Category: GEMA, GEMA Externship

Title:GEMA Externship: Where Are They Now? – Andrew Morrison (C’15), New York-based film producer, Yellow Bear Films

GEMA launched its annual Externship Program in 2003, a unique experience where Georgetown seniors and graduate students spend one week in Los Angeles or New York during spring break meeting with a number of alumni from a variety of fields in entertainment and media. Over 200 students and more than 500 alumni have participated in the program over its first 18 years and many of the externs have gone on to roles across the media landscape. In our series The GEMA Externship: Where Are They Now?, we reconnect with past Externs to find out how their careers have progressed since graduation.

Andrew Morrison’s films have been programmed by festivals all over the world, including Tribeca, Venice, Berlin, and Sundance and have been acquired by NEON, Sony, Hulu, Bleecker Street, and Netflix, among others. His most recent films include Alex Gibney’s TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL, which was released by NEON and HULU in the fall of 2020; Mona Fastvold’s THE WORLD TO COME, which was released by Bleecker Street after premiering in Main Competition at Venice in 2020 and at Sundance in 2021; and Tim Sutton’s FUNNY FACE, which premiered in Encounters Competition at Berlin in 2020.

Andrew is currently in post-production on Brady Corbet’s THE BRUTALIST, starring Adrien Brody, Felicity Jones, Guy Pearce, Alessandro Nivola, and Joe Alwyn.

What was your first “big break” into your industry? Or, what is the most significant experience you have had that has made your success possible?

My first “big break” was actually while I was still at Georgetown. I helped make a short film called “He Took His Skin Off For Me” that ended up playing at a bunch of festivals around the world and then broke out online. The relationship with that director, Ben Aston, brought me to Sundance as a senior in college, where I snuck my way into some parties and met a filmmaker named Jack Dunphy who was my age and had a short film at the festival. We started working on some projects together, which led to my meeting more people, and ultimately my first feature credit, Nathan Silver’s Thirst Street, which premiered at Tribeca when I was 24. That then led to other relationships, other movies, other mentors, etc. It was “the minimal viable proof” that I knew enough about what I was doing that I could keep figuring it out.

What was your first job?

My first job was interning for Mike Birbiglia my freshman summer at Georgetown. I had always loved film, but I had no access or exposure to the industry growing up in suburban New Jersey, so it really made an impact. He was relentlessly independent in how he saw the film industry, his career, and the world, which definitely rubbed off on me. I remember spending the summer calling up theaters around the country asking them to book his film Sleepwalk with Me because the distributor wasn’t doing it and he knew there was an audience for the film larger than they thought. And theaters booked it. And the film opened extremely well—he was right!

I had already started doing what I do now while in college, so I never really had a traditional “job” per se . . . I just started making movies and never stopped.

What do you do in your job now? What is your favorite part of your current position?

I just got back from spending four months in Budapest where I was producing a film called The Brutalist from a filmmaker named Brady Corbet. We’re currently in post-production and it should be ready for international festivals next year. It’s truly an extraordinary film and the project I’m most proud of to date. I’m in the process of merging my company Yellow Bear Films into a new film production company venture with my producing partner David Kaplan, so we’re fundraising and doing a lot of organizational work. I focus on originating and developing independent films, mostly with writer/directors, producing them soup-to-nuts (from idea, to script development, through fundraising and structuring, packaging, negotiating, physical production, and ultimately sale/distribution and marketing).

What I like most about my job is that I get to work with other artists and intellectuals to create great films. Whenever I find collaborators who want to think about ideas that are new or bold or heterodox, or want to express something in a novel aesthetic way—it’s exciting. I love to develop work with people, to go through the exercise of thinking about who a book is for, who an idea would be most appealing to, to hear the seed of an idea and say “yes!” and then dive into it—to shape or develop something in a direction that makes it its most genuine and radical and bold version of itself. And then once you figure out what the film is and that it is good enough that it should be made, strategizing on how something like this could actually exist, how we should build it, etc. And then going out and doing it!

What was the externship experience like for you? Did it have an influence on your career/help kickstart your career?

When I did the externship, I was very interested in new forms of storytelling. The first VR headsets were coming out, people were experimenting with 360 video and AR, and companies like Atavist were publishing longform mixed media stories, etc. I sort of browbeat my externship planning person into finding meetings with a lot of those companies for me instead of the original list he proposed. It did have an influence on me—it reinforced that experiences are what you make of them and it’s your job to shape opportunities to your needs. I also learned how corporate so much of the media landscape is, and it helped me feel confident in pursuing a more independent and artistic part of this industry.

What part(s) of the Externship did you find most valuable?

It was awesome to get a look at the media landscape at the time, seeing these new media companies struggling to figure out how to do something meaningful with the technology they were working on. At the time I thought that everyone would have it figured out, but how we tell stories, how we distribute those stories to audiences—it’s always changing. And there is no obvious path. You just throw yourself into something and then reflect and change and course correct along the way.

I also met with a few producers during the externship, and that was the first time I started to understand what a producer really did. They were incredibly encouraging of me and how I was thinking about what I wanted to do. I left feeling empowered and confident that I would figure this out. For a college kid, that was immensely valuable.

What was your experience like attending Georgetown? Were there any particularly formative experiences that were special to you?

Georgetown exposed me to a handful of great friends, some great professors, a few mentors, and gave me the fire to be a serious person.

The most formative experience was probably Carroll Fellows with Dr. Glavin. Dr. Glavin was enormously influential on me. He encouraged me to pursue my own projects. He challenged me and doubted me in a way that made me constructively doubt myself. I remember a lot of kids dropped out of his classes because they couldn’t stand his critique and high standards. High standards are rare today, but it’s immensely important that you have them in a world that has none.

I remember Dr. Glavin told me, “If you say you’re a painter, but you never paint, then you’re not a painter.” Which, as obvious as it may be, was really striking to me as an 18 year old, and it motivated me to start making movies in school, to reach out to filmmakers online, to stop just talking about what I’d do with my life and do it. So many people delude themselves into thinking that they’re doing something when they are just keeping themselves busy with pseudo-work or trying not to lose a job or trying to lie to themselves about how their life has turned out. That still sticks with me. Go make something. My first films had budgets sub $100k that were raised on Kickstarter and now the films I make are much bigger . . . the skills don’t change, they just get more robust. Carroll Fellows also taught me the idea of “Mentis Vita Pro Vita Mundi”—the life of the mind for the life of the world. I’d so much rather be reading books and thinking abstract thoughts alone in a room all day, but I have an obligation to do what only I am capable of doing, whether I like it or not: not thinking about my own fulfillment, just focusing on the work and getting it done for the people who are counting on me, and understanding that that will ultimately lead to fulfillment.

One of my roommates and best friends at Georgetown died pretty soon after graduating. And that’s been immensely formative. Every day I wake up and remember that I could be dead, that death is barreling toward me and any moment it will just cast me into the vast nothingness of non-existence. That your life isn’t moving toward some great climax or conclusion or revelation—it’s a tightrope over an endless void and with one wrong step it’s over. That’s very motivating. I remember finding out about his death and just being absolutely obliterated by that fact, weeping uncontrollably and collapsing. It’s years later and I still cry about it, still wonder what he might think about a book I’m reading or a film I’m making. I’m still trying to process his loss through the work I’m making. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.

I think many young people think they will live forever, that they have time, that life is long. It isn’t.

What’s your advice for an undergraduate trying to break into your industry? Is there anything you would tell your younger self now?

My advice is actually pretty simple: be serious about yourself and what you want to do. In a world full of unserious people who dabble in something and then move on, or who are superficial thinkers or self-promoters or careerists, be an idiosyncratic person with a real perspective who sticks around. When you’re in college, the longest thing you’ve ever done is go to college. I’ve been working on some movies for half a decade or longer and they’re still not done. It takes time and continued devotion to growing and challenging and pushing yourself to even get a foothold in this industry, so don’t give up too early.

As a producer looking for collaborators or people to work for me at my company, what I’m mostly looking for is someone who has a real, serious, and specific perspective. Watch movies that will challenge you. Read books that don’t have pretty colors on the cover or haven’t been recommended by a celebrity book club. Read your favorite author’s favorite books. Seek books that are out of print or movies that were never distributed in your region. Make up your own mind about them. Learn to articulate your perspective. Follow your interests into idiosyncratic places. And don’t stop when all your other classmates stop reading, stop pushing themselves, and start to coast after graduation. Work on being the best at something that reaches toward transcendence, the way great thinkers and artists of the past did, and there will be someone out there who will notice, who will want to mentor you, who will want to collaborate with you because there are so, so few people in the world who are even trying at all. Write cold emails to serious people and show you have a tiny hint of seriousness—they’ll write you back.

What I’d tell my younger self is that this never gets any easier, but at least there’s a sliver of meaning in it in a world that is desperately lacking in meaning.

Practically, I’d say that following through with the creation of something is going to be incredibly uncomfortable. It’s often not pleasant at all—you might look stupid, you’ll find yourself in conflict with your collaborators, so busy that you are distanced from your friends and family and significant others. You’ll definitely want to give up or listen to everyone who is telling you no, or that this is a dumb idea, or that it won’t work. But fulfillment does not always mean joy, and finishing something is more important than comfort in any given moment. You will learn so much more by just putting the doubts to the side, doing the hard thing no one else wants to do, and finishing the project. As a producer, much of your job consists of brutal and thankless tasks—raising that last bit of money an hour before you have to close the bond/bank loan, convincing that actor to get on the plane or come to set, firing someone who isn’t doing a good job, convincing everyone to stick with something when your lead actor quits or your main investor backs out at the last minute. Choose to work on projects that you care about so much that you are willing to do all the painful stuff involved with the work to get it made. It makes for better work, and it will give you the right metric to keep going: if you think it’s important and worth it—truly deep down worth it—it doesn’t matter if 100 people have passed, it probably is.

Name someone in your career who has been a valuable mentor or role model to you and why?

I’ve already talked about Dr. Glavin and my parents already know how incredibly important they have been to me, so I think I’ll talk about two people: my current producing partner David Kaplan and a friend and investor, Mark Lampert.

David is almost a decade older than I am, and when I met him in New York I had seen and loved many of his movies. He was the first person I had met in the city who I felt really was doing what I wanted to do, who saw himself and the job in the way I saw it, and who was thinking as big as I wanted to think. I think you can only truly believe something is possible if you’ve seen it done, and meeting him gave me the strength to keep believing that making truly great cinema in an independent way was actually possible in an industry that is absolutely determined to beat that belief out of you. He took the time—god knows why—to hang out with me for hours and talk about ideas, to answer questions when I didn’t know what to do, to introduce me to other people doing what I was doing, to help me raise money, and navigate the wild west of independent film. He made me realize that you can be successful by being a great person in an industry that doesn’t make it easy. We slowly became friends and now are business partners. His most recent film, Sean Price Williams’ The Sweet East, just premiered at Cannes in Directors Fortnight this year, and seeing it in a packed theater, absolutely loving it, realizing it’s going to inspire a whole new generation of filmmakers to make the work that people say is impossible to make—I wouldn’t want to be doing this with anyone else.

The other person is Mark Lampert. He has a real belief in discovering new talent and helping them grow. He wasn’t from the film industry, but he backed my movies when no one else wanted to, when the industry was uninterested in it, and when there was very little proof to go off of that I knew what I was doing. You always need a first believer, and he was mine. I’ve learned so much from him in terms of how to think about asymmetric risk, how to think long term in a world that thinks short term, how to not stop being curious and questioning what other people are missing. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do now without him.

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