Startup CEO Talks Film Production—And His Role In Critically Acclaimed Documentary 'Finders Keepers'

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

Critically acclaimed “Finders Keepers” is the latest of films St. Louisan Walker Deibel—also president of a STL supply chain management company—has produced, and the plot couldn’t be more crazy: It follows the tribulations of a man whose amputated leg (no, not a typo) was discovered in a grill sold at auction in North Carolina—and the subsequent media frenzy that ensued.

Shortly before “Finders Keepers” debuted at Plaza Frontenac Cinema Friday night (currently on view now through Oct. 8), Deibel chatted with ALIVE about what exactly being an executive producer entails, why he chose STL over LA as his film-production base and the challenges of balancing a demanding career with passion projects.

Rosie Perez at director Maris Curran at TIFF last week

Deibel with actress Rosie Perez (L) and director Maris Curran (R) at Toronto International Film Festival | photo courtesy of Walker Deibel

On what exactly being an executive producer is:
The No. 1 question I get is “What is an exec producer?” It’s a three-part definition. You provide or get financing—you directly invest or bring investors to the table to get the movie funded. Two, you have creative influence over the project. Speaking for me, I’m a marginal player in the creative input. I enjoy it, but I kind of bank on the directors. The third part is the sale and marketing of the film itself, like negotiating with distributors. “Finders Keepers” wasn’t originally playing in St. Louis. I reached out to distributor and said, “I’ll do whatever it takes to get  the film here in St. Louis, because I think it’s fantastic.” There’s a 29-city theatrical release, which is huge for a documentary.

On how he got started in film:
I’ve always had an interest in film—the people that end up getting involved in film, they know from a single-digit age they’re going to be involved. I participated with the creation of a film in college and it was sold to Lionsgate. It was a very early resume-builder and spark—my roommate at KU ended up moving out to Hollywood and being Scott Rudin’s assistant working on the Paramount lot. [After college] I was driving down to Hollywood every weekend … figuring out what my role was going to be. What I found out hanging out on the lot was that I loved the culture and I loved the projects, but in Hollywood I couldn’t find any kind of correlation between hard work, skill and ability, time and dedication and financial wellbeing. You could survive but couldn’t necessarily make a career out of it. Since I was coming in from the outside … I had to wait for an external force to decide if my career was worth it. But in business, it’s what you can go out and get.

On waiting for the right opportunity:
They showed “Finder’s Keepers” to me, pitched it to me, and I originally passed on it … Then they came back with second cut, and I thought OK, I have so much faith in this team that I feel they can make something incredibly special. The story is completely insane, you can’t write this stuff—it’s completely outlandish. I really hesitated but I believed in the team.

Still from "Finder's Keepers" | courtesy of Brighton Agency

Still from “Finder’s Keepers” | courtesy of Brighton Agency

On finding his stride:
As I got involved with lots of films at the same time, I realized I didn’t want involvement to be exclusively financial—going on calls, making sure we were on budget. I really wanted to have more involvement with the films. [But] five films and two companies and whatever else is just too much. I think you’ll see me slow down a little bit on the film front.

On whether he’ll ever exclusively turn to film:
I don’t want to rule it out—all the films I’ve done are run through Diebel Films, my production company. I look at what I’m doing in film and right now I’m able to do it on the sidelines … I can do one film next year and be completely happy. [But] if what I’m doing with films doesn’t escalate, then ultimately I would let it fade out, so I need it to escalate.

On why STL wins out over Hollywood:
STL offers a lot …When it comes to raising a family, Wash U is my alma mater, so having the Olin Business School network, having a network here locally and being able to have an excellent place to raise a family. I have good friends in LA who have 5-year-olds entering kindergarten, and they have a $100,000 problem. You don’t have that here. I’m also a partner in Codesmith in LA, and I think my trips out there will be increasing in frequency.

On his next project:
One film in production now takes place in Omaha. Omaha is one of these places where you have both really condensed poverty and really wealthy neighborhoods. The murder rate is really high. It’s a documentary about identical twins—one is more optimistic than the other—and they’re trying to do everything they can to get out. [The] wealthier people [in Omaha] tried to provide these opportunities: “Let’s remove money obstacle completely and let’s pick 12 kids and really rocket them out of their environment.” One twin got in and the other didn’t … the kid is really really struggling between this red carpet opportunity and his family and everything he knows.

“Finder’s Keepers” is on view at Plaza Frontenac cinema until Oct. 8 and available on iTunes. 

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