She of Many Hats: Producer, director, actress and distributor Miranda Bailey does it all
It’s a bit of an odd comparison, but bear with me: Miranda Bailey is slowly evolving into the Forrest Gump of the indie film set. No, she doesn’t have the haircut. Or the accent. The love of chocolate… maybe. I don’t know. No, the Gumpian quality this producer has is ubiquity. The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Swiss Army Man. Don’t Think Twice. Take a critically acclaimed, low-budget indie comedy/drama that’s come out over the last 18 months, and there’s a decent chance Bailey co-produced it. It’s a good track record going into her latest release, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, out April 17 from Sony Pictures Classics.
The film, directed by the Oscar-nominated Joseph Cedar (Footnote), reunites Bailey with Richard Gere, who starred in the Bailey-produced, Oren Moverman-directed Time Out of Mind. (Moverman also serves as a co-producer on Norman.) Here, Gere revs up a New Yawk accent to play Norman Oppenheimer, a wannabe big shot who stumbles into the world of political high rollers when he befriends an Israeli politician (Footnote’s Lior Ashkenazi) who later becomes Prime Minister. “It’s a unique movie,” explains Bailey—for the schmuck-y character the typically suave Gere plays as well as for its unusual blend of comedy and political thriller. Not to mention its stellar ensemble cast, which has Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dan Stevens, Hank Azaria, Harris Yulin, Josh Charles and Isaach De Bankolé all popping up in supporting roles.
“It’s funny, because we all know a Norman,” Bailey explains—meaning that inveterate and clueless self-promoter who causes everyone to suddenly remember other plans as soon as he walks into the room. “I can’t even hand someone my business card anymore. When I see someone at a party and say, ‘Oh, here’s my number,’ I always feel like Norman now. I can’t get away from it!”
Time will tell whether Norman adds itself to the list of Bailey-produced successes—though success is relative in the indie world, where more often than not even critically acclaimed movies fail to turn a profit. (Bailey notes that only two of her films have ended up in the black.)
In the time Bailey’s been working as a producer, she explains, it’s become easier for filmmakers to “roll up their sleeves” and make movies themselves, without the backing of a major studio. Which is all well and good, but the flip side is that “studios realized, ‘It’s a lot easier for us to buy these films at Sundance’” instead of spending the money—and accepting the risk—up front. “It’s been pretty [tough] to sell your film, over the last six years, for the amount that you made it for. Amazon and Netflix have come in, and they have a different model than all these other distribution outlets. They can offer the kind of money that we used to see studios buying Little Miss Sunshine for. They’re paying a lot of money up front, but then they own it all. And basically you get what you get. That said, you kind of get what you get anyway!”
As a producer—and, to run down her other job titles, actress, director and writer—Bailey isn’t averse to VOD. It’s so tough to get money that if money is offered to you, whether through traditional theatrical distribution or streaming-only, you take it. But, she clarifies, “I love theatrical distribution.”
And she should: In addition to all her other film work, in 2012 Bailey co-founded distribution outlet The Film Arcade, which has theatrical distribution as its focus. It was The Film Arcade that released Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice, which made headlines last July when it opened to $92,835 on one screen, giving it the highest per-theatre gross of 2016 up to that point. It’s a record that was later broken by Moonlight and La La Land, but still—a $4.4 million theatrical gross for a low-budget indie comedy with no A-list stars is nothing to sneeze at.
“That was the first time I made a film knowing that I wanted to distribute it at the same time,” Bailey notes. “When Mike and I got together, the whole plan was that we’re going to make this movie and know that we have the ability to distribute it. We’ll go ahead and show it at a festival, and we’ll see if [other people] believe in it as much as we do. And if they do, maybe we’ll think about selling. But if they don’t, then we’re going to do it ourselves. It’s not a movie where there’s a huge star. It’s about improv. It’s a small movie. We didn’t expect Fox Searchlight to come in and buy it, because that’s not really what they buy.”
Knowing who buys what, and for how much—i.e., knowing the distribution market—is something Bailey would advise independent directors and producers to invest time in. “It’s something I thought when we started The Film Arcade: This should have been my first step. Because the one thing that’s great about being part of a distribution company is you get the knowledge of what’s out there in the marketplace right now. You understand, as a producer, ‘I need to make my budget this.’ Or ‘I can’t make a story about that because that didn’t do well, and the reasons it didn’t do well are x, y and x.’”
“There are so many directors I meet where I love their projects, and I really want to work with them, but what they want to do, financially, does not make sense,” she continues. “And then I have to say, ‘I love this project. I want to do it. Here’s how I think we should do it, how we could do it. I’ve been around long enough now that when someone says, ‘It’s going to sell for $10 million at Sundance!,’ I’m like, ‘Uh-uh. No. Maybe! It could! But I’m not going to walk down that road with you, because I think it’s going to sell for three at Sundance. So that’s [the level at which] we should make it. And if it sells for ten, we get even more.’”
A related no-no for directors: Don’t be stubborn. There’s a lot of mystique attached to the idea of a lone-wolf director who won’t let his vision be challenged—not by nobody, not no-how. But film is a collaborative medium, Bailey cautions, and you should “be a sponge. Learn as much as you can.” And listen to people. “If you have more than one person telling you the same thing about your project, whether you’re a writer or a director or a producer, then start to hear it. Does it resonate? If it doesn’t, then that’s fine. You might be right.” But nobody’s right all the time.
But, then again…sometimes you have to listen to your intuition, and damn the naysayers. That was the case with The Daniels’ (aka Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) Swiss Army Man. Lest you forget, this is a film which in the first ten minutes has one character using another’s farting corpse as a jet ski. It doesn’t exactly scream “mainstream success” the way, say, Marielle Heller’s coming-of-age-comedy The Diary of a Teenage Girl did. That film “had such a small budget, and it had Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgård,” says Bailey. “It’s definitely one of the best scripts I’d ever read. It was funny and sad and heart-wrenching, and I really related to it as a woman.”
Though Bailey “believed in [Swiss Army Man] from the beginning,” it was one of the tougher sells of her career. To start off, “we realized we couldn’t make it for the amount of money I was able to bring to the table.” Other financiers had to be brought onboard, but “I remember talking to so many people who were like, ‘This is just too weird.’ And I knew what it could be, but it’s hard to explain that to someone when you have two directors who have never done it before, other than a music-video and a short. There’s a select group of people that are willing to take that risk, and oftentimes they’re newbies. People who have been around the block have already been burned by working with new directors on a film that’s not commercial.” Additional financing was secured, and then fell through, only for two other financiers to sign on mere weeks before it was time to start writing checks. “It turned out better than even I had imagined,” gushes Bailey. “I love that film. It’s so, so weird.”
Speaking of “so, so weird”… what’s coming up for Bailey? Well, that would be the currently in-development Raised Eyebrows, a Groucho Marx biopic penned by Oren Moverman and directed by none other than horror auteur Rob Zombie. “I know it sounds like a strange idea!” Bailey laughingly admits. “I think it can be a very special film.”
Bailey, who’s directed two feature documentaries (2010’s Greenlit and the upcomingThe Pathological Optimistic) makes her feature narrative debut with You Can Choose Your Family, beginning production in May. Comedian Jim Gaffigan stars as a seemingly normal man whose life hits a rough spot when his teenage son discovers father dearest actually has a second family. Yep. That’ll do it.