Mynette Louie '97 (Producer, CHILDREN OF INVENTION, MUTUAL APPRECIATION)
By Mark Saltveit '83
Film producers are "suits," financiers, number crunchers and contract negotiators. They're not creative – they're the people directors have to fight in order to be creative. Independent producer Mynette Louie '97, laughs. "That’s the most common perception out there, and I think that’s why Sundance decided to start the Creative Producing Lab three years ago."
Louie was one of the first fellows of the Sundance Institute's Creative Producing Lab. She has also been a participant in Cinemart's Rotterdam Producers Lab, and frequently participates in conference panels. After just 6 years in the film business, she has emerged as an innovative producer of indie movies and a vocal participant in the conversation about the future of film.
Indie producers actually need to be very creative in how they accomplish their primary tasks: assembling the script, financing and production team; casting; and, nowadays planning the distribution. But Mynette also keeps her focus on the reason she goes to all this trouble – her desire to tell great stories in imaginative ways. As she told IndieWire, the type of films she likes best – dark, complex dramas – happen to be "the most difficult to market and the hardest to find financing for.” On microbudget features like Tze Chun's acclaimed CHILDREN OF INVENTION, her best known production, a producer has plenty of opportunities to express her artistic side directly. Louie had input in the script, casting, costume design, and production design; she even created the website.
At the same time, she is entirely comfortable with finance and cutting deals, having worked in business development and marketing (in the magazine and Internet industries) for several years after graduation. In her job as an associate with Jupiter Research, she interviewed dozens of entrepreneurs. One of them, in 1999, was Reed Hastings, the CEO of a new startup called NetFlix. He explained to her that the DVDs were just a way to build the company's customer base; within three years he expected to be streaming movies over the Internet. "He was about ten years ahead of himself," she observes.
Her business career was instructive and financially "practical," but Louie was dissatisfied. Fearful of leaving her stable corporate haven, it took 9/11 to prompt her to quit her job and reevaluate her priorities and life choices. She decided on producing films. She worked as a crew member or producer on several films, and co-produced MUTUAL APPRECIATION by Andrew Bujalski '98, the godfather of the "Mumblecore" movement. Then she got a job with Hawaii's film commission, where she authored a film tax credit bill that was adopted by the state legislature.
Mynette Louie's innovative approach to distributing CHILDREN OF INVENTION has garnered a lot of attention in the independent film world. She stunned many by turning down nine separate distribution offers (and counting), when many feature filmmakers would kill for one. To Louie, though, the reason was simple: "The deals sucked." She had heard many horror stories about bad distribution contracts from filmmaker and producer friends, and when she examined the offers, the numbers just weren't there. "Once you sign a 25-year exclusive distribution deal, your film is trapped," she notes.
So she distributed the film herself, following an indie rock band tour model -- leveraging live appearances at film festivals for maximum press and direct sales on DVD. She arranged for the film to screen for a week at one theater in New York (the minimum required for reviews) by pairing it with another indie feature —she emphasizes that she did not "four-wall" (pay rent at) any theaters —and subsequent booking requests from arthouse theaters in other cities followed. She then cut separate deals for cable VOD, Internet VOD, and DVD--including, yes, Netflix. CHILDREN OF INVENTION was one of the first five films sold through YouTube Rentals. Splitting up the rights this way was a lot more work than signing an all-rights deal, but with the old distribution paradigm crumbling, she felt it was the most responsible way to get the film seen, recoup the budget, and repay their investors.
A knack for both storytelling and finance may be an unusual skill set, but it comes naturally to Louie. She grew up in Brooklyn, the daughter of Chinese immigrants who were both creative themselves. "My dad sold watercolor paintings in Washington Square Park. But he was also a stockbroker, and in business, before that. So when he pushed me to become a lawyer or an accountant, it was because he knew how hard it is for artists to make a living."
Louie was always good at math as well as painting, dance and music. Even as a child, stumbling upon the many film shoots in New York, she imagined herself as a producer rather than a director, knowing that she enjoyed both the business and artistic sides.
Mynette remains a strong advocate of liberal arts education. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the East Asian Studies department, focused on Chinese film and literature – one of the world's newest, and one of its oldest narrative traditions, respectively. She learned the essence of story, as well as how to form and articulate her thoughts, which helped her in both her corporate and film careers. In fact, she found the same secret to success in college as she did in her post-9/11 film career: do what you love, so that you enjoy working hard, and let success take care of itself.
As the film and Internet spaces change and merge, while old business models collapse, Mynette Louie has demonstrated that creative producing is no longer an oxymoron – it's a necessity.