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It was like an updated scene from The Godfather, with an equally powerful mob. Virtually every major New York film industry player-- the heads of Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features, and Picturehouse; top producers from Cinetic Media and This Is That; powerful agents from Creative Artists Agency, Gersh, and William Morris--crammed into a small nightclub VIP room in New York this month to pay homage to Christine Vachon, long dubbed "the godmother of indie cinema."
This month marks the 10-year anniversary of Killer Films, the production company out lesbian Vachon cofounded with partner Pam Koffler. (Partner Katie Roumel joined the pair in 2001). But even before Killer was formed, Vachon made her reputation producing her Brown University friend Todd Haynes's 1991 Sundance winner Poison, and the 30-odd films she's produced since are a testament to her longevity, which is just one reason she has earned her colleagues' respect.
Killer's resume includes a slate of films with gay themes (Velvet Goldmine, Camp) and hot-button topics (pedophilia in Happiness) that have entered the mainstream to become Oscar contenders (Far From Heaven) and even winners (Hilary Swank for Boys Don't Cry). She has attracted top talent, including box office draw Julianne Moore, which, combined with Killer's biggest low-budget hit One Hour Photo (which grossed nearly $32 million domestically), have made her a force with which to be reckoned. "What people expect from a Killer film is a degree of originality, provocativeness, and a kind of bravado," Vachon says. She attributes her success to "an extreme mix of pragmatism and passion," one tested in recent years by indie film's increased focus on star power. "Financiers will look at you with a straight face and say, 'We want the budget cut by $2 million, and we want Tom Cruise in it,' " she says.
Killer is now less dependent on equity partners and has increased its reliance on presales and European financing. Its first-look deal with Warner Bros. Pictures-based John Wells Prods. also has brought added stability. "Our John Wells deal sort of changed us," says Vachon, who credits it for allowing her to increase her slate. The company currently aims to do three films a year, with budgets from $2 million to $30 million--though, Vachon says, with the odd exception, most will be in the $7 million to $15 million range. "We're not equipped to make the tiny little movies anymore," she adds. "We're too big a machine now."
Upcoming projects include Mary Harron's nudity-filled biopic The Notorious Bettie Page, which Picturehouse will release in the spring, and Phyllis Nagy's true crime drama Mrs. Harris, which will bow on HBO. "I'm no longer convinced theatrical is the holy grail," Vachon says.
In the fall, Warner Independent Pictures will debut Doug McGrath's Truman Capote biopic, tentatively titled Every Word Is True. Having to follow Sony Pictures Classics' Capote has been frustrating for Vachon. "It's a tragic situation," she says. "On the other hand, I think our movie is extraordinary, covers totally different places [in Capote's life], and [WIP] really let us make the movie we wanted to make."
Vachon's attraction to intense real-life characters parallels her own tough reputation, one she doesn't exactly debunk. "It's a frustrating business sometimes," she says. "When you've been pushing an executive to read something for ages and they won't, or an actor commits to your project and then at the last minute uncommits." Still, she adds, "I'll sit down with a director for the first time, and he'll say afterwards, 'God, I was so afraid. I heard you were so mean, and you're so nice.' " Vachon smiles. "But I'm not always nice." (Gregg Goldstein, Reuters)