Film and television producer Mark Ankner, whose film “Ponyboi,” made its premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, says independent filmmaking and film festivals are crucial to bringing diverse stories to the screen, particularly when Hollywood studios can’t be depended upon to do the work.
The status of film festivals has long been associated with helping filmmakers and audiences come together to experience and learn about new projects, as well as providing independent films with a boost of clout in their efforts to get sold to big-name studios. Their purpose, and how they’ve served the lifecycle of projects being produced, was one of the questions thrown to Ankner during his panel, “Producers’ Perspectives: Navigating Film Festivals in 2024,” which was presented by TheWrap, UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television and NFP.
Joining Ankner was Jason Forest, executive producer and managing director at Bully Pictures; Jess Daveney, founder and president of Multitude Films; Luke Kelly-Clyne, co-head of HartBeat Independent and Stacey Reiss, executive producer for documentary narrative films. The panel was moderated by Brian Kite, dean of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television.
“I think film festivals are becoming more important every year,” said Ankner, whose film and TV resume consists largely of projects centered on communities of color and the LGBTQIA+ community. “With the proliferation of content and how we see ourselves engaging in long-form or short-form, film festivals are a catalyst of community advocacy and awareness. For me, having brought films here for years, a lot of those films were films that the studios weren’t interested in, whether it was a topic, whether it was the filmmaker, whether it was a filmmaker’s point of view, and we all know how layered that may be.”
He continued: “I’ve worked on the film sale for Ryan Cooler’s ‘Fruitvale Station’ and Boots Riley’s ‘Sorry to Bother You,’ or ‘Call Me By Your Name.’ These are not movies the studios said they would have made, but they did. Bringing these films to festivals allowed us to generate an independent funding market for these things, and when people can make money off of them and bring them to festivals, typically, those people would put money back into the other films. That was [a] really important part of the process.”
This year, Ankner is helping bring the film “Ponyboi” to the forefront. The film tells story of a young intersex sex worker named Ponyboi (River Gallo), who, over the course of Valentine’s Day in New Jersey, is on the run from the mob after a drug deal gone wrong and he’s forced him to confront his past. The film, which was written by Gallo, also brings along actors Moisés Acevedo, Aphrodite Armstrong, Indya Moore, Victoria Pedretti, Dylan O’Brien and Murray Bartlett. It was directed by Esteban Arango.
Ankner pointed out that while the movie includes Hollywood acting notables, “Ponyboi” — which features the first intersex lead in a film — is very much an independent film.
“You see all of those actors and you think, ‘That’s a studio film.’ It’s not, because for some reason the topic or the point of view didn’t suit that, so we bring it to a film festival for this community to validate its place and culture,” Ankner explained. “I see independent films and film festivals being the only voice to push culture… The things you’re seeing the studios make now are because those things were ventured for the independent space, both in films and in docs.”
Laying out the background for which diverse stories have been able to thrive, Kite questioned whether Ankner would prefer the independent route or studio-backing for his projects. Ideally, Ankner would love for diverse stories to receive more studio support, but was transparent about the reality of that happening.
“I would love for more ‘Ponybois,’ more ‘Sorry to Bother Yous’, more ‘Call Me By Your Names,’ more ‘Dear White Peoples’, more ‘Honey Boys,’ all these films that I’ve worked with over the years, being made by studios. But, there is a process of a studio where they’re looking to deliver a certain product,” Ankner said.
He also highlighted the creative freedoms filmmakers have with going the independent route. “There’s a lot of great execs at the studios, as well as you can find them. But, I think more so for us speaking in a general manner, independence creates a catalyst for conversation that isn’t necessarily taking place. It’s always the outside conversation. It’s always the thing that you’re probably in the audience thinking about right now that ends up here two years later. I think those things are evident.”
Watch the full panel in the video above.
“Ponyboi” is a sales title at Sundance.