Dear Producer: Summer Shelton on How to Produce Your Life Like Your Movies
NOTE: the below guest post by producer Summer Shelton originally ran on the website Dear Producer and is being shared here courtesy of that website’s editor, Film Independent Fellow Rebecca Green. Excerpts from Dear Producer appear on our blog monthly.
If you had asked me in 2015 “Where do you see yourself three years from now?” what would I have said?
I’d have said: I’ll probably wake up in my railroad apartment (my “Diamond on Diamond Street”) and stroll down to my favorite place in Greenpoint, Brooklyn—McGolrick Park—to write to you about how I’ve been trying to sustain myself as an independent film producer by occasionally line-producing and making schedules and budgets while raising money for features, praying to book a commercial or three.
If I was lucky, I’d have something in the works with Amazon, Netflix or HBO …and maybe I’d have figured out how to have a work-life balance and a companion, whether a well-behaved dog and/or well-behaved boyfriend—ideally both.
What I would have never answered is that I’d no longer be living in Brooklyn, that I would have left my Diamond on Diamond Street to relocate to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Or that my film Keep the Change would be made and win the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. That I’d also meet an emerging filmmaker, Matthew Brown, whose script Maine I’d produce and which would debut at Tribeca in 2018, or that I would have done both these films while holding down a lucrative job at a Fortune 40 company. And for sure I never would have said that I’d wind up leaving said job and selling my condo, because the diamond I have now is from my husband and we’re in the midst of boxing up the Piaget Producer’s Spirit Award that I long coveted and getting ready to move into a mid-century modern home I’ve renovated in Knoxville, Tennessee.
A lot can happen in three years.
Here is my story:
After People Places Things debuted at Sundance in 2015, I planned to visit my family in North Carolina for the month of February. I was stressed out, exhausted, confused and lonely. I found myself saying to confidants, “I feel like a giving tree that had given out.” For the past decade, I’d been a workaholic. Professionally, it paid off; personally, it did not.
I had worked with amazing filmmakers, won notable awards and fellowships, expanded my rolodex with wonderful artists, but as I started to transition to “full-time” producer, my financial life looked bleaker than ever. I was worried about how I was going to make it for the next year. And I for sure had not made sincere efforts to get that well-behaved dog and/or boyfriend. The most I had done was buy houseplants—and half of them died.
All the projects that I was trying to get off the ground were not financed. And even if they did get financed, they were micro/low-budget, so my salary was deferred or not a sustainable amount to rely on. While I was successful at line producing, I did not have aspirations to climb the tiers of budgets as my back-up career. I wanted to tell stories, develop material and talent and form creative partnerships with other artists. I wanted to continually challenge myself and grow artistically.
I was 35 with no concrete financial life plan, no retirement savings or consistent income, and I was trying to raise money for “hard to make” independent films. I went through my files one day and tallied that over the years I had helped various writer/directors procure well into a healthy six figures worth of grants to develop projects, but I had not banked even five percent from these efforts. This was a wake-up call. I needed to produce my life the way I would produce for others.
My first step with any project is asking myself, “What does my gut say?” Is this a story I want to tell? Is this a director whose vision I believe in? Would audiences meaningfully connect with this story? Is there any “crazy cake” red flag I should pay attention to? So I answered these questions about myself and my own life.
My gut says I work too much. My gut says I am not directing my life story in an authentic way that celebrates my own unique voice. My gut says that maybe this is why I don’t have a companion. My gut says I had worked hard enough; it was time to be working smarter. My gut says I could be on the verge of going crazy cake if I don’t make a few changes.
I needed to find steady income to alleviate some worry while I figured out how to sustain myself as a full-time producer. I used my time in North Carolina to research jobs. Prior to film, I taught high school and had earned a Master’s degree, so I could hopefully teach at a University.
Part of my love for producing is empowering others to fulfill a vision; I could get this same return helping students. Some industry peers were already employed at various schools in the city, so I started to do something I rarely did before: I started asking for personal favors. I had to start pitching for myself in the world, not just for projects.
I did not get a position at any of the NY schools I applied to, but I did get offered an adjunct position at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. The position was enough to cover my New York rent, but most importantly I’d have on my CV that I had experience teaching at the college level, which would be an investment in my future.
While at UNCSA, I got wind of a contract position with Lowe’s Companies, Inc. (based in Mooresville, NC) overseeing an in-house video team. I thought no harm in applying. I was offered the job. I did the math, and I could keep my New York apartment, rent a small crash pad in Winston-Salem, buy an economy car to travel to and from the job and still manage to come out ahead. I accepted the job knowing it was only for nine-months. I had every intention of returning to New York in January 2016.
If “for hire jobs” came along, I could easily say I was already booked on a corporate gig. I did not need to detail that I wasn’t in New York. That was irrelevant. Most peers didn’t know I was in North Carolina; everyone is busy hustling and it is not uncommon to be on-location for a while.
I used this job as a chance to get back on my financial feet, plus it was a standard 9-to-5 (with lunch break!) and an hour commute each way, so I had plenty of time during my commute to take calls and work in my off-hours to push forward Keep the Change, which after two years of development financing finally came together for.
Even as a contractor I had a nice vacation package and with easy access to the CLT airport. I took days off during prep and shooting and flew to NYC after work on Thursday or Friday, returning to North Carolina on Monday night. For post, I could watch links from anywhere and had enough money to fly up for the sound mix.
The hardest decision—one I wasn’t prepared for—was in December 2015, when I was offered a full-time position with Lowe’s. I had the opportunity to fully drink the corporate juice: salary, benefits, health insurance, vacation package and all. I labored intensely over this decision. I called many mentors, made a detailed “pros and cons” chart and asked for spiritual guidance to help navigate this decision.
If I were to stay in North Carolina, it wouldn’t make sense for me to keep my Diamond on Diamond Street. I don’t care what anyone says—the hardest thing about leaving NYC is giving up your apartment. When I started making these types of statements, I realized I needed to have a check in with myself if I was letting real estate dictate my life.
I grew up hearing that if you can make it NYC, you can make it anywhere. And the truth is, I had made it. If I stayed only to prove I could make it in New York, my gut said I was not living with an authentic purpose. I shouldn’t be somewhere just for the zip code and definitely not to prove anything. Was I afraid of being irrelevant and “out of sight, out of mind?” Yes, absolutely.
And then there was the moment I had an “Oprah Super Soul Conversation” with myself.
I needed to acknowledge that perhaps my time in New York was the foundation for the next phase in life and my career. And wow—what a strong foundation I had already built. I made great films collaborating with talented people. I had established a great reputation. I worked hard, kept my word, and had the support of many non-profits and key industry players. No matter where I was that could never be taken away from me. I didn’t need to let my fear and insecurities stand in the way of living my life story.
Was North Carolina and Lowe’s going to be my forever story or path to happiness? Eight Ball says, “Cannot predict now.” Was I making strides toward my career goals? Yes. I’d have more stability, and not only did I get Keep the Change in the can, but I also had a second feature in the pipeline to shoot Summer 2017, by a young filmmaker Matthew Brown who came into my office when I was teaching at UNCSA looking for feedback on his debut feature In the Treetops. After I left UNCSA, we kept in touch and he shared his second script Maine. I pitched it to Beachside Films, who I’d worked with before, and they agreed to finance it—a producing Cinderella story, for sure.
Did I have well-behaved companion? Not yet. I still worked too much. My mentor reminded me of what kicked off the chain of events of the past year, and that I should consider doing the same when it came to finding a companion—produce it: ask for help, pitch yourself, and for heaven’s sake, don’t let a zip code box you in.
And so I started saying out loud what I wanted and asking for help. During a weekend trip to Knoxville, Tennessee visiting my friend (and Sundance Creative Producing Fellow) Ashley Manor, I detailed my companion goal and hoped that pitching could lead to “one person knowing another human that would like to have dinner with me.” She replied, “I know a human who I think would.” Two years later, said human is now my husband.
If I were a rom-com, I’d end my story now; sign off “We lived happily ever after.” But then I’d be lying.
We had a long-distance courtship and even the first five months of our marriage we lived apart. It was our norm, but we knew it couldn’t be this way forever. Many emotions began to resurface during tough conversations around where we would reside together. After finally feeling at peace with leaving New York, relocating again was not at the top of my list, even if I did have my companion.
Things were stable and going great. I was enjoying being near my family. I had nested in a condo I renovated. I had been promoted at Lowe’s into a Manager role. I was financially at ease and felt confident juggling my double-life. It was my routine, but I was still working too much and spent anywhere from 20 to 20 hours a week in a car.
My gut told me my time at Lowe’s was spent with purpose, but I needed to move on. Being there almost three years, I added to my foundation and increased the value of “the business of me.” I had an amazing crash course in business, digital content, marketing and e-commerce. I parlayed those exercises in helping me navigate my career outside of Lowe’s. I regularly had to identify and provide solutions for business improvements and pitch them to executives; this will be invaluable whenever I land a studio meeting or get on the horn with Amazon, Netflix or HBO.
With the decision to relocate to Knoxville, Tennessee, I needed to have another “Oprah Super Soul Conversation” with myself. But this time I just listened to Oprah. Her podcast begins, “I believe one of the most valuable gifts you can give yourself is time. Taking time to be more fully present.” I know this verbatim because every time I hear that line tears well up in my eyes, because I know the one thing I had never done for myself was give myself time.
When I won the Piaget Producer’s Award in January 2018, I received a $25,000 unrestricted grant. Film Independent encouraged me to use the award to take time for myself: time to develop, think, create or whatever I needed. This advice was empowering me in a way I had never felt before. I was being granted the means to have time, and I will respect it. This time I now have is not infinite. But I am in control of how I spend it as I ease into life here in Knoxville, TN.
I will never deny that the streets of New York are littered with fascinating stories. But in other zip codes with lower cost of living, there are also rich stories unheard and waiting to be told by undiscovered talent roaming freely amongst stunning landscapes. I still evaluate material with the same discerning eyes I have always had, but my journey over the last few years has broadened the empathetic scope of my vision.
I remind myself that the last time I changed my zip code I was not at risk of damaging my career; it was just my own ego and fear getting in the way of increasing the value of the “business of me.” I now know my worth, and I will make me a priority equal to my projects not subordinate to them.
I would love to sign off with a prophetic statement or proclamation that I have already figured out what I will be doing next and how long I’ll reside in Knoxville, but to be honest I need to get back to some important research—Googling “well-behaved dogs.”
Summer Shelton is the recipient of the 2018 Film Independent Piaget Producer’s Award at Film Independent Spirit Award. She recently produced Maine (2018 Tribeca Film Festival Official Selection) and Keep the Change. She was Executive Producer of People Places Things and produced Little Accidents, which had its World Premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Shelton was the recipient of the inaugural Bingham Ray Creative Producing Fellowship awarded by the Sundance Institute (2012), a Rotterdam Producing Fellowship (2013) and Film Independent Sloan Producing Fellowship (2014).
To read this conversation as it originally appeared, click here. To read our interview with Rebecca Green about the launch of Dear Producer, click here.
Learn how to become a Member of Film Independent by visiting our website. Be sure to follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and don’t forget to subscribe to Film Independent’s YouTube channel.
(Header: Shelton with 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards Brunch Hosts John Cho and Alia Shawkat)