Nearly 25 years ago, producer Christine Vachon’s first film Poison won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Since that Todd Haynes pic, she hasn’t snagged the award again, but this year Vachon and Pamela Koffler’s Killer Films was back in Park City to celebrate 20 solid years as an indie powerhouse.
“It’s like the French proverb — the more it changes, the more it stays the same,” says Koffler of the past two decades in the industry. “It’s the same old hustle, but it’s different players and different financing models, and you have to work pretty hard to stay on top of them all because the entire model of how these movies make money back has completely and utterly changed, basically.”
Even with those new models, players and platforms, the duo are thriving in the game. With a raucous party last Saturday on Main Street, Killer Films not only had the NEXT slate pic and Kristen Wiig starrer Nasty Baby debuting on January 24 to fly the flag at Sundance but a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Julianne Moore in Still Alice, which premiered last year at Toronto. Killer also has the Weinstein Company-distributed and Haynes-helmed Carol with American Horror Story’s Sarah Paulson, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett coming out this year as well as the Andrew Neel-directed Goat co-produced with James Franco’s Rabbit Bandini Productions, and a number of film and TV projects in various stages of development.
And there are some old friends in new well-placed positions on platforms expanding into original films.
“I’m very excited by Amazon’s move obviously because our friend and colleague, Ted Hope, is a big part of it and I know he’s going to do something visionary,” says Vachon. As my colleague Mike Fleming Jr revealed on January 7 and Amazon Studios confirmed on January 19, the producer and former Fandor exec is running the Jeff Bezos company’s big push into features. That could see another move in the ongoing relationship Vachon and Koffler have with Hope. “Killer and Ted are actually already producing movies together,” notes Vachon of the pic that used to be called The Blunderer and is now known as the Untitled Patricia Highsmith Project, the author on whose book it is based. “We talk with some frequency, and we haven’t specifically gotten our hands on any of that Amazon money yet, but obviously we know our tastes frequently align, so we are eager to have those conversations,” laughs Vachon.
Despite potential Amazon money and their long-proven pedigree, the Killer duo emphasize that financing is still a huge challenge for them. “Getting each movie financed is its own epic tale,” says Koffler. “The movie that put us on the map in many ways was probably Boys Don’t Cry, although we’d been in business for a good seven years before that. But when you’re trying to get movies financed like I’m Not There or Happiness or movies that really kind of take a chance, it is just impossible,” she adds. “And it takes a lot of laser focus and vision, and there’s a lot of landmines on the way.”
To help the next generation of filmmakers navigate some of those landmines, the duo started a Masterclass program with Stony Brook University a few years back. Like some of the lessons from Vachon’s books Shooting To Killer and A Killer Life, the six-hour workshop teaches the skills for getting a film made and getting it seen. “Part of the reason we started this program is because we feel like there’s a lot of young filmmakers that are not getting the tools they need in the films schools to really enter this new world,” says Vachon.
Adds Koffler: “One thing we tell young filmmakers frequently, especially the ones in our program, is you really have to be much more entrepreneurial now as a storyteller and wear a lot of different kinds of hats. Filmmakers do themselves no favors when they don’t really learn about that side of the business.”
For both Vachon and Koffler, one of the most important skills in today’s multiplatform environment, besides the hustle, is being very hands-on from start to finish – which just might be the real secret to Killer’s longevity and success. “I think also more than ever there’s a place for a company like us, really creative producers do have a skill set in physically making this stuff but also really shepherding it from the beginning to the end whether it’s film, television or digital,” says Koffler.
“Twenty years in,” she adds, “I feel like there’s more opportunity for a group like us in the landscape of making content. Today, I feel more energized and excited about how we can be a part of the industry than even 10 years ago.”