Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Focus on Independent Film Producer, Kirk Shaw

Photo Courtesy: IMDb

As the entertainment industry continues to change and evolve at a dramatic rate, it is more crucial than ever for film makers to be adaptable and know how to turn challenges into opportunities. Independent film producer, Kirk Shaw is riding the wave of change and enjoying the thrill. While many are intimidated by what the future holds for the entertainment industry, Shaw draws on his industry experience of over 25 years and natural talent to make these changes work for him, setting an example for those both in the industry and those who aim to be.

Growing up in the 1960's with a love of television westerns and Saturday theatre matinees, Shaw has always had a passion for storytelling and been fascinated by the moving image. After creating a revolutionary mode of storytelling through audio tours in several of the world's most prestigious museums, he was approached by The Vancouver Museum to produce video content as part of a traveling exhibit. By saying yes, Shaw  made a decision that would change his life.

  "Each edit, each sound cue, every piece of video could be put together in a dozen different ways, but there is artistry in getting it right", explains Shaw. "I had been bitten and knew I wanted to be a producer". 

With close to 200 film and television credits to his name, Shaw is now one of the leading film financiers and producers. He founded Insight Film Studios in 1990, which over time has become Canada’s largest independent production company having produced $500 million worth of film and television content between 2006-2009. Shaw is now Executive Producer and Consultant at Odyssey Media, the international film and television production, distribution and rights management company with offices in Vancouver, Brisbane and Los Angeles. Among his credits are the Academy Award winning The Hurt Locker, Suddenly starring Ray Liotta and Drive Hard with John Cusack and Thomas Jane. He has also worked with some of the biggest names in the film industry from Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Woody Harrelson and Cuba Gooding Jr.

 During his production career, Shaw has always regarded himself as an entrepreneur and believes that the film making process is about finding the right mix of people and ideas for a particular project, but always remembering to keep in mind the net worth of the film. Along with his wonderful networking skills and commitment to those who have helped him which extends beyond their time working together, Shaw has developed a formula that allows him to produce his best work while others struggle with the changing climate of the film industry. Currently at Odyssey, he has over 20 films in pre and post-production to be released in 2015. 

We got a few minutes with Kirk Shaw to hear first hand about his experiences and how he has become one of the most popular and successful film producers. 

What attracted you to the world of independent filmmaking?
I fell in love with the process of finding an idea that could be translated into a film. I relished the role of being the type of a producer who had control over choosing the idea whether my own or someone else's.  I was driven to see that idea through all these stages from development to delivery.  I think one of my talents is identifying talent in others and assembling a team of people who all could contribute their own talent toward building the project from idea to final piece. Independent filmmaking has offered me this type of experience in spades.

Would you say that independent film making is a rewarding process?
As much as the writer is often credited with germinating the idea, nothing in filmmaking happens without a producer.  The producer takes the ethereal and makes it real.  Although this may sound mercenary it is the reality. In independent filmmaking every production dollar, every crew paycheck and every deal is made by the producer.  Producers of independent films are constantly creating, thinking outside the norm and adapting what we know to the emerging reality.  There is little time to sit on your laurels.  Producing independent films is also uber entrepreneurial.  Finding the right mix of financing and distribution is an art.  Adding in the creative team needed to take the script from words to film production is like conducting a symphony.  Each part in the piece or production adds to the whole.  In this multi layered process we also hopefully create something that resonates with our end user, the audience.

Photo Courtesy: Kirk Shaw Online

One of the greatest challenges of being an independent filmmaker  comes from financing. How do you feel you successfully overcome these challenges?
 To be a producer of more than one independent film is to absolutely know the value of the film you are going to deliver and never make a film for more than its value.  Certain genres and actors retain a quantifiable value. Understanding this value as it changes is what I do almost daily. Whether it is a Nicolas Cage theatrical release or an MOW, a producer has to be able to measure the true value of Nicolas Cage in the market today or Jean Claude Van Damme’s current value around the world.  It’s the same for all actors.  The cast and genre give you a benchmark value to arrive at the film’s worth.  That’s the limit of the money you can raise to finance the film. It’s also the value the budget cannot exceed for the film to remain profitable or at the very least break even. I never go into a film to lose money because I make multiple films.

Once I peg the film’s value, I enter the symphony phase. As the producer, I am like the conductor controlling the symphony of people needed to make the film. Rather than waving a baton, I wave spreadsheets that allocate the financial resources in the best way to get the film on the screen, big or small. Whether there is a budget of $1 million or $20 million, independent filmmakers always want more money.  Each department asks for more, the Director too swears his vision just needs a few more dollars. However, to make more than one film, it’s important to understand the value of the film you can make and then get all to agree that we will make the very best film possible for the financing available.  It is actually in this challenge that true creative genius and innovation occurs in filmmaking.

What do you look for in a potential film project? What attracts you to a film?
There is no single attraction to a film or project.  As I said before, I am at my heart an entrepreneur.  So part of me is looking for a film that returns a profit, but profits for films don’t always fuel my passion. I’m also an ideas person looking to inform and challenge the audience so I’m often motivated to find films that simply need or deserve to be made and use my skill, talent and resources to bring these to fruition and get them in front of an audience. Anyone who looks closely at my IMDB credits will see a lot of films made for money, but a decent number of passion projects sprinkled throughout. It’s not just the financial investment, but also the time investment and personal investment. Producing independent films is a lifestyle that sucks your time, energy and focus. If you have a family like me, there are many times the job takes me away from family and my children.  I often ask filmmakers who come to me where do you see your film playing?  What channel and what slot in the broadcaster’s day?  Most haven’t thought this through. If it is a feature, unfortunately I currently mostly look for genre like action scripts to package with an A list cast.  I love dramas, but they are really difficult for an independent filmmaker to finance. It’s a formula that is currently successful and also generates the resources for me to also make one or two passion films a year out of the box. 

What has been your greatest accomplishment in your career so far?
That is easy.  My greatest accomplishment is employing, nurturing and building friendships with 100s of production crew, staff and people who have gained from the movies I’ve produced and all those whom I have crossed paths with. It truly fuels my entrepreneurial drive to see that films I make give not only money, but the opportunity to hundreds of people who are each carving out their own career in the film industry. Sometime in 2015, I will have produced my 200th film. It will be a personal milestone that I will savor as a moment to look back over my total body of work. However, the number pales in the comparison to the opportunities my films provided and the friendships I’ve made. 

Do you have any particular favourite projects you have worked on?
Two passion projects I loved were Battle in Seattle and When A Man Falls in a Forest....who wouldn’t enjoy walking the red carpet with Sharon Stone at the Berlin Festival? But with that said, there are many moments from too many productions that generated life long memories.  I remember my first documentary, we went to interview real, practicing witches.  I got to trek across Ireland for a St. Patrick documentary and remember climbing the mountain for annual pilgrimage with a film crew. In 2014, I was in China producing a movie with Jean Claude Van Damme. Recently, I enjoyed getting to know the EDM music world by filming a 3D dance film in LA. I’ve had so many experiences and met so many people, it’s truly impossible to single any out.

What was your experience working on The Hurt Locker like?
Nobody knew how big it would be.  It was truly a passion project put together on a shoestring budget. We all knew we had a really good script and top-notch creative team not to mention the cast of Jeremy Renner and Evangeline Lilly. But an Oscar was never on our radar. My company oversaw shooting the sequences when Jeremy Renner’s character returns to North America. One theme that resonated with me was the character’s struggle to find his own normal.  Home in the US didn’t fit, but he comes to a realization that his life is most meaningful to him in the world dissembling of bombs in Iraq.  Although not the same life and death choice, I too find my normal in the producer’s world of risk and danger. I actually feed on the frenetic energy of this business and would choose to do nothing else.

Who are some directors you would like to work with?
I used to religiously watch directors like Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Woody Allen. I enjoyed the chronological progress/evolution of their work.  I would love to work with any of these greats to just be able to listen to every word they say and see the choices they make. I am excited to work this year with Bob Yari who Directed  the film Papa documenting Ernest Hemingway's two years in Cuba.  I fell in love with the script Bob found.  Bob Yari knows so much about the business side of the industry, I’m happy to see him focusing his first love, which is film making and directing. Papa will be very timely with the US restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba. It is a great moment in history and Bob and I have a film that could fill in some of the long Cuban/US history through one of the great American writers. With that said, I actually prefer discovering talented directors looking for their first break.  I am very proud to be a Canadian and a Canadian film producer. One Canadian director I’m proud of assisting is Jason Bourque. Through Jason’s long association with my films, I’ve been able to watch as Jason grew as a director and carved out his own successful career path in the industry. In 2015, after many years of trying, I’m also finally able to give a close friend, David Tennant, who is successful and respected TV commercial director, the opportunity to direct his first feature film, Forced Entry

Who are some of the actors you have worked with that you are proud you have had the opportunity to do so?
I honestly have liked working with them all. I have had many great dinners and moments on set talking to all levels of actors that have enriched my life and my knowledge of this industry. While I don’t like to name drop, I will give you an example; I recently had dinner with Michael Jai White who is the star of Echo Effect. My appreciation and respect for him increased just by sitting with him and getting to know him on a personal level. Although I haven't worked with him since 2006, I still owe Mathew Perry a movie. I’m looking for a good script that lets him play a character close to himself....someone the audience really likes and then twist the end so Matthew is really the villain. I enjoyed Cory Haim who was filled with life and wore his heart on his sleeve which made him all that much more an interesting of actor. Sadly he lost the battle with his demons. This industry can be tough on the young.   

How has the industry changed in the time you have worked in film production?
 It seems that since I started in the late 90s, the film and entertainment industry has been caught in an amazing flux.  HDTV emerged. Distribution changed. DVD stores died. The Internet siphoned off advertising dollars and put movies onto everyone’s phone or desktop. At the same time technology changed the production process, film gave way to digital. We now have IT people on set to manage digital data. Nobody counts feet of film. It’s all more efficient with instant dailies and the time from prep to delivery has been cut substantially, but the technology also brings challenges and glitches.

This year we had a beautiful drone shot for a movie. We watched the image live on the screen. It was art and perfect. When the drone operator landed the small chopper, the thumbnail sized memory chip jumped out of its compartment and nobody  could find it. We lost the light and the shot was gone. In the days of film, we sometimes had camera faults ruin shots too. The production side of filmmaking is faster and cheaper, but post has become expensive simply because so much more image manipulation can now occur in post. Before these would have been beyond the budget or done in camera. Even the drone shot would have come with a prohibitive price tag if we needed a full size helicopter, a pilot and camera operator in the air. Post has become more labour intensive with artists working frame by frame to enhance shots, add elements or create 3D models.

Looking ahead to the change on the horizon, convergence offers challenges to producers looking to raise funds to make content. Many avenues of delivery both legal and illegal have conditioned the audience to not pay much for moving images delivered to their home. Someone will hit the right formula to replace the lost sales producers used to rely on, but as yet VOD and PPV haven't helped the independent producer trying to coble together a budget to make a strong film.  

Streaming sites like Netflix and Youtube have pulled viewers away from traditional television. But as networks and studios lose eyeballs, they have responded with some of the best quality television ever produced. Although quality can still pull in viewers, we have millions of hours of television programming out there that is going unviewed. I’m not sure it’s sustainable.

Regardless of whether its paid for or given away free, every delivery media requires content so as a producer, I’ll do what I have done the past 20 years, adapt experiment and then figure out how to finance, create and deliver content using different models.

How have you adapted to these changes?
As part of adapting to the market today, I made a decision to produce in different parts of the world.  This expands our international co-pro relationships, brings the resources of two countries and two or more producers together. It’s an economical model many are using. With a co-pro in Brazil for example, we can access a tax shelter program that generates funding for film and television content, plus still receive a portion of the Canadian tax credit incentives. It’s really just spreading the risk and reward among a group of producers, which Odyssey has done this successfully in China, Romania, Bulgaria, Cuba, Australia and also in certain states in the US and provinces in Canada.  

What is you approach to developing talent? Do you play an active role in working to ensure actors, directors and writers reach their full potential?
Although I have given many actors and directors opportunity to show their talent, I have been most successful is developing technicians, the below the line talent.  Every film crew in Vancouver and in other places as well are filled with professionals who got their first or first big opportunity from working on one of my films given the volume of films Odyssey produces each year. One production manager we are currently working with gained seven feature credits in one year. For 2015, I’ve moved him into a bigger film and I’m trusting him with a TV series. It’s this fast track to building a strong body of work that lets talented people demonstrate their skill and reach their full potential.

What projects are you and Odyssey currently working on?
We have two TV movies and a feature film to shoot in February. We are busy working with our close partners The Cartel and Reel One on a new US series going to camera in March. We have a slate of seven more TV movies financed for this spring. We are currently assessing the best locations to shoot the films. Later in the year, we have several exciting much higher budget films with A List actors that at this moment I’m not at liberty to name.

What plans do you and Odyssey have for the future?
When I joined Odyssey I was following my passion for producing and doing what I know and love. Now I feel personally and professionally ready to build Odyssey into a leading international company. I’m more excited for the future than any time in my past. There is so much on the horizon and I’m in the middle of it. At the company Christmas dinner this year, the people of Odyssey had doubled since 2013. I fully expect the 2015 Christmas party to double our number again.

What advice would you give to people who want in work in film production?
There are so many ways into this business, but it all starts with connections. Get as many credits as you can, watch, learn and be easy to work with. Even volunteering on short film is a step toward honing your skill and building a resume. 

If you would like to find out more about Kirk Shaw and Odyssey, please visit the following websites:-
Odyssey Media
Kirk Shaw Online

Odyssey Media
Kirk Shaw


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