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Ilene Chaiken

Posted By Chris Green, Thursday, October 22, 2015

Forgive us: we went to Ilene Chaiken, showrunner of FOX’s music biz mega-hit series Empire (and before that, the creator and showrunner of Showtime’s groundbreaking The L Word) with the idea that she would unravel the mysteries of running a hit TV series … lay the whole thing out, step by step. Instead, we found a producer and writer whose unique career trajectory all but forced her to invent the job as she went along, one who’s still far more inclined to be asking questions than handing out answers.

"I have never worked with another showrunner,” she confesses. "It’s still a mystery to me, and I still find myself wondering, is there something they do that I don’t know about?”

Thanks to a lengthy industry apprenticeship that included jobs with (among others) CAA, Aaron Spelling, Quincy Jones, Alan Greisman and Armyan Bernstein, Chaiken found herself installed as the showrunner on her very first series, The L Word. Since then, she’s run every series she’s worked on …

the rare instance of a writer/producer starting out running the room, rather than working her way up through the staff ranks.

Sitting face-to-face with Chaiken, it’s easy to sense the reasons for networks’ confidence. Serious-minded and empathetic, sensitive to the necessity of getting not only the broader story arcs but the characters’ individually specific flourishes of language, costume and design exactly right, Chaiken’s facility for running a show starts with her commitment to listening closely to her colleagues, and guiding the storytelling enterprise from there.

We don’t often get to talk to people who learned TV at the feet of Aaron Spelling. working today, how often do you flash on something you learned from Aaron?

All the time. And especially working on Empire, which has gotten a rep as the Black Dynasty. My principal memories are of Aaron Spelling kind of lording over everything, of his unbelievably, unthinkably vast office, and his liveried butler, who came in every day at 5 p.m. with cut crystal goblets on a silver tray and poured him a tequila. But just as much, I remember listening to him spin story. Whatever you might think of Aaron Spelling or the product he created, it all came from him, came through him. His sensibility infused everything.

Maybe the most important thing I learned from him—and something that I didn’t appreciate fully until many years later—was how essential the editing process is in television. He was brilliant. I had never been in an editing room other than as a student in film school and I sat in there and watched him review cuts and saw how he remade the story in editing.

Ilene Chaiken (center) on the set of "The L Word" with cast member Jennifer Beals

What a cool thing to feel that Aaron’s creative DNA is a part of Empire. So how long did you spend with Aaron, developing shows?

Five years. And it was probably the five worst years of his entire television career. Not because of me [laughs] but because the moment when I went to work for Aaron was the dawn of the Steven Bochco era. Bochco’s approach was antithetical to Aaron Spelling and what he did. Aaron railed against it and didn’t understand it, and tried to slouch in that direction, but it wasn’t what he loved at all. We did a number of television shows that started out trying to be more in the new style, but always wound up being 100% Aaron Spelling. All of the new shows I developed for Aaron failed except one. And the one show that didn’t fail, nobody today recalls as an Aaron Spelling show. But I put Twin Peaks together.

Really? Wow, you’re right. I do not have Twin Peaks in my mental database under "Aaron Spelling shows.”

I think it’s probably just a production company title on the show; I don’t think that he took a producing credit. CAA definitely helped put the package together. But I pursued it avidly, almost desperately.

Chaiken chats with "The L Word" co-star Katherine Moennig

It must have been exciting to watch the Twin Peaks phenomenon play out.

It was. I was working really hard, and enjoying it, but also frustrated because I was an executive and not a creative.

So how did you ultimately get to the point where you made the great leap into the creative unknown?

I had one more big job after Spelling. I went on to Quincy Jones Entertainment and worked for Quincy for close to three years. Working as an executive for Quincy Jones was fabulous and exhilarating, and it was also my crash-and-burn executive job. I just hit that moment at which I said, "I want to be making my own things, and if I don’t do it now I’m never gonna do it.” During Christmas vacation of that year, I went with a bunch of friends to Telluride and while they all went out and skied, I locked myself in the house and wrote a script in 10 days. I came back and I gave the script to an agent at ICM that I had worked closely with and said, "I’m a writer. Now get me a job.” And lo and behold, within two or three weeks I had a job writing a movie.

What was it like to be on the other side of that divide, after years of being the development person?

It was more gratifying, because it was what I always thought that I was put on this earth to do. Also, I had a great, great advantage over other fledgling screenwriters because of all of my years as an executive. I really understood how the businesses worked, what notes were about and what the executives and producers I was working with were trying to elicit from me.

And so how did that lead back to television and to The L Word?

Although I spent a number of years just writing feature films, my first TV show was The L Word. Gary Levine, who is still EVP of original programming at Showtime, was my executive. I had worked with Gary on a number of projects when I was at Spelling and he was at ABC. And when they ordered The L Word, Gary looked at me and said, "You know how to do this. You can run the show.” I’d never even written on staff before, and Gary made me a showrunner because he had worked with me as an executive.

Chaiken discusses an upcoming shot with actress Mia Kirshner on the "L Word" set

Wow. I didn’t realize that you just stepped into that role, cold.

My television showrunning apprenticeship is atypical. Most television showrunners come up through the ranks, starting as staff writers, working for years and years on other television shows, learning from other showrunners. My apprenticeship was my years as an executive, and then I was a showrunner. I’ve never been anything other than the showrunner on every show I’ve done.

Not a lot of people can say that.

That’s true. I have never worked with another showrunner. It’s still a mystery to me, and I still find myself wondering, is there something I don’t know that they do? I’ve mostly learned from the people I’ve staffed on shows that I’m running. I’m pretty open about it. I say, "Talk to me about how other showrunners have done this and tell me if there’s something I’m not doing that you think might be valuable in this process.”

So in terms of the collaboration that made The L Word what it was, who helped keep you on track as a rookie showrunner?

Gary told me, "We’ll get you a senior-level person who’s worked on other shows, who gets your sensibility. You’ll get to choose her. But she’ll be the person who shows you how it’s done.” I met a handful of people—I’d never even done the whole staffing rigmarole before—and chose Ellie Herman. She really taught me the ropes, sat with me and talked me through what’s involved in breaking 13 episodes of television.

The L Word also had the burden of expectations on it, as the first show to spotlight the lesbian community. I mean, it kind of declares its intentions right in the title.

Looking back on it, it was the right moment in time, though when we started, that moment hadn’t quite arrived yet. The great thing about Showtime was, and still is, I think, that they’re willing to go out on those limbs, independent of looking at the numbers. Jerry Offsay was running Showtime at the time, and I remember him saying, "You won’t get any stars.” They had just done Queer as Folk, and they couldn’t get any name actors to do it. And I kind of sensed that in terms of our show, he was wrong. Because women are different from men. Actresses are different from actors. The public perception of male sexuality is different from the perception of female sexuality. That continues to be true to some extent. But Jerry said, "We’re not making it casting-contingent. Just cast the best actresses. Because you won’t get any stars.” And lo and behold, leading the cast is Jennifer Beals. So that was the first thing that suggested The L Word was a little different. The show continued to kind of defy the conventional wisdom in that way. We did the series for six years. It was all I did. Even though it was initially 13 and ultimately 12 episodes a year, I spent my whole year working on it, promoting it, preparing for the next season. I did one or two projects in between, but I didn’t really have much time. What I had been wanting to do was a women-in-prison show. Tonally it was quite different from Orange Is the New Black. I likened it more to Oz, although it wasn’t quite that dark. I directed the pilot. And then that year, Showtime didn’t buy any new shows. I remember that vividly because it was 2009. What have we all decided to call it, "the financial crisis”? Everybody was cutting back. Showtime made five pilots and didn’t program a single show. So I started developing and I figured that I would see what it was like working in broadcast television.

Chaiken (right) joins cast members Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard for a Q&A session
at Carnegie Hall about hit series Empire

So Having been in the middle of The L Word, what’s it like to step in as the showrunner of a show that you haven’t created, like Empire? you’re basically becoming the captain of somebody else’s ship.

The very first job that I did like that was coming on as the showrunner for a pilot for Warners and the CW. It was written by Amy Holden Jones. We remained friends, and some years later, another script that she had written got picked up in an unusual deal at ABC. She asked me to come and work with her as her showrunner, so we did Black Box for a year, 12 episodes. That was the first show that I ran that I didn’t create. But when Black Box was finishing, I said to my agents, "I’m going to take some time now to go back and do my own work. I’m not interested in taking another gig writing somebody else’s show.”

Yeah, famous last words.

Yeah. [laughs] "Leave me alone for a little while, please.” But of course, they never do. So my agent and my manager both sent me some scripts, because it was that time of year, pickup season. I read a few and was not interested. They also sent me the script for Empire which was from Lee Daniels and Danny Strong. I said to myself, "Well, I’m not interested, but I will read this,” because Lee Daniels and Danny Strong are not people that you just bury at the bottom of the pile. I read the script, and thought it was pretty cool. But I said to my team, "It’s really good. It’s really interesting. But I still don’t want to do it.” And they asked, "Well, would you go and watch the pilot? It’s just finished and it’s starting to get some buzz.” I said, "Fine. But I don’t want to do the show.”

I went over to Fox. When you go and see an unaired pilot, it’s like everything is top secret, on lockdown. You go into the studio and some assistant meets you and walks you into a dark little room and they pop a DVD in and they close the door and you’re sitting in a little conference room all by yourself. So I watched the pilot for Empire sitting alone in a dark little room, having said, literally, on the phone on my way in, "I’m not going to do this.” And as I was walking out of the tiny room I was on the phone to my agent, saying, "I want to do this.”

I don’t often have that feeling about projects that aren’t mine, but I watched that pilot and felt something I hadn’t felt since The L Word. There was something very special about it; it’s a game-changer. So I told my agent I would love to be involved. "What’s the drill? Who do I have to make fall in love with me now?”

Chaiken (left) on location for "Empire" with fellow producer Lee Daniels

So you had to audition for this job, effectively?

I had to meet with Francie Calfo at Imagine, and then with Lee and Danny, who were meeting other potential showrunners. I have the utmost respect for Francie. She’s a really good producer and executive. I’m pretty sure that in our first meeting she wasn’t sure that I was the right person to do this show, for some obvious reasons. But she also knew that the most important thing was how Lee and Danny felt. My first meeting was with Lee here in LA, with Danny Skyping in from New York. It was the typical meeting of that sort. I told them what I thought of their show, mostly how much I loved it and how I responded to it so viscerally. Then I talked to them about my approach to producing television, because neither of them had ever done series television from this side. I saw it as my chance to talk about what’s involved, the kinds of choices they would have to make, how I would collaborate with them. And in a general, cautious way, I talked about the story, where I thought the show might go, without wishing to presume on any plans they may already have had for the characters. We had two meetings like that and then I had one more meeting with Lee at the Chateau Marmont, so he could double-check to make sure that I was a lesbian. [laughs] Because he thought that I was, but wasn’t sure.

Well, good thing he locked that down.

Yeah. It was important to him. I mean, obviously he would’ve liked to find someone who he felt could deliver his show, who also shared his particular background and sensibility. I think that that’s a given. It would’ve been obvious and natural had that person come to him. But what was important to him about the fact that I’m gay is that I come at the world as an outsider. And Empire is largely about coming at the world as an outsider. For me, the parallel between The L Word and Empire is the understanding that although you’re telling stories that want to connect with everybody, you’re writing about a cultural experience and you have to honor and capture the cultural specificity. You’re not really telling the story, you’re not serving it unless you really grasp for that cultural specificity in every facet of the show. I came at Empire in that way, and I think understood it intuitively from having done The L Word.

Right. So obviously on The L Word, you could serve as a source of that cultural specificity and shared vocabulary. As the showrunner of Empire, where do you go for that depth of material?

It starts with Lee, and he infuses Empire with that sensibility in every possible way. But I also have staffed the show predominantly with African-American writers. I think we have 12 or 13 writers, plus Danny is working on the show full time this year. Of those writers, three are not African-American. Even among the African American writers, it’s a very diverse room. I looked first and foremost for great and talented writers but also for an array of voices and experiences that speak to that cultural specificity. Running this show, I really need to listen. I know what I think the stories should be and I play a large role in choosing and directing them. But they’re Lee’s and Danny’s stories. Especially in the first season, I started out listening, channeling, trying to get from Lee and Danny what I’m then going to put into each of these scripts and stories. I’m the one who knows how to do that, who knows what the process is and when it’s working.

At the start, I was less sure of what the show would be. I wasn’t sure how fast it would move, what kind of tone of it would have, what the mix would be between the grounded and socially relevant, and the wild and flamboyant. I had to find all of that, and it was a very distinct, almost palpable target in the first season … I can taste this, it’s working now, this where it lives. Once I figured it out, with the help of a lot of colleagues, both my writing staff and at the studio and the network, then it clicked. What Danny and I have done for both seasons of Empire is gather the room a couple of weeks before the heavy lifting starts, and we figure out what the season is about, overall. Season 1 of Empire was: Who will inherit the throne? Season 2 is focused on warring kingdoms. That’s going to be our big creative template, and a couple of stories that we think we might want to tell will come out of that.

But then how I run the room is to put these ideas out there and not be attached to any of them. I encourage the writers I’m working with to to explore them, blow them up, to come up with better ideas. We’ll spend a couple of weeks just talking about those ideas that we started with, figuring out where to go with them. And at a certain point we start breaking a season. But as I said, the way that I run the room is largely by listening. I’ll try to listen for the best ideas and let those ideas run away with the story for awhile. But I won’t start the outline process until I’ve heard all of those things that I know make an episode of Empire.

One challenge of the showrunner’s job is that you can’t stay inside the "story bubble” all the time. How do you juggle that responsibility with the needs of the network, the producing team, and so on?

They’re not such different worlds, really. I almost always invite the writer of an episode to join me on the network and studio notes call. So that writer will hear how I interact with the network, how we respond to notes, how we implement them. The other piece of it is the interface with production. We always deliver scripts that are ambitious; very rarely are they producible on the first draft. On The L Word, I utilized a process that I kind of devised for myself—I have no idea whether other show-runners do it this way—where I ask for three scheduling meetings during the course of prep for each episode. I always ask the writer of that episode to join me on those meetings. We used to call them board meetings because we’d literally map out the shoot on a white board. The AD and our producing director, Sanaa Hamri, estimate the shooting times for each scene. I know that we can shoot 14 hours at most, but that we prefer to shoot a 12-hour day. So I look for a board that probably has one or two 14-hour days, but not more than that. Not infrequently, that first board will come to me and it’ll have an 18-hour day or a 22-hour day on it.

So early on we have a board meeting, and then in the middle of prep we have another one, and maybe two days before we start shooting we have another one. And we all figure out how to make the episode shootable in eight days at roughly 12-and-a-half hours each day. So you start to realize, "This scene could go. Let’s reset this. Let’s combine these two.” That’s a big part of showrunning and producing, and something that I’m trying to get all of the writers to understand.

So what are your hopes going forward? Sitting here this time next year, what would you like to be able to say?

At this point all I can do is just stay hunkered down and keep trying to tell stories that deliver on the promise of the show. I just hope the show is still beloved and that we continue to be a cultural touchstone and make people scream and gasp and everything else that Empire has done so far.

- Photographed by Kremer Johnson Photography

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Anything Is Possible! Jonathan Stern Creates The Space For The Ridiculous To Become Reality

Posted By Spike Friedman, Thursday, October 22, 2015

Jonathan Stern, Abominable Pictures president and PGA member, says it during a morning all-staff meeting. And then he says it again. And again. And then eight or nine more times as he talked about projects in states from the purely conceptual to the fully produced. Anything is possible. And after spending a day in their offices, yeah, this notion feels true. It’s possible to produce a dozen pilots in a year and pitch them to outlets ranging from the largest studios to insurgent new media platforms; it’s possible to finance a one-off comedy special housed on a bus; it’s possible to get Bradley Cooper to Los Angeles to shoot a major role in an eight-episode series on his off-days during a Broadway run. Anything is possible.

The problem with anything being possible is that everything can be in flux. "I neither thrive on, nor enjoy the uncertainty,” Stern admits when asked about how he deals with having so much up in the air. "That said, the panic? That drives me.”


Abominable Pictures has been staggeringly prolific of late, with work that’s showing up everywhere. Childrens Hospital is on Adult Swim alongside spin-off NTSF:SD:SUV::. Wet Hot American Summer found a home on Netflix. The Hot Wives series lives on Hulu. A series of officially branded Star Wars parody sketches After Darth will be all over YouTube through a collaboration with Disney affiliate Maker Studios. VR Rockstar is gunning to be a comedy that streams into Oculus headsets. The live comedy special Crash Test went to Vimeo first. Filthy Sexy Teen$ is on Fullscreen’s new streaming platform. Abominable provides the West Coast production services for HBO’s Last Week Tonight, and Paul Feig’s sci-fi comedy Other Space is on Yahoo, where Burning Love debuted before moving to E!.

"I like to think I’m format-agnostic,” Stern muses. "A given idea is not necessarily a movie or a web series or a TV series. It’s more: Let’s develop that idea and then feel what’s the right form for it. Sometimes it’s evident early. Sometimes we don’t know until we’ve shot and edited the piece.” He adds, "It’s a continuum of budgets as much as it is platforms. The difference between projects is often: How much money are you going to be able to make it for? Almost anything can be made at almost any budget.”

That flexibility has turned Abominable into a veritable incubator for some of the most interesting minds working in comedy. Rob Corddry, David Wain and Paul Scheer, among others, all have offices in the space, and Abominable’s production footprint is growing rapidly. "It’s like Jon has a little empire over there,” says Wet Hot American Summer writer Anthony King, "It’s a well-oiled machine. It’s made the process of low-budget production effortless.”

Some semi-related observations made while sitting in the editing room for an episode of Childrens Hospital that might help illuminate why Abominable’s work is so damn funny, but also might not:

• Cutting each episode to 11 minutes means that the overarching goal in a Childrens Hospital editing room is trimming length. This episode, "Horse-pital,” had a first cut clock in at more than 14 minutes, and it’s still past 12 when the session starts. As the team, comprised of show EP’s Corddry, Stern and Wain, editor Dean Pollack and assistant Sam Tinsley, rolls through the footage, the questions typically circle back to what can be lost without sacrificing jokes or clarity. Getting the show down to time meant the show was getting funnier, scene after scene.

• Wain in particular has an intuitive sense for sculpting set pieces. Sometimes this would lead to the closest thing to conflict in the room: Wain can throw out a potential fix in shorthand so abbreviated that everyone else has to catch up to what he means before they can see if it might work. After a healthy dose of banter and mockery from all corners, it usually does.

• During a lull, the conversation turns to politics. As I’m taking notes Corddry turns to me and asks if I’m going to make them all sound like Donald Trump supporters. I make no promises. That said, I can report there was no vocal support for Trump in the room.

• The entire cast of Childrens Hospital is excellent, but my word, watching Lake Bell do a run of throwaway takes is an experience that everyone should get to have once in their life.

• A show as silly as Childrens Hospital may not revere continuity in traditional ways. (This is, after all, a show where characters who die often reappear with scant explanation.) But the cutting process for the show is just as rigorous, if not more so, than longer-form comedy.

"Childrens Hospital has made me so much better in the editing room,” Stern attests, "because you truly cannot take any shot for granted when you’re chasing the clock at 11 minutes.”

Abominable grew out of Stern’s production team for Childrens Hospital, which in early incarnations manifested as something closer to an explicit parody of Grey’s Anatomy. The unintended (or hell, maybe intended) consequence has been a lot of funny women on the premises from day one. Beyond Bell, Erinn Hayes, Megan Mullally, and Malin Akerman all have been regulars for the preponderance of the show’s run. This parity extends behind the scenes where the bulk of the producers employed by Abominable, including line producer Franny Baldwin and partner EP Becca Kinskey, are women.

Despite gender parity on his production staff, Stern and his company still have questions about the issue of gender parity in comedy more generally. "Becca is always asking where are the women directors? Women writers?” says Stern. "So when it comes to the writers room, we really do make an effort to have women in all of our rooms. It’s easy to gravitate towards the people you know, so you have to make the effort to reach out, learn about, and read the samples of people you don’t know. When people only work with the people they know? You get those all-male groups. If you look a little outside your immediate circle, you get more diversity and then they’re part of your immediate circle. It’s not that hard to do, and you find great people to work with.”

The results of that approach are right there in the credits. For Season 6 of Childrens Hospital, one episode was directed by Bell, another was written by Parks and Rec scribe Megan Amram, while Rachel Axler received a pair of "written by” credits before moving on to serve as supervising producer on Wet Hot American Summer. Hot Wives is created and run by Danielle Schneider and Dannah Feinglass Phirman. Scheer cites Stern’s championing of Erica Oyama, the creative force behind Burning Love. "Watching what Jon did with her; saying ‘I believe in you, let’s get money for you,’ people then realized, ‘Holy shit, this person is amazingly talented.’ Now she’s written a handful of movies. She’s in demand.” Abominable is not just a boys club, and the work benefits accordingly.

For Baldwin, Abominable’s strength comes from the relationships between collaborators. "Each of Jon’s relationships is unique,” she tells me, "and they’re all very important to him. He’s able to give his heart and soul to each project, even if he has a producer who is there to take over things he used to have to do. On a project like, say, Outvoted, which was a three-day shoot, he’s still there on the set. He’s still looking at scripts. He’s still looking over every budget. He’s just pretty amazing.”

She echoes this dedication in her work as Stern’s pragmatic other half. "We’re loyal,” Baldwin explains, "we hire the same costume designers, same production designers project after project.” Unprompted, she adds, "I’m not going anywhere. I’ve now been working with him since 2007. I get other offers and I don’t even consider anything. It’s like my family here.”

The office fosters collaboration, giving Stern a chance to brain storm and hash out every aspect of pre- and post-production with his producers.

"This space is a call to action,” Stern believes. "When Scheer and I find ourselves here at the same time, we plop down on the couch and get to the point where we’re talking about the projects that are floating around, the new ideas. That only happens because we have unstructured time together.” He goes on to say, "You can spend a weekend with a group of friends and collaborators and come up with so many great ideas, or things that would be fun to do. But I feel like a big part of my job is to move things from that ‘wouldn’t it be fun’ part of the conversation to ‘let’s do it.’”

Production services at Abominable are handled in house. Work can be done quickly without sacrificing quality. An internal shorthand language is shared between collaborators in every part of the process. It’s understood that every project has the capacity to scale up its creative and comic ambitions. Speaking to these advantages, Corddry states, "My favorite style of comedy is crystalized in Childrens Hospital. With the expansion of what qualifies as television, there’s more room to get away with this sort of absurdity. The question becomes, how much of this can we get away with? How mainstream can this get? How far can we go?”

As Scheer puts it, "You spend a lot of time in Hollywood taking these meetings. It’s basically the ‘water tour’ of LA. You go to an office. They give you water. You talk about your idea. They tell you they’ll talk about it internally. Then most likely, it fades away. When I first met Jon, I pitched him an idea and he sat up in his seat, and he said ‘let’s do this.’ He’s just different. He makes stuff happen more than any producer that I have ever worked with. He never lets anything die. He is a producer who gets people’s ideas executed.”

A brief anecdote that may illuminate why Abominable’s work is so damn funny, but also might not:

Sitting in an After Darth production meeting, prior to my even meeting Wain, he leans in, looks at me and narrates, "Sometimes at Abominable, even David Wain just pops his head into a production meeting.”

He walked away without saying another word.

Despite the volume and diversity of the content he produces, Stern deflects any attempt to pin down his comedic taste. "I don’t know how to describe what I find funny, but I know how to identify in myself what I find funny,” he says. "You get shown, sent and pitched a lot of ‘comedies,’ but I’m not laughing at them. There are lots of shows with the tone, shape and structure of a comedy, but eventually you have to get in touch with your gut and whether you’re actually finding the thing funny.”

Flexibility is, again, the implicit virtue here. Stern keeps a board in his office of all projects that are alive in his company, from mere concepts to in-production. Currently there are 37 items on it. It would be easy for Stern to lay out a comedic rubric for his company’s work. Looking at the success of Childrens Hospital, NTSF, Hot Wives, and Wet Hot American Summer, Stern could say that his comedic taste is absurd, quick hitting joke machines that mine the inversion of tropes and meta-commentary on the entertainment industry. But generalizing in that way would be limiting, inflexible. That wouldn’t leave room for Abominable to provide production services on a show like Last Week Tonight or branch out into using its production resources to support the work of documentary filmmakers, as it aspires to do in the future.

Of the projects on that board, the one about which Stern waxes most rhapsodic is Outvoted, a pilot written by Wet Hot American Summer scribe and former UCB Theatre artistic director Anthony King as part of the Fox incubator program. The show follows a Mitt Romney-type failed presidential candidate as he retreats with his family in the wake of electoral defeat. While this premise could be built into a joke machine, King, Stern and Scheer instead steered the piece towards a character-driven story along the lines of Veep, despite being produced on a new media contract.

"We worked on Outvoted as if it were a $3 million network pilot,” Stern declares. "It’s as legitimate to us; the money doesn’t get to decide how legitimate the project is.” Using a nimble new media contract, with relatively short shooting schedules and loose contractual attachments to secure Harry Hamlin as the lead, the cast was filled out with Abominable irregulars like Rob Riggle, Jerry O’ Connnell, Rich Sommer and Mookie Blaiklock. "One of the cool things about working with Abominable,” King says, "is that the people whom they work with want to keep working with them.”

The type of work that Abominable aims to create going forward is very much on Stern’s mind. "I think that the tone these projects share is not a mean comedy. At its absolute meanest, it’s making fun of media in a ‘meta’ way, but it’s not attractive to me to make fun of people. Outvoted, Last Week Tonight … those start working on a deeper level. Sometimes it can be just fun and sketches, but it can be deeper, about characters and the human condition. I think for a while, I’ve shied away from that, because it’s harder to write and do well. But I’m starting to realize that if you can crack that other nut, that can be very fulfilling.”

Maybe it’s a risk for a production team that has mastered small-screen absurdism to expand its footprint in this way. But having spent some time around Stern and his team, I’m fully convinced that anything is possible.


Photographed by Kremer Johnson Photography

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School for Storytellers: The PGA Knows How To Fill That Gap In Your Skill Set

Posted By Ian Wagner , Thursday, October 22, 2015

Producer Kate McCallum had an epiphany when she left the studio system in 2006. With a 20-year career in the industry, she thought she had accrued a strong skill set and felt ready to take on her next project. She’d left a job as a vice president of development and begun a new challenge creating content for an emerging video-on-demand channel. But a few days into the new job, she realized there was a very steep learning curve. "I had to oversee everything, from the very beginning, from story development, to legal, to digital asset management, to delivering the content. I quickly realized there were places along that production process I didn’t know about, like encoding … things that I’m not up to speed on. I need to have some understanding of those things if I’m going to do this job well.”

That’s a common story among producers across the country. The entertainment landscape has changed so much and so rapidly that many producers are finding it tough to stay current on emerging technologies and skills. To help, PGA councils and committees have launched a number of initiatives is to educate its members and keep them up to date.

McCallum was elected to the PGA’s New Media Council two years ago with a passion to educate members about what she calls "tech literacy.” "What I came to realize after I left the studios,” she recalls, "is how important it is for producers to keep up on new media tech. I believe it’s not enough to stay entrenched in traditional platforms, but to have awareness of the new media tech coming up on the horizon.”

Along with her studio experience, she’s now well-versed in transmedia and cross-platform storytelling and feels strongly that this is an area in which all producers need to stay current. The New Media Council has launched a number of "Deep Dives" into new models of storytelling, keys to social media engagement, a workshop on virtual reality, and a transmedia workshop. Each showcases valuable new methods of creating content with cutting-edge technology. "There’s so many different ways to seed a story now, from the bottom up,” McCallum continues. "And some of the best education you can get is when you’re in the trenches doing the work," she says.

The hunger for new information and skills is so fierce that the Producers Guild offers programs through three different groups on the West Coast alone. In addition to the New Media Council’s Deep Dives, the Guild's AP Council offers a series of Master Classes, while the Guild’s own Seminar Committee presents its unique workshops and educational opportunities.

Like McCallum, producer Carrie Certa came up in the industry with the help of advice from respected peers. "I relied on kind producers picking up the phone and saying, ‘Yes I’ll meet with you for five minutes,’” she recalls. "I remember my first studio line producing job, with Disney. I had done indie features, but facing the prospect of doing it for a network within 24 hours … I didn’t think I was qualified. One of my colleagues believed in me so much that he connected me with a Disney line producer who reviewed my budgets before they went to the network for approvals. Where else would that have happened?”

That recognition of the need for formalized education for producers led her to develop the Master Class series. Currently presented by the PGA’s AP Council, the monthly classes are designed to provide a hands-on learning experience in a variety of areas of production. "I was very adamant about practical education,” says Certa. "Out of necessity, I put together the editing class under the banner of the PGA. It was a huge success and it just kind of snowballed from there. We try to cover everything that will help you, from simple shooting or editing to line producing, to how to save a life on set. Because PGA membership is so broad, from coordinators to executive producers, we strive to cover the entire range of the job requirements, to help everyone move from one to position to the next.”

Classes are held each month in the Los Angeles area, often at the hosting vendor’s facility. Recently, the Master Class series has featured offerings on such topics as shooting with drones, buying a home for freelancers, and even a workshop about encouraging and incorporating improvisation on set. "We want to know that the class is actually valuable and we want to know what classes producers want to take,” says Certa. "It always comes back to one thing: what do I need to know as a producer?”

Because the PGA enjoys brand name recognition and preferred status with vendors and facilities, the Master Class series can offer content that isn’t available to the general public. "We did a motion-capture class at DreamWorks that was amazing,” Certa reports. "People got to pick up the camera and see the animation. Where else would you get that experience? DreamWorks doesn’t open the doors to their million-dollar camera setup to students; they trust us because we’re producers.”

John Kaiser, Co-Chair of the PGA Seminar Committee, echoes many of Certa’s thoughts: "Our seminars provide the members with the latest cutting edge information, tools and techniques in film, television and the new media avenues of our industry.”

Admittance to the seminars, which tend to be panel discussions, is free for PGA members and sometimes open to the general public for a modest registration fee.

"We’re open to any topic that we think will enlighten Guild members, or teach them something new, or broaden their minds as producers,” says Kaiser.

The committee has hosted events on topics including the future of film financing, working with the FBI, and producing with the military. "We can connect producers with each branch of the military,” Kaiser proudly notes. "A lot of producers don’t even know that the FBI has a dedicated office that wants to help Hollywood, so we introduce them to those people and tell them what services they offer.”

The committee has plans to put on a seminar about the challenge and threat of content piracy in the coming months. Any member with a seminar idea is welcome to bring it to the committee, which will produce approved seminar events alongside the volunteer who originated the idea.

"We’re very dependent not only on Guild members to suggest things they want to learn about, but also to collaborate and help produce these events,” says Kaiser.

Incoming Co-Chair Richie Solomon feels the best feature of the committee can offer is "actionable intelligence” for producers working in the field. "We want producers to be inspired by the topics,” declares Solomon.

The annual Produced By Conference is one of the Guild’s most visible annual events and a great opportunity for producers to learn from fellow members, as well as some of the most eminent figures in entertainment. Marshall Herskovitz, Co-Chair of the Produced By Conference, believes that's crucial for producers’ continued development. "One of the satisfactions of the Produced By Conference has been the opportunity to share information with producers who have a real appetite for learning everything there is to know about the craft,” says Herskovitz. "Beyond that, it’s impossible to overstate the value of having so many producers in one place … The sharing of experiences and motivations, the incubation of ideas and partnerships—there’s nothing like it anywhere in the entertainment industry, and it’s the reason people keep coming back year after year.”

The PGA East’s own annual conference, Produced By: New York, now going into its second year, includes plenty of general producing information, but also offers specific focus on issues related to the New York market. For PGA East Chair Peter Saraf, the different cultures between the two coasts make the second conference invaluable. "New York filmmakers thrive outside of the studio system,” asserts Saraf. "Our TV producers excel in unscripted, non-fiction, children’s and talk show programming and our digital producers are innovating in ways that are distinct from Silicon Valley innovation.”

PGA East also offers its own master classes and seminars. AP Council member Kiran Malhotra sees a changing landscape in New York that makes education an even greater priority.

"Every digital media company in New York is building its digital video department and hiring producers,” she explains. "You need to shoot. You need to edit. You need to be familiar with After Effects. You need to know social media. I knew our members could be a really great fit for these jobs if they had the right skills.” Thanks to the efforts of PGA volunteers, our Guild members can look to stay competitive in the current cutthroat job market.

From their earliest days, trade guilds have been driven by the need for education, apprenticeship and the acquisition of specialized skills. Even in the 21st century, the Producers Guild is no different. Producing is a complicated job, and the collective knowledge of its members is, far and away, the Guild’s greatest asset. There’s no better way to make use of your membership than tapping into it.

- Illustrated by Christine Georgiades


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Taking On The System: Michael London Embraces The Contradictions Of Trumbo

Posted By Jeffrey McMahon, Thursday, October 22, 2015


There are a few Hollywood truisms: don’t work with children or animals; always get everything in writing, and nobody wants to see a movie about writers. Much less likely is it that audiences will pay to see a movie about disgraced, mostly Communist screenwriters from 60 years ago. But that’s the leap of faith that producer and PGA member Michael London and his Groundswell Films are making with the new film Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach and starring Bryan Cranston. For London, this film is the latest in a line of independent productions about unique characters grappling wth American society’s values and received wisdom, the kind of film London and Groundswell have become adept at turning out. And for London, it’s another opportunity to make a film his own way, speaking to subjects and themes outside the normal Hollywood mainstream.

Dalton Trumbo’s name stands out in history mainly as one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters, directors and producers singled out by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for improper association with Communists at the dawn of the Cold War. In 1950, Trumbo went to jail for refusing to name names before Congress, and he and many others were blacklisted, banned from working for the studios. Desperate for money, Trumbo took whatever work he could find, and ultimately broke the blacklist with help from Kirk Douglas, who hired him to write Spartacus with full screen credit. "It’s not just a great underdog story,” says London. "Trumbo himself was such an incredible character. He was both a capitalist and a Communist. He wanted to live well and still believed in Communist credos. You don’t come across characters like that every day.” For London, producer of Sideways, The Illusionist, and Milk, seeking these types of iconoclastic stories has become part of his unique niche in the indie world.

Raised in Minneapolis, London attended Stanford University, with no interest in becoming part of the film industry. Pursuing an interest in journalism, he got an internship with the Los Angeles Times that led to a job in the paper’s Calendar section. There, he was steered toward covering the movie industry: "I did investigative stories, trend stories, interviews … It was a chance to write for a living. But reporting is hard, and not particularly inspiring.” His world opened a little wider following a feature story on a pair of fellow Minnesotans: the then-unknown Coen brothers, moments away from breaking through with their debut, Blood Simple. "I knew them through high school friends, and I said that these guys were really talented … No one at the newspaper had heard of them or the movie, but they sent me to do an interview. And I wrote my little heart out. And bizarrely, Don Simpson read that article.”

Producer Michael London (left) on the set of 'Trumbo' with cast member Bryan Cranston (center) and director Jay Roach

Mega-producer Don Simpson, fresh off the success of hits like Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop, happened to read London’s piece in the Times and was smitten. "He wanted to hire an executive to run development for his company,” London recalls, "And he literally read this story and said, ‘I wanna hire this guy,’ like in an old Hollywood movie.” Given an offer he couldn’t refuse, London found himself an executive before his 30th birthday, working for one of the biggest producers in Hollywood. "I knew nothing about production,” laughs London. "I had never been on a set. It was hard, but a great learning opportunity … Don and Jerry Bruckheimer were both wonderful to me, and gave me all kinds of autonomy, but it slowly began to feel like I didn’t fit,” London says. "I found I preferred being in the room with the writers than being in the room with the business people.”

After several years with Simpson and Bruckheimer, London took a job working for 20th Century Fox, where he "learned how much I didn’t know about overseeing directors and budgets and deal-making … After a while, I had learned what I could learn, but it felt like I was just shopping for movies that the studio wanted to make.” After his time at Fox, first as an executive, then as a producer with a studio deal, London found himself looking for a fresh start.

"If the Coen brothers thing was the first bit of fortuitousness in my life, the second was David O. Russell inviting me to a dinner at his house where I was seated next to Catherine Hardwicke.” Hardwicke, then a successful production designer, had just finished writing a screenplay with a teenage friend about the pressures of being a contemporary teenage girl, and gave the script to London to read. "I read it that night, and I called her the next morning at 8:30 and I said, ‘Could I work on this with you?’” London went on to produce Hardwicke’s screenplay, which she directed, as the indie hit Thirteen. The experience was transformative. "I stopped thinking in terms of the studio mandates that I’d been thinking about all this time,” he recalls. "I said to myself, what if I just worked on things that I want to work on?”

Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper and Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo in "Trumbo"

In short order, London began developing a writer’s pitch that would become the low-budget comedy 40 Days and 40 Nights, and came across an unpublished novel that would become the Academy Award-winning hit Sideways, directed by Alexander Payne. "So I had these three movies and I thought, Oh, there’s a whole other way to do this. You don’t have to go to lunches and schmooze agents and sit in staff meetings that you don’t want to go to. It felt like I was being true to myself in some way that I hadn’t before.” Since then, London has continued to generate a string of high-quality low-budget films, including the Academy Award-winning Milk, the quirky western Appaloosa and the heartwarming Win Win, building a name for himself as a consistent generator of smart, profitable movies.

In 2006 London founded Groundswell Films to handle his business operations, with his producing partner, Janice Williams, running the bulk of physical production. "I went back into the business side of things,” he explains, "and made a bunch of movies, but was sometimes less personally connected to them because I was managing the company. So recently I’ve been looking for projects that would regenerate me, that didn’t feel like they were necessarily wildly commercial.

"My development executive had read this script by John McNamara called Trumbo, which had been around for several years,” London continues. "She said, ‘You have to read this script,’ and I said, ‘It’s a script about the movie business, which doesn’t interest me. And it was a script about a writer, which really doesn’t interest me … We’re not going to make that movie and I’m not going to read that script.’” But after carrying it around for a few weeks, London took out the script and started reading. "There’s this very chemical thing that happens when you read a script and it just gets under your skin. I read that script and I had that palpitating feeling. At the heart of that story was someone who was an outsider who had to create a community for himself, and he had to take on a whole system. It hit every theme that I love, and I met with John McNamara that week.”

McNamara, a veteran television writer/producer, had been fascinated by Dalton Trumbo and the blacklist ever since taking screenwriting classes under blacklisted writers Ring Lardner Jr., Waldo Salt and Ian McClellan Hunter. "I met John McNamara,” recalls London, "and he wanted to direct it. I told him, ‘I think if you direct this, it will take you five to 10 years, and you may never get it made. But if you would allow me to work with you and take it to filmmakers of stature, I think there’s a really good chance to get the movie made, and I think we could find a great actor for this role.’ John never blinked. He called me the next day and said, ‘Okay, you’re on.’”

London suspected that director Jay Roach could be a good match for the material, based on his political satires for HBO, Recount and Game Change. "Jay is very skilled at making true stories entertaining to watch,” says Janice Williams. "I felt like the movie couldn’t afford to take itself too seriously,” agrees London, "and I thought that if we found a filmmaker who had a sense of humor, and who loved comedy, rather than someone who was just kind of a ‘big, important storyteller,’ it would feel fresher.”

"I’ve known Michael for a long time and wanted to do something with him,” Roach recalls, "and I connected with the complexity of the character.” Roach pushed for additional involvement from the Trumbo family, particularly his daughters Niki and Mitzi. "Some very interesting story ideas came from them,” Roach recalls, "about the stresses the family endures in the second act, where Trumbo begins writing under other names.” Roach also collaborated with McNamara to build the character of Hedda Hopper, the legendary columnist and radio celebrity who was a virulent anti-Communist and nemesis to the Hollywood 10. London was all in favor of emphasizing the role of Hopper as a media figure during the Red Scare. "Hedda Hopper had a lot in common with the world of media today, and John was able to make Hedda this totemic, iconic figure.”

With the script in good shape, London and his fellow producers began to send it out to actors, catching the eye of Bryan Cranston. "He’s Dalton Trumbo in different garb,” London chuckles. "Bryan is strong-willed and passionate and cantankerous and stubborn and creative. There’s a lot about Dalton Trumbo that’s very contrary, and Bryan really embraced those contradictions. With Bryan on board, the film really started to feel alive. It wasn’t a portrait of a ideologue, which none of us was interested in. I think we all really loved that we could do a portrait of a guy who didn’t feel perfect.” With Cranston on board, London and his fellow filmmakers put together one of the year’s most impressive supporting casts, including Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, Helen Mirren, John Goodman and Louis C.K.

With the cast assembled, Groundswell teamed up with Shivani Rawat’s ShivHans Pictures and producers Nimitt Mankad (Danny Collins) and Monica Levinson (Borat, Dodgeball) to put together the final financing and packaging. Together with London, Roach, McNamara and Williams, and producer Kevin Kelly Brown (Roswell, Earthsea) the team set out to do justice to Trumbo’s story over a decades-long timespan, featuring dozens of speaking parts, but on a carefully controlled budget. "We decided that the best place to film was Louisiana,” explains Williams,” because it still has extraordinary period buildings and bars and restaurants that you just can’t find in California any more.” Ultimately Trumbo went to shoot 40 days in various parts of Louisiana, with one shooting day in Los Angeles for crucial Hollywood exteriors.

Even as the film was being finalized, London and his fellow producers remained uncertain how Trumbo’s political leanings would play to a mainstream audience, and experimented with a pair of test screenings, first in Pasadena. "In Pasadena,” London says, "they loved the movie, but they didn’t cheer, they didn’t stand up … Then we went to Plano, Texas. We showed the movie to a non-Los Angeles, solidly middle-class Texan audience. There was a giant standee of John Wayne in the theater, and we were really, really scared. We said to each other, ‘We’re going to get our asses handed to us’ … And they just loved it. They were yelling, they were cheering. The scores were higher than any movie I’ve ever worked on, and it made me realize that we might have the last thing we expected, which is a crowd-pleaser. They didn’t see him as a Communist, they saw him as a guy who takes on the system.”

As Trumbo awaits its rollout, bearing strong reviews and awards buzz, London has hopes that it could go beyond a niche market. "Business-wise, I never felt like Milk was able to transcend the trappings of a political message movie. It had a subject matter such that there was a perception that the movie could only exist in a certain bubble. I think Trumbo has the potential to go beyond that, to reach an audience that wants to see Bryan Cranston say ‘fuck you’ to the political establishment … There’s a lot of that going on right now,” London smiles.

However Trumbo fares, London and Groundswell have a full slate on their hands, including another film, Love the Coopers, being released in November, plus Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad in active development. And London continues to look for projects that don’t just look like good bets, but get him excited. "I like characters who are outsiders. And I realize that I am drawn to characters who have some kind of outsider relationship with power or life or work or community. In Sideways you can see that, you can see that in a movie like Milk in a big way, and in Trumbo.” London reflects. "Maybe there’s something kind of adolescent about that, but it is something that continues to excite me, when I read about someone who’s had to strike out on their own against some kind of odds and find their own way.”

- Photographed by Kremer Johnson Photography

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New Tools of the Trade: "The Ms. Factor" Provides The Data Women Producers Need To Make Their Case

Posted By Lydia Dean Pilcher, Thursday, October 22, 2015

As producers, we hold a unique and valuable perspective on all aspects of the business of content creation. I have produced for many talented female directors over my career (including Mira Nair, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Katja von Garnier, Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Anderson, to name a few). I have personally felt the significance of the female audience and have seen that women crave more stories about their lives, authentic experiences and dreams. We’ve seen breakout hits like Twilight and The Hunger Games challenge the conventional wisdom, such as "female stars don’t open movies” or "women directors only make films for a less significant subset of the marketplace.” In contrast, we’ve seen that films by men are perceived to reach wider and more lucrative segments of the market. Amid the recent wave of activism around gender equality across all industries, I began to wonder if the issues of underrepresentation in the entertainment industry were more institutional in nature, and perhaps fortified by gender-biased myths. In fact, the booming economic reality of women as a powerful market seemed to be completely buried by these myths.

The research tells an undeniable story of a pipeline for female filmmakers that starts to crack as budgets get larger and stakes get higher. The most significant barriers, according to a 2013 Sundance/WIF sponsored USC study, are gendered financing and male-dominated networks. The scarcity of women at the top of the business end of the film industry is a problem. It’s no surprise that women are more likely to greenlight women’s pictures, have more confidence in women writers and directors, and be more interested in stories about female characters.

The PGA has been a longstanding champion of diversity in our industry. We founded the PGA Women’s Impact Network two years ago to set an agenda and promote strategies to move the industry towards a more gender-balanced landscape. At the top of my list was the challenge of how to debunk the myths that continue to perpetuate a well-documented gender bias in Hollywood. Once we delved into it, the multidimensional data coming forward to support this case was both staggering and exciting. Leading experts from Nielsen, Google Analytics, FiveThirtyEight, and top researchers in the field including Stacy Smith of USC, Martha Lauzen of San Diego State, and many others were invaluable in their support and research. Ultimately, we were able to let the economics make the case for casting aside these outmoded perceptions of women and their work.

This fall, the PGA Women’s Impact Network and Women and Hollywood announced the launch of our "toolkit,” "The Ms. Factor: The Power of Female-Driven Content,” to raise awareness among decision-makers in the entertainment industry about the profitability of female producers, directors, and plots/protagonists. "The Ms. Factor” is a compilation of studies and statistics, designed to offer filmmakers the analyses they need to point to the commercial viability of female-driven content.

We have found that female moviegoers outnumber males, and that women are the majority of the mainstream network TV audience. Women watch more content on all digital platforms, represent the majority of the online market, and use the top social media channels more than men in almost every network. In addition, the toolkit includes some little known facts with seismic implications, such as that women make upwards of 85% of all consumer spending decisions in the U.S., even as women are currently earning less than men in total. (Given current demographic trends, experts predict that U.S. women will out-earn men by 2028.) This trend is supported by studies that show diversifying boardrooms translates into higher returns on investment.

"The Ms. Factor” includes market data and research demonstrating that having a woman at the helm affects the kind of stories being told. Female producers, directors and writers are more likely to feature girls and women on screen. And female leadership promotes gender equality behind the camera as well, resulting in more women hired as writers, producers, cinematographers, and editors—a 21% increase among scripted features and 24% increase among documentaries.

We urge producers and financiers to look at hiring and financing practices across the board, and encourage decision makers to create new standard policies for studio and agency director lists, actor lists and crew lists, balancing them for gender and diversity.

We hope that producers and filmmakers will use the statistics and tools from "The Ms. Factor” when creating financing proposals to counter those who see gender as limiting their commercial prospects. When they say, "less money is made with female leads, female stars, or female-driven properties,” or "women aren’t our target audience,” you will be have research showing that female audiences are powerful, and that women’s participation can lead to profitable outcomes.


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Risk Takers: In Film Finance, Innovation Isn't An Option - It's A Necessity

Posted By Administration, Thursday, October 22, 2015

A conversation with Compton Ross & Phil Hunt of Bankside Films. (Illustration by Elena Lacey)

By all means, there are easier ways to make a living than by financing films. What draws you to film as a business opportunity?

COMPTON: As a business model, filmmaking is difficult. There is no "sure thing” and nobody really knows how the buyers and public will react to the finished product. Each project is a risk, but risks can always be mitigated. So I enjoy the challenge and potential of each new project.

PHIL: I particularly like that the business side of film seems to be like no other and is constantly evolving, which means one never really gets bored of working with the same structures. I love that we continually have to be so innovative.

What are the essential qualities you look for in a producer to partner with? What flaws are you willing to overlook?

COMPTON: Generally, I look for talent, honesty/integrity, determination and enthusiasm. It is almost impossible for a producer to excel at every stage. Nearly all producers have a weakness or flaw; that’s no reflection on their overall ability as a producer. A good producer knows their own strengths and weaknesses. For me, the real issue would be the inability of a producer to recognize that he/she has a flaw(s).

What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken on a project?

PHIL: When John Michael McDonagh’s War on Everyone came across our desk recently, we had to make an immediate decision on supplying 80% of the $10M budget without being able to market test it. But Stephen Kelliher at Bankside felt so strongly about it, we jumped in; we knew John was a hot property and the market was crying out for his next film. This being his most commercial to date, we felt it was the right one to back. A few weeks later at AFM we were able to close a considerable number of pre-sales.

What’s the quickest way to make sure you will NEVER back the script I’m pitching you?

COMPTON: The biggest mistake a producer can make in pitching me a script is to tell me I am on a deadline to read it.

PHIL: "It’s a kitchen-sink drama with a first-time director, where lots of nice people die, and needs way over $10M to do it justice. Oh, and it’s in a foreign language. Plus, I need first-class hotel accommodations for the duration of the shoot.”

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Prepping for Prep: Network Pre-Production Isn't So Scary, Provided You Have The Right Guide

Posted By Peter A. Hoffman, Thursday, October 22, 2015

I began my career in show business as a production assistant working on small, independent films … locking up a dusty, rattlesnake-infested road at the Disney ranch, running payroll around Burbank or just helping the ADs on set. I transitioned to dramatic one-hour television with a job on Baywatch, which provided me with the opportunities to learn the ins and outs of the budgetary process, scheduling, business affairs and day-to-day operations of showrunning. I continued to work my way up on other shows as a co-producer and finally got promoted to full producer on SAF3, a 20-episode syndicated television drama series.

I still had gaps in my knowledge about producing a network/studio-based drama series versus my independent past. More specifically, I needed to know everything I could about pre-production. As a relatively new a PGA member, I read in the newsletter about the PGA mentoring program, so I signed up.

The Mentoring Committee arranged a mentorship for me that became a shadowing opportunity with Harry Bring, co-executive producer on Criminal Minds. We exchanged a couple of emails followed by a phone call to set parameters. How much time did I have? What were my interests? What did I want to learn? I then prepared for our first meeting by doing a little research about the show, and about Harry’s background, writing down as many questions that came to mind.

I was allowed to observe the prep of one episode over a six-day consecutive period at the Criminal Minds soundstage/office complex. Harry and his assistant Stephie Birkitt were welcoming from the very start. At our first face-to-face meeting, Harry asked me, "What can I do for you?”

Well, this is what he did for me: I was able to sit in on a variety of discussions, from concept and art department meetings to video playback & postproduction sessions, to visual effects and stunt/special effects meetings, to budget and production meetings. I also was in the scout bus for both location scouting and technical scouting. I was given copies of the script and schedules, just as if I were prepping for the show. This particular prep period proved to have more than its share of production obstacles. I would not have not it any other way, as it allowed me to see first-hand how various challenges were met with effective solutions. This mentorship reinforced my belief that, in a high-pressure situation, a steady hand, mutual respect and above all a sense of humor beats yelling and screaming any day of the week.

I can only say: Thank you, Harry! You have been a true mentor to me. I look forward to continuing our relationship and passing on the knowledge you shared with me to fellow PGA producers.

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Coming Attractions

Posted By Administration, Thursday, October 22, 2015


October 29
This Master Class will focus on ARRI’s lineup of camera products, with particular attention to 4K technology resolution, image quality and workflow. From acquisition to post to delivery, this session will cover what every producer needs to know when it comes to shooting with ARRI cameras.

October 31
Before your Halloween festivities start, enjoy breakfast with the PGA. Staff and member-volunteers will be on hand to introduce you to the benefits your Guild offers and help you get the most out of your new Producers Guild membership.

December 5
"Going viral,” is the sought-after result of every digital marketing campaign. But what constitutes "viral” content, anyway? And how can savvy producers use social media to amplify the reach of their viral pieces? The PGA seminar committee has the answers.


December 9
It’s an event that gets bigger and better every year, with great food, lively entertainment, deluxe door prizes and lots of networking. Once again, members and guests will be trying their luck at the blackjack, craps and roulette tables to determine the night’s big winner. The casino money is fake, but the holiday spirit is genuine and plentiful.


November 16
One of the year’s most anticipated releases, Todd Haynes’ Carol stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (Best Actress, Cannes 2015). The audience is invited to remain for a post-screening Q&A session with one or more of the film’s producers, Elizabeth Karlsen, Tessa Ross, Christine Vachon and Stephen Woolley.

-PGA MEMBERS: For more information or to RSVP for events, please consult

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Dying To Be Green: Who Ever Guessed Zombies Could Help Save The Planet?

Posted By Krishna Devine, Thursday, October 22, 2015


At a recent PGA Green meeting I was inspired to utilize the green solutions we had discussed for so long. As a committee member I’ve been active promoting our eco-friendly resources, but I realized that the best way to walk the walk was to see what it would really take to make my entire next production green. So I decided to fund and create an original video with a green message while also using the PGA Green Best Practices outlined in the PGA Green Production Guide for my ultra-micro budget production. Thus was born Green Zombies, an eco-comedy thriller short film.


Fellow producer Stephen Niver and his wife Cynthia agreed to let me film at their home. I already knew I was not going to allow single-use plastic water bottles on set and I knew we’d be moving around a lot, so we used Brita Sport bottles. These nifty little BPA-free bottles come with their own filters, so you can fill up at any water tap. The average person will get 1-2 months use out of a single filter.

Price-wise, this was not the cheapest solution for a short film or web video, but since most of the cast and crew agreed to work pro bono, it was a good solution to eliminate waste and give them some small reward for their efforts. Had this been a full-length feature, the savings would have been huge.


Green Zombies was filmed outside because it served the story while the use of natural light served the green set goals. Director of photography Amanda Treyz is a whiz with the Canon DLSRs, so we shot principally on the 7D, using the 5D for some pick-up shots. The great thing about shooting fully digital is that the capture and imaging process is completely green.

However, there were some shots that required lighting, so we used flat LED panel lights powered by rechargeable Duracell batteries. LED lights are great — they don’t heat up the talent’s makeup and there is no need to wait for them to cool. (This all saves time, which of course in turn saves money.)

Kevin Bocarde was in charge of capturing the audio onto a Zoom H4N audio recorder, which saves the audio to micro SD cards. We powered the device with rechargeable batteries.

For meals, I bought fruits and vegetables from a local farmers’ market, and the rest was purchased in bulk to save on packaging waste. We offered a buffet-style lunch served on recycled paper products. The recycled paper plates added a little more to our budget than styrofoam, but it was a small price to pay considering the environmental impact of choosing styrofoam. Also, the paper took up less space when we disposed of the garbage at the end of the day.

We were also able to green some elements of production design and wardrobe. Marcus Niehaus, Tom Mesmer, Shannon Murray and Ikuo Saito—our zombies—offered to wear used clothing they were already planning to donate.

The lead and only living human in the story, Kristen Nedopak, wore her own jewelry and used props she had at home. She is a seasoned production person and founder of the Geekie Awards Show, so she has a garage full of items she reuses as often as possible. In addition to the wardrobe elements, she loaned us ice coolers and a few other odds and ends.

Set dresser Renee Bocarde donated recycled birthday party decorations and other members of the cast and crew donated what they could.

Our makeup lead, Zach Baker, planned the makeup application in a way that would use up as few resources as possible and production manager Louise Hart worked double time to make sure we always had fresh batteries or that waters were topped off.


The film’s post workflow was entirely digital. At one point I had to ship the edited film and audio on a thumb drive to Kyle Walters-Sheaffer in Portland, Oregon, so he could mix the audio and color correct the film. New York illustrator and artist Grace Kang designed the zombie man on the poster, with all files created and delivered digitally.


Green Zombies has played in a couple of eco-themed film festivals including the Toronto Beaches Film Festival and the May Day Sustainability Shorts Film Festival. We’re waiting to hear back from a few others and after the festival run, the short will be posted to PGA Green’s website for all to see.


The biggest lessons I learned while creating this project have been: a) The Green Production Guide truly is helpful and offers some great tips; b) If all the department heads understand the importance of why we green sets and are given the tools to do so, they are for the most part on board; and c) It is very easy to eliminate single-use water bottles from any set without making your cast and crew go thirsty.

Throughout the Green Zombies production, I explained to the cast and crew why we were approaching common production practices differently and it was fun to watch them embrace green production and ultimately become advocates for it.

My advice to producers on both large and small productions is to introduce the Green Production Guide to their department heads at the beginning of each production, and work as a team to see what elements can be greened. It’s really not that difficult, and in many cases greening a production can save time and money. ¢

For more on how we greened Green Zombies, check out

Makeup lead Zachary Alden Baker works his magic on cast member Ikuo Saito.


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Best On-Set Photo Of All Time: Hollywood Below

Posted By Administration, Thursday, October 22, 2015


This issue’s Best On-Set Photo of All Time comes from longtime PGA member and volunteer George NeJame, whose stages have hosted many a PGA General Membership Meeting over the years. George evidently has been sitting on this shot for more than 30 years, waiting for a suitable venue from which to show it off. We’ll let him pick up the story …

"This photo was taken in 1984 (one of my earliest forays into producing) when I was working at the Production Group in Hollywood. Ted Turner had partnered up with Fred Rheinstein from the Post Group to create the Cable Music Channel (CMC) to challenge MTV. In order to get the channel on air in time, our job was to put a temporary satellite dish on the roof of the 6290 West Sunset Blvd., on the southeast corner of Sunset and Vine. I set the shot, focused the camera and had one of my grips take the picture … One take!”

Well, the Cable Music Channel never even made it to 1985, and we admit that we haven’t scouted the Hollywood rooftops to see if the satellite dish is still there. But we’re proud to give this deserving moment its shot at immortality. Thanks, George!

We know what you’re thinking. "Best of all time? No way. I’ve got an on-set photo way better than that.” If that’s the case, we dare you to prove it. Submit it to Before you submit, please review the contest rules at Because no matter how great your photo is, we have no desire to get sued over it.

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