"I’m not the kind of producer who is a big deal at studios and gets big deals made,” says Stephanie Allain. "I’m dedicated to producing movies with diversity both in front of and behind the camera, and by necessity those movies have lower budgets.” She grins, "But there’s an audience, and as long as there’s an audience, I guess I get to keep making them.”
For 25 years, Allain has been the guiding force behind some of the freshest and most vital talent to emerge in Hollywood, shepherding John Singleton and Robert Rodriguez to success and bringing such diverse hits as last year’s Dear White People and Beyond the Lights to screens. "It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s been an incredible ride and I really feel proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish,” she says.
Allain was born in New Orleans but grew up in Los Angeles. From an early age she was drawn to the arts, studying creative writing and dance.
"I didn’t know how movies were made, I didn’t know what a producer did, but I‘ve always loved stories. I was a voracious reader as a kid,” she recalls. "There were two books in particular in the ‘70s that I read that got made into movies. One was The Godfather, and the other was The Exorcist—and the correlation between the page and the screen in those was fascinating to me, seeing how someone else visualized what you had already imagined in your head.”
However, her career in the film industry was almost accidental. "What happened is, I got pregnant,” she laughs. "And the only thing I could do with a kid was read scripts and books and articles and write synopses. It was really easy for me, because it was critical analysis.”
After starting out at CAA, Allain found a job at 20th Century Fox as a story analyst, where she quickly began making the connections that would lead to her producing career. "Two weeks into my job at Fox, I met Amy Pascal, and she told me, ‘I love the way you write; you get it. I want you to be my personal reader.’ That was my training, just sitting in her office watching her work with writers and directors.”
After a few years at Fox, Allain moved over to Columbia Pictures, where she worked under Pascal and Dawn Steel and was promoted to creative executive. "My first task when I was promoted out of the story department was to replace myself, and the first interview I had was with John Singleton. He didn’t really want to talk about the job; he wanted to tell me about Boyz n the Hood.”
Singleton, then fresh out of USC film school, pitched the gritty story of a group of friends in South Central L.A. struggling against violence and crime. "I went to school in Inglewood. The reason I fell in love with that script was because I knew those kids.”
Allain pitched the movie to her bosses at Columbia; to make it, she was promoted to a production executive, despite her lack of experience. "I knew nothing,” she laughs. "It was ‘fake it till you make it’ for me, and that’s how I learned. It’s a process, learning how to make movies, and everybody comes to it differently.”
Ultimately Boyz n the Hood premiered at Cannes, received two Academy Award nominations and was a box-office hit. "It was a very low-budget movie with an all-black cast and made $65 million dollars. And it really launched my career,” Allain says. "John Singleton taught me how to be a producer for writer-directors, because he was so fierce in protecting his vision—and he was right. It really taught me the power of the auteur and how to protect that vision as a producer.”
After that success, Allain spent the next several years at Columbia, where she worked to develop and release films made by minority talent, such as Singleton’s Poetic Justice, Darnell Martin’s I Like It Like That and Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, which received widespread acclaim and a variety of awards.
"I was the go-to person for telling stories by people of color with studio support. I was the only black studio executive at Columbia, and I pretty much had carte blanche. I had my own little mini-major, and that was an awesome training ground.”
At the same time, Allain’s greater experience level found her interested in trying on other hats. "Even though I worked at the studio, the studio always perceived me as being in the camp of the artist, supporting them, and I ultimately realized that I didn’t want to be at the studio. I wanted to be in the filmmaker camp.”
Allain left Columbia and after a brief stint at the Jim Henson Company, she found herself at a crossroads. "It was a disaster for me. I thought I was going to be producing, but actually I became a manager. I was even further away from the process of working with writers and scripts. I produced four or five movies, and they were disasters. I literally got fired. I was single again. I had two kids. It was one of those moments where you reassess your life and decide what’s really important.”
It was after this trying period that Allain encountered another script she felt passionately about. "I read the script for Hustle & Flow, and it was like standing next to someone that you’re really into. My heart started beating fast, from the first line.”
Excited by the script, Allain knew it was a project she could bring to the screen. "Because it was up my alley, I loved Craig Brewer as a writer-director, it was a black cast, we put all these great people together … I loved the idea, upending the stereotypical image of a pimp. He wants to be elevated, and through art, he is.”
Allain made contact with Craig Brewer in Memphis and, partnering with John Singleton, decided to take the plunge with him—in spite of Brewer’s lack of directorial experience.
"If somebody writes something good, if the writing works, you know that intrinsically there’s an authenticity to them. Some writers are not really interested in directing, but most of them would love the opportunity to protect the vision, protect the writing and stay closer to the incarnation of what’s on the page.
Producer Stephaine Allain (right) on the set of Something New with director Sanaa Hamri. Allain (right) on the set of Peeples with writer/director Tina Gordon Chism. Allain gets a warm greeting from Beyond the Lights cast member Danny Glover. On the set of Hustle & Flow, from left: writer/director Craig Brewer, producer Stephanie Allain, producer John Singleton.
So what I do is sit with them and talk with them, ask them how they see the movie, how they see casting, pick their brains and see if they have the answers. It’s not easy, stepping up to direct a movie. That means you’re the leader, everyone’s looking to you. It’s a very formidable task,” Allain says of her experiences with relatively inexperienced filmmakers.
Hustle & Flow premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award. It went on to receive two Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Original Song, and it launched the new phase of Allain’s career as a producer through her company, Homegrown Films.
Allain has since racked up an impressive portfolio, including the interracial romantic drama Something New directed by Sanaa Hamri, Craig Brewer’s follow-up to Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan, and Tim Story’s Hurricane Season, starring Forest Whitaker.
"My specialty is making movies that buck the stereotypes of people of color.
I like bringing those images to the world. That’s what I think is my sweet spot as
In addition, Allain’s mission to promote up-and-coming and minority talent has taken her to the board of Film Independent, the Los Angeles-based organization that runs the L.A. Film Festival and the Independent Spirit Awards. "I’ve been on the board for 20 years, and with Project Involve for 25 years. Every year we take 30 individuals and prepare them with mentors. For me, it’s a way to really nurture new talent, because they are the future of our industry.”
That spirit animates much of her work within the independent community, as director of the Los Angeles Film Festival—2015 marks her fourth year on the job—to her participation as a speaker in this summer’s Produced By Conference.
Allain delivered a double whammy in 2014. She signed on to produce Beyond the Lights, from director Gina Prince-Bythewood, about a wildly successful pop singer who is assisted out of a personal crisis by an attractive police officer.
"It all came down to casting,” Allain recalls. "Everyone wanted to cast a singer in the main role. Gina found Gugu Mbatha-Raw and fell in love.”
The studio had its doubts about casting Mbatha-Raw, a relatively unknown British actress, in the lead role. "Nobody knew Gugu, but Gina was unwavering. So I convinced Gina to make an eight-minute short as a proof of concept—to show the studio—and that’s how the movie got made.”
Beyond the Lights was released to rave reviews for both its direction and Mbatha-Raw’s star-making performance. "It was a hard sell, because it’s a black romance, and you hardly ever see those,” Allain says. "But Gina really did a great job.”
Not long before production began on Beyond the Lights, Allain got involved with another project: Justin Simien’s satirical script about racial conflict on an Ivy League campus, Dear White People, which started as a mock trailer online.
"My daughter sent me this fake trailer for Dear White People, and I thought it was hilarious. My assistant sent me the script, and I said, ‘Oh my God … this is really smart and topical.’ I called Justin and it turned out he had been part of Project Involve—he was a Film Independent baby!”
Allain put together financing for Dear White People and shepherded its entry into the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize and became one of the standout indie films of 2014.
Through it all, Allain has maintained a strong vision of the kinds of films that she wants to make, with an emphasis on unique stories from fresh voices. In addition to the crowded slate of films she’s developing for film and television, Allain is also writing and hopes soon to direct as well. "There’s so much to do, always something new to do,” she grins again. "When I turned fifty, I realized I only have maybe another fifty left, so I better get on it.”
-Written By Jeffrey McMahon, Photographed by Kremer Johnson Photography