Arts Spotlight: Producer Jennifer Roth

Producer Jennifer Roth may be Seattle’s greatest hope for expanding the city into a hotbed of film
By: Brangien Davis | Posted April 22, 2011
Jennifer Roth means business—especially for local filmmakers

Aside from a framed poster for the movie The Wrestler, nothing about Jennifer Roth’s modest North Capitol Hill home hints that she’s a wildly successful movie producer. Nor does her appearance suggest Hollywood movie maven—at age 47, she allows her gray hair to be just that, and her shoes? Understated and sensible. At home on a rainy spring afternoon, with the radio tuned to KEXP and her husband running out to pick up their 10-year-old daughter, Grey, from school, Roth would seem to be just another Seattle mom.

Within these mild-mannered trappings, however, is a superheroine of the local film industry. “I always introduce Jennifer as the most powerful woman in film in Seattle,” says Lyall Bush, executive director of Northwest Film Forum, on whose board Roth has served for the last seven years. “But in truth I’m hard-pressed to think of a more powerful person in film in the city.”

As a producer, Roth explains her job succinctly: “I help other people realize their vision.” She likens her profession to a general contractor—the person who “is all over the place making sure the paperwork gets done.” Most of her work happens in preproduction, getting all of the film’s ducks in a row (ducks who themselves are in charge of sound, lighting, location, craft services, etc.) before anyone shouts “Action!” “If I do my job well,” she says, “I should mostly be sitting there during the shoot, troubleshooting when necessary.”

Word has it she does her job well. In addition to The Wrestler, her executive producer credits include World’s Greatest Dad, Black Swan and The Details (shot in Montlake and starring Tobey Maguire; due out in November). Not bad for a Minnesota-raised, self-proclaimed nerdy kid.

Her first film job was a bit of a fluke—she cold-sent her résumé to Ismail Merchant, of Merchant Ivory fame, and was hired as an assistant due in large part to her degree (Roth mastered in Near Eastern studies at NYU; Merchant is from Bombay). After surviving that dismal experience (apparently Merchant was unkind to underlings), she landed an assistant production coordinator job on the 1992 film Wind (starring Matthew Modine). She found both her calling and her husband on the set; in 1993 she married Mark Goodermote, who works in sound, and the two made Seattle their permanent home in 2000. 

The Wind gig led to production coordinator credits, including Smoke (1995) and Dead Man (1995), then coproducer positions (such as on 2005’s The Squid and the Whale), and eventually producer and executive producer roles. Such a skyrocketing trajectory usually reflects both immense talent and tenaciousness. Indeed, Bush characterizes Roth as fearless. “She is possessed of fierce intelligence, incisiveness…[and] when she needs to, the ability to flash some steel, too.”

Aware that her street cred can seem somewhat daunting, Roth says, “I like to use my evil powers for good.” She may be joking, but her commitment to up-and-comers in the industry is steadfast and serious. “I find it enormously rewarding to give back to the local community,” she says. This has translated to everything from assisting on local indie sets to teaching classes about production to having “a lot of coffee” with filmmaking wannabes—all voluntarily, and within a grueling travel schedule.

“I can say that for me, personally, she has always been a huge advocate and booster,” attests local filmmaker Lynn Shelton (Humpday). “She has provided me with access to all of her experience, as well as networking—in fact, the origins of my new film, Your Sister’s Sister, can be traced back to when she introduced me to [director] Darren Aronofsky at the Independent Spirit Awards in 2009.”

Roth’s generosity is one of the reasons she’s receiving the Mayor’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film on SIFF’s opening night (May 19). James Keblas, director of the Seattle Office of Film & Music, says she deserves the honor because, in addition to her work with local filmmakers, “She is a tireless resource for me in trying to bring projects to Seattle.”

Attracting more film productions to Seattle is high on Roth’s agenda. “She pushed to have The Details made in Seattle,” Bush says, “which means that money flows into the city and state; carpenters, electricians, caterers, breweries get income because of her.”

But this quest is often frustrated by the state’s inability to offer more financial incentives to film companies seeking shoot locations. (Currently, the state, via Washington Filmworks, offers funding assistance of up to 30 percent of qualified expenditures—low compared to other states and Canada.) “Not passing the state income tax means we can’t have a competitive incentive program,” Roth laments. “It was a huge blow.”

But that doesn’t mean she’s pessimistic. “We’re registering at the national level and breeding a nice film community here,” Roth says, pointing to recent wins such as the new indie film Treatment (by Seattleites Steven Schardt and Sean Nelson), screening at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival this year, and fellow local Megan Griffith’s success at Sundance with her film The Off Hours. If Roth has anything to do with it—and she will—that list of successes will continue to grow.