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Originally published Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 9:56 AM

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Seattle-area film producers head to Sundance

Seattle-area film producers such as Lacey Leavitt and Steven Schardt talk about what it takes to get a film made ... and on the road to the Sundance Film Festival, which begins Jan. 19, 2012.

Special to The Seattle Times; Christy Karras: christykarras@gmail.com

Roll the credits

A SAMPLING of Northwest producers and the films they've supported.

Steven Schardt: "Your Sister's Sister," "Humpday"

Jennifer Roth: "The Details," "Black Swan"

Jennifer Maas: "Treatment," "Wheedle's Groove"

Jane Charles: "Fat Kid Rules the World," "$5 Cover: Seattle"

Mel Eslyn: "Treatment," "Your Sister's Sister"

Peggy Case: "The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle," "Zoo"

David Skinner: "A Not So Still Life," "Outsourced"

Lacey Leavitt: "The Catechism Cataclysm," "Safety Not Guaranteed"

Festival preview

2012 Sundance Film Festival

Jan. 19-29 in Park City, Utah (www.sundance.org/festival).
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When people ask Lacey Leavitt what an independent film producer does, she might answer by describing a photo of her taken on a set. In the photo, she has a bag of food under one arm, she's clutching bug spray in the other and she has a phone cradled to her ear.

"That's a pretty good description," she says.

Leavitt is one of the producers of "Safety Not Guaranteed," a Seattle-based film that will have its premiere on Jan. 22 in the Sundance Film Festival's prestigious U.S. Dramatic Competition category.

Directors and screenwriters devise what a film should be, but producers are the ones who make those dreams happen. In the run-up to Sundance, which begins Thursday in Park City, Utah, Seattle-area producers and other industry insiders talked about the role of producers in independent filmmaking, which involves everything from securing financing to feeding actors between takes.

What is a producer?

In Hollywood, land of superstars and big budgets, a producer's role is fairly well defined, falling into one of three categories: An executive producer lends money, key contacts or material (say, an author who helps produce the movie version of his or her book). Line producers handle the day-to-day workings of a film, including spending. The general term "producer" often refers to someone in between, a sort of CEO who stays with the film throughout its life cycle.

Hollywood producers handle legal aspects of a production, amassing the rights to everything from a screenplay to performances and collecting them under an umbrella company that can negotiate to sell or distribute the film.

In the lower-budget indie film world, celebrated yearly at Sundance, producers do all the above. But the full scope of their jobs is so wide that it almost defies description.

"Independent productions — the kind that are made in Seattle and that have been going to Sundance the past few years — have all-in-one producers who perform all levels of production and (a la indie production everywhere) wear a few hats," Lyall Bush, executive director of the Northwest Film Forum, said in an email.

That means everything from hiring crew members to working out location logistics to ensuring that everyone on the set is fed and housed.

A good producer must be a creatively talented, obsessively organized financial wizard and phenomenal communicator. "Your entire day, every day, is creative problem solving," Leavitt said. "Every day is a new problem."

Those problems are legion and unpredictable. On the set of "Safety Not Guaranteed," for example, "We had to shoot a car chase with a car that wouldn't run — and you wouldn't know it from watching the film. The first AD (assistant director) and all the assistants would push the car and then get out of the way."

"As a producer, your job is to create as much time and money as you can, so that the director can do his or her job well," said Steven Schardt, a producer for "Your Sister's Sister," which will also screen at Sundance. Filmed on San Juan Island, it's the latest from Seattle writer/director Lynn Shelton.

Among other things, Schardt was partly responsible for dealing with a lead actor's last-minute departure due to a scheduling conflict. "I do feel like I have legitimate producer scars," Schardt said.

The creativity starts at the very beginning.

"At the same time that you're putting together a business plan, you're working with the writer-director to craft the script into something that reflects not only the writer-director's vision but also the producer's reality," said Kathleen McInnis, a longtime Seattle film programmer who is now a film festival strategist in Los Angeles. That means addressing whether the script will draw the talent, money and audiences to make the film successful.

"This is the key driving moment that divides people who do from people who want to do. You are absolutely convinced that the writer-director is going to make this film, and you think it will be a success," McInnis said. And "you have to do all that based on a script that isn't quite finished yet."

The professional journey

How does a person become a producer? Get involved in the independent film world in any way possible, network and ask for things without hesitation. "Act like an authority — even if you don't deserve it. Yet," McInnis said. Most important: Jump in and start making films.

During film school at the University of Washington, Leavitt said, "I ended up being everyone's producer, and when it came time to produce my own film, no one was doing it well enough, so I produced it myself." Even before then, she was producing school assemblies and programs at her mother's day care in her hometown, Lake Stevens. "I realized I've been a producer all my life."

Leavitt worked on making connections, introducing herself and seeking opportunities. That paid off when Seattle-based producer Jennifer Roth asked her to move to New York be an assistant to the producers on "The Squid and the Whale," the first in a series of production jobs there.

Leavitt returned to Seattle "just for the summer" to do a documentary for a nonprofit, a trip that introduced her to another love, roller derby — which led her to codirect a documentary. "Blood on the Flat Track: The Rise of the Rat City Roller Girls," debuted at SIFF in 2007.

She began working with Megan Griffiths, who's been involved in one way or another on many of the movies made here during the past five years or so. Leavitt was one of the producers for Griffiths' "The Off Hours" as well as Todd Rohal's "The Catechism Cataclysm," both of which went to Sundance last year.

Sundance has been a part of the journey for many local producers. "This is the industry's winter convention," McInnis said. "I'm a strong, strong believer in going to festivals, especially Sundance, even if you don't have a film."

The festival isn't Leavitt's only connection to the Sundance Institute. Last summer, it selected her for its Feature Film Creative Producing Fellowship, an intensive lab held at Robert Redford's Sundance Resort in Utah.

Along with the usual battles, Seattle producers have another big hurdle these days: The state film incentive program wasn't renewed during the last legislative session, even though the Washington State Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) recommended renewal. According to JLARC figures, since launching the program in February 2007, production companies have generated $137.7 of economic impact from a $20 million investment.

If the program isn't renewed, local producers say that the financial realities of filmmaking will force them to film elsewhere — which members of the film community here see as potentially devastating. "Having a group of talented, resourceful producers in town helped create a sustainable industry here," said Amy Lillard, director of the Washington Film Commission. "They are a key part of the puzzle."

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