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STEPHANIE ALLAIN - She Is A Powerhouse Producer And Guiding Force In The PGA

Posted By Peggy Jo Abraham, Wednesday, February 12, 2020

When your first movie is the incredibly well-received Boyz n the Hood and now you’re producing the Academy Awards, it’s absolutely clear you are doing something right. Producer Stephanie Allain and her Homegrown Pictures are in this enviable position, after much hard work and dedication to a vision. Her award-winning films have repeatedly pushed the envelope in terms of social issues, race relations and politics.

Diversity is not just a buzzword for Allain—it’s a commitment to inclusivity. She is drawn to stories (Dear White People, Hustle & Flow) about those who are underrepresented—women, people of color, LGBTQ, people with disabilities. The filmmaker pursues this goal, not only through her work on screen but within the organizations she supports, the positions she volunteers for and the people she champions. Allain lives in a world where “art meets idealism, activism and purpose.” It’s a rich, creative environment, one that keeps her busy and always pushing forward.

We have another great reason for celebrating this talented lady. Allain is an active, devoted member of the PGA, who serves on our National Board of Directors. She sets a wonderful example for both veterans and new members of the Guild. Her energy, passion and expertise are always a welcome addition to any project, meeting or event.

If that’s not enough talent wrapped in one package, consider this: The New Orleans native, who comes from a long line of strong Creole women, can cook up a mean batch of gumbo or red beans and rice. Add to the mix two children who are in the movie business and working with her on projects, a stepdaughter who is a photographer and a first grandchild on the way. Yes, life is sweet for this hardworking producer who is more than ready to meet the next decade with an abundance of ideas and energy. Allain’s enthusiasm is apparent in the lively images we captured at one of her favorite haunts—The Underground Museum in the LA neighborhood of Arlington Heights.

You began your career as a script reader. What was the most valuable part of that in preparing you to be a producer?

It was an incredibly valuable experience. I started as a book reader at CAA. After reading the latest manuscript in galley form, I’d bang out a synopsis, then write a paragraph of comments. I must have covered hundreds of books and scripts. By mastering coverage, I taught myself to succinctly pitch the movie, recap the major bones of the story, think about character development and make a decision in terms of “Can this translate to the screen?” These are the tools I use every day as a producer—evaluating material and articulating what works and what doesn’t. And that’s what my reading work taught me.


What a great way to start. Then you rose through the ranks to become a studio executive. Does that kind of path actually exist anymore for people starting out in the business?

Absolutely. There will always be readers because almost every project starts with a written document. But today I think there are even more opportunities, because the tools of filmmaking are more readily available. To be a director back in the day you had to be able to afford a camera, you had to be able to afford film, and you had to be able to process that film. You also had to rent a flatbed editing system that you could run that film through. That’s all changed. You can make a film on your iPhone. The path I took was focused on story. When I realized that was a pathway to having more say in what was getting made, I thought, “Okay, I want that job.” And luckily I was working for two women—Amy Pascal and Dawn Steel. Their recognition of my talent and their literally promoting me from the trailer—where all the readers worked—to the big house, was invaluable in my being able to ascend.


What do you think are the biggest challenges facing female producers today?

I don’t think of a producer as gender specific. Definition of a producer is someone who makes sh*t happen. It’s more about your passion, your ability to convince everybody to come onboard this thing that isn’t quite real yet and guide that process. A lot of people say that women tend to be more nurturing in the job. Sure, that could be true. But there’s many who approach it from a different point of view. The job is so difficult and so all-encompassing, because it touches every aspect of the film, that whoever is producing, she/he/they/whoever, takes on the mantle of the leader and that has no gender.


You’ve been credited with launching the careers of some major talents. John Singleton and Robert Rodriguez come to mind. What difficulties did you face when you began championing them, or did you not face difficulties?

When I was trying to replace myself in the story department with a person of color, I heard John Singleton was looking for a job and that he was a writer, so I read his script. There was no difficulty. In fact, quite the opposite. It was like “Aha! This is what I’m supposed to be doing!” I’m uniquely positioned to champion this film and this filmmaker. I went to high school in Inglewood. I knew these kids growing up. I just felt passionately that I could, with a first-person point of view, get it right. So for me, it wasn’t hard. It was just exciting that I found this gem, and I wanted to share it with the world and what are the steps to get it there. It was so satisfying for my first movie to be Boyz n the Hood, and then we’re on the carpet at Cannes and there’s a 20-minute standing ovation. And beyond all of that, kids are not killing each other in drive-by shootings as much because they’ve seen their own reflection.


It sounds like it reaffirmed your career path, proved you were on the right track.

Absolutely. The only thing that matters is, “Do you believe in it?” If so, then you just know what to do. Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) and I used to say we’re in “the flow of grace” because we’ve chosen to make this happen. And that creates all this other energy and draws other people in. So it’s a joy when you find something you’re passionate about. And it takes a long time because those quickened-heartbeat reads don’t happen very often. When they do, you know you’ve got to jump on it.    


Selfie on the set of the TV movie Crushed with Stephanie Allain,
Regina Hall, Tina Gordon (taking picture), Rachel Polan, Bashir Salahuddin

You’ve had such a broad career path, everything from Boyz n the Hood to The Muppets. Do you have a favorite genre or type of story that usually grabs you first?

I do. It’s anything that reaffirms our higher nature. That can come in different forms. In Hustle & Flow, I had to explain to a lot of people the reason I wanted to make a movie about pimps and hos was that this pimp wanted to be a better person. Even he had the need to aspire to do something special with his life, to contribute a verse. I found that profound because no matter who you are, there’s this innate human desire to create something beautiful and if you step into that power, anything can happen.


So there is a common thread running through your work?

Yes, I would call it “humanism.” It’s stories about us; stories about women because we’re underrepresented, stories about people of color because we’re underrepresented, LGBTQ, less-abled people. Everybody needs to have that feeling of seeing themselves on screen and being validated by that representation. Until we get to that point, we’ll always be “othered.” When you see a story like Boyz n the Hood on the big screen and you realize these are just kids trying to negotiate their teen years, given the circumstances that they have, you realize, it’s a global human experience. And I think that’s exactly where art meets idealism and activism and purpose. That gives the work meaning. It’s not just a job.


And that’s a road you want to be on.

That’s the road I’ve walked. And, by the way, it’s not the easiest road to walk. It’s only easy because the joy is there. But the money is not always there. The hustle is real. At times I wish I cared more about money, but ultimately it’s how you spend your time doing what you love to do and if you can make that float you financially. So I’ve always really just believed in living within my means, because it gives you the freedom to take chances.  Famously, I sold my house to make Hustle & Flow.


What’s the biggest change you’d like to see in Hollywood?

Gatekeepers at the studios need to be inclusive and representative. It’s rare you see more than one or two people of color in those rooms. That has to change because you connect with what you know. So if you don’t have enough people at the table that have a wide variety of experiences, you’re going to keep getting the same story. This also applies to critics. If you’re in a position to judge or ratify something for inclusion in mainstream culture, that’s a huge responsibility. So we need more eyes on the prize.


You were the director of the Los Angeles Film Festival for five years. What enticed you to take that on, and what were some of the rewards?

I was on the board of Film Independent at the time. We lost our director and because I’m always talking about gatekeepers and making sure there’s people of color at the table, I raised my hand. Live event producing was not what I was accustomed to. There is no “take two,” so the stakes are very high, but it’s very exciting. Once I took the job, I realized that the festival should represent the mission of Film Independent—to diversify the industry and to amplify voices that had been underrepresented.


How did you do that?

By hiring staff who believed in the mission. We systematically redid the festival in a way that allowed for those voices to be heard. We were the first festival to ask, “How many of the films are directed by women?” What we said is, “Let’s create a basket of all the films we think are amazing, that are all directed by women, and let’s choose 10 from that basket. Then let’s make a basket of filmmakers of color and let’s choose 10.” That’s how you can get the best of this, the best of that. Not just the best, because that has no real meaning. Inclusion doesn’t just happen. Up until a few years ago, that was sort of the thing—just let it happen naturally. It doesn’t. You have to make an effort. You have to have a plan.


Now you’re producing the Academy Awards. So first of all, congratulations.

Thank you!


How does one start that process? 

It’s a collaboration with Lynette Howell Taylor, whose career I’ve long admired. We didn’t know each other before this, but we’ve had so many similar instincts, which is great. I’m looking forward to marshaling everything I’ve ever learned as a producer and bringing my A-game to the show. It’s a privilege to celebrate the year in film by producing the biggest night in television! So it’s thrilling. And very secretive!


This is the fourth and final season of Dear White People. What’s been the most significant feedback from that series?

I think the most important thing is that Justin Simien’s voice has been amplified. He is a singular talent. He embraces his point of view, which is both intellectual and soapy, gay and straight, male and female. I can’t think of anybody else who can present multiple points of view with integrity. When we made the movie, we knew the ensemble nature would lend itself to television, and we’re all so thrilled that Netflix stepped up and really supported the show. During this turbulent political time, DWP has been a touchstone for young people sorting through the anxiety, the tension and the racial animosity—things we really didn’t think were going to be on our plate.


What projects do you have coming up?

After producing independent films over the past few years (French Dirty, Burning Sands, Juanita, The Weekend), I’m focusing on larger studio films. Adam Countee wrote an incredible script about Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 run for the Presidency called The Fighting Shirley Chisholm. Justin Simien is directing Rapper’s Delight. It’s the story of Sylvia Robinson, who recorded the first rap record and changed the game forever. She had the foresight to say, “This sound, which we’ve never heard before, the scratching and the rapping, needs to go on vinyl.” I’m partnered with the legendary Paula Wagner and Robert Kraft on that one. My TV business is also picking up. So the year 2020  promises to be a great one.

Allain with sons Wade Allain-Marcus and Jesse Allain-Marcus at the world premiere of their film French Dirty

It’s such an amazing time to be creating content.

Yes. We’re in a renaissance. Everyone I know is working. You can’t even find a black female director who’s not working now. That’s real progress. Now what we have to do is make sure that we’re not the only ones progressing, but our Latinx brothers and sisters, who outpopulate us, especially in California, have these same opportunities. And, of course, we need more gender parity. Across the board.


One last thing. You are so active in the Producers Guild. You’re on the National Board of Directors and have participated as a speaker at our Produced By LA Conference. Why is that important to you?

I’m active in the Producers Guild because I’m a producer who cares about the value of producers in films and television. Also, unlike the Writers Guild or the Directors Guild, we’re not a union, so there’s a long way to go. But in the meantime, I want to be part of the energy moving toward producers getting the respect we deserve. I divide my pro bono work between the PGA, the Academy, Women In Film and ReFrame. The truth of the matter is, service is so rewarding. Giving and serving in whatever capacity rewards you in ways you can’t even begin to imagine: the satisfaction of seeing incremental change, the satisfaction of seeing young people get to the next level, the satisfaction of seeing the Academy become more inclusive. That’s the good work. And the upside is, you’re among the high end of your peers and other like-minded individuals who believe in service, and then other good things happen. So yes, I will definitely be a part of giving back for as long as I can.

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Posted Tuesday, July 7, 2020
Kudos Stephanie, your journey, your talent, your constant push to move the needle to bring unheard voices, and stories to light is appreciated. Congratulations on all you’ve done and everything you’re about to do. Keep being the change and bringing people together. Thank you for your talent. I’m loving team Stephanie! Deborah M. Pratt
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