About Ross Putman
After graduating from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, Ross Putman started his career as a development executive before transitioning to independent film production. The company he co-founded, PSH Collective, went on to produce the Sundance award winning drama First Girl I Loved and the Emma Roberts rom-com In a Relationship. His latest film, crowd-pleasing comedy Plus One, starring Maya Erskine and Jack Quaid, just won the audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens in theatres and digital platforms in June.
Ross recently transitioned to a job at the literary and talent agency Verve, working in their independent film sales and finance division. He stopped by Lunacy to share some insights from his years in development and production.
Lunacy Productions: Tell us about your background in the entertainment industry.
Ross Putman: I came into the industry as a writer. I attended the graduate screenwriting program at USC. I thought that I just wanted to write. The thing that scared me was the idea of sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. I was in a class of 35 people, many who I thought were much more talented than I was. I thought to myself, how is anyone going to see my writing? I started to have a bit of a panic attack.
The solution to my panic attack was producing. The idea of getting up and doing something to move projects forward, instead of waiting for someone to call me. That was a really appealing idea, because I could still make movies and tell the stories I wanted to tell. But I didn’t have to just hope someone else liked me. I wanted to be the person to scream from the heavens and tell other people that they should pay attention to a movie. That’s how I started producing. I wound up being an assistant in a production company, then an executive. And then an executive in another company.
I eventually realized that the kind of movies I wanted to make and the stories I wanted to tell from emerging filmmakers were never going be that interesting to more established companies. Because they had a business already and they didn’t need to be breaking new voices. But those were the people I found myself getting really excited about.
I wound up leaving development in 2014 to just go out on my own and produce with no safety net. I had formed relationships and met a lot of people. I basically said to myself, I’m gonna go out there and make some movies. And now, in 2019, I’ve made almost a dozen films. I’ve made some that I’m extremely proud of. I recently started a new job as a finance and packaging agent at Verve. That’s where you’re talking to me right now. Moving to Verve felt like a way that I could keep putting movies together, but maybe do more at one time.
Here, I can champion more voices, because I removed the element of actually having to go make the movie from the equation now. My job now is to continue championing those voices, find the scripts I love, the filmmakers I think are amazing and help them put all the elements together so their movie can be real and then send them off in the world to make them.
LP: It’s so funny how the panic attacks in our lives can lead to the greatest changes and career opportunities. What advice would you have for other independent producers venturing into independent financing? Especially with the different platforms available to filmmakers today?
RP: I have to believe that quality wins the day. I have to believe that, even in a cluttered marketplace where movies and content live on all sorts of disparate platforms.
When I started producing independently, I decided to go out with material that was up to the highest standards of what I believed a film needed to be. And that involved a lot of restraint because it means not going after projects that might be just a quick buck or going out with a script that you think is “commercial.” I didn’t want to be in that position.
I needed to know that if I was calling somebody about a script, even if their answer is ultimately “no,” because 99 percent of the time you hear “no,” I needed to know that I would be confident that they would have at least read that script and thought, “Oh that was really interesting,” or “This was a very different or unique or compelling script.” Even though they might decide not to make it, the reason that they’re not going to make it is not because it’s bad. The reason they’re not going to make it is because it might not fit with their company mandate, or it’s not the right timing. I never wanted to be in a position where someone was passing because they read a bad script. I spent most of my development career reading bad scripts. And passing on them.
Coming from a writer’s perspective, I thought, what’s the one thing that I can really control? I can’t control if a millionaire wants to give me a million dollars, I can’t control if a certain distributor wants to buy my movie. What I can control is the screenplay, and the project that I’m telling the world needs to be made. That’s how I started. I have to truly believe in a project to think that it’s special. And if I have that behind me, I’m never going to feel angry when I hear no. I’m never going to feel upset that it takes so long because I know that what I’m going out with deserves to be made, it’s just a matter of time and persistence.
Ross Putman and his wife, Hanh Nguyen, at the Tribeca premiere of Plus One.
LP: Now that you’ve transitioned into working with Verve on the packaging and financing side, what are you looking for in terms of projects?
RP: My mindset in terms of quality has not changed. We still have to clear that bar, we still have to start with great source material. There’s an adage from somebody I cannot remember in the film business which is, “You can’t make a good movie from a bad script. But you can certainly make a bad movie from a good script.” No matter what, you need start with the best source material because there are so many variables, so many people, and so much money and time that go into making a movie. If you’re not setting yourself up with the best possible foundation for that film, why would you hope that it would wind up good?
Obviously, there are many execution dependent elements to every movie, but I want to start with great material. With Verve, and with what I’m doing now, we have to start there. Then the second question is, who is the audience for this movie? If there is an audience, then you have to determine, how big is that audience? How do they consume content? What is their favorite way to watch movies or TV?
Once you’ve answered all of those questions, I think it brings you around to saying – Okay, now we know who would really like this, now we know where this movie or project probably lives in the distribution marketplace, and we know that it’s good. That helps you determine how much we should be making it for and what companies make this kind of movie. If we’ve gotten to that point in a conversation and feel like it’s still a project we can get made, will be good, and will find an audience, then no matter what the budget level is or the size, it becomes something to pursue, right?
On the small movies, it’s a small amount of business unless it blows up and becomes the next giant thing. With a bigger movie, it’s ideally a bigger piece of business. One is not better than the other, it’s just getting to the point of determining the realism of that project. You have to ask yourself, is this a world where we can get this movie made under those circumstances, or are we all wasting our time?
LP: Tell me a little about your involvement in Plus One.
RP: I started on Plus One four and a half years ago, maybe almost five now. I read the script in the summer of 2014. It was sent to me by (co-writer/director) Andrew Rhymer’s agent at the time. I read the script, loved it, and thought it was a great piece of material.
I remember lying in bed at like 11 pm reading the script on my iPad and I just started laughing every few pages! My wife was like, “What the hell is going on?,” because that’s not usually my reaction. I got to the end of the script and thought to myself, “That script is really f****** good.” Went to bed at midnight, woke up, met with Andrew, didn’t have any plans other than to just see what his deal was, and then mid-way through the meeting, I found myself saying, “I want to produce your movie.” It just kind of came out of my mouth.
And that was the start of that relationship. We partnered up with Red Hour shortly thereafter because Andrew and (co-writer/director) Jeff Chan had worked on some digital content with them. They loved the script and came on to produce it with us. That started the 4 years of us trying to get the money and cast together to do it. Stu Pollard came on to the project early as a supporter and then as an executive producer and financier with Lunacy Productions. Studio 71 eventually came on to be the majority financier and that was actually a relationship that we forged through Verve.
So, we partnered up, got it done and it was incredibly gratifying to make that movie with the original team and with all the incredible people we partnered with along the way. Because everyone was there for the right reasons.
LP: What can producers expect once they’re in a position where they’ve raised all their financing and they are now able to execute their movie?
RP: Once we have the money in place and we are actually looking to make the movie, casting is the most important thing. The secret to Plus One‘s success is casting. Take that process seriously and don’t settle. If you’ve seen someone and you’re thinking, yeah they’re most of the way there, and it feels like there’s no one left… there’s probably someone left. Keep pushing. Push your casting director, push your producers, make those phone calls to agents, and see who you’re not thinking of who might be amazing.
The problem in the independent film marketplace, or the independent film ecosystem, is that oftentimes people look at cast and say a name actor is needed get this movie made. Plus One was pretty low budget, but that conversation always comes up. We had a few more notable actors attached to the project over the years, but ultimately it didn’t work out with whatever package we had together at any given time.
The thing about casting for a comedy, a drama, or anything that’s really character driven, you can’t always just say we need to cast the person who is the most famous. Because you might actually wind up with a worse movie that doesn’t really work.
There are a lot of those movies on iTunes. Someone famous is in it, but you’ve never heard of it.
Casting is so important. We knew in our gut after having seen a bunch of tape and met with Maya Erskine that she just had to be the star of it. There was just no other person who felt like they could be Alice. Thankfully, she felt the same way. It was a long search to find Maya. A lot of auditioning, a lot of reads, a lot meetings, a lot of people attached, but you have to go with your gut. When Maya came into our lives, we knew she was the one. We felt the same way about Jack Quaid.
Maya Erskine and Jack Quaid in a scene from Plus One.
LP: I know some producers who absolutely love working with first time directors, and that’s their specialty. Why do you like first time feature directors, and why did you like working with Jeff and Andrew?
RP: There’s something nice about a blank slate. There’s not a lot of baggage for this filmmaker, and on the other side, there’s not a lot of work that we can show to say that this person has a track record.
There’s something very exciting about breaking those fresh voices and the opportunities that come with that. Whether it’s a PR message, or from a festival perspective of having it be a filmmaker’s debut film. But to me, it comes down to a really simple fact:
When I was independently producing, the first time directors were the people who would let me produce their movies! I don’t have a lot of financing behind me. I don’t have a fund. I’m not coming in and giving you a million dollars to make your movie. I’m trying to go out into the world and get your movie made.
When I was a 28-year-old independent producer who had made one movie and then quit my job, I needed to work with people who I loved, but also people who were willing to let me give it a try. I think that there’s some reticence to work with emerging producers from people who have made a couple films. They say, “Oh, my first film went to Tribeca. I want to level up. I’m going work with an established company.” My goal was always to say I make the first film with a filmmaker because I love them and I believe in them and from there we hopefully work together on subsequent films. As a way to grow and continue to progress in our careers.
LP: You came on to Plus One a few years ago, and look at where it is now! That’s an amazing accomplishment for you and your team. And I’m sure it was a challenge at many times.
RP: The thing I’ll say to every imminent producer, writer, director, financier is — the way the movie turns out is never the way you thought it was going to go. Sometimes I accidentally see my old emails, and the way I was talking about the movie, it’s laughable. The actor you were talking about, the budget you were talking about, the timeframe you were talking about… you look back and you’re like, oh my god, was I out of my mind? Nothing I’m even saying is even remotely close to what this movie wound up becoming.
That’s my experience on every movie, is that you visualize it one way and then you eventually get to a place where you say, great, we have what we have, let’s make the movie.
LP: Did you target Tribeca as your premiere for Plus One? How did that fall into place?
RP: Plus One was submitted to the traditional festival route. I produced a film last year that screened at Tribeca called In a Relationship with Emma Roberts. That film did very well. We received great press and sold the film domestically out of the festival. It was a nice experience and I got to know some of the Tribeca people really well and liked them a lot. I also liked the way the festival was run.
When we finished Plus One, and decided to submit it to festivals, the first festival to actually get back to us was Tribeca. They said, “We love this movie and we want it.” Their aggressiveness was very appreciated, because everyone wants to know that the festival you’re premiering at genuinely believes in and loves your film. We were so impressed by the enthusiasm of Tribeca and with the idea of “Let’s take this movie to New York!”
When we accepted Tribeca very enthusiastically, we had 5 months to prepare. We had time to plan our strategy and we were also in the process of selling the movie. That also meant that we could loop in our distributor and tell them we already had this great premiere lined up. We wanted to use that to our advantage.
LP: Can you tell me how you secured distribution for the film and why you decided to go with that particular deal?
RP: We wanted to think outside the box a little with this movie. The typical approach to indie film sales is to wait until the movie premieres at a festival and sell it there as though it’s a market. The halcyon dream of the late night Sundance bidding war. That’s certainly the standard way of doing it. When the film was finished, we could have just sat around and waited to sell the film at Tribeca.
But, we felt that we had something really strong and commercial on our hands. And the film was “of the moment.” It’s a romantic comedy, and over the summer we saw Crazy Rich Asians blow up with an Asian American lead. We saw To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before with an Asian American lead do really well for Netflix. Set It Up did well last year. There was this mini-boom of successful rom-coms. There was this nice moment where distributors were looking for rom-coms and looking for Asian American leads.
We were very confident that if we took it to market, there would be a strong appetite. We didn’t really want to wait until Tribeca to just sell the film the same old way.
We put together a strategy with Verve. (At the time I was producing and I didn’t work here.) I worked with Verve and their team to put together a sales strategy to “event-ize” the sale. We did a wedding screening at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, where they do the Oscars. We put together paper invites, we had them hand delivered to all the buyers, we followed up with a digital invite and a trailer. We served cupcakes and champagne at the screening and tried to make it feel like it was a bit of a special event. We had a great turnout. All the buyers that we wanted to see the movie were watching it very quickly.
Within a very short period of time, we had offers on the table from buyers that saw the same potential that we did. That put us in a place where we were able to close our distribution deal with RLJE, who has been doing a lot of genre stuff and was really excited to do more of the romantic comedy space. Their enthusiasm for the film was really strong and exciting and we felt like they were the right partner for the movie that we had made. We were thrilled to close with them. That sale meant that we could use Tribeca to launch the movie into the world. They plan to release the actual film on June 14th.
We had Tribeca at the end of April, then about a month and a half for the trailer, poster, reviews, and press from the festival to make their impact. And then the movie comes out in June. It really worked out beautifully both on the schedule side and with a partner who just loves the movie as much as we do.
Ross Putman’s film Plus One, from Red Hour Films, Studio71, and Lunacy Productions, opens in theatres and digital platforms on June 14th. Stay tuned to the Lunacy Productions blog for more info on this hilarious film!