Director: Logan Kibens
Writers: Logan Kibens, Sharon Greene
Producers: Aaron Cruze, Logan Kibens
Budget: Under $1 million
Financing: Private Equity/Grants
Production: 20 days, June-July, 2015
Shooting Format: ARRI Amira
Screening Format: DCP
World Premiere: South By Southwest 2016
Distributor: The Orchard
Awards: 2012, Sundance Institute: Lab Fellowship; 2014, Film Independent: Sloan Fast Track Grant
Joe, a programmer and obsessive self-quantifier, and Emily, an empathetic artist, are happily married until they start working together on a project that promises to replicate Emily’s personality. Operator is a dark comedy about love in the age of anxiety.
Development & Financing
In 2010, writer/ director Logan Kibens graduated from CalArts with an MFA in Film/Video and went on to participate in both the HBO/ DGA Directing Fellowship and Film Independent’s Project: Involve. During the year that followed, she met with producers and read available scripts, all in hopes of discovering the project that would become her first feature. Kibens had written plenty of short film scripts—including the one that becaome her thesis project—so she decided to take a shot at developing her own rough concept. “The germ of an idea—the main character—came to me. And then I built a world around this person’s psychology—the world of voice recognition and artificial intelligence,” she recalls. Kibens was no stranger to the milieu; her father had spent his career in artificial intelligence and specifically voice recognition. Kibens also vividly recalls booking frequent Amtrak trips to and from college with “Julie,” one of the first robot voice systems designed to have a personality. Certain she was onto something, Kibens enlisted collaborator (and wife) Sharon Greene to co-write a script. Kibens and Greene wrestled with ideas that were only beginning to penetrate the public consciousness. (This was a year before Apple’s Siri would hit the market and become ubiquitous almost overnight.)
The pair applied to the 2012 Sundance Screenwriters Lab with their first draft and were accepted. Through Sundance they were awarded, a fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. $5,000 of the accompanying $15,000 grant was earmarked for a science advisor, and through it the filmmakers were able to connect with experts at Nuance, the company behind programs like Siri, Dragon and Amazon’s Alexa. Following the Lab, Sundance staged a reading of the script, which helped the writers to see that the voice of their female lead, Emily, felt underdeveloped; again they rewrote, and with each subsequent draft, another facet of the project took a step forward.
“There were pros and cons throughout to having a catchy logline,” Kibens remembers of the period in which she turned her attention to budgeting and fundraising—and discovered the project had competition. Though Kibens and Greene had serious interest from production companies, the 2013 release of Spike Jonze’s wildly successful film, Her, suddenly felt like too close a comp and that interest waned. The team also struggled with their male lead’s likeability factor in a changing technological landscape. Described as a “self-quantifier,” the character is preoccupied with tracking his own physical data—a quirk many potential producers found off-putting at the time, though only a few years later they would all be wearing Fitbits themselves.
In 2014, Kibens participated in Film Independent’s Fast Track program. “Fast Track is where a lot of pieces began to fall into place,” Kibens says. In looking for a producer, Kibens had decided to step up to the plate herself, but knew that the project needed someone with more reach and experience to help steer the ship. The project was already repped at ICM when Kibens participated in the lab, but Fast Track brought an introduction to UTA who felt certain they could cast the film. The program also brought another Sloan development grant that would move the film that much closer to production. And most significantly, Fast Track facilitated an introduction that would lead Kibens to the project’s sole financier, a businessman who came from the tech sector and wanted to produce his first film. He agreed to put up half the film’s $1.2 million budget.
Soon after, Kibens and Greene were accepted into the JuntoBox Film Incubator, a program that promised full financing to one of eight films invited to participate. Though Operator wasn’t selected for full financing, JuntoBox did offer to invest—only to fold before Kibens was able to collect.
“There were so many places where things felt stalled, and you have to push through based on stubbornness,” she admits. With a goal of shooting during a Chicago summer in 2015 and partial financing in place, Kibens felt the clock ticking. She and Greene made the decision to funnel funds from their latest Sloan grant into hiring casting director Barbara McCarthy, a Chicago native, in hopes that an actor attachment might draw additional investors. McCarthy understood the world of the film, but actors were slow to respond. To create a sense of momentum that might inspire agency interest, the team set a start date and held auditions. The strategy worked and the phone began to ring. Though Chicago auditions did yield actors for smaller roles, major parts went to Martin Starr, Mae Whitman and Christine Lahti—all of whom came through meetings that followed agency submissions.
With the $600,000 they already had, the team knew that the Illinois tax credit might account for as much as an additional 30%–but they’d still need to lower the budget significantly. A grant from ARRI covered shooting on the new Amira camera. The project met the qualifications for the SAG Low Budget Agreement, and the diversity of its cast allowed the production to qualify at a slightly higher budget level. Local hires became a higher priority. Motion graphics and design took a hit, as did Kibens and Greene’s fees and transportation expenses. “We whittled and whittled and whittled until we got on set,” Kibens admits of the shrinking budget. As the cast started to come together, the team headed to Chicago for prep, but with department heads already at work, they were hit with another curveball: Illinois suspended its production tax credit. Without it, there was no way to make the film work, so Kibens was forced to approach their financier once again. When she explained the situation, he generously agreed to make up the difference, and Operator was on the road to production once again. (In a fortunate turn, the tax credit was reinstated after only a few months, and the project did benefit retroactively.)
Operator was shot in Chicago with a non-union crew over 20 days in the summer of 2015. Kibens and her line producer had broken the script down into four major locations, and essentially shot one week in each. Kibens has particularly fond memories of the week they spent at the Neo-Futurists’ theater; Greene was a former performer and Artistic Director for the experimental theatre group that has long been a Chicago institution. To capture the action, they shot the theater sequences with three cameras (and three camera crews) working simultaneously. Though the film’s sequences in the theater were staged, the team took their actors and cinematographer to several live performances in order to recreate the reality of the group’s energy and audience experience. For Kibens and Greene, who had worked so hard to make this film a reality, shooting in the theater felt like something of a homecoming.
Festival Preparation and Strategy
After shooting, Kibens returned to LA for post, editing the film herself, partly to save time with a tight post-production schedule. Working at home on Final Cut, she also managed to save a considerable chunk of the budget.
The team was pushing for Sundance—having been through the Sundance Institute programs. They submitted an early cut followed by a later one, but weren’t invited to the festival. Happily, the rejection gave Kibens some breathing room, and time to address the motion graphics. Those graphics that appear on computers in the film had originally been handled practically, but neither Kibens nor her investor felt that they or the full screen graphics were working. Once again he generously gave Kibens a new cash infusion that allowed the team to bring MK12 in to redesign and revamp those graphics, though the director credits MK12’s Ben Radatz with helping them to make such an expensive undertaking work financially. “One of the positive sides of being a first-time filmmaker is that everybody who was involved was really personally interested,” she explains. They were able to complete the graphics work in time for the film’s premiere at South by Southwest.
Heading into the festival, Jessica Lacy and Alex Saks of ICM handled sales and 42 West covered publicity. To create buzz, the producers kept the film under wraps leading up to the premiere and Kibens did only limited press prior to the fest.
Operator premiered to a house filled with press and distribution company reps, and the response was immediately positive. The team fielded a number of offers following the festival, and as a first-timer, Kibens found the process of cultivating and exploring those offers fascinating. The Orchard was relatively new to film distribution at the time—having started in music—but Kibens and her team were struck by their focus on transparency and their willingness to share numbers with filmmakers. Ultimately, the Orchard picked up all North American and UK rights for an undisclosed sum.
The Orchard’s distribution agreement did not include a guaranteed theatrical release, but the Sloan Foundation had come through a third time with a $50,000 distribution grant that provided Operator with a limited weeklong release in order to qualify for the Independent Spirit Awards. The film premiered at LA’s Vista Theater on November 8, 2016, and on VOD, iTunes and Amazon through The Orchard. A Netflix release followed after 90 days. Operator has also enjoyed a healthy festival run, both stateside and abroad.
With guidance from The Orchard’s marketing team, the producers used roughly $20,000 of the Sloan grant for banner ad buys through Comcast and DirecTV that allowed viewers to click through and purchase the film. They also advertised on Vulture with a significant weeklong ad blitz. The filmmakers are eager to see how their strategy has paid off, and though they have yet to see the numbers, The Orchard was very happy with the VOD release. Kibens doesn’t anticipate personally making money from the film, but is confident her investor will be repaid.
Advice from the filmmaker
“Try not to be driven by forces outside of you. Try to stay committed to your own intuition and what you believe is important. You need to collaborate with a number of people as you push things forward, but you are the creator of this project and it is ultimately your vision. Holding true to that is what’s going to drive everybody who’s working around you,” Kibens says, adding, “And don’t be shy about attaching yourself as a producer.”