Movies and Shakers

The production companies behind – and ahead of – the boom, and how they might be able to help you

Carolyn Pfeiffer
Carolyn Pfeiffer (Photo By John Anderson)


"We're a production company, but we don't do development in the traditional sense of finding material, hiring a writer, writing the script from scratch," says Carolyn Pfeiffer, Burnt Orange Productions' president and CEO, who three years ago left her position as a vice-chair, master filmmaker-in-residence, and head of the producing discipline at the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles to oversee what can only be described as the University of Texas' grand cinematic experiment. "That requires a timeline that, when we started, we weren't ready for, and it also requires a different kind of funding. We raise money to actually produce films, and what we do at Burnt Orange is find scripts that are already written and then go forward from there."

As far as independent production companies go, Burnt Orange is currently top dog in Austin, having a full slate of four feature-length, low-budget films either completed or in production, including Jamie Babbit's The Quiet (formerly Dot), Jacob Vaughn's The Cassidy Kids, Adam Rifkin's Homo Erectus, and Will Geiger's Elvis and Anabelle. What makes Burnt Orange unique, however, is its relationship with the University of Texas Film Institute (headed by Executive Director Tom Schatz), which, as its overview notes, places "students alongside professionals in the creation of independent feature films, fuses technological innovation with creative application, and cultivates filmmaking talent in Texas' growing film community."

In short, there's nothing else like it out there. Yet.

"We've been approached now by a number of other universities and even a state – the South Carolina Film Commission," says Pfeiffer, whose résumé also includes producing and distributing Choose Me, The Moderns, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, "because one of the great things about this program is that we are developing the crew base here in Austin. And the state of South Carolina has all these initiatives, but they don't have enough crew. So, they've contacted us, and we've shared how we go about it. It wouldn't surprise me if someone gives it a go."

<i>The Cassidy Kids</i>
The Cassidy Kids

Located in downtown Austin, Burnt Orange shares space with the UTFI, making this one of the vertically integrated, simultaneously for-profit (on Burnt Orange's side) and nonprofit (UTFI) film ventures out there.

"The way it works," Pfeiffer explains, "is that the university leases this building and houses the UT Film Institute upstairs, and Burnt Orange rents this little corner downstairs, year-round, and then we lease a room for the production facility. The conservatory here has a number of activities going on all the time: the one that most affects Burnt Orange is when they attach students as apprentices and interns to the productions. We have an unprecedented relationship with [the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts], which allows a certain number of students to apprentice, and other students can intern, with apprentices working in covered positions, and by that I mean positions like second assistant camera, assistant camera, or assistant editor on the larger productions. Every film we've done, we have had 40 to 50 students attached in one capacity or the other.

"All of the students get both screen credit and academic credit whether they're apprentices or interns. The interns are still enrolled in school and are still doing classes at UT and therefore work part time. I would say to you that you'd be hard-pressed to find a student who's been on these shoots that hasn't learned anything. I'd also say that after the first week of a shoot, which can be a tiny bit bumpy, you almost can't tell the difference between the students and the professionals. They've got it down, they know where they're supposed to be, they know the lingo, they know to shut up when your rolling, and they just pitch in and help in every department. What they bring to the production is a sort of enthusiasm that is very engaging."

Ultimately, as a production company, Burnt Orange's reputation rests on the quality of its finished product, and while the vast majority of the "500 to 550" scripts it has been sent come though agents and attorneys representing screenwriters, Pfeiffer says that she's "not aware of too many people who want to come in that haven't managed to get their script through the door. Also, through the Austin Film Festival, we have a Burnt Orange Award that includes a little cash, and they're calling for submissions right now. It needs to be something that can be shot in this area. For instance, The Quiet was written to take place in Connecticut, but it's being shot here. It doesn't have to be a Texas story, but it has to be able to be shot here."

The submission process goes like this: Scripts go to head of development Gregory Collins, who logs them, and from there the script goes to the UTFI development classes, where people are assigned to read it. Pfeiffer: "If something comes in from a manager or our board of advisers or a filmmaker that we have a relationship with, I prioritize it and almost always read it immediately. Obviously there are certain scripts that go to the top of the pile – that's just the nature of it."

As for submissions, Pfeffer says unsolicited scripts are discouraged, and submissions through agent/attorney channels are far more likely to make it through the door, but adds, "Anyone who wants to get a script to us should contact [Collins], but know that there is always a little time lag in the procedure. For us, if there is talent attached, it instantly has a little more value, as it does with all production companies.

"We accept fully written scripts that are within our budget range, which is up to a million right now and, with the next film, hopefully up to a million five, and then we look for partners for anything up to 3 million. The most we've spent on a single project so far is Elvis and Anabelle, the film we're shooting now, which is more in the 2-million-dollar range."

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