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26 April 2018

In the Spotlight… Creative Producer Karen Newman

Karen Newman had a highly successful career in global events management in the City of London. Five years ago, she left that behind and combined her former training as an actor with her exceptional organisational skills and financial acumen to become a creative producer for film and TV.

It’s fair to say the gamble paid off. Karen now runs a successful independent production company, Seahorse Films, alongside director Rebekah Fortune and writer Peter Machen. Their inspiring and heart-warming feature debut, Just Charlie, tells the story of a young football star in the making who is a girl trapped in the body of a boy, torn between wanting to live up to her father’s expectations and shedding this ill-fitting skin. The film played at a string of international festivals (winning the Audience Award at last year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival) and has recently been screening on Sky Cinema.

WFTV caught up with Karen to find out more about that dramatic career change, as well as how she’s building a distinct slate of film and television projects that aim to enrich, entertain and empower…

What was it that made you take that crucial decision to change careers?

I accidentally produced a short film. I know that sounds a bit strange, but it is exactly what happened.

I was managing large events in the city, still trying to act on the side but as every actor knows having a full-time job and trying to pursue an acting career is pretty much impossible. Some friends of mine had got together to make a short film and asked me to help out.  I didn’t really know what a producer did at the time, but I ended up organising the shoot amongst other things and really enjoying it. The combination of being creative with the skillset I had acquired in events management seemed like a perfect fit. It took a while for the seed to grow but that’s where it all started.

What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome in the process?

Giving up the security of a full-time job is always quite challenging, but I decided that if I didn’t try I would never know if I could do it. The other challenge was knowledge. I went to drama school and not film school so whilst I knew about the “business” it was only from one view point. The film industry, whilst creative, is ultimately a business and when you are just starting out it can feel quite overwhelming. Everyone appears to know what they are talking about and you can sometimes feel a little on the side lines. I had to teach myself to budget and schedule. I am not naturally a numbers person, but I had to learn to be and fast. Excel is now my friend, so it is true, people can change!

How did you partner up with Rebekah and at what point did you decide to set up Seahorse Films?

Rebekah and I actually met properly at a WFTV networking event. We didn’t know each other all that well but ended up in a corner with a bottle of wine so not much “networking” was achieved that night.

I remember talking about my thoughts of moving into producing and she was currently putting together a short film, so she asked if I wanted to get some hands-on experience. I ended up producing the short and the rest, as they say, is history.  We got on so well and it was clearly going to be a strong partnership so shortly after that I joined Seahorse Films and we started developing an interesting slate of projects as a team with a few corporate films here and there to bring in the cash. We actually had a meeting at Lionsgate about one of the projects and they advised us to go and make that one passion project, as cheaply as we had to, and that is exactly what we did, we made Just Charlie.

You started off producing short films, which were privately financed. How did you get people on board with what you were doing and what did you learn from producing those films?

The short films were really my film school. Putting together a team, finding the money, working through the logistics, managing people, expectations and egos but with a shoot that would only last a few days. So, if an aspect didn’t work or people didn’t get on it wasn’t too disastrous. A short film is essentially a mini feature, you put the same amount of work into planning it, but the shoot is just shorter.  I think people are more willing to help you out on a short as they know it’s a small commitment and you also get to test out a team and working relationships. I am starting to build my “go to” team now and moving into features this is very helpful.

What was it like making the leap from shorts into your first feature, Just Charlie?

A little like jumping out of a plane and hoping that the parachute works!

Joking aside, it was exhilarating and terrifying! This is my first feature and for a low budget film it is doing exceptionally well. We have all learned a lot throughout the process, when you do something for the first time there is a beautiful ignorance that can make you very brave. Making a low budget Independent film is always going to come with challenges, but you need to look at these challenges and turn them into opportunities. I often refer to the making of Just Charlie and the process we went through as the vertical learning curve. It was tough, it was blood sweat and tears almost literally at times, but it was also magical, creative and life changing and actually, when I think about it, I wouldn’t change a minute of it. 

Just Charlie, image by Laura Radford

Just Charlie is a remarkable and very moving film about an important topical issue, but one that is also very controversial. What particular challenges did that throw up for you as a producer in terms of financing, making and distributing the film?

We made the film on a micro budget but somehow made it stretch. With an indie film there is never going to be enough money and you do have to make very creative and bold choices in order to tell your story. A bigger budget would have allowed us the option to solve problems with money but what is important with a film like this is the story, the reality of the lives being portrayed on the screen, not how clever we were with our crane shots.  And that is what we did, we told a beautiful story. There was a lot of in-kind help given to us in the way of locations and props, which really helped to keep us on track budget wise, and our post team worked in their own time in between other jobs, so everything took longer but we managed it on a relatively low budget. I am very grateful to all of our investors for taking a chance on us; we had incredible support from them all along the way. Interestingly, most of them are not from the film industry, they all had very individual reasons for investing which made everything so much more personal. We had a real obligation to make this film the best it could be.

One of the main challenges was casting the role of Charlie. We were very open to seeing boys, girls and trans actors and worked with a great casting director, Ben Cogan. We were looking for the best performance, but we also had a great responsibility to the teenager we chose.  Transitioning is so hard for a young person and we realised early on in the process that a trans actor would be reliving this journey on screen and in some cases in reverse, and that would be quite painful. Harry Gilby simply blew us away in his audition, he has great insight and is a very sensitive and talented young man.

Just Charlie, image by Laura Radford

The main problems with distribution have been getting people to view it as more than an LGBT film. As soon as you say it’s about a transgender teenager there is a temptation to pigeon hole the film as purely LGBT. It’s essentially about the journey of a transgender teenager but it covers so much more than that. Every character in this piece has to challenge themselves, their fundamental beliefs and deal with the emotional consequences. It is as much their transformation as the central character’s, and we hope the audience’s as well. This is a story about identity, who we think we are and who we really are. About being true to one’s self in the face of terrible adversity. Can you remember being a teenager and hitting puberty? A lot of us will look back and cringe, whilst we may wish ourselves younger, none of us wish to return to that age of uncertainty. Now imagine you hit puberty and realise you are in the wrong body, with the wrong hormones, nothing feels safe and you are all alone. Just Charlie is a thought provoking, heart-warming, coming of age drama that seeks to tackle a difficult subject whilst being accessible to all. No one should feel alone and persecuted in this world just because they are viewed as different.

What has the response to the film been like?

Incredible! The film is really flying. It is very unusual for us to screen the film and not have people in floods of tears afterwards, I think it really touches a chord with a lot of people.  Since the release in The USA and the UK we have been overwhelmed by the response that the film is getting. We have had a fantastic festival run as well and picked up a fair number of awards including the prestigious Audience Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival last year, which was definitely a highlight.

I remember stepping out to do my customary welcome and thank you speech to introduce the film, looking out at the completely packed cinema and completely filling up with emotion.

It was an incredibly poignant festival, being on home turf, it suddenly hit home what we had achieved. Our lead actor, Harry Gilby was shortlisted for a BIFA and is going onto some great things, we are all very proud of him and what he has achieved. Making a film that carries such an important message came with a lot of responsibility and we have been told countless times that it could save lives. I think as a filmmaker you want to change the world but if we change the world of one person we will have achieved something incredible.

 You’ve managed to sell the film into a number of territories around the globe, including with Amazon in the US and Sky Cinema in the UK. Did you work with a sales agent or distributor to do that and what was the process like?

I went to the EFM/Berlinale in February 2016 armed with my pitch pack and teaser trailer as I knew we needed a sales agent to help push the film. That was quite some trip, my very first film market, alone, it felt very sink or swim. It took a while to figure out how everything worked but I just loitered around sales agent stands until they had some gaps and then jumped in hoping they would talk to me. I had done some research prior to going so I had an idea of who I should be targeting, and I had managed to pre-arrange some meetings, but it still felt quite over whelming. I ended up with two agents competing for the film which was great, and we went with the company who totally understood the story and the message we were trying to get across.

Just Charlie, image by Laura Radford

I also wanted to like the people who were now going to represent the film because you are married to them for quite a while. It is like any relationship really, there are ups and downs and misunderstandings and differences in opinion, but I have learned a lot from their expertise and guidance and I know they have the film’s best interests at heart and that is the most important thing. They have also done an incredible job in getting the film out there. Thanks to International Sales Agent, Media Luna we have distribution across Europe, in the USA and Canada and now the UK. Wolfe releasing picked the film up in North America and it’s available on Amazon, and we sold to SKY Cinema in the UK.  The film premiered in the UK on the 16th April, which was incredibly exciting.

You’ve currently got a slate of new projects you’re producing, with others in development. What lies ahead for you and Seahorse Films?

We have a beautiful film in development called The Plough, working with a brand-new screenwriter, Isabel Dixon. She has a good track record in theatre and this will be her first feature film, which is very exciting. We also have some projects that Peter Machen is writing including a political action movie, Herne, that is a cross between Robin Hood and Rambo, and some TV ideas, which we are developing. I am also independently coproducing a feature film, Thirst, with Australia and we are just at the packaging stage. This is my first co-production, so I am expecting another steep learning curve, but all experiences are valuable.  Just Charlie has given us all a great platform as a company but also as individuals which is a fabulous position to be in. I produced a short film before Christmas that starred Alison Steadman and I am working with the same director/writer on his next short, Still Waters Run Deep.

What do you feel is the most important lesson you’ve learnt as a Creative Producer so far?

You don’t make a film in isolation; it’s a true team effort.

As a producer you have to have the entire project in your sights at all times and you need to learn to put your ego aside.  There are many egos on set already and you cannot under any circumstances add to that.  I learned very early on that whilst something may not be my fault it was always going to be my responsibility and once you establish that you allow people to relax and get on with it. Filmmaking is collaboration and teamwork, people need to feel safe and appreciated and you cannot micro manage everyone.

All of the responsibility is yours but sadly not much of the accolade. So, you need to learn to love the business for what it is and not for the glory.  That said, I still get a flutter when I see my name on the screen on my film because I am proud of what everyone did to get us there and because I used to be an actor, so forgive me!

What key advice would you give to someone who has been working in another role within the industry – or in an entirely different industry – and wants to become a producer?

I have never been to film school. I trained as an actor, so I came from a completely different side of the business. This film became my film school, the things I learnt producing Just Charlie you would never acquire from a class room or a book and I do strongly believe that the best way of learning is by doing. That would be my main advice, go out and do it.  Of course there is value to be had by doing courses, but you do need to put things into practice, if you don’t then you won’t start to get a sense of the type of producer you are.

There is also strength and courage behind ignorance, you will never know everything, so you can make mistakes and you learn.

The other advice is to ask questions – if you don’t know something, ask someone who does.  I remember having a telephone call with our sound designer on Just Charlie, in-fact I don’t think he had even agreed to do the job at that point. At the end of the call I realised that I actually didn’t understand much of what he had said to me, so I called him back and said just that. He still came on board and has since said that he respected the fact that I didn’t try to pretend I knew something when I didn’t.


Huge thanks to Karen for taking part in this In The Spotlight interview..

Find out more about Seahorse Films and Just Charlie here.