Gabi Suciu: As a producer, you want to be involved in a film project from the very beginning, not just as an accountant

17 February, 2020

Born on June 2, 1987 in Sebeș, Alba County, Gabi Suciu is one of the most active and well-known young film producers in Romania. These past years, her name has been featured in dozens of end credits, both short and feature films. She also works in film distribution and is involved in organizing a festival, Arkadia Shortfest. Recently, she defended her doctoral thesis on co-productions at UNATC, where she studied and currently teaches film production.

In Sebeş, in high school you studied in a Mathematics-Computer Science class.

I followed the Computer Science and English specialization. I was an Olympian in math and informatics. I liked them both. But I was also reading a lot. Even now, I still like math. In fact, I used it for my PhD, too. In my paper, I tried to prove that we don’t have a film industry in Romania through proof by contradiction (reductio ad absurdum).

What made you choose studying film and go to UNATC?

HBO. We hadn’t had a cinema in Sebeş for a long time. I watched only one movie at the local theater, Jurassic Park, then it was demolished and turned into a parking lot. But when HBO appeared in Romania, I could hardly wait to come back from school and finish my homework, so I could then watch movie after movie, without any interruptions. Like the films on the other TV channels. It was fascinating to watch a movie from start to end on HBO. I had watched everything. Including the reruns. The TV was constantly running on HBO.

I thought that a film school would have a bit of both areas, math and  philological. And that I would like to make film. But I didn’t know exactly what in film I should do. I watched the performances and a very long credits thread at the end, but I didn’t really know what filmmaking is.

With that in mind, I met someone from Târgu Mures who was studying theater, and she asked me if I didn’t want to do theater as well. I was just about to pursue that. But if I were to do theater, I thought Bucharest should be the best pick, since the school here is the best one. When I visited its website, I saw they had a Film section, too. And not just Film, but with different sections. And I oriented towards the only section that didn’t require Physics, since I didn’t like Physics, or any experience whatsoever. So I applied to Directing. At that time there wasn’t a Production section, it was founded when I was in my third year, and only within the Master’s.

Therefore, you’ve studied directing for four years.

Yes, but after the first semester, when I got in contact with video editing for this film I made, I thought it was quite interesting and kind of wished to be in the editing room.

Then, because I was quite organized, always sending to my colleagues daily reports of what was done and what still remains to be done, I transferred to Production.

I wasn’t doing anything else, so I went to school every day. I lived nearby so it was easy. Many of my colleagues worked then. But my folks said they will help me: “Learning means learning, you will have time for work after that.” My parents worked from a very young age, so now they were trying to offer their children everything they didn’t have. Having what to eat wasn’t a problem, so everyday I attended classes, and after school, went to the movie theater.

Noticing my organizing skills, my colleagues asked me to produce their films. First was Victor Dragomir, who asked me to be Production Manager for his film, which was going to be shot in Câmpina. I had no idea what a Production Manager does, so I went home and searched on Google.

I started to like it. And one by one, I came to produce my colleagues’ films. Word got out and I started to produce for older and younger students as well. At the end of my 4th year, I had about 40 short films that I had worked on, one way or another.

Did you also produce your own films, the ones you directed?

I went all the way with my films. I did everything I could think of in order to pass, but also to grow as a producer: films with vampires or really sophisticated sets. Since the 2nd year I was no longer interested in directing. However, in the 4th year, in 2010, when I graduated as head of promotion, for my final exam I did what the teachers wanted me to do: a minimalist, clean, Romanian film, with a father who doesn’t get along with his child. I got an A. Then I entered the Production master’s programme.

At that moment you clearly knew that you wanted to pursue production.

Yes, that was clear enough. I had already worked a lot in production. I was first in my class to make its own film, so I could go produce other films.

How much has the Production master’s helped you?

It did, because it allowed me to stay in school. I am a product of UNATC. I did everything: bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate. I kept a position there. I also founded Atelier de Film (a production house and distribution company – i.e.). The master’s also gives you the chance to make another movie. And on another level. You work with a different budget.

What attracts you to film production? Why do you like it so much?

Production is the more controllable, mathematical part of film. I have a lot of friends who are actors, so I don’t want people to get the wrong idea, but actors are pretty unpredictable. The actor comes with his baggage, you as a director come with your baggage, and at some point there is a tension for which I, personally, am not prepared. I’m not used to living in such a tense atmosphere.

But I do enjoy being present on the set at all the films I work on. A good part of studying directing is that I understand creative freedom. I’m not the kind to harass the director, tell him what to do. If my opinion is needed, then I’ll share it.

First thing I do on a project, I read the script. Then I’ll share my own thoughts on it and if I’ve noticed any weak points, but it’s the director’s decision. If I do get involved in a project, I do it because I trust the director.

And that comes from your directing background.

Yes. I graduated in Radu Gabrea, Copel Moscu, Napoleon Helmis class. I don’t know how it’s done now, but at Radu Gabrea we were working a lot on screenplays. We used to stay on a script even for eight months, until he gave it a green light for being directed. You didn’t talk much about your vision or how it should be done. The main focus was on the screenplay, on how you build it. One of his sayings, “Paper can suffer everything and it doesn’t cost you. Now you make changes in pen. But when the shootings start, it might cost you quite a lot.”

Therefore, one thing about production that attracts you is that you have more control over what you do.

Yes, it’s a better environment for me. Things are much easier. It’s always a challenge, because there are no two projects alike and you can’t start two projects from the same point. And this is what I tried to show in my PhD thesis. At first, I had this idea that I would draw up a handbook that would contain information such as how to find a producer, what co-production means, etc.

But, after doing research and experimenting throughout this period, I realized that there are no rules. Obviously, you have two or three notions, but depending on how you combine them, something completely different can come out. It’s like making a cake: if you’ve changed an ingredient, it may come out better or worse.

However, shouldn’t there be the same steps when you enter a project?

Not necessarily. You find that many things may vary. The length of the project is important. You approach a short film differently from a feature film, mainly as a means of financing. It matters a lot if you work with a director at his debut or a director who already has a lot of experience. If the director is at the beginning of his career, it’s a much bigger challenge, because you have to do all kinds of gymmicks to convince the others, especially if it’s a feature. It also depends on whether it is a more complex film or a smaller, minimalist one.

Sometimes you have to create a context for that movie. Producers have this unpleasant job where they have to create an offer in a market where it’s not yet known that there is demand for such a movie. People don’t know they need this movie that we are going to make, but we will make it, and people will see that it is exactly what they were expecting (smiles). It’s on the border between product and art.

But what does it mean to produce a film in Romania?

The starting point is very important and also to create momentum for the subject and the film. If a movie gets out sooner than the market is ready for, it may find a way through. But if it comes after the subject has been consumed, it is no longer the same.

As a producer, it’s important to speculate all the time. Yes, it’s just what it is when it comes to money and you can find it in many places and you must raise it. Radu Gabrea told us that producers and, implicitly, directors are high-class beggars. You go and tell them, “You know, I’m making this art object, can I have some money?” You keep asking for money all around, because you need it. And you cannot guarantee you’ll be able to give it back.

But, besides the financial part, it’s very important that once you make the movie, something happens to it. There must be a favorable context for the movie in question. People still don’t know they need your product, but you can speculate and figure out which direction the market is going.

For an American movie, it takes nine months and done, it’s all packed and released on the market. If they know that a war is expected in the fall, theaters will be jam-packed with war movies, for which you didn’t know you would get ready. In our case, you get everything set, you go with it on workshops, pitches  for five years, then a few more years pass, and you realize that it takes you between five and ten years to make a movie. You need to be aware of the subject’s relevance before you start this whole process.

First of all, you produced a lot of short films, but you were also involved in the production of some feature films. Say it’s a short film, how do you get into such a project? Do you receive many scripts? Or is it you who looks for them?

I’m no longer looking for them, they just come to me. That’s not a bad thing. It’s also why I founded Atelier de Film, which is a creative hub.

What is Atelier de Film?

It’s a SRL. It’s a company, a production and distribution house. Initially it was set up after a model used at the Polytechnic University, which needed to sell patents on inventions discovered by students. Following this example, we created Atelier de Film, with UNATC as the only partner, at first. It was a UNATC company – legally you can adopt such a structure – addressed to young graduates, it wasn’t for students. Students have the educational support and can make films during school, but Atelier de Film’s principle was this: you’ve just finished school and you don’t know what to do next, you have a script, you come here and we help you produce it, apply to CNC, get your first funding. From here we began expanding. People from CAV (Audiovisual Communication – i.e.) wanted to translate Bazin and Bresson, so we did that, too. Unfortunately, the editorial project stopped at one point. But I’m seriously thinking about returning to the editorial part, and I would like to bring here books that are to be adapted into films. And release the book and the film at the same time.

What is happening now with Atelier de Film?

It’s no longer a UNATC company. I bought all the social parts, in 2017, when I decided that being divided into a dozen companies is no longer an option and that it’s time to work for myself, although that’s a bit of a misnomer, really. I would like to believe that it’s not just my business. I offer advice and all the legislative basis to all the students at master’s who want to apply or do a project. So I say it’s a creative hub rather than a SRL, although legally it’s a SRL. I made sure that it has all the documents needed for working both in Romania and abroad. In this area and in all related fields.

When you join a film project as producer, do you do it through Atelier de Film?

Now I do, but I worked a lot as an executive producer or associate producer for other production houses. And I still do that. It would be ridiculous to ask someone who wants to work with me to do it through Atelier de Film. Atelier de Film is a tool that I keep at my side for when I need it, because you cannot apply to funding sources and attract sponsorship without a legal form.

How do you choose your projects?

First of all, I need to like the story. It’s subjective, I know, but somehow I have to resonate with the story. Or to think it’s a relevant story, at least for nowadays, if not in the future.

Next, comes the director. I didn’t turn away from directors at their debut, but it’s very important that I meet the director and understand what he wants and if he’s confident about it. If he comes up with a lot of references from a lot of great directors and he can only argue his ideas by presenting other visions, that’s ground for refusal. I need to be certain the director fully understands his subject. That applies to young filmmakers, with the experienced ones things are much simpler, there’s no doubt about it.

But there’s something else. I had to start sorting them out, because in college and immediately after, I never said no. Regardless of the project that came to me, good or bad, I tried to save it and get it to its final phase. Now I don’t have the time, because I got into distribution as well. So it’s very important for me not to get into a project that has already been set up.

There are many directors who think that it’s better if they come to the producer and say: “Look, I have the locations, I have the team, I have everything, we just need the money.” It’s not better though, because a producer wants to be there from the beginning and understand how it’s built, why this way and not otherwise. You don’t want to be just an accountant.

A producer is not just somebody you call when you need the money.

At least make it look like his opinion and experience matter. On a smaller level, you might think it’s easier this way. But when you get to more complex productions and you need co-productions, it’s pretty crappy to come and say, “I have an operator, an editor, and everything else.”

As a producer, you know you have to go to other sources and ask for money and you have to offer them a role on the project. That’s the barter. They give you money, but at the same time they have to spend it in their own country. In this case, it’s quite difficult.

In order to get all the budget, you often go and ask people to come work for less money, but at least they want to maintain a constant collaboration. You don’t go look for someone else on each project, and forget about the people who helped you on the previous project. Maintaining relationships is also important. But it depends on the project. I don’t like to get into projects just to get them across the line. It’s easy to do that, but then it’s no longer stimulating.

Do you find it difficult to be a producer in Romania?

Not really. It comes more as a challenge. But if it wasn’t a challenge, I’d get bored. That’s why I got a bit into distribution, too. I don’t assume to know everything about production, but it was starting to get a little too easy, and I realized it’s a machine that is moving very slow, and my patience regarding financing was running short. It feels like a lot of time when you just sit and wait for an answer. Obviously, during this time you still try to raise money from other places, but there is also a long time when you just sit and wait. So I needed something to challenge me, and I chose film distribution. That way I could bring the films I wish I could have produced.

Was that the motivation?

Yes. I thought I probably won’t have ten years to make a film like Loving Vincent (2017) and until I reach that level where they will turn to me, in an underdeveloped country, it will take a long time.

You didn’t distribute many movies.

Distribution-wise, I collaborated a lot on Romanian films. But the films I distributed personally, yes, there were less.

How do you choose them?

As I said, there are films that I would have liked to have produced myself. But I’m not trying to compete with other distributors. There are a lot of movies, and if there’s somebody who wants a particular movie, let him take it, I’ll bring a different one. After all, it’s important to bring as many films as possible.

I tried to create a niche for every movie I distributed. So we did that with Loving Vincent, we initially tried to reach people interested in art. Then it turned out that the film’s potential was much higher. With McQueen (2018) we wanted to reach designers and those interested in fashion.

Knowing where I want to get to, I knew who I could activate and what I could access to make it a little easier for me, including financially. You need to know the film and its potential very well. So far, for every film I’ve tried to find some common ground to link to and create an event around it that isn’t just about the movie. To bring more fields, more arts together.

How do you explain the unexpected success of Loving Vincent? What’s the number of viewers it reached to?

About 27,000 spectators. The film is still in theaters, and was released in April 2018. For a European movie, an animation that is not dedicated to children, it’s very good. Everyone asks me how I did it. I’d very much like to know what I did so I could do it again (laughs).

First of all, it’s Van Gogh. And that sells. Everyone knows Van Gogh. Now, I don’t know if it’s his story, the misunderstood genius who became known after his death, and sold nothing while being alive. All films about Van Gogh have been quite a success, however good or bad they were from a technical point of view.

How hard is it to distribute an average, common Romanian movie? I’m not referring to commercial films, but to a film that, for example, might have won an award at a festival.

It’s not easy. No Romanian film I distributed turned up to be easy. Not with Touch Me Not. Not even with a very commercial film like Pup-o mă!, although it attracted a good crowd.

For each movie we had to come up with an entire campaign, which of course it came with a cost, sometimes maybe even higher than what we got out of tickets. It’s very difficult. Not even the distribution of Queen Marie of Romania could pay off the production costs. And it was a big production.

Then you’re moving in a circle, always reaching the same point. We don’t have enough cinemas, people don’t go to the movies very much anymore. And what do you do with piracy when your movie has been online for 2-3 days?

As a distributor, you try to create all kinds of events. After all, people come if they get something extra. There are all sorts of marketing tricks that people usually get in other areas so now they expect it from film, too. So, as a distributor, you come with: “Today you can meet the team, someone comes to talk to you about stuff.”

For the viewer it can be a motivation. And it often makes him get out of the house and come watch your movie. It especially works in the country, in the small towns where usually not much is happening. If you look at the box-office numbers, Romanian films that aren’t promoted with a caravan throughout the country have very few viewers compared to those who are. We’re talking about tens of thousands of viewers. But a caravan costs. If a movie is left to its own devices, you can get up to 5,000 viewers. That is the truth.

Going back to the idea you mentioned earlier, the one in your PhD thesis. Why do you say we don’t have a film industry?

What’s the definition of the industry? An industry has to produce something, which has to sell itself later. And there must be an audience that will allow you to make that product further. When we no longer need screws, we stop the production, because we no longer have a reason to do them.

Ada Solomon once told me something. If you pay attention, she never mentions the expression “film industry”. She only says “the field of cinema”. And she’s right, that’s what it is. It’s not an industry. It’s a field that is producing. And it produces a product that, on the one hand, should be commercial, because there are some revenues that come from there, and on the other hand, it should be artistic.

And it needs to be artistic. Film helps you learn from someone else’s experience, not just listening to some messages, but through a story. Film really helps you put yourself in that position. And now, with the new technologies, we can get to immersion.

Film leads to some emotions we’re in need of or just need to understand. In the end, a good movie makes you ask yourself some questions or reflect on yourself or on something about yourself.

Ada Solomon once told me something. If you pay attention, she never mentions the expression ‘films industry’. She only says ‘the field of cinema’. And she’s right, that’s what it is. It’s not an industry. It’s a field that is producing. And it produces a product that, on the one hand, should be commercial, because there are some revenues that come from there, and on the other hand, it should be artistic.

And it needs to be artistic. Film helps you learn from someone else’s experience, not just listening to some messages, but through a story. Film really helps you put yourself in that position. And now, with the new technologies, we can get to immersion.

Film leads to some emotions we’re in need of or just need to understand. In the end, a good movie makes you ask yourself some questions or reflect on yourself or on something about yourself.

Is it just a feeling or do women actually dominate the production area in Romanian film?

I don’t know. Can’t say for sure. Never really thought about it. The generation before mine didn’t have so many women. Looking at my students, I notice that fewer and fewer boys come to film school. And that’s available for all sections. But I don’t know why.

Have you ever encountered difficulties here on the grounds of being a woman? Did you have any such obstacles?

An obstacle was that people didn’t take me seriously, because they thought I was too young. Once, I had a Skype call with two foreign producers. They thought the call ended and that I couldn’t hear them, so they asked each other “But isn’t she a bit too young? Can we really trust her?”

In Romania, I’ve never felt things to be more difficult because I am a woman. Probably because I’ve worked constantly. Here, I don’t think there are so many preconceived ideas from this point of view. I was rather disregarded on the grounds of my age.

But I was once in the US and I had to pitch something, and around the table there were only male producers, from big studios, not from independent cinema. The only woman besides me was the secretary of one of the producers. And when I started talking, everyone was in shock, because they probably imagined that I was the secretary of one of the other men at the table. I had done a study and I wanted to carry out my presentation. And there was silence in the room. They all looked at each other and didn’t quite understand: “Does the secretary speak?” (laughs – i.e.). And the biggest producer there finally said, “Did you come to that conclusion just by yourself?” Well, that happens.

Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.