Sybil Temtchine

In early 2009 I received an email from an actress in Hollywood who was looking for investors in a film she had written and was now looking to produce. I was intrigued. I had never put “film actress” together with “entrepreneur.” I replied and we began a correspondence around the ideas of authenticity, entrepreneurialism, and other themes of the book The Go-Giver. (At the time, Bob Burg and I were writing Go-Givers Sell More and we featured Sybil’s story briefly in that book’s pages.) When she described how she sat in a bookstore and made a list of 200 women authors, from Suze Orman to Marianne Williamson, whose writing touched on the topic of empowering women, and then used that list to “cold call” for possible investors, I knew this was a story that had to go into Networking Times.

Fast forward four years: Sybil’s film, Audrey (www.audreythemovie.com), is about to be released, and it’s time to share her story with you. “My whole life,” says Sybil, “I’ve wanted to make those who never felt they had any value feel like the amazing people they truly are. It’s what I hope to do with Audrey.”

Audrey chronicles about ninety minutes of a young woman’s life as she waits and waits (and WAITS) in a restaurant for Gene to arrive for their critical third date. As the clock ticks away and Gene fails to appear, Audrey’s insecurities and inner demons wreak comic havoc on her. Forced to face her deepest fears by circumstance (both real and hilariously unreal and surreal), Audrey eventually finds strengths and courage she never imagined she had.

Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good description of the last twenty years of Sybil Temtchine’s life. — J.D.M.

Let’s start at the beginning: Where did you grow up?
All over the place. I was born in New York City, but both my parents are French and we moved to France when I was very young. We also lived in Monte Carlo for a few years, and then moved back to New York. After my parents split up, I also lived in Key West, Florida, Mexico, Connecticut, northern California, and Paris.

Tell me about Rent-a-Kid—how old where you when you did that?
[laughs] Oh, my God, Rent-a-Kid! That was when my mother and I first moved to Florida. It was a difficult time; my parents had just split up, we didn’t have a lot of money and I felt I needed to help in any way I could.

You were already pretty independent at seven years old.
Actually, I think I was pretty independent by the time I was three, from what I’ve been told. I guess it’s just my nature.
So I started a business called Rent-a-Kid where people could hire me to do household chores they didn’t want to do or didn’t have time to do. I put up signs all over Key West listing my services, like mowing the lawn, or cleaning the dishes, and how much each one cost.

I also started a macramé company. By the time I turned eight, my macramé company actually took off. I had $80 worth of orders—which when you’re eight seems like $80 million. I actually had to shut the “company” down because it was too much pressure for my eight-year-old self. [laughs] I think I must be the only American entrepreneur who had to shut her business down because it was doing too well.

When did you first know you wanted to act?
Always. Even when I was very young, I wanted to follow in Meryl Streep’s footsteps. I knew Meryl Streep had gone to Yale Drama, so by the time I was ten I’d decided I had to do that, too. Some of my teachers said if I wanted to go to Yale I should go to a really great high school, so I eventually started interviewing at boarding schools on the East coast, and got a scholarship to Hotchkiss in Connecticut.

After my four years at Hotchkiss I was accepted into the acting program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in New York.
While I was living in New York, I started producing a film with my then-boyfriend.

That was your first foray into film producing?
Yes. My boyfriend wanted to direct his first movie, which had a great role for me in it, but he couldn’t get the project off the ground, so I said, “I’ll raise the money.”

Did you have any idea what that involved?
No idea, none at all. But it didn’t even feel like a choice. This was a way for me to have a great acting job and learn how to make it happen for myself, so it just had to happen. So we raised the money together—which is a really brief way of summing up three years of hell and high water we went through, unbelievable ups and downs. But we did it.

You’ve told me about how you tried to raise money on Wall Street. Can you briefly describe that scene?
I had what I thought was a great idea, and I was sure it would net us millions of dollars. We would go down to Wall Street for the day and stand on the corner of “Money and Money” outside the subway station, and offer everyone who walked by their name in the credits of our film for a dollar. I figured, “Who doesn’t want their name in the credits of a film?”

We stood there for hours and hours with our clipboard and got nothing. At the end of the day, a cab driver felt sorry for us and gave us a dollar.

Still, I look at this as the first “investment” I ever got, and it’s an amazing feeling, at any level, to have someone give money to you for something you believe in.

“So it’s only a dollar,” I said. “So what? It’s the beginning.” And it was.

What was that first film?
It’s now called Ten Benny. Originally it was called Nothing to Lose, but Disney bought that title from us because they had a project with same title, starring Tim Robbins and Martin Lawrence.

Ten Benny got into Sundance, which was amazing, and then it came out in a limited theatrical release, which brought me out to L.A. And I’ve been here in L.A. ever since, acting in movies and television.

And producing.
And producing again, even though I swore I would never in my life do that again.

Because it’s such a difficult process?
Oh, my God, yes. It’s grueling and scary to ask people for money. Ninety-nine percent of the emails I’ve sent asking for money or support or help in whatever way, I’m sweating and my heart is pounding and I’m thinking, “Oh my God, these people don’t even know me, they’re going to think I’m nuts.”

For me, though, what’s even more grueling is being an actress waiting and hoping the phone will ring without taking action to create work for myself.

Sybil_1
On the set with director Dean Pollack.
Sybil_2
Blocking a scene at the beach with costar Jonathan Chase.

Audrey has its roots in your 2003 short film Piece a’ Cake. How did that come about?
I wrote Piece a’ Cake years before I made it. When I was living in New York, I would sit in delis and coffee shops where they have these huge dessert cases with the biggest cakes you’ve ever seen. I was in my early twenties and going through the struggles you go through as a woman, telling myself, “I can’t have dessert, I have to keep my calories down.”

So I wrote a little film about those struggles; it was eleven pages, I think. [The film’s entire eleven minutes take place in a restaurant where Sybil’s character struggles with the decision whether or not to order a piece of cake: see www.audreythemovie.com.—Ed.]

Years later, in Los Angeles, I had been doing a lot of dramatic work in film and television, and I wanted a chance to do some comedy. Sometimes casting directors see you in a particular way, and I wasn’t being seen as a comedic actress. I had my little script, so I thought, “Okay, I’ll just make a comedy myself and show them I can do it.”

My great-grandparents had left me some jewelry they thought was junk but turned out to be worth something—not millions of dollars, but it wasn’t junk. To finance the short, I went to the jewelry district in downtown L.A. and started selling pieces of this jewelry, one by one.

I named my great-grandparents as executive producers on that film.

After we made Piece a’ Cake, the director, Dean Pollack, and I started getting a little bit of attention. Dean was a great friend I’d worked with before and who also co-wrote, directed, and produced Audrey with me.  CAA [Creative Artists Agency, one of the major L.A. talent agencies] liked the film, and for a brief time we were in talks about developing a series based on this character. But the timing wasn’t right.

A big executive producer and television showrunner sat down with us and told us we should develop our short into a feature film. “You love film,” he said, “and you’re not totally versed in TV yet. I really think you should write the feature, because this is who you are. You can write the series after.”

So, over the next few years, we wrote the script. We finished it in 2006 and sent it around to a few big people in the business to make sure we weren’t crazy. We liked it, but would anyone else like it?

And they did?
They did. People absolutely loved it.

Were you tempted to shop it around and see what you could get for it?
It was never really an option. We had written it for Dean to direct and for me to act in, and we knew that if we sold it, we might get a lot of money—but a big company would want to take it to established stars, and we wouldn’t get to be a part of it.

So we decided to raise the money and do it ourselves.

About a year later, after it had started to circulate in L.A., we were brought in to meet with some people at a big company who were really interested in potentially purchasing the script. We had gotten some great coverage—that’s the term for when an agency reads your script and writes remarks on it, and once someone gives a script coverage it stays in the system, so everyone else in the industry can see it.

So people did become interested in it—but for us, selling it was never an option. We had labored over this for years, and we were determined to make it ourselves.

Assembling the budget for a feature film, even a modest independent film, is like starting a corporation—you have to raise an enormous amount of cash capital to put the thing together.
Oh, yeah. It’s huge. It’s so much work that it’s hard to describe. I imagine it’s like asking a parent, “What’s it like raising kids, is it hard?” And the parent is thinking, Is it hard?! You have no idea! How do I even put it into words? It’s all worth it—but so much work!

Producing is like that, for me. But I said, “Okay, let’s just do it. I have no idea how, but it’s going to get done.”

What made you think that was even possible?
I’ve always been that way. Maybe it’s because I’m blissfully ignorant. But I believe in miracles. I’ve seen them all the time, in my life and in other people’s lives. They happen.

How did you start?
When you’re making an independent film, the first thing you do is go to your family and friends.

Actually, the first thing is you get your whole package ready to show that you’re serious and you know what you’re doing—business plan, market analysis, supporting documents, everything. We also had our short film and could say, “Look what we can do, for very little money, in one day of shooting.” Assembling that package took us months.

Then you go to your family and friends.

Fortunately for us, just through family and friends we were able to raise about a fifth of the film’s budget.

Then it was, “Okay—now what?”

Audrey was a female-driven comedy about believing in yourself as a woman. So why not approach highly successful women who knew the value of believing in yourself?

I didn’t know any super-wealthy women. So I went to the closest bookstore and browsed through all the books I could find that had been written by successful businesswomen, and started making a list.

Then I did Google searches for as many women as I could find—“powerful women,” “wealthy women,” “wonderful women,” “excellent women,” “philanthropic women,”...

By this time I had a long list. It took me several weeks to find all their email addresses, which was difficult until I realized that a lot of these women were also teachers and I could probably find their @edu addresses.

Were you nervous about “cold emailing” all these famous and successful women?
I will say that everybody laughed at me and told me this was a dumb idea. “What are you doing?” they would say. “That’s ridiculous! You’ll never get any responses!”

And you went ahead anyway.
Of course. I wrote a very passionate email about what we were doing, along with a link to A Piece a’ Cake, and as we sent this out to all these women I remember thinking, “I hope these people don’t think I’m crazy.”

And they replied.
They sure did. Three out of four of them got back to me right away. It was a barrage of responses, most of them either with incredible emotional support or just simple heartfelt congratulatory messages, “Good for you. Great. Way to go! I know how it is!”
Then we got our first great investment from this wonderful woman, Janet Hanson.

I’m not really allowed to speak about all our investors—but in Janet’s case I am, because she’s made her involvement very public. She is head of an incredible organization called 85 Broads, which gets its name from the fact that Janet was the first female VP at Goldman Sachs, and Goldman Sachs is located at 85 Broad Street.

Janet is an amazing supporter of entrepreneurial woman around the world, and she wrote the kind of blog post about us that you’d think only a mother could write. She called the film “hilarious, sad, and totally and completely captivating” and said “there is definitely an Oscar in your future!”

Oh, yeah.
She also invested a sizable amount herself. She’s an angel. That’s why they call them angel investors: she truly is an angel.
Janet was our first big success, and then other people started responding, in some cases investing, in other cases offering other kinds of support, and that got the ball rolling.

Because that wasn’t the full budget yet.
Not at all. We still had to keep going. I kept emailing people constantly, nonstop, every day for years, following different trails. I would meet someone online and they’d say, “Come to this event, you’ll meet this great person,” and one person might eventually lead, through a series of twelve more people and two years of running around like crazy, to a person who might actually invest.
Sometimes it felt like I was in a comedy, where you find yourself doing things you never thought you would do—like, “Hey, you need to come out to my cattle ranch! Are you comfortable lassoing cattle?”

And I’m like, “Of course I’m comfortable lassoing cattle.”

Right—“You’re okay branding bulls, right?” “No problem!”
[laughs] Well, I never had to brand bulls, but yes, whatever it took to get into a conversation with someone who might lead me somewhere.

Were there people who said, “I’m in,” and then when push came to shove, you’d find out they really weren’t in after all?
Oh my God, all the time. I’d go through these extraordinary trials and tribulations with people saying they were ready to put money in—and then they would walk away, and we’d never hear from them again.

I’ll never forget one meeting we had where some potential investors who had promised us everything gave us the bad news that they weren’t investing after all. I was so distraught; I could not possibly put on a poker face. They looked at me and sort of weirdly said, “Sybil, what’s going on right now emotionally for you?”

I thought, What’s going on with me!?

I’m falling apart, that’s what’s going on!
I’d like to throw a pie in your face right now, is what’s going on! You promised me everything and you just took it away!

At one point a well-known self-help person told me how wonderful the film was and how much she wanted to be a part of it, and that I should come out to Palm Springs and meet her family. “I’m definitely going to be a part of this,” she said. I was so excited.

The next day I got an email from her that was meant for her assistant. It said (I’m paraphrasing here), “Hey, just so you know, I’m scamming this girl into thinking we’re going to invest in her film, but I really just want to get my daughter a part in it.”

No!
I couldn’t believe it. And this is a big self-help person.

I hate to say it, but it’s just the truth: not everybody walks the talk.
They don’t! And you go through all this—but then you meet the most amazing people.

We met people from all walks of life who have been so wonderful and who invested in the film. The most conservative of human beings, the most liberal, all kinds of people—and they all felt the project was meaningful, and that it was fun and light but also deep at the same time.

It’s also very human. I’ve read the script, and it’s a beautiful little slice of humanity.
Thank you so much. Then finally, after an extraordinarily long process, I met someone else who has become another angel in my life, Brian Altounian, the president and CEO of WOWIO. Brian never stopped believing in this project, and even though it took three years, he’s the one who eventually introduced me to my final big investor.

It’s a good thing, too, because at this point it was getting down to the wire. I felt so squeezed dry, so spent, that I didn’t know how I could keep going.

And just then Brian introduced us to that person who came up with the last big chunk of money we needed. And this person is not in the film industry at all, couldn’t have been more removed.

When was this?
End of 2009, going into 2010. We started production in 2010 and finished in 2011.

A lot of wonderful things happened along the way. The script got into a program at Film Independent, which is an organization that helps independent films, sort of like the Sundance Lab. The film got further developed and elevated through that process, and it also got the Panavision Grant, which meant that Panavision offered us a free camera because they liked the script.

Then the L.A. Times did a story on how the money was raised, which got us more attention.

Ruth Vitale, the former head of Paramount Classics and Fine Line, came on as an executive producer, and then Effie Brown, who produced Real Women Have Curves and In the Cut, came on as well. Ruth and Effie were the perfect people and exactly what I wanted and are amazing.

All these pieces came together to bring it to where it is now—but I’m glad I didn’t know how hard it was going to be before we started!

Isn’t it amazing how it looks perfect now, looking back on it, but when you were in the process it looked so utterly hopeless.
Oh, my gosh. All of it looks hopeless all the time.

In many ways, I’ve gone through the same kind of transformation that Audrey goes through in the film. I cried almost every day, and asked God, or whomever would listen, “Tell me what I’m doing, or tell me what I’m not doing. I’ll do whatever I have to do!”

But the answer never came. It wasn’t like it is in the movies, where you’re at your darkest hour and then this answer comes and you say, “Oh, there it is!”

I eventually realized that the answer was, Just don’t stop. You just don’t stop, and as you continue, hopefully you get lucky at the end of that road and someone comes to help you.

And it’s not like you suddenly feel incredibly confident at the end because you did it. Now I force myself to try and trust the process a little more. But I still think, “I hope I’m doing this right.” Although now I’m not crying every day [laughs].

You and I have talked about the whole business of authenticity. I think it was George Burns who said, “In Hollywood, sincerity is everything—if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” [Sybil laughs] How do you go through that whole process, from idea to script to getting your idea produced and actually distributed—and remain yourself in the process? Is that a challenge?
I’m an incredibly passionate person and wear my heart on my sleeve, so things affect me a lot. The ups are great, but the downs are bad. But through it all, I’ve definitely remained myself.

I think the challenge is to stay hopeful, because it’s like being in a funhouse where you’re getting punched all the time. You stand up, and then you get hit again. Then you stand up—and you get hit again.

The important thing is to stay hopeful and to come out of it having learned something and not gotten too destroyed in the process.
I remember very early on going to meet a group of women producers and thinking, “This is great! I’ll meet some women just like myself.” And when I walked into the room they didn’t seem like me at all, they all seemed war-torn, like they were not having any fun anymore. Now I understand why they looked like that! It wasn’t that they weren’t having any fun—it was just that they’d been through a lot to get to where they were.

It’s like anything in life that you really value. The more difficulty you encounter, the more you’re supposed to turn to your faith. But then your faith goes away, too. You lose everything along the way, including your faith in humanity ... but then you gain it back again. And then you lose it again, and then you meet great people and get it back.

I think the ultimate thing is that you learn what you’re made of. You learn that you’re capable of so much more than you thought. And then even more.