Female producer, Jennifer Fischer, doesn’t follow the rules or go “by the book.” Yet, her innovative and unique approach to filmmaking and distribution and her efforts to balance her role as mother and producer seems to be working.
Fischer’s latest film, SMUGGLED, is a multi-award winning film about one of the nation’s hottest topics: immigration. With 5 awards on the film festival circuit in 2012 with 15 official selections, it’s hard for her to believe now that the film almost didn’t get made. In fact, the reasons to halt the production far outweighed the reasons to make it. Only 7 children showed up to audition for the lead role in a film in which the child is central to everything. If he is not convincing, the film won’t work. Beasts of the Southern Wild, for example, auditioned over 5,000 children to find their lead, a number that is much more typical for films featuring strong child leads. Writer/Director Ramon Hamilton would also be shooting the film, his first time as a cinematographer on a narrative film project. To top it off, about a month before the film was set to shoot (cast and crew was in place), Fischer, then almost 7 months pregnant, learned that her production company was losing its most fruitful contract because of educational budget cuts. Think Ten Media Group has a digital arts education division, which was being heavily impacted by educational cuts. The financial certainty of the company was in question making the financial investment in a feature-length film a big risky.
Still, Fischer and Hamilton felt passionately about the project and took the gamble of moving forward on the production as planned, despite many challenges.
They only auditioned 7 children, Ramsess Letrado nailed the audition. Plus, Hamilton’s rehearsals with Denisse Bon, the actress playing Letrado’s mother, had already begun, and the chemistry between the two actors hinted at what the film could be.
“We knew that if we didn’t make the film that summer, it probably wouldn’t get made. We had the cast, the crew, key lighting rentals donated by KinoFlo and all of the locations,” explains Fischer. “Plus, we felt very strongly about the story, so we really didn’t want to wait. Still, we knew it was a risk.”
With the film’s recent VOD release, the duo is seeing the risk pay off. Not only did the film do well on the festival circuit in 2012 winning 5 awards with 15 official selections, but it also garnered some impressive media interest, beginning with a feature article by NBCLatino. Fischer’s producing job has included the marketing and distribution of the film, and she used the NBCLatino article as a launching point for other media coverage, which has included ABC, Univision, Fusion, Mamiverse, KTEP (an NPR Affiliate station) and many other media outlets. In general, the duo is happy with the way others have highlighted the micro-budget film and recognized its value for audiences.
“It certainly wasn’t a traditional shoot. Not only was I almost 8 months pregnant when we shot the film, but I also had a toddler with me during the entire production and was the sole hands-on producer on the film, since Ramon was also directing and shooting the film. Plus, our entire crew was a crew of four,” says Fischer. “Walking into Sony Costumes and Props with my big belly and a toddler in a stroller was clearly not something the staff there was used to seeing, but I was committed to making the film work, and the film was a really positive experience for everyone involved.”
When Hamilton and Fischer decided to self-distribute the film, they also strayed from traditional approaches. “Considering the value of our film as a compelling and engaging drama connected to immigration, I realized that there was a lot of potential for our film if we focused on community organizations and universities and colleges,” explains Fischer.
The approach seems to be working. Over just 6 weeks this past Fall, the film will have screened at 8 different venues in 4 states with Hamilton present at all of the events, and right now they are approaching a 3 week stretch that will include 4 screenings events. Think Ten Media Group has also sold the film to several universities, including prestigious institutions like the University of Notre Dame and Emory University (and many others), and the film was also part of a prestigious panel on human trafficking and smuggling at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting this past August.
“The university approach allows us to reach a lot of people with the film even without a major theatrical release” says Fischer. “Plus, youth bring their passion and energy to the screenings which helps build excitement around the film and the company. I love reading media pieces written by students in attendance at events and receiving emails and notes about the way a film has moved an audience member. For me, it validates the risk we took in making the film, and it validates our company’s commitment to creating compelling and engaging films about important subjects.”
In a final example of the company’s unconventional approach, they are currently giving away digital copies of the film to anyone who email’s a request (learn more at: http://bit.ly/16TpS1O).
As for Fischer, she continues to balance motherhood with her work as an independent film producer, working from home where she can research university contacts, increase her understanding of social media and manage the company’s publicity and outreach often with her 2 and 4 year-old nearby coloring, painting or playing. “The balance isn’t always easy. I do best when I remember that they come first. Our film work is important, but the boys are the priority. They actually nurture my passion for creating media that matters,” she says. “When they’re happy, it gives me energy that I can channel into my creative work and the balancing act becomes easier.”
Fischer and Hamilton are also currently developing Think Ten Media Group’s next projects: SOLITARY, a narrative web series exploring solitary confinement, and SEEKERS, a feature-length film following a band of foster children traveling across the country to reunite one of the kid’s with their mother who has been deported, and CHRISTMAS WISH, an eBook about a child whose bravery saves the world. Academy Award-Winning Producer Jonathan Sanger has come aboard as an executive producer on both of the media projects they are currently developing.
In addition to her producing and marketing efforts with Think Ten Media Group, Fischer also writes a weekly commentary piece for SCVNews.com, shares her thoughts about motherhood, mindful parenting and activities she does with her kids at jennifischer.blogspot.com. She was interviewed about Smuggled’s production and distribution process at The Film Annex. She can also be found on Twitter @IndieJenFischer and curates a Film Articles and Resources Pinboard that Indiewire selected as one of the Top 10 Pinboards for Independent Filmmakers to follow.