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DONALD DE LINE - He's A Studio Exec-Turned-Producer Who Loves His Present And Looks Forward To His Future

Posted By Administration, Friday, November 22, 2019

The first thing you notice is his big, broad smile. Donald De Line looks genuinely happy to be where he is, doing what he’s doing. It is no doubt one of the many reasons he’s had such a long, successful career in the entertainment industry. De Line began as a studio executive before transitioning to a full-time producer. He totally understands the symbiotic relationship between the two career paths and credits his time running studios with making him a more involved, aware and participatory producer.

De Line’s approach to his work is based on a collaborative style of leadership, which perfectly suits this easygoing, dedicated filmmaker. He loves being on set and looking after his crew by anticipating and solving problems. He also enjoys being part of the tight-knit family that forms during a production and is genuinely grateful for the friendships that come from working together.

De Line’s curiosity and varied interests are apparent when you look at the breadth of his films—

The Italian Job; I Love You, Man; Green Lantern and Ready Player One, to name a few. As a studio exec, he was tasked with coming up with a broad slate, and that mentality has informed his producing. He’s up for anything as long as it’s a great story. His openness carries over into his acceptance of and excitement about the rapidly changing production landscape and the emergence of streaming content.

True to form, De Line’s upcoming projects are an amalgam of interesting stories and perspectives. There’s the YA movie based on the classic book The Phantom Tollbooth. It’s a hybrid live action/CGI film. Then there’s Marian, a retelling of the Robin Hood myth from the perspective of Maid Marian. As De Line puts it, “It was really always the woman behind the man and not the man.” And he’s looking forward to a limited series called The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, the true story of a guy who impersonated being a Rockefeller for 20 years. Think a real-life version of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

So wherever your future film tastes lead you, expect to meet up with a smiling Donald De Line. I guarantee he’ll be happy to see you.


What first attracted you to the entertainment industry?

When I was a kid, my family’s big activity every weekend was going to the movies. It was something that as far back as I can remember, I looked forward to. There was lots of debate and discussion about it, as we pored over the theater section in the Saturday and Sunday papers. So it was just something that was always a big part of my life. I found it to be such a transportive experience; it was something that affected me emotionally in a huge way, and it was just always a big part of my life.


Was there anyone or anything in particular that inspired you early on?

The access I had to the movie business as a kid was from our elementary school library. It was a series of biographies of different famous people throughout history. One I discovered was on Cecil B. DeMille. So I read his biography to learn what a movie director and producer did and how that worked. And it was just fascinating to me. I realized that that was someone’s job and it opened my eyes to that world.


Really? In elementary school? That is so random.

 Yes. Cecil B. DeMille. It was in first or second grade. 


You started in the business as a studio executive. Was there anything in particular you learned as an executive that really helped your transition to producing?

Absolutely. First of all, I think any studio executive is a better studio executive if they’ve been a producer. And I think any producer is a better producer if they’ve been a studio executive. Because we work hand in glove, to really have an understanding of what goes on—on each side—behind the curtain, is very, very helpful. We need each other. So I felt that having 13 years under my belt as a studio executive was very useful for me in terms of developing skills to deal with people and in delegating. As a producer, you have to be a leader on the set. You’re the parent. Being an executive taught me a lot about how to walk onto a set and assume that role and make people feel supported, make them feel taken care of, appreciated, and valued for their time and effort. A happy cast and a happy crew are critical to the outcome of a film. You want people to do their best and give what they have at their highest level.


Do you enjoy spending time on the set?

Yes. I’m a producer who loves being on set. I get there at call in the morning. My job is to check in with the director, take a mood temperature, suss out whether or not everybody is happy, get a bead on any issues that might be brewing. Basically get the lay of the land. It’s so funny because I’m very close with my sister, and years ago when I transitioned from being a studio executive to being a producer, when I would call her she would say, “Oh, you must be on set.” I’d ask, “How do you know?” And she’d say, “Because you sound so happy. You’re always happiest when you’re on set.” There’s just something about the creative process and watching a film come to life that’s like nothing else. It’s incredibly satisfying.


I feel like if I were part of your team, I would really appreciate that involvement and support from the producer.

I’ve had a lot of positive feedback that way over the years, whether it’s from a makeup or hair person or a prop person—any aspect of production. And then I’ll hear stories about them having experienced the opposite. So yes, I do think it matters.


When you made that transition to producer, was there anything early on that surprised you?

[LAUGHS] Yeah. It surprised me how little I really knew about what went on in the actual making of a movie. As an executive, I had dealt with so many movies for so many years and visited lots of sets, watched lots of dailies and been involved in everything from developing scripts to seeing cuts of movies in postproduction. But to really be there behind the scenes and experience it is entirely different. It gave me great appreciation for what producers do. Of course, to a large degree, I already had that appreciation. I was very much an executive who valued strong producers, and I always felt they made my job much easier. I always slept better at night when I knew there was a strong producer on set.

Mark Wahlberg, Ari Emanuel, Michael Bay, De Line and Dwayne Johnson check out dailies on Pain & Gain


But once you jumped into it you had even more appreciation?

A hundred percent. It really opened my eyes to the way things get done—what it’s like for a director on a given day to be faced with so many decisions under great pressure. As an executive you can sit in an office and say, “Well, why doesn’t he or she just do X, Y or Z?” It’s really not that easy.


You have produced films from so many different genres. Heist movies, rom-coms, biopics, action thrillers—you’ve made them all. Do you have a favorite genre you tend to look for more than others?

It’s really interesting you bring that up. I’ve thought about that before, and I think part of it is a result of having been a studio executive for a long time before I was a producer. Because as a studio executive I had to have a slate of movies to put out every year, so there’s some for family, some comedy, some drama. And I was used to thinking of a broad slate of films. So when I became a producer I kind of approached developing that same way.


I was thinking about Ready Player One. I can only imagine that when you work with Steven Spielberg it puts a project in another dimension.

 Yes, it does.

Donald De Line on the Warner Bros. lot, where he has his production company

That being said, were there any particular lessons you learned that were specific to working with him, anything that made that a different experience?

He’s just amazing for the singular talent he brings to everything he does, not to mention his work ethic is incredible. He would get there two hours before the call time, already working with his editor before the crew arrived in the morning. During lunch he’d be back in the editing room or shooting on the motion capture stage. He never wasted a minute. It was really something to see. I’ve worked with a lot of different directors, and all directors are hardworking. You can’t direct if you’re not hardworking. But he really takes it to another level.           

In terms of problem solving, you said you like to be there in person, on the set. Is your process a collaborative one?

I absolutely view it as collaborative. Some people enjoy collaboration more than others. It’s important that it’s approached that way, though. It’s the only way it can happen correctly, really. So yes, I try to stay ahead of potential problems and potential pitfalls. I communicate a lot with the line producer, with the AD, with the heads of departments. I know what people’s issues are. I know what they’re worried about. I know if something is upcoming that will stress certain people out. I’m always looking for ways to make sure we continue on a smooth path and try to stave off something that could make us stumble. If you realize you’re not going to make your day, everyone will be pulling their scripts out trying to figure out what we might do more efficiently, what we might be able to cut, what we might be able to push along in the schedule. That’s part of what I love about it. It’s puzzle solving with a timer going, in the best way. [LAUGHS]

De Line enjoys a laugh with Michael Caine, Alan Arkin, Morgan Freeman, in a scene from Going In Style

Is there anything that you haven’t done in your career that you still want to do—either in the industry or not?

Oh, that’s super interesting. I would like to write, whether it’s a screenplay or a novel. So much of my life is reading, whether it’s scripts or books, and so much of my material comes from books, so it’s all kind of interconnected in my brain. I love writers, and I have such respect for them. I’ve always wondered, “Could I do it? What would it be like?” I work with writers every day. I’d like to be able to put myself in their shoes and understand their process and their experience in a way that I don’t think I ever truly could unless I tried it myself. But that is something that I’ve just been too scared to try, so far.


It’s very intimidating, I think.

It is intimidating and yet I know plenty of people who all of a sudden I’ll run into—somebody who was a studio executive or a producer—and they’ll say, “Oh, I wrote a book.” Or “I sold a script.” And I think it’s the greatest thing in the world. It’s all about growing, learning, broadening your horizons in life. We only have a finite amount of time. And really, it’s something I would like to accomplish.


What do you like to do during downtime on a set, between takes?

If there’s not something that has to be paid attention to on the set, I’m trying to keep my other stuff going. So I’m either reading other projects, or reading what might become another project, or making calls back to my office and trying to stay up on business.


So you’re basically you’re doing work in between work?

 Exactly, exactly, yeah, just more work.

Michael Wright, Zak Penn, De Line and Steven Spielberg et to the point filming Ready Player One


What do you think is the hardest part about being a producer?

I suppose it’s balancing your responsibility to creatively do what’s best for the movie with being fiscally responsible to your financiers and staying within the box that you’ve agreed upon. That can be very tough and very challenging and put you in hard positions a lot of the time. It’s not always easy to make both sides happy. But I find that’s part of what’s fun about the job. You can always come up with a solution. And when you’re forced into going down a road where you thought, “No, this can never work,” oftentimes I’ve found the absolute best things have come from that. It leads to completely unexpected discoveries. A problem can be your greatest gift in disguise. Most importantly, a producer must always protect the story. We can never take our eyes off the story.


What are some other fun parts of the job?

I find one of the most thrilling things is I have a profound respect for editors, and I think brilliant editors are kind of the unsung heroes of our business. I’ve seen an editor create alchemy out of their own idea—their own thought about what a moment could be—that is completely brilliant and not what anyone intended, and then it turns out to be the best of all. I am just in awe of that. So I love the post production process and watching editors work. I love talking to editors about why they made choices or how they did things. I know what an editor can accomplish, and I think that most people don’t, and I wish they were better understood and celebrated.


What change in the industry have you embraced most?

I’m embracing all of the change that we’re in right now. We are in a difficult transition period with the shrinking of the traditional movie business. We are learning to adapt to a lot of new things and new ways of watching movies with the advent of the streamers. At first I was resistant. I’m now open and embracing of it. The appetite for smaller movies is diminishing at studios, but the streaming business is healthy and robust and wants those movies. And that’s a great thing. I don’t separate those two things anymore. I look at them all as just opportunities to tell good stories and get films made.


So does that mean you’re ready to tell your three acts in 10 minutes, like on Quibi?

You know what? I want to learn that form too—a complete experience in 10 minutes. That’s fantastic. I’ve never done it before. I’m game. That might be the most fun I’ve ever had!

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