BABE #262: SARI GAGNON - Producer, Counterfeit Cow Productions
Sari’s a producer and co-founder at Counterfeit Cow Productions, a multi-platform, independent production company founded in 2011 — smack dab in the middle of a recession. Since then, she’s both produced badass work and opened the door for others to do the same, all with sustainability in mind. Sari is passionate and determined to create projects with a social conscience; her first directorial project shined light on homelessness in her community and continues to help those impacted to this day. She also founded The Women Only Project, a space for women to learn from one another and be treated fairly for their work. Sari embodies the BWH mission, and we’re honored to share her motivating story today.
Hometown: Plainville, Connecticut
Current city: Orlando, Florida
Alma mater: Keene State College; Quinnipiac University; Full Sail University
Degree: B.A., Theatre, Dance and Film; M.S., Interactive Media Production; M.F.A., Creative Writing
Very first job: I had a part-time job in the mailroom of the Connecticut Clearinghouse
Hustle: Producer, Counterfeit Cow Productions (CCP Media)
Babe you admire and why?
I have always had a fascination with Hollywood origin stories, leading women mostly, and Mae West in particular. She earned a motion picture contract with Paramount Pictures in 1932, despite being close to age 40 (an unusually late age to begin a movie career, especially for women). She did not play an ingénue; instead she performed characters that were courageously free, sexually secure and liberated. In 1935 she became the highest paid performer in the world. Just think about that time period: it was the Great Depression and women were just breaking into the job world. West must have been a sight to behold.
How do you spend your free time?
If I'm not making a movie, I'm either writing one, reading one or watching one. Frankly, I'm a movie addict.
Favorite fictional female character?
The deliciously sinister Miss Havisham from “Great Expectations” has always intrigued me. Dickens wrote that Havisham had been left at the altar; as a result she suffers a breakdown and lives alone the rest of her life in her mansion, wearing her wedding dress, forever cloaked in her humiliation and growing increasingly bitter and deeply resentful. Havisham’s undoing is oozing in symbolism I’ve never forgotten.
Go-to coffee order and/or adult beverage?
Chai tea lattes, and keep ‘em coming.
Current power anthem?
“Do it anyway.” There's always an excuse not to do something. We shouldn't talk ourselves out of things so easily. If there’s something I want to do—really want to do—I weigh the cons, try not to take too long and then I tell myself to “do it anyway.”
What would you eat for your very last meal?
Pork fried rice.
What’s something you want to learn or master?
I'm gonna learn to bend a harmonica one of these days.
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Tom Petty. I am a shameless groupie, and still grieve over the senseless loss of a seriously great poet.
Tell us about your hustle.
I am a producer at, and cofounder of, Counterfeit Cow Productions, LLC (also known as CCP Media). My job is to take concepts from their beginning development stages and develop a strategy to turn the concept into tangible media prepared for distribution. For those who are interested in the business, please know that it’s a tough position. And if you're any good at the job or, in my case, extremely fortunate, you'll have several projects in various stages of production all going at once.
What does your typical workday look like?
I have never had a good answer for this, because each day requires a new hat, in that a producer takes a project from development/pre-production, through filming, into post-production and then distribution; to the best of our abilities, on time, without going over budget, magic wand not included. The job lacks repetition. Some days are full of office work, phone calls and emails, the next day could be on-location or on the set of a sound stage. (Or wearing headphones in a dark booth with the editor in the morning, but by night in heels trying to promote a project at an event.) It's the perfect job for someone who has mad organization skills and doesn't like staying in one place too long.
Tell us about Counterfeit Cow Productions.
Counterfeit Cow Productions (or CCP Media), is a multi-platform, independent production company, founded in 2011 with my partner Matt Heron-Duranti. The country was in a recession at the time and work was increasingly less accessible; fewer projects being produced, fewer jobs to apply for, less money in the bank. Artists need to create art, or we could wither into despair. I went to Matt, and we discussed building a company that would allow us to create our own work and keep our careers moving in a forward direction. We pooled our funds together, purchased a camera and a few lenses, and started out producing short commercial spots and affordable online videos for small business clients. This allowed us to hire friends who could perform, or edit, or lend music or graphic designs to our projects, and soon we were all working again. CCP’s roots formed very organically out of a need for our art community to work, and the need to connect the local business community to local artists. Because our sense of community is very strong at CCP, we feel a responsibility to create projects with a social conscience. We practice green filming to limit our carbon footprint. That includes mindful energy use, limiting waste, recycling and lowering transportation and water use. CCP is also an equal opportunity employer, and we feel the company thrives due to our diversity. CCP also donates time and resources to select local nonprofits in order to give back to the community that has been so good to us. We know that media is a powerful platform to inspire change, which is why all our projects are produced with our core company values in mind.
Tell us about “Homeless in a College Town.”
”Homeless in a College Town” was our company's first feature-length documentary, and my directorial debut. In 2013, nearly 29 percent of the Amherst, Mass. population had fallen beneath the poverty level due to the recession. Suddenly there were countless new faces panhandling at intersections of our sleepy little college town. I pushed for the documentary. It wasn’t a profitable project, but after I began talking with homeless individuals on the streets I was convinced there was more CCP could do to help this crisis. We began visiting with the local shelter and meeting with town officials in order to shed some light and let the community tell their story. It was very hard to remain objective and to not to get involved. Filming alone was not enough for us; we wanted to do more to physically help. So, we devised a plan to aid in raising the funds needed for more beds and a separate space for women in the local homeless shelter. We worked with a local artist to create a life-sized interactive art installation that could double as a piggy bank, and we donated the statue to the local shelter. It was placed in Kendrick Park in Amherst, and still collects funds for the shelter to this day.
What motivated you to start The Women Only Project?
Sadly, all women have stories of sexual discrimination in the workplace. I am no different. Filmmaking, (like most industries) is predominantly male. I had worked on sets where I was the only woman, or one of the only women there. Even as an owner of my own company (and a producer and founder), I still experience systemic sexist stereotypes. A prospective client might ask to speak to my boss, or the paper delivery guy might mistake me for a secretary. It happens, and saying “I’m the boss” doesn’t change much. I wanted something different for women in film. A new experience. “The Women Only Project” (The WOP) is an environment where women can learn from other women, be treated fairly for the work and not second-guess themselves as we often do amongst male coworkers. Each project is done, in its entirety, by women only. Women write the scripts, hold the cameras, perform the roles and edit the film. Women are marginalized, even in the greatest nation in the world. There are still hard things about being a woman. We still need a feminist movement, we need each other and I wanted to create a way for women to find each other. Personally, it has been one of the greatest thrills of my life to look around a film set and see the faces of so many women. To date, the WOP has over 100 members who have created six award-winning projects.
How have your past professional and academic experiences prepared you for the work you do today?
Art school did not prepare me for business. I learned how to create art, but not how to make a living at it. I had to learn that as I went, how to run a business, how to manage employees, how to budget. Whenever I felt I didn’t know enough, I bought a book, took a seminar, went for my master’s degree, etc. It’s important to me to succeed at this. It’s all I have ever wanted to do.
What are the personal standards you set for yourself as an artist?
When all is said and done, I have to live with every choice I make, and I don’t want to look back and think, “I should’ve tried harder” or “I could’ve done better.” Life is short, but regret is long. I place a lot of emphasis on getting things done well the first time, because there may be no going back.
How has being a woman affected your professional experience?
Being a woman has affected all my experiences, not just professionally. I am a woman. There is no escaping that, and that shouldn’t be considered to be apart from the human experience. I see the world through my eyes, a woman’s eyes, like 50 percent of the world’s population—but still my own. What I have seen has not always been fair, or just. Creating art that reflects the human experience would be incomplete without the woman’s perspective. Many are encouraged to “overcome” their womaness in order to succeed professionally in business, and I think that’s garbage. We have voices, our stories matter and we need to support that. The film industry is having a female awakening right now, and I for one am grateful. But there is still work to be done. My advice is to seek out other women and support each other’s work. Pick feminist male allies to collaborate with; they do exist. Most importantly, keep making art. When I felt there wasn’t a seat at the table for me, I built my own table, and I encourage the same.
Are there any female-specific challenges you face in your work? How about female-specific victories?
They might not sound like female-specific victories, but they are—because I am female and all of my victories are female-specific. Being a female artist is an act of rebellion in and of itself. I never felt rebellious, but maybe I am. I was the first in my family to go to college, and even then, there wasn’t much in my forecast. I was aware certain family members believed college would be a good way for me to find a nice young man to settle down with. When the expectations are so low it can be difficult to psych yourself up. I didn’t want the fact that I am a female to define my future. I graduated anyway, even though few expected it. Earned my master’s degree. Started a business. Earned a second master’s degree. All with challenges, each with victorious, whilst being female. You see, you can still be a woman without living up to what others or society expect of women. As a woman, being exactly who you are and exactly what you want to be is the single most-greatest female-specific victory there is in the world.
What’s the gender ratio like in your industry? Do you see it evolving?
Out of the top 100 films of 2016, only 4 percent were made by female directors. Thanks to movements such as the Women’s March, MeToo and Time’s Up, these numbers are shifting. Overall, women accounted for 16 percent of directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors and cinematographers in 2018. There is still growth to be made if there is to be equal representation in our industry, and that is going to take even more effort—but I do see it happening. Maybe not next year, but provided we don’t give up on it, we could see 50 percent in our lifetime.
Who are some women in your field that you look to for inspiration?
There are so many wonderful female filmmakers I look up to: Ava DuVernay, Greta Gerwig, Sofia Coppola, Penny Marshall, Jane Campion, Lisa Cholodenko, Debra Granik. The work accomplished by these women is opening doors for all women.
What does your approach to work-life balance look like?
Men are rarely asked how they balance their careers with their personal lives. It shouldn't be a social anomaly for women to also have careers that coexist with a home life. Balance is subjective, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit it's a grind. Some things get neglected—the car could use a wash and there's a light bulb in the dining room that's been out since Thanksgiving—but I don't put undue pressure on myself. Nobody's perfect.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Find your tribe. There is no limit to what you can accomplish when you have the right support system. Don't waste your time on a partner who doesn't dream your dreams with you. Pick honest friends who dig your brand of weird. Work with people you believe in. Avoid toxic people as much as possible. It's easier said than done but necessary to grow creatively.
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