"We Have a Progressive Philosophy:" Spotlight on Route One Producer Russell Levine (Landline, Colossal)

How can producers make socially conscious films that also make money? That question is the core of producer Russell Levine’s work.

A relatively new player in independent financing and producing, Levine has already achieved success with projects that have premiered at major festivals and turned a profit, such as A Walk in the Woods, starring Mr. Sundance himself, Robert Redford. Levine’s Route One Entertainment returned to the Sundance Film Festival for the third straight year in 2017, this time with two singular projects, both of which have already secured distribution: Gillian Robespierre’s critically acclaimed Landline (Amazon Studios) and Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal (Neon), which opens theatrically in April following its festival run.

The films represent the company’s efforts to support diverse voices. Conscious of the unprecedented responsibility of cinema to reflect a multicultural, gender-equal world, Levine’s company has decisively taken steps not only to produce content with stories that promote empathy and understanding, but to partner with organizations dedicated to create concrete change in American society. Route One has also positioned itself at a favorable intersection between the advent of streaming platforms and the valuable opportunities that a more traditional release can offer to both creators and audiences.

A brunch in Park City celebrated both films screening at Sundance 2017, as well as The Posse Foundation, which offers students from disadvantaged communities across the country the opportunity to attend college alongside a support group of fellow driven young men and women. At the event, Russell Levine shared his views on what the festival still represents for the film community, and the different outlets for Route One productions in the near future.

Russell Levine (L) with Colossal director Nacho Vigalondo at the Sundance Film Festival 2017

On Route One Entertainment’s Mandate to Make Meaningful Film

“I’d like to think we are always looking to make films like Landline and Colossal. Our benchmark is making meaningful and inspirational films. It has to be a socially meaningful project. I don’t need a political project, but it really has to illuminate the human condition. I think Colossal is a perfect example of that. Yes, it was risky, you never know what something is going to look like from a script to the screen, but that’s what we want to support. And we want to make money doing it.”

On What Enticed Him to Work on Landline

“We’ve done several of our last films with female directors, with female leads, and with female empowerment stories, and Gillian is right up there with the next wave of great female directorial talents, and we want to support that. We have a progressive philosophy.”

On Financial Success in the Streaming Age

“Some content is more appropriate to look at on a smaller screen, or even on a phone. For Colossal, however, we are going to try for our distributors to put it in as many theaters as possible. This entirely depends on the content and the visual presentation of the film. The landscape has changed, and we want to make sure that we have the right model. This will depend a lot on bringing budgets under control and partnering with talent in a stronger way, because it’s getting more expensive again to make movies in the sense that there is more equity risk. The foreign sales market is very volatile, and simply not as strong as it used to be, so we must be able to make movies at a lower cost by managing the production process better. Low-budget movies used to be done almost always on an ad hoc basis. Because of the market available through Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO—and you’ll see Apple come in soon—those guys will be buying low-budget movies. It’s a great time for independent filmmaking.”

Landline director Gillian Robespierre at the Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of the Sundance Insititute / Photograph by Stephen Speckman

On Why Sundance is Still a Unique Space for the Film Industry

“Sundance is really the great leveler. It doesn’t help if you are a celebrity if nobody can see your face in a blizzard! It really doesn’t matter who you are here; you are going to have to walk through the snow, you are going to have to stand in line, you are going to be cold, you are going to be inconvenienced, if it’s snowing too hard your limousine is not going to be able to come get you. It’s the great leveler.

People come from all over the world after periods of incredibly intense work on personal projects, and projects that affect communities intensely. I don’t know if there is another market or festival that is quite so family-oriented. So much of it has to do with Redford’s approach. Getting everybody here at the same time away from their desks and just getting to see them in an environment where we are all celebrating moviemaking is great. I can be very cynical, but I love this place.”

On Blending the Film Business with a Social Cause

“We are very closely associated with a great foundation called Posse that helps kids have a more successful chance to get through college by sending them in a group. They train kids to work together. This really increases their ability to succeed in college. The rate of graduation is tremendous. They are training a whole new group of leaders in the United States. It’s entirely ethnically diverse. They are just looking for the best talent they can find in communities all over the country. They’ll be the new generation of leaders, I believe, who will lead the way in making sure that we have a strong infrastructure to counter the elements taking over the government now. I’m on the Posse L.A. advisory board and I’m trying to introduce it to as many people in the entertainment community as possible, because it’s the most community-oriented industry that exists. We are trying to get people who are leading the way in the progressive side of politics in L.A. to support this grassroots organization.”

On James Ponsoldt’s The Circle

“We just got on board on a project called The Circle, which is based on a Dave Eggers novel, and it’s written and directed by James Ponsoldt, who did The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour. He is one of the great young filmmakers as well. We have the opportunity to come in and help them get the most out of this whole process and make sure is the biggest success it can be. EuropaCorp bought the project and they were going to distribute through Relativity, but because of Relativity’s situation the project is going to STX. It’s a story that’s incredibly relevant to the time.” MM

Landline still photographed by Chris Teague.

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