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Spotlight on Tim Harms, film producer (Assistant Language Teacher in Niigata Prefecture, 1996-98)

By Jessica Tang (Assistant Language Teacher in Saga Prefecture, 2008-09)

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The fifth alumni spotlight interview highlights the career path of producer Tim Harms. From a life-
changing opportunity at the Nagano Olympics to gaining the mentorship of noted filmmaker Neil
LaBute, Harms shares the ins and outs of his time working in independent film.

Harms’ passion for film first found an outlet in the Chicago suburbs with a contest for teenagers
to write about movies. The Chicago Tribune Teen Movie Panel chose Harms as one of only five
teens chosen from 800 applicants to review movies and have those writings published in the
newspaper in 1991. With the chance to have his amateur criticisms in print, Harms got his first
taste of the film industry. “I was exposed to film more as a business and received a look behind-
the-scenes.”

After high school, Harms went on to attend Duke University, double-majoring in Literature and
Philosophy with a Film minor. “The film classes, though, were all very academically based,” said
Harms ”I watched tons of films, but there wasn’t the emphasis on production that you get at USC
or NYU.”

The major turning point of realizing his passion for film was during the 1998 Nagano Winter
Olympics, which occurred in his final year as a JET. “The actual nuts and bolts of making a living
in film were still distant to me in Japan, but during the Nagano Olympics, my friend called and
said they were hiring English-speaking drivers. I took two weeks of unpaid leave and had an eye-
opening experience working for CBS.”

Harms’ duties, similar to that of a production assistant, included driving around athletes, which
included the figure skater Michelle Kwan (though he had the inopportune chance of driving
Kwan on the morning after her loss to Tara Lapinski). After two weeks of working for sports
broadcasting professionals, he saw that there was a possibility of people living their dreams. “I
spent that time driving around all these CBS guys who were making it happen, who were making
a living in the industry.”

Upon moving to Los Angeles after the JET Program, Harms decided to take a chance and
gain as much experience as possible. His first job was as a production assistant on small
sets. “I started out at the bottom interning on student film shoots since I wanted the production
experience.” From there, he segued into camera assisting while taking a side job at a coffee
shop. After a year on sets, Harms took an office-bound assistant job at Kurosawa Enterprises
in their Los Angeles office. “This company (Kurosawa as in Akira Kurosawa) made money by
negotiating contracts for American celebrities to be in ads in Japan, such as Jodie Foster,” Harms
explained.

After one year, however, the company closed and Harms began working for producer Steve Golin
at Anonymous Content, a talent management, film, advertising and video production company.
Golin was Oscar-nominated in 2006 for producing “Babel” and responsible for discovering the
likes of David Fincher and Spike Jonze. From working with Golin, Harms realized that “you really
have to work hard to make this all happen. Every project, every idea doesn’t necessarily have a
blueprint as to how they get accomplished.”

For the past eight years, Harms has worked with acclaimed director, screenwriter, and playwright
Neil LaBute at LaBute’s production company Contemptible Entertainment along with writer/
director Lee Toland Krieger at their company 72nd Street Productions. LaBute, known for his
films “In the Company of Men” and “Lakeview Terrace” and for writing the Tony-nominated
play “reasons to be pretty,” has become a steady mentor for Harms. “Working with Neil has
taught me all aspects of making a film. He has also been gracious in allowing me to work on my
own projects.”

Most recently, Harms collaborated with Krieger on the independent film “The Vicious Kind”
starring Adam Scott, Brittany Snow, and J.K. Simmons. This film was an official selection at the
Sundance Film Festival in 2009 and received two Independent Spirit Award nominations. It has
received praise from media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, Variety, and the Hollywood
Reporter.

Harms has also worked with fellow JETAASC alumnus Aaron Woolfolk on “The Harimaya Bridge”
as a line producer managing the schedule and budget for the film’s San Francisco shoot. Though
Harms cannot remember the exact event at which he met Woolfolk, he remarked that Woolfolk
was purely a JET connection. He is currently working on producing Woolfolk’s next writing and
directing effort, “Summer Soulstice.”

Though the duties of a producer may cover many arenas, Harms provided a clear analogy
to explain an independent film producer’s responsibilities. “Think of the movie as a start-up
company. The producer is essentially the CEO of the company, like Steve Jobs for example. He
or she has the idea, finds the money, and hires all the people needed to see that idea through.”
A producer will seek out a script, determine it has film potential, hire the director and cast the
actors. “It’s tricky sometimes because once you hire the director and lock the actors, you have to
step back and let them do their work.”

Harms explained that there are different types of producers that are credited for a film. “Executive
producers receive this title if they gave money to support the project, or if they lent their name
to further its development, like Neil LaBute did for ‘The Vicious Kind’.” In addition to executive
producers, there are typically 1-2 “producer” producers on a film. They carry out the main
responsibilities of running the production. Other producing credits include co-producers and
associate producers who usually have advisory positions in one aspect of a film’s production.
Financing a film is one of the most challenging aspects of a producer’s work, particularly in
the independent film industry. One method used in the past to raise funds was through foreign
presales. “Distributors from all over the world would buy movies to be shown in theaters the next
year and would pay in advance before the film was even made. The distributors felt confident
enough that certain stars and genres would bring in a set amount even if it wasn’t very good. This
method was popular from the early 1990s – mid-2000s though has declined in recent years due
to the global economy.

Another way to raise funds for lower-budgeted films is to go to wealthy people and ask for private
investments. “For ‘The Vicious Kind,’ I had to go to rich people’s homes, sit on their couches and
ask for the money. It’s a kind of venture capital, a Wall Street for movies. Banks can also fill in the
gaps.”

Harms remarked that though challenges do arise in becoming a producer, you have to take
chances to make things work. “It’s tough, but not impossible,” he said.

You can keep Tim Harms on your radar by checking out “The Vicious Kind” along with its
Facebook page (cool soundtrack to be release in the near future) and 72nd Street Productions.