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GAIL BERMAN & LUCY FISHER - The PGA's New Presidents Have Some Big Plans

Posted By Chris Green, Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Typically when we interview a pair of producers for our cover, they represent two halves of a long-standing partnership, with a significant collective body of work behind them. The two subjects of this interview aren’t producing partners—at least not in the traditional sense—and it’s fair to speculate that the duo’s most lasting joint achievements lie ahead.

On June 9 at the Guild’s General Membership Meeting, the PGA welcomed its new Presidents, Gail Berman and Lucy Fisher. In taking the office, they represent the fourth pair of producers to share the duties of the PGA presidency. Not only does their election promise new opportunities for the Producers Guild, it presented a novel prospect for this magazine: the chance to sit down with the incoming leaders and discuss their priorities, as they chart the Guild’s course for the next two years. In years past, incoming Presidents have been the subjects of feature profiles recent enough to disqualify them as repeat cover subjects. But Gail Berman (we’re almost embarrassed to note) has never appeared in our pages prior to this, while Lucy Fisher, along with her producing partner and husband, Douglas Wick, was last seen gracing the cover of this magazine back in 2001, in the sixth issue we ever published.

Needless to say, it’s a vastly different PGA and entertainment industry that we’re a part of today. But if anyone is up to the challenges of the moment, it’s Berman and Fisher, who each bring to the job a lengthy producing career informed by a significant tenure as a network/studio executive at the highest levels. This also marks the first time a pair of women have held the PGA Presidency. Berman and Fisher were both instrumental contributors to the Guild’s landmark Anti-Sexual Harassment Guidelines released earlier this year, and their election is a sure sign that the Producers Guild intends to continue to lead the industry as it reappraises its professional culture.

In taking on the PGA Presidency, we conjecture that Berman and Fisher must have somehow discovered a few extra hours in each day, busy as they are with running their respective companies, The Jackal Group (which Berman founded in 2014) and Red Wagon Entertainment (where Fisher joined partner Wick as Co-Head in 2000). Berman was kind enough to dedicate a couple of those hours to hosting Produced By at The Jackal Group offices in Santa Monica, where the following interview took place.

 

So of course, we need the origin stories. How did you guys find your way to producing?

GAIL: I started my career as a producer in a pretty unusual way.  After graduating from the University of Maryland in my early 20s, a friend and I wound up producing a version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which we initially put up at Ford’s Theater in Washington and then took the production to off-Broadway and then finally to Broadway— which served as the show’s initial debut on the big stage. So at a very young age, I wound up being a producer and was purely a producer for the first 10 years of my career. Then I became an executive who was also producing, working for Sandy Gallin, which lead to my running production companies and also producing. However when I went to Fox in 2000, I served solely as an executive for the first time in my career.

 

Well, we’re glad you’re back.

GAIL: I am too. When I went to work as an executive, I missed being a producer. I missed being close to the product. I missed “touching” it. I enjoyed my years as an executive, but I always knew that I would go back to getting as close as I could to the creative idea and to the group that I got to put together to fulfill somebody’s creative vision. And I love that.


 

It sounds like it’s part of your DNA, at this point.

GAIL: It kind of is, I think.

LUCY: I had the opposite trajectory. I was an executive for 25 years, at five different studios. I worked with a number of producers and lived with and married a producer. I was very lucky in that I got to work with some great visionary producers. I worked for Francis Coppola for two years as Head of Production when he had his studio, Zoetrope Studios, on Las Palmas and got to see him work as a producer and director.  And I did many movies with Steven Spielberg, mostly as a producer but sometimes as a director. So I was able to watch some masters in action. I got to watch my husband [Douglas Wick] manage Gladiator and see how he kept three separate writers all still engaged on the project, reading new drafts and scenes even when somebody else was writing those drafts.  Even as an executive, I always liked to think of myself as sort of an executive producer on the movies that I worked on, because I loved to be down in the details of the process.

But as I rose up the ranks as an executive, I kept finding myself further and further away from the creative side I loved, until I was finally offered the Chairmanship at Sony. But I realized that if I took that job, I would be in a room I didn’t want to be in, instead of the room that I did want to be in, which was the room that said “Yes” as opposed to the room that said “No.” I wanted to be a part of putting together the team of talented people who would work together to make something better than it could ever be if any one person did it by themselves. Being a part of that collaborative process is, I think, one of the greatest pleasures of working in entertainment.

 


The Producers Guild, as an organization, has had a few different acts of its own. What was your impression of the Guild before you joined, and what did you discover about the PGA as you became familiar with it?

GAIL: Well, I really dived right in when I joined, but to be perfectly candid, I didn’t know much about the PGA before that. Initially it felt to me that the Guild lent itself more to the film community than it did to television. I realized after I joined that I was mistaken about that, that there was an interest in really broadening the goals of the organization. I felt like I fit right in, that I could participate, get my point of view—and certainly the television point of view—across. Now that I’m working more in film, it’s a pleasure to access the experience of some of the veteran film producers that have lent their services to the Guild. It’s an impressive group.

LUCY: I came to the Producers Guild through Wick, who also later turned out to be my business partner in Red Wagon. But at that point, I was still a studio executive and he was very involved in the early stages of the creation of the Producers Mark, along with Kathy Kennedy, Mark Gordon, Hawk Koch and so many others.  Seeing them put together the definition of what a producer did, and create and sell the value of the Mark is what turned me on to the PGA.

What I came to see after I became a producer and joined it, was that the PGA, as an entity, has a lot of the same qualities that I admire in producers; it’s scrappy, it’s not bureaucratic, it wants to get things done, it welcomes different points of view and it’s okay to argue. I love that its ways aren’t set in stone and it doesn’t have such an old history that precedent always has to take precedence. Instead people are encouraged to speak up. We can act nimbly because we’re not mired down. So I think that the Guild has a similar personality to the best aspects of producing. I like that.

 

What is it that you’d like to see the Guild do? What sort of difference would you like to see it make in the lives of producers or in the lives of people in the industry?

LUCY: That’s a great question. I’ll answer it in a few different parts. At this particular point in time, I was especially attracted to the opportunity because I want to help make the producing community more inclusive. Producers are naturally leaders. They have to lead a lot of disparate individual people all the time, while still trying to keep their eye on the big picture.

With the new attention to diversity and emphasis on stopping sexual harassment and trying to create more equitable workplaces, I felt like this was a point in time where I could actually make a bigger difference at the Producers Guild than maybe I would have been able to at other points in time. I mean, the accomplishment of the Producers Mark is supreme. It’s a hugely significant achievement. So now hopefully another great achivement for us can be to provide leadership and provide a model for some of the ways that we’d like society and our industry to conduct itself. That opportunity is extremely appealing to me and to both of us, I think.

GAIL: Because our world is in the midst of a revolution, and our business is changing at a pace that is almost impossible to keep up with, the opportunities that I see for our members are going to continue to grow exponentially from traditional platforms to the expanding universe of OTT services and emerging technologies.

It is an incredible time to be a producer. But at the same time, I also think we have to continue to protect and fight for producers, as we look to the future and to all of these exciting new places for content. Many people and many companies who have not previously been in the entertainment business are entering the space. Producers potentially can become diminished by that, by the lack of understanding of their role in the project. People seem to know what a director does and what a writer does. But oftentimes the producer, the visionary who started it, the person who’s in charge of putting things together and keeping them together, that person needs to be valued and advocated for in this new world order, if you will.

So I think that one of our goals is to take the organization into the future and to make sure that our current members as well as those who expand the ranks, are respected going forward and enjoy the opportunities that the revolution will provide.

LUCY: That was great. I want to say what she says.

[LAUGHTER]

GAIL: Thanks!

Lucy Fisher discusses a scene with cast member Tom Hardy while on location in Georgia for Lawless.

 

What you’re talking about is the paradox of the producer’s job. When you’re responsible for seemingly everything, how do you get others to understand or appreciate the nature of that responsibility?

GAIL: People used to ask me, “What does a producer do?” And I said, “A producer is the person who gets no credit when the show is successful and gets all the blame when the show isn’t successful.” [laughs] That was my definition of a producer. I think 30 years later, it still holds up as a good definition of a producer.

LUCY: But just adding to that, in the film world, despite the fact that movies are often linked to the star or the director in the public’s mind, when it comes time to handing out the Oscar for Best Picture, it goes to the producer. That’s one of the things that the Producers Guild worked really hard on, to make sure the right people, the ones who truly did the work, receive the credit they deserve.

I think Gail is absolutely right that in this exploding universe of entertainment, we want to make sure that we can protect producers the same way. That requires identifying the work. That requires educating people. And it requires having talented people to do that job. I think we do. We have thousands of members and we’re getting more every week.

I think the expanding ranks of the PGA is evidence that the organization has touched a lot of people, has built a community for producers to be able to communicate, share ideas, share frustrations, and be a place that individuals can find work and feel protected. I think that’s a really good way to look at how to grow this organization and to continue to move its ranks into television and into what the Guild still calls “new media.” I hate to tell everybody, but “new media” is at this point, ironically, a very old term.

GAIL: As a guild, we’re exploring a lot of different ways of going about producing in that space. Certainly that is something that we’re doing at my company. And I’d like to think that’s some knowledge that I’ll be able to share with our membership.

LUCY: On a separate but related note, in terms of the membership, I think the PGA’s expanding and redefining what the AP Council represents has allowed a lot more people and younger people to join the Guild. I mean, that’s our lifeblood. We’re excited that those people can find their way in and find work through their membership.

 

Executive producer Gail Berman (back left) with team members from 2016's The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again. Back row: Berman, producer Lou Adler; Front row: cast members Reeve Carney, Victoria Justice, Ryan McCartan, Laverne Cox, Tim Curry, director Kenny Ortega

That’s what a guild is supposed to do, advance your career and give you a trade.

GAIL: That’s our overarching goal: to keep expanding the ranks so that you can start at one place and begin to grow in your career as well as within the PGA.

LUCY: One of the things that I know I’m excited about and I think the Guild is excited about is that in Gail, we have a President who comes from such a deep television background, even though she’s doing features now too. But we haven’t had that in the Guild at such a primary level before. Since there’s now a highway between film and television, with people commuting from one medium to the other, having that perspective is going to be really valuable.

GAIL: I think the lines are blurred. Here’s the good news: We’re all about quality content. We’re all about encouraging our membership to create and be involved in high-quality content. Going forward, that content will be seen on any number of platforms—platforms that we’re all familiar with, the big screen, broadcast television, cable television and now any number of over-the-top services that are being developed or are already in the game.

I think the key here is not so much to think about serving a given distribution platform, but to think about content and the necessity for high-quality content to populate all of these different ways of distributing product. It’s an incredibly ambitious time for producers. It’s an incredibly scary time for producers. But I am a believer that, when you have this kind of tumult, amazing opportunity comes from it. For those who are willing to look and find it, there is a new day dawning. I’m very happy to be part of helping the Guild be a part of this new day and get it to wherever and however we can benefit our members the most.

 

We’ve already spoken a little about the Producers Mark. It remains the signature achievement of the Guild. Lucy, you had a ringside seat to the creation of the Mark.

LUCY: At first it felt like a pipe dream, that the Mark would ever be accepted by any studio, much less all of them. Studios were not in the habit of respecting producers to the degree that they deserved to be respected. It was a very hard process, which our predecessors undertook brilliantly. But when we finally saw that little “p.g.a” next to our names, we were really excited. People asked us, “What is that?” And then they usually said, “We didn’t know you played golf!”

[LAUGHTER]

LUCY: Of course, we explained what it really meant. Anyway the fact that it caught on the way that it did, and the fact that people wanted to have those initials next to their name and wanted to signify that they really did the work, and that they were proud of the work that they did, all of that happened really quickly once it started. I think it’s certainly a crowning achievement of the Guild, at least in the film sphere.

Now we have to figure out how to keep it relevant and how to make it so people can’t game the system. We have a slew of problems that we never anticipated because some people now want the Mark so badly that they are trying to figure out ways to circumvent or bend the rules. So there will be a constant process of massaging or reevaluating those rules. And it’s something that we would like to explore expanding into the television world.

GAIL: Yes. We really believe that, while it’s a more complicated venture to add it to television, it’s certainly worthy of exploration. We have members that I know are interested in seeing that happen. A full evaluation of what the Mark means and what it could mean for television producers is a conversation that we’re going to take up quickly … just in an exploratory way. What would it mean to expand the Mark?

We’re not going to make any promises. We don’t imagine that this is an issue that can be tackled quickly. But we will certainly engage in the conversation.

 

Certainly the kind of tumult you were just talking about suggests that this is a more Malleable PHASE than we’ve seen.

GAIL: That’s why I think this may be the moment to really begin these conversations because at a certain point in time, producers need to answer certain questions such as: What is a film? What is a television show? What is digital content? If a film doesn’t appear in a movie theater, does that mean it’s not a movie? These are all questions that have to be raised. Producers themselves have to engage in the conversation about these things so that other entities are not deciding this for us.

We want to be at the forefront of that decision-making. We want to rise to the occasion the same way the Guild did when confronted with the issue of harassment impacting the industry as a whole. We want to be the first out. We want to be setting the agenda for our membership, as opposed to bringing up the rear.

 

That’s a perfect segue, because that’s exactly what the Guild made it a point to do in delivering its Anti-Harassment Guidelines for its members—to give them a fixed point to hold on to in the middle of a lot of swirling uncertainty. I know that you both were very key to that process. What was your experience like, of getting together and really digging into this sensitive area during what everyone sensed was kind of a watershed moment?

LUCY: It was incredibly intense. People felt really strongly about many different aspects of the issue. I will be forever impressed with how quickly the Producers Guild acted, A) in convening a task force and B) encouraging the multitude of points of view about what should be done and what measures could be taken. As happens in good producing, everybody was heard. And we actually came to practical solutions in terms of creating a document that became the template for the other guilds.

So the Producers Guild really stepped up very quickly to address the problem. Did we take a great first step? Yes. Will we have to continue to be vigilant? The answer is yes. We have a membership that’s very committed to those issues. They’re serious. This wasn’t a passing whimsy that will be forgotten in a month. It’s a part of our culture that’s going to stay. I think the Producers Guild really stepped up quickly and intelligently.

GAIL: I think what Lucy said is exactly right. I think it was a proud moment, especially in that we took on a painful situation that some of our very own members contributed to. So we needed to be proactive about it. We needed to take a strong stand, the way we want to do with a lot of things going forward. The very fact that we’re in this position—that the PGA for the first time has elected two women as its Presidents—that in itself sends a powerful message in this moment.

We can’t dictate what our membership does creatively. But what we can do is create a standard that we would like to see our membership uphold. If we can just express that priority to the membership and have them embrace it, that will make our tenure really, really worthwhile.

 

At the same time, the pushback against harassment is taking place within a larger context. Lots of voices that historically have been excluded from the industry are speaking up to be included.

GAIL: First and foremost, we have to make sure that those are individuals that are in our Guild, from the very start. If they’re not in our Guild, you can’t represent people that aren’t present. So the Guild itself has to open the doors up and be inclusive of the kinds of individuals and issues that we are concerned about.

I know both Lucy and I are very determined to make sure of that, just as our predecessors were. Gary and Lori did a tremendous job in terms of diversity within our organization. I think we’re going to take that mantle and run with it. These are important issues of the day and we need to have a Guild that’s representative of what we stand for, which is inclusion.

By having those people in our Guild, they will tell stories to the world that other people might not tell. It’s incredibly important to us and I think to the world at large right now, that diverse points of view are represented in entertainment and in every sphere. The artistic freedom to be able to express a panoply of points of view can only happen with a majority of people expressing their experiences.

LUCY: It feels like the world is about narrowing voices right now, putting them into a homogenous box. The PGA should never be about that. We should be about the expansion of storytelling, the freedom of storytelling. We need to protect that for our membership and, really, for our industry as a whole.

Gail and I were talking earlier about the news, how local news has been diminished so much that the news that we’re getting is from fewer and fewer sources. We don’t want that to be the case with entertainment, because entertainment represents people’s dreams and hopes and experiences of life. It’s really important to defend that, not just allow all studios to become one studio that makes one movie.

 

I’ve seen that movie, I think. It’s another paradox of the producer’s world right now—the platforms are multiplying and yet the number of people who are actually in a position to purchase content appears to be narrowing. How do you as producers navigate that kind of tension?

GAIL: These are really important questions, precisely because they’re difficult to answer. It’s complicated. I mean, it’s not easy when one giant company is buying another giant company and you’re not sure—if you’re me, at least—who you actually work for.

[LAUGHTER]

I think these are questions that don’t have obvious answers right now, but as a producer, you do your best to navigate what you’re given. It’s just hard. Everybody is dealing with some version of that question.

 

Thank you for being so candid. Just to have other producers read and recognize that the Presidents of the Producers Guild are ultimately dealing with the same issues they’re grappling with creates real solidarity within the membership.

LUCY: The explosion of digital content is, in part, a reaction against having only a few people deciding what other people are going to get to see. That’s one reason that space is so interesting right now: They’re not asking permission. So we’re watching and we’re learning, same as everybody else.

 

Here’s a big-picture question… The PGA is officially nonpartisan, politically. We don’t endorse candidates, and we respect the diverse politics of our members by basically staying out of them. At the same time, we have fully embraced inclusion, and we now live in a world where that represents an inherently political position. Given that culture is at the heart of so much of the tension and the tribalism that we see today, what’s our responsibility as culture makers?

GAIL: Well I think a big part of our job as producers is to allow somebody to come home, put their feet up, turn on whatever device they want to turn on, and relax and simply enjoy entertainment. I think it’s an increasingly important thing to be able to provide to people, after a difficult day that’s fraught with problems and saturated with messaging. It’s a real blessing to be able to give that to audiences, because people need it so badly, and they need it more in a world that’s as divisive as ours is right now. It’s a wonderful part of what we can do, to bridge the gaps that exist in this world that we’re in.

 

That’s really well put.

GAIL: I also think it’s important to remind ourselves that what we create is, in so many ways, one of the great exports we have to the rest of the world. It’s some of the best product that anybody could ever want to export and represents what our country is like and what our values are. It’s something for us as a country to be very proud of. It represents us really well around the world, when other things may not represent us so well.

LUCY: At the same time, the best of entertainment can travel the globe precisely because it talks about the commonality of the human experience and because it reminds us that there is a commonality of experience. So yes, we provide escape and entertainment and the excitement that comes from being thrilled or moved or any of those things, but it’s also important to remember that it binds us to each other. The Greeks sat in the theater outside to watch plays and experience those stories together. It’s the same impulse you see in response to something like The Handmaid’s Tale, where different people all around the country are calling each other, “Did you watch it yet?” It makes a community, whether you see it on your TV or on your phone or you see it projected onto your eyeball in 10 years. There’s something that binds us together, that makes us feel connected to other people rather than feel threatened by other people. It’s like that moment at the end of Sullivan’s Travels, where the prisoners are all laughing together at a movie or the first time you see a foreign movie and you forget that you’re watching the subtitles because you identify so much with the characters … That’s a magic gift that we have, and we hold it very dearly.

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