The Sundance Kid’s Hot Streak
For Shivani Rawat, filmmaking is nourishment. That might sound like a saccharine Hollywood-ism, something a wet-behind-the-ears financier would spout, but she means it literally. “We have a rule: Feed people all the time,” says the founder and chief executive officer of ShivHans Pictures, a three-year-old bicoastal production and finance company. “People always say they gain weight on my sets. I say, ‘It’s good for you. Eat.’ ”
Keeping gaffers and second-unit directors fed typically ranks low on the job description of Hollywood “it” producer. At 31, Rawat has a serious claim to the title, riding an improbable early-career hot streak and quickly cementing the “golden touch” status that others in her field spend decades chasing. Her first feature, Danny Collins (2015), a drama about an aging rocker, earned critical plaudits and a Golden Globe nomination for Al Pacino; her follow-up, Trumbo (also 2015), a biopic about Dalton Trumbo, the Spartacus screenwriter blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, resulted in an Oscar nod for star Bryan Cranston and a Golden Globe nomination for co-star Helen Mirren. Most recently, Captain Fantastic, the story of a survivalist raising his children in the Pacific Northwest, premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and later received a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes. It also earned its star, Viggo Mortensen, a Golden Globe bid (he lost to Casey Affleck), positioning him for a busy awards season. ShivHans’s fourth feature, The Polka King, a dramatic comedy starring Jack Black, premieres at Sundance later this month.
Rawat’s goals for ShivHans, which she runs with Monica Levinson, her president of production, are clear: to produce projects that don’t fit the typical Hollywood studio model; to self-finance medium-budget, character-driven films; and to support filmmakers’ visions throughout the process. “I want to represent the independent filmmaking world, the stories that couldn’t be told because the big studios weren’t interested,” she says. At this level, “you develop relationships with your producers and directors.”
Andrew Karpen, CEO of Bleecker Street, the New York-based distributor that released ShivHans’s first three films, counts relationship-building among Rawat’s greatest skills. “Shivani’s strength is picking projects and teams that can be successful,” he says. “Whether that’s Dan Fogelman directing Pacino, Jay Roach directing Cranston, Matt Ross and Viggo. It’s not her in a bubble—it’s her bringing together great groups.”
And then there’s the not inconsequential matter of getting great groups to operate efficiently without breaking the bank. ShivHans’s projects are, for the moment, budgeted at $20 million or less, primarily festival fare that will perform well in limited theatrical release (Trumbo earned almost $11 million at the box office, and Captain Fantastic earned $9.9 million, according to movie-data website the Numbers) and enjoy a second life through streaming services and home video. Rawat is proud of the bang she gets for her buck. “Sometimes I see other films and their budgets and think, I could have done that for less,” she says, laughing.
Her early success has earned her comparisons to another young female producer: Megan Ellison, the 30-year-old founder of Annapurna Pictures (and daughter of Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison), whose awards-bait credits include Zero Dark Thirty, Her, and American Hustle. Being crowned the indie Ellison is something that Rawat would rather avoid. “I have nothing but respect for her, but if I were a man, I wouldn’t be compared to anybody,” she says. Captain Fantastic’s Ross, who won an Un Certain Regard directing prize at Cannes for the film, understands the reluctance. “Everyone wants to define themselves,” he says. “But if that’s Shivani’s goal—to, like Megan, champion filmmakers who want to make personal films, ones that should be made—then she’s on her way.”
Rawat was hardly born into the Hollywood life. She grew up in Millington, N.J., until her parents sent her at age 9 to Welham Girls’ School, a boarding academy in Dehradun, India, to get a “more grounded upbringing,” she says. (Her father, Mahipal Rawat, makes his living as an investor.) It wasn’t the kind of place for aspiring moguls to learn the intricacies of the entertainment business. What Rawat did find was an appreciation for singing and drama—her first taste of the limelight was in a middle-school production of The Jungle Book—and access to Bollywood and Hollywood movies.
Almost a decade of dorm life soured Rawat on the notion of a traditional college experience. She moved to Manhattan instead to study at the New School and the New York Film Academy, where she bounced between the directors’ and writers’ programs before landing on the producing track. “That’s where my journey started,” she says.
Her parents didn’t see it that way, at least not at first. “When I told them I wanted to get into film,” Rawat says, “my father asked me one thing: ‘Are you sure?’ I told him I was, and he said, ‘Then do it. But tomorrow, if anything goes bad, don’t come back to me and say you want to do something else. If you believe in yourself, if you think this is what you want to do, then do it.’ ”
Although her family has no history in filmmaking, her father’s advice is similar to a quote from Walt Disney that Rawat displays on framed posters in her apartment and her New York office: “ ‘When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionable,’ ” she recites, adding, “If I had been haphazard or if I had been confused, I wouldn’t have come this far.” (The name ShivHans is a nod to Rawat’s Indian heritage and her close-knit family. It references Shiva, the Hindu god of art and creativity, and Hans, her late grandfather, whom she regards as a guardian angel. “Hans” is also the Hindi word for swan, and, appropriately, a large white bird adorns the ShivHans logo.)
Rawat wouldn’t have come this far without help. It came from the financial backing of her godfather, Manoj Bhargava, an Indian American entrepreneur and philanthropist who built a multibillion-dollar fortune from sales of his 5-Hour Energy drink. “He agreed to help me on the condition that I never include him in any business decisions,” she says. “I literally had to tell him to come to my first premiere. He said, ‘Do I have to?’ ”
The hands-off approach suited Rawat just fine. Hollywood is littered with rich people making mediocre movies, and she decided early on that ShivHans wouldn’t be a vanity project. Her reputation in the industry, like Ellison’s, had to be built more on the quality of her films than her connection to financiers. The night of the Danny Collins opening in New York City, Rawat recalls her father looking her in the eye and saying, “I think now we know you’re ready.”
Even as Rawat perfects her Hollywood game, Ross, the Captain Fantastic director, points out that she doesn’t play it when she doesn’t have to. “People use this ridiculous word ‘vision.’ A lot of the time, you’re required to articulate how you imagine the film will manifest based on the screenplay that you wrote,” he says of the typical industry song and dance. “But Shivani and I had a lovely meal and talked. I didn’t have to pitch it. As we say in the movie, actions speak louder than words, and her actions were always in support of me.”
The respect Rawat shows her filmmakers has been at least partly influenced by the resistance she’s encountered in the film world. “It’s such a man’s industry. There are few women producers and very few minorities. It wasn’t easy in the beginning,” she says. “I’d be the youngest person in the room. People would look at me like I was a kid. Some would even ask how old I was. And I’d say, ‘What does that have to do with the film I’m making?’ I could see it on their faces they weren’t taking me seriously. But then came the decision-making, and they realized I was the boss.”
Being the boss, even a budget-conscious one, means knowing when to splurge, as The Polka King husband-and-wife writer-director team Wallace Wolodarsky and Maya Forbes learned. The majority of their film, which is based on the true story of Polish immigrant Jan Lewan (Black), who launches a Ponzi scheme to fund his musical empire, was shot in Providence. The location was a suitable stand-in for the story’s Pennsylvania setting but left something to be desired when it came to scenes set in Italy. “We were scouting and scouting and thinking, What are we going to do? Should we just cut it?” Forbes says. “But it was an important sequence for us, so Shivani sent us to Rome. That was amazing.” (“Shivani also likes to feed people,” Wolodarsky says, unprompted. “The food was always really good.”)
The Polka King marks the first time Rawat will take a movie to a festival without a distribution deal in place, a situation she finds exciting and stressful. “A film is like your baby, and you’re looking for a good school to get into,” she says of the potential for a high-profile acquisition. Until the bidding wars begin, she’ll sustain herself with the occasional good omen—like the friend who recently texted her a picture of two men seated side-by-side on a plane, one watching Trumbo, the other Captain Fantastic—and busy herself with the next ShivHans production, an as-yet-untitled action thriller starring Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike.
Rawat will also avoid comparisons to her fellow producers—until she’s the exemplar. She says, “Ten years down the line, someone can say, ‘Oh my God, that filmmaker is the next Shivani Rawat.’ ”