Justin Simien on Sundance Return and Culture Machine’s Mission

It’s been nearly a decade since Justin Simien stormed Sundance with his debut feature “Dear White People.” Premiering in Park City in January 2014 — his first trip to the festival — it marked the realization of a long held dream. The audacious social satire had been Simien’s passion project, inspired by his own college experience and fueled by a concept trailer that went viral and an Indiegogo campaign that raised $40,000 for the cause. The reception to “Dear White People” — for which Simien won the breakthrough talent special jury prize — launched the filmmaker’s career, spawning a four-season Netflix series, his sophomore film “Bad Hair” (which also debuted at Sundance) and Disney’s upcoming “Haunted Mansion.”

Now, he’s back at the festival with a new mission: paying it forward.

“This is my first time going without having a movie there and I’m really excited to do that, because usually I’m a mess,” Simien tells Variety about his Sundance return. “I’m processing how the movie is being received for the first time. I’m trying to sell it. It’s cold — I was raised in Texas — there’s just a lot happening in my nervous system at Sundance. And everyone at Sundance also is feeling something like that.”

On Monday evening, Simien and his Culture Machine production company will host “Not Another Diversity Panel: Navigating Performative Inclusivity in Hollywood,” featuring the filmmaker in conversation with writer/director/producer Tommy Oliver (“Fancy Dance,” “Young. Wild. Free.,” “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,” “To Live and Die and Live” all premiering at this year’s SFF), director-producer Thembi Banks (director of “Young. Wild. Free.”) and Elegance Bratton (whose film “The Inspection” is a major player in this year’s awards race.)

The conversation is more than a panel, it’s an opportunity for fellowship and community; it’s also an extension of Culture Machine’s brand ethos. Simien launched the company in 2019, with the mission to produce “inclusive content from marginalized voices poised to disrupt, activate and electrify popular culture.” And the title of the event might be spicy — “We always cause trouble with the title now. That’s the brand at this point,” Simien quips — but expect the conversation to be spicier, getting to the real heart of what it’s like to be a filmmaker navigating this industry.

“I just wanted to have a space where we can be real. This is fucking difficult,” Simien explains. “Even if you’re in this festival and you screened your movie for the first time last night and it went great, but you don’t have a sale today. Let’s talk about it because I know how you feel. It’s confusing as hell. Anything I can do to strip that Hollywood veneer away, to let especially people that look like me know that the experience they’re having is totally valid.”

Alongside Culture Machine president Kyle Laursen (who joined the company in 2022), Simien looks back on his Sundance-spurred career, the state of the entertainment industry for creatives of color and what’s next on the company’s slate.

In January 2013, you were just about to start production on “Dear White People,” what was your mindset at that moment?

Justin Simien: I had a dream, and I had no idea how I was going to get there. There was no reassurances at all. I had the script, and I knew that there was a market for it, but even when people liked the script, nobody wanted to say “Yes.” Nobody felt like it was commercially viable. But I also knew that I really wouldn’t accept it not happening as a reality.

I think Sundance is a great, external, legitimizer – that I desperately wanted. The marketplace is really tough to break into. What lights me on fire is being unconventional and sort of going around the box, and outside the box, and finding my own personal way through. It’s very difficult to break with those kinds of projects outside of places like Sundance — that is the whole point of it, to give a showcase to the outsiders to the indie film world.

So now 10 years later, you’ve brought your production company Culture Machine to Sundance for this conversation. Why did you want to host a panel?

Simien: The industry is in crisis right now, but I mean that in the way that crisis can also be an opportunity. It feels kind of similar to where it felt to me in 2013, to be honest, where you could feel the old way falling away and what was going to replace was is not clear.

I’ve been going to all of these director dinners and director Zooms and hearing these experiences about these really amazing creatives of color who finally bring their project to the world and they get a moment to shine. But then what what happens to their careers next? Because when the George Floyd protests were happening, I knew, because I had been there already, this is only going to last for like a half a year maximum. All these companies making these pledges to be anti-racist and all this kind of stuff, and once you get in the door, because suddenly they see you, then all of a sudden the door closes and everything goes back to normal. Then what do you do? How do you survive? How do you keep your sanity? How do you keep hope alive? How do you keep the projects going?

I felt like that was a conversation that I was having over and over and over and over again, not only with directors that were just coming in, but frankly with myself.

The other side of it is we love independent film. I love working with new directors and new writers, and this is where they’re going to be. We are supporting artists, and we’re making shows and films, and we’re doing it with the same kind of ethos with which I brought “Dear White People” into the world.

Kyle, when was your first Sundance?

Kyle Laursen: Seven years ago, when I was at a junior exec at Plan B. It was watching literally 25 films and trying to come back with voices that were doing things that were strange and different and outside the box, and Justin was a part of that. Now, we have the opportunity to look for those strange and different voices, that are questioning not just the launch of their own film, but also asking, “What’s next? How do I get to make something else? Can I make a career out of this?”

Justin came to me in the fall and said, “I didn’t have this 10 years ago with ‘Dear White People.’” We also didn’t have it a year ago with “Haunted Mansion.” I feel very lucky because if you would have told me, at my first Sundance, it’d be me and Justin being able to be a beacon for marginalized voices, it would have given me goosebumps.

How did you pull this group of filmmakers together?

Simien: Everybody on the panel comes from a shared value set, but we’re all in different spots — Tommy, who’s bringing four movies to the festival; Elegance, who just had his big premiere last year, and it’s now in its release and awards cycle; and Thembi Banks who just got into Sundance with her first feature; and then me, I’ve been able to have a feature and build a business off of that. But we’re always kind of struggling with the same things.

Beyond that, community is a really difficult thing to build in Hollywood. We’re all empathic artists, so we’re just constantly processing all this shit that our executives and all the people that we have to sort of turn things in to have put into us [and] the last thing we really have time for is to “Kumbaya,” get together and share experience.But that’s one of the most edifying things you can do. Some of these dinners or Zoom calls that I’ve been having, sometimes that’s just the respite I needed just to keep going. And I wanted to just do that in a really big way, like at the epicenter of indie film.

When were you last that person in the audience that heard something that inspired you? What was that message?

Simien: 10 years ago, I was at a panel where Stephanie Allain was speaking. It was right around the time the “Dear White People” trailer was going viral, I felt like she was talking into my soul, and soon after that, she would become our producer. It was just about navigating your own individual voice and what the market is asking for and being true to that thing that’s fresh and excites you.

Laursen: Our goal is to always cut through that facade. Justin offers himself up in a very unique way to kind of cut through that BS.

I remember I went to a conversation about 10 years ago, right after grad school at UCLA, with David Fincher. It was like 50 people and he was like, “Everyone turn off your phones right now.” From that moment on, it was like, “Oh, this is actually kind of some real shit.” This [conversation] is Justin saying, “Let’s go try to create a forum where people can be vulnerable and honest and themselves, because the best art is gonna come from that.”

Justin, in moderating this conversation — what parts of your experience do you want to share?

Simien: There’s got to be a difference between how we’re thinking about succeeding in the marketplace and how we’re thinking about being successful as artists and people. I’ve been at the cross section many times where I’m like, “Oh, this is why people leave. This is why people quit. This is why people don’t do another thing.” Because the marketplace will chew you up — especially if you’re a marginalized person and you’re being brought in under the auspices of diversity and inclusion. Once the rug gets pulled away, it is so confusing and confounding and disorienting in a way that nothing can really quite prepare you for.

One of the things that like I’m always talking about is, “You’ve got to do it for you and for them.” If you’re not sustaining yourself as an artist and you’re not taking your craft and your intention seriously, you can get really lost in the sea of what everybody else wants. For [creators of color], our opportunities are so rare that we kind of have to be hyper focused on what [the market] wants from us. But my greatest successes have always come from the things that absolutely nobody is checking. [With “Dear White People”], it wasn’t, “Oh, there’s a market demand for a really talky, esoteric, avant garde, Black comedy.” Nobody was saying that. We have to be smart about the market; we can’t just come in blind and be confused when things don’t happen for us. But we can’t completely abandon ourselves in that process.

I think, especially if you’re coming to Sundance or trying to get into Sundance, once you cross that threshold, so many opportunities come at you — or don’t — and it’s very confusing territory. So few of us are “nepo babies,” which is like the hot word right now. We don’t have a great aunt or uncle at the studio; we don’t have those kinds of connections, this is what we have, that edifying community.

So many times, I’ve experienced being in a company that’s new to this diversity and inclusion thing: you’re in the room, your name is on the announcement, they get the check for being diverse or whatever, but they have no sense of really how to deal with you or communicate with you. They don’t realize all the buttons that are pressing and all the triggers they’re setting and I just want to I want to give voice to some of that.

I want some of these guys that are walking out of their first successes — or maybe after their first failures after their first successes — to just feel a little more buoyed by the experience. I think there are a few chances in Sundance to feel buoyed and to feel good about what you’re doing in the world. Because so much of it’s just about selling and being popular and being liked.

How does this event demonstrate the Culture Machine brand’s mission moving forward?

Laursen: During such a time, where budgets are being constricted, and we’re seeing studios and networks allow for a third of their workforce and we’re questioning how many places are making money off streaming, Justin I have linked arms and we want everyone to know Culture Machine is a voice-driven company looking to amplify and protect artists all the way through delivery, through marketing and finding the audience. It’s about individual artistic growth — putting artists on big stage just like Justin, launching a career from Sundance, and saying, “How do we embrace that radical sense, that disruptive voice? How do we find those partners to tell those stories and show that these are bankable projects inside of a time that feels it’s either siloed or focused primarily on sequels or massive reboots. We’re doing “Flashdance” the reboot, for example, because we see a way into that with the thematic entry point.

What does 2023 look like for Culture Machine?

Laursen: This is an opportunity for us to go back to Sundance where and plant a flag where Justin has roots, take it all the way into the release of “Haunted Mansion” and then we get to take some chances. We have places looking to come into us saying, “We have $10 million for first- or second-time feature filmmakers. You guys have a brand; you guys actually produce. What can we do together?” So, it’s about us finding those exact voices where we know how to be additive, and we’re saying something about culture, society, being the human experience, race, class and gender.

We’re looking to find Justin’s next film, as well, and on our on the TV side,. we have real opportunities to support voices that Paramount really needs alongside Taylor Sheridan and the other great properties that they’re building. We are partnered with them because we get to bring them other voices that they don’t have and I think this is an opportunity for us to showcase Black, Queer, Latinx, Asian American voices that are just thinking thematically and looking to do something different.

Simien: We just announced “Hollywood Black,” which is a docuseries based upon Donald Bogle’s book. He is, in my opinion, the preeminent writer about the history of Black Hollywood, which is so important to me. I just want to bring that experience of discovery of our history in the form of a show. It’s something I’ve been working towards since my podcast [“Don’t @Me] and I can’t believe we’re actually getting to finally make it.

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