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SUZANNE TODD - The Prolific Producer Who Has a Love of Musicals, Plays a Mean Hand of Poker and is a Game-Show Nut

Posted By Peggy Jo Abraham, Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Quick—what do mischievous moms, dog parks, memory loss, the Beatles, a white rabbit and Dr. Evil have in common? If you said producer Suzanne Todd, you’ve been paying attention. These are just a few of the themes in the many successful films this creative talent has brought to the big screen. As if making it in Hollywood were not enough, along her journey Todd has somehow found the time to give back in a very meaningful way. Her calendar is packed with pitches, casting calls and shoots, but you’ll also find charity poker games and mentoring sessions on her schedule. Yes, Todd is one of those rare people whom you swear has more hours in her day than you do.

Consider this: she has not one, but three major movies coming out this year. In the fantasy adventure Noelle, Anna Kendrick stars as the daughter of Santa Claus. And Todd is making two films with Adam DeVine: Jexi, co-starring Rose Byrne, and Magic Camp, based on a story by Steve Martin.

Todd’s passion is also palpable when talking about motherhood. As a single mom of three, she knows a thing or two because just like the commercial says, “She’s seen a thing or two.” Once when asked about motherhood tips, she was quoted as saying, “Don’t be hard on yourself, like thinking that you could have done more. Even in small things like making the best lunches.” Now what parent can’t relate to that?

From her own childhood spent watching her favorite movies over and over to the improbable and original way she raised money for her first student film, this is one determined producer. And when Todd speaks of the unique qualities that women bring to filmmaking, you quickly understand her message because, of course, you realize these are the special traits she possesses and brings to her work. And then you’re really, really glad she had the good sense to take a gamble and sit across from Dick Clark on The $25,000 Pyramid. Read on …

Todd on set with the cast of A Bad Moms Christmas 

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You’ve done so many types of movies, and many of them have been hit comedies. What it is about those that makes you gravitate to them?

On the Bad Moms movies that I made last year and the year before, I find that people who continue to talk to me about having seen the first movie and the second movie is that everybody loves to laugh. It’s trying times right now, obviously. Going to a theater and having that shared experience of laughing in a room with lots of other people who are laughing is unique to movies and live theater and just a few other things. But I also find it really interesting when people talk to me, especially about comedy, that usually they’re not referencing the thing that made them laugh the most; they’re referencing the thing that touched them the most—that relatability of the characters and the relatability of the struggle and this idea, in the case of Bad Moms, that we all want to be great moms and great parents, and we all struggle to do our best, and we all judge ourselves too harshly for our mistakes.


Yes, and I can see how that resonates throughout one’s whole life because once a mom, always a mom.

True, and being a producer is in some way like being a mom to hundreds of people for short periods of time while you’re making the movie together. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are a lot of amazing female producers. There are a lot of amazing male producers as well, but I do think there are some aspects to the job that are inherently, particularly female. Mothering and caretaking, and problem-solving and all those kinds of things, I think apply to both motherhood and producing.


Producers wear so many hats. What do you like best about the job?

I generally like all the parts for different reasons. I will say when you’re actually making the movie, it’s probably more interesting than when you’re in your car driving around to the 12 places that you’re going to pitch the movie. That kind of “putting on your tap shoes” part of it is not particularly my favorite. I think really getting into the nuts and bolts of it in a room with a writer, developing the script, being on set with the directors and crew, making it happen in the cutting room, reshaping what you thought it was going to be into what it’s really going to evolve into. All of those, the marketing, the publicity—I like all aspects of it. If I had a least favorite, it’s probably the tap dancing/pitching.


You’ve been such a supporter of women, giving them so many opportunities to create content and to act. How would you assess the situation today in terms of what you’re seeing with female empowerment and influence within the industry?

I think it’s amazing. Maybe this is too honest, but frankly there’s a small part of me that feels jealous. I wish that I was coming out of film school today, because I feel like the opportunities are so very different. When I was hitting the industry in 1986, there were so few women in those top jobs, and few women directing and few women producing. It really did seem, not like an impossible goal, but like a very, very difficult goal. I remember Lauren Shuler Donner being so nice to me and kind of taking me under her wing. And Sherry Lansing, who I’ll never forget—the first time I had lunch with her, and everything that came out of her mouth was just a pearl of wisdom. But there weren’t a lot of women in those positions. When you look at the landscape of creatives, of women now, writers and directors, showrunners and other producers—it really has changed just in the space of my career. I hope that we are moving now into a next phase where the stories that women want to tell aren’t particularly women stories, and it doesn’t just have to be females directing very female movies.


Is there any other big change that you’ve seen in terms of what you do since you started in the business?

I feel like in the last five years, I want to say everything has changed, other than the things that will never change. So the things that will never change are the characters, the stories, the storytelling, taking a look at the human condition and the perspective that we bring to film. But 95% of everything else has changed, even the conversations. You talk about material and it used to be, “Is the story better suited for a movie? Is it better suited as a TV series?” That was kind of it. Now with every story you take on, with every character you come across, you’re looking at, “Should this be a 10-minute mobile series on Quibi? Should this be something direct for the web? Should this be a limited series on cable, or streaming or network?” There are so many different formats now. There are a lot of different ways to make it work, and so you’re looking at everything through multiple lenses of how to do the best version of it. I have projects I’m developing in all these various formats, but it’s also new territory. So it’s both exciting and challenging.


And now you now have to consider so many types of audiences.

True. You’re looking at the different ways in which people consume these different kinds of entertainment, and the person who’s going to watch the 10-minute show on Quibi, most likely on their phone, is a different demographic than some of the other places where you’re going to try and put material out. So then that becomes a part of the conversation. I never try to make anything for someone else. I like to think I’m always making everything for myself. Because if I don’t like it, I don’t want to make it. If it’s something that I wouldn’t watch, I won’t make it. I’m just never going to do that. I wouldn’t be good at it.  But I do think this becomes part of our business decisions now.  What is something that’s interesting to me that would also be interesting to people in these different shapes and sizes of entertainment? Which, like I said, is both exciting and terrifying.


You seem very independent and intent on charting your own course. I read about filming Austin Powers and how someone advised you not to do it because it would basically be the end of your career.

Yes. I had one head of a studio pass and say to me, “You have a reputation as a really nice girl, as a good girl, and this will ruin you,” which is kind of hysterical, of course, because that spawned three movies and a franchise. And I think there isn’t a day that goes by where somebody isn’t quoting one of the many, many memorable lines from those three movies.


Is there any type of film or project you haven’t done that you’re still yearning to do?

I tell you what I’m always trying to do more of because the funny thing is that I’ve only done one: Across the Universe. If you had asked me when I first came out of film school what I was going to do, I would have told you that I only wanted to do musicals. Because musicals are really my jam, my thing, my happy place. I, weirdly, know the lyrics to basically every Broadway musical ever done since the dawn of time.

Todd meets the dreaded Lord Zeedd on teh set of Mighty Morphin Pwer Rangers: The Movie (1995) 


Your sister, Jennifer, and you have been so successful together, and apart. What comes to mind for me is, “What was in the water at the Todd house when you were growing up that led to these amazing careers?”

Jen and I were obsessed with watching movies. We would record our favorite ones and watch them 50 times. I mean, I have probably seen Singing in the Rain from start to finish without stopping a hundred times. Our parents were going through a really bad divorce. We were working hard at our very challenging private school. And we loved movies. Our mom, who worked, would drop us off at this movie theater we had near our house.  On a Saturday we would watch one or two or sometimes even three movies. That was how we would spend the day. 


And those are such formative years when movies can have a big influence on your life.

I think for me it was that time of life we all go through as teenagers. Because being a teenager is difficult anyway and your life is changing, and your body is changing, and the world is changing. And as I said, with Jen and I and dealing with our parents’ divorce, I had so many feelings, so many worries, so many things I was trying to figure out. There was something about movies that gave me this perspective that was so eye-opening, that I could watch a movie and understand something better about myself than I had before I saw this film. I could watch a movie and see a character and understand someone else’s perspective in a way that I hadn’t before. Also just movies make you laugh, movies make you cry. They take you on a journey. Sometimes it’s escapist and a relief from the real world. And sometimes it actually helps you navigate the real world. So I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to be in this space for so long now.


OK, a random question here about something I read and loved, because I’m a big fan of classic game shows. Is it true that you became a contestant on The $25,000 Pyramid to raise money for your student film?

I did. I had a friend who had gone on the show and who had said to me, “Oh, it’s only a day. It’s easy money. Just go.” So yeah, I won the money, and that was what I spent it on. I think I won $28,000. Back then if you went to the top of the pyramid in the bonus round you got $10,000. I did that twice, and then you win a bit of other money along the way. When I did Pyramid, Dick Clark was still the host. After that, because I’m both a game nut and a game-show nut, I went on Password, and I got to play with Betty White, which was really cool. 


Speaking of games, is it also true you’re an award-winning poker player?

Yes, I do play my fair share of poker and have won a number of tournaments and played at the World Series of poker many times. Over the years, after playing so much poker, I started hosting charity events of my own. So we just hosted our sixth annual tournament for a charity that I’m on the board of called Tia’s Hope. It raises money and provides services for children in long-term care in children’s hospitals. We started with City of Hope in Los Angeles, and now we have 11 hospitals across the country. And basically, what we do is when the kids are admitted to the hospital, they get a gift bag which is toys and stuff for them to do and a Visa gift card for their parents. It’s very expensive and time-consuming and painful to have children in the hospital, especially for long-term care.


I know you were recently honored with the Chrysalis Award and you have mentees at USC. As such a positive role model, can you speak to the importance of giving back, because it seems like you really do honor that a lot.

I really do. It’s so important to me. Through the years, it has shown up in my life in so many different ways. I served for six years on the board of the Archer School for Girls because girls and education are so important to me. I also work for the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement because Alzheimer’s affects women, unfortunately, so much more often than men. We’re trying to figure out why that is and what preventive measures  women can be taking to get ahead of it and understand it better. And Chrysalis is an incredible organization. Anybody who lives in Los Angeles or sadly, in America, understands what a crisis homelessness is. As Chrysalis points out, joblessness is the number one cause of homelessness. What they’ve been able to do for 66,000 people is put them on a path to employment, with support like resume building, practice interviews and job training. There’s something so powerful when you haven’t had this in your life recently or maybe ever. There’s something so powerful, just sitting down with a person who sits across the table from you and looks you in the eye and says, “I believe in you. You can do this. I’m here for you.”  


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Balancing Act - James D. Stern Juggles A Panoply of Passions

Posted By Michael Ventre, Wednesday, August 7, 2019

On the afternoon of June 20, 2019, James D. Stern waited nervously until the moment the workday ended and he could get home, so he and his son could don their team gear, tune in to the NBA draft and wait until pick No. 7.  That’s when his beloved Chicago Bulls—Stern has an ownership stake in the club—would choose. And while the team’s selection of point guard Coby White represents a quality reinforcement for the Bulls’ backcourt, it’s likely Stern may have to keep waiting awhile for the Windy City’s next championship.

But he’s used to waiting. He’s a producer, after all—hardly an instant gratification line of work. Case in point: Murder Mystery, one of Stern’s very latest creative offspring, which debuted in June and became Netflix’s biggest weekend opening ever when it was viewed in 30.9 million households in its first three days. That project, featuring the superstar comic stylings of Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, took about 10 years to get to the screen.

“You get lucky sometimes,” he opines about his business. “Then unlucky. Then you get lucky again.”

Murder Mystery, directed by Kyle Newacheck, is a fish-out-of-water comedy with an Agatha Christie setup about a New York cop and his hairdresser wife who go off on a fancy and long-promised European vacation, only to be ensnared in murder, intrigue and fine dining aboard a billionaire’s yacht. The one-sheet sums it up perfectly: “First-class problems. Second-class detectives.”

Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler in Murder Mystery

“I knew it was going to be huge, honestly, at the first preview,” says Stern, who is currently overseeing the Mike Cahill-helmed drama Bliss, starring Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson, and has several other plates spinning in film, TV and on stage. “It was a 500-seat theater, and nobody left. You can just feel it. When you do enough films and theater you don’t need something to open to know if it’s working or not.”

Stern first encountered the project about a decade ago, after James Vanderbilt’s script was put into turnaround by Disney. From there, the long journey began. It’s a familiar one for career producers: Sink your teeth into a project, and don’t let go until it reaches the screen.

James D. Stern and First Assistant Director
Dan Lazarovitz on the set of
Bliss

Murder Mystery wouldn’t exist without Jim Stern,” explains Vanderbilt, whose credits include Zodiac and White House Down.

“He just refused to give up on it. Refused,” he adds. “He got involved with it 10 years ago and put his money behind it just because he liked my script. The amount of times the movie came together and then fell apart was insane. Everybody gave up on it at one time or another. I gave up on it, and it came out of my brain. But not Jim. Every time another studio passed or we lost another actor or director, he just calmly put the thing back together.

“It’s like he and (producer) Tripp Vinson finally just willed the thing into existence. And I guarantee you if Netflix hadn’t finally come along, Jim would be on the phone today still trying to get Murder Mystery made.”

Like many projects, Murder Mystery came together when it came together. When Sandler and Aniston got on board for their first film together since 2011’s Just Go With It, the rest fell into place. The film was produced through Stern’s Endgame Entertainment, along with Happy Madison Productions and Vinson Films.

“Adam had been interested for a long time,” Stern says, “but because of schedules and whatnot, things did not align. But once he came on it went very fast. Then Jennifer came on and it was fast-tracked.”

Adding to the serendipitous turn was Netflix’s involvement. “For the last few years, we really wanted to do it with Netflix,” Stern explains. “It felt like the perfect Netflix movie. I knew the audience would coalesce around the movie.” Of the 30 million-plus who initially saw the film after it dropped, just over 13 million watched the streaming service in the U.S. and Canada, while another 17 million viewed from abroad.

Script supervisor Ronit Ravich-Boss, Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler, director Kyle Newacheck on Murder Mystery set

But it would be wrong to pigeonhole Stern as simply a purveyor of mainstream comedies and a basketball junkie. He owes much of his success to having a wildly eclectic palette.

Consider The Old Man and the Gun, released in 2018, which may have been Robert Redford’s swan song as a headliner. Co-starring Casey Affleck and Sissy Spacek, it was based on the true story of Forrest Tucker, a stickup man and escape artist whose career in crime lasted from his teen years to his sunset years.

“It is very much a movie about an artist who does not want to go gentle into that good night,” Stern says of the film, which was written and directed by David Lowery and based on a piece in The New Yorker by David Grann. “It was somewhat an homage to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. It’s a small movie that went flawlessly. It was a dream for me to get to know Redford.”

Then there’s Stern’s theatrical side. He’s won Tony Awards for producing Hairspray and The Producers, a Drama Desk Award for Stomp and has had many other forays into the footlights. Recently he obtained the rights to Silver Linings Playbook and is adapting it for the stage.

 “Once you get the bug, you never lose it,” he says. “I love the theater. I started in the theater; that came first. The immediacy and electricity—I guess I’m a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. There’s nothing like Broadway. And you don’t have to defray the risks to different territories. It’s all there.”

Finally there is James Stern the political animal. A staunch liberal and brother of former Obama adviser on climate change, Todd Stern, he nevertheless told friends leading up to the 2016 election that he knew Donald Trump was going to win. He discovered more evidence to back up his assertion when making his documentary, American Chaos—which he directed—featuring interviews with Trump voters about why they felt the way they did.

He took flak from some friends on the left for that project, but he felt it was important to explore Trump’s popularity. “I told my daughter Trump would win, and she said I was insane,” Stern recalls. “I said, ‘Come with me and I’ll show you.’” The rest, as they say, is history, which is still playing out with dramatic twists almost daily. Stern also has written and directed other projects, including So Goes the Nation, another documentary, about the 2004 presidential election.

One of the problems with being James D. Stern is that he has a passion for the theater, film and television, a passion for producing, writing and directing, a passion for politics and a passion for basketball—and they are all competing for his attention.

“My ADD,” he says with a laugh, “has served me well.”


- production photos courtesy of Amazon Studios/Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

 

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Toppling the Motherhood Penalty - Parental Inclusion Can Benefit Everyone

Posted By Michelle Budnick, Wednesday, August 7, 2019

When you consider the women on your production team, how many of them are open about whether they have children? How early in the hiring process did they disclose this information, and would they have been hired regardless of their family status? These are questions that production moms often ask themselves when they contemplate a career change or interview for a new positionwhich for a freelancer can be frequently.

Mothers working in production know that being open about their family can change the way they are perceived and have a significant impact on their career progression. It’s a phenomenon commonly known as the “motherhood penalty.”

A Harvard University study into the phenomenon concluded the motherhood penalty “may account for a significant proportion of the gender gap in pay.” It also noted, “Mothers face penalties in hiring, starting salaries and perceived competence, while fathers can benefit from being a parent.” In some cases that translates to a father who is a parent being seen as more stable and ambitious, leading to a greater chance of getting a raise or promotion.

Working mothers are often viewed as less productive, more distracted, less stable and less achievement-oriented than their male counterparts. Studies have shown that mothers are 79% less likely to be hired than men or child-free women and offered less money for their work. The pay gap grows larger with each additional child and does not begin to shrink until children are around 10 years old. These penalties can be compounded in the production industry, where the emphasis is on complete availability to work long and often irregular hours. That means fewer opportunities if you’re unable to meet those requirementsor you may face exorbitant childcare costs. 

The presumption that mothers are unable to perform as well as their male and child-free colleagues is based on outdated stereotypes that working mothers won’t prioritize work or will be unavailable when needed. In order to change things, we have to normalize, not stigmatize, production moms. Employers also need to recognize the many skills a working mother develops that are valuable for the production world, such as emotional intelligence, organization, negotiation and time management.

With ages 25 to 35 being career development years and the time when women are most likely to have children, females in production are forced to factor in more variables than their male counterparts when deciding whether to start a family.  

In order to have true equality, women must be able to pursue their careers at the same time they’re having children, instead of being asked to choose which is more important. Progress has been slow, and we are losing a vital voice and a great deal of creative talent in the process.

But there are signs things are moving in a different direction. Galvanized by the Time’s Up movement in Hollywood and a larger shift toward addressing societal inequities, employers are starting to recognize the urgent need to redress the inequity and are seeing a positive impact from their efforts.

Building family-friendly policies around a healthy work-life balance is being recognized as an achievable goal for companies that value their teams. At many workplaces, policies like paid parental leave, job sharing, telecommuting and flexible work hours are seen not just as benefits but as necessities to retain a happy and productive workforce.

In Silicon Valley, a group called Parents in Tech Alliance has formed to create “positive and meaningful change for parents working in technology.” Companies such as Twitter, Lyft, LinkedIn and Salesforce are among the change makers.

When supervising producer Lindsay Liles took a job on The Bachelor, she found a flexibility she couldn’t have imagined when she had her daughter in 2018. “We’re a show about finding love, falling in love and having a family, so it was important for them to support a healthy home life,” Lindsay explains. In addition to meeting her breastfeeding needs, the showrunners allowed her to bring her daughter to meetings and to the set on the weekends she didn’t have childcare. They also moved her temporarily into casting when she was unable to travel with the show. This kind of treatment and respect encourages loyalty from employees who appreciate being accommodated. “Why would I ever want to leave when they have gone out of their way to support me?” says Lindsay.

Other production companies are following suit. Netflix is leading the way with a range of family- friendly policies that take into consideration both parent and baby. While employees are encouraged to have a healthy work-life balance and be present for their children, the company’s bottom line has not been impacted.

Moms-in-Film, a California-based nonprofit with support from Amazon Studios, Panavision and Collab&Play, is committed to raising awareness around inequities for parents in film and TV. They launched the Wee Wagon, a mobile childcare facility designed for use on film sets. The group has also advocated for California-based films to adopt a Parental Inclusive Clause into their contracts, which asks that productions commit to a 50% to 100% subsidy for the cost of childcare for all members of the cast and crew. They offer a handy list of 10 ways to be inclusive and recognize that childcare is the top issue among parents, with a survey noting that 77% of those working in the entertainment industry have had to turn down work due to a lack of childcare.

With a growing chorus of voices calling for equality, the power of visibly pregnant women on set, and high-level actresses advocating for childcare at work, the future looks brighter for mothers in production. In her book, Bossypants, Tina Fey relates that she was writing and producing 30 Rock from her home and bringing her child to the set, making her an outlier. It’s now becoming increasingly easier to envision a future where women in the industry don’t have to choose between their children and their creative ambitions as they work to achieve parity at the top levels of this competitive field.

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Going In Deep - Why We Just Can't Get Enough of Leslye Headland

Posted By Katie Grant, Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Since TV’s creative sandbox was replaced with a puzzle box, producers are expected to captivate and hold their fickle audiences who are used to watching whatever they want, whenever they want. Be it on-demand, in-demand or bingeing to excess, the game is to keep your fans close with mysteries slowly revealed in flashback until that final puzzle piece is in place—whether that happens by appointment or all in one sitting. Leslye Headland has cracked that mysterious code with Netflix’s insatiable hit, Russian Doll. The secret? Going deep.

Like the tiny figures hidden inside Russian nesting dolls, there is much more to writer, director, playwright, executive producer Leslye Headland and her work than meets the eye. By the same token, Russian Doll is more than another take on Groundhog Day, as some have compared it to. On the contrary, the never-ending loops of Nadia (played by co-creator, writer, director Natasha Lyonne) living and dying through her 36th birthday go ever deeper in each episode, as she tries to reprogram and heal her life up until that point.

That depth is due to the creative trifecta of Lyonne, Headland and former SNL member and executive producer Amy Poehler. Russian Doll arose from their collective desire to examine how people are “always overturning and going deeper into the ego and trying to figure out how the human brain works and how we make peace with certain things and why we repeat certain things.”

Russian Doll is a high-concept, multifaceted, female-protagonist show that, Headland says proudly, “doesn’t have to do with [the main character’s] job or her family or her love life” and uses game coding as a device to rewrite Nadia’s journey into her psyche. Headland partially credits the show’s success to Netflix’s binge model of dropping all eight episodes at once. She explains, “There wasn’t this pressure of that first episode having to make everyone stay in.”

Headland on the set of Russian Doll directing young Nadia,
played by Brooke Timber

Headland got her start, even before graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts drama program, as a produced playwright with her Seven Deadly Plays series, the first of which became her feature film and directorial debut, Bachelorette. Even then, she chose to dive into her own past of a conservative and religious upbringing to see what she could unearth, each play focusing on a single sin.

Bachelorette’s sin was gluttony, and Headland recalls writing the line, “You guys had an abortion without me?” “I had that moment of, ‘I cannot say that. That’s not funny.’ And then I thought, ‘Oh, I have to say it.’ I think that was like a defining moment of whenever I had that moment of ‘no,’ it was like, ‘Oh, we should go deeper into this.’ Go into it and not run from it.

“The next thought that happened was, ‘Are you ready to answer for this?’ And I thought, ‘Yes, I am.’ Because it’s a good joke, you know, number one. And number two, it really did sum up thematically what the play was about, which was that women were looking past their trauma and only seeing it through the lens of their own narcissism.”

Such brave, truthful storytelling is what landed Headland her first writing job in television on a one-season-wonder show for FX about a pair of scrappy private detectives called Terriers. “It was literally a dream come true. But what was amazing was it was the first time that I’d ever have to write in someone else’s voice, and it was the first nonfemale-centric project I’d ever been on,” Headland says. And yet she remembers her major contribution to that show’s sole season story line being to push for a main female character’s depth.

“I thought, ‘Katie has to do something wrong. Everything she does is just perfect.’ To me, in that moment, I’m not thinking, ‘I’m truth-telling.’ It just seems to me that I can’t relate with a character unless they do something wrong.”

Finding and fleshing out flaws is also a major theme in Russian Doll. “One of the things that [Poehler] hit a lot on when we were pitching was the tiny doll inside. She said, ‘Everybody has a tiny doll. What is Nadia’s tiny doll? How do we externalize that? How do you make that into an understandable, consumable thing?’ [Natasha’s] literally telling a story that is—I don’t think she’d mind me saying—pretty autobiographical. And so there’s the triangle of her inner, smaller self dealing with her mother and then her being an adult trying to deal with the ghost of both of those things.”

Headland recalls of her own writing before Russian Doll, “I had been basically saying things about myself and my own psyche like ‘this is my badness’ or ‘this is my addiction’ or ‘this is where I’m broken.’ And the [therapist] that I worked with really turned it around to ‘this is little Leslye.’

“This is actually not a problem. This is little Leslye, who is not being given the sunlight, the creativity, the spirit. So when you do that type of work, it’s awful and wonderful all at the same time. The idea that you could get that vulnerable, talk about it, put it up on the screen and people would say, ‘Me too,’ is mind-blowing to me.”

Her chances to share that vulnerability on a larger scale increased soon after Terriers. “It’s worth mentioning that one of the show’s creators, Shawn Ryan, said, ‘Writers, you need to learn how to become producers. You need to be on set for your episodes so that you can learn how to produce your own work,’” notes Headland.

And indeed, her producing career was not far behind with Bachelorette and her second turn, the feature Sleeping With Other People. Directing and producing on the TV reboot of Heathers hit just before Russian Doll came about.

“An actual producer, in my opinion, is someone that is a liaison between the project, the work and everybody else. It should flow that way. Not the other way around. I think sometimes what happens with producers—and I’ve been this person when I’m just producing—it’s kind of like, ‘Oh I guess I’m here just in case something happens … I guess I’m here in case there’s a problem and I’ll take care of it.’”

The potential problems with Russian Doll’s production were immense given that the show was block-shot, cross-boarded and shot in chunks. For example, every scene where Nadia comes back to life in the bathroom at her birthday party was shot all at once. How did Headland solve the puzzle of tracking 22 different life/death loops that filmed back-to-back?

“There are three things that I think contributed to how well that came off. The first one is that Natasha was in the writer’s room the entire time. So you had a number one on the call sheet that really understood the nature of what the show was. She already knew what the overall journey was going to be.

“Another thing that contributed to it is that the other characters are always starting over. So [they] are always in the same feeling. They basically have to be in the moment and react right away to whatever it is that [Nadia’s] doing.

“The third contribution was that we had the best script supervisor in the business, Melissa Yap-Stewart, who was incredible. I think it also just helps that I’m a video game player and I was also, again, writing in the writer’s room but also directing half of the season. And we didn’t have a very large writer’s room and we didn’t have eight different directors that directed the whole thing. It was good to have a smaller brain trust of people that were all the gatekeepers of the information.”

Tackling Russian Doll’s insane continuity issue of consistently disappearing people and set pieces was solved with a big whiteboard and one big meeting of all the department heads simultaneously. “There were a couple of different diagrams. This particular diagram was just about what disappeared when and they were lettered. So for ‘A through F, everything’s the same. G through M, all these things disappear. And N through Q, people will start disappearing.’ So on and so forth. So in a way, the block shooting of it helped because if you are shooting something on a corner and then the next time that happened was actually a couple episodes later, you would still have your background matching.”

Headland, a self-proclaimed Star Wars nerd, says the layers of loops in Nadia’s search for meaning and truth are no accident. She credits watching YouTube video essays in her youth for teaching her about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey that plays out famously in the George Lucas films. Nadia too “has her refusals of the call; she has her mentor with Ruth,” just like Luke Skywalker did.

Headland’s other nerdy obsession is as “an artistic adrenaline junkie.” She lives for the twist of “subverting expectations” where everyone dislikes a character and then suddenly it’s like, “‘Oh my God! I care so much about this character now.’ I just love if they’re surprised when they yell like that. Then it feels like I’ve got them; they’re listening. While they’re listening, let’s shove the truth in their mouth. I’m addicted to that for sure.

“I’m addicted to engaging the audience to the point where they forget where they are for a second … and then they’ll come back, and they’ll remember their laundry. It’s why the binge model is such a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant thing. If I could get them just kind of hypnotized by the show … if I could just get them to keep pressing play, next episode, next episode. That immersion. I’m addicted to that immersion myself. Like when I watch the movies that I love or when I watch a new movie I’ve never seen before.”

We can look forward to immersing ourselves in future Headland projects that include season 2 of Russian Doll, Not Just Me—a series she directed the pilot for—and an optioned dramatic feature she wrote and directed called Tell Me Everything. For now, she has these words of wisdom for fellow creators: “I think to be producing is getting as involved and as vulnerable as everybody else is. I think that’s something that gets a little lost in the shuffle in the rise of the ‘exec,’ which is a person that sits and stays in an office all day. That’s not hands-on. And I’m not saying that in a pejorative way. So what I’ve noticed in my very small amount of time on this earth is that there are producers that are on the ground, and [those who are] really invested and care just as much as you do and are solving problems.” Lucky for us, Headland is one of those problem-solvers, going in deep with every project.

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Instant Gratification - Jake Avnet Is Only Asking For A Minute Of Your Time

Posted By Spike Friedman, Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Jake Avnet of Indigenous Media is a savvy digital producer; his work is defined by bringing a cinematic quality to online shareable content. He’s also a canny businessman, responsible for some of the most innovative brand integrations for filmed content on the web. But what comes across right away from meeting him is his passion for telling stories about interesting people. Sure he’s excited to talk about his history creating digital content and the business of 60 Second Docs, the online series he produces that has led to partnerships across a range of industries. But what he really wants to tell me about are the Weed Nuns.

“Weed Nuns?” I ask. “Weed Nuns,” Avnet replies. The Weed Nuns are a group of women in the Central Valley of California who proselytize the use of marijuana and create medicinal products for terminal cancer patients. These are passionate businesswomen focused on helping people. And with 60 Second Docs, you can learn their story in, well, just about a minute. Although other videos produced under the 60 Second Docs banner have more hits, the Weed Nuns documentary perfectly encapsulates the series’ ideal. It looks great, it tells a true story that has a couple of twists, and it is as digestible as it is thought-provoking. “Each one is a different story,” says Avnet. “It’s different characters, it’s a different journey. Hopefully people find joy in that.”

This instinct toward telling joyful stories about quirky individuals has allowed 60 Second Docs to become a thriving business with a range of brand partnerships. And each of these partnerships is rooted in real human stories. “We’re outsiders, we’re storytellers,” says Avnet, “and that’s basically our biggest asset.” Partners have ranged from Mike’s Hard Lemonade to the investment firm BlackRock. And because 60 Second Docs tell stories of interesting people, they have been able to work with GoFundMe to create a new synergistic home for their content. 60 Second Docs finds the most fascinating stories on the crowdfunding platform and tells those stories with a cinematic eye that the typical fundraiser would never have the capacity to produce. This shines a light on people in need and turns a brand integration into a way of doing good. “We’re people-oriented,” explains Avnet, “in terms of us thinking about how we can give back. This felt like it was an amazingly direct way of doing that.”

60 Seconds Docs teams with Mike's Hard Lemonade for a LA Pride parade float and Proud Dad campaign


Other engagements, including a promotional push alongside the release of BlacKkKlansman, appear more traditional, but still leverage the unique approach of 60 Second Docs. With BlacKkKlansman, they produced a short documentary that told the real history behind the film, centering it on Ron Stallworth, upon whom the film’s story was based. By blending interview footage, archival footage and footage from the movie, 60 Second Docs produced content that both promoted the film and led to a more profound level of audience engagement. The combination of archival footage and scenes from the Spike Lee film worked in concert to tell a compelling story and deepen the stakes of the movie for the viewer. And it did that in just over a minute, generating hundreds of thousands of views across a range of platforms.

Because 60 Second Docs is by its very nature “snackable” content, it is able to live in multiple areas, which means the material Avnet produces is platform-agnostic. Making films that are optimized for online consumption can mean chasing views via the algorithms of behemoth platforms like Google and Facebook. That’s not the approach Avnet takes. “You see a lot of publishers play this game where they kind of are like, OK, Facebook loves VR? We’re a VR company now,” says Avnet. “We try to stay out of that fray.” For 60 Second Docs, that means eschewing the norms of the shareable Facebook video. 

Avnet’s cinematic instincts pushed him to produce more sophisticated material, going beyond user-generated content to engage up-and-coming filmmakers interested in telling new stories. “We went the opposite direction,” says Avnet. “We’re making films. They’re really short, but they are films. They hopefully have a bit of a cinematic eye. They’re a little more premium, and we think that will drive deeper engagement.”

Although the 60 Second Docs model does not require a lowest-common-denominator approach to chasing clicks, Avnet still uses digital platforms to optimize the product being created. And because 60 Second Docs are by their nature very short, Avnet and his team can test multiple cuts of a documentary with the public to see which people find more engaging. “It’s a rapid-fire focus testing process,” Avnet explains. This can happen very quickly because the content is being consumed very quickly. The team can infer which cut of a documentary the public prefers and then push a preferred option out across a range of platforms.

This instinct toward using the online space to create premium content comes naturally to Avnet. He grew up in the industry. His father, Jon, is a director and producer and is the co-CEO at Indigenous. But Jake also came out of film school during the early era of digital production. He learned how to produce quickly, on a budget, and across a wide range of forms including web series, music videos and advertisements. As studios became interested in moving into digital, Avnet had both the chops in the space and the cinematic eye needed to thrive. “The world grew up around us,” Avnet says of his experience in the industry.

This led to a partnership with YouTube under their Original Channels Initiative called WIGS, spearheaded by Rodrigo Garcia, now co-CEO of Indigenous media. WIGS operated like both studio and network—developing, producing and distributing new premium content, including Blue starring Julia Stiles and Eric Stoltz. “That was a really, really cool experience where it just became this crash course in all aspects of producing,” says Avnet.

Understanding digital means understanding the specifics of what makes certain content work on certain platforms. That is fundamental to the work Indigenous produces; their name is a play on the idea of being native to a medium. And no project is more indicative of Avnet’s understanding of the digital space than their release of Sickhouse on Snapchat. This found-footage horror film was designed to blur the lines between fiction and reality. “If you’re making a movie for Snapchat,” says Avnet, “you need to make it in a way that people want to watch it on Snapchat.” Sickhouse, though, is not just a Snapchat-native horror film. It is a well-made horror film that happens to conform to the norms of Snapchat.

With 60 Second Docs, this push toward short and high-quality content reaches its apex. But that doesn’t mean the project does not have room to grow. 60 Second Docs is already a global enterprise, having produced shorts on every continent on the planet. However the team is currently cutting deals to expand its reach. That means more than simply exporting what has already worked in the United States. It means adapting the work to appeal to different cultures. “It’s important to be thoughtful about what stories you are telling,” says Avnet of the challenge of balancing translating content that has worked well in the domestic market, versus expanding by producing content that is market specific.

Growing the scope of 60 Second Docs also means looking at ways of expanding the content to leverage what it is already doing well, while finding new ways to dig deeper into these stories. This has led Avnet and Indigenous to partner with Howie Mandel’s Alevy Productions on a television version of 60 Second Docs. The show will allow viewers to go deeper into these stories via interviews and features. Of the project and working with Avnet, Mandel says, “I came to 60 Seconds Docs as a fan because I loved their content. [Jake’s] approach makes the evolution into traditional film and TV very clear and we see unlimited potential.” 

Avnet’s push into this new space between traditional and digital media also includes Five Points on Facebook Watch. Five Points is a teen drama with a focus on social issues. Co-produced with Kerry Washington, the show places high-end content on a nontraditional platform to reach an audience that is increasingly eschewing traditional platforms. “Tasked with finding a way to combine the best of digital and traditional filmmaking to bring premium storytelling to an emerging platform,” says Washington, “I cannot think of a collaborator who would have brought a more thoughtful, resilient, innovative and visionary approach than Jake.”

This is a natural expansion for Avnet, because at the end of the day, he is interested in producing stories about fascinating people. And if a move to a more traditional medium means we get more than a minute with the Weed Nuns, it feels like that’s a win-win.

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Sweet Smell Of Success - From The National Executive Directors

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Reflecting on the 11th annual Produced By Conference, which wrapped up in June, we could not be prouder to represent the Guild as your National Executive Directors. In addition to the pleasure of connecting with so many interesting and engaged members of the PGA community, it was the breadth and relevance of the topics covered during panels and conversations that we found so impressive.

A crowd of 1,000 attendees packed the venues at Warner Bros. Studios for the two-day conference. Responding to suggestions and requests from our membership, this year’s discussions were the most forward-looking ever, and nearly every session was sold out.

In an environment where producers are facing a rapidly changing landscape in terms of content and distribution, valuable information was presented on the challenges of streaming and podcasting. There was also great interest in the panel on balancing creativity and cost when it comes to new technology.

Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, co-founders of the new digital platform Quibi, broke major news when they revealed that their business model will offer a generous intellectual property policy. After two years, producers can put their content in a longer form and “own their own IP.”

As more and more producers turn their talents to stories that have social impact or give voice to the underrepresented, new discussions and pitches are entering the production realm. The panels Content With a Conscience and Representation for Everyone were extremely popular and garnered a great deal of positive post-event coverage. Michael B. Jordan expressed beautifully the importance of choosing a mindful project, saying, “It’s about wanting to create bodies of work and tell stories that will make people go home and think thoughts that will weigh heavily on their heart.

Other panels receiving lots of press pickup included the entertaining duo of Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito and the candid conversation between Mindy Kaling and Nancy Myers.

The event wrapped up with a record 600 people participating in a lively Producers Mashup, where seasoned professionals engaged directly with small groups of attendees.

And for those who couldn’t be at the conference this year, it was livestreamed for the first time ever from the Steven J. Ross Theater, a move that was cheered by many grateful members.  

Congratulations and thank you to all our speakers, staff and volunteers who made the weekend such an overwhelming success. We’d especially like to thank the Conference Chairs: Betsy Beers, Ian Bryce, Tracey Edmonds, Mike Farah and Gene Stein. And a big shout-out to Madelyn Hammond & Associates, Barry Kaplan and Diane Salerno.

We now set our sights on a fantastic Produced By New York conference November 9. These are the perfect moments to celebrate the importance of building connections and community within our thriving industry.

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ODD NUMBERS - Bye Bye Bye

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, August 7, 2019

With the Emmys just around the corner, we reflect on some favorite TV shows we're saying goodbye to this year. But not to worry - there are some great new ones taking their place that are bound to satisfy your viewing appetite.

 

WHICH SHOW WILL YOU MISS THE MOST?

 

WHO WILL BE THE BIGGEST BREAKOUT STAR?

 

WHICH NEW SHOW ARE YOU HOPING WILL HAVE A LONG RUN?

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OPEN DOORS - Time To Measure Up: New Tools For Inclusivity From "Fade In" To Opening Night

Posted By Deborah Calla and Lisa Kors, Wednesday, August 7, 2019

It’s a changing world when it comes to inclusivity and the entertainment industry. As producers, we have a responsibility to make sure our projects accurately reflect the demographics of today’s society. To help with this mission, activists and organizations are coming up with new tools to facilitate the process.

We know there’s a growing awareness about unconscious bias. But how do we deal with this? How does a producer form an objective analysis about a project in terms of gender, age, disability and LGBTQ+ portrayal?

One of the first efforts to help with this came from a partnership between Google, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory (SAIL). Their initial effort was a face-tracking and audio analysis powered by machine learning (called GD-IQ), which was used to educate studios about how often women are seen or speak in movies. The results revealed that the idea of gender parity didn’t exist, and the number of female characters was still abysmally low. Based on this concrete evidence of how pervasive the problem was, the Institute’s mission became even more critical and timely.

Around this same time, screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee, Batgirl) posed the idea that rather than analyze a finished product, why not apply the concept of inclusion right from the start—on page one of a screenplay? Energized by this thought, she approached fellow writer John August and within weeks, a new tool called Gender Analysis was included in his free Highland 2 software. Hodson observed, “It made sense to me that we can do a lot ourselves, before (the scripts) even leave our desks.”

Building on the concept of tabulating the number of female characters and amount of their dialogue, Final Draft, along with the Geena Davis Institute, took the idea and process to the next level. They understood the very real notion of unconscious bias and how pervasive it can be. Working together, the two created an Inclusivity Analysis Feature that quickly measures ethnicity, gender, age, disability or any other definable trait of a character. This is a free add-on available to all Final Draft users. Scott McMenamin, President of Final Draft, explains, “Our goal is to give the writer, development executive, producer or anyone else involved in the filmmaking process, maximum flexibility to measure character traits without imposing our own definitions on what is measured.”

Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute, adds that she hopes the data and research tools become “the gold standard for measuring gender equality and intersectionality in storytelling for the entertainment industry.” 

With systems like these already available and future enhancements currently in the pipeline, we as producers now have the ability to make sure our work accurately reflects the world we live in, right from “FADE IN.”

For more information, visit the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media at seejane.org, Final Draft at finaldraft.com and Highland at quoteunquoteapps.com/highland-2.

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LISTENING IN - 2019 LA Produced By Conference At Warner Bros. Studios Was The Place To See and Be Seen. And There Was Plenty To Hear As Well...

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, August 7, 2019

 

“Being here is a huge honor for us.”
Gabriela Gonzalez, selected to pitch a project at the Art and Craft of Pitching

“I met one of my closest friends at Produced By the first year and we’re still friends today.”
Melissa Friedman, Producer/PGA member

“What’s valuable to us as a vendor is everybody trusts the PGA. Being here is super efficient , a really awesome return for us.”
Mike Dearborn, Co-founder of TIM

“It is friendship, it is relationships. It’s all about keeping in touch and being with people you care about.”
Danny DeVito

“If a producer doesn’t have a routine, a healthy routine, literally physically and every other way, it’s impossible to manufacture the cycle over and over long enough to make it all the way through the process of producing from concept to completion.”
Kip Konwiser, The Money Pool 

“I wish someone had said to me in the harder times that this is going to mean something to you later; this is going to matter.”
Ava DuVernay

“It’s my first time here and I’m already meting amazing people from all over the world, like-minded producers in the same genre.”
Tamia Dow, Filmmaker

“The people who do not have any connections, no nepotistic ways at all of getting into this industry—how do we bring those who have zero access into these spaces and give them an opportunity to know that their voice matters?”
Leila Jarman, Women’s Voices Now

“Be gracious when hearing a ‘no.’ Hopefully if the interaction is great, we will say come back again.”
Vernon Sanders, Co-head of TV, Amazon

 

 

 



“They give out really good free pens.”

 



“I suck at raising money, so I thought I’d try to find some people who are good at it.”

 





“The worst part of being a producer is having to tell talent they have to do something again.”

 




“Who doesn’t love food trucks?”

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GOING GREEN - Animated About The Environment: Pixar's Sustained Effort To Go Green

Posted By Amanda Jones and Biz Thorsen, Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The world knows Pixar Animation Studios for its hit films, like Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Inside Out. But most don’t know about the studio’s eco-friendly practices. What began as a grassroots, employee-led effort 11 years ago has grown to a group of more than 100 employees called the Green Team. Their mission is simple: to encourage environmentally conscious actions from employees and the studio as a whole, as well as the local community surrounding Pixar in the East Bay area. 

The studio’s leaders have championed Green Team practices over the years, turning them into studio priorities. Ed Catmull, Pixar founder and president, served as the team’s executive sponsor until he retired this year. He passes the role to SparkShort Purl producer Gillian Libbert (p.g.a.), who helps shepherd Green Team initiatives from concept through implementation. “We put so much into every aspect of our filmmaking; it must also pertain to our environmental practices. It’s something we have to do because it is morally and ethically the right thing to do,” Libbert says.  

When it comes to Green Team initiatives, diverse perspectives matter. Animator and Green Team member Alli Sadegiani says, “Our members come from all over the studio. Environmental issues are so universal and multifaceted that it’s important to have as many voices and departments represented as possible.”

Interacting With Employees

At a studio with more than 1,200 employees, raising awareness about and reducing waste consumption is a key part of the Green Team’s environmental efforts.

Production Coordinator and Green Team member Biz Thorsen says, “It’s easy to ignore your consumption. We ask people, during Earth Week especially, to stop and notice.” Earth Week festivities range from environmentalist speakers and documentary screenings to local sustainable vendors. It’s also the time the Green Team aims to put its yearly agenda into action.  

A rather shocking Earth Week art installation in 2012 hung a week’s worth of disposable coffee cups in the main atrium, motivating a one-third reduction in paper cup usage by 2017. The installation in 2018 introduced the replacement of office trash cans with centrally located waste stations throughout campus. Not only did the initiative encourage better recycling and composting habits, but it also eliminated 1,300 plastic liners per day or 47 miles of plastic a year.  

The Green Team keeps busy well beyond April. They partner with the Pixar Cafe staff to promote Green Mondays, to highlight plant-based menu items. They also celebrate Bay Area Bike to Work Day, providing free bike tune-ups and complimentary smoothies for bike commuters. The team maintains an internal website, and all new-hire orientations include a Green Team introduction, encouraging people to join.

Interacting With the Studio

The Green Team credits a lot of its success to the support of the studio’s Facilities team. Pixar was the first company in Alameda County to supply compost, recycling and landfill waste stations. Facilities engineer, Brian Torres, makes sure to provide specialty recycling for common landfill items like batteries, electronics, light bulbs, ink cartridges, Styrofoam and plastics. These efforts pay off in a big way. In 2016, 59% of waste was diverted from landfills; by 2018, landfill diversion rose to 82.6%. Also in 2018, Alameda County StopWaste awarded Pixar’s Green Team with the Business Efficiency Award for Excellence in Waste Prevention & Reuse in recognition of their efforts. 

Patty Bonfilio serves as the new head of Facilities & Operations. She shares the team’s passion for creating a more sustainable daily operation of the studio, always seeking the newest technology. From water resources to energy use, Patty has had a profound impact (see side column).

The Cafe is another trusted partner of the Green Team. Chef Jennifer Johnston has always sought more sustainable, environmentally friendly practices. They transfer produce from biodiesel delivery trucks to cafe storage in reusable containers to reduce packaging waste. Their dishwashing machines use high heat sanitizing methods rather than chemical sanitizing that would go into the water supply. All single-use wrapping is compostable or recyclable. As Johnston says, “These decisions can’t happen in a vacuum. You have to spend just as much time getting the word out as changing the practice. And it has to be a core company value. Hopefully when employees leave here they’ve bought in; they’ve adopted the thinking on these practices and how it can translate to their own everyday lives and communities.”

Interacting With the Community

The Green Team is involved with the local community with cleanups, volunteering at the local elementary school lunch hour and teaching kids how to sort their food waste. Manager of Facilities Operations Pete Schreiber is another core member of the Green Team. “Participating in the local business community, exchanging ideas, what works, what doesn’t—it’s invaluable,” says Schreiber. 

Last year the studio hosted the first annual Day of Service for all employees to volunteer for a day in the community. The Green Team connected employees with the Oakland Zoo, the Golden Gate Audubon Society and Waterside Workshop.

Dreams for the Future

The Green Team has big dreams for the future. Their continued goals include finding a solution to the paper waste still used in the script department, removing any remaining plastic water bottle use, reducing lighting pollution at night, eliminating all single-use plastics studio-wide, switching to solar energy (actively underway) and making each film’s production carbon neutral, labelled with an official EMA Green Seal.

 

Additional Studio-Wide Improvements/Practices

Water

  • Pixar uses reclaimed water campus-wide. More than 65% of water is reclaimed. Faucets and toilets are all low-flow.

Cafe

  • All cooking oil is recycled and converted to biofuel.
  •  All food waste is scraped into a compost bin.
  • An on-site edible garden supplies the cafe with a portion of their veggies and herbs.
  • All single-use supplies (plates, bowls, utensils) are compostable.

Bathrooms

  • Janitorial supplies are EPA- and LEED-compliant, including facial tissue and roll towels.
  • Toilet paper and seat covers are 100% recycled.
  • All supplied feminine hygiene products are organic and sustainable.

Grounds

  • Office supplies are reused, passing from show to show.
  • Broken furniture and construction waste are recycled.
  • There are two E-Waste campus drives a year.
  • Tree and bush trim waste are composted off-site and used to make industrial compost.

Energy

  • Almost all common-area lighting is now LED technology
  • Exterior windows on campus are tinted and window film has been added on the south-facing windows to cool the buildings.
  •  The studio runs Bloom fuel cells to offset electrical usage, uses outside air as a form of “free-cooling” for their buildings, and an energy-efficient cooling system for their main data center. 

 

- Photos courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios

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EXPAND YOUR AUDIENCE - How To Reach, Connect With and Support People with Disabilities

Posted By Lauren Appelbaum, Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Some of the most talented people in history—from Beethoven (deaf) and Harriet Tubman (epilepsy) to Selena Gomez (lupus), Richard Branson (dyslexic) and Steven Hawking (ALS)—achieved great success while living with a disability. Despite the fact that today 56 million Americans have a disability, few industries are fully reaching out to this market. The film and TV industry has a unique opportunity to change that narrative. Here are a few tips, ideas and facts to help you get started, courtesy of a proactive organization called RespectAbility, the nonprofit that produced The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit.

 

Disabilities are rarely seen in movies or television shows.

By simply showing more characters with disabilities, you can help bring disability out of the closet and into the open. This will help people with disabilities and those who love them feel more accepted, valued, respected and appreciated.

 

Disability cuts across every demographic, gender, age, race and sexual orientation.

Too often, people with disabilities are represented by white actors. Producers can help ensure that people of color also are included. The show NCIS: New Orleans features a character in a wheelchair, portrayed by Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, an African American actor who was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident and uses a wheelchair off screen. This is an important representation for a large portion of the viewing audience, as people with disabilities make up the third-largest market, per Nielsen. Recently Ali Stroker made history as the first actor who uses a wheelchair to win a Tony award. Stroker also identifies as LGBTQ. Additionally, producers should think about the diversity of disabilities. That includes those who are deaf or blind, have a cognitive disability such as Down syndrome, or an invisible disability such as dyslexia or depression.

 

Portray characters with disabilities as successful members of the community.

Like people in the LBGTQ community, people with disabilities should be able to be “out” in the open and accepted as equals. The reality show Born This Way features seven diverse young adults with Down syndrome as they move toward full independence and deal with issues around employment, independent living, education and romance. By promoting success stories of people with disabilities, Born This Way helps to change negative perceptions. The show has been well received, winning three Emmy Awards. In scripted television, Speechless is a sitcom centered on a family that happens to include a son with cerebral palsy. The fact that the character J.J. is played by Micah Fowler, an actor who has cerebral palsy, is extremely important. Actors without disabilities play more than 95% of characters with disabilities on television.

 

Allow characters with disabilities to showcase their skills in a variety of roles.

Why not show doctors and teachers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who use a wheelchair or a prosthesis? Show a store clerk, hospital aid, or food service worker who has Down syndrome or a hero who is dyslexic or blind and uses speech-to-text to type and audio text-to-read. Today people with disabilities are shown either as X-Men with strange super skills or as less productive members of society. But most people with disabilities are neither. What they do have, however, is natural and refined abilities to innovate, as they must constantly find work-arounds to succeed in life.

 


TOP: Micah Fowler and Diego Luna attend the premiere of
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
BOTTOM: The cast of
Born This Way

Think about the language that you use.

Avoid terms like “wheelchair-bound” and “suffers from.” The National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ) provides the industry’s only disability language style guide. The guide is intended for journalists, communication professionals and members of the general public who are seeking the appropriate and accurate language to use when writing or talking about people living with disabilities. The guide covers general terms and words on physical disabilities, hearing and visual impairments, mental and cognitive disabilities, and seizure disorders. It’s available to view at ncdj.org/style-guide.

 

Use your shows and movies to inspire parents of children with disabilities to take full advantage of the opportunities that early intervention can bring.

Being a successful parent of any child is hard work. Parenting a child with disabilities can be even harder, and there is a clock ticking. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have proven that children’s brains are “neuroplastic,” especially in the first six years of life. This means that with proper, early intervention, children’s brains can literally be rewired. The film Finding Dory presents a realistic portrayal of what it is like to parent a child with disabilities. The first scene shows Dory’s parents teaching her how to interact with other children in the aquarium through role-playing. Throughout the film, the scaffolding they built for Dory as a child pays off, enabling her to find them again. Such modeling in future TV shows and films can be transformative for children and parents alike. You can inspire parents, teachers and other caregivers to help children build skills and resiliency that lead to success.

 

Reach out to experts.

As a member of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, which represents more than 100 national disability organizations, RespectAbility can set you up with experts on a wide variety of disabilities. They are ready to be your partner in ensuring accurate coverage and can help you prepare tool kits and teaching guides on disability-related topics that connect to your shows.

 


 Daryl "Chill" Mitchell and Anthony Anderson at the 41st NAACP Image Awards

Ensure that people with a variety of disabilities have access to your products.

Make your website fully accessible by having both captions and audio descriptions available for those who have either visual or auditory disabilities. These people are consumers of content and watch TV and film. For your website, add tags, captions, a site index, and alt text to images. Ensure that all videos have captions and check their accuracy. Video hosting sites such as YouTube and Vimeo have free tools that allow users to add automated subtitles to their clips—but review these carefully for reliability. Making a transcript of the video available online is also an incredibly helpful resource for users with auditory disabilities, like deafness or those who are hard of hearing. Many of these things are also valuable for your search engine optimization (SEO), increasing your reach and readership.

 

Create a plan to hire and retain employees with disabilities.

Check out places like Exceptional Minds, which trains students with autism in creating graphics for films and TV shows. The nonprofit USBLN, the National Organization on Disability, and ASKJAN.org are also great resources. Create an employee resource group for employees with disabilities. How many employees with disabilities or people who have family members with disabilities does your company employ? Do they feel comfortable bringing their authentic 360-degree selves to work? Do they have a support system with other members of the team? Ensure that people who identify as a woman, African American or LGBTQ and also have a disability are welcomed into every aspect of your organization. People who live with multiple minority status should be able to feel comfortable and welcome in all groups.

 

For more information see The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit.

Lauren Appelbaum is the Vice President of Communications of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities.

Lead image: Ali Stroker makes history, winning Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for her role in Oklahoma.

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ABOVE & BEYOND - Greater Visibility And A Louder Voice: The PGA East Presents A Special Salon To Support Documentary Filmmakers

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The PGA Documentary Screening Salon is a unique program that allows smaller documentaries to reach a wider audience. The monthly curated screenings regularly draw enthusiastic crowds and spur lively discussions with a Q&A and reception afterward. The films chosen can be docs that have a limited distributor, are self-distributed or without distribution at all.

Jill Campbell and Joseph Schroeder lead the Documentary Screening Salon subcommittee, which is part of the PGA East Documentary and Nonfiction Committee. The subcommittee’s members are experienced documentarians, whose mission is to identify quality filmmakers and shine a spotlight on their work, while at the same time providing an exclusive viewing experience for PGA members.

Each of the past four seasons, the Salon has screened several highly acclaimed independent documentaries, including The Wolfpack, Minding the Gap, Quest and Life, Animated. This past year featured The River and the Wall, Roll Red Roll and This Changes Everything. The final screening of 2019 will be for The Hottest August, taking place on August 21. The annual program, which begins in March, is open to all 1,800 members of the Guild’s East region.

When she’s not co-chairing the Documentary Screening Salon, Jill is a director and producer of  independent documentaries, most recently Mr. Chibbs. She finds it very rewarding to be in a position to help filmmakers get more visibility for their projects and introduce her fellow PGA members to docs that might not be on their radar. “It has been wonderful to meet and support other documentary producers in an intimate setting. For anyone involved in documentary filmmaking, this is a great chance to network,” she says.

Joseph also produces documentaries, most notably, Beyond Borders: Undocumented Mexican Americans for PBS. He adds, “The Salon atmosphere truly opens up a venue for communication about the issues raised in a particular film in a way other events may not. It’s great to partner with Jill to create an environment where filmmakers feel free to share their work, and Guild members feel free to connect with it on a personal level.”

The two volunteers put in a lot of time and effort finding the projects they want to screen at the Salon. This includes attending festivals, reading trade publications and reviews, and gathering suggestions from fellow PGA members. It has proved to be a winning formula for both the Guild and the work of these independent documentarians.

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BOSPOAT - Best On Set Photo Of All Time: As Good As It Gets

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, August 7, 2019

It’s hard to know what was shining brightest on this August 2017 day—the sun following a solar eclipse or these five megastars eagerly viewing and clearly enjoying the moment. When Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda and Mary Steenburgen gather in one place for any reason, you know something special is happening. This first day of shooting on Book Club was particularly notable. The ladies were quickly becoming best buddies, when Mother Nature started to put on her show. Eager to experience the phenomenon, the cast quickly donned their special glasses.

Erin Simms, PGA member and producer of the film, had the “bright” idea to grab this awesome picture. She says, “They were actually sold out of eclipse glasses all over the city, but thankfully some crew members had wisely stocked up beforehand, so we were all passing them around and sharing. This photo captured a moment that was completely unplanned, and we suddenly realized that while the eclipse was incredible, witnessing these four legends working together for the first time was truly a total eclipse of the heart.”

Simms’ fellow producer on Book Club was another PGA member, Bill Holderman. The talented duo also co-wrote the movie, and Holderman was the director as well.

On a scientific note—this was dubbed the Great American Eclipse because it was visible within a band that spanned the entire contiguous United States. It had been nearly a century since the last time (1918) that happened. Hollywood and the heavens in perfect sync—it doesn’t get any better than that!


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 BOSPOAT@producersguild.org. Before you submit, please review the contest rules at producersguild.org/bospoat. Because no matter how great your photo is, we have no desire to get sued over it.

 

- View other BOSPOAT winners here.

 

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