Monday, April 25, 2011

Christine Vachon Delivers A State Of Cinema Address Uneasily Digested At SFIFF54

Independent film producer Christine Vachon listening to a question from the audience last night at Kabuki Cinemas. 

Omar P.L. Moore/

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Monday, April 25, 2011


Independent film producer Christine Vachon arrived here, and last night she gave fair warning to those in attendance at the two-thirds-full auditorium at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas anticipating her State Of Cinema address at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival on Easter Sunday.  It was nine o'clock.

"It's midnight for me," said Ms. Vachon, a New Yorker.  "They gave me some wine," she said, raising a glass of white wine aloft for the audience to see. 

"I'm going to be really honest tonight, and then I'll open it up to the audience so that we can have a real conversation."

Between several sips of wine Ms. Vachon, president of Killer Films and the producer of sixty films -- "sixty f****** films - that's unbelievable!" -- casted a positive and realistic view of where cinema lies in 2011, saluting the power of platforms like Hulu, YouTube and Netflix.

"I believe that the way films are shown directly affect the way they are made." The producer also cited that technology and the platforms have been a boon for many filmmakers who wouldn't have been able to make the films twenty years ago that they can make now.

Putting things into context later alluding to the instant online platforms now, Ms. Vachon commented, "let's face it, you have more access to things from 1974 than you had in 1974."

The Manhattan resident spoke about many different topics including her reservations about filmmakers recently signing a petition to expand the window between theatrical film release dates and the films' initial video-on-demand appearance dates. 

"I don't know.  I have real mixed feelings about it.  Come on, that train has long since left the station.  What I'd like to focus on, the real battle is, how do we as independent filmmakers stay in business and how do you keep coming to the movies to support what we make?"

Ms. Vachon, who battled cancer which went into remission in 2009, mentioned fellow Brown University alum Todd Haynes, all of whose films she's produced.

"He said, 'I want to do something different.  I want to make a female-centered story, and it will be four to six hours long.'"

The movie was "Mildred Pierce", which aired this month on HBO. 

The producer lauded the freedom and benefit of having television episodes of a five-and-a-half-hour long-form series produced and then shown almost instantly.  "We'd have episode one finished and aired before we'd even done episode five, so you can't go back," Ms. Vachon said of Mr. Haynes' film.

Mr. Haynes will be directing a concert for American Express, disclosed the producer, whose Killer Films began as a niche production company for gay and lesbian films in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

Ms. Vachon, who mentioned that she's developing a cable series starring Julianne Moore, hailed the abundance of women's stories on television.

"There are more female-centric stories now than ever before on cable television --"Weeds", "The United States Of Tara", "Nurse Jackie", "Mildred Pierce", "The C Word".  That's unheard of."

("The L Word" and "Sex And The City" are among other women's stories that enjoyed success in the last ten years on cable TV.)

Ms. Vachon described independent film as "something that is executable, and something that works as a film, as a story."

"For me, independent film isn't about budget so much as it is about a singular vision, something that could not have been made by anybody else," Ms. Vachon said.  She listed numerous filmmakers from an era at which she entered the business in the 1980s: Jim Jarmusch, Gus Van Sant, Spike Lee, Mr. Haynes and others.

Christine Vachon checking her phone during a question from the audience last night at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.
Omar P.L. Moore/

Perhaps the most significant and apt statement of the evening captured everything that is happening now.

"The state of cinema," Ms. Vachon declared, "is not necessarily taking place in a cinema."

For all of her pronouncements and engaging, charismatic ways during her address, throughout the night Ms. Vachon appeared dismissive, if not disrespectful of numerous questions from the audience. 

Ms. Vachon frequently looked down to check her Blackberry as audience members asked questions.  Often she prefaced her response to some audience questions by saying, "I'm not going to answer your question, but I'll answer the question I'd like to be asked."

When one man passionately argued his case regarding repertory art house theaters, citing the need for the San Francisco Film Society (which runs the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival) to come in and run the Clay Theater, which sits less than five blocks from Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Ms. Vachon suggested that repertory houses were important but not where the fight for independent cinema should begin and end.  She suggested that the films themselves are more significant than the places where they are shown. 

One lady, who described herself as 37-year-old filmmaker who has a film showing at SFIFF54, openly voiced concern, as did several others in the audience, about Ms. Vachon's matter-of-fact responses, which some seemed to feel were negative.

"That's so discouraging," one audience member said in response to an answer Ms. Vachon gave about financing a movie.

After another audience member asked a question, the producer responded, as if  bewildered by the question.

"Why are you focusing on what's not happening?  Why not focus on what's possible and what can be done?"  Ms. Vachon asked.

As the night wore on an uneasiness and disengagement between audience and speaker did as well, and it was unmistakable.  Very little if any applause at all rang out during the 30-plus-minutes speech as Ms. Vachon, who stayed true to her promise to be honest and direct, soldiered on. 

The producer may not necessarily have given the people listening to her what they wanted or expected to hear.

The tension between audience and speaker was never more clear than at the end of the night when someone in the audience sarcastically shouted in a booming voice, "thank you for coming."

That statement begat a brief, awkward applause. 

The event then ended abruptly, with no closing statements or standard conclusions from the speaker or the hosts.  Any attempt to do so had passed, for the lights on the main stage had already dimmed, leaving an uncertain-looking Christine Vachon standing at stage left for a few seconds, facing the already-departing audience. 

Ms. Vachon turned around and walked backstage.

Christine Vachon responding to an audience question last night at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.
Omar P.L. Moore/

The 54th San Francisco International Film Festival continues through May 5

Read this story here with photo slideshow

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