown, to pick up a headlamp and sunblock at a pop-up store next door.
Ms. Sher calls “Wish I Was Here,” directed by actor Zach Braff, a “spiritual sequel” to “Garden State,” the 2004 coming-of-age film that Ms. Sher also produced. In “Garden State,” Mr. Braff played a 20-something aspiring actor who returns to his New Jersey hometown after his mother dies. This time, he plays a struggling actor in his mid-30s who finally finds meaning in his life by home schooling his children.
Although “Garden State” was a box-office hit and won a Grammy for its soundtrack, Ms. Sher says she and Mr. Braff had trouble getting funding for this next collaboration. She says the only studio that was seriously interested put restrictions on whom they could cast, so they decided to find funding themselves.
Last year, her husband told her about the Kickstarter campaign of the musician Amanda Palmer, who set out to raise $100,000 but within 30 days had received contributions of more than $1 million. “Wish I Was Here” had similar success. By last spring, nearly 50,000 people donated more than $3 million to the film, buying perks such as a seat in Mr. Braff’s row at the premiere and the actor’s assistance with a marriage proposal.
Still, the fundraising tactic was controversial. “People asked, ‘What happens to the profits?’ ” she says, since the crowdfunding donors wouldn’t get a percentage of what the movie makes at the box office. “Nobody was forced to be a backer, and they’re still getting stuff,” she says. “But it can’t seem like a cash grab.” She adds, “crowdfunding is not right for everyone.”
Part of the problem with making “Wish I Was Here” was the expense of shooting it in California. “It’s really a love letter to California,” Ms. Sher says, and it was essential to shoot most of the film there.
But the state gives tax credits only to a limited number of film and TV projects, decided by a lottery, and Ms. Sher’s project didn’t win. Because other states also offer tax credits, it often makes more financial sense to film and produce a movie outside of California (which is why the postproduction work for “Wish I Was Here” ended up being done in New York). For this project, one studio executive suggested, “Why don’t you shoot in Vancouver and roll in some palm trees to make it look like L.A.?”
Another filmmaking challenge today, she says, is the increased emphasis on attracting international audiences. “A large portion of the box-office revenue is determined by international sales,” she says. “Spectacle travels well, brand name travels, and stars travel well.” But what studios sometimes overlook, she says, is the surprising success of small independent films. She mentions recent hits such as “Before Midnight,” “The Way Way Back” and “Fruitvale Station” as examples.
Part of what attracted her to Mr. Braff’s script was his distinctive voice. Ms. Sher likes working with “auteur filmmakers—writer-directors, generally, who could plop down from another planet and you’d be able to identify their work as their work,” she says. Writer-directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh —her partners on previous projects—certainly fit this description too.
Having grown up watching mainstream Hollywood movies made in the 1970s, Ms. Sher misses the classic narrative films that she thinks came out more frequently when she was young. “We were the family that went to see ‘Raging Bull’ the weekend it opened.”
She does see some hope lately. “This is an incredibly great year for film,” she says. “Having movies like ‘Gravity,’ ‘Her,’ ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ ‘American Hustle’ and ‘Blue Jasmine’ come out within a few months shows you have films from personal filmmakers in all different areas resonating with wide audiences,” she adds. They’re part of what she considers a “serious water-cooler moment” for the industry. “People want to see things to be able to talk about them,” she says.
Ms. Sher began her career as an intern for a local Washington, D.C., TV station, where she spent much of her time working for a sports program. “I thought I wanted to go into sports broadcasting, but that was a bridge too far for me, sexism-wise,” she says. “I didn’t feel the need to be the woman to bust into the naked locker room in order to get the story.”
Instead, she followed her professor’s advice to go to film school at the University of Southern California. “Honestly, until that moment I didn’t know there was such a thing as a career in film,” she says. “When I was much younger I thought as a woman the only thing you could do was be an actor.”
After learning about earnings reporting and box-office statistics, she started out by making music videos and later turned to producing. Early on, she became a fan of director Quentin Tarantino, who had been a friend’s roommate. Ms. Sher finally met him at the premiere of “Terminator 2.” “I relentlessly pursued him to work with us,” she recalls, and eventually made a deal for him to write and develop for the production company she was working for at the time. “He was like, ‘I’m writing a movie about three stories that are one story.’ That was the entire pitch for ‘Pulp Fiction.’ ” She signed him right away.
Lately Ms. Sher is working on her own and spends her time meeting with writers, reading scripts and watching movies. She and her husband and two children live near Franklin Canyon Park in Los Angeles. For fun, she reads books that she cannot imagine turning into movies, such as musician Patti Smith’s memoir “Just Kids.” She also reads books with her children, who already have an appreciation of film. “Sometimes my son will say, ‘Mom, this would be a great movie,’ ” she says, or, “At least that didn’t have a typical Hollywood ending.”
Jan. 10, 2014 Wall Street Journal