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NINA YANG BONGIOVI - Producing with Passion and Purpose

Posted By Peggy Jo Abraham, Thursday, April 4, 2019

Her smile comes readily, but dont be mistakenher mission is dead serious. Nina Yang Bongiovi is a champion of filmmakers and a directors best friend, especially if that director is a woman, a person of color or both. Its definitely a long journey from Taiwan to East L.A., and one could argue its an equally long trek from there to Hollywood success. Bongiovi has navigated these waters with a fearless spirit and razor-sharp instincts, while facing devastating personal setbacks along the way. Both the professional roadblocks and family losses have given her a healthy perspective on her career as a producer. She does not sweat the small stuff now. And recognizing that its all mostly small stuff is, in her mind, a huge gift.

Bongiovi has an uncanny track record when it comes to believing in talent—often first-time or relatively unknown directors. Can you say Ryan Coogler? When she first met the director, he was still in graduate school, and Bongiovi says no one was giving someone like him a shot at success. Today she speaks of the “Coogler effect”—the fact that now so many people are looking for “the next Ryan Coogler.” This makes Bongiovi laugh, but she is also genuinely proud of having been part of that change, where Hollywood is more willing to be open to new, untested filmmakers.

This passionate producer has found the perfect business partner in Forest Whitaker. From an unlikely trip to China togetherwhen the two didnt even know each otherto the formation of their Significant Productions banner, they share an enthusiasm for diversity, in both subject matter and collaborators. Together they have been ahead of the curve, recognizing the need for inclusion before it was commonplace. But as Bongiovi puts it, they operate quietly, helping unknown or struggling filmmakers pursue their dreams.

The unwavering support she offers and the fierce belief in her directors are what set this executive apart. There are producers and there are pillars of strength. Nina Yang Bongiovi is both.

 

When you first thought about entering the entertainment industry, was producing a goal of yours?

I grew up predominantly in East Los Angeles, and I don’t think any of us were told that you can pursue a career in entertainment and in Hollywood. And even though the proximity is only about 20 miles away, we weren’t afforded that awareness—that you could pursue a producing career. So I would say no.

When I first got into the industry, I was in grad school at USC, and I got a job as an analyst in marketing and media research. Right away I knew this is not what I wanted to do. I wanted to make movies and I wasn’t even close to my goals with this corporate job. I knew by the time I graduated, I needed to make the move into the production realm.

I started as an assistant to an action director in Hong Kong, and then we ended up moving to Shanghai to continue working on films and television shows. So that was my first foray into the world of moviemaking—martial arts/action films.

 

What made you even consider working in the industry?

I thought I was going to be a journalist at one point. I remember at a very young age my mother said (in Mandarin), “You should be a news anchor.” That’s because when my family immigrated to this country, my mom watched Connie Chung on TV. She thought, “That’s a good choice for you.” It was because Connie was the one Asian American image for us as a family in America. That’s the closest I would say that the “entertainment industry” came into the fold. Fortunately my mom didn’t push me to be a doctor, lawyer or a scientist like what’s most expected from Asian families.

 

What was your first aha moment, when it dawned on you that you were actually a producer?

Well, I think there are levels of it. There’s the point where you’re thinking, “I need to be a producer. I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m going to do it and figure this out.” That first aha moment was when I was working on the Hong Kong films, and I was always in such awe of the action sequences. And I was like, “Man, the action is so good. If they only had a good script.” [LAUGHS] Then I thought, “I wonder what that process is.” But while I’m there, I’m just breathing in everything because I love the actual production aspects of making a movie. So I was enthralled with everyone’s roles on the crew.

 

At that point, did you think about becoming a writer and writing your own scripts?

I never thought of myself as a writer. I just thought putting together a project would be so incredibly exciting, but daunting at the same time with not knowing what it takes.

 

But you thought like a producer. 

Yes, now reflecting back

 

And you thought it would be a much better movie if it had a good script.

Exactly. But I didn’t have a say in the early development process. I was just an assistant to a director. I was getting tea and heating up soup. I thought if I was a producer, then I would have a say. I could go after projects I wanted to see on screen and put them together. I was very naive at that time, but it was a lofty goal.

Cut to 10 years later is when I really felt I was a producer. So from the time I started as an assistant to a director and then trying to figure out what producing was about, raising money, “producing” random projects here and there, I had never felt I was a real producer. I always felt a bit insecure about what it really takes to make a great film. It was an educational process.

Sometimes I would say I failed for the first 10 years of my career. But friends would tell me, “No. You didn’t. That’s your learning curve.” And it took me quite a while to understand that, but I never gave up on wanting to become a bonafide producer. Fruitvale Station was the first film I felt where I was able to drive something from inception all the way to the end and support an incredible filmmaker, Ryan Coogler, at the same time.

 

As a producer, what do you see as your main role, your most critical function?

I think the most critical function is to champion the filmmaker, to support the vision of the director that I have chosen to work with, or I have pursued to work with. And I need to do everything in my power to make that vision come through in the most resourceful way possible, balancing art and commerce.

 

No wonder people want to work with you.

[LAUGHS]

 

How did you first connect with Forest Whitaker?

I first connected with Forest in 2009. It was an adoption story, a movie that I wanted to produce in China to address racism, prejudice and cultural differences. I didn’t know it was a subject matter that actually appealed to him. I worked with a friend on a spec script that spoke about those issues, about an interracial couple going to China to adopt a Chinese baby. She’s Chinese, he’s black, and it deals with anti-black sentiment and discrimination they faced when they traveled there.

I made an offer to Forest’s agent at WME and thought, “I’m going to make an offer to Forest Whitaker, who just won the Oscar not that long ago. Maybe I’m delusional!”

 

Bold.

Yes, bold or blind faith. I submitted an offer backed by a financier, and Forest actually read the script and called me. I was quite intimidated. And he said, “I really love the story and what you’re trying to say here, but the script isn’t strong enough … I can help you.” And I’m thinking, “Who are you?!” I remember saying, “I don’t have the funds to hire another writer. I’m not sure what we can do.” And he told me, “I have a couple friends who are top screenwriters, and I’ll see if one of them is interested in supporting the project.” During that time he asked me when I was going back to China, and I told him I would be going back soon.

 

I read that was because you were dealing with some family issues.

Yes. My mom passed away, and then a year later my sister also passed away. It was a very dark time for me, so I was really going to see my family. My brothers were there. My dad was there. I was pretending that I was going to do work and research, but actually I was really depressed. And Forest says, “I’ll come with you.” And I’m like, “OK” and in my head, “Yikes.”

 

And didnt that blow you away?

Yes. It blew me away because I’m thinking he’s an A-list star who won the Academy Award for The Last King of Scotland. And he’s helping me with a story that I want to tell.

 

He obviously believed in the story.

He believed in the purpose. Thinking about it, every movie we’ve produced to date possesses a certain statement about race, culture and class. And so now it doesn’t surprise me, but at that time I was thinking, “What is happening?” And I actually thought, maybe my mom and my sister sent me an angel to help me in my career that I was so down about, because I felt like I was failing on so many levels.

Nina Bongiovi and Lakeith Stanfield on the set of Sorry to Bother You, winner of an independent Spirit Award.


So he didn
t know at all about what had transpired with your family before you got there?
 

No, not until we got to China. We spent some time together and I talked about it. And I think he’s so intuitive that he probably knew I was clinically depressed. He had a lot of empathy, but he didn’t feel sorry for me. It was more like he understood because he’s a very spiritual man. And then he also got to spend time with my dad and a couple of my childhood friends.

And what’s great is, when we went to Shanghai, many friends from my early production days resided there. And they said, “We got you. You come with Forest. We’ll take care of you. We’ll show him the city. We’ll show him how we work here. We’ll take care of him.”

So Forest was well taken care of by my old team from Hong Kong. And he had a great time. It was kind of scrappy, and I was hoping he didn’t mind, and he didn’t. I didn’t know him well enough then to know that he’s such a kind soul.

 

But just that he made the offer to come in the first place was some sort of indication of who he was as a person.

Yes. And I think he was very interested in the culture. He hadn’t been to China, and he wanted to see for himself what kind of issues I talked about in the story when it comes to prejudices and discrimination. He wanted to experience what it was like being a black man in China. But everyone was pretty kind to him because he’s Forest Whitaker. [LAUGHS]

  

Do you think with talk of racism and diversity in the headlines so much, that it makes it easier or harder to put together a film that deals with these topics?

Overall it’s still a struggle to get films and projects starring people of color and/or with directors of color green-lit or financed, especially with certain subject matters. We collectively have to operate at an excellent level when it comes to storytelling, scripts and vision, so if something produced is mediocre, we’re easily categorized as a niche and that niche isn’t worth betting on.

So I think it makes all of us, my peers who are in the same space, hyperconscious of what we have to do to continue to elevate what we produce. Because it’s too easy for the marketplace to say, “Black films don’t travel so it’s worth less. Or, films starring Asian Americans don’t have an audience base, except for Crazy Rich Asians.”

 

What about some of the recent success stories? Do they make a difference?

They do make a difference. I think of what Crazy Rich Asians has done, as well as Black Panther, Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Get Out, all these wonderful movies … they have paved a wide path in discussions of what’s out there for financiers and studios and networks to back. And I’m getting a lot of calls these days asking, “Do you have any Asian projects in development?” The real test is if folks will buy or fund scripts without the word “rich” in the title or subject matter.

However, what’s positive is that there are more opportunities for sure, where I hear of studios looking for filmmakers of color, making an effort to diversify above-the-line and below-the-line talent, to work with more women and women directors. So you see that shift happening, and it allows us to be in the room to talk about projects. It allows us to send projects to executives who have a keen interest and an initiative in giving diverse story perspectives a shot.

 

You were actually in the forefront of that with five films and five directors of color, and many of them first-time filmmakers. 

Thank you for saying that, because we’re really proud of it. Forest and I pride ourselves on being inclusive, but we do it quietly. We just produce our movies, and we push them out into the world by any means necessary. Fortunately all five of them launched at Sundance in competition, which is mind-blowing for us, and also catapulted all these wonderful filmmakers’ careers. We are in the forefront of this movement. I feel like we’re pioneers of it because we were champions of diversity at an earlier time, before it was really popular. And there are people coming to us asking, “Would your company adopt an inclusion rider?” And I say, “We’ve been doing that since 2010.” We’re just not loud about it, but everything we do represents inclusion.

  

Lets talk about Fruitvale Station and how it affected the careers of you and Ryan Coogler.

Going into Fruitvale Station, I had no trajectory. I mean, I wasn’t thinking, “This is the plan. We’re going to make this movie, launch this career and then have Ryan Coogler change the world with Black Panther.” That wasn’t it.

It came purely out of love for filmmakers who don’t have an opportunity to be championed. It was a professor at USC, Jed Dannenbaum (via Jane Kagon) who reached out to me and said, “I have this young man in my class who’s really remarkable.” I still have Jed’s email to me. The full email about Ryan is just beautiful.

So Ryan came into the office, and he was just an old soul, although only 23 at the time. I felt a certain kinship because he’s a kid from Oakland, not privileged enough to have the Hollywood connections. I thought back to myself growing up in La Puente, east of Los Angeles. No one was ever going to give me that opportunity. Ryan left me five short films that he directed in grad school. I watched them in my office and I remember crying at a couple of them, thinking, “These are so damn good.” That’s when I knew he’s a true storyteller. Forest watched them that night, and the next day he came to the office and said, “Tell him to come back in.”

And during that meeting, that’s when Ryan told us about Fruitvale and Forest goes, “Let’s make this movie.” That was the first time I felt like, “I am a producer. I’m going to do this. It’s going to be easy because I’m producing with Forest.” Wrong.

Ryan connected me with Oscar Grant’s (the young African American man whose killing by BART police is the subject of the film) mother, who held his life rights. And that process went on for quite a while because they were going through a civil lawsuit. They couldn’t talk to anybody in “Hollywood” about a movie because it could jeopardize their case.

So we discreetly spoke to her about what it would mean for us to make the film and what it would mean to the community. And there were conversations about building that trust and telling her, “We’re not the type of producers to exploit you. Our purpose is to create dialogue, very important dialogue, that’s seriously needed in this country.”

After about 10 months in, Oscar’s mother, Wanda Johnson, said, “OK, we can continue talking about it.” By then Ryan was out of grad school, and I was still negotiating the life rights. Wanda is a woman of God and many don’t know that at the end of the day she said, “Nina, talk to my church minister and explain to him what this life rights option is. And if he says it’s a go, it’s a go.” And I’m thinking, “Man, that’s a different type of pressure.”

Kenan Coogler, Bongiovi, Michael B. Jordan, Ryan Coogler celebrate at the Cannes Premiere of Fruitvale Station in 2015.

And did you talk with her minister?

I  did, and I remember being very nervous going through the contract with him on the phone, trying not to mess up. It was about 20 pages, and I was going line by line, explaining what everything meant. And at the last page he goes, That sounds great to me. And I had tears in my eyes, thinking I cant believe were getting this. I immediately called Ryan and said, She agreed! Thinking back, it was really funny because that was just the first big hurdle.

 

Who would have thoughtthe minister?

Yeah. It was an unconventional approach. [LAUGHS] And Im still close with Wanda.

 

I was wondering about that.

I sit on the board of the Oscar Grant Foundation, and it provides at-risk youths with scholarships in Oakland and educational support; plus Wanda works with coalitions across the country to address social issues.

 

And the film won the PGAs Stanley Kramer Award, which honors productions that bring to light important social issues.

We were a very intimate movie that was noticed by the PGA, and to honor us with the Stanley Kramer Award was huge for us. It was the film’s energy, love and its purpose that allowed it to flourish and allowed a filmmaker like Ryan Coogler to flourish. It was meant to be his directorial debut. It’s Ryan’s destiny to be this influential today from all his narratives.

 

Is it true that your biggest investors are old childhood friends of yours? 

Yes, particularly one of them—which means that you fight a lot and argue a lot but then you just go, “You know what? We’re like family so we move on.” It’s very different than working with traditional industry investors. You have to have a strong sense of humor. It came about when Forest and I were trying to make Fruitvale Station. Once we got the life rights option and Ryan started writing the screenplay, I was already in the process of raising funds for the movie.

I reached out to high-net-worth individuals within the U.S. And Forest talked to his connections as well. Every single person we spoke with turned us down. I was told, “Number one, Ryan’s a first-time feature director—it’s too risky. Two, he’s a first-time black director. Three, you have a predomonantly black cast, so that makes it even harder. And lastly, the story is too depressing and no one wants to see that.” We had all the odds stacked against us.

After everybody said no, that’s when I reached out to my childhood friend, Mike Chow, in Shanghai—who was not from the film industry—and I said, “I know you’re doing well in Asia. I hear you guys are all rolling in money over there, killing it. I need your help.” And he’s asks, “What do you need?” I say, “I need a million dollars to make a movie.” He’s a serial investor, so he starts asking me about the projections, ROI, IRR, and I tell him to just trust me and invest in the movie. And he said, “What if it doesn’t work?” And I replied, “If it doesn’t work, see it as philanthropy.”

I couldn’t believe I said that! And he responded, “That’s the worst pitch ever.”

 

But it worked.

It worked really well, and we still laugh about that terrible pitch.

Fruitvale’s success allowed us to set a mission for Significant Productions: to champion filmmakers of color and shift the paradigm of our business. After that we had Dope, which was a tremendous success with Rick Famuyiwa. Once again the project was challenging because Rick and I went to every studio that he wanted to work with and they all said no. They said no to a movie that to me is so fun, original, and not in the marketplace. I remember telling Rick, “Don’t worry. I’m going to get this funded. Let’s make it independently.” So that’s when I went back to my childhood friends—by now we’d gathered six of them and created a film fund.

           

Six of your friends?

Yeah, from Asia, Asian Americans, to create a fund to support Dope. Then concurrently we supported Chloé Zhao’s first movie, Songs My Brothers Taught Me. That was the third. The fourth movie was Roxanne Roxanne—a similar situation where it was tough for traditional financiers and studios to take on. But we had a fund so we got it done, and it went on to premiere in Sundance 2017.

 

Wow. Sundance has been good to you.

They’ve been good to us. They’re magnificent to collaborate with— to give our films and filmmakers a platform for the world to see, because these films are all underdogs. But underdogs that won at the end.

 

So all of your films have debuted at Sundance?

All of our independents, in competition. Every year they choose 16 films in U.S. Dramatic Competition, 16 out of 13,000+ submissions. So we’re very blessed that all five of them got that platform, and to have fans, distributors and buyers who love what we’ve done.

Bongiovi, A$AP Rocky, Shameik Moore, Mimi Valdes, Quincy Brown at 2013 Dope premiere.


Your 2018 competitor was Sorry to Bother You, directed by Boots Riley. Tell me about that.
 

I met him in 2015 through SFFilm and I thought, “This guy is cool. He’s different.” He’s an activist, a rapper and a musician. Boots and I kept in touch on his and his producers’ progress in their fundraising efforts, but there were no bites. Years had passed since he had written the first draft of his screenplay in 2010. I was on set in New York during the Summer of 2016, and Boots came to see me. I told him once I finish Roxanne Roxanne, I will take on his film next. I loved his vision but I honestly didn’t know what to do with the material [with financiers] because it was so revolutionary, so unique. That meant I didn’t let my core investors read the script. [LAUGHS]

I was nervous because it’s a very ambitious project to produce independently. But I believed in Boots and so did our amazing cast. I’m thinking, “Either this is going to be genius or it’s going to be a bomb. There is absolutely no middle ground. So let’s do this!” And thank God it’s genius!

 

Does the personal adversity youve faced have a big effect on your work?

It absolutely does have an effect on my career. Because before my mom and my sister passed away, there was the first seven to eight years of my career where I was unsure of my abilities and was taking things too seriously—and also taking the failures extremely hard. But then after they passed away, I didn’t take my work so seriously anymore. And the stress level that comes with producing doesn’t faze me because I think, “We’re in the creative field. How fortunate are we to get to do what we do?” And it doesn’t even compare to the heartache and intense pain of losing loved ones.

I remember when projects were just utter chaos, falling apart at every level, and I’m just laser-focused on solutions. And I remember people saying things like, “Why are you so calm?” and “Why aren’t you crying about this and that disaster?” I would tell them, “I’m all cried out. I cried when my mother and my sister died. This is producing. We’re not crying in producing.” Of course I wanted to punch people in the throat, but that would be unprofessional of me. [LAUGHS]

 

I understand you mentor people. What other ways do you give back?

I mentor a filmmaker every semester at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. I also started a nonprofit with Mimi Valdes, who is Pharrell Williams’ producing partner. It’s called Metta Collective, and our whole purpose is to educate storytellers and producers of color, because we’ve come to realize, and I’ve personally come to realize, that to have a seat at the table when you’re a producer means you’re making decisions that change the face of your production and evolve the industry. Whereas sometimes when you’re an actor or a director, you’re not in those rooms. So it’s crucial for producers’ voices to be in the rooms.

Forest and I are executive producing television as well now. Having a female voicea woman of colors voicereally changes the dynamics in the studio and network system. We express how critical it is to tell stories from authentic viewpoints, whether those come from producers, directors or writers. We also need to make sure we have inclusive crews, starting with heads of departments. Once we are conscious of these needs and make efforts to adopt them, it will lead to positive morale that gets reflected in the production and results in a great show. And thats what really makes us happy.

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