Don't ask Kate Cohen or Marisa Polvino what it's like to be a woman in the business. “So many people ask us that question” (including me). “I don't even pay attention to the fact that there are different genders, because if I think I'm a minority like that, than I behave in a certain way, and that's not constructive for running a business,” says Kate. “Because what you focus on is really important (in business) and if we sit there and focus on, ‘oh I'm a woman in film, it's a boys club’ or whatever… If we have that kind of attitude, then we'll always remain in the background. It's important to not give that any thought or attention.” A philosophy (or one of a few) that's clearly working out for them. With one of 2014's most anticipated blockbusters already behind them and an exciting slate of projects on the way, the background seems like a place they don't really have to worry about.
After years of producing independent film(s) in New York, they started their company, Straight Up Films1 in 2008, moving to LA in 2012. Since then, these women have worked toward the top of the industry, where they continue to climb. Their partnership and approach are a dynamic one/one combo, nurturing and developing new voices with an independent mentality, while rubbing shoulders and working with some of the biggest talent (and dealmakers) in town. What's next for Kate and Marisa? Sky's the limit. Straight up.
1In 2014, Straight Up Films’ "Manos Sucias" won Best New Narrative Feature Director for Josef Wladyka at the Tribeca Film Festival and their feature, "Transcendence," directed by Wally Pfister, with Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall and Morgan Freeman, released theatrically in the US and Asia.
Jonathan Mayor: When did you first decide you wanted to be into the business? How'd you actually get involved in the business?
Marisa Polvino: I really think always, to be honest. I've always loved films and I grew up loving them, and I wanted to find a way to work in them in any capacity. Acting was kind of the most obvious for me at that time, because at first, that's all I'd really see in watching a movie. 'Look at that actor or actress', because I didn't think yet in terms of producing or directing or set design. Then, when I was in college I studied film, and I studied directing, and theater, and broadcasting, and I went to London and started taking acting classes the Polytechnic School of London. So when I came back from London and moved to New York, I moved as an actress. Though I realized, very, very soon thereafter, that it was not the avenue for me to take, because it takes a particular discipline and passion to reach any level of success, and what I found was that I was actually much more interested and passionate in everything happening behind the scenes, and how mechanically a film got made, or even distributed into theaters. And so I got an internship at a small commercial production company, and I started doing absolutely anything I could do, on any kind of shoots (from music videos to commercials), and then from there, met somebody who wanted to make a feature. And we cobbled together like twenty-five grand and shot a feature called “My Life In Turnaround.” And so I went from literally doing everything on set to producing a film in a very short time and I never looked back from there. At the end of that shoot, I was like this is the best thing in the world. It's so much fun, there's such a level of camaraderie, that you are all creating something together, in hopes of it being really great to resonate with an audience. So that's my story. Kate?
Kate Cohen: I decided I wanted to get into the business when I wrote a film... actually that's not true. I decided I wanted to get into the business before that, because I felt like I really didn't know how to do anything else. I grew up in it, and everyone around me in my circles were all in it, So that's all I related to. I was (obviously) a huge film fanatic and was really intrigued by the business. I never thought I was going to be a producer, that definitely happened by accident, but the decision was made for me when I realized there was nothing else I (ever) wanted to do.
JM: When exactly was that for you... and then how did you actually get involved in the business?
KC: Ten years ago. I started raising money for people for small films. People I knew would ask me if I could help them raise money and I didn't really know what I was doing but I knew a lot of high net worth individuals and was able to do it. And then I wrote a movie nine years ago with somebody, and I wanted to get it made and knew people that could get it made, and they were going to, but ended up having personal issues that caused them to back out, and that's when I decided I was just going to produce it myself. And it took many years, but that's how I ended up producing. I say this all the time: I didn't know what I was doing. I literally Googled what does a producer do and figured it out as I went along. So, that's how I got in. I got started by raising money.
JM: Where'd you go from there, and how did you guys hook up?
MP: Kate had written the screenplay and she was out at Sundance trying to put it together... the financing and all that, and I ended up at Sundance that year (reluctantly). I had left the company I was working with just before then and was still trying to figure out if I even wanted to stay in the film business or get into something else, but I ended up going to Sundance and meeting Kate there. And we came back to New York from the festival and we ended up getting together shortly thereafter, which we always say is shocking because we both reschedule so much. But we actually set it up and met that first time we planned it, and then continued to meet. And she sent me her screenplay, and we kept on talking about that and how she was doing in terms of raising money.
KC: And I saw something in Marisa, who had already been doing it for many (many) years at that point, and I thought there was a lot of synergy between us and I saw that we had very different skill sets. I mean both of us can develop, both of us are creative... but Marisa hates raising money and I loved working with her. And we were meeting constantly, so I said why don't we just do this together, and I'll raise the money for a company. Meaning I'll go source some investors, and we'll start a company. And it kind of just organically happened.
MP: We both share a lot of similarities in terms of taste and material and how we creatively approach and develop things; and we share the same ideas about who we want to work with in the business on the directing front, on co-productions, partners... so we're very similar. We have a shared vision and goals for the company, which is fantastic because when you have a partnership, you want to make sure that your goals are aligned and there's no independent agenda at play (which there isn't for us). And we also have specific skill sets. Like for myself, I come from a world of production, so I very much understand the mechanics of making movies, and the mechanics of building a budget and a schedule. I'm also very involved in negotiating and dealing with the contracts and the lawyers and the nuts and bolts and the day to day operations of the business, and Kate is the opposite of that. She's out there networking and building strategic partnerships, and finding new opportunities. Not that we're not both doing that, she's just more the face of the company being out there, bringing in new people to talk to, be it talent, to financiers, to projects. And then collectively we decide if it's something we want to explore, and if it is, then we both develop the material and work with the writers and directors, and work with the casting directors to cast it. So in terms of the day to day, we share things, but we're also very different in terms of our primary skill sets.
JM: Can you verbalize the shared vision you have for Straight Up Films? Or what the goal was when you formed?
MP: For us, as a company, we are very filmmaker and story driven. And coming from the world of independent film, we've always wanted to work with visionary directors, as well as working on films that have stories with very strong universal themes, and a core emotional connection for an audience. But we also wanted to take the independent spirit and put it on a larger screen–finding projects that we could work on that are grounded in a core emotional story but can speak to a wide audience. I think when we got together, the goal was, how do we take the spirit of independent films and make them on a larger scale without compromising artistic integrity in the process? I think for us, our mission for the company is to build a media company that speaks to audiences across all platforms in a way that is grounded and innovative… for example, working with directors who have new ways or new techniques in filmmaking. We have a commercial division as well.
KC: We're expanding into television. And we're toying with the idea of a foreign sales arm and a music division. Almost like a mini studio.
MP: I just want to add that the whole Straight Up aspect to this is that this business is unfortunately infiltrated by not the most transparent people, and so we wanted to make sure in everything we're doing, that we’re “straight up” about it. That what you see is what you get. We're very transparent in all of our dealings. We don't have our own personal agendas. We're really massively collaborative here and the intention is to have a unified goal for an entire team. That's a big thing for us. That we have a whole level of transparency.
KC: We do what we say we're gonna do!
JM: What encouraged the move from New York back to Los Angeles, and what do you feel like you gained?
KC: It was a really obvious move for us because, for one, we were getting into bigger and bigger films. And once the company got financed it was definitely a game changer. We were constantly meeting, or on every call we had... everyone was in LA. We had to start coming out here more and more, and then Transcendence got green lit and everybody was out here (for that), and all of the relationships we had were out here. And it was frankly just becoming more annoying to be in New York. We definitely needed a presence. People were starting to realize who we were, and what we were doing, and were much more entrenched in the business every time we came to LA. We got so much done, because we got to meet everybody and drive things forward, and then we'd go back to New York and be in the background. And it was also an expansion for us. We knew we were going to start a commercial division. We knew we were going to eventually get into television. And all of the players and everyone we want to be our colleagues, are all pretty much, not all, but most of them, in Los Angeles.
MP: I mean it's also unfortunate but true that the state of independent film (in New York specifically) is really diminishing. For years I avoided living in Los Angeles because I wanted a life outside of the business. And living here in LA, it can be very difficult to get away from it because it's absolutely everywhere. Everyone who your kids go to school with, has a parent in the business, or everyone you meet at the grocery store.
KC: Your car mechanic is a stuntman. It's everywhere.
MP: It just permeates. Every single aspect of the area revolves around the business, and there's pros and cons to that. But being here now, I think it's much more of a positive thing because in many regards, it's a very very small business. And there's an ability to be really, truly six degrees of separation here, and you're actually entrenched in the business. You go to parties (or wherever) and build relationships, and that extends to a dinner party or an event where you keep re-seeing people that you've met. And that's really not the case in New York. Like you have to come to LA, or go to one of the festivals, and over that five day, saturated time, make a lot of contacts. But then you retreat back home and it's hard to keep those relationships growing, because you're not in it every single day. And so much of the business is relationship based, it's a benefit to building a business here. Because the opportunities are on every single street corner. And the relationships are on every single street corner.
JM: What's your favorite part of the filmmaking process, or your job?
MP: I like developing the material. Working with the directors and writers.
KC: I like pushing it to get made, doing whatever we have to do. Just driving it forward.
JM: What are some other things you guys are working on? Can you tell me about Disorderly Conduct2 and some of your future projects?
KC: We just had an announcement that came out last week on a movie that we're producing with Tripp Vinson called Variant 13.
MP: It's based on a book series out of the UK by Richard Morgan. It's a very smart sci-fi thriller. Not that we're the sci-fi company (by any means), but there's a handful of projects in that vein that we're looking at. And then there's a couple of others that we're working on that we can't disclose yet.
KC: Regarding Disorderly Conduct (which is our commercial division), we just signed a couple more directors. I mean that division is only a year old and we already have a really strong roster of A level reps in each territory.
MP: As the business evolves, it seems that there is a tremendous amount of crossover in all platforms. So filmmakers direct commercials, they also do TV. And TV directors also do commercials as well and everybody has their hand in a multitude of pots. And we really wanted to be a company that moves much more into media than just film. And we found that a lot of the directors that we were talking to or working with, were directing commercials. And we thought, that's something that we should explore for a division of the company. Disorderly Conduct is really built on that notion of massively talented directors that have a strong sense of cinematic vision and storytelling, where we can take material that they personally want to develop and work with them to develop it and get their films made in the feature world. It’s about working with directors in both arenas. If there are opportunities for a feature director we're working with that aren't necessarily commercial directors but want to explore that space, we can find opportunities for them with some of the larger brands that want an event commercial, and are looking to name feature directors to do their Super Bowl spots, or their Olympic spots... where they want a name brand outside of the usual commercial directors that are out there with all the other production companies. One of our spots, directed by Eric Stoltz for Hill Holliday and Drugfree.org just won Gold Lion at this year’s Cannes Lion Health.
2 Supporting a roster of prominent directing talent, Disorderly Conduct is collaborating with leading advertising agencies and entertainment brands to create commercial content for play on mobile screens, movie screens, and everything in between. Recent work includes a Cannes Gold Lion winner, "Mind Your Meds," directed by Eric Stoltz for Hill Holliday and Drugfree.org.
JM: What advice would you give to people trying to break into producing movies, or new media?
KC/MP: (in unison) Just do it!
MP: And do not accept no for an answer. Do not take things personally. Do not lead with ego. Just keep pushing forward and things will happen. You can will things into existence.
KC: I heard that the odds of making it into the business are kind of like winning the lottery. Like how many people want to write a screenplay or want to work with a studio and can't even get a meeting with an assistant. I've heard everything. That scares a lot of people and I've seen a lot of people get defeated when they hear things like that. So, I think you need to be slightly delusional and do whatever it takes, whether it's reasonable or not, or in the box or not, you just have to make a decision and do whatever it takes to get there. I think that's also a personality thing. I don't think everybody is capable of that but I do think, if people are scared, that they should just be scared and do it anyway.
JM: Tell me about the differences between putting together a small indie film and a hundred million dollar movie like Transcendence and getting it in 3500 theaters ?
KC: It's funny, I was telling a friend of mine, who’s a very known actress... I was mentioning the size of the film when we were gearing up to go into production. She's been in a lot of big movies and says: It's really no different than a small movie. You just have a lot more people who can fuck it up! And now now that we've done it, I can say that's true. But the developing process and getting it into production, and casting, getting the financing, it was all the same (with Transcendence) except the budget was much bigger, and Johnny Depp is a big movie star, and so is Morgan Freeman, and we worked alongside amazing filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and amazing studios like Warner Bros, and Alcon, who is a fantastic production company. I really can't say there was any distinct difference between doing something like that and a smaller film, because I've also made a million dollar film, and we went through the exact same process as on Transcendence. And then we were in production on a thirty million dollar film, and it was the exact same process. And now we're doing other movies and they're the same.
MP: I think the one thing that was different for me on Transcendence was how exposed we were when the film came out. And how public it was both in a very good way and in a very bad way. Because the lead up to the film was on everybody's mind, so everywhere we went people couldn't wait, and they'd tell us, and then the film came out and it wasn't received in the way that we wanted it to be received and it was so public, you just can't get away from it. It was in the newspaper, it was on the news, it was in the financial reports, and everywhere we turned it was about the movie and it not being as well received as it was anticipated to be. I had a very emotional reaction to it. It's like you're giving birth to something, you work on something so hard and want it to be perfect. This is the whole point of taking the emotion out of it and not taking it personally. That was a huge lesson for me with this movie. People are going to love it and people are going to hate it and you can't take it personally either way. Just work hard, be proud of the work you do, and go on from there.
JM: What's the best advice you've ever gotten about the business?
KC: You can't fall off the floor! That's the best. But I don't remember who told me. And then another thing I was told was, “Everyone's an asshole, don't take it personally.” That was from a mogul who’s been producing movies for like forty years. Just keep it real. Walk in the door with no expectations. Do what you do, say what you mean, and that's all you can do.
MP: Always be fearless and lead with integrity and honesty. Never let your ego get in way when making decisions, big or small. A closed mouth doesn't get fed, so don't shy away from asking for what you want and need. Who dares, wins.
JM: Any secrets to success in Hollywood?
MP: Actually wait. There is one. The secret to success is actually showing up. Because the majority of people don't.
Photography by Elisabeth Caren.