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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, Friday, August 16, 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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