When I first walked into Espressoria to meet with Danielle Renfrew Behrens, she was sitting quietly at a table reading.
“You’ll see me reading scripts at every coffee shop in town,” says Danielle.
She’s a Los Angeles native who recently relocated to Boulder with her growing family. I’m not sure who I was expecting to meet knowing she is a well-known film producer, but after our meeting I realized Boulder is a fitting home for her down-to-earth demeanor.
This January, Danielle launched Superlative Films, a boutique equity fund to finance and produce independent films and documentaries headquartered in Boulder.
“I’m setting up something that I think will be good for the community and art scene here,” says Danielle. “Everyone thinks with an independent film it’s L.A. or New York, and I’m excited to say, ‘Well you know what, there are other pockets of this country that are really excited about the arts and film.’”
For the past six months, Superlative has been raising money from local and national investors. She’s now considering a number of projects while continuing to raise funds for creative, character-driven films.
“Now I’m putting on a curator’s hat and I’m starting to find projects that I think are meaningful. No matter the genre, it always starts with a strong story.”
“No matter the genre, it always starts with a strong story,” says Danielle.
Despite growing up in L.A. surrounded by hopeful actors, directors and screenwriters, Danielle never felt that childhood urge to enter the film industry. It wasn’t until college that things changed.
“For me, it was just an avenue for social change,” says Danielle. “But then I fell in love with the medium.”
After working on several documentaries for PBS focusing on women’s issues like the history of reproduction rights and Roe vs. Wade, her preferred style of film slowly started to shift. Originally focusing on subject-issue films, at 26, her preference changed to character-driven stories after working on her first venture into fiction filmmaking, Groove.
It was a low budget independent film about the San Francisco rave scene. Real DJ’s and ravers were enlisted as actors to keep the authenticity of the story.
In order to work on the project she opted out of film school and partnered up with writer/director Greg Harrison to work on set. This was her first gig as a feature film producer and Danielle was involved with every aspect of the filmmaking process from beginning to end. Starting with screenwriting to casting, all the way to sales.
“With all of my films I’ve had a really close relationship with the filmmakers and I would lie on the train tracks for them,” says Danielle.
Sundance accepted Groove (fewer than 2% of films submitted are accepted) based on a rough cut, and the film sold hours after its premiere with an intense bidding war. This launched Danielle’s producer career in the independent film industry. It also made her appreciate the power of storytelling.
“At the end of the day if your film is not entertaining, it doesn’t matter how important the subject is,” says Danielle.
This is when she also realized that addressing issues such as women’s rights could still be done, but with a creative twist.
“Later I did Double Dare, and that to me was just as much as a feminist film. You see stunt women jumping off buildings and getting lit on fire, but it dealt with very substantive issues of women trying to make it in one of the most male dominated subsets of Hollywood,” says Danielle. “It was doing it through a different lens, an entertaining lens.”
Women & Film
As portrayed in Double Dare two stuntwomen, Jeannie Epper and Zoe Bell, are dealing with the deep-seated issues of sexism in Hollywood. This is an issue that leaks into all aspects of the film industry: from actors in the spotlight, to the moviemakers behind-the-scenes.
“As a member of Sundance’s Women Initiative, I was part of a gender study they commissioned along with Women in Film. They asked, ‘What’s your perception of the ratio of women to men in this industry?’ And at first I thought maybe it’s not 50/50 but I have never felt held back by a glass ceiling,” says Danielle. “But when I saw the statistics my jaw dropped and I realized this is actually a much bigger deal than I thought.”
According to a 2015 study conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Films, women accounted for 9% of directors, 11% of writers, 6% of cinematographers and 26% of producers. Women comprised 22% of protagonists, 18% of antagonists, 34% of major characters, and 33% of all speaking characters in the top 100 domestic grossing films.
“I do think that people are taking steps to change it. I see a sea change coming because there’s finally awareness about the lack of women and people of color in the entertainment industry,” Danielle says.
Important groups such as the Sundance’s Women Filmmakers Initiative and specific funding for female filmmakers will also contribute to changing the current disparities.
“Superlative is a women-run company. I’m not going to limit myself to only working with one gender, but I’m trying to do my part to bring more diversity to the film industry,” says Danielle.
A New Initiative
After many years working in L.A. it was time for a change in scenery. But Danielle’s 2012 move to Boulder didn’t mean the end of her career as a producer. Since living in the Front Range she’s completed three renowned projects all of which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, The Queen of Versailles which received Sundance’s Best Director Award, Emmy nominated Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, and Grandma which garnered Lily Tomlin a Golden Globe nomination.
She also launched her new initiative, Superlative Films, which will help small, independent movies with both financing and producing. There will be funding for both seasoned directors and new talented directors just entering the scene.
“Discovering new talent is something I’m really excited about,” says Danielle. “Many filmmakers we know and love today got their start making films similar to those that Superlative is doing.”
For example, a few heavy hitters like Lena Dunham, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson are all now established writers/directors who got their breakthrough at Sundance with low budget independent films.
“These important voices in storytelling came from this world (of independent films).”
When I asked Danielle to define ‘independent films,’ she laughed and said that’s a hotly debated topic in Hollywood these days.
“Traditionally, an independent film was one produced outside of a major Hollywood studio. But that means big budget films made by companies like Lionsgate and Miramax are technically independent films too,” says Danielle. “For me, an “indie film” is made on a modest budget, with a unique voice and point of view.”
“For me, an “indie film” is made on a modest budget, with a unique voice and point of view.”
These are the films Superlative will be funding and creating, films with a new voice not funded by big corporations and established studios but by an impassioned team. Since first starting in the film industry, Danielle has always preferred to make movies independently and then sell them to studios or distributors once they’re complete.
“There’s always been a market for a well-told story, but what is shifting and what was really apparent in January at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is that there’s a surge in demand,” says Danielle. “There are a ton of new buyers in need of content. You used to sell the theatrical and home video rights but now with all of these new platforms like iTunes, Netflix and Amazon, the digital rights can be just as valuable if not more.”
With such a rise in demand, fellow producer Donald Zuckerman, the Director of the Office of Film in Colorado, and Producer Paula DuPré Pesmen have been very supportive of Superlative’s initiative. Pesmen also serves on Superlative’s advisory board.
Zuckerman has even started incentives to bring film productions to Colorado and make the state a film-friendly place. As we all know, Colorado offers a pretty nice working environment.
“We are excited that Superlative Films is launching here in Colorado, and consider it a major addition to our filmmaking community,” says Zuckerman. “What most excites us about Superlative is Danielle Renfrew Behrens, its founder. To put it simply, Danielle is one of the best independent producers in the business today, and her track record is indeed superlative.
With the landscape of film methods changing and whether people watch films on their iPhones or in movie theaters, the film business is more alive than ever. With Superlative Films, it’s an exciting time to witness film taking its root in Boulder.