FWC Member Spotlight: Robyn Wiener, Canadian Film Producer
Author: Alexandra Staseson | Posted on Friday, 01 February 2013
"My students remind me of what it was like when I was first starting out and I like seeing that spirit; It offers me hope for the next generation of content creators." -Robyn Wiener
Robyn Wiener is a long time First Weekend Club member, and serves as both an active presence and force in the BC Film Industry. A soon to be film award recipient, she moved to Vancouver 18 years ago, and starting her first job in film in 1994, she now enjoys a thoroughly full life as an independent film producer, line producer and production manager, oh and a film school teacher in her ahem, "spare time". I was fortunate to have shared a diverse conversation with Robyn to learn more about her views and experiences and am pleased to share below some of the wisdom she passed along to us about her life and time in this 'business of art'.
A: Thank you Robyn for your generosity of time and spirit to sit down with me here.
I love that your company is called Synergy Cinema Inc. Why did you choose to name it so?
R: I’ve always liked the word ‘synergy’ and what it means. I was looking for a company name that would not only flow, but embody a philosophy that I wanted to exist within my company. I saw a certain hierarchy that existed as a model within the industry, and decided to create a company that could involve the bringing together of all the elements of production in a harmonious fashion. You see, Synergy is created when things work in concert together to create an outcome that is in some way of more value than the total of what the individual input is. That was and still is how I want to work and work with people. Nothing less feels right.
What was your first job in film/tv/media?
I worked as an Assistant Production Coordinator on a Kirk Shaw movie in 1994 called “Hard Evidence” starring Gregory Harrison (Trapper John, MD). I believe I was paid $500/wk and got a rental car! It was a bit of a combo Assistant Coordinator/Production Assistant. I thought this was amazing that the pay was awesome and, at that time, and for my very first job, it really was! I learned a lot on that one!
When did you know you wanted to work in film and TV?
Before moving to Vancouver, I lived in Winnipeg and was finishing my time working for the world-renowned Royal Winnipeg Ballet as the coordinator for their Professional Division School. While the company was world class, the job was not the ideal fit for me, my skills, or my long term interests. The Vancouver Film School had only opened a few years prior and was picking up momentum. As I'd been a life-long lover of films, and after spending years working in theater, I decided to leave the cold weather of Winnipeg and venture out West in pursuit of a new art medium and I’ve not looked back since.
Were there other roles you tried in this industry before knowing you were passionate about producing?
Even when I was in film school, I wanted to produce. I felt it was a natural fit for my personality and skills, satisfying both my right and left brain. VFS has changed drastically since I attended; at the time I was forced to be a grip and gaffer on a couple of student productions to my chagrin. I hated both jobs. I knew that being a technician was never going to be something I could do or would enjoy doing, it wasn’t for me. But today, VFS has an entertainment business program which I now in fact teach at – Ah, the irony! I wish they had created that back then. After film school I did many different jobs, from a location PA and craft service, to being a boom operator for 2 days. I was an assistant for several producers, writers, directors and actors (including Kelly Lynch & Billy Baldwin). I did product placement, script revisions, clearances, was an office PA and then spent a number of years in the Production Office working as a production coordinator on over 40 films for live action (both TV and film), an animation series, and commercials too. The whole time, I was drawn to the creative process and kept my focus on producing. In 2002, I produced my first short film for my now good friend, Robert Holbrook entitled ‘The 30 Second Guaranteed Foolproof Ancient Cantonese Method’ and I knew that was only the start of something I had to keep doing; It just felt right and natural.
This past year has been a markedly exciting one for you Robyn. Will you describe a few of your recent projects?
Most recently, I wrapped the Indie Canadian film dark comedy, entitled “Lawrence & Holloman” where I worked as the co-producer and line producer. The film was directed by first-time feature director Matthew Kowalchuk who also co-wrote and produced with co-writer, lead actor Daniel Arnold. Paul Armstrong was the producer and Mary Anne Waterhouse and Andrew Currie were our Executive Producers. We have an incredible team! The film stars Ben Cotton and Daniel Arnold with Katharine Isabelle and Amy Matysio in lead as well. We are currently editing the film with hopes of the film circuit this summer/fall. It was a great project and I can’t wait to share our final edit with everyone. Prior to that, I was the co-producer/line producer on the Indie Canadian Horror/Thriller entitled “American Mary” starring Katharine Isabelle which has become a huge hit across the globe. The film was co-directed/co-produced and co-written by North Vancouver identical twin sisters Jen & Sylvia Soska, also best known as The Twisted Twins. The film has gone on to win numerous awards, has played film festivals internationally and Universal Pictures is distributing the film in the UK & Germany. There is also a distribution deal with Anchor Bay & Industry Works amongst a number of other deals still brewing. It's been a great year!
These projects you've mentioned are seemingly diverse in content & nature.
How do you choose the projects you align with?
For me, it comes down to only a couple of factors, a key one being a good story.
You see, producers are invested in a project for such a long period of time that if it doesn't actually appeal or resonate, it’s just not worth taking it on. Because the time, work and team commitments are so great, it has to be great. And so the other key factor, equally as important, is the team involved. There has to be a chemistry with the other producers, writer, director and key creative talent involved. It all comes down to that ‘synergy’ I was referring to earlier. And in the end for a producer, our projects are a visual resume of what we’ve been a part of, so we have to be proud of the content we're creating. I also like challenges and working on something that is fresh and interesting that will also give me the opportunity to learn. If I can combine all these factors, I’m in! That’s the winning ‘cocktail’ for me!
What's next for you?
This year is starting off with a bit of a very nice surprise. Some people get big gifts at Christmas but mine is coming this March. I’ve been selected to be the 2013 recipient of the Wayne Black Service Award as one of 11 Spotlight Awards that will be presented by WIFTV and the WIFF opening night. This award honours a woman with a ‘behind-the-scenes’ role and for her continued efforts within the film and television community. This award is named in memory of Wayne Black of Alpha Cine who gave tirelessly of his time and talent to help filmmakers. I’m extremely honoured and humbled by the recognition. I will receive the award 2 weeks prior to my birthday and it’s probably one of the best birthday presents! I’m also currently working for/with Raymond Massey on a couple of projects that are set to be co-productions with China. I’m very excited about that. I’ve also got a thriller feature in development and a few other projects I would like to see take flight. For me, I’d like 2013 to be a year of non-stop activity. I hope I’m not being too zealous asking for that!
(Details on the awards ceremony can be found at www.womeninfilm.ca)
Along with these creative factors you've just mentioned Robyn, producing involves a high level of ensuring both bankability and accountability. What, in your opinion, are a few factors to make for a bankable and accountable project?
Good question. When it comes to what distributors will see as ‘bankable’ I'm still learning. But indeed there are a few key ingredients that seem to rarely stray. Because this is a buyer/sellers market, for a project to be truly ‘bankable’ and ‘saleable’, attaching cast who can aid in that sale is integral. If you don’t have key cast then a known director can elevate the project. But yes there are still factors to help sell a movie; Today, it’s the genre-based, lower-cost productions (that still maintain high production value) in which a distributor knows they can sell that project in many territories and be able to recoup box office, DVD or online sales. But always, there are the 'surprise movies' such as last year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” that had no known cast and no known feature director, but because of it being a huge hit at Sundance Film Festival, distributors were eager to pick up this ‘sleeper' and sell it as such. Yes, there will always be the tent-pole movies that will be bankable no matter what, but the indie films struggle to stay above water. Adding to this is a good story; I heard George Clooney say on the program, Inside the Actor’s Studio, something to the effect of, 'You can take a good story and still make a bad movie but it’s almost impossible to take a bad story and make it good’... I think that is very true. And so, good stories, with or without some key ingredients, will still rise above the rest.
What are a few factors that you have learned can destroy a production?
Again, it comes back to that word, ‘synergy’. For me, whichever team is assembled, be it a low budget film with financial and creative restrictions, or a high budget production, the goals of each film have to be the same for the whole team. I find that if anyone on the team does not support the vision of the project - in whatever way that may be- it upsets the apple cart so to speak and things can fall apart. That being said, you don't have to all love one another, but you all have to get along. Communication is key, along with having good management from the top down. Respect for one’s team is also integral; We are all in this together and sometimes people get caught up with their priorities instead of the whole of the project. It’s the microcosm of the macrocosm.
It's clear you have a great sense of explaining both the microcosm and the macrocosm. That is a lot of wisdom and experience to share. And so you mentioned you also teach? Where do you teach and what do you teach?
Yes, I teach part-time at the Vancouver Film School in the Entertainment Business Management (EBM) program. The program is only a few years young and I started teaching there in May of 2010. I teach a course on budgeting and scheduling during their 3rd term for 7 weeks. I love teaching part-time! I also mentor previous EBM students upon request through the school to assist them in their final projects. It’s rewarding for sure.
I find it inspiring that you are busy and active working as a producer in the film community, and yet still giving of your self and time with students. Has there been a notable moment when perhaps you knew your expertise and sharing of knowledge with your students was actually landing, and perhaps having a tangible impact on them?
I’m a bit tough on my students and yet, I’m a pussy cat compared to the ‘real’ world tough bosses out there. I sometimes wonder if it’s sinking in and then, they will show me how they budgeted for their final projects and I know they’ve learned. Also, I give them numerous practical exercises that are not easy and when they hand in assignments that show their understanding, I’m happy. On top of that, I receive anonymous feedback and evaluations on my course and get to read the feedback. The feedback is mostly positive and I smile when they tell me they’ve learned so much. I’m thrilled when I can award good grades for good work and their understanding the material. For me that is great! In January I started back for the teaching term and was pleasantly surprised to find a thank you card from a previous student. His first words to me were ‘you rock’ and then went on to tell me how much he’s learned. It was a golden moment that I will cherish. I love knowing that I’m having a positive impact on their learning.
What do your students teach you?
Patience! Haha! Actually, they do. I keep having to remind myself that what I teach is hard and they have to comprehend a lot. (Even some of my colleagues doing short films don’t have this level of understanding or get this amount of learning I teach.) I have to stop and explain things sometimes in terms that make sense to something in their daily lives. As well, not all are interested in being producers in film so I have to make sure I relate the material to all sectors and give them tools so that what they are learning has a broad appeal -even if the content they are creating may differ. They also will question ME and challenge ME on things, and I love that. I don’t always have the answer readily at my fingertips and I will need to find it for them. You’d be surprised what you are challenged on! I feel I’m always learning from them and as a result of them wanting to learn more, I’ve set the bar pretty high for them. Also, they are growing up in an era of technology and information that was not made available to me while I was learning and studying in University and later in film school. I have to remember that their access to information, while made easier sometimes takes more time to sift through, explain and dilute. It’s a different but very exciting time for them to be in the creative sector. I envy the advantages they have that I didn’t have. Also, I love their enthusiasm for this business. After you’ve been doing this for as long as I have, one can become jaded. My students remind me of what it was like when I was first starting out and I like seeing that spirit; It offers me hope for the next generation of content creators.
Who was a mentor (of any sort) that had a marked impact on your choices to work in the film industry?
There are many people today that I look to for mentoring and advice. There is always going to be someone who will have more work experience, more talent and more life experience. It’s ego that will not allow one to reach out – I’m confident enough by what I do know and humbled enough to ask for help in that which I don’t know.
Part of that understanding comes with age and experience.
1. My Mother, who is no longer living was a big influence in my life; The day before I moved to Vancouver, she gave me 2 things: The book “The Beauty Myth” by Naomi Wolf and a beautiful hand-written card. Inside the card she wrote the following,
“Another adventure! Another Chapter! Each a step towards realizing a dream. You should walk tall, be proud. You are a credit to your family, friends and special to people whose lives you have touched. You are a credit to women – who, in spite of obstacles of every kind, will go after their dreams, with drive, ambition and fortitude until it comes true. I hope your dreams come true. I hope your dreams become reality – whatever they are and wherever they take you. When success follows, may you enjoy it in good health and with great happiness. And, know that my love will be there with you as a witness to all you accomplish”.
-When you have that kind of support, you have the best mentor you can have.
In terms of professional life? Producer, Josanne Lovick (co-exec producer of Andromeda) was very kind and saw my keen interest to produce so she took me under her wings with her to Cannes that year to the MIPCOM TV Market. She allowed me to be part of the meetings and see ‘how things work’ in a market environment. She was incredibly generous with her time and contacts. I will never forget that. We are good friends to this day and are attempting to work together on a few projects. Similarly, Sherry Lansing (former CEO of Paramount Pictures, producer of “The Accused”, “Fatal Attraction”, “Titanic”) spoke here in 2007 as part of the 'Unique Lives and Experiences' talk series. If there was one woman in Hollywood to emulate, I would have to say, she is it. Not only was she a leader and one of the big driving forces in Hollywood for years, she is an incredible humanitarian. For me, hearing her speak, knowing the work she has contributed, I think she embodies the perfect combination of intelligence, beauty (inside and out), integrity, strength, talent and humility. Not to mention her now current work with stem cell research.
You were once the head of Women in Film and Television in Vancouver? Tell me about that?
I joined the WIFTV board of directors in 2007, diving in full-force with the organization. I was incredibly impressed by the commitment this group of women that had built a community and a place where women could be supported by other women. After 2 years, I felt like I was only just starting to be more familiarized with the community, organization and its impact and importance – I didn’t feel I could walk away after my term and knew I wanted to stay on. In 2009, we had a few shifts on the board and I decided to run for President and was elected by the board. The commitment to be involved in a non-profit organization is a big one, but the rewards, in my opinion were huge. I’m very proud of having been a part of that organization for 4 years. I’m proud of the work WIFTV has done over the past 20+ years and continues to do. I’m committed to the public seeing a different point of view and I support a place that will support women in screen-based media. Many of my close friends and colleagues today are those I met through WIFTV. I’m grateful for the time I spent there and I continue to be involved with the organization as a member and in any other ways I can help. In 2010, I liaised with WFW in Ontario to bring the WFW Production Manager mentorship here to Vancouver. It’s now in its second year and I’m grateful to WFW for being so supportive to the cause of supporting women in our industry.
How did the experience of working for WIFTV open your awareness to the challenges / bonuses of being a female who works in film?
I personally like to view people and their skills as equal. Sadly enough, we’ve all had our share of inequity, sexual misconduct, etc. I’ve experienced a bit of that. What I did not know however were the abysmal statistics of female directors; with North American women buying 55 per cent of theatre tickets, yet they constitute only four per cent of feature-film directors, 11 per cent of writers and 13 per cent of editors. I find that appalling. Through the work of Please Adjust Your Set and many of the women at WIFTV and around the world, the awareness is far reaching. Changing attitudes is key as well. Women as directors are not better or worse, but they do offer a different point of view which, in the telling of human stories is vital. It would be great one day if WIFTV and other chapters ceased to exist meaning that we have reached equity status. Sadly, I’m not sure I will see that in my lifetime. As to the bonuses as a woman in film, I believe that women can be tremendous support allies to one another.
Producers and leaders are expected to have all the answers for everybody, all the time. So, who do you go to when you need a breath of guidance ?
Well, even those people have advisors and mentors. When I come across something I don’t know or need guidance or advice on, depending on the circumstance, I will seek the counsel of someone more senior and whom I admire. There will always be people who will have more experience or have paved the path and will offer you a perspective and knowledge that you don’t have. This is golden! I love knowing so many talented, highly skilled people. I’m constantly learning from them. Also, I have a few close friends who I will go to for that certain professional perspective that only a good friend can offer. They will be honest, look out for your best interest and have your back.I’m lucky to know those people in my life and they are equally as important as my mentors.
Why do you think the film industry in Vancouver is unique?
I haven’t worked in any other city film industry to do a comparison on that so I can only speak to my personal experience of what it’s been like for me. But given that Vancouver is still, by comparison to NY, LA or Toronto a younger city as a film industry business, what impresses me time and time again are the exceptional crews, cast and very supported community vibe that exists here. Aside from the fact that I’ve been in this business a long time, I still find that the community at large is pretty small and inclusive. I’ve worked in both the union and non-union worlds and in both, I find that a real camaraderie exists here. I’ve personally not experienced too much competitive nature and that is refreshing. I have a feeling this is unique to Vancouver from LA or NY and I find the cast, crews, vendors and the city as a whole to be incredibly supportive of fostering, nurturing and boosting talent. Case and point – The recent town hall meeting to discuss the current government tax incentives, over 4000 people showed up from all walks of the industry. It was a tremendous show of support! As a destination to shoot at, given our close proximity to LA, same time zone and a province that is rich in a very diverse landscape, we offer something unique for filming. Vancouver, in my opinion, can easily boast world class crews and cast alike. I’m extremely proud of the work we do and the people here I call my film family.
How do you think the BC film industry could use this special strength to push forward through the current obstacles faces at a government level?
Currently, our province is in a bit of a low ebb of productions due to a number of factors: hard economic times in the world; competition with other provinces and states offering a more competitive tax incentive; a BC government that is both out of touch with our current statistics and one that is not interested in further bolstering tax incentives in our industry. It would be good to get the government on board to see our industry as more than a service industry and see that what we do is really a manufacturing industry. As a province, we have great crews, talent and resources here that are on par with places like Ontario, but our less overall competitive tax incentives and the reinstatement of the GST are driving business away. We’ve also seen a big drop in domestic production and that too is going to be a big loss not only to our economy but our Canadian culture as a whole. We have great content creators here and it would be sad to lose that voice.
What is one thing you'd like to look back on and know that you were able to make a strong contribution to in your life?
Aside from a good body of work and a contribution to the film community here, I’d like to know more than that, that my presence made some significant difference in someone’s life. I want the work I leave behind to have that effect too. My favourite film, as sappy as it sounds is, “It’s a Wonderful Life”. It’s one of the greatest stories of how we matter – Frank Kapra got that right. I’d like to do that too. I’d also like to leave more of a mark contributing my time to helping out others and doing more altruistic work. At the end of the day, no one will talk about your money, your success or business model but they will say what kind of a person you were, what you contributed to others. I’d like to be remembered the way I fondly think of my parents; with love, gratitude and immense respect. If I live my life that way, I will have left a great contribution. Perhaps intangible and immeasurable but priceless!
What is your favorite Canadian Film?
In the past 10 years, one of my favourite Canadian films was “C.R.A.Z.Y” ! There is something special about how French-Canadian filmmakers approach films that I have yet to figure out. It was an amazing film! Lately, I fell in love with “Starbuck”. (Quebec) There have been so many great films in our cinematic history that it is hard to pick one. Our culture gets overlooked because we don’t produce as much domestic content, but what we do create has been rich and has been very good story telling.
What do you think we need to see more of in Canadian Film?
More government funding and more money for publicity. So many good films fall by the way side because we don’t have huge studios here that will put millions into P&A and as a result, we fall behind. Think of the bad countless films you’ve seen from the US but with some advertising dollars, those bad films can still attract bums in seats, DVD sales, online sales, etc. Unfortunately, we just don’t have that advantage and as a result, we suffer.
What would you love to just edit right out of Canadian Film?
As much as I am proud of my heritage and where I’m from, I would like to see less government funded films see the need to portray something ‘Canadian’. I’ve honestly not even figured out what that is! We are such a diverse culture with so many people and stories, that I think we limit our stories by finding a ‘Canadian’ element. Why can’t a good story be a part of our film making history as much as what makes us Canadian.
Why are you a First Weekend Club member?
I LOVE what Anita is doing and has done with First Weekend Club. I’ve been a member for a long time and I’ve tried to come to as many events and screenings as I can. I want to support Canadian filmmakers, their talents and their voices. I love the fact that this organization exists that unites us as Canadians but also is a platform and vehicle for Canadian films to have a place to be seen, advertised, talked about and promoted. The entire First Weekend Club and the team all over Canada are a great contribution to our cinema. I cannot commend Anita more for having the foresight years ago to put this together and applaud the efforts of FWC ever since. I hope it will always exist.
What is your best memory with First Weekend Club?
I attended TIFF in 2010 and was there for the screening of “Amazon Falls” , a film I line-produced. While I was there, FWC put on 2 amazing events that I remember fondly. One was a gift lounge for all Canadian filmmakers and some of the stars of the films. While swag is always nice, it was the vibe in the room; the people that were there and the great effort that the entire FWC team put together to honour the filmmakers. The other was a great Canadian Film party that was hosted by FWC at The Drake Hotel. It was great to see so many Canadian filmmakers, friends and colleagues all gathering and celebrating our cinema. While I’ve always enjoyed each and every event (not always each film), I was really impressed with the lengths that FWC went to in order to launch these events at TIFF and continue to do so to this day.
Finally, if someone reading this wanted to bring you a project, what would you tell them are the guidelines for submitting a script or one-sheet to you? And how would they best be in touch with you? Do you have specific things you look for? Any deal-breakers?
For scripts and one sheets, I’m very interested in stories that are powerful, moving, have a strong story element. I like complex and interesting characters. That being said, I’m open to most genres if the story is well written, has a fresh take on an old theme and has great dialogue. I’m pretty approachable and most people could email me directly but they need to be patient as I don’t have any readers currently working for me so most of the work falls on my shoulders to sift through. As for deal breakers, they sound so simple but really, they are basic things that people miss all the time. I like people to write something to me that is a bit personal as opposed to just a standard ‘to whom it may concern’,' Dear M'am' email. I tend to almost always delete those. Worse than that, the dear sir/madam! If you haven’t taken the time to find out who I am why should I want to find out who you are? I also don’t like junior writing with bad spelling or obvious grammar mistakes. I can’t stand it when I have to read a script where the writer has chosen to tell me how he/she would direct it with camera angles, etc. I just want to be immersed in a good story that flows. If I get through 10 pages and I’m not dreading the next 90-100, then you had me at the title page!
Robyn, thank you so very much for the time you've taken to share of yourself and to the community. It's clear that you are not only passionate about what you do, but that you truly want to see the community thrive and help as many of those "great stories" have a chance to be shared. Congratulations on your upcoming award, and perhaps send us a little red carpet tweet from the ceremony to @1stWeekendClub so we can share it with our followers too?
All the best from the First Weekend Club team!
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