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She Definitely "Has It" - Tonya Lewis Lee Is A Fighter And Art Is Her Weapon

Posted By Sarah Sanders, Thursday, July 18, 2019

“I do think of my art as my activism,” says Tonya Lewis Lee early in our conversation—and it’s clear this core belief infuses all aspects of the many kinds of work she does. Whether as a producer, writer or entrepreneur, Lee is deeply committed to the power of telling stories that matter. “I’m very fortunate in that I am mostly able to pick and choose the kind of work that I want to be doing,” she says. “I do it with the intention of trying to make the world a better place, of trying to raise awareness and consciousness—especially around issues of race, issues of gender, equity, of health and wellness.


Lee has most recently been shining light on those topics through her work as executive producer for the second season of Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It, created and directed by Spike Lee (who is, yes, also her husband). The first season, released in 2017, was based on his 1986 film of the same name. Revolving around Brooklyn-based Nola Darling and her relationships with friends and multiple lovers, the film was groundbreaking in its depiction of an independent, sexually liberated Black woman. The second season continues to follow Nola, now grappling with artistic success and trying to balance her ideals with the demands of the corporate world.


While the first season adhered closely to the film, the second branches out, as we “go into Nola’s world and see where she leads us,” Lee says. “For me, it was just really fun to think about and look at a young woman who’s an artist and how an artist figures out how to make it today.  Being an artist is not an easy thing, especially when you’re first starting out.”


The show digs into the difficulty of balancing creative idealism on the one hand with commercial success on the other, asking, “Can you legitimately make money on your art and be true to yourself as an artist, or are you selling out to the corporate structure?”


For Lee, the two ideas are not necessarily mutually exclusive, especially in terms of access and reach. “I want [my work] to have commercial success because that means it’s reaching as many people as possible,” she says. That matters to Lee because the projects she works on provide complex, nuanced depictions of people of color—something she believes there should be more of. “Looking at television, looking at film, is how we are informed about who we are, what’s happening in our world,” she explains. “Seeing my children see themselves in this world, this majority-white world that we live in, through television, through books, I realized there weren’t enough books I was able to read that featured kids that looked like them or TV shows with kids that looked like them,” she says. “I want to be contributing to that in the best way possible, as much as I can.”


As another way of bringing politics into art, She’s Gotta Have It also dives into issues of gentrification, something apparent in a Brooklyn that has changed dramatically in the 30 years since the film was released. “Sometimes when I still go back to Fort Greene, I feel like I’m Rip Van Winkle. It’s unbelievable to me how different it is,” Lee says. She explains that showing the effects of gentrification on communities of color was crucial to the remake of She’s Gotta Have It, in a way that ties back to the idea of art as activism. “It was really important, and continues to be important in the show, to show what gentrification is like and what it’s doing to a community. It’s a serious issue and it’s a serious issue for underserved communities. I don’t know what Brooklyn’s going to be like in another 25 years. I mean, is there a world in which we’re able to work together to keep it at least at this point? Or is it going to be completely whitewashed?”


The series does not provide any miracle solutions to gentrification, but Lee says the show does present “an awareness, an awakening, to where they are”—and awareness is a necessary first step toward change.


Another way Lee is helping bring about change is making sure the She’s Gotta Have It writers’ room features many women, like Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (who also produces). Having women on both sides of the camera also matters. While Lee gladly acknowledges that Spike created the character of Nola, she’s been excited by the guidance that women creatives have been able to provide, and what that has brought to the show. “We wanted to put flesh and bones into who she is,” she says of Nola. “And men don’t know what they don’t know,” she adds with a wry smile. “It was really important to have a room full of women—full of strong women—who were willing and unafraid to say what we really thought about what it means to be a young woman today. To Spike’s credit, and the other guys in the room, I think they really came to understand that.”


Helping a director realize the most fleshed-out version of their vision is a large part of what Lee views her work as a producer to be. “A producer’s job is to really be able to listen to a director’s vision, understand what it is they’re really after and figure out how to help them get there,” she explains. Lee was enthusiastic about having that director be, in this case, her husband; while both have been in the business for years, the initial season of She’s Gotta Have It was their first time working together. “We found our groove and how it works, how we work together,” she says. “And I have to say, I really did enjoy it. Even though there were moments, I’m sure, where I was like, I’ll never do this again!” she laughs. In general, Lee’s admiration for her husband’s work and values is apparent, especially in the ways he has opened doors for new, diverse voices. “He’s brought a lot of people with him, and I respect that immensely, and I want to do the same: work with all kinds of people who are trying to do the same kind of work that we’re trying to do.”

 

Tonya Lewis Lee and Spike Lee on location reviewing footage from season 2 of She's Gotta Have It

In order to make more of that kind of work, Lee launched the production company ToniK Productions with her partner, Nikki Silver, in 2012. They have since produced several films, including Monster, which premiered at Sundance in 2018. While producing independently can be challenging, Lee

says there are also rewards. “As independent producers today, it’s not easy. You’re sort of out here on your own,” she explains. “But the flip side of that is that we do get to do the work that we want to do, in the way that we want to do it, with the kind of people we want to do it with. It may take a little longer and be a little harder, but you know, we fight the fight.”


And fighting is important to Lee, in a way that, again, comes back to art as activism. “It’s a battlefield out here,” she says. “What’s my part? How am I fighting? Because it matters to me. The sacrifices that were made for me to be here, matter. And so, what am I doing to further the human race?”


It’s a question that clearly guides the work Lee does away from television and film sets as well. “I joke with friends, especially in these days, we need to be army-fit. Because if someone says run, I better be able to run. I don’t want someone to have to put me on their back. I want to be able to carry my own weight. And I’m a survivor, we all are survivors—we’re here. So, being mentally, physically and spiritually strong is critical,” she says.


Indeed, Lee has been a public health and wellness advocate for many years. In 2009, she produced the documentary Crisis in the Crib, exploring the issues of infant mortality in the United States. She later launched Movita, a wellness brand offering organic vitamin supplements that address the specific needs of women. In addition to advocating for women’s health, Lee also aims to demystify health practices more generally. “The bottom line: eating well, moving your body and getting your sleep is everything. And when you’re young, if you can start doing that and make it become part of a habit, then you can continue to do the work at the level you want to be doing it … for as long as you want to be doing it.”


Lee practices what she preaches: she meditates, eats a mostly vegan diet and exercises regularly. In fact, members of the She’s Gotta Have It crew would frequently encourage each other to go to the gym after wrapping for a day. “I’m like, my god, if the camera operator can be in the gym after he’s been holding that camera all day, then I should be able to do that!” she says with a smile—though not for vanity’s sake. In addition to the practicality of taking care of one’s body for career longevity, Lee insists that self-care has a political component. She admires writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde and cites her quote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”


“I do love that, because again, it goes back to art as activism,” she says. As part of that self-care, Lee says she is also working on “going with the flow of life” and not letting herself get stressed about intense production schedules. “I try really hard to be kind to myself,” she says. “I’m at an age where I know what I can deal with and what I can’t. And if I can’t,  I’m not going to deal with that.”


As for other words of wisdom, “My advice for producers would be find your team, find your people,” she says. “I think it’s great to have collaborative partnerships, people that you trust, who you build relationships with, who you enjoy working with.” She also says to remember that things take a long time: “Never give up. You just gotta hang in there. And if it doesn’t work one way, you’ve got to figure out another way.”

 

 

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Live From DC... It's A Capitol Night! - Producer Michael Colbert Continues The Family Tradition of Honoring Our Country and its Heroes

Posted By Rona Edwards, Friday, July 12, 2019

As producers, we like to tell stories that have something worthwhile to say and that touch people’s lives. We also produce movies, television and transmedia purely to entertain, and that is also very satisfying. However, it is rare to contribute something so meaningful that the legacy of what you produce has a lasting effect on the people you work with and the people you do the show for—year after year.  


In the case of Michael Colbert, he’s lucky enough to executive produce not just one, but two shows a year that celebrate our nation and its military heroes … and he has one shot to do it each time, because it’s all produced live. Colbert is the producer of A Capitol Fourth and the National Memorial Day Concert from Washington, D.C., which have become yearly institutions since 1981 and 1989, respectively. Both are ratings juggernauts for PBS.  


Though the National Memorial Day Concert is a more solemn event, A Capitol Fourth is a celebration of independence and our democracy. Both concerts bring out bipartisan support from the political arena, stars from stage, screen and the music industry, and well-known military veterans. Despite our differences, these two occasions unite us with one goal in mind: to honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice and to celebrate our freedom from mad King George.


Let’s rewind a bit to how it all began. Colbert’s father, Jerry, was House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s media adviser. He taught O’Neill all about television. However, his patriotism for our soldiers and this country dates further back. His family used to run the Memorial Day events in his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts. They would place flags at graves and organize the annual parade.


The meaning of Memorial Day became lost after Vietnam. “That was his mission … to try to bring it back. And now these shows have become national traditions,” says Colbert.


“I remember so well the first concert in 1981.” Colbert was a wide-eyed 13-year-old surrounded by legends Pearl Bailey and the great actor E.G. Marshall, who hosted the inaugural show. When the downbeat hit and the national anthem was sung, the teenager looked up at the flag blowing in the wind, the Capitol dome behind it and hundreds of thousands of spectators below, and it took his breath away. “It’s something you never get over,” he says. “My hair still stands up at the back of my neck.”


Not wanting to be an SOB (“son of a boss”), Michael ventured out on his own to learn his craft. He worked on variety and awards shows in Nashville, New York and Los Angeles. During that time, Michael met his wife, Jill Jackson, when both were involved with a Grand Ole Opry special, and it was love at first sight. The two still work as partners now via their nonprofit company that produces the shows, Capital Concerts.


Since the passing of his father in 2017, Colbert heeds his dad’s advice to trust his instincts and stay true to the mission. It’s a massive undertaking and a great responsibility to get it right every time. They produce these concerts for a fraction of the cost of other such comparable shows. The money is raised publicly and privately. Capital Concerts does all the promotion and TV and radio spots, down to social media outreach and websites. They also have to deal with more than 20 government agencies. Their company is small, but they get a lot of help from friends throughout Congress on both sides.


The Memorial Day concert is a hybrid of theater, film and performance. “It’s almost like the process of producing a movie or a Broadway show,” explains Colbert. “Every moment must fit perfectly into the next as you put this complicated puzzle together.”

 

John Stamos thrills the crowd

In keeping with the original vision, Colbert and his talented team ask these questions at the beginning of each production: “What do our veterans or their families need today, and what important anniversaries are there?” This year it’s the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The team worked hard to find powerful stories of veterans and their families. One such story is of that of medic Sgt. Ray Lambert. Prior to landing on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, Sgt. Lambert was awarded two Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts for his bravery saving his comrades in North Africa and Sicily. At 98, he is still in great shape physically and mentally and was able to see Sam Elliott tell his story at this year’s concert.


In addition, a lineup of Vietnam veterans populated the stage and were introduced by General Colin Powell—who served two tours in Vietnam and is the recipient of two Purple Hearts—so the country could finally say what it hadn’t properly said 44 years ago: Welcome home. “They sure deserve it,” says Colbert. “They fought the war they were given. And many are still struggling. But to be able to say that at the Capitol ... we’re very humbled to do so.” The concert always ends with one of the most intimate and solemn moments on television: A lone bugler playing Taps.


Top: Marines stand guard over the celebration on the National Mall
Below: Michael Colbert, Sean Fogel, Jon Macks and Jill Jackson

A Capitol Fourth has a very different tone. Because so many cities no longer have July 4th events due to budget cuts, Colbert and his team share an immense obligation in bringing this great celebration of freedom into people’s homes. This year they’re doing a special segment about wounded warriors who learned to play musical instruments during their recovery. It’s also the 50th anniversary of both the first moon landing and Sesame Street, so there will be special tributes to those milestones of American life.


Also on the program will be an homage to the incomparable Aretha Franklin, who performed several times for A Capitol Fourth. Colbert feels strongly about bringing the great music legends of our time along with younger stars to the concert stage. All genres are covered, including Broadway, country, classical and “lest we forget, patriotic music,” a jovial, upbeat Colbert adds. And to cap it off, of course, will be the perfectly timed 1812 Overture with fireworks exploding over our capital’s monuments and across the Potomac. It’s like covering the Olympics, with cameras all over the city, capturing everything. “All eyes are on Washington, D.C., as Washington becomes America’s hometown.”


There are a lot of moving parts to producing these complicated shows. When you’re dealing with five military services, the mayor’s office, the Capitol and D.C. police, the National Symphony, the National Park Service and the congressional leadership, it really does take the precision and teamwork of an army to pull off the broadcasts.


During our interview, members of Colbert’s producing team, Sean Fogel and Barr Weissman, stop by to say hello as does Colbert’s wife, Jill. One thing becomes crystal clear: They love what they do. With A Capitol Fourth celebrating 39 years and the National Memorial Day Concert 30 years, they give shows like Law and Order and The Simpsons a run for their money in longevity.


“These aren’t for us. These are for the nation,” Colbert stresses. “And when you look at it, it’s the memorial event for the United States. It’s the official July 4th for the country, and that gives you a lot of perspective as you put these things together.”


Though it’s always a wild ride, this is what attracted Colbert to live television—the immediacy of it, having to think on your feet ... and no post production! But they’ve had their challenges to be sure, particularly with the weather. Rain has caused cancellations and delays through the years, so they employ a meteorologist to predict where, when and if the weather will affect the show. There was also the time when Ray Charles missed his flight, causing producers to panic until he finally arrived and blew everyone away with America the Beautiful. Or the first year, when they used an old converted bookmobile as their TV truck, and the program monitor went out. The quick but difficult producorial decision was to broadcast a documentary on the monarch butterfly until they were up and running again.


“These shows are as much a way of life for us as anything and, as with any kind of producing, there’s always obstacles and challenges,” Colbert says matter-of-factly. “You just have to trust that you’re doing something that’s good, that you’re doing something that’s right, and you’re going to get through it.” Then he humbly concludes, “If we weren’t doing this, we ‘d find some other way to make a difference.”  



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AVA DuVERNAY - Her New Series Shows How The Criminal Justice System Robbed Five Boys of Their "Personhood"

Posted By Peggy Jo Abraham, Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Most everyone would agree that Ava DuVernay writes, directs and produces very important projects. Yet when you talk to this extraordinary talent, she won’t go so far as to call her subject matter “important.” DuVernay prefers to categorize her body of work as a reflection of what interests her, what she personally cares about. Entertaining audiences is not enough. She won’t, as she puts it, “spend time making things I don’t believe in.”


One thing DuVernay definitely believes in is candidly confronting a criminal justice system she feels has “disrupted black lives.” In contrast to what we see and read about in the news, her work personalizes the issues in a very intimate way.


For her latest project, a four-part miniseries on Netflix called When They See Us, DuVernay takes a shameful page out of history. She chronicles the lives of five young Black and Hispanic teens wrongfully convicted of raping a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. Although most people know of this story and how it ends, DuVernay delivers a compelling, compassionate portrait of who these boys actually were. She does that through the lens of their families—who, contrary to initial media reports—were very involved in their childrens’s lives. The crushing pain of watching mothers endure the agony of a criminal justice system that’s stacked against their boys in every way makes for a truly visceral viewing experience.


When They See Us is the third part of a triptych. DuVernay’s 2012 film Middle of Nowhere debuted at Sundance, where she became the first African American woman to win the Best Director prize. That movie centered on families of the incarcerated. Her documentary 13th took ideas about the criminal justice system and gave them historical, political and cultural context. DuVernay says When They See Us is a marriage of the two, in that it’s designed to speak about families and address the system as a whole.


While it is disturbing to focus on the social injustice so prevalent today, we can be grateful that this is what Ava DuVernay personally cares about. Through her heartfelt storytelling, she encourages us to face the problems and search for solutions, no matter how painful.


This is the 30th anniversary of the EVENTS you depict in your powerful new miniseries, When They See Us. Were you timing its release to coincide with this or had the project just been on your radar?

I really wanted to make the 30th anniversary. As a producer, it was challenging to try to hit that exact date based on when we began our work, but I did want to make sure that we came out this year and as close to the date as possible. So the moment when we dropped the trailer on the exact date of the actual assault in the park was a big triumph for me and for the men involved. They wanted to commemorate the day that their lives changed forever with a different event. They wanted to reclaim that date. And we did.


Can you talk a bit about the title?

We had been using the working title of Central Park Five throughout preproduction, principal photography and most of post. But I knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to change it. I feel like “Central Park Five” was the moniker that was given to them by the press, by powers that be, to group them together and in some ways strip them of their humanity. It’s used as a political term and it’s inflammatory. When you say that, people have all kinds of connotations or associations as to what it is and who they are or aren’t. And I wanted to make sure that this four-part film reclaimed their lives cinematically, and it does that from the very beginning when you hear the title. There’s a lot of brand equity in that first title, but I just felt so strongly that it wasn’t right for the story we were telling.


That’s so true. It is a story that DEALS WITH many aspects of these kids’ lives.

It’s representative of many parts of their lives and their families’ lives. For example, as a mother of non-Black boys, you may watch this and hopefully think it’s just an isolated story about the Central Park Five case. But this series is about family, about community, about personhood interrupted. This is about a lot of things in our culture beyond just that case.


It would have been easy to think these boys came from broken homes and really difficult situations. Yet all of them seem to have very strong familial bonds, which were portrayed in such a touching way.

I hope it speaks to that fact that whenever you see a black or a brown person being paraded across the news or being characterized in movies as criminal and as not a whole person, you are ignoring who they are. And ultimately you’re ignoring their community, their culture, their very personhood.

 

Ava DuVernay with Vera Farmiga, who portrays lead prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer


You were just a teenager at the time of the crime. But do you remember being very aware of the incident and the coverage?

Very aware, very aware. I wanted to go to UCLA to study broadcast journalism and ended up being an English Lit major, but with a real interest in news. But the reason why this case caught my attention was because the boys were very close to my age. And there was a word that I didn’t understand in the news called “wilding.” And I thought I was a hip teenager and was like, “Is this a new slang term that I don’t know?” So I called my cousin in New York and I said, “What’s wilding? Is this a New York thing? What does it mean?” And he said, “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not a word that we use. I think they mean wilin’, wilin’ out,” which was slang at that time. It meant we’re just hanging out. The fact that “wilin’ out” became “wilding,” became “wolf pack,” became “animalistic criminals” really had an effect on me because for the first time, I realized the news can be incorrect, that this is not something I can blindly trust. And I really recall that moment, because I was so focused on pursuing news as a career at the time, so the case was really formative for me in that way.


Did the wronged men actually contribute to the show? Were you involved with them when you were writing it?

Yes. They were my guiding stars on this. I became very close to them, and we’re still very close. I interviewed them with their families, sat in their homes, broke bread and had meals with them over a four-year period. They were on the set quite a bit and literally there with their actors, particularly Korey Wise, who still lives in New York. The actor (Jharrel Jerome, who plays Wise) came to me and said, “Ava, can Korey come to set today? I have a tough scene.” He just wanted to feel his presence and be near him. So we worked very closely with them, the whole writers’ room. We brought them out to LA and they sat with the writers for several days.


So this story was truly their story?

Yes. I was adamant that this not be culled solely from press clippings and archives, that this was them finally being able to amplify their voices, which they had not been able to do. Even in their trial, they were defending against a lie. Even in their confession, they were coerced to say what they said. So you never really got the moment where they told you how they felt about what was happening, what was going on behind closed doors from their perspective.

 

DuVernay and Jharrel Jerome, who plays wrongly accused teen Korey Wise 

And what about the rape victim, jogger Trisha Meili? Did you have any contact with her?

I reached out to everyone depicted and said, “I’m telling a story. You’re going to be in it. And I would love to sit down with you to learn more about you and your experience.” And I sat down with everyone who wanted to, and I didn’t with the people who didn’t want to. She declined to be interviewed by me, so most of what I used came from her book—little things like what she would listen to on the radio or her jogging habits. The book was basically my guideline. And then I interviewed people who knew her and was able to get a little bit more.


I read that Matias Reyes, the real rapist, continued to commit crimes after the 1989 incident and that one of the accused men calls that the real tragedy—the one that’s never talked about. Is that true?

Yes, Reyes did go on to murder a woman and commit several other rapes, all of which he admitted to. But that could have been prevented if justice had been pursued, truly pursued, that night. He’s walking around the park in bloody clothes. The boys don’t know what they’re saying. They don’t know where they’re supposed to be. People are feeding them their “facts.” I mean, it’s clearly not them. And yet you have to solve this case, and it’s a big media storm, and there are political objectives, and you let the real guy go back into society to rape and kill more people. So that’s what happened.


I remember Trump’s connection to the case—hiS calling publicly for the return of the death penalty. Was there any hesitation on your part about using the Trump footage now that he’s President?

No. It was an early decision that I made, and there was a lot of thought about how to handle him. But if I stay true to my kind-of North Star, which is to tell the story of the men, that allowed me not to veer off into other things. You could easily have had someone playing Trump and had a whole part of the story around that. But I made the decision at the beginning that this needed to be told through the boys’ perspectives and through their families’ perspectives. At the time they weren’t really aware of Trump. They’re young black boys, and all they thought was he was a rich guy in New York, which is all he was. And they were going through their own pain and didn’t really understand the depth of what calling for the death penalty meant for them.


When you think about wrongful convictions and the killings of young blacks, you realize they’re still so prevalent today. In some ways, it feels like not much has changed. In your opinion, what’s missing? What will it take to tackle these issues?

Well, we’re just putting Band-Aids on a systemic problem. So until you change the system, nothing is really going to change. We need to look at the criminal justice system in this country and rebuild it. We need to look at what prisons were historically meant to do, which was to create a substitute for slavery. We need to look at the ways in which we’re stripping rights from people who are incarcerated. We need to look at the fact that 93% of the people who are currently in jail never had a trial. Yet we say we live in a just country.


So I feel like everything is a Band-Aid until there’s a real interrogation and a dismantling and rebuilding of the criminal justice system in this country. And that is a long shot, because too many people benefit from it.

 


DuVernay directs a courtroom scene from When They See Us

You clearly demonstrated in your documentary, 13th, how so many people profit from the incarceration process. AND wow, 93% of inmates never went to trial. That’s a staggering statistic.

That’s because part of the whole mechanism of our criminal justice system is pleading. You take the plea. You take the deal. That’s there because you don’t want everyone going to trial. If everyone went to trial, it would burden the system, and you wouldn’t be able to get through all the cases. But this creates an imbalance and a bias. People who can’t properly defend themselves end up in jail.


You have your finger on the pulse of so many social and political issues. Why, as a filmmaker, do you feel it’s important to speak out in this way?

I don’t feel like that has to be the case for anyone else. But for me, the stories that I want to tell and that I want to put out in the world with my name on, I want them to do more. So that’s how I choose what I’m doing. And if what it does is get people to think about themselves and think about motherhood or family or the criminal justice system, or whatever, that’s just a cherry on top.


You’ve worked a lot with Oprah. You have an existing show on OWN TV, a new anthology series called Cherish the Day, and she’s a producer on When They See Us. Is it your similar sensibilities that make for an easy collaboration? What is that connection with her?

We have the same feeling about the work—that art can be transformative, that art can contribute to the culture beyond entrainment, that it can also help shape identity ideas and empathy. And so that core piece of the puzzle is a big connection that we have. She’s a wonderful, creative producer. She can read a script and tell me “This works,” “You lost me here,” “I cried here,” “What do you think about this?” And in terms of casting, she has a great sense of people. She’s interviewed more people than anyone else, so she really can look in someone’s eyes and say, “I can feel them” or, “This is a person I can see that they’re going to be able to portray.” And she’s just a great sounding board in that way.


you pay it forward in many ways. Are you still working with the Evolve Fund, the partnership between the city of LA and the entertainment industry?

Yes I am, through Array Alliance, a nonprofit. Array is a series of companies  I’ve had over the last 10 years. Through the nonprofit, we’re involved with a lot of educational initiatives to develop audience around work by women and people of color. We joined forces with the mayor’s office and the Evolve Fund to create curriculum and programming for high school and college students to help them enter our industry and transform it from the ground up. So that was an initiative, and I was in the inaugural program that we launched last year. I’m really excited about its success and its future.


WHEN THEY SEE US  from THE PRODUCING TEAM

Producing When They See Us was a challenge on many levels. Until now, no one has ever heard the story from the perspective of the five boys who were wrongly accused. And while the rape and trial received a huge amount of media coverage—as producer Jonathan King points out—“The subsequent exoneration got much less attention, to the point that so many people still don’t know the truth.” We spoke to three of the series’ executive producers about what they hope audiences will take away from the emotional drama.


Berry Welsh

There was a moment in prep where Jane, Jonathan and I were sitting with Ava in her office, and Jonathan said something that became a kind of mantra for the show: “When they say ‘boys will be boys,’ they aren’t talking about these boys.” It was an observation about the loss of innocence that touches on every part of the series. You become so emotionally invested in the boys and their families, but their stories also challenge you to think beyond what you know as your own experience.


Jonathan King

One of the most important ideas When They See Us humanizes is that incarceration affects families and communities, not just the person doing time. And the effects don’t stop upon release. A criminal record stays with a person and impacts their ability to restart their life after release. It’s especially pernicious when a person has been wrongfully convicted, but it applies to all people caught up in the system.


Jane Rosenthal

There are human consequences to the system’s failures, and that hasn’t changed. The power of storytelling is that we can take a dark part of our history, and Ava’s vision turns it into something ultimately uplifting that can bring about social change. The benefit of having a creative partner like Netflix is that we can reach the largest possible audience and amplify the message.

 

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2019 Produced By Conference Recap

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The PGA’s 11th annual Produced By Conference was a full-blown hit as more than 1,000 attendees packed the two-day conference both Saturday and Sunday, June 8-9 at Warner Bros. Studios. The event featured engaging conversations from producers and prominent entertainment figures across film, television, and new media including Mindy Kaling, Nancy Meyers, Toby Emmerich, Peter Roth, Michael Douglas, Danny Devito, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Meg Whitman, Marci Wiseman, Michael B. Jordan, Shivani Rawat and Ian Cooper.

Compelling panels and conversations covered a wide range of the hottest trends in entertainment—from the new age of horror, to the power of podcasts, creating content with a conscience and representation for everyone.

In addition to panels, a record number of attendees (600) actively took part in the Producers Mashup, a one-of-a-kind event that gives them the chance to speak directly with top producers including Matt Weiner and Gary Goetzman, in addition to innovative executives like Justin Falvey of Amblin Television and Sasha Silver of Hulu.

Below are highlights from the panels and conversations.

Day One highlights include:

  • Michael B. Jordan spoke about the personal responsibility of choosing socially conscious projects among content creators. “Starting in front of the camera, from the actor’s perspective, it’s all about the heart. It’s about wanting to create bodies of work and tell stories that will make people go home and think thoughts that will weigh heavily on their heart.
  • In a packed session, Mindy Kaling and Nancy Meyers discussed their shared experience as female leaders in the industry. In an empowering session, Kaling said, “I feel honored that I am sitting here on this stage with you in the room. Female filmmakers can point to the PGA and say it can be done.” Nancy encouraged producers to have a strong will and persevere.
  •  Danny DeVito sat down with long-time collaborator Michael Douglas where they reflected on almost 50 years of friendship, working on projects together and the humanity that producers must bring to filmmaking. DeVito said, “It is friendship, it is relationships. It’s all about keeping in touch and being with people you care about.” Douglas also reflected on the #MeToo movement saying, “This #MeToo movement has been phenomenal in bringing women into our industry more than ever before.” Douglas continued, “We know there have been some mistakes by a lot of people or some people but I don’t think it’s a large population. I do feel that it’s important to remember we all mutually love this process and to be kind to each other.”
  • In one of the most-anticipated sessions of the day, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, the founders of the yet-to-be-launched streaming service Quibi, shared for the first time many new details concerning their audacious new content service, including:

o   The service will launch on April 6, 2020.

o   They will be releasing 7,000 pieces of content in one year.

o   Quibi will publish 25 pieces of content every day.

o   It will cost $4.99/ month (with ads).

o   They have deals in place with directors Steven Soderberg and Antoine Fuqua.

  • Toby Emmerich and Peter Roth participated in a lively discussion where they touched on Warner Bros. approach to making DC films; the cancellation of Whiskey Cavalier, with Peter Roth hinting that it might not be the show’s last hurrah - “So it ain’t over yet.” When asked about Disney’s acquisition of Fox and what it means for Warner Bros., Emmerich said, “I’m jealous, because they're going to be number one for the foreseeable future. However, he added, “I do think it creates the opportunity for us to take measured risks with films that maybe they wouldn't see us the theatrical opportunities that we will.”
  • In the Keys to the Kingdom panel Mark Gill, commented on the growing tensions between China and U.S. by saying, “Up until about two days before Cannes I would’ve said China was extremely important and then our president opened his mouth again and basically scared away the Chinese for the moment. I’m hopeful that doesn’t last for a long time…. it is absolutely true that without China we’re all in big, big trouble so I’m hopeful that we can all come to our senses and see that we get more from joining up than fighting each other.”

 

Day Two highlights include: 

  • At one of the most anticipated panels of the weekend, Ava DuVernay and the producers of Netflix’s When They See Us gave the audience an inside look into the series that was four years in the making. Speaking about the meticulous research that went into the project, DuVernay said they obtained numerous official police records and transcripts. But she noted other material came from people who “wanted us to know things. There were things that came to us anonymously, envelopes that were slipped to us.” 
    Ava stressed to producers in the audience the importance of every project they’re working on now and how critical it is to view them as stepping stones to future endeavors. She said, “I wish someone had said to me in the harder times this is going to mean something to you later, this is going to matter.”
     
  • During the Future of Producing, panelists shared their insights on how streaming has led to more diverse content. Lesyle Headland shared, “When you look at something like streaming, you are actually getting those marginalized voices—female filmakers of color or a gay filmmaker for example that maybe can’t and don’t have the same access out in front of the world.” In addition, the panelists echoed the importance of taking care of their cast and crew’s emotional needs on set, giving the example of using an intimacy coordinator to ensure safety and comfort during sensitive scenes.
  • PGA President Lucy Fisher moderated Representation For Everyone: Why It Makes Sense Now More Than Ever. Fisher encouraged producers to take responsibility and pride in bringing new voices to the table saying, “We have to own these problems. We can make the biggest difference; we can find the people that we don’t know.” Tricia Melton added, “I do think culture is driving this and it is moving fast. Culture [moves] quickly because [these stories are becoming] personal. And to me, that’s the power that we have in our industry: to make it personal.”
  • In one of the most unique sessions of the conference, six aspiring producers had an incredible opportunity to pitch their projects to high-level decision makers, including Gail Berman, Mike Farrah, Barry Jossen and James Lopez. The panelists gave in-the-moment feedback, an experience virtually unheard of in this industry.
  • Top buyers of streaming content at Disney+, Hulu, Amazon, and EPIX shared insights into their future plans to a packed audience. Discussing what viewers can expect from the upcoming Disney+ streaming service, SVP Agnes Chu hinted that content will be family friendly and that Marvel will lead the way with several superhero spin-off series.

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An Itch For Twitch - Welcome To The Brave New World of Producing

Posted By Chris Thomes, Monday, May 6, 2019

Consumers have shifted their viewing to interactive devices (iPad/iPhone, Xbox, PS4, PC), and now creators are free of many of the limitations of broadcast television. But few traditional producers have taken advantage of this fact. Those who have are typically native to these new platforms, and they operate in a world that is as much about participation as it is about watching.

Acronyms, pixelated faces and cryptic icons fly past, almost faster than you can read. Symbolic “emotes” flood the screen as viewers react to a big moment—from excited to shocked, heartbroken to overjoyed. It’s a live chat, flowing like a river of alien symbols. A conversation like this is the backbone of one of the most popular live streamingvideoplatforms on earth. Its focus is primarily onvideo gamelive streaming, but it also includes broadcasts ofesportscompetitions, music, “in real life” streams, and most recently, scripted “TV” programming.

This is Twitch.

Its scale is extraordinary. As early as February 2014, it was already considered the fourth-largest source of peak internet traffic in the United States. By May 2018, it had 2.2 million broadcasters monthly and 15 million daily active users, with around a million average concurrent users on 27,000 Twitch partner channels.

The core draw for viewers is an insatiable desire to watch others with similar interests play games, engage in unique interplay with other viewers and users, boo or cheer the gamers and … simply hang out to chat. Twitch viewers post more than300 messages per second,and while a lot of it may appear rather meaningless and trivial under all those layers of almost indecipherable noise and emotes, there is definitely meaning.

While this “meaning” may not be immediately understood by the average person, it’s not difficult to recognize that it is simply about connection. A community is thriving on Twitch. Players have something in common and a place that enables them to celebrate it. That’s the beauty of the platform—large-scale enablement of participatory entertainment. It embraces interactivity and innovation on formats that television simply cannot accommodate, and it acknowledges the viewer, and engages them real time.

It also helps that streamers are encouraged to create content by being monetarily compensated in various ways. The breakdown goes like this:

- If streamers manage to get 50 followers, they get a percentage of the pre-roll ads that Twitch runs in the live stream.

- Viewers can also choose to subscribe to their favorite Twitch streamers. This supports streamers financially, but also gives the subscriber perks like special chat emojis and badges for use in chat rooms, as well as the ability to watch the stream without any Twitch advertisements. Subscriptions have typically cost between $5 and $25 a month depending on how many features the viewer can access. That money is split between the streamer and Twitch. 

Viewers can also spend money on bits, which are basically animated cheering points they can lavish on the streamer. Bits serve as currency as well. When viewers cheer with their purchased bits, the streamer gets a cut of what viewers spent on them.

- Viewers can also simply donate directly to the streamer, which eliminates having to give Twitch a cut.

- Lastly, streamers can get a cut of affiliate sales by posting links to online retailers and encouraging viewers to buy.


Having a popular channel and maintaining enough of an audience to make money is not easy, though. Although Twitch is a unique platform and format, the tenets of content creation and distribution are strikingly similar to those of traditional television. They require that one have a strong, understandable brand and voice, be engaging, maintain quality, have a consistent schedule and use marketing to reach new viewers.

Because these are all the table-stake rules of engagement for the traditional TV business, one would expect studios to be knocking down Twitch’s door. But they just aren’t—yet. While the Netflix-savvy production world is embracing new streaming platform distribution approaches, the show formats are almost exactly the same as traditional TV. Each episode is the same length, and each season has the same episode order. Because they maintain this consistency in user experience and often rely on foreign sales to traditional TV outlets, the major online distributors are not positioned to embrace new expressions of video storytelling that don’t look and feel exactly like TV.

Bernie Su is Twitch's first exclusive scripted content producer.
His show, Artificial, lets viewers interact directly with characters
.

One producer who has jumped into and embraced the multiformat Twitch-verse is Bernie Su. He is no stranger to radical formats. In fact, two of his previous shows, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved, won Emmys for excellence in interactive media. His latest effort, Artificial, is a scripted sci-fi series that is the first-ever Twitch show where the viewing audience can interact directly with characters while the show is on. Episodes of the show air live, with actors in front of the camera in real time, acting and reacting to audience input via questions and polls. Viewers literally change the story by voting.

While Twitch did not finance Artificial, it did get behind it promotionally, hoping that would signal a new kind of programming and bridge the divide between Hollywood and gamers. With more than half of Twitch users spending over 20 hours a week streaming content on the platform, there is very little time for them to watch traditional TV. Su rose to the challenge, though, and decided to tackle this niche audience head-on.

“The younger generation (the millennials and the Z’s) are watching less and less traditional TV,” explains Su. “So I’m taking the initiative to produce and tell stories on platforms and formats where they are. These viewers have never known a world without the internet or without a smartphone. It’s how they experience their stories.”

Su says that for this finicky demographic, participatory programming is right on target. “The storyteller in me is on a mission to design story experiences where the audience is part of the story, where they are consequential. They’re on the journey with the characters and affect the narrative canon. We grew up watching Luke Skywalker defeat the Empire. Now we want to help Luke defeat the empire.”

The show aligns scripted narrative with interactivity that gamers expect, and it does so by leveraging a variety of Twitch’s unique features. In fact, when Su developed Artificial for Twitch, he made sure it was a proprietary experience. “Being live is just step one, and almost every platform does live and does it well, but they do not have the chat system, the bit/token system, the extension system, and the APIs that Twitch has and that we use for Artificial. If you moved the series to a different platform, we would have to rethink and redesign a lot of our tech and methods. Artificial in its current form could only be done on Twitch.”

The method achieves more than simply allowing gamers to influence the story. The experience of watching and participating in Artificial taps into viewer values that Twitch has forged in its core—community and connection. And that might be the key to helping Twitch diversify its content offerings. Artificial provides a very different type of content for Twitch viewers, but it still utilizes the community features that they’re used to—features that keep them coming back.

From a production standpoint, Artificial is almost like live theater, with key pivot points allowing for variations suggested by the audience. Keen to stay within budget constraints, Su avoids improvisation in the production. “One thing a lot of people misconstrue about our series is that there’s a lot of improv,” he says. “There is actually nearly no improv in our show. Every line of dialogue you hear the actors say is scripted somewhere. Now, it may be on a screen or a printed page or a vocal call, but it is definitely scripted.

"What were doing is building audience responses into our scripts. We know we have a story we want to tell. We know our narrative points. But we do have a lot of variables and branches, and its not until the audience locks us into something that we actually we commit.

That audience influence is critical to engagement on Twitch, no matter what they are watching. Even Twitch’s cofounder, Kevin Lin, has said that people tune into Twitch for a “participatory experience” and enjoy talking to each other while videos are streamed live and then discussing what happened afterward. Like the water cooler conversation after one’s favorite traditional drama series, the Twitch community savors interacting with each other as they banter, pontificate, debate and even give each other a hard time if someone is playing poorly. The difference between interactive and participatory is blurred in this hyperactive world, but as Su explains, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. “Interactive is where the user/viewer has some ability to control the narrative. Participatory is where the user is working with the character and, ideally, other audience members. I consider Artificial to be both.”

While it seems Artificial has everything it needs to satisfy even the most picky Twitch viewer, it remains to be seen whether Twitch’s users will fully embrace nongaming content. They are on Twitch to watch and talk about games. Expecting them to welcome broader programming may be more than they want or are willing to accept.

Other platforms including Facebook and Netflix are also exploring more ways audiences can interact with shows. For example, Netflix recently produced and distributed Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, a new, interactive, choose-your-own-adventure movie that ties into the Black Mirror universe. While it taps into a popular intellectual property and has the weight of Netflix’s custom platform enhancements behind it, it is asking viewers to consume content in a whole new way. But Su is emboldened by that effort and says of the Bandersnatch premiere, “I was incredibly excited. I’m happy to see Bandersnatch and Netflix really push interactive into the mainstream. The choose-your-own-adventure style is familiar to a lot of viewers, just not in video. And in an instant, Netflix made that mainstream with a very well-executed piece. It’s not what we’re doing with Artificial, which is the audience as a whole influencing the direction, but anything that elevates interactive is great for all of us.”

The rest of the studios may need to get on board with Su. In a disrupted landscape where there are more TV platforms and programming than ever before, but where ratings are dropping for live viewing, platforms like Twitch could offer safe harbor for creative producers. Shows like Artificial give appointment viewing a completely unique experience. Programs like it could change the very meaning of live viewing and turn disruption into opportunity.

But with opportunity comes risk. For many producers, shifting from linear to interactive storytelling could seem like a steep hill to climb. Learning all of Twitch’s feature sets, chat system, bit/token system, and APIs could, for some, be a big barrier to entry. We could be in a world where there is no looking back, though, and Twitch may be the new anchor tenant of a participatory storytelling future. Its 15 million active users a day make that argument pretty compelling. Producers like Bernie Su can’t imagine telling stories any other way.

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