Since graduating from the AFI Conservatory, Producer Pin-Chun Liu (AFI Class of 2013) has made a name for herself in the world of independent producing. In 2016, she established her own development and production company,120E Films, to bring diverse and underrepresented voices to the screen. In the past three years, Liu has produced PAPER TIGER – which won the Audience Award at the 2020 Austin Film Festival and TEST PATTERN – nominated for four awards at the 2021 Gotham Awards including Best Picture and three awards at the 2022 Independent Spirit Awards, including Best First Feature. Liu was also nominated for the Producers Award, which honors emerging producers who, despite highly limited resources, demonstrate the creativity, tenacity and vision required to produce quality independent films.
She has also displayed a penchant for working with first-time feature directors – including Shatara Michelle Ford, the director of TEST PATTERN, and Paul Kowalski (AFI Class of 2015), who helmed PAPER TIGER, as well as assembling teams often composed of other AFI Conservatory Alumni. Liu has also at times bucked commonly held beliefs about producing, including deciding to cold call distributors which helped TEST PATTERN get picked up by Kino Lorber.
Leading up to the Spirit Awards which will be held Sunday, March 6, AFI spoke with Liu about the unconventional route she took to producing TEST PATTERN, the challenges of the current independent film landscape and the strength of AFI’s Alumni network.
AFI: How did you first realize you wanted to get into producing?
Pin-Chun: I studied sociology in college and started exploring what I wanted to do after graduation. Growing up in Taiwan, I watched a lot of movies and TV series, but there were only people talking about actors and directors, and I wasn’t aware that there’s an entire team and crew behind a production. It was very interesting – at the time that I started to grow an interest in producing, the government and educational institutions in Taiwan were also trying to cultivate new producers because there was a need for people with that skillset.
My entry into filmmaking was acting in a student film. I went to an audition and from there I quickly realized that “oh there’s the person whose title is ‘producer’ and she seems to be doing everything that I want to do.” I thought producing was a great combination of business, storytelling, art, communication and teambuilding. And I actually get to have a final product that is tangible where I can connect with an audience of people.
As I started to learn more, I began producing graduate student films in Taiwan, and I helped produce an American indie film that was shooting there as well. Then I worked on LIFE OF PI as a grip production assistant, which enabled me to see how big a Hollywood film can get – just a very different scale of production. This was right around the time I knew I wanted to pursue producing long-term and decided to apply to the AFI Conservatory.
AFI: What was your experience like in the Producing program at the Conservatory?
Pin-Chun: I made a lot of short films at AFI which was good preparation for when I graduated. I actually got to produce my first feature MAKING THE RULES – which was low budget – in between my first and second year with only the knowledge of my first year, having made three cycle films. One of the reasons I really wanted to attend AFI to begin with was because there’s a lot of getting to work with different filmmakers, getting to learn all aspects of filmmaking by doing and making strong connections with all the different department heads and directors.
AFI: What do you look for in a project when you are considering signing on as a producer?
Pin-Chun: For me, it’s pretty consistent and a continuation of the mission I had making short films at AFI. I try to work with filmmakers with a unique perspective, diverse voices and a way of looking at a story from a different point of view. In general, I want to work with filmmakers I’ve had good partnerships with in the past, including Shatara and Paul on their second features.
AFI: Congratulations on TEST PATTERN being nominated for Best First Feature and the Producers’ Award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards! How does it feel to be nominated?
Pin-Chun: It was such a big surprise to be nominated. It has been a really long journey for TEST PATTERN, and it was a very unconventional approach to making a film. I like to say I did a lot of things I was told not to do in film school such as not putting in your own money and not greenlighting your project before you’re fully financed. I also made cold calls to distributors which isn’t generally recommended.
I think because of the reception from film critics, it helped us get into the Gothams and the Spirit Awards and earn a lot of love from the Critics Association – which was amazing considering we did not get into top tier festivals. I feel very lucky that we are getting the recognition that we’re getting right now. And I hope we can utilize this momentum to help us with our next project.
AFI: Can you talk about how you first connected with director Shatara Michelle Ford and how you formed a strong collaboration to bring their story to the screen?
Pin-Chun: I met Shatara through an AFI recommendation. Shatara was working with another producer on a different project called QUEEN ELIZABETH, and they were actually looking for a producer/line producer at the time to come on board. However, that project was a little more complicated in comparison to TEST PATTERN. The script was really good, and everyone liked it, but nobody seemed to want to finance it. Everybody kept saying, “come back when you’ve shot something or maybe we can contribute once you’re in post.”
We almost gave up, but then we said to ourselves, “we’ve got to get through this first feature struggle.” At the time, it was before the Me-Too Movement, but there was already growing awareness about topics such as sexual assault and consent which is what TEST PATTERN is about. There were a number of articles about the backlog of rape kits in the U.S. At the time, I had been pitched several stories that included sexual assault, but mostly it felt like it was being used as a plot device. But when Shatara pitched me the idea of TEST PATTERN, I knew that if I was going to produce a movie on the subject that this would be the perfect fit. Once we finished the film, we did a lot of private screenings for close friends, other filmmakers and industry people and, from there, we cultivated a lot of good supporters who wanted to help us get the film in front of decision makers and secure distribution.
AFI: How have the relationships you formed at the AFI Conservatory carried over into your work since you graduated?
Pin-Chun: I would really have to say that the majority of my connections – in my production work and producing – are all through AFI. Like I met Paul [Kowalski], who directed PAPER TIGER, at the Alumni barbeque. He pitched me the story for PAPER TIGER which resonated with me because I was looking for a project with a strong mother figure at the center of the story.
In the four years since I graduated, I realized throughout the process I really liked the director/producer relationship we had when we were at AFI which is a pretty intimate partnership. Once you have a clear vision of where you want to go, it’s a lot easier to communicate to all the different departments. So for TEST PATTERN and PAPER TIGER, we were basically in that intimate director/producer relationship – very similar to how I made my AFI thesis film.
AFI: What do you think are the most important qualities to be an effective producer?
Pin-Chun: I like to say that a really good producer is someone who wants to be involved, who wants to know what’s happening constantly. It’s tricky because on TEST PATTERN it was the first time that I wasn’t able to be physically on set during the entire production because I had to be on another job. And that’s the only way I could get paid for the other project and put that money back into the film. It was a very hard decision. Even though I wasn’t physically there, I was still talking to Shatara every day. I feel like once you decide that it’s a project you want to pursue, you have to be all in. At the same time, I’m more aware now of boundaries as a producer and how to keep up with self-care. As filmmakers, we’re constantly asked to make really challenging things happen, so it is good to find a balance of learning when to say “no” and that we can’t keep pushing through.
AFI: What advice do you have for current AFI Fellows and recent Alumni who are interested in producing and pursuing a similar career trajectory?
Pin-Chun: It’s important not only to have a story you believe in, but also to plan it out ahead of time. It’s good to get others’ input but, at the same time, if you have things you believe in, you have to stick to it.
Indie distribution is so limited right now – it seems like everyone has the same model. The system is broken, and the only way to help a broken system is if we all try to do things a little differently. And I think younger, more aspiring producers definitely have that ability. I would encourage younger producers to take risks, think outside the box, at times do all the things people tell you not to do so you’ll be able to break out and create different kinds of stories.