Published on December 10th, 2015 | by Biz Books
The Biz Interview: Robyn Wiener
It’s been a prolific year for producer Robyn Wiener of Synergy Cinema. Following an international film festival tour in support of two films, Black Fly and Numb, she has returned to Vancouver to work on two others, Dark Light and Sleeping with the Greendales.
We spoke to Robyn Wiener to find out more about the film festival circuit along with her film projects and what it takes to be a successful film producer in Canada.
Can you start by telling us a little bit more about you and what projects you are working on right now?
This has been a very busy year for me work and travel-wise and I’ve been fortunate this year to have traveled to Cannes, Berlin, Halifax, Toronto, Halifax and San Diego for both film festivals and to attend some amazing markets. I was a participant this year at TAP (Trans-Atlantic Partners) which focuses on co-productions. It was an incredible opportunity for me as a producer and for my company, and I am excited about the potential to develop co-production opportunities. As an independent producer, I am passionate about storytelling and partnering with other creative talent that have a similar vision.
My company, Synergy Cinema is currently in development on a few projects. One of them is a “Hitchcockian” thriller entitled Dark Light written by Director/Writer Jonas Quastel, a comedy called Sleeping with the Greendales by writer Adrian Cunningham and I am hoping to add one more to my slate. As well, I have a few projects that I’m doing budgets for that have some interest in shooting in Vancouver. I’m always on the lookout for interesting stories and working with directors that have an interesting point of view.
One of your films, Black Fly, was screened at last year’s festival and another one, Numb made its North American premiere at the Whistler Film Festival. Can you talk a little bit about the journeys of these film into film festivals and what that process was like for you?
Film festivals are a bit of a mystery and often like shooting fish in a barrel. As a filmmaker, one always hopes to get into some of the top festivals out there like TIFF, Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Telluride, etc. The reality however, is often very different. Festivals are pretty specific in terms of the content they are showcasing and while, as a filmmaker you want to be included in the prestigious ones, your film may not fit the mode/style of that particular festival. As well, it’s a bit strategic when doing festivals too. Your World, North American and US premieres are key and so you have to often strategize on which festival you want to introduce your film to audiences to. And sometimes, that can backfire on you if you hold out for the hopes of great festival, don’t get into that one but then have turned down another one in the process. In the case of Black Fly, we didn’t have a sales agent or distributor on board when we ventured into the festival ring but with Numb, our sales agent, CMG (Cinema Management Group) has been helpful in terms of navigating those waters and supporting our film. If you can be attached to a sales agent in the beginning when you do the festival circuit, it can definitely offer advantages especially if there is a market presence.
You were a producer on both Black Fly and Numb. Can you shed some light on what your responsibilities were on both of these films?
On both Black Fly and Numb, both projects were helmed by producers Ken Frith (Black Fly) and Dylan Jenkinson (Numb) and I was brought in as the producer to assist with many of the production and shooting elements as well as creatively. Both projects were low budget so I also doubled as the Line Producer/Production Manager on both. I love the creative process and being able to work and team with other producers is a great experience as each person on the team brings different strengths and backgrounds to the table. I have to tip my hat to both Ken and Dylan who spent several years each developing those films and slogging it out believing in the films and their stories. My very strong production background made me a valuable person to deal with those elements while adding creative input to the process. I’m really proud of both of those films and they both hold a special place for me.
What’s the most important lesson that you have learned so far in your career?
I’ve learned so many things along the way and each project I do, I will come away with some new knowledge nugget. In the past few years, I’d say picking projects that you really love and are passionate about are key in the independent world. The money is not enough of a carrot to keep you in the game so you have to love the people and the material to keep your interest alive.
I have also learned that you need to have great inner strength and lots of tenacity to keep going. I have heard so many people say that someone will always find a reason to say ‘no’ to you but you have to give them the reason to say ‘yes’ and that can be very challenging. This business is like playing the stock market, you have to ride the waves of the highs and lows. It is not an industry meant for the faint of heart, ego or the necessity for stability. That and that change is the only constant you will ever know. That is for certain.
From where you are in the industry, what is the current state of the Canadian film industry?
I think that it’s an exciting time for filmmakers in terms of stories and genres that are out there. There seems to be more risk being taken on films, TV shows and talent that wasn’t there many years ago. I think the landscape has changed but funding has also been cut. I’m keen to see what the new (Liberal) government is going to do with funding for the arts in general. There seems to be more support from this current government so I hope they make good on their promise. And, I’m looking forward to seeing some great films and filmmakers alike making bigger strides out there in the international marketplace. With the vast changes in technology over the past 10 years, filmmakers of all kinds are emerging with some great, innovative storytelling and I find that incredibly inspiring.
What do you enjoy the most about producing?
For me, I love everything from developing a story with the writer and director and then gathering all the elements to pull it together. I’m naturally a story teller so I love good stories and ones that leave an impact on you. I want to tell stories that move you in some way be it that they make you laugh, cry, think, get angry or any other host of emotions. If someone comes away from a film I’ve produced and has a strong reaction to it, no matter what that is, I’ve done my job. I love that a story can transcend boundaries from socioeconomic, political and generational.
What are the biggest challenges for feature film producers?
I’d say that one of the hardest things is accessing funds. If you are Canadian, there is a limited amount of government funding such as Telefilm and the Harold Greenberg Fund for instance and so if you are a new producer, that money is hard to get. And, it should be hard but there is still not enough to share with everyone. Also, finding a good story that can access talent and have the legs to do something commercial is always the great goal of filmmaking. There are a lot of great stories out there that will never get made because they don’t land in the right hands with a producer or director that can pull a project together. The perfect recipe of a good story, talented director, cast, funding and something somewhat commercial is a very tricky balancing act.
What advice would you give to aspiring film producers?
Don’t become a producer! Ha, just kidding. I would say that they should only get involved with people they can work with creatively and business-wise. If someone is not business savvy and the other person is, it will not lead to a good relationship as you need both parties to understand, at least on some level, the business of the business. Work with people you respect more than you like. It’s easy to be warm and fuzzy with people but when push comes to shove, if you don’t respect how someone works, the whole thing won’t work out. I would also say that they shouldn’t enter into any agreement with someone on ‘good faith’. I’ve seen a number of those relationships dissolve badly and it’s messy. If someone is on board with you in a serious way, they will not take it personally that you want to paper that. I would also tell everyone to trust your gut intuition – if something feels wrong from the get go, get out – it will not get better. It will save you financially and emotionally in the end. And finally, seek mentorship. There are some really talented producers out there that would be flattered if you took them to dinner to ask their advice on how to do something. If it’s your first time doing something, there is nothing wrong with reaching out for advice from someone who’s been there, done that. Let the ego go and know and be willing to admit that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’.
Where can we find out more about you?
IMDb: Robyn Wiener
Facebook: Synergy Cinema Inc.
Our thanks to Robyn Wiener for speaking with us!