13th Gen is an independent production company founded in 2009 by Filmmaker / Producer Marc Smolowitz. Based in San Francisco, the company has an impressive portfolio of award-winning films on all continents. We asked Marc to talk to us about his work.
Music Partner: Marc, you founded 13th Gen in 2009, you have 30 years of experience in the media and entertainment industry. Can you tell us about your background, the path you followed, and where your interest in filmmaking comes from?
Marc Smolowitz: I was a lover of movies from childhood and a very early cinephile. I spent my junior high and high school years growing up in Los Angeles and that proximity to the entertainment industries definitely had a huge influence on me. At UC Santa Cruz in the late 1980s, I got my undergraduate degree in film, which included a cross-section of course work in production, theory, and criticism. I loved all three areas deeply, and I fell in love with cinema as an international cultural phenomenon that helps us make sense of the world. I studied film auteurs, cinema movements from other countries, and how film provides a way into understanding ideas, politics, identity, and social history. I credit my excellent Liberal Arts education at UCSC for empowering me to see myself as a capable storyteller whose voice mattered and for making me a strong writer. I left university at age 21 extremely confident about my prospects of a career in movies, and when I landed in San Francisco in 1990, it quickly became apparent that my professional journey was going to be about embracing independent film as my primary home. I spent my twenties being ubiquitous in the San Francisco Bay Area film scene, working at every possible film festival in our great city as well as with legendary filmmakers who encouraged my leadership and my spark for telling powerful stories. By age 26, I started my first film company and that entrepreneurial edge has been at the heart of my work ever since. Early on, I figured out that if I could master the business of movies, I would be in a strong position to not only get my work made but also the work of others. That first company was called TURBULENT ARTS, and I ran it out of my one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. We were first a distributor of independent films, then a sales agent, and not long after that an international production company that was financing films. We quickly became a global boutique film company, and I realized that if I was going to do my work in San Francisco and be successful decidedly outside of the Hollywood system, I would need to look internationally for like-minded companies and collaborators. That worldwide approach to business has been at the core of my mindset for over 25 years, and it has always been my sweet spot. When we look outward to the world, great things are possible.
MP: What is the origin of your company name?
Marc: It refers to a book by the same name that I read in the early 1990s that tried to capture and curate the voices of Generation X. The 13th Generation since the founding of the United States of America is Generation X, and as a lover of generational theory, I was drawn to the name for all kinds of reasons that I actually explained in full detail here: https://bit.ly/3k9KTBi
MP: 13th Gen produces a lot of documentaries, what do you like about the documentary format?
Marc: One of the key ways that I describe 13th Gen as a company is that we are genre-agnostic and filmmaker-focused. As producers, we are less interested in the genre of your project and more interested in you, the filmmaker, as a talent. This company is focused first and foremost on people and human relationships. For my part, I want to see you as someone who is on a unique and unfolding journey as a storyteller, and I want to understand how 13th Gen can add real and measurable value to that journey. I also get personally excited by filmmakers who are working on what I call LIFE PROJECTS; films that are singular, coming from the depths of the artist’s soul, and likely poised for greatness as a result. It’s exciting for me and 13th Gen to jump on that sort of film and help the filmmaker meet their best prospects for success. So, while we definitely have somewhat of a social justice wheelhouse here at the company, we’re open to pitches of all kinds. When it came to non-fiction, I figured out how to get those sorts of projects financed relatively early in my career, so it’s no surprise that one becomes known for things we’re good at. I simply just kept pursuing something I was good at and something that I could help others get made successfully. As the documentary field has evolved in the last 20 years, I have been delighted by the number of diverse and talented people who have emerged as new and powerful voices. Thankfully, the tools of independent and documentary filmmaking started to become a bit more democratic in the digital age, and more and more people have started to see themselves as journalists, storytellers, and content makers. And, while our field is far from perfect and gatekeepers continue to exist, the documentary form has evolved beautifully in the face of those things. I, myself, have often seen successful non-fiction filmmaking on a pendulum that swings between emotion and information. Great documentaries employ both kinds of storytelling. Interestingly, while I love information and data, my work has definitely lived more on the side of emotion, and this has been by design. When you look at my non-fiction films from the last ten years, you will encounter cinematic and theatrical storytelling. Immersive worlds and a poetic sense of place. Documentaries that feel like scripted works at times. For me, non-fiction and unscripted films are at the end of the day works of cinema, and 13th Gen is most drawn to storytellers who push us to challenge what constitutes the very definition of documentary helping us to embrace the broader art of non-fiction in their respective quest for truth.
MP: Your productions often tackle social issues, covering the fight for justice and equal rights like in “Surviving the Silence” but also tell the story of everyday people ignored by our society like in “The Nine”, how do you choose the projects you will produce, what motivates you?
Marc: When it comes to jumping on as a vested producer of a movie, it is typically a very significant creative partnership with a director that motivates me the most. Many times it is also the issues that a filmmaker chooses to tackle that will really seal the deal for me. I am also a director myself, so I know deeply what directors need from a producer. From there, all you have to do is look at my producing portfolio to understand that I am a real believer in diversity and inclusion. These have been deeply felt core values for my entire adult life, and they inform every aspect of my filmmaking work. I also have a kind of mantra for 13th Gen that is founded on equity, equality, and a heartfelt commitment to being an ally of others with less access: Let’s help put stories and voices that seem to be from the margins at the center of storytelling where we/they rightly belong. This, I believe, is how movies like MOONLIGHT get made, and I see myself as a producer who works to have that sort of impact. In the last 7 years, I have intentionally diversified the kinds of producer roles that I take on in my slate. I do a lot more work as an executive producer and consulting producer, which allows me to help steer many more projects forward concurrently. I have worked hard to perfect the enterprise of independent film production and financing, especially so filmmakers who are women, LGBTQ+, and people of color can be the major focus of this company. I am really grateful for that.
MP: One of the common threads of your films is activism. Where is it coming from?
Marc: I grew up in the Reagan-Bush 1980s in a very liberal Jewish family, and I became a young activist during my college years. I am also a child and grandchild of Holocaust Survivors. These aspects of my life made me very interested in social justice at an early age. In 1990 after university, I landed in the middle of the Castro District of San Francisco as part of the first generation of queer men to arrive in the city that had been decimated by the AIDS Pandemic. I became quickly politicized to join both ACT UP and QUEER NATION -- incredible activist groups that changed the world on so many levels. From there, my choices professionally in the film industry reflected those early activist values and the fire inside of me for activism has never really faded. Over the arc of my career, I’ve been so fortunate to be able to channel my passion for activism into great films that blend inspiration with aspiration, and I’ve also done extensive work telling those activism stories wrapped around by the work of being an impact producer, which I so enjoy. Advocacy and social impact are in the DNA of most of my films, and they are certainly in the DNA of 13th Gen. We embrace it.
MP: You have the reputation of being “Hands-On” in your producer’s role. Producers have different ways of approaching a project, what is yours?
Marc: The role of a producer is to make sure that a movie gets on screen. Full stop. From there, the producers unit is an extension of that idea only it involves many more talented people depending on the size of the film. I am extremely good at looking at a movie as an enterprise and figuring out where there are producing gaps, and then how my particular strengths can be most helpful in addressing or eliminating those gaps. Producers manage resources, that’s the core of what we do. And, each producer brings different strengths and capabilities to a movie enterprise. Our collective job is to make sure that a movie meets its market poised for success. When I am the “Producer with a Capital P” on a movie, I take a “the buck stops with me,” posture, and I lean into being the beating heart of the enterprise, one that frees up the director to focus solely on doing their best creative work. I also believe strongly in having the director’s back and that the vision of the director is where my focus needs to be.
MP: You have given a voice to artists and filmmakers from the LGBTQ community, helping produce unique stories but you also produced factual documentaries. What are the subjects of interest you would like to work on?
Marc: I love a great underdog story, and I love telling stories about people who seem to live ordinary lives, but then when you go deeper, they’re truly extraordinary. Subject matter wise: I am totally open, but I am a deep lover of historical films. Right now, my consulting producing slate during Covid has become quite eclectic including projects about LGBT life during the Harlem Renaissance, the origin of money and the debt, transgender conversion therapy, winemaking, gay male burlesque, and the feminist science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler.
MP: A few of your productions have been directed by you. What drives your desire to produce and direct as just produce?
Marc: I have produced over 40 movies and am right now directing my fifth and sixth. So, as you can imagine, I am very intentional about choosing my directing projects, and I do have criteria. Each time I have directed, it is because I felt that I was in a strong position to be the perfect conduit for the story that needed to be told. Each directing undertaking, so far, has also been the result of another person or entity bringing me a pitch or opportunity where it clicked for me that I was the right storyteller. In all of those instances, I am also always the producer of the film as well, which is something I very much enjoy. But, I do bring on others to help support my process, and I am happy to delegate and share the producing enterprise. Support is key when I am directing, and I am sure I must have very high expectations of my producers, based on the level of work I do elsewhere as a producer. Right now as a director/producer, I am hard at work on two beautiful films: THE G WORD, currently in post-production and aiming at early 2022, and THE LONELY CHILD, which paused its international shooting due to Covid but has been able to move into an editing phase during these past few months of the pandemic. THE G WORD is about giftedness, intelligence, and neurodiversity, and this is a big film for me as a director. It has a budget of $1.8M, and it has been six years in the making. I am so excited by the current status of our edit, and we should have our first rough cut by April 2021. THE LONELY CHILD is about a little-known Yiddish lullaby that was written inside the Vilna Ghetto during the Holocaust, and the unexpected worldwide footprint that children’s song is having in this contemporary moment. With this project, I am closely connected to the themes because of my own family story being connected to the Holocaust. I also have a deeply personal and ambitious film I’ve been developing behind the scenes for several years as a director, and it is definitely my LIFE PROJECT, so to speak. I hope to find the perfect producer for it in the next year or so. For now, your readers can get to know my latest projects here:
THE G WORD: https://vimeo.com/showcase/5341657
THE LONELY CHILD: https://vimeo.com/showcase/5506699
MP: Many of your productions have been nominated and won prizes from festivals the world over. Do you have a film that is closer to your heart and why?
Marc: For this answer, I always lean into my first film as a director, THE POWER OF TWO (2011), which was an absolute creative highlight of my life. I stepped into making that film after taking a five-year break from the film industry because of a very serious health crisis in my thirties. Not surprisingly, the film is about being empowered in the face of a deadly illness, so when it landed in my life, it emerged as the perfect vehicle for me to push myself back into larger and more impactful filmmaking projects. Shot partially in Japan, the film wound up premiering at the Tokyo International Film Festival. The entire journey with that movie was beyond memorable and moving. Your readers can find the film here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/thepoweroftwo
MP: Do you find time to write?
Marc: As a film producer, writing is everything, and some days I feel like I do it nonstop. So much so, it can be hard to have a lot of energy left over to write creatively on projects that require time for deep reflection and rumination. But, I can say proudly that I do manage to do it. Self-care is key to my sustainability, and the longer I am in this business, the better I have become at making time for all of the wonderful things that keep me interested in my creative work. While aspects of the pandemic have upended certain parts of my film work, other parts have been flourishing and can get the focus they deserve. While it sounds silly, I am not racing off to the next festival or shoot, so in that way, I have managed to turn 2020 into a widely productive year on many other fronts including writing, project development, editing, post-production, and festivals/distribution.
MP: Producers like to work with people they know and can lean on, can you introduce members of your team?
Marc: Danielle Holke leads our digital marketing and overall online efforts for the company, and she has been with me in some way dating back to 2014. Danielle, Tim Kulikowski (Co-Producer), and Javid Soriano (Editor) are my closest collaborators on THE G WORD. I have an incredible team working with me actively on THE LONELY CHILD, too, which includes Alix Wall (Writer/Producer), Ben Berkowitz (Producer), and Michaelle McGaraghan (Editor). I am really fortunate to have amazing teams and accomplished film professionals that work with me all around the world. My most active cities for work in recent years have been Paris, London, Atlanta, New York, and, of course, the San Francisco Bay Area. But, the gift of remote international work has meant that my film business touches the globe every day. Here at 13th Gen, we manage the worldwide festivals for all of the films we produce, so this is a significant lens through which we see each and every calendar year. I am so grateful to the 250+ film festivals across 5 continents that have screened our film over the years, and 2020 has been no different. Even with the incredible and turbulent shift to virtual festivals, this has been a fantastic year for those collaborations.
MP: Who is the Director alive or not, you would have loved working with, and why?
Marc: For me, it is less about specific directors and more about accomplished directors in general where I can see how my creative contribution as a producer is critical to achieving the project. For example, last year I was so fortunate to produce for Yance Ford (who directed STRONG ISLAND) on an episode for an as-yet-unreleased FX Networks series. The experience with Yance was a prototype for exactly the kind of producing role that gets me excited to get up and work each day. These are projects where I am working side-by-side with a director as their creative partner and doing so in a fully virtuous and collaborative way, even as my enterprise/business producing contributions are also being valued. And, when I can do that on projects where I continue to grow, learn, and push myself in new directions as a producer, I am a very happy and energized filmmaker.
MP: You constantly have a slate of multiple projects, what shall we expect coming up from 13th Gen?
Marc: It has been a lively Fall with films doing very well. In November, our film LOS HERMANOS is screening virtually across the nation as part of DOC NYC
starting Nov. 11th. Our very latest, LOVE + BLOOD, is having its world premiere at Fringe in London on Nov. 15th (Virtual for UK audiences: https://www.fringefilmfest.com/love-blood.html). And, 50 YEARS OF FABULOUS continues its virtual theatrical release in partnership with Frameline Distribution through Nov. 30th (see: https://bit.ly/3hDPb3b). Finally, we’re delighted to be involved with GHOSTS OF THE REPUBLIC, which will come out on VOD on Nov. 17th through Gravitas Ventures.
As for new films, we’re poised to deliver BEING BEBE (see: http://www.bebedocumentary.com/) next year, the long-awaited film about BeBe Zahara Benet, the first winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race. And, we’re active on several exciting scripted features, most notably LUMBERVILLE by Vincent Gagliostro (see: https://lumbervillethemovie.com/), now in development. Finally, SHIT & CHAMPAGNE, our film which world premiered as the Centerpiece Drive-in event at Frameline44 last September, is poised for a larger roll-out in 2021.
MP: You recently became a member of Music Partner, we are proud to be associated with 13th Gen Films, what attracted you to Music Partner services?
Marc: During the Covid19 crisis, my film company 13th Gen had to make significant pivots this year just like every film company. As such, we’re excited to be focusing on the editing and post-production phase of several films in-house where music is going to be key. When I uncovered the Covid19 Aid program being offered through Music Partner, I jumped at the chance to diversify how and where 13th Gen access music for our projects. It is our treat here at 13th Gen to be among the companies that you’ve chosen to support during this most turbulent year for our industries.
COMING SOON: SHIT & CHAMPAGNE: