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Fast Break - Michael D. Ratner and OBB Pictures Look Beyond The Sports/Entertainment Model They Pioneered In The Digital Space

Posted By Spike Friedman, Thursday, November 29, 2018

When I walked into OBB Pictures and met producer Michael D. Ratner, the question that kept rattling around my brain was: How has this guy already done so much? It’s a lot to take in, frankly. In a wildly short amount of time, Ratner has been able to go from a kid making student films, to an intern thrust into producing content at Relativity, to creating his own company that produces work with the biggest athletes in the world, to now making music documentaries, horror television, and comedy specials. And all within the past five years.

Ratner is engaging and smart. This is a guy who’s thought about the business he is creating and how it can be a platform for him and his team to both be creative and profitable. He’s taken his share of gambles in a compressed timeline, and he’s been able to continuously leverage his success to grow from just being a sports content creator into something of a mini-mogul.

Ratner was a sports fan from childhood, but he didn’t set out to carve out a niche for himself in the sports world. He was making romantic comedies at NYU Film School, when a summer job at Relativity led to an opportunity to produce run-and-gun material for athletes. “At the time, there was no other studio-slash-sports agency that could create content in-house. There are union rules, but since [Relativity] didn’t rep directors and actors they could create the stuff there, for their athletes. It was supposed to draw athletes in by creating content in-house. But they didn’t have a practical mechanism to make that happen.” 

Producer Michael Ratner consults with comedian/host Kevin Hart
on the set of interview series
Cold As Balls

That’s where Ratner came in. While still in grad school, he was put in a position where as an intern at Relativity, he could write, direct, edit and produce content with top name athletes and release it quickly, sometimes in as little as 24 hours. This model has become ubiquitous with the proliferation of professional digital content studios, but at the time it was unique, and with the sports angle even more so. “I was tasked with working with Amare Stoudamire or Miguel Cabrera,” he recalls. “They’re coming in, so come up with three ideas, and then create it.” 

This was successful enough that Ratner was offered a chance to stay at Relativity, perhaps turning this work into a profit center for the company. But Ratner took a gamble: He went back to school to finish out his degree. “I was asking myself, ‘Don’t you go to film school to get this opportunity?’ But at the same point, I wanted to go to New York and finish. My whole life was in New York, and I felt like just going and working at Relativity might not be as entrepreneurial as I thought I needed.”

That early phase was not only a practical crash course for Ratner, it set the tone for what OBB would eventually become. “I love sports. I love telling stories,” he says. “I got an opportunity where I could bring them together and do it in a really unique way. And I had this epiphany: I just spent 24 hours producing a piece with say, Iman Shumpert. And it got 300,000 views. And people saw it and loved it. At Tisch I spent a bunch of money just hustling around—six months—and made a romantic comedy that was seen by 50 people in a basement. And I thought to myself, there’s gotta be a way to bridge these things—storytelling, doing things the right way, and the ability to find a star and make things quickly on a digital scale.”

Passing on a job could have been a major missed opportunity. That’s not how things played out. Instead, Relativity kept his seat warm, and he was invited back after graduating. He chose to do so, but on his own terms. “They offered me a sort of undefined executive role in Los Angeles, but I had this idea for a company in my head. I had the name OBB (Original. Big. Bold.), which was just an idea. I had the little logo. I just really wanted to build something. So I said I want to come, but I wanted a first-look deal.” This was a ballsy ask, by any standard; Ratner barely knew what a first-look deal was at the time. He got the reaction you might expect: “Whaaaat?”

Ratner was looking for a measure of credibility, but was told his scheme was a tough sell. So he passed on the gig and committed to starting his own thing. Three months later? The deal was struck, with one condition. Ratner would have to uproot himself and his work and come out to LA.

Things started moving quickly at that point. He sold a 30 for 30 to ESPN, and as he produced the piece he leveraged from Relativity the connections it afforded. “When I talked to a vendor? I was OBB. When I called up Sean Penn’s people to have him narrate the piece? I was with Relativity. I was able to really get stuff done.” This was all happening just before Relativity would go through its errors of stability, so there was an unusual autonomy afforded to the young producer. But he used it to make work happen, to hustle and to push his company forward.

Interestingly, Ratner’s moment is one that could not be recreated now, mere years later. As Relativity was crumbling, there were myriad opportunities for a producer with Ratner’s skillset to get content out there. With the proliferation of platforms, Ratner says, “There had never been a bigger need for content, and the barrier to entry had never been lower. Maybe I wasn’t able to compete with the top showrunners in Hollywood at HBO, but you could be able to go and have someone take a bet on you if you were making pretty good stuff.” Ratner amicably parted ways from Relativity and was able to strike out on his own to launch OBB, maintaining the formula that he had developed. This was another roll of the dice: Would he be able to get deals done without the backing of a larger company? In this particularly fertile moment, that answer was yes. Among other projects, Ratner created the comedy anthology series The 5th Quarter, which connected him with a massive slew of the nation’s best athletes, streamed on the now defunct go90 platform.

But it still wasn’t simple. Before he could proceed to making his own work, Ratner had to put a company together. This meant bringing in his brother Scott to help figure out all those details: employment contracts, workman’s comp, real estate ... all the things that make an independent production outfit a real company as opposed to a vanity shingle. They signed contracts with UTA and 3Arts and started working broadly, with everyone they could. 

Early in the process, Ratner made a savvy choice to do more than just project development. “I think I got very fearful of people calling bullshit on me,” he admits. “So what I saw was an opening for ‘concept-to-screen’ in this digital era, to make content from ideation to the moment someone is viewing it, whether it’s on a laptop or a phone. And with that, you could get something very cool done in a year, whereas with a film it could be four to as many as 10 years.” Ratner pinpointed opportunities that would be able to go from concept to screen on his one-year-or-less timeline.

That confluence of factors set OBB up to own the block on sports content. “Athletes liked us,” Ratner says by way of explanation. “People started looking good in the go90 show. People started saying ‘These are the new guys in sports content.’” But sports content was only the way in for Ratner. The man loves sports and the work he does with athletes, but OBB has become much more than just a sports content mill. 

Ratner preps for a segment with NBA star Joel Embiid

Aside from the type of content they produce, what defines OBB is its people. Putting it bluntly, the place is filled with people who are very, very smart. He brought his brother Scott on board early as a co-founder, taking him away from the white shoe law firm Sullivan & Cromwell to run business development at OBB. Head of Production, Eric Cohen, is a Princeton grad who worked as an engineer at Microsoft before getting his MBA/MFA at NYU. “The infrastructure to me is everything,” Ratner says of the base he’s built at OBB. His definition of infrastructure is a broad one. It’s the ability to make work from idea to product. It’s having a space that can house a full company and also keep post-production close to the creators. It’s about being rigorous and forward-thinking in the use of analytics and how they can drive the OBB business. And it’s about having a team of really smart people that Ratner trusts to his core.

A little bit about the OBB space: It’s nontraditional for a production company. When OBB outgrew its initial office space on Beverly, they decided to go big with their new home. Hence OBB Pictures now inhabits what was once Scooter Braun’s recording space in West Hollywood. What used to be Justin Bieber’s recording studio is now a pair of edit bays, where content like Kevin Hart’s Cold As Balls gets cut. They have a deck, which was blazingly hot on the summer afternoon when I visited, but felt like an ideal space to work outside or generally hang almost all year round. They sublease a few offices to Blake Griffin and Ryan Kalil’s production company, Mortal Media, keeping OBB close to two of the smartest and funniest athletes around. “I think we’ve got a farm system here,” Ratner says, “that can make products in-house that are platform-and duration-agnostic.”

Having a team like this surrounding Ratner has allowed him to push the organization beyond its roots. And in fact he forced the company to take six months to develop exclusively non-sports related content. Were I in Ratner’s position, I would have been terrified to try to expand beyond what was obviously working for me. Instead he defined himself by expansion, and it’s paid off in numerous ways. “We’ve landed comedies. We have a horror show. We’re in production on a documentary about Jeezy. And it’s exciting as we’re now fully announced and market-facing in all these pillars.” Ratner could have simply owned the sports content block. But now OBB is more than that, and it’s growing all the time.

What this does, ultimately, is free Ratner up to tell stories again. He still showruns and directs Cold As Balls, and he's currently producing and directing OBB's Netflix Original comedy series Historical Roasts, starring Jeff Ross. And as OBB becomes more self-sufficient as a company, he sees a longer-term possibility to get back to his feature filmmaking roots. “I want to be able to focus on projects that really, really inspire me. Where I need to use my specific voice.” Getting OBB off the ground made that tricky for Ratner. But with his youth, his fire and his business acumen, I wouldn’t put it past him to keep this company surging, while coming into his own as a full-fledged feature storyteller.

So how has Ratner gotten all this done by his 30th birthday? (Yeah, he was only 29 when I spoke to him.) It’s hard work and it’s luck, and it’s timing, and it’s smarts, and it’s skill. It’s a really good team with a really savvy vision for the company. It’s all of these factors coming together in an organization that makes it work. Ratner and OBB’s story is already deep and complex. End act one.

 

 

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Better Late Than Ever - Veteran News Producer Chris Licht Finds A Home At The Helm of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Posted By Sarah P. Sanders, Tuesday, November 27, 2018

"You're more of a sandblaster," Chris Licht says of his work as a producer. “If theres something thats getting in the way of talented people, get rid of it.” A quick glance at Licht’s resume could make you think of a guy used to running things: In addition to his work with The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where he has been the showrunner and executive producer since April 2016, Licht’s career highlights include five years at CBS, most recently as vice president of programming for CBS News and executive producer of CBS This Morning, and co-creating NBC’s Morning Joe, where he served as the original executive producer. In person, though, Licht is insistent that being a producer is all about collaboration.

Producing, he says, is “getting the best people you can in the tent and then removing anything that gets in the way of them doing their job.” Sometimes that means taking over more of the running of a show so the host (one Stephen Colbert) can focus on the comedy; sometimes it means getting rid of unnecessary paperwork for PAs; and sometimes it means providing maternity leave for employees—all of which he has done.

You cant underscore enough that the success of [The Late Show],” he says, pausing to knock on the wood of his desk, “is really that the team that works on it has been allowed to flourish.”

Licht’s regard for the whole team at the Ed Sullivan Theater is apparent. Coming to The Late Show from a news background, the transition to late-night comedy represented a big learning curve for Licht, who says he’s learned everything he knows about the art of comedy, the rhythm of a monologue and the intricacies of working with a live audience, from the people in the building. Those people include not only, of course, Stephen Colbert, but also the creative executives, the field producers, the PAs, the writers, the digital team, the research team, etc. “You have, at every level of this organization, people at the top of their game.”

Licht views a key part of his work as creating a culture in which each one of those people feels comfortable bringing their full voice and experience to the show. He is equally committed to making sure that those voices and experiences are coming from a genuinely diverse group of people.

“Its historically white dudes doing these shows,” he says drily—and he and The Late Show are trying to change that, though he acknowledges there is a long way to go. “When part of your job is to be inclusive—and you realize you have a position where you can effect change because you’re the boss—for me, it’s even more important,” he insists. “It’s part of the gig. It’s part of what you do. It really is. You can’t separate it.”

In order to cultivate a work environment in which everyone feels free to speak, Licht has incorporated several structural practices into The Late Show. These include creating a comment section on their website where anyone involved can anonymously write to him and meeting with everyone across the organization in small groups once a season. But even beyond that, Licht recognizes that a lot of making sure people know their opinions are valued is a matter of behavior; it’s “how you treat people in meetings — how you listen to people when people have a concern, when they come talk to you,” he says. “People feel comfortable based on what the reaction is when they say something.”

Executive producer Chris Licht (center) consults onstage at the Ed Sullivan Theater with stage manager Mark McKenna (left) and host Stephen Colbert.

Licht puts such an emphasis on hearing and connecting with individuals, not only because he believes in the importance of inclusivity and equity, but also because he knows that listening to new voices and ideas is an essential part of how the business works. “Every step of my career, Ive had somebody who’s taken a chance on me,” he says. “And anybody whos had any success has had somebody who took a chance on them.” Also he adds, it’s just practical. “The culture at this show is as important as what you do on the screen, because it affects what you do on the screen … If people are happy, then the show’s happy. We are a show of joy, so if you have people that are walking around miserable, then it’s not good for business!”

Licht is adamant that, while he may be the EP, his opinions are not more important than anyone else’s. For the most part, he readily defers to the expertise of the show’s creatives and writers. “I don’t ever want someone to feel like they can bring a point of view or not based on, ‘Well, what’s the showrunner going to think?’ Doesn’t matter. Is it funny? Okay,” he explains.

In keeping with that ethos, a typical day at The Late Show begins with a 9:30 a.m. editorial meeting that is intentionally large and includes people from numerous different teams. The meeting is made up of “people who read different things in the morning and have different kinds of friends,” he says, bringing an experimental diversity to the table in terms of what stories are considered and covered. The deciding factor for what topics make it onto the air, in a show responding to an astonishing amount of daily news, is simple: “Are there jokes there?”

“If the jokes are there, Stephen will talk about anything,” he says. “Its been very helpful to have that guiding light.” In the two and half years since Licht came to the show, that formula has clearly worked: The Late Show is now the highest-rated late-night talk show in America and has been nominated for multiple Emmy awards for writing, direction and Outstanding Variety Series, while the team received a raft of separate nominations for Colbert’s November 2016 live election night special. Licht is especially proud of how the show has stayed relevant and instantly responsive to a news cycle that never seems to stop spinning. The day before I came in to speak with Licht, for example, Colbert had thrown out his planned opening monologue right before taping in order to address a certain anonymous Op-Ed that The New York Times had just published that afternoon. “If youre seeing it in the news that night, were talking about it that night,” Licht says with pride.

Coming from a news background, Licht is well-equipped for this kind of immediacy—he loves being involved in news as it’s happening. “All of my experiences that I think fondly on are when I’ve been in the mix, when I’ve been in the middle of something,” he says, highlighting Morning Joe’s coverage of the 2008 presidential election and Norah O’Donnell’s interview for CBS with President Obama right after the San Bernardino shootings as particularly memorable moments. “To be speaking to the President as that was happening, and then to leave the White House literally without a suitcase and fly to San Bernardino with her—that was an incredible experience, to see it from both sides, to cover the actual source of the news,” he says.

Part of what Licht has brought to The Late Show through his experience as a news producer is his ability to keep some emotional distance from the material they cover. When you produce news, he explains, “You do your best to not be emotionally invested in the mix because you have to be impartial, and you have to look at things from both sides. And so I’ve brought a little of that here.” Licht believes that distance provides a balance to the writers and performers on the show, whom he encourages to “bring whatever emotion and thoughts they have to the table … When you’re writing comedy or performing, it’s good to have an emotional investment in it, as opposed to news, where you’re not supposed to have an emotional investment.” But when it comes to making those tough editorial decisions on creative content, “I think it’s helpful if there’s someone like me,” he suggests, “who’s a little bit detached from the emotions.”

The range of material The Late Show has covered since April 2016 has been vast and often emotional. The show provides a kind of catharsis for viewers and for Colbert himself, as the jokes offer a “more palatable” way to take in the news of the day. “We are not trying to change the world,” Licht says. “We’re trying to change how people feel about the world.”

Though covering daily news in a nation abuzz with political intrigue means a lot of talk about politics, Licht maintains that the show’s structure actually revolves around cultural relevance. “We’re talking about what people are talking about,” he says. “Right now politics is a huge part of what we do, but we’re not built to be a political show. We’re built to be a topical show.”

However when the show is political, it is overtly so, unafraid of taking a stance on issues and, through its anchor in humor, critiquing the current administration. “I believe in taking a short-term hit on something controversial and doing the right thing, as opposed to kind of waffling and people not really knowing where you stand,” Licht says. “And luckily, you know, I work for a network that believes that and I work with a talent who believes that as well.”

No moment was more pivotal for their decision to “have a point of view” than Colbert’s live coverage of election night 2016, which Licht describes as a defining moment for his relationship with Colbert. “Stephen and I agreed: no scripts, no nothing here. Just go be you. Be raw,” he says. Knowing that Colbert felt comfortable doing so, from a production standpoint, was essential for him. “When you get that relationship, it’s incredibly helpful to producing down the road from there. You have to trust each other.”

Two years later, that relationship is key to informing how many of the show’s decisions are made and values are shaped, including taking time away from the show. Licht is very grateful for his ability to go home and spend uninterrupted time with his wife and two children (smiling in framed pictures in his office), something he admits did not happen while he was on the “hamster wheel of news” and credits that to Colbert’s focus on his own family. “I remember the first weekend that I had this job, I said, ‘Well, you and I should do a phone call before Monday just so we can get on the same page.’ And he said, ‘Well, Im helping John with his homework. Sunday nights kinda homework time, so let’s do it at this other time.’ And I was like, isnt that interesting, how his priorities work. And you feed off of that.” Licht knows that this work-life balance is not easily maintained in the production world but advocates for taking time away from work if and when it’s possible. “If you have that ability to turn it on and turn it off, take full advantage of it,” he advises.

That said, Licht is the last guy to be sitting back on his heels. In June he was elected to serve on the board of representatives for the PGA East, an experience he already describes as very fruitful. “It’s just been a great way to meet other producers who you can learn from,” he says. His admiration for the Producers Guild makes sense given the value he places on relationships and the open exchange of jobs. “The fact that there’s an organization that cultivates that is phenomenal.” Just think how much sand could be blasted away.


- Photography by Scott Kowalchyk/CBS

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Make Your Mark Weekend Shorts Competition - Winners Honored

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The 2018 iteration of the PGA Make Your Mark Weekend Shorts Competition, honoring the film legacy of Sydney Pollack, wrapped up with a rousing awards show celebration held on Saturday, November 10, 2018 in association with New Filmmakers LA. 


Held at the South Park Center in downtown Los Angeles, the short films of the final top 10 entrants were screened, followed by the announcement of the seven-honorable mention winners, then the top three prize winners.  PGA National Board member Charles Howard served as the MC for the show.


First Place winner was End of the Line produced by Matt Angel & Suzanne Coote; Second Place winner was Loose Ends produced by Carlos M. Jimenez & Auriel Jimenez; and Third Place winner was Edge of Internment produced by Tricia Lee & Ally Iseman.


The top three prize winners received “Producers Packages” of gift certificates valued at over $103,000 from our sponsors: Cinelease, Sim International (Cameras & Post Production), Alternative Digital Camera Rentals, CFG Rentals and On Location Rentals, Pathbender Media Holdings, Smart Post Sound, EVS, Quixote Studios and Jon Brence Distribution Consultant.  Additionally, mentorships from PGA Members/Producers Chris Moore, Ian Bryce and Steven Wolfe will be provided to the top three finalists.


The entries were evaluated by an all-star group of judges, including producers and PGA National Board members William Horberg, Hawk Koch, Gary Lucchesi, Lori McCreary, and Bruna Papandrea, as well as actress Jeanne Tripplehorn.


View the winning shorts below and learn more about the Make Your Mark Weekend Shorts Competition at makeyourmarkcompetition.com.

 

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DONNA GIGLIOTTI - She's Been Pushing Stories About Strong Women For Decades, The World Finally Caught Up

Posted By Chris Green, Tuesday, November 6, 2018

“I’ve done a lot of interviews in my time,” Donna Gigliotti tells us. “This one is making me nervous. Because I’m not sure, in all honesty, that I have anything that’s even remotely interesting to say.”

Well there’s always that time she spun a chance encounter with Robert De Niro into a gig working as Martin Scorsese’s assistant on Raging Bull. Or that time she spent two years in Europe directly overseeing a half-dozen movies—anywhere from two to four productions on any given day—during the prolific heyday of Miramax. Or that time she won the Oscar for Shakespeare In Love, her first-ever “Produced By” credit. Or the decades since, which have seen her emerge as a champion of women’s stories, resulting in work that’s received critical acclaim, delivered huge box office numbers and scored a further trio of Oscar nominations, for The Reader, Silver Linings Playbook and Hidden Figures.

Fact is on her dullest, most boring day, Donna Gigliotti is still the liveliest conversation partner you’ll have all month. Sure she’s an outstanding storyteller in the way that all great producers are storytellers, putting compelling characters up on the screen. But she’s as great a storyteller on the personal level, a legit raconteur whose years in the New York production trenches give her accounts the force, directness and rough edges of her home city. Feel free to scrutinize the following interview for Hollywood-style blandishments. You’ll find none. Gigliotti has built her career on the strength of her own voice and instincts, which are proud and unmistakable reflections of her Gotham sensibilities.

That predilection for the unvarnished truth might be just what our business needs right now. As the industry wakes up to the commercial viability of stories about women and people of color, it would do well to listen to producers who have been working that territory for the length of their careers. Gigliotti is already banging the drum about clearing the next hurdle for inclusion within the industry—diversity among below-the-line crew. “Thirty-two percent of below-the-line on Hidden Figures were either women or people of color,” she says proudly. “That was very difficult to do but you really have to make an effort as a producer.”

Donna Gigliotti knows how to tell a good story onscreen, and she knows how to tell a good story to an interviewer. But the story she’s chosen to tell with her career and the sum of the choices she’s made stands to be the best and most important one yet.


 

So as a young person, what was your relationship like with movies?

The movie that was seared into my brain—and I’m not unique in this regard—was The Sound of Music. Maybe I was 8 when I saw it. I remember the opening helicopter shot very clearly and Julie Andrews spinning around, singing on the top of that mountain.  I was thinking, “Whoa, where am I?” The movie brought me somewhere else. I can close my eyes even now and remember sitting next to my mother in the movie theater. That movie made such an impression on me that I actually came out of the movie theater and thought that I wanted to become a nun. [laughs]

 

No movie has done more for nuns, I think, than The Sound of Music.

Mercifully I righted myself and became a film producer. [laughs] But I think that movie had a big effect on a lot of young women who saw Julie Andrews as a rebel spirit.

 

I have no doubt that’s true. But it’s a long way between walking out of The Sound of Music and then deciding to actually make a career in film production. How did your early career begin?

I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and I had it in my head that now somehow or other I was going to be in the movie business. I didn’t quite know how I was going to do that.

But I had three directors that I wanted to work for: in no particular order, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Francis Coppola. This was 1977, and I was swinging for the fences.

I wrote a letter to Bob Altman and I never heard back. I began to question whether I should leave Francis Coppola on my list, because he was in the midst of Apocalypse Now, and the effect of that film on him was not necessarily salutary.

That left Martin Scorsese. By a stroke of luck, I literally bumped into a man who turned out to be Robert De Niro. And when I realized who I had just bumped into, I didn’t say, “Oh, my gosh! You’re Robert De Niro! You’re a movie star!” I said, “You know Martin Scorsese!” [laughs] I wrote my phone number down on a piece of paper and I said, “I really want to be his assistant. Is there any way that you can help me?”

He took the piece of paper. I don’t know what he thought about me. But I will say this, all props to Bob De Niro because he called me two weeks later and he said, “Marty is looking for an assistant.”

I called the phone number Bob gave me and I went to see Martin Scorsese. And I said to him, “There are two things in the world I really want. One is a Cartier watch. The other is to work for you. Not necessarily in that order.” And he gave me the job. And when I left two years later, he gave me the watch with a note that said, “Go get some new goals.” I still have that note!

 

Aw, that’s lovely. Just for my own curiosity, what were the circumstances under which you bumped into Robert De Niro?

I was in a screening room—the wrong room, it turned out—and the lights were dimmed. I thought he was the projectionist. When he stepped into the light, that’s when I realized he was Robert De Niro.

 

  Cast member Selena Gomez snaps a selfie with Donna Gigliotti
  on the set of The Fundamentals of Caring.

That’s wild. So working for Marty, what did you take away from that? I mean, that’s the education in filmmaking that every movie buff dreams of.

Sarah Lawrence is a terrific school, but very little of its film offerings were grounded in the reality of how the movie business works. So one piece of my education was just going through a production, which turned out to be Raging Bull. It was a matter of learning very quickly, “This is what a call sheet is. This is what a casting session is.” Learning the real, practical elements of making a movie.

Maybe more interesting was the way Marty’s enthusiasm as a teacher extended to anybody around him. He has a vast film collection. At the time, a lot of it was on VHS cassettes. And he would say, “Here is a cassette of I Know Where I’m Going!. You should watch this movie. You’ll like it. Afterwards, I’ll tell you all about the movie.”

And so I would go home and I’d watch Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going!, which to this day I love. And La Terra Trema, Visconti … I remember that film so clearly because it was this grainy black-and-white VHS. And then I’d come in and I’d say, “Well, I watched it. I don’t get it.” Or “I loved it and here’s why.” Then I’d get 20 minutes from Marty on the subject of whatever film it was that I had just watched. That was an invaluable education.

 

That’s kind of the ultimate apprenticeship.

For sure.

 

So now, with all this information and the Cartier watch on your wrist, what’s your next move? How do you build from there?

It’s a problem for any kid that starts off being somebody’s assistant, because a lot of my job involved going to the dry cleaner and collecting Martin Scorsese’s suits. Don’t get me wrong; I was learning a lot. But when I left, what was I really qualified to do? I was qualified to get dry cleaning.

So I thought, “Okay, where and how do I fit into the scheme of things?” And again, in part, it was luck. This is such a crazy story. My friend Tom Bernard called me up and said, “I have to go to this cocktail party and you’re the only person I know that would have the right dress to wear. Will you come with me?” So I did. At that time Tom had just gone to work for United Artists Classics and at the cocktail party, he introduced me to his boss. In the course of the conversation, I said I was looking for a job. He asked what I wanted to do. Now why it popped into my head to say “acquisitions and development” is still a mystery to me. I don’t know why, but that’s what came out of my mouth. And he said, “Oh, you should come and talk to me.”

So I went to United Artists at 729 Seventh Avenue and I had a conversation with Nathaniel Kwit, and I elaborated on this idea of a job that I had sort of made up. And he gave me a job. So Tom Bernard and I were running United Artists Classics. Tom was doing distribution and I was doing acquisitions and development. This is something I tell young people over and over again: When you are looking for a job, you have to be specific about what it is you want to do. The more specific, the better.

United Artists was at that time was going through a very tumultuous period. Transamerica Corporation had purchased the company and it seemed like they were going through presidents every other week. After Heaven’s Gate bombed, it wasn’t a place that felt very stable. I said to Tom, “I don’t think we have a future here.”

Now Tom Bernard doesn’t like change. [laughs] In case you haven’t noticed, he’s been at the same job for the last, I don’t know, 28 years. It took all of my willpower to convince him that we should pay attention to an offer from Orion Pictures. Finally, we went off to see Arthur Krim at his beautiful Upper East Side townhouse, and he made us an offer. Along with Michael Barker, who came with us from United Artists, we formed Orion Classics.

We were very, very successful at that time, really the preeminent specialty division at any studio. But personally, after doing the acquisitions job for seven years, I was itching to make movies, not just buy them. So I decided in 1989 that I would take a leap. I didn’t exactly know where I was going to leap to, but I had some idea that I should start a production company. I thought that the company should make specialized films and that those films should have a top-end budget of about $13 million. I thought that I probably needed partners to do this.

So I went to Marty and I said, “You just produced The Grifters. You have an interest in doing these kinds of films. How about we do this together?” And he said, “Yes. Good idea.” I told him I wanted to include somebody else who I thought would be a good balance—Steven Spielberg. Marty said, “It’s great! It’s great! Steven is ‘white,’ I’m ‘black’! Steven is ‘A,’ I’m ‘Z’! It’s all terrific!” So we went to see Steven, and he said, “Oh this is a terrific idea. Yes, we should do it.” [laughs] Those turned out to be famous last words.

Steven told us there was a lot of independent financing out there, particularly in Asia. I thought sure, why not? We’ve got Marty Scorsese and Steven Spielberg ready to produce lower-budget, creative, artistic movies. Of course we should be able to raise money.

 

That sounds like a winning proposition.

Not quite. [laughs] I put together a business plan. It was a year of meeting and greeting. There was one set of Japanese investors that I actually introduced to Marty and Steven. We were going to base the company in New York. I think Steven still owns the fourth floor at 375 Greenwich, and that’s where we were going to base the company.

These Japanese investors wanted to know why the company would be in New York. I thought that was an odd question, so I asked, “Why does that concern you?” They said, “Well, because we understand that all the good actors are in Los Angeles.” And I remember Marty literally springing off of the couch and saying, “That’s nonsense! There are good actors wherever there are good actors! There are good actors in Tashkent!” I remember that so clearly, him saying there were good actors in Tashkent. And I thought, “Oh, god. This is never going to go anywhere.”

And at the end of the day, it didn’t go anywhere. We were a little ahead of ourselves. I think that’s really what it amounted to.

 

I’m sure that must have been disappointing. How did you bounce back?

I live in New York and I didn’t want to move to LA. It was 1993 and Disney had just bought Miramax. I thought, well, maybe they’re on more solid ground than they used to be. Because you always used to hear stories about how they could barely make payroll at Miramax. So I had my attorney at the time phone Harvey [Weinstein], and that began two years of another extremely interesting education in film production. I really didn’t know anything about film production and at Miramax, I was thrown into the deep end. I don’t even remember what my title was. I only know that I ended up going and spending a lot of time in Europe making a million movies in the two years that I worked there. I’ll say this: Being thrown in the deep end like that, it’s true--you either sink or swim. Either figure out real fast what film production means, or you’re looking for a new job.

 

I’m curious, what answer did you come up with to that question? What does film production “mean” in that environment where you’re overseeing maybe half a dozen movies at any given time?

I don’t know that this is an answer to that question, but here’s an example. One of the films that we were making was called Restoration, which starred Robert Downey, Jr. and was directed by Michael Hoffman. It takes place in 1665. The production design was just beautiful. Eugenio Zanetti, the production designer, had created this long passage of rooms, one after the other, on the H stage at Shepparton Studios.  The design was immaculate; the finishes were amazing. Mike created a shot that was on the Steadicam, following Charles II down this long, elegant enfilade. Harvey Weinstein looked at the rushes, and he called me up and he said, “Donna, there was no Steadicam in 1665.” That’s all he said.

Weirdly, I understood that note. He was 100% right. The movement of the Steadicam felt inconsistent with the subject of the film and the style of the movie. After that one scene, it was never used again in the film. But I’ve never forgotten that because at the time, I knew that something about the scene wasn’t right. But I didn’t understand that it was because of the Steadicam. Making as many movies as we were in those days, those are the kinds of things that you’re learning, and you’re learning them real fast.

 

Right.

A lot of making movies, producing movies, is about having the big idea. Three black women mathematicians work at NASA in 1961 and help get John Glenn into orbital space. That is a big idea. I recognized that idea from 55 pages of a book treatment and said, “I’m going to make that into a movie.”

The other side of it is you make sure that hair and makeup, lighting, production design, costumes, all of those things in their smallest details have to be accurate and feel right and authentic to the movie. Many period pieces are undone, I think, by feeling less than authentic. When that gets in the way, you’ve got a problem, because the audience can’t connect to it. This goes back to La Terra Trema, Marty Scorsese. It goes to Raging Bull, the grittiness, Bob gaining all that weight, right? I connect it back to the education that I got from Marty. I can still remember him discussing the collars on the shirts of all of the actors and what those collars were going to look like. There’s no detail that is too small. I don’t know if that answers your question or not but that’s the gist of what film production came to mean for me.

 

Sure.

The other thing I learned was that you should never be overseeing six movies and overseeing them in the way that one did at Miramax. It was an amazing education, but it was exhausting. At the end of two years, I just didn’t want to do it anymore. But there was this script called Shakespeare in Love that I had known about for a very, very long time. Harvey had this way of trading stuff. He had options on talent or material that he would trade to other companies. Anyway he had an option on Peter Jackson, and Universal wanted Peter Jackson to make a movie for them. And I said to him, “There’s this script over there that we should get as part of the trade.” And it was Shakespeare in Love. That was really my first experience producing a movie.

 

What a movie it turned out to be.

It was all there on the page, from Tom Stoppard. I seriously think it would have been hard to mess it up, because it was so funny and smart and clever. What we shot was 98% satisfying. We went back in and did one day of additional shooting. That picture made $300 million worldwide and then won 8 Oscars.

 

Donna Gigliotti at the 2013 Producers Guild Awards with fellow
Silver Linings Playbook producers Jonathan Gordon (left) and Bruce Cohen.

I don’t think we can talk about Shakespeare in Love without talking about that moment it won the Oscar, and five or six people came to the stage to pick up an award. That was the moment that really crystalized the nature of credit proliferation for both the Academy and the Producers Guild. How did it shake out that this production came to have so many “parents”?

Well David Parfitt was the line producer. There was me. There was Harvey, who wrote a check to Universal for $4 million—that was half of the turnaround costs. I think he felt by virtue of the fact he had signed his name on that check, he was deserving of a producer credit. Mark Norman had written the original screenplay. Ed Zwick was the original director when the picture fell apart at Universal. The truth is, it was completely legitimate for the Academy and the Producers Guild to look at that stage and say, “We have to do something about this.”

 

So when your first real producing gig wins a Best Picture Oscar and is a massive worldwide hit, where do you go from there? How do you follow that up and turn it into something sustainable?

Well at least in my case, you don’t. The truth is, I made a left turn in my career that was a mistake. I think that I suspected it was a mistake when I was doing it, but Barry Diller is a very persuasive man, and I also liked him very much. He was just starting what was called USA Films. And he said, “Come and be the President of Production and make movies.” And I did. I went back to being an executive and, in pretty short order, realized, “Ooh … that was a mistake. I don’t want to be an executive.”

 

Right. There was a reason you left that behind.

Exactly, exactly. [laughs] I did that for two years, until I said to him, “I’m not happy doing this. I want to go back to being a producer.” Then there’s a long time where I went and made maybe one movie a year. It was hard. A) I lived in New York and B) They weren’t studio movies. So it was not easy to earn a living, is what I am trying to say. There are some wonderful films in there, but it was hard. I don’t know how I managed to make one film after another. It was really difficult.

It finally ended after I’d produced a picture that James Gray directed in 2009 called Two Lovers. It was in competiton at Cannes and, like all James Gray films, it had a stellar reception at the Palais screening. After the screening, it was raining and we were all jammed together in the lobby of the Palais. It must have been, I don’t know, 10 years since I had last seen or talked to Harvey Weinstein. But suddenly this familiar voice was in my ear, saying, “Donna, Donna … beautiful picture. Will you come and talk to me tomorrow?” I thought he wanted to talk about acquiring the film. In fact, what he told me is, “I have a real problem. I have this film called The Reader. There is no producer on it. Anthony [Minghella] has died. Sydney [Pollack] has died.” Scott Rudin was a producer on it, but Scott’s not going and hanging out on the set. It was being directed by Stephen Daldry, who I love. And Harvey said, “Will you go to London and meet Stephen and maybe take over the film?”

And I did. That took me down a whole different path, which culminated with Silver Linings Playbook. I took over The Reader, which was fairly contentious on a lot of levels with a variety of people. But lo and behold, it got nominated for Best Picture! And I have to point out this is in the days when there were only five slots for Best Picture.

 

Those Bygone Days

The Reader made $125 million worldwide. I liked the film a lot. The next big one that comes up is Silver Linings Playbook, which was not an easy movie to get made for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that it’s a movie that is about a guy with a mental disorder, and it’s kind of a comedy, and kind of not. That one was really like pushing a rock up a hill. But again, worth it because it grabbed a lot of Oscar nominations, for me, for the cast. At that point in time, after Jennifer Lawrence won, I had a relatively unique distinction, which was that any time I had been nominated for Best Picture, the lead actress had always won an Oscar.

 

Hey, that’s right! [laughs]

That was great. So it was Gwyneth Paltrow, it was Kate Winslet and then Jennifer Lawrence.

 

 

Wow, that’s quite a pattern.

You know what? It is a pattern. I mean, I don’t take any credit for their performances or that they won Oscars. But it goes to the heart of what has always interested me: strong women protagonists. It’s pretty much a theme in everything I have done. That same quality is certainly true of Hidden Figures. It’s a pattern, it’s what interests me. And the good news is that clearly there’s a market for it. Nobody really wants to say that there is, but if you do the math, I think that my films, beginning with Shakespeare in Love, have taken in close to a billion dollars in worldwide box office. What I think that comes down to is that they’re interesting stories. But as an audience, women are now supporting movies that have strong women in them. Today it’s something that everybody has caught onto, and there are lots of producers that are trying to feature women.

I’ve said it a million times, that women are an underserved market in Hollywood. The movies that I’ve made have strong women at the center of them, and they’ve made a lot of money for a lot of people. Because look, you need a certain amount of money to make the film look like it’s a “real movie” up on the big screen, meaning it isn’t shot in one room with practical lighting. You need to have enough money to pay stars. Not their full rate, but something more than Schedule F. And if you’ve got a story that is interesting, then with what in Hollywood terms is a modest-sized budget, you can make a movie that makes a lot of money.

 

It used to be the conventional wisdom that female-centered movies “don’t travel” or “don’t open big.” Given that wisdom has been kind of discredited, are you seeing a different approach to these kinds of stories? Are people more receptive to them now?

I think so. I mean, the same can be said of pictures with African-American leads. The first book that I ever optioned was in 1992. It was called Devil in a Blue Dress. I set up at Universal, but I remember Tom Pollock telling me, “You’re never going to be able to make that movie because you can’t sell it internationally.” I heard the same thing in 2016 about Hidden Figures; no foreign value. Ultimately Devil got made, and it became a touchstone for a lot of African-American audiences. Denzel was in it, Don Cheadle was in it, Carl Franklin directed it. Subsequently, Tyler Perry came along.  I love that guy--he’s a genius. He understood better than anyone that the African-American audience was wildly underserved. Films like Hidden Figures and Black Panther, both gigantic hits, really changed the perception in Hollywood. Right now I have two projects that both have African-American themes or lead characters. And I’m going to tell you something, it’s not easy to find black writers right now. Everybody is busy. Their agents say, “No, she’s not available for the next 35 years. Call her then.” I ran into Geoff Fletcher, who won the Oscar for Precious. He said to me, “Donna, after I won the Oscar it was great, and I got some offers to write stuff. But now I don’t have enough hours in the day, I get so many choices.”

Things have shifted. The same is true when it comes to women. Frankly I really think it was Wonder Woman that did it. As a movie, that had both social impact and huge financial success. I have the sense now that people in Hollywood understand that social relevance can turn into big box office. Over the course of the last two years, it seems easier to get a movie made with an all-female cast or female leads.

 

Well that’s encouraging. Too often it seems like we make temporary strides, and then people go back to hiring the SAME people they’ve hired for the last 10 years. But from what we’re seeing right now, it feels like some kind of critical mass has been hit.

Well I want to be very specific about this. I think it is true for above-the-line. Where it really lags is below-the-line. As producers I think this is the next arena where we really have to pay attention. But I think it’s easier to make a movie that is diverse above-the-line if you have a diverse crew. I talk about this all the time, and I’m very proud of it: Thirty-two percent of below-the-line on Hidden Figures were either women or people of color. That was very difficult to do, but you really have to make an effort as a producer. Believe me there were heads of departments on that movie who will recall my calling them up and saying, “So, who are you hiring in your crew? I want to know if there are women. I want to know if there are people of color.” That’s what you have to do in order to make this change.

But it’s also a question of supply. There’s only one woman sound mixer in New York City. Guess what? She is booked for the rest of her natural life. So we’ve got to figure out how to increase the numbers of employable people. Because I’m sorry to say this, but as a producer, “taking a chance” on someone is not a Plan B. What I really want is to have a variety of qualified and talented people to choose from. It’s the next big challenge, I think, for our industry.

 

Well I hope people read this interview and try to do it differently next time, even if it takes a couple of extra phone calls.

It’s hard. But there should be more than one woman production sound mixer in New York. I mean, there just should be.

 

One would think. It’s not a big “upper body strength” kind of job.

Exactly. Thank you. So figuring that out is a really big challenge for both our Guild and for all of us as producers.

 

Before I let you go, I want to talk about Hidden Figures and specifically about script development. A lot of the work you’ve done has been either implicitly or explicitly literary, based on novels OR about literary FIGURES. BUT Hidden Figures is ABOUT real lives and real history that needs to be serviced. it’s great when Tom Stoppard can give you a script that’s 98% there, but how do you approach the path when you have to grapple with a responsibility to actual events?

Well I didn’t have any secret method. Hidden Figures was a 55-page book proposal. Everybody saw that book proposal, and nobody paid any attention to it. When I read it, I thought to myself, “This is unbelievable. Can this possibly be true?” Because it felt fake, to be honest with you.

 

Yeah. [laughs]

Nobody knew these women existed. I called six people that I know who are space geeks and asked them, “Have you ever heard of Katherine Johnson, of Dorothy Vaughn?” No, no, no. Nobody had heard of them. But I love research. That’s my favorite part of the whole process, because you’re always learning something new. You learn something about the black plague. You learn something about Shakespeare. You learn something about second-generation Germans after the war. There’s always something to learn.

That kind of getting deep into the research weeds was number one. Number two was meeting Katherine Johnson. She was 96, I think, but sharp as a tack; I mean, a little bit frail, but she remembered everything. Just looking at the woman, listening to the way she spoke, how she carried herself, her demeanor … all of that informed the story. Research, research, research.

The overarching rule of being a producer, in my opinion, is that you have to do your homework. If you are a good student and you do your homework, you will be successful as a producer. That’s what got us to the script of Hidden Figures that everybody signed onto. It was just a matter of doing the work.

 

-Feature photography by Noah Fecks

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Healthy Priorities - From The Chief Operating Officers

Posted By Vance Van Petten & Susan Sprung, Tuesday, October 30, 2018

When we talk to PGA members about their primary concerns, one of their most consistent answers, time and again, has been HEALTH CARE—its availability and cost.

Even for those of us with access to relatively affordable health insurance, the legislative battle around the topic has left many producers uncertain whether that coverage will remain effective or affordable. For those without insurance altogether, the promise of reasonably priced health coverage through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been complicated—if not broken outright—by the political wrangling around the law. Now more than ever, our members are hoping the PGA will be able to offer solutions.

Safe to say, if there was an easy fix for this situation, the Producers Guild would have implemented it already. Our non-union status means that the PGA has not been able to underwrite a guaranteed access plan like our colleagues receive through their union memberships.

That being said, you need to know that many PGA members do have access to employer-paid health coverage, though that coverage is conditional rather than guaranteed. For many of you who work on studio motion pictures or broadcast or premium cable television series, the “non-affiliate agreement” with the west coast office of IATSE can provide access to first-rate, employer-paid coverage through the Motion Picture Industry Plan (MPIP). This coverage is available only for certain job titles and requires recipients to work a minimum number of hours, but if you qualify, the PGA will provide guidance for completing the paperwork and getting approval from your employer.

For those of you who don’t meet the conditions to qualify for the MPIP coverage, our Guild is continuing to research options for you. One such option is available through Open Health, a company oriented towards health care solutions for workers in the entertainment industry. Open Health offers plans which are ideally suited for small production companies. If you’re an employer who owns a company with three or more employees (one of whom can be yourself), we strongly encourage you to call Open Health at the number on the opposite page, and ask about their offerings. In fact, the PGA was sufficiently impressed with Open Health’s coverage that this is the health insurance we offer to our own office staff.

If neither of the above options applies to you, consider contacting The Actor’s Fund, which has helped professionals in the entertainment industry—not just actors!—find affordable health coverage. While plans obtained through The Actors Fund and Open Health are self-pay plans rather than employer-paid plans, they may give PGA members better value than they would otherwise find on their own, and can provide assistance in navigating plans provided via the ACA.

The updated chart on the opposite page summarizes this information and provides important contact numbers. It will be reprinted in every forthcoming issue of Produced By. Meanwhile the PGA is pushing forward with its research as health insurance offerings continue to evolve. We hope that someday soon, we’ll be able to promote a plan that guarantees health benefits to every PGA member at a fair price. We know what a priority this is for so many of you; that makes it our priority as well.

 

  

Motion Picture Industry Plan

Available to:

Producers/Produced By, Executive Producers, Associate Producers.

Who:

• Work for an AMPTP signatory

• Work on theatrical motion pictures, prime-time network series, prime-time, first-run syndicated series

• Utilize a West Coast IA Crew

• Are credited with 600 hours of work over the past six months. (Assume a 60-hour work week.)

Once qualified, participants must be credited with 400 hours of work in the subsequent six-month period to extend coverage. 

CONTACT:

Your payroll or labor relations department. 


Open Health MEWA plan

Available to:

Employers and employees of small production companies.
 

Who:

• Work at a company with a minimum of three employees. Company owner may count as an employee if s/he draws a salary from the company.

CONTACT:

(866) 491-4001

Request information about MEWA (Multiple Employer Welfare Association) plans.


The Actor’s Fund

Available to:

All professionals who work in the entertainment industry.

The Actor’s Fund is the official organization representing the Affordable Care Act to the entertainment industry.

CONTACT:

(800) 221-7303  (New York)

(888) 825-0911 (Los Angeles)

Request a consultation to discuss individual plans available on the open market.

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