John Machacek, Chief Innovation Officer for the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation has worked with countless startups throughout our community over the years. He knows their ups and their downs, but most of all, he knows the questions to ask them. Here are John Machacek’s 10 questions for Jessamine Burgum, Founder/CEO of Pinky Promise.
01. Will you please tell us your Pinky Promise elevator pitch?
I founded Pinky Promise in 2020 as a way to pave a path for underdogs in the film industry. As an actress, I was disappointed by the lack of dynamic roles written for women and motivated to develop stories that elevate voices of those who are historically not represented. At Pinky Promise, we produce films with heart, creativity, and a bit of magic! Our team provides the experience, tools, and financing to make a storyteller’s vision come to life.
02. The idea to interview you came after I sat by your brother at a luncheon. He was correlating how you run and fund Pinky Promise is similar to how venture capital funds will raise money to invest in a variety of startups, and not just one startup, as it balances the risk and diversifies the portfolio. So in your case, you raise the funds to invest in a portfolio of film projects, aka the “startups,” because like startups, no one can predict what will be successful. Do you agree with that correlation?
Yes, that was the plan all along! Pinky Promise is what happens when an actress grows up in a house of entrepreneurs and investors. We are a production company with a VC-style film fund. The way we see it, each film is a startup and each director is the CEO.
Our investors believe in our creative vision and our financial model. Rather than giving money for a specific movie, they invest in the fund. Pinky Promise has a disciplined selection process that allows us to find, nurture, and launch new storytellers, and our LP’s trust us to do just that. They are excited to invest in a company that gives them a strong return, champions first-time filmmakers, and prioritizes stories you don’t often see on screen.
By divvying up one large fund across multiple projects, we mitigate risk. Also, this model allows us to take on diverse projects. If one film is shaping up to be highly commercial, that allows us to devote other resources to projects that some view as higher risk. In truth, those “riskier” projects can surprise you and yield unexpected returns.
03. What has surprised you about running a production company that you had not anticipated?
Hmmm, so much surprises me, but that’s true of many startups. Lots of surprises! We’re a young company. We’ve been around for about 2.5 years and we know we have a lot to learn. In fact, this is one of core principles: “Admit We Don’t Know, Then Find Out.” Humility and curiosity are incredibly important to our team. We are lifelong learners who bring others along for the ride by being interested, not interesting. This core belief has led us to meet some pretty exceptional, like-minded people in the industry.
I also did not anticipate how much being kind helps in business. We are concerned not only with what movies we are making but also HOW we are making them. We’re a people-centric operation. In fact, Pinky Promise has won some deals because the partner liked the experience of doing business with us. We’re getting noticed for how well we treat people.
On that note, I want to acknowledge that right now, new development is on pause because of the Hollywood writer’s strike. Part of caring about creatives is standing with the writers in their pursuit of a fair deal. We’re dedicated to supporting the creatives we work with in all aspects of the industry.
What is Pinky Promise?
Pinky Promise is a production company with a Venture Capital-style film fund founded by Fargo native Jesse Burgum.
04. In your business, there must be a million moving parts to produce each project, including collaborating with other production and service companies, agents, actors, and whatnot. How have you gone about keeping yourself organized and creating partnerships to get all of this done effectively?
Easy! Hire people better than you, smarter than you, and more organized than you. Don’t be afraid to be the dumbest person in the room. I have such an incredible team—and they’re all women, too, which is rare but hopefully becoming more common. We found employee #1 via ZipRecruiter. She started as an assistant and is now our fantastic VP of Creative Development. I always encourage my team to speak up about their goals and interests, because internal growth is a huge pillar of Pinky Promise.
As a team, we rely heavily on Google Calendar, with two team members managing almost all of the scheduling. My company was basically built from sitting in bed with my laptop during COVID, and it was designed to be virtual from the start. This also allows team members to live where they want and keeps overhead costs low. I’m primarily based between Fargo and LA, and wherever shooting takes me. Right now, about half of my team is in the LA area and the other half is in New York. We have weekly team meetings to touch base, and, of course, a company group chat called the Pink Ladies.
05. I ran into you at SXSW in Austin, where you were involved with three films being shown there— congrats by the way. How important are festivals like this on the business side of getting films marketed or picked up for distribution?
Thank you! We were so proud.
It’s been exciting to see audiences, and the industry as a whole, getting to know Pinky Promise through our work. We are unique in that we have five films right now and they’ve all premiered at top festivals. So we’re five for five! Also, we are one of only four companies to have back-to-back films at Sundance. We’re keeping good company with the top players in this space, A24 and Neon.
Festivals are highly competitive and a huge part of the independent film pipeline. Because indie films lack the financing and marketing assistance of studios, festivals provide an opportunity to drum up buzz and support. Depending on the festival, it may also be a great sales market. Typically, representatives from big streamers, studios, and distributors will attend screenings and reach out to begin negotiations if they think a project could be a welcome addition to their slate.
If you want to get into the weeds—and this a really broad explanation—if you don’t sell a film directly out of a festival, there are several other strategies to bring films to market. In a “negative pickup” deal model, distributors may agree to buy a film before it is entirely completed. Other times, a film can sell earlier if a star is attached to it. We’ve been very lucky, “The Starling Girl” sold to the theatrical distributor Bleecker Street this past January, and “Honk for Jesus” sold to Focus Features and Monkey Paw the year prior.
06. Speaking of the Sundance Film Festival, how was the experience of being invited and participating in the festival?
I was so honored and excited. This was the second time we had a film at Sundance, but the first time I was able to attend in person due to COVID. There were almost 16,000 submissions this year, with 100 getting selected. Of those, 12 were selected in the Dramatic Competition Category, which included Pinky Promise’s film, “The Starling Girl.”
It was so special to be competing in this category. “The Starling Girl” writer/ director Laurel Parmet put so much of herself into this film, and I was delighted to support her throughout the festival both as a producer and as an actress. The film’s success also fulfilled a personal dream of mine: to act in a Sundance film.
My heart has yet to feel as full as it did sitting at the premiere beside my family, the Pinky Promise team, and the film’s cast and crew—everyone erupting into cheers when the Pinky Promise logo came up on the big screen. A true “pinch me” moment that I will not soon forget.
07. That’s so cool. It must have been a surreal moment. You mentioned you acted in that film, too. I’m aware that you studied acting at the University of Minnesota Guthrie program as well as the Shakespeare Globe in London. Looking back, how did this education and the experiences prepare you for your work, not just on the stage and screen but off as well?
Oh gosh, so vital. The Guthrie program is world-class with incredible and passionate faculty, and a cool part of the program is you get to participate in the Shakespeare Globe program for a semester.
So many people can offer acting advice! For me, what matters is that you don’t do it unless you really love it, work hard, and be kind to people.
My training at The Guthrie program really informs my producing work now. It prepared me to break down scripts and characters, understand story structure, and so much more. These are kills I use regularly at Pinky Promise.
Pinky Promise Films Out Now!
The Starling Girl
“17-year-old Jem Starling struggles with her place within her Christian fundamentalist community. But everything changes when her magnetic youth pastor Owen returns to their church.”
“A year after her boyfriend dies from gun violence, a young woman prepares to graduate high school as she navigates an uncertain future alongside a community that is searching for ways to heal.”
Honk For Jesus, Save Your Soul
“In the aftermath of a huge scandal, Trinitie Childs, the first lady of a prominent Southern Baptist Mega Church, attempts to help her pastor-husband, Lee-Curtis Childs, rebuild their congregation.”
If You Were The Last
“Adrift in their broken-down space shuttle with little hope of rescue, two astronauts argue over whether they’re better off spending their remaining days as friends or something more.”
Art For Everybody
“After Thomas Kinkade’s passing, his daughters uncovered a trove of unseen, dark paintings, launching a search for the true man behind the brand. It uncovers the real Thomas Kinkade.”
08. If you could go back in time to Jessamine from several years ago, what hindsight advice would you give yourself?
I would tell myself to focus on the things I can control, like working hard and being kind. Also, I would encourage myself to begin before I feel ready. So often, things come together because you took the leap, not because the circumstances were perfect.
09. What are you excited about for you and Pinky Promise for the next year and the future?
I am so proud of all the positive attention “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” has received. We got to celebrate it at the Independent Spirit Awards this past March, cheering on our director Adamma Ebo who got a “Someone to Watch” nomination. And our lead actress Regina Hall was nominated for Best Lead Performance. You can stream it on Peacock now.
“The Graduates” just premiered at Tribeca, and provides a beautifully authentic depiction of a school community coming together and processing their shared grief following a tragic event. Pinky’s romantic comedy about two astronauts stuck in space, “If You Were the Last”, debuted at SXSW to favorable reviews. Our first documentary, “Art for Everybody,” traces the legacy of Thomas Kinkade, the most collected painter of all time, as his entire image is upended following the discovery of a vault containing never-before-seen paintings.
Earlier this year, we finished shooting a dark comedy in Rome called “I Don’t Understand You,” starring Nick Kroll and Andrew Reynolds. It’s shaping up to be quite the romp! We have a lot of diverse projects in our slate thus far that I’m thrilled for people to see.
10. Lastly, what can we do as a community to help Pinky Promise succeed?
Watch Pinky Promise’s films inperson and online! Two of our films are available to watch now. “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul” were released theatrically and on Peacock in September 2022. It is also now streaming on Amazon. Our most recent release, “The Starling Girl,” is currently playing in select theaters.
In general, it’s great to support and pay for independent cinema, even if it’s not a Pinky project. Definitely follow us on Instagram @pinkypromisefilms and online at pinkypromisefilms.com for festival updates, release dates, and news on upcoming projects!
John Machacek has been helping local startups with the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation since prior to his position with the GFMEDC. Before joining the team, Machacek was the VP of Finance & Operations at United Way of Cass-Clay and a business banker at U.S. Bank.