A Conversation with Film Independent Director of Artist Development, Angela C. Lee. - AmNews Curtain Raiser


Saturday, February 17, 2024

A Conversation with Film Independent Director of Artist Development, Angela C. Lee.

 Group Shot of Project Involve filmmakers. (Photo  Joenique Rose) 

Angela C. Lee (Photo Lily Chan)

A Conversation with Film Independent's Director of 

Artist Development 

Angela C. Lee

If you or anyone within your network harbors aspirations of making strides in the entertainment industry, whether your interests lie in prominent roles, festival programming, or behind-the-scenes endeavors, Angela C. Lee, the Director of Artist Development at Film Independent, is a figure worth acquainting yourself with and following on social media.

While Film Independent garners acclaim for its hosting of the Indie Spirit Awards, a renowned event held live on the Santa Monica pier, the organization's true distinction lies in its unwavering dedication to fostering genuine opportunities for skilled storytellers, producers, and artisans beyond the confines of traditional studio structures. This commitment is exemplified through the establishment of specialized training labs designed to equip individuals with the tools and knowledge necessary to navigate the demanding landscape of the entertainment industry, including opportunities in film festival programming.

In 1993, Film Independent recognized the barriers preventing talented storytellers from accessing closed spaces in the industry, so they took action by launching Project Involve. This initiative stands as one of their most impactful endeavors, actively engaging in the fight for a more inclusive entertainment industry. Project Involve nurtures emerging filmmakers from underrepresented communities, boldly challenging the systemic barriers that have historically marginalized people of color in film and television. Through hands-on filmmaking experiences and mentorship from industry leaders, participants receive tailored guidance to advance their projects and careers. With an unwavering commitment to excellence, Project Involve offers 30 filmmakers annually the opportunity to refine their skills, build creative partnerships, produce short films, and establish crucial industry connections essential for success as working artists.

Among this year’s Indie Spirit Award nominees, ten have been previously supported by Film Independent’s Artist Development programs and from Project Involve those include: Maria Altamirano (Best First Feature for All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt); Tze Chun (Best New Scripted Series for I’m a Virgo); Ruben Fleischer (Best New Scripted Series for Jury Duty); Jomo Fray (Best Cinematography for All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt); Raven Jackson (Best First Feature for All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt); Pamela Koffler (Best Feature for May December and Past Lives); Krista Parris (Best New Non-Scripted or Documentary Series for Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence); Kelly Reichardt (Robert Altman Award for Showing Up), Monique Walton is nominated for a Producers Award, and Laura Wagner (John Cassavetes Award for Fremont).

As you delve into Film Independent's past, present, and future endeavors, it becomes evident that they are truly revolutionary and "badass." With their diverse portfolio of labs, fellowships, finance markets, and more, which blossomed after the success of Project Involve, they have solidified their place as industry superheroes. Enter Lee, who oversees Artist Development at Film Independent with a seasoned eye.

Lee is a highly regarded producer, earning a Spirit Award nomination for her work on "Songs My Brothers Taught Me," the debut feature of acclaimed director Chloé Zhao. The film made waves with premieres at the Sundance Film Festival and Directors' Fortnight at Cannes. Angela also helmed the production of the fiction short "The Row" alongside director Philiane Phang, a project commissioned by Indigenous Media and distributed by Condé Nast Entertainment.

Currently, Angela is deeply involved in developing debut fiction feature films for esteemed talents such as writer/director Philiane Phang, Oscar-nominated director Bing Liu, and Grammy-nominated director Andrew Thomas Huang.

Her contributions to the film industry have been recognized with numerous accolades, including her designation as a 2018 Women at Sundance Fellow and support from institutions such as the Berlinale Talents and Co-Production Market, Film Independent, IFP, PGA Diversity Workshop, SFFilm, Sundance Institute Creative Producing Lab and Fellowship, and the Center for Asian American Media.

In her role as Director of Artist Development at Film Independent, Lee manages both fiction and non-fiction labs and programs, which encompass the Fast Track finance market, the Fiscal Sponsorship program, and the renowned Project Involve.

A proud native of Chicago, Angela is an alumna of the University of Chicago, where she earned her degree in Economics.

Here is what producer and Director of Artist Development at Film Independent Angela C. Lee had to share about her job and how indie storytellers can take advantage of Film Independent’s diverse portfolio of labs, fellowships, finance markets, and more.

Q: Hello, Ms. Lee, my new "best friend." In looking at your impressive resume, I want to take this opportunity to congratulate your parents for insisting that you study Economics in college. Bravo and Brava!

ANGELA C. LEE: (Laughing) They're more like, "What did I do wrong? Why are you in the arts?”

Q: Thanking all the lucky stars that you are because your role as head of artist development [at Film Independent] isn’t for the weak. Hollywood has a long, and troubling history of keeping people of color, and women, out of the conversations that matter and down right blocking opportunities. Hey, 'Hollywood,' your "isms" are showing, and shame on you.

ACL:  Well, I'm so grateful that you see our work and recognize that. My first connection with Film Independent was as a filmmaker receiving support from the organization. I consider myself lucky; I never attended film school and didn't have any connections in the industry. Film Independent's artist development programs were the first to believe in me and what I was trying to convey. They not only provided me with a framework for moving forward as a producer but also granted me access to the industry. Now, as the Director of Artist Development overseeing all fiction and nonfiction programming, episodic content, and special initiatives, I always emphasize that our work is about investing in artists to find success both creatively and strategically. It's about opening doors, as you mentioned, because in our industry, relationships are crucial. We have the opportunity to help artists break through barriers, and we do so through various programs. Over 30 years, you may be familiar with Project Involve, our very first artist development program, which I love and consider groundbreaking, if I may say so.

Q You ‘may’ so so because it’s true. I think there’s a misconception that these labs only support directors, producers and screenwriters but that’s not completely accurate, right?

ACL: Correct. It not only supported the creators, the writers, the directors, and producers, but it also recognized the importance of Below the Line, supporting cinematographers and editors, as well as the gatekeepers—executives, and festival programmers. Kim Yutani -, director of programming over at Sundance, is a Project Involve alumni. Actually, a significant portion—I think there are several—of Sundance programmers have gone through Project Involve, including our programmers at Sundance. It's funny; I just came back from Sundance, and I felt like a proud mama.

Q: That’s exciting. 

ACL: Souza, Ash Hoyle, and Kim Yutani—all introducing these remarkable new film festival premieres—have all emerged from Project Involve. It's truly remarkable. We understand the paramount importance of a Sundance launch, and recognizing that Film Independent played a pivotal role in nurturing these festival programmers early in their careers is profound. The same sentiment applies to cinematographers and editors. Take Harry Yoon, who edited 'Sh Chi' and 'Crazy Rich Asians'; receiving support as an editor was instrumental in his journey. Then there's Jomo Fray, whose cinematography graced 'All Dirt Roads, Taste of Salt,' among other outstanding films that premiered at top festivals worldwide—another talent fostered by Project Involve. We're actively diversifying these crucial roles with filmmakers from underrepresented communities, and that's truly something extraordinary. Project Involve is hands-on, providing these filmmakers with the opportunity to create a short film that serves as a powerful calling card for their future endeavors.

Q: And that’s why you are my new bestie, Ms. Lee. Now, let’s dive into the legacy programs because Film Independent is "that girl" — you feel me?

ACL: (Laughing) In addition to our legacy programs such as the Screenwriting Lab, Directing Intensive, and Producing Labs, as well as documentary labs, we provide targeted support to specific projects while also facilitating introductions to executives who can offer valuable assistance. Through these programs, we focus on refining their pitches, project development, financing strategies, and connect them with development and distribution executives. Our aim is for artists to not only feel creatively supported but also to leave with a strategic plan for their projects. We always approach it from both perspectives. One of our standout programs, the Fast Track Finance Market, holds a special place for me as a filmmaker. While there are numerous markets worldwide, what distinguishes ours is that executives aren't constrained by limited selections.

Q: Ms. Lee, you had me at Fast Track Finance Market. I love money and money, loves me. Push into that, please. Share with the class.

ACL: Yes, so we select 10 fiction projects, and they meet up to 60 executives over three days.

Q: Oh, wow. Oops, I mean "That's impressive!"

ACL: 20 meetings a day, 15 minutes each. We believe it's essential for these executives to engage with the remarkable writer-directors and producers, not only for the project we've selected them for, hoping they'll come on board creatively or financially. But if that's not the right fit, they should explore other connection points or potential collaboration.

Q: Collaboration, that's a big word.

ACL: So that's why I think it's so special. We also have a track for nonfiction, focusing on nonfiction executives. Through our suite of programs, we're always seeking ways to expand an artist's possibilities, both creatively through project development and workshopping, and from a business standpoint. We understand the commerce behind our work that keeps this engine running, and we strive for a balance between art and business.

After years of doing this, the next evolution in our programming is in our special initiatives, offering deeper support to artists beyond individual projects. One program I'd like to mention is our Amplifier fellowship.

Q: This program is very important for the African American community to know about. 

ACL: [Yes].  The Amplifier Fellowship supports six black artists, providing them with $30,000 in unrestricted grants. They also receive access to a professional coach whom they work with throughout the year of the fellowship. Additionally, we offer a financial advisor who hosts workshops and is available for one-on-one sessions, helping artists gain financial literacy and manage their businesses effectively to ensure their success as entrepreneurs. While we offer support in the development of one of their projects, they are also paired with an executive at Netflix for a couple of meetings. Furthermore, they are matched with a Film Independent board member—seasoned professionals in the industry who not only provide feedback on their projects and support as they navigate their careers but also help expand their networks due to their tenure and position in the industry.

Q: I was always told to be prepared to pitch more than one project when given an opportunity inside the room.

ACL: [To that point] I think it's so much about, again, not just one project. It's not just about a single meeting. We are constantly seeking ways to provide impactful financial support to the artists we support, recognizing the challenges they face in creating work in the current landscape.

Q: Difficult yes but not impossible, and I leave on this.  Thank all the lucky stars your parents insisted you learn economics. Hollywood is a business and often creatives don’t really understand what that means. 

ACL: We can't be afraid to talk about money. We also can't be afraid to ask for money—all of it. Additionally, we have to learn how to manage money effectively. With some of our newer programs, we're addressing these concerns so that our artists feel confident when they earn money or come into any financial resources. They must know how to handle it to ensure sustainability and build a foundation for long-term financial health.

Q: Thank you Director of Artist Development at Film Independent Angela C. Lee aka my new best friend. See you in the tent at the 2024 Indie Spirit Awards.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

To learn more about all of the aforementioned labs and opportunities go here:  https://www.filmindependent.org/programs/artist-development/


The 39th Annual Film Independent Spirit Awards will be held on February 25, 2024, 


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