Sandbox Films co-founders on creating and financing inclusive, cinematic science docs

With a vision to create experimental and filmmaker-driven science documentaries, Sandbox Films made its entrance this month with the world premiere of Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer’s Fireball: Visitors from ...
September 28, 2020

With a vision to create experimental and filmmaker-driven science documentaries, Sandbox Films made its entrance this month with the world premiere of Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer’s Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The non-profit production company — its tagline, “A Culture of Questioning” — was founded by Greg Boustead (pictured, right; Human Nature), who serves as director and EP, and Jessica Harrop (left; Follow This, Bill Nye Saves the World), who serves as head of production

Boustead and Harrop — with Herzog as a founding advisor alongside Effie Brown, David Byrne and Wendy Ettinger – hope to broaden the aperture of science storytelling with a focus on innovation, inclusivity and what they call “ethical financing.”

Powered by the Simons Foundation — an organization dedicated to advancing the frontiers of scientific research — Sandbox Films partners with production partners and filmmakers globally, providing coproduction and financing opportunities for feature-length science and science adjacent documentary projects.

The New York-headquartered shingle invests in documentaries intended for top-tier festivals, a theatrical release and mainstream digital streaming and/or a broadcast release — and it’s prepared to board a project at any stage, from early development seed funding to core production financing to finishing funds.

In addition to Fireball, Sandbox Films has signed on to exec produce three upcoming documentaries with filmmakers Ondi Timoner (Dig!, We Live in Public) , Penny Lane (Hail Satan?, Our Nixon) and Theo Anthony (Rat Film).

Timoner’s untitled experimental documentary examines, through the eyes of scientists and artists, how technology is transforming our ways of connecting. The film is being produced by Timoner and David Turner. Sandbox Films partnered with Interloper Films to EP.

In Confessions of a Good Samaritan, Lane explores the nature of altruism when she decides to give one of her kidneys to a stranger. Gabriel Sedgwick serves as producer. Sandbox Films will EP  with development support from Impact Partners.

Finally, in All Light , Everywhere, director Theo Anthony explores the shared histories of cameras and weapons. Riel Roch Decter, Sebastian Pardo and Jonna McKone are producing. Sandbox Films partnered with Memory to EP.

In addition to its direct financing, the Sandbox Fund offers grants, mentorship and other opportunities for independent artists. The program is administered by the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, in collaboration with Sandbox Films.

Realscreen caught up with Boustead and Harrop to talk about the prodco’s launch, COVID-19, diversity and its approach to financing.

You’ve only just launched and you’ve already got some pretty big name talent and projects in your table. Could you talk about how you went about doing that?

Greg Boustead:  There’s this interesting dynamic in the non-fiction space where science programs, either science TV shows or science films, are really seen as this “other.”

It became key from the very beginning that if we wanted to tell different stories about science, if we wanted to tell experimental, cinematic, artful and culturally rich stories about science, we really need to work with some of the best [non-fiction] storytellers in the field.

Jessica Harrop: I think there’s a lot of artists out there who love science and who are interested in telling stories that ask big questions about the universe and where we come from but don’t really know how to get funding for films like that.

It’s been an effort on our end to tell people that we exist, to tell people that there is funding out there for stories about science, and you can get funding, not just from some of the traditional sources like PBS or Discovery Channel or National Geographic, but you can also get funding from a from a production company that really wants to make independent, artful documentaries about science stories.

How are you navigating COVID-19 at this time in your business?

JH: We lucked out in that a lot of our films happened to be in post production already. Then we’ve recently greenlit development projects, one of which is archival, for example. On the Ondi Timoner film that we had already been working on, it embraced COVID [in that] COVID is now part of that narrative.

GB: Because we had so much going into post production, we were really lucky. But then the other side of that is we have a number of films which we would have expected to be sold by now. There’s a bit of a waiting game, even though the streamers want content… There are big question marks there but we’re really trying to put our head down and just continue doing work. As with all of our work, we have a degree of flexibility and we have a cushion in that we’re philanthropically supported.

Given that you launched with Fireball out of TIFF, could you speak to how that film serves as an example of the types of projects we can expect to see from Sandbox?

GB: Werner, he actually executive produced our first film, The Most Unknown.

We learned about this project he had with Clive Oppenheimer. It was really just a paragraph of text at that stage… It just seemed like such a Herzog-ian crazy idea that we greenlit it based on a paragraph of text.

Jess came on just as we were getting into production on that, and both of us were in the weeds on both editorial and also on location, shooting all across the world for that one. So, in many ways, this is a signature film in that it shows the scope and the breadth of creating a science cinematic experience.

Werner’s left-of-center narrative storytelling — that’s a good depiction of the types of creativity we hope to imbue in scientific topics. But at the same time, many of our other films don’t really follow that kind of interview template and we celebrate that. We like to say that of the 12 or 13 films we have near completion or out now, they’re very different in style.

One thread that tends to tie them together is this idea that they ask questions — they tend to ask more questions than they answer… and Werner Herzog embraces that sort of worldview more than you know, most anyone we’ve worked with.

Part of your mandate is to make the science documentary genre specifically more inclusive. What are some of the problems in the genre right now, in your view, when it comes to diversity and inclusion? And how do you hope to help remedy those issues?

GB: I would venture to guess that what’s true in the industry at large is maybe, in some ways, doubly true in science documentary, specifically. You have a compounding factor where there are a lot of underrepresented groups in science in general. Then also, science documentary, it’s such a sliver of the documentary space. It’s not lost on us that how science is portrayed on the screen, what experts look like and by extension who are authority figures — all of this reinforces a cultural zeitgeist in how society thinks about expertise, thinks about power and intelligence in really powerful ways. In many ways, we see it as an opportunity to potentially broaden that in a meaningful way.

We’re not going to solve this with a simple strategy, but what we are doing in concrete ways are a few things. We have our open call grant with Sundance, [which] has a pretty strong track record in uncovering diverse and unheard voices… but then also really just partnering with organizations solely dedicated to making films by and about people of color, by and about women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ — these are all folks who are incredibly underrepresented in science documentary.

JH: This is a new genre within documentary. It’s still rare for us to find that perfect film, perfect pitch, that’s really about the process of scientific discovery, in general, regardless of who’s directing it, or who it’s about. So it’s sort of a double challenge for us now, as we move forward trying to tell new stories and more inclusive stories.

It’s really an important part of how we evaluate a pitch.

Could you talk about your approach to ethical financing?

JH: What it basically means is that we invest in [a] film, so it is an equity investment, but we don’t take a premium on that investment, and we really work hard to make sure that the artists that we are supporting are paid fairly for their time. We set ourselves up that way so that if we do work on a film that has a really big sale, and it’s really successful, we can recoup our investment and we can reinvest that money into other films so that we can be sustainable in the long run. But at the same time, it’s okay if we don’t always make our money back, and it’s okay for us to take risks.

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