Sundance Film Festival 2011 Coverage: Interview with Executive Producer of “Gun Hill Road” Ronald Simons

Luis Pedron: As owner of the production company SimonSays Entertainment, I am impressed with your vision of helping out films/filmmakers that are indigenous and underrepresented. How and where do you find such projects?

Ron Simons: Everywhere. While we get a number of unsolicited submissions, the majority of the projects we have pursued have come to my attention through personal relationships with former acting colleagues, playwrights, screenwriters and schoolmates.

Luis Pedron: I know that you also have a marketing  background (MBA in Marketing and International Business) and you have worked as a marketing executive at the Microsoft Corporation. How do you suggest independent filmmakers  who do not have a real budget for marketing market their films in film festivals, to distributors and how to find the elusive film viewers?

Scene from "Gun Hill Road"

Ron Simons: That’s a tough one, first because while marketing experience is helpful in general, marketing a film at a festival and to distributors is a specialized skill that I’m still learning.  What I’ve learned is that the core marketing concepts stays the same: you can control/manipulate the 4 “P”s: product, price, place and promotion.  The product is the film, obviously; and you do your best to make the best one for the budget you have.  The price is whatever MG (minimum guarantee) you ask for from a distributor (n/a for film festivals). The place is the venue in the case of the film festival and is where you hope to screen the film– with, or without, a distributor.  The place also includes anywhere you want to market your film: website, Facebook, Twitter, viral emails, press releases, advertising (very rare with indie budgets without the help of a distributor).   The promotion may require a number of tools to promote the screening of the film.  These tools include film clips, sound bites, posters, website, one-page summaries, DVDs, press kits and press releases. With these tools you can promote your film in a variety of ways. For example, if you’re selling your film directly, offering a buy one, get a second half price for a limited time.  If you have access to radio as a medium, give a station five free tickets to the screening of your film to callers who respond in a certain time.  Hang your poster (with screening dates) where your target audience is most likely to see it.

Luis Pedron: Gun Hill Road is your second time at the Sundance Film Festival, with your first film Night Catches Us premiering in 2010.  What does Sundance mean to you as a filmmaker? Is it more special the second time around and why?

Ron Simons: Sundance is a celebration of independent film.  At the same time, it can represent a substantial business opportunity for filmmakers and investors to up the profile of a film on the road to recoupment.    I can’t ever imagining having a film in Sundance any less magical than the first time.  I’m a bit less stressed having some idea of what to expect (and knowing which warm clothes to wear), but I don’t think it will ever get old.

Luis Pedron: What do you suggest to filmmakers out there who will be attending their first Sundance? What do they need to prepare to bring to Sundance, physically, spiritually and technically?

Ron Simons: Bring warm, waterproof boots first of all.  Big omission of mine last year.  Bring all your marketing materials for your existing and upcoming projects: one-page summaries, DVD of clips or previous work, CD of script, and of course business cards.

Luis Pedron: According to  your company’s vision, Gun Hill Road is the ideal project for you. How did  you find the project? After everything was said and done, when did you know that it would be the most talked about film in Sundance and in the indie film world right now?

Ron Simons: Gun Hill Road came to my attention because the screenwriter/director, Rashaad, and I were friends from his acting days.  I knew he was in NYU film school and we met to talk about this project.  I’d seen his first silent short and his short Premature and really dug his work.  When I read this script it was unlike anything I’d read before and I told him: “I’m producing this film.”

Scene from "Gun Hill road"

Luis Pedron: How is it working with your talented director Rashaad Ernesto Green?

Ron Simons: Rashaad is that rare director who can not only capture compelling images on the screen, but because he was an actor can work with actors to capture a moment while still developing a strong arc in his storytelling as screenwriter.  He works well with others and does his best to keep a camaraderie within the team. He is a perfectionist and knows what he wants. I like that.

Luis Pedron: Gun Hill Road is an independent film with a seemingly low budget. How did you get to attract and cast Hollywood actors – NYC natives Esai Morales (“Caprica,” “NYPD Blue”), Judy Reyes (“Scrubs,” “Washington Heights”), Franky G (“Manito,” “Italian Job”) – in your film?

Ron Simons: Rashaad deserves all the credit for the casting of this film.  He was clear about what each character needed to effectively tell his/her story and had specific, clear ideas on what actors he felt could best realize his vision.  Knowing talent personally helps.  Rashaad had known Esai prior to the film and was confident in his ability to play the male lead.  Sometimes he even massaged the characters to meet the talent.  For example, one character (the mom of Esai’s character) was written as Enrique’s mom; when Marion Colon seemed available Rashaad changed the character to Enrique’s grandmother.  She’s a gifted actress and is quietly brilliant on screen in the role.  In his choices, I have to say – he was dead on.

Luis Pedron: Everyone is excited about the ensemble cast’s performance. There is also a  big buzz around newcomer Harmony Santana playing the son of Esai Morales. Where did you find Harmony and clue us in about the character in the film?

Ron Simons: To those who want to know more about Harmony’s character: I refer you to experiencing the film.  As for how Rashaad found Harmony, it was a long arduous casting process.  Rashaad combed the streets of NY visiting hangout spots for youth everywhere from the outer Burroughs of NY to the streets of the Village.  Many, many prospects later, we found Harmony.  If there is a more perfect fit for the role, I don’t know who it is.

Luis Pedron: For those of us not familiar with Gun Hill Road in the Bronx and Boogie Down, what this place is all about?

Ron Simons: I have to confess that I was not as familiar with the Bronx before this film as I am today.  Now, I wonder why I haven’t spent more time there.  The place has MAD FLAVOR!  The diversity of the people: Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Venezuelan, Costa Rican – and the food and music and culture that populate The Bronx is infectious.  Gun Hill Road was filmed in north end of the Bronx.  We found the people open and excited to help a project that is so uniquely from, about, inspired by and true to the Boogie Down.

Luis Pedron: What is the next project for Ronald Simons, as a producer, filmmaker and/or actor?

Ron Simons: My next feature film project is called Highway to Nowhere written and directed by Lanre Olabisi.  It’s a dramatic thriller which uses the very topical subject of illegal immigration as the backdrop for a conflicted border patrol officer who patrols the very border he illegally crossed himself as a kid.  It’s a really smart script that explores issues of identity, redemption and acceptance in the tense genre of the dramatic thriller.

Luis Pedron: What is your advice to artists out there in pursuing filmmaking and acting as a career choice?

Ron Simons: First ask yourself: is there ANYTHING else I’d rather be doing?  If the answer is no, then buckle your seatbelt and take your tenacity pills and jump in.  It’s a tough business that’s getting tougher, but all the stories haven’t been told, so find the ones that sing to you and tell them.

website: of Ronald Simons: http://simonsaysentertainment.net/
Gun Hill Road website: http://gunhillroad.com/

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