Life After Film School: Kristin Koehlmeyer ’21
In this series, we catch up with Columbia filmmakers who have recently graduated to chat about their time in the Film Program, what they’re doing now, and their goals for the future. This week, we spoke with alumna Kristin Kohlmeyer ’21.
Kristin Kohlmeyer is a producer and writer/director based in New York City. She recently completed Columbia University’s Film MFA program in Creative Producing, where she produced and collaborated on several films—several of which have already received acclaim at film festivals.
Most recently, she has been working as a Development Producer on an upcoming six part series for Hulu with ABC News entitled The Age of Influence, which aims to “reveal the truth behind influencer culture through intimate, first-person accounts of some of the biggest social media stories of our time.” She is the Associate Producer of an upcoming three-part documentary series for Discovery+ with Talos Films about America’s “troubled teen” industry. Kohlmeyer got her start in documentary film as an archive researcher and production assistant on HBO’s Agents of Chaos.
Before her move to New York, she started a successful independent video company called Kohlmeyer Media where she produced and created wedding films, short documentaries, and brand content. Her goals in filmmaking are to engage social consciousness, impact communities, ignite passion and create change in the world at large. She plans to pursue this path as she further develops her career.
Since graduation, you’ve been working more and more in documentary development as a producer. What’s the latest project you’ve been working on?
Kristin Kohlmeyer [KK]: The last documentary I worked on, which will be coming out soon, is called Tough Love Inc. (working title). It’s a series about the “troubled teen industry,” which encompasses these camps or facilities that parents send their teens away to when they don’t really know what to do with them, or when they have behavioral issues. And these facilities exacerbate those issues and they don't really get the treatment they need there. The documentary is about how the roots of this industry come from a cult called Synanon.
How did you get involved with the project?
KK: When I came onto the project, they had already developed it to a certain point. They had identified individuals they were interested in interviewing, as well as which programs and facilities in the industry they wanted to research further. I acted as the Lead Researcher and was tasked with researching the origins of Synanon as well as trying to find and confirm interview subjects and potential storylines for the series. We did have a couple of interviewees fall through because, as you can imagine, these are people who have been extremely traumatized by these experiences. You have to be really sensitive to where they're at, and what they're ready to share, if at all.
I started as a researcher on the show, and after extending my contract a few times, I asked them for an Associate Producer credit. I was with the project from its very beginnings through the post production process.
That’s amazing! And you’re working as a Development Producer for another upcoming project from ABC News and Hulu called The Age of Influence (working title). Tell us more about that.
KK: I was able to start on this project as an Associate Producer. I’ve been part of the series since development, and I’m now working on post production for it. Because I want to work in development in the future, I was able to negotiate a Development Producer credit. The project is an anthology series that dives into the world of influencers and their followers. Because it’s an anthology series, we had to find a different subject for each episode, as well as additional subjects that can help tell the story, which included government employees, industry experts, and more.
What does a Development Producer do?
KK: Being a Development Producer can look like a lot of different things depending on what area you want to work in. There are technically staff jobs for production companies where you might be tasked with finding ideas or IP for documentaries. I was working for a documentary producer for a while during my last year at Columbia, and she would assign a book for me to read in order to determine if it had potential to be developed. It’s similar to how development works in narrative, where you might read a novel to assess if it’s something the production company wants to pursue. A lot of development is finding the ideas and assessing their value.
It can also look like taking an idea and fully fleshing it out to whatever it is you want it to be—whether it is a feature film or a series. With Tough Love Inc., the team had found the subjects, and while things might change and these individuals might not necessarily be the actual people that appear in the documentary, it’s valuable to have them attached to your project when preparing to pitch. From there, you make a pitch deck, you make a sizzle reel, with the goal being to create enough of a concept that you could sell a show to a network. When you can walk into a pitch and say “I have these specific people on board, and we have exclusivity with them,” you’re saying, no one can tell this story but us. Or you might be approaching the story or subject matter from an angle no one has before. When you’re creating those early materials you use to pitch to networks, you’re focusing on bringing out what makes this story special.
As Development Producer on The Age of Influence, I developed one storyline from idea to its full conception. That means confirming who the piece features, what their story is, how we’ll present it, and how it ties into the greater narrative of the show. Because the project is an anthology series, we had to find and develop every single storyline for each individual episode. What I would love to do is work on an entire slate of development projects, pitch to networks, and find and develop different ideas.
What have you enjoyed most since working in documentary producing?
KK: Doing this work, I realized that I have a really strong skill set when it comes to relating to people and allowing them to open up and share their story. There was someone on an episode I worked on whose story hadn’t been told for decades. The first time they were going to share their story wasn’t with any journalist who had come before, but with me. He trusted me. I feel a real strength of mine is gaining people's trust and letting them know we're going to take care of their story and do it justice.
I also deeply enjoy finding stories I think are exciting. Being a producer can be very practical and logistical work, but I find development to be more creative. It’s finding an interesting story and then building out how you’re going to tell that story. And telling the story from a perspective that does the individual justice.
That kind of thoughtfulness is so important to have in this field, especially in regards to responsibility and storytelling.
KK: Documentary can sometimes veer into the realm of reality TV, which is obviously an ethically slippery slope. That is why finding a story and telling it the way I think it deserves to be told is what I'm passionate about. Ethical challenges do arise when you’re working in documentary. I’ve faced situations where I had to weigh the balance of not compromising my own morals for the sake of a project, because you never want to push subjects beyond their boundaries. The people whose stories we're telling are people who have often been through a lot and are sensitive to what they have to speak about. When you're speaking to someone, you have the opportunity to either respect them or treat them like a reality TV subject. You have to recognize and honor their humanity.
What other challenges have you faced working in the industry?
KK: On one project, I was hired as an Associate Producer, but then they were asking me to do a lot of assistant-level work, which was fine; but I couldn’t do both jobs at the same time. They really needed to hire a second person. When I tried to advocate for myself, they were not receptive and tried to make it seem like I thought I was above doing the work they were asking me to do. I immediately got out of that project. It was an instance where I knew that the situation wasn't going to improve, and I knew I needed to advocate for myself.
Unfortunately, in this industry, if you allow yourself to be taken advantage of, people will do it. That experience was an example of someone treating me like an assistant because that's how they viewed me—as opposed to my current show, where I've been promoted to a Producer because they see the value that I bring. That’s a really important thing to recognize and to stick up for yourself about.
How did you end up working in the documentary field after school?
KK: When I came into the program I wasn't exactly certain I was going to pursue documentary. I was trying to stay open. When I took the documentary producing class with [Adjunct Assistant Professor] Blair Foster, it really sparked a passion inside of me. Blair mostly produces for Jigsaw Productions, and she took me under her wing. We worked on a short film together that she supervised and executive produced, and it did a lot in terms of helping me understand the documentary field and the niche I wanted to be in.
[Associate Professor and Film Program Chair] Jack Lechner was the person who brought Blair into my life, but he is also the person who got me my first job in documentary. The last year of the Creative Producing program really is a kind of practicum year. I was doing an internship and getting to the point where I really wanted to just start working. I had completed all my coursework. I had the time. So I started taking a lot of informational interviews through connections that Jack helped me make. He would connect me with people from his own professional network, and if it was someone who had anything to do with documentary, I took a meeting with them. Setting up general meetings like that to extend your network is something I found so helpful and I really recommend everyone do it. I took twenty or more meetings and didn’t expect anything to come from any particular conversation. I was trying to learn more and make connections.
One of those people I met with was Julian Hobbs, one of the principal executives of Talos Films, a production company. We had a really great conversation and he answered a lot of questions I had, and he told me to send him some of my work. After a while, while I was working as a Post Production Supervisor for Michael Kors, I got a call from Julian. He had a job opening for a researcher on a documentary series at Talos. So I quit the job at Michael Kors and started working at Talos, and am still working with them today. That informational interview ended up being a very important meeting because it led me to where I am now—I have Jack to thank for all of it.
Do you have any other important mentors or important experiences from Columbia that connect to the work you’re doing now?
KK: [Professor of Professional Practice] Maureen Ryan was also my advisor, and she is an amazing documentary producer herself. She is the kind of person who will tell you where you have room for improvement, when other people won't, and I really value that. I got so much from our thesis class, and also from classes where she really taught us about what makes productions work practically.
The classes I took at Columbia taught me to trust what I have to bring to the table. Being a Creative Producer is an important distinction to make when you’re working in an industry where that’s not as common. It gives you a unique and strong skill set, and it empowers you to value your own opinions. I think it’s easy as a producer to be put in a box as “the numbers person” or “the budget person,” and collaborators might only think of your work in terms of managing the production’s practical needs. But because of my time and training at Columbia, I've not been afraid to speak up and share my opinion. On the current show I’m working on, I went from being a researcher, which is like the lowest position in documentary, to finding half the subjects for the series. That's definitely something that I got out of my coursework and can attribute to my mentors at Columbia.
What advice would you give young filmmakers considering an MFA program?
KK: It’s really daunting to choose what direction you want to take in your career. Frankly, I would never have the opportunities that I have now had I not gone to graduate school. Making those connections with potential mentors was imperative, for example. I knew that I had what it takes to do the work I wanted to do in the world, but, before graduate school, I didn't have the tools to do it. Columbia really gave me those tools as well as the time and space to figure out what I wanted to do within this industry.