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Letter From the Presidents: Members Relief Fund Announced

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, March 24, 2020
Updated: Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Dear Members,

Today the Guild is announcing the creation of The Producers Guild of America Members Relief Fund. The launch of the fund is made possible by a generous lead gift from former PGA president Mark Gordon, in the amount of $100,000. Members who are in need of emergency financial relief due to the coronavirus crisis can apply for aid at actorsfund.org/gethelp.

In these unprecedented times, the most immediate need for so many of our members is financial assistance and resources. It is for this reason that we have moved quickly to put into place an emergency fund to help support members whose livelihoods have been impacted by the coronavirus crisis.

While the PGA relief fund has a limited amount of money currently available, we hope to continue to grow this resource so we can serve and assist as many of you as possible. To that end, we are doing a broad outreach to secure further donations and increase the longevity of the fund.

Anyone interested in donating can do so by going to actorsfund.org/PGA. Any support you can offer will be greatly appreciated. No donation is too small, and charitable contributions are tax-deductible.

It is by pulling together and supporting our fellow PGA members that we will make it through this crisis. Please know as members of the Guild, you are not alone. We are here to offer emotional support, financial assistance and resources, as well as to keep our community of producers engaged during this time of great uncertainty.

Regarding details for the new fund, it is being administered by The Actors Fund, which offers resources and assistance for entertainment professionals in all areas of the industry.

The Producers Guild of America Members Relief Fund will provide financial help of up to $1,000 to qualifying applicants. Members must provide the following to be eligible for funds:

• Current Producers Guild of America membership letter (to be provided by the PGA)
• Most recent bank statement
• Current lease or mortgage

Again, that link to apply for aid is actorsfund.org/gethelp. To donate, you can go to actorsfund.org/PGA.

Stay well.

Sincerely,

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COVID-19 Information & Resources (Updated)

Posted By Administration, Thursday, March 19, 2020
Updated: Thursday, May 14, 2020

First and foremost, we hope you and your family are remaining healthy and safe during these unprecedented times. We want to let you know that the PGA is here to make every effort to aide members in any way possible. 

 

We are reaching out to update you on the status of our office and to offer important resources to continue to help you navigate the current uncertainty in our industry. 

 

The business of the PGA is continuing, uninterrupted.  Offices on both coasts are operating normal business hours, with our staffs working remotely to answer calls and e-mails to further the priorities of the Guild. Annual elections for the PGA councils’ boards of delegates and officers are proceeding as scheduled. Please feel free to reach out about any concerns you may have. We are here for you and will offer our support any way we can.

 

In addition to health concerns, we know the current situation is placing many of our members under financial hardship. We want to help alleviate your anxiety during these uncertain times so your focus can remain on the health and wellbeing of you and your family. We will do our best to offer important information and updates regarding potential financial relief, industry news and employment/unemployment resources.

 

 

MEMBERS RELIEF FUND ANNOUNCED

 

The Guild has announced the creation of The Producers Guild of America Members Relief Fund. The launch of the fund is made possible by a generous lead gift from former PGA president Mark Gordon, in the amount of $100,000. Members who are in need of emergency financial relief due to the coronavirus crisis can apply for aid.

 

- For members to apply for aid: actorsfund.org/gethelp

- To donate to the fund: actorsfund.org/PGA

- Read the full letter from the PGA presidents here

 

 

DUES

We will be giving a three-month extension to members who are unable to pay their dues. During this period, no late fees will accrue, no penalties will be applied, and benefits will continue as normal. We will be monitoring and reevaluating the situation as necessary.

 

PLEASE NOTE - YOU DO NOT NEED TO CONTACT US REGARDING YOUR MEMBERSHIP STATUS OR TO INQUIRE WHETHER YOU QUALIFY FOR FINANCIAL HARDSHIP. THE EXTENSION IS BASED ON THE HONOR SYSTEM.

 

 

RESOURCES FOR INDIVIDUALS

 

The Actors Fund

The Actors Fund is offering all its usual resources, as well as emergency financial assistance.

Am I Eligible for Help?

Services and programs

The Actors Fund workshops
Groups and seminars are now available online or over the phone, so you can seamlessly continue the courses you were in the midst of, or join a new workshop: https://actorsfund.org/workshops

 

American Documentary COVID Fund

This COVID-19 Artist Emergency Fund will provide rapid response grants up to $500 to assist artists with basic needs including food, immediate health needs and insurance premiums.  

 

Artist Relief

Artist Relief will distribute $5,000 grants to artists facing dire financial emergencies due to COVID-19; serve as an ongoing informational resource; and co-launch the COVID-19 Impact Survey for Artists and Creative Workers, designed by Americans for the Arts, to better identify and address the needs of artists moving forward.   

IMPACT SURVEY: https://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/5532991/6539d78e3593

 

Covid-19 & Freelance Artists 

This is an extensive, aggregated list of free resources, opportunities and financial relief options available to artists of all disciplines, including producers. It contains national and international information. We want to note that the PGA has not vetted these resources.  

 

Entertainment Partners - Master Series: Your Guide to Intelligent Production

A series of free live workshops specifically designed for production professionals and everyone interested in production.  

 

Field of Vision - Documentary Freelancer Relief Fund

Field of Vision and Topic Studios have created a $250,000 fund to provide grants for freelancers working in the Documentary field. The fund will distribute unrestricted grants of up to $2000 to support personal financial needs during the COVID19 pandemic to freelancers who have experienced hardship from loss of income or opportunity as a result of the pandemic. Applications are at capacity, but will open again on May 6.  

 

Freelancers Union Relief Fund

Applications open on April 2. Freelancers Relief Fund will offer financial assistance of up to $1,000 per freelance household to cover lost income and essential expenses not covered by government relief programs, including: Food/food supplies; Utility payments; Cash assistance to cover income loss 

 

GreenSlate - COVID-19 Resources

Lots of information & resources, related to unemployment, employer relief, and other governmental programs.

  

Motion Picture and Television Fund 

The Motion Picture and Television fund is offering financial aid and case management services to the industry. Those is need, particularly industry retirees, can call their intake line at (323) 634-3888. 

 

 

 

RESOURCES FOR EMPLOYEES & EMPLOYERS

 

UNEMPLOYMENT

 

California Employment Development Department (EDD)

The EDD provides services to employees, businesses and job seekers in California. Currently it has relevant information on topics such as reduced hours, closures or layoffs, caregiving and tax assistance. (California) 

 

SAG-AFTRA - Unemployment assistance webinar 

President's Task Force on Education, Outreach and Engagement webinar on unemployment assistance, held April 7, 2020. Topics include applying for unemployment insurance and getting relief provided by the CARES Act.  

 

New Jersey Pandemic Unemployment Assistance
The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workplace Development has just announced that “recipients of federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) — the self-employed, independent contractors and others who are not usually eligible for unemployment insurance benefits — will start being notified of their PUA eligibility today, and the Department will begin making payments Friday.” 

 

New York State Department of Labor 

This site shares information on how people can file an unemployment claim if they are affected by the coronavirus. (New York)

  

New York State Pandemic Unemployment Assistance
Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) is a new Federal program that is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. PUA provides financial assistance for Americans who are unable to work due to the coronavirus pandemic but do not qualify for traditional unemployment insurance (UI).
  

Washington, D.C. Dept. of Employment Services Webinars

The Department of Employment Services will be hosting daily webinars to answer questions regarding unemployment insurance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  

 


CARES Act

 

CARES Act - Overview of Benefits

This is a straightforward summary created by the DGA, SAG-AFTRA and the California IATSE Council. It addresses benefits specifically for those working in entertainment.

 

CARES Act - Producers Guild Q&A

See the full newsletter, sent to all members, that has all the most relevant answers about the CARES Act.

 

UBS - Coronavirus Relief Programs for Businesses Owners 

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (the "CARES Act" or "Phase III") has been signed into law. Phase III provides support for business owners in the form of loans, guarantees, tax deferrals and other support. While many of the details are to be spelled out in the days to come, we do know a lot more than we did a week ago. UBS's Business Owner Client Segment reviewed the bill to see what business owners should know. 

 

 


OTHER (updated 5/14/2020)

 

Corona "Phase III" and the Road Ahead 

This document, created by GPG (Glover Park Group), contains a detailed report on the federal legislation as a whole and the possibility of further financial assistance in the near future.

 

Freelancers in NYC: If you're facing nonpayment issues, file a complaint. NYC Department of Consumer and Worker Protection has helped recover more than $250,000 in lost wages.

  

NYC Employee Retention Grants 

To help small businesses deal with the impact of COVID-19, the City has launched the Employee Retention Grant Program to help retain employees as businesses face decreased revenue. This program is available to New York City businesses with one to four employees that can demonstrate at least a 25% decrease in revenue as a result of COVID-19. Eligible businesses will receive a grant covering up to 40% of their payroll for two months. Businesses can access up to $27,000. (NYC)

 

NYC Financial Empowerment Centers

Free Financial Counseling: NYC Financial Empowerment Centers provide free one-on-one professional, confidential, financial counseling over the phone. 

 

NYC Mayor's Office of Media & Entertainment NY 

General resources, especially those related to the entertainment industry. (NYC)

 

NYC Small Business Continuity Loan Program 

To help small businesses deal with the impact of COVID-19, the City has launched the NYC Small Business Continuity Loan Program. This program is available to New York City businesses with fewer than 100 employees that can demonstrate at least a 25% decrease in revenue as a result of COVID-19. Eligible businesses can apply for an interest-free loan up to $75,000. (NYC)

 

SBA - Paycheck Protection Program 

The Paycheck Protection Program is designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on payroll by providing each small business a loan up to $10 million for payroll and certain other expenses. If all employees are kept on payroll for eight weeks, SBA will forgive the portion of the loans used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest, or utilities. Up to 100 percent of the loan is forgivable.

  

U.S. Department of Labor 

The following links contain information regarding the rights of employees and the obligations of employers during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Nationwide Fair Labor Standards

Family and Medical Leave Act

DOL Unemployment Insurance Program Letter - To provide states with operating, financial, and reporting instructions for the PUA program authorized by Section 2102 of the CARES Act of 2020, Public Law (Pub. L.) 116-136. 

 

 

 COVID-19 TESTING INFORMATION

 

California COVID-19 Updates 

General information & resources including alerts, statistics, testing and medical care.

 

Los Angeles - Testing information

 

NYC COVID-19 Engagement Portal 

The City of New York is collecting information to better understand and communicate about the impacts of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). This information will be helpful in enabling the City to share information with you and members of the public about COVID-19, and to help inform the City’s response to areas affected by COVID-19. 


New York - Testing information

 

 

MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES

 

LA County Department of Mental Health
The Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (LACDMH) supports the wellbeing of our County family, friends and colleagues. During an infectious disease outbreak, care for your own physical and mental health and reach out in kindness to those affected by the situation.

 

The Maple Counseling Center
The mission of The Maple Counseling Center (TMCC) is to provide low-cost comprehensive mental health services to individuals of all ages, couples, and families throughout Los Angeles County. The Maple Counseling Center is now offering a COVID-19 tele-support group to help community members cope with the current pandemic.

Massachusetts General Hospital - Guide to Mental Health Resources for COVID-19

The Department of Psychiatry has put together a curated set of resources with a particular emphasis on materials that will be of use to providers and those they serve.
 

National Alliance on Mental Health
COVID-19 Resource & Information Guide - The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.

NYC Well is New York City’s free, confidential support, crisis intervention, and information and referral service for anyone seeking help for mental health and/or substance misuse concerns, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

 
 

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The Six Degrees of 'Funny Or Die' Women - Meet The Ladies Leading The Way When It Comes To Laughs

Posted By Rona Edwards, Tuesday, March 10, 2020

How many of us remember what it was like to play in the sandbox with our friends or burst into laughter over something really silly? Often we are trapped by our own sense of adulthood and forget to tap into that creative kid in each of us, to build new worlds where none have gone before, or reboot ideas whose time has come again. Isn’t that why so many producers get into this business to begin with?

At Funny or Die, the innovative, comedic viral video machine founded 12 years ago by Adam McKay, Will Ferrell and Chris Henchy, playing in the sandbox with friends is a daily occurrence. So is finding new ways to tell stories and explore new platforms on which to tell them.

The company’s latest venture, The Last Degree of Kevin Bacon, is a podcast that is essentially a scripted sitcom. And yes, it stars Bacon as a heightened version of himself along with a whole slew of celebrities including his wife, Kyra Sedgewick. The premise revolves around an actor who 35 years ago lost out on the iconic role in Footloose, which subsequently catapulted Bacon to stardom. Years later, as the rejected actor’s life spirals out of control, he moves to Los Angeles to take back what he believes was taken from him—and so of course, he plots to murder Kevin Bacon. Funny, right? However, during the process of planning his crime, he ends up becoming Bacon’s assistant and possibly his best friend. Or does he? Cue the threatening music!

The creative team of The Last Degree of Kevin Bacon
surrounds the star of the Funny or Die podcast. 

Not afraid of diving into new formats, Funny or Die partnered with Spotify to create the podcast, which premieres in February. Making a scripted comedy into a podcast offers its own set of challenges, but some fearless producers were ready to take this on. What is so striking is that these producers are all women. PGA members Whitney Hodack, Senior Director of Physical Production; Becca Kinskey, Vice President of Development & Current Programming, Long Form; and Development Executive Elizabeth Belew, make up the female producing team bringing The Last Degree of Kevin Bacon to audible life.

Bacon originated from the mind of creator/writer Dan Abramson but it was Kinskey, a veteran producer of such shows as I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman and The Rose Parade with Cord & Tish, starring Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon, who pitched and sold it to Spotify with her FOD bosses. “At Funny or Die, we’ve had tons of opportunity and tons of experience with emerging platforms. And they come and go,” Kinskey says thoughtfully. “I think we were excited that Spotify seems to have a really clear vision for what they want to do with the podcast business.” She went on to explain that as a digital company, FOD has floated on the tide of new platforms for more than a decade. However, there are always three things the company tries to get for its content creators: One is paid. Two is a good creative experience. And three is a solid audience.

The first two items seem easily met, but it can really be hard to find an emerging platform that has the necessary eyeballs—or in this case, ears—to make  the content a success. Spotify already has a huge audience, so all the boxes were checked. It was the beginning of a perfect marriage.

However, after selling the show, Kinskey went off to have a baby. Enter veteran comedy development and network executive Belew, who began her career as a field producer on unscripted and scripted series for Comedy Central, ABC and MTV, among others. She, along with Hodack, took the ball and ran with it.

Whitney Hodack with Jonathan Van Ness, star of Funny or Die's Gay or Thrones.
-Photo courtesy Funny or Die

“Beth is newest to the team. We actually got to know Beth when she was an executive,” reveals Funny or Die CEO Mike Farah. “A big part of Funny or Die is people have to wear lots of different hats. And I think Beth’s versatility in knowing how to do unscripted storytelling actually worked very well with scripted podcasts. The pacing, the urgency—all those things that she’s honed as a producer and an executive in ‘talk’—I think parlayed very effectively into Kevin Bacon.”

Hodak is an Emmy-nominated producer for Funny or Die’s Gay of Thrones and has overseen production for shows like Brockmire on IFC, I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman on Hulu and Flipped, an upcoming comedy for Quibi. She’s also had experience with podcasting, producing The Ron Burgundy Podcast for iHeartRadio. “Whitney is next in a long line of great producers who know how to service the creatives, keep talent happy and make everything for a great price,” Farah says.

FOD is a 60-person company that’s known for generating tons and tons of content. At the forefront are these three women paving the way for more diverse content on distinctive platforms. Farah is obviously proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish. “It will be nice when a story about women producing comedy isn’t even a story. It’s just part of life. But I do think it’s important to showcase the people who are doing it really well. And Beth, Becca and Whitney are certainly right at the top of that list,” Farah proclaims.

“I can’t speak for everyone in comedy, but at least to me, and how we want to run Funny or Die, supporting people who have been historically on the margins of comedy should not be controversial,” he continues. “Comedy should absolutely be inclusive in terms of all the things we’ve talked about—gender, race, sexual orientation. We ask comedians to see the world in a slightly different way and help people understand the world through that comedic lens. And of course, since the beginning of time, good producers are needed to support that creative vision. So to me, having a diverse set of producers work with a diverse set of comedians is everything Funny or Die should be focused on.”

There’s not a lot of scripted comedy podcasting to look to for reference. It hasn’t caught up with the hour dramas yet. One of the biggest challenges is that comedy is known for a lot of visual clues, which you can’t use in a podcast. Producers have to delve into a whole new bag of tricks and learn how to tell a story without visuals. Everything has to be done with sound design, even letting the audience know when a character moves from room to room or who is coming or going. What is also exciting is that there’s no limits to what can be written. You can be anywhere, and it’s not going to tax your budget like a TV episode. In the end, The Last Degree of Kevin Bacon had 131 characters in 10 episodes recorded in six days.

“We’re really leading the way even in terms of staffing people,” Belew chuckles. “We couldn’t even find people who have done this before.” The writing room was balanced 50-50 with both women and men. They were able to get a ton of celebrity cameos, because people are happy to come in and not worry about hair and makeup. They don’t even have to memorize their lines. Hearing these producers talk their “sky’s the limit and the cost is low” mantra, makes one wonder why anyone would want to produce anything other than a podcast.

“We place the premium on people and their talent and putting folks in a position to succeed at all times,” Farah maintains. “We make sure that folks are supported in what they’re trying to do.” He confides that “Becca is way smarter” than he is. Aside from being thoughtful and methodical, Farah says she has a wonderful reputation for working well with creatives and comedians. All in all, this merry band of females is forging new paths and new ground for women in comedy.

So what is it like to have so many women at the helm, working together on the Bacon project?

 “It was a very placid experience, and I will say everything was calm,” Kinskey explains matter-of-factly. “There were things that needed to be dealt with that came up, but they were just handled. And I do think that the more I work with women, the more I feel like it’s men who are emotional.” The room erupts with laughter as she continues. “I find the people who actually run hot or run alarmist or run panicky are men, and women tend to just get it done.”

Belew jumps in, saying that because both she and Becca are moms, “Everything is fixable! Always!”


When a window to a new part of the industry opens, it allows young producers or those wanting to change direction to get in and rise fast. “I would tell young women, young people, trying to get into comedy right now, that podcasting is a space that you can really make a mark quickly,” Kinskey says. “And I would challenge any young woman starting today to only apply for jobs that you’re not quite qualified for. Put yourself in the position that you want to be in. Start calling yourself the thing you want to be.

“Look at what you like to watch or listen to, what you like to consume,” she continues. “And if you’re consuming it, then you have expertise in what people want out of it. Don’t waste time in the shadow of Steven Spielberg. Just go figure out what you’re already enjoying, and then go find those jobs. Because the industry reinvents itself every 10 years. Don’t chase old business models.”

“And don’t be afraid to just make stuff,” Belew chimes in. “I think men are more inclined to  write the thing they want to write, make the thing they want to make, pitch the show they want to pitch. They have maybe more confidence or whatever it is that drives them. And I think that women have a tendency to wait for someone to ask them to make something. They don’t want to do it until they’re 100% qualified. Don’t wait until you’re 100% competent! Because the guys at your same level aren’t waiting. That’s how they keep moving ahead.”

The first show Belew ever sold as a producer was to TruTV. “Some friends of mine at UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) were doing this weight-loss competition and I thought, ‘We should shoot this. Why is no one shooting this?’ And they said OK. So I paid some guys beer money to shoot a pilot, essentially, and we cut it into a 10-minute sizzle reel. I sold it in the room. Nobody asked me to do that. And if I hadn’t done that, I never would have gotten into development. Nobody needs to give you permission to do it.”

“The cool thing about doing the podcast is that it is a great way to stay in touch with the very principles and origins that Funny or Die was based on,” Kinskey says. “Which is just getting people to come down in the afternoon and make something that would later be up on the internet. What’s so great about working in comedy is that people want to do a day of work because they want to play with their friends and laugh. The podcasts really keep you in touch with those roots. Because people can just come in for four hours, have fun together in a recording booth and go home.”

Sounds like the perfect way to start playing in our sandboxes again.

 

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A New Day Dawns - 'The Morning Show' Celebrates Gender Equality On Screen And Behind The Scenes

Posted By Kevin Perry, Thursday, March 5, 2020

The brightest spotlights cast the longest shadows. Since its inception, the entertainment industry has harbored menace in the darkness, sometimes allowing harassment and abuse to fester in hidden corners. The Morning Show excavates these shadows to expose the sordid underbelly of mainstream media at its most volatile.

“We’re dealing with really sensitive subject matter,” explains Executive Producer Reese Witherspoon. “We wanted to take a 360-degree look at what the impact of the MeToo movement has done to the workplace, to personal lives, to the gender pay disparity conversation, to the lack of inclusion in corporate environments and representation in media.

“The news can be very binary and sometimes editorialized and pejorative,” Witherspoon continues. “By fictionalizing these stories, we didn’t have to play within boundaries.”

To unleash the spectacle appeal of The Morning Show, the creative team drew upon its nonfiction roots: namely, Brian Stelter’s book Top of the Morning. “Brian really told you all about what was happening inside the broadcast media world. Fascinating!” Witherspoon exclaims. “He did a great job of explaining why broadcast television really matters. It’s a very high-stakes world. They’re making about half a billion dollars a year in ad sales. If there’s a dip in the ratings, all those ad sales will go to another channel. It’s really cutthroat because there’s a lot of money on the line.”

Fellow Executive Producer Michael Ellenberg echoes this sentiment regarding real-life morning media. “They’re an amazing platform. They’re one of the last media in America that still tries to appeal to New York and Los Angeles and Des Moines and Mississippi. They have equal viewership, Democrats and Republicans. They’re really still trying to represent what America is, in an era when America seems to want to rip itself apart.”

In a blistering example of art imitating life, The Today Show delivered a bruising inspiration to Ellenberg when he was still a child. “When Jane Pauley was fired, there was no real public explanation offered, particularly if you were a kid. The only thing we heard was ‘She was old.’ Right? And the show went from so good to so bad. At the time, she was 39 years old. It lodged in my mind, like, what a strange world. This show was so brilliant, these people were so capable, and what could Jane Pauley have done wrong that they would willfully make the show terrible rather than keep her?”

The question lingered in Ellenberg’s mind well into his adulthood. “Every few years, a high-profile woman on these shows is put through the wringer. That’s an interesting disconnect. Are these two things related: the pressure of representing America and the way that women are treated?”


Executive Producer/Director Mimi Leder discusses a scene with
Executive Producer/star Jennifer Aniston.

After achieving phenomenal success in the film world and as a development guru at HBO, Ellenberg was able to dredge up his morbid curiosity for infotainment scandal. “I optioned Brian Stelter’s book, which I thought was an amazing introduction to the world, and then approached Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston. We were all talking, and I was fortunate that they committed not only to star, but to produce with me as well, which was amazing, to be honest. I couldn’t imagine two better actresses and partners to have in this world because they’ve lived many of the ideas the show explores. It was personal for them, they saw it very clearly from the beginning, and we were really able to build it and form it together.”

The growing dream team eventually lured Executive Producer Kristin Hahn into its ranks. As Aniston’s creative partner, Hahn gravitated to the series’ myriad themes. “The show really deals with celebrity and fame, which Jen and I feel is another interesting layer. It also deals with ageism. We will get into that even deeper next season. These are all things that culturally, and in the workplace, are so relevant.”

Hahn elaborates, “It gets into the subtle dynamics between not just women and men in the workplace, which is important, but women and women in the workplace … and the abuse of power that can happen, even with pretty decent intentions.”

The weighty subject matter allows Aniston to flex her dramatic chops as Alex, the charismatic TV host teetering on the top of a crumbling empire. “She has lost herself and wants to reclaim who she is,” says Hahn. “That’s profound, and you can’t help but feel empathy for her. It humanizes the celebrity in that character. It’s a role that Jen, as an icon, can bring a lot to.”

Apple TV+ agreed, betting big on its flagship show and its superstar producing talent. “We were free,” declares Witherspoon. “The whole world was our playing field. We could discuss anything, say whatever we want and push boundaries. It really gave us an ability to define the edges of these social conversations and cultural shifts.”

But with great freedom comes creeping trepidation. “Every project that we begin on a streaming service has its own feeling of entering the wild, wild west,” Witherspoon admits. “We don’t know what the audience is gonna be, we don’t know what country they’re watching it in, we don’t know if people are gonna subscribe, we don’t know what audience we’re playing for.”

To help eradicate those unknowns, Witherspoon collaborated with her Big Little Lies cohort Ellenberg, who saw opportunity amid the chaos. “What people in my line of work hate is when you ask them, ‘Why is it done this way?’ and the answer is, ‘Because we’ve always done it.’ Everyone in Hollywood hates that answer. So when there’s a new network, they can’t say that!”

Ellenberg relished the chance to tango with a fledgling juggernaut. “Part of the reason why we went with Apple is they make cultural moments. They wanted us to be their signature show that they launched with— and the opportunity to partner with an amazing company at the beginning—that just seemed for all of us like a once-in-a-career opportunity.”

Ellenberg praises the breakneck brilliance of fellow Executive Producers Kerry Ehrin and Mimi Leder, who wrote and directed the pilot episode, respectively. “Everyone’s building the plane while they’re flying it. They’re building a network, I’m launching a new studio, we’re building my company—everything’s getting built as we’re doing it,” he says.

To extend the airline metaphor, Ellenberg marvels at Witherspoon’s multitasking prowess. “Her ability to go up to 30,000 feet and see everything from a holistic producer’s sensibility, and then when she needs to, shift down to the ground and be completely laser-focused to see it from an actor’s perspective, is unique. Like really unique in our industry. It’s exciting!”

“She’s a powerhouse and a visionary,” Ellenberg continues. “She’s a risk taker, she’s innovative, and she gravitates toward the unfamiliar. That’s inspiring! You’re desperate to work with people like that. You want to be on her side. When you’re taking on big challenges, you want to be on Reese’s team.”

Executive Producer Michael Ellenberg with Executive Producer Kristin Hahn.

Diane Sawyer enjoys a behind-the-scenes laugh with
the cast and crew of
The Morning Show.

Deflecting the kudos humbly, Witherspoon passes the praise on to Aniston. “Jen has a very discerning, detail-oriented eye. She watches cuts in a way that I don’t watch them. She combs over the set and finds details that are important to character that I would have never seen. She’s great with humor and language and building sympathy for character. Jen really sees the audience perspective.”

Ellenberg emphatically concurs. “Jen’s an experienced and formidable producer. When I was looking for inspiration for my business, I thought of Jen, who co-founded Plan B.” Extrapolating to include both of his A-list partners, Ellenberg beams, “I admire them as artists and as actors, but their producorial career had—and has—a huge influence on me. So there’s also just the opportunity to learn from them. That’s the truth.”

The Morning Show shimmers and blinds with its cavalcade of star wattage, and that was all part of Ellenberg’s plan. “We wanted the audience to engage with this world in the way they would engage with actual morning shows themselves, with stars and actors they think they already know intimately, and they feel a level of comfort with. That’s how you engage with a morning host. You’re letting family into your home every morning. Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, Steve Carell—these are all household names. They’re not just admired artists, but they’re really beloved people. An audience feels a level of comfort and trust.”

This trust is soon perverted by the show’s narrative. “The casting of Carell was very deliberate,” Ellenberg confides. “You admire and love and respect him—he’s funny and warm and compelling. But then, slowly but surely, you come to understand that even someone you adore so much could do something appalling. We wanted an audience to go on that journey to hopefully have a deeper, meaningful experience of this subject. By the end of the season, you will see this world in its totality.”

Witherspoon was eager to infuse an epic dose of class awareness into the brew. “One of the things we felt very strongly about was the Upstairs, Downstairs/Downton Abbey aspect of broadcast and how there is definitely a hierarchy within that world. The people who are technicians doing really intense work every single day versus on-air paid talent and executive talent that feel worlds away. We wanted to play with those two worlds colliding.”

The Oscar-winning icon holds a dark mirror up to her industry, deconstructing the pitfalls of celebrity through The Morning Shows lens. “It shows you the seduction of fame and power and influence,” says Witherspoon. “You see where you lose touch with people, with everyday life, when the draw of this big, bright world pulls you in. Your morals do get compromised in the process. You’re willing to do more just to maintain your status and your relevance,” says Witherspoon.

It was essential for the series leads to wield creative control over their own fates, argues Hahn. “If we had these two actresses, who are basically the heart and soul of this show, not have a voice in the creation of the show, that would be a travesty. It would be a paradox. That is not the world we’re living in. Right now, thankfully, we are dealing with a business that is changing, and women are not just puppets who are being controlled by their male counterparts. Jen and Reese are definitely in a unique position because of who they are and the careers they have built, to really be examples of how women as artists can have a very strong hand in the creation of their art behind the scenes, not just in front of the camera.”

With an endearing flourish, Hahn proclaims, “Jen and Reese are beautiful storytellers. They now get to tell their stories alongside wonderful producers and showrunners and the rest of the team. They bring something to this particular story that the rest of us cannot bring: understanding from the inside out what celebrity culture can do to your life, the challenges it brings when you live under a microscope, and the subtle sacrifices and struggles you go through when everyone treats you differently. Everyone.”

Those sacrifices are paying off. The Morning Show isn’t just shifting the gender paradigm; it’s detonating it. Ellenberg, for one, is happy to help light the fuse. “To be a producer in this moment in Hollywood, I think it’s the greatest time since the heyday of the studio system. This is a moment in which the newer idea, the more exotic idea, gains traction. There are more opportunities to work with new voices and previously overlooked voices.”

One of those overlooked voices, surprisingly enough, was Witherspoon’s. “I tried to be a producer 10 years ago, and it just was a different time for women,” she recalls. “I certainly felt, personally, that I wasn’t taken as seriously as I wanted to be.”

It’s a shocking admission, considering how Witherspoon has since galvanized her status as a bona fide mogul, with projects in development on almost every conceivable platform. “I’ve been really fortunate to have great partners in HBO and Apple and now Netflix and Amazon to create these worlds,” she says.

“It’s an incredible time to have women at the center of the story, but also behind the scenes in real leadership positions. It’s been really encouraging to see female showrunners coming forward and telling very dynamic stories about women. It’s important that people see women represented onscreen in the way that they really live, and it’s so gratifying to be a small part of that change.”

This change has rippled into a revolution that echoes through every compelling plot point of The Morning Show. It isn’t merely must-see TV; it’s must-heed social commentary.

 


-Photos courtesy of Apple TV


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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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