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Producers On Producing: Emma Tillinger Koskoff interviewed by David Hinojosa

Posted By Administration, Monday, October 21, 2019
Updated: Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The PGA co-hosted a "Producers on Producing" segment as a part of the 57th New York Film Festival on September 30th. PGA member David Hinojosa (First Reformed, Vox Lux, Beatriz At Dinner) interviewed producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff (The Irishman, Joker, The Wolf of Wall Street). Koskoff is President of Production for Sikelia Productions and Hinojosa is an independent producer and producing partner at Killer Films. Koskoff discussed her priorities as a producer, and how she fosters creative, collaborative sets. Koskoff and Hinojosa also answered audience questions on topics such as working with financiers, getting through gatekeepers, and the impact of streaming platforms like Netflix on the industry. You can view the full segment below. "Producers on Producing" is part of the PGA's One Guild initiative supporting inclusive membership, employment, content and depictions.

 

 

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Instant Gratification - Jake Avnet Is Only Asking For A Minute Of Your Time

Posted By Spike Friedman, Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Jake Avnet of Indigenous Media is a savvy digital producer; his work is defined by bringing a cinematic quality to online shareable content. He’s also a canny businessman, responsible for some of the most innovative brand integrations for filmed content on the web. But what comes across right away from meeting him is his passion for telling stories about interesting people. Sure he’s excited to talk about his history creating digital content and the business of 60 Second Docs, the online series he produces that has led to partnerships across a range of industries. But what he really wants to tell me about are the Weed Nuns.

“Weed Nuns?” I ask. “Weed Nuns,” Avnet replies. The Weed Nuns are a group of women in the Central Valley of California who proselytize the use of marijuana and create medicinal products for terminal cancer patients. These are passionate businesswomen focused on helping people. And with 60 Second Docs, you can learn their story in, well, just about a minute. Although other videos produced under the 60 Second Docs banner have more hits, the Weed Nuns documentary perfectly encapsulates the series’ ideal. It looks great, it tells a true story that has a couple of twists, and it is as digestible as it is thought-provoking. “Each one is a different story,” says Avnet. “It’s different characters, it’s a different journey. Hopefully people find joy in that.”

This instinct toward telling joyful stories about quirky individuals has allowed 60 Second Docs to become a thriving business with a range of brand partnerships. And each of these partnerships is rooted in real human stories. “We’re outsiders, we’re storytellers,” says Avnet, “and that’s basically our biggest asset.” Partners have ranged from Mike’s Hard Lemonade to the investment firm BlackRock. And because 60 Second Docs tell stories of interesting people, they have been able to work with GoFundMe to create a new synergistic home for their content. 60 Second Docs finds the most fascinating stories on the crowdfunding platform and tells those stories with a cinematic eye that the typical fundraiser would never have the capacity to produce. This shines a light on people in need and turns a brand integration into a way of doing good. “We’re people-oriented,” explains Avnet, “in terms of us thinking about how we can give back. This felt like it was an amazingly direct way of doing that.”

60 Seconds Docs teams with Mike's Hard Lemonade for a LA Pride parade float and Proud Dad campaign


Other engagements, including a promotional push alongside the release of BlacKkKlansman, appear more traditional, but still leverage the unique approach of 60 Second Docs. With BlacKkKlansman, they produced a short documentary that told the real history behind the film, centering it on Ron Stallworth, upon whom the film’s story was based. By blending interview footage, archival footage and footage from the movie, 60 Second Docs produced content that both promoted the film and led to a more profound level of audience engagement. The combination of archival footage and scenes from the Spike Lee film worked in concert to tell a compelling story and deepen the stakes of the movie for the viewer. And it did that in just over a minute, generating hundreds of thousands of views across a range of platforms.

Because 60 Second Docs is by its very nature “snackable” content, it is able to live in multiple areas, which means the material Avnet produces is platform-agnostic. Making films that are optimized for online consumption can mean chasing views via the algorithms of behemoth platforms like Google and Facebook. That’s not the approach Avnet takes. “You see a lot of publishers play this game where they kind of are like, OK, Facebook loves VR? We’re a VR company now,” says Avnet. “We try to stay out of that fray.” For 60 Second Docs, that means eschewing the norms of the shareable Facebook video. 

Avnet’s cinematic instincts pushed him to produce more sophisticated material, going beyond user-generated content to engage up-and-coming filmmakers interested in telling new stories. “We went the opposite direction,” says Avnet. “We’re making films. They’re really short, but they are films. They hopefully have a bit of a cinematic eye. They’re a little more premium, and we think that will drive deeper engagement.”

Although the 60 Second Docs model does not require a lowest-common-denominator approach to chasing clicks, Avnet still uses digital platforms to optimize the product being created. And because 60 Second Docs are by their nature very short, Avnet and his team can test multiple cuts of a documentary with the public to see which people find more engaging. “It’s a rapid-fire focus testing process,” Avnet explains. This can happen very quickly because the content is being consumed very quickly. The team can infer which cut of a documentary the public prefers and then push a preferred option out across a range of platforms.

This instinct toward using the online space to create premium content comes naturally to Avnet. He grew up in the industry. His father, Jon, is a director and producer and is the co-CEO at Indigenous. But Jake also came out of film school during the early era of digital production. He learned how to produce quickly, on a budget, and across a wide range of forms including web series, music videos and advertisements. As studios became interested in moving into digital, Avnet had both the chops in the space and the cinematic eye needed to thrive. “The world grew up around us,” Avnet says of his experience in the industry.

This led to a partnership with YouTube under their Original Channels Initiative called WIGS, spearheaded by Rodrigo Garcia, now co-CEO of Indigenous media. WIGS operated like both studio and network—developing, producing and distributing new premium content, including Blue starring Julia Stiles and Eric Stoltz. “That was a really, really cool experience where it just became this crash course in all aspects of producing,” says Avnet.

Understanding digital means understanding the specifics of what makes certain content work on certain platforms. That is fundamental to the work Indigenous produces; their name is a play on the idea of being native to a medium. And no project is more indicative of Avnet’s understanding of the digital space than their release of Sickhouse on Snapchat. This found-footage horror film was designed to blur the lines between fiction and reality. “If you’re making a movie for Snapchat,” says Avnet, “you need to make it in a way that people want to watch it on Snapchat.” Sickhouse, though, is not just a Snapchat-native horror film. It is a well-made horror film that happens to conform to the norms of Snapchat.

With 60 Second Docs, this push toward short and high-quality content reaches its apex. But that doesn’t mean the project does not have room to grow. 60 Second Docs is already a global enterprise, having produced shorts on every continent on the planet. However the team is currently cutting deals to expand its reach. That means more than simply exporting what has already worked in the United States. It means adapting the work to appeal to different cultures. “It’s important to be thoughtful about what stories you are telling,” says Avnet of the challenge of balancing translating content that has worked well in the domestic market, versus expanding by producing content that is market specific.

Growing the scope of 60 Second Docs also means looking at ways of expanding the content to leverage what it is already doing well, while finding new ways to dig deeper into these stories. This has led Avnet and Indigenous to partner with Howie Mandel’s Alevy Productions on a television version of 60 Second Docs. The show will allow viewers to go deeper into these stories via interviews and features. Of the project and working with Avnet, Mandel says, “I came to 60 Seconds Docs as a fan because I loved their content. [Jake’s] approach makes the evolution into traditional film and TV very clear and we see unlimited potential.” 

Avnet’s push into this new space between traditional and digital media also includes Five Points on Facebook Watch. Five Points is a teen drama with a focus on social issues. Co-produced with Kerry Washington, the show places high-end content on a nontraditional platform to reach an audience that is increasingly eschewing traditional platforms. “Tasked with finding a way to combine the best of digital and traditional filmmaking to bring premium storytelling to an emerging platform,” says Washington, “I cannot think of a collaborator who would have brought a more thoughtful, resilient, innovative and visionary approach than Jake.”

This is a natural expansion for Avnet, because at the end of the day, he is interested in producing stories about fascinating people. And if a move to a more traditional medium means we get more than a minute with the Weed Nuns, it feels like that’s a win-win.

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Going In Deep - Why We Just Can't Get Enough of Leslye Headland

Posted By Katie Grant, Monday, September 9, 2019

Since TV’s creative sandbox was replaced with a puzzle box, producers are expected to captivate and hold their fickle audiences who are used to watching whatever they want, whenever they want. Be it on-demand, in-demand or bingeing to excess, the game is to keep your fans close with mysteries slowly revealed in flashback until that final puzzle piece is in place—whether that happens by appointment or all in one sitting. Leslye Headland has cracked that mysterious code with Netflix’s insatiable hit, Russian Doll. The secret? Going deep.

Like the tiny figures hidden inside Russian nesting dolls, there is much more to writer, director, playwright, executive producer Leslye Headland and her work than meets the eye. By the same token, Russian Doll is more than another take on Groundhog Day, as some have compared it to. On the contrary, the never-ending loops of Nadia (played by co-creator, writer, director Natasha Lyonne) living and dying through her 36th birthday go ever deeper in each episode, as she tries to reprogram and heal her life up until that point.

That depth is due to the creative trifecta of Lyonne, Headland and former SNL member and executive producer Amy Poehler. Russian Doll arose from their collective desire to examine how people are “always overturning and going deeper into the ego and trying to figure out how the human brain works and how we make peace with certain things and why we repeat certain things.”

Russian Doll is a high-concept, multifaceted, female-protagonist show that, Headland says proudly, “doesn’t have to do with [the main character’s] job or her family or her love life” and uses game coding as a device to rewrite Nadia’s journey into her psyche. Headland partially credits the show’s success to Netflix’s binge model of dropping all eight episodes at once. She explains, “There wasn’t this pressure of that first episode having to make everyone stay in.”

Headland on the set of Russian Doll directing young Nadia,
played by Brooke Timber

Headland got her start, even before graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts drama program, as a produced playwright with her Seven Deadly Plays series, the first of which became her feature film and directorial debut, Bachelorette. Even then, she chose to dive into her own past of a conservative and religious upbringing to see what she could unearth, each play focusing on a single sin.

Bachelorette’s sin was gluttony, and Headland recalls writing the line, “You guys had an abortion without me?” “I had that moment of, ‘I cannot say that. That’s not funny.’ And then I thought, ‘Oh, I have to say it.’ I think that was like a defining moment of whenever I had that moment of ‘no,’ it was like, ‘Oh, we should go deeper into this.’ Go into it and not run from it.

“The next thought that happened was, ‘Are you ready to answer for this?’ And I thought, ‘Yes, I am.’ Because it’s a good joke, you know, number one. And number two, it really did sum up thematically what the play was about, which was that women were looking past their trauma and only seeing it through the lens of their own narcissism.”

Such brave, truthful storytelling is what landed Headland her first writing job in television on a one-season-wonder show for FX about a pair of scrappy private detectives called Terriers. “It was literally a dream come true. But what was amazing was it was the first time that I’d ever have to write in someone else’s voice, and it was the first nonfemale-centric project I’d ever been on,” Headland says. And yet she remembers her major contribution to that show’s sole season story line being to push for a main female character’s depth.

“I thought, ‘Katie has to do something wrong. Everything she does is just perfect.’ To me, in that moment, I’m not thinking, ‘I’m truth-telling.’ It just seems to me that I can’t relate with a character unless they do something wrong.”

Finding and fleshing out flaws is also a major theme in Russian Doll. “One of the things that [Poehler] hit a lot on when we were pitching was the tiny doll inside. She said, ‘Everybody has a tiny doll. What is Nadia’s tiny doll? How do we externalize that? How do you make that into an understandable, consumable thing?’ [Natasha’s] literally telling a story that is—I don’t think she’d mind me saying—pretty autobiographical. And so there’s the triangle of her inner, smaller self dealing with her mother and then her being an adult trying to deal with the ghost of both of those things.”

Headland recalls of her own writing before Russian Doll, “I had been basically saying things about myself and my own psyche like ‘this is my badness’ or ‘this is my addiction’ or ‘this is where I’m broken.’ And the [therapist] that I worked with really turned it around to ‘this is little Leslye.’

“This is actually not a problem. This is little Leslye, who is not being given the sunlight, the creativity, the spirit. So when you do that type of work, it’s awful and wonderful all at the same time. The idea that you could get that vulnerable, talk about it, put it up on the screen and people would say, ‘Me too,’ is mind-blowing to me.”

Her chances to share that vulnerability on a larger scale increased soon after Terriers. “It’s worth mentioning that one of the show’s creators, Shawn Ryan, said, ‘Writers, you need to learn how to become producers. You need to be on set for your episodes so that you can learn how to produce your own work,’” notes Headland.

And indeed, her producing career was not far behind with Bachelorette and her second turn, the feature Sleeping With Other People. Directing and producing on the TV reboot of Heathers hit just before Russian Doll came about.

“An actual producer, in my opinion, is someone that is a liaison between the project, the work and everybody else. It should flow that way. Not the other way around. I think sometimes what happens with producers—and I’ve been this person when I’m just producing—it’s kind of like, ‘Oh I guess I’m here just in case something happens … I guess I’m here in case there’s a problem and I’ll take care of it.’”

The potential problems with Russian Doll’s production were immense given that the show was block-shot, cross-boarded and shot in chunks. For example, every scene where Nadia comes back to life in the bathroom at her birthday party was shot all at once. How did Headland solve the puzzle of tracking 22 different life/death loops that filmed back-to-back?

“There are three things that I think contributed to how well that came off. The first one is that Natasha was in the writer’s room the entire time. So you had a number one on the call sheet that really understood the nature of what the show was. She already knew what the overall journey was going to be.

“Another thing that contributed to it is that the other characters are always starting over. So [they] are always in the same feeling. They basically have to be in the moment and react right away to whatever it is that [Nadia’s] doing.

“The third contribution was that we had the best script supervisor in the business, Melissa Yap-Stewart, who was incredible. I think it also just helps that I’m a video game player and I was also, again, writing in the writer’s room but also directing half of the season. And we didn’t have a very large writer’s room and we didn’t have eight different directors that directed the whole thing. It was good to have a smaller brain trust of people that were all the gatekeepers of the information.”

Tackling Russian Doll’s insane continuity issue of consistently disappearing people and set pieces was solved with a big whiteboard and one big meeting of all the department heads simultaneously. “There were a couple of different diagrams. This particular diagram was just about what disappeared when and they were lettered. So for ‘A through F, everything’s the same. G through M, all these things disappear. And N through Q, people will start disappearing.’ So on and so forth. So in a way, the block shooting of it helped because if you are shooting something on a corner and then the next time that happened was actually a couple episodes later, you would still have your background matching.”

Headland, a self-proclaimed Star Wars nerd, says the layers of loops in Nadia’s search for meaning and truth are no accident. She credits watching YouTube video essays in her youth for teaching her about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey that plays out famously in the George Lucas films. Nadia too “has her refusals of the call; she has her mentor with Ruth,” just like Luke Skywalker did.

Headland’s other nerdy obsession is as “an artistic adrenaline junkie.” She lives for the twist of “subverting expectations” where everyone dislikes a character and then suddenly it’s like, “‘Oh my God! I care so much about this character now.’ I just love if they’re surprised when they yell like that. Then it feels like I’ve got them; they’re listening. While they’re listening, let’s shove the truth in their mouth. I’m addicted to that for sure.

“I’m addicted to engaging the audience to the point where they forget where they are for a second … and then they’ll come back, and they’ll remember their laundry. It’s why the binge model is such a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant thing. If I could get them just kind of hypnotized by the show … if I could just get them to keep pressing play, next episode, next episode. That immersion. I’m addicted to that immersion myself. Like when I watch the movies that I love or when I watch a new movie I’ve never seen before.”

We can look forward to immersing ourselves in future Headland projects that include season 2 of Russian Doll, Not Just Me—a series she directed the pilot for—and an optioned dramatic feature she wrote and directed called Tell Me Everything. For now, she has these words of wisdom for fellow creators: “I think to be producing is getting as involved and as vulnerable as everybody else is. I think that’s something that gets a little lost in the shuffle in the rise of the ‘exec,’ which is a person that sits and stays in an office all day. That’s not hands-on. And I’m not saying that in a pejorative way. So what I’ve noticed in my very small amount of time on this earth is that there are producers that are on the ground, and [those who are] really invested and care just as much as you do and are solving problems.” Lucky for us, Headland is one of those problem-solvers, going in deep with every project.

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Toppling the Motherhood Penalty - Parental Inclusion Can Benefit Everyone

Posted By Michelle Budnick, Wednesday, September 4, 2019

When you consider the women on your production team, how many of them are open about whether they have children? How early in the hiring process did they disclose this information, and would they have been hired regardless of their family status? These are questions that production moms often ask themselves when they contemplate a career change or interview for a new positionwhich for a freelancer can be frequently.

Mothers working in production know that being open about their family can change the way they are perceived and have a significant impact on their career progression. It’s a phenomenon commonly known as the “motherhood penalty.”

A Harvard University study into the phenomenon concluded the motherhood penalty “may account for a significant proportion of the gender gap in pay.” It also noted, “Mothers face penalties in hiring, starting salaries and perceived competence, while fathers can benefit from being a parent.” In some cases that translates to a father who is a parent being seen as more stable and ambitious, leading to a greater chance of getting a raise or promotion.

Working mothers are often viewed as less productive, more distracted, less stable and less achievement-oriented than their male counterparts. Studies have shown that mothers are 79% less likely to be hired than men or child-free women and offered less money for their work. The pay gap grows larger with each additional child and does not begin to shrink until children are around 10 years old. These penalties can be compounded in the production industry, where the emphasis is on complete availability to work long and often irregular hours. That means fewer opportunities if you’re unable to meet those requirementsor you may face exorbitant childcare costs. 

The presumption that mothers are unable to perform as well as their male and child-free colleagues is based on outdated stereotypes that working mothers won’t prioritize work or will be unavailable when needed. In order to change things, we have to normalize, not stigmatize, production moms. Employers also need to recognize the many skills a working mother develops that are valuable for the production world, such as emotional intelligence, organization, negotiation and time management.

With ages 25 to 35 being career development years and the time when women are most likely to have children, females in production are forced to factor in more variables than their male counterparts when deciding whether to start a family.  

In order to have true equality, women must be able to pursue their careers at the same time they’re having children, instead of being asked to choose which is more important. Progress has been slow, and we are losing a vital voice and a great deal of creative talent in the process.

But there are signs things are moving in a different direction. Galvanized by the Time’s Up movement in Hollywood and a larger shift toward addressing societal inequities, employers are starting to recognize the urgent need to redress the inequity and are seeing a positive impact from their efforts.

Building family-friendly policies around a healthy work-life balance is being recognized as an achievable goal for companies that value their teams. At many workplaces, policies like paid parental leave, job sharing, telecommuting and flexible work hours are seen not just as benefits but as necessities to retain a happy and productive workforce.

In Silicon Valley, a group called Parents in Tech Alliance has formed to create “positive and meaningful change for parents working in technology.” Companies such as Twitter, Lyft, LinkedIn and Salesforce are among the change makers.

When supervising producer Lindsay Liles took a job on The Bachelor, she found a flexibility she couldn’t have imagined when she had her daughter in 2018. “We’re a show about finding love, falling in love and having a family, so it was important for them to support a healthy home life,” Lindsay explains. In addition to meeting her breastfeeding needs, the showrunners allowed her to bring her daughter to meetings and to the set on the weekends she didn’t have childcare. They also moved her temporarily into casting when she was unable to travel with the show. This kind of treatment and respect encourages loyalty from employees who appreciate being accommodated. “Why would I ever want to leave when they have gone out of their way to support me?” says Lindsay.

Other production companies are following suit. Netflix is leading the way with a range of family- friendly policies that take into consideration both parent and baby. While employees are encouraged to have a healthy work-life balance and be present for their children, the company’s bottom line has not been impacted.

Moms-in-Film, a California-based nonprofit with support from Amazon Studios, Panavision and Collab&Play, is committed to raising awareness around inequities for parents in film and TV. They launched the Wee Wagon, a mobile childcare facility designed for use on film sets. The group has also advocated for California-based films to adopt a Parental Inclusive Clause into their contracts, which asks that productions commit to a 50% to 100% subsidy for the cost of childcare for all members of the cast and crew. They offer a handy list of 10 ways to be inclusive and recognize that childcare is the top issue among parents, with a survey noting that 77% of those working in the entertainment industry have had to turn down work due to a lack of childcare.

With a growing chorus of voices calling for equality, the power of visibly pregnant women on set, and high-level actresses advocating for childcare at work, the future looks brighter for mothers in production. In her book, Bossypants, Tina Fey relates that she was writing and producing 30 Rock from her home and bringing her child to the set, making her an outlier. It’s now becoming increasingly easier to envision a future where women in the industry don’t have to choose between their children and their creative ambitions as they work to achieve parity at the top levels of this competitive field.

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Balancing Act - James D. Stern Juggles A Panoply of Passions

Posted By Michael Ventre, Tuesday, August 27, 2019

On the afternoon of June 20, 2019, James D. Stern waited nervously until the moment the workday ended and he could get home, so he and his son could don their team gear, tune in to the NBA draft and wait until pick No. 7.  That’s when his beloved Chicago Bulls—Stern has an ownership stake in the club—would choose. And while the team’s selection of point guard Coby White represents a quality reinforcement for the Bulls’ backcourt, it’s likely Stern may have to keep waiting awhile for the Windy City’s next championship.

But he’s used to waiting. He’s a producer, after all—hardly an instant gratification line of work. Case in point: Murder Mystery, one of Stern’s very latest creative offspring, which debuted in June and became Netflix’s biggest weekend opening ever when it was viewed in 30.9 million households in its first three days. That project, featuring the superstar comic stylings of Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, took about 10 years to get to the screen.

“You get lucky sometimes,” he opines about his business. “Then unlucky. Then you get lucky again.”

Murder Mystery, directed by Kyle Newacheck, is a fish-out-of-water comedy with an Agatha Christie setup about a New York cop and his hairdresser wife who go off on a fancy and long-promised European vacation, only to be ensnared in murder, intrigue and fine dining aboard a billionaire’s yacht. The one-sheet sums it up perfectly: “First-class problems. Second-class detectives.”

Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler in Murder Mystery

“I knew it was going to be huge, honestly, at the first preview,” says Stern, who is currently overseeing the Mike Cahill-helmed drama Bliss, starring Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson, and has several other plates spinning in film, TV and on stage. “It was a 500-seat theater, and nobody left. You can just feel it. When you do enough films and theater you don’t need something to open to know if it’s working or not.”

Stern first encountered the project about a decade ago, after James Vanderbilt’s script was put into turnaround by Disney. From there, the long journey began. It’s a familiar one for career producers: Sink your teeth into a project, and don’t let go until it reaches the screen.

James D. Stern and First Assistant Director
Dan Lazarovitz on the set of
Bliss

Murder Mystery wouldn’t exist without Jim Stern,” explains Vanderbilt, whose credits include Zodiac and White House Down.

“He just refused to give up on it. Refused,” he adds. “He got involved with it 10 years ago and put his money behind it just because he liked my script. The amount of times the movie came together and then fell apart was insane. Everybody gave up on it at one time or another. I gave up on it, and it came out of my brain. But not Jim. Every time another studio passed or we lost another actor or director, he just calmly put the thing back together.

“It’s like he and (producer) Tripp Vinson finally just willed the thing into existence. And I guarantee you if Netflix hadn’t finally come along, Jim would be on the phone today still trying to get Murder Mystery made.”

Like many projects, Murder Mystery came together when it came together. When Sandler and Aniston got on board for their first film together since 2011’s Just Go With It, the rest fell into place. The film was produced through Stern’s Endgame Entertainment, along with Happy Madison Productions and Vinson Films.

“Adam had been interested for a long time,” Stern says, “but because of schedules and whatnot, things did not align. But once he came on it went very fast. Then Jennifer came on and it was fast-tracked.”

Adding to the serendipitous turn was Netflix’s involvement. “For the last few years, we really wanted to do it with Netflix,” Stern explains. “It felt like the perfect Netflix movie. I knew the audience would coalesce around the movie.” Of the 30 million-plus who initially saw the film after it dropped, just over 13 million watched the streaming service in the U.S. and Canada, while another 17 million viewed from abroad.

Script supervisor Ronit Ravich-Boss, Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler, director Kyle Newacheck on Murder Mystery set

But it would be wrong to pigeonhole Stern as simply a purveyor of mainstream comedies and a basketball junkie. He owes much of his success to having a wildly eclectic palette.

Consider The Old Man and the Gun, released in 2018, which may have been Robert Redford’s swan song as a headliner. Co-starring Casey Affleck and Sissy Spacek, it was based on the true story of Forrest Tucker, a stickup man and escape artist whose career in crime lasted from his teen years to his sunset years.

“It is very much a movie about an artist who does not want to go gentle into that good night,” Stern says of the film, which was written and directed by David Lowery and based on a piece in The New Yorker by David Grann. “It was somewhat an homage to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. It’s a small movie that went flawlessly. It was a dream for me to get to know Redford.”

Then there’s Stern’s theatrical side. He’s won Tony Awards for producing Hairspray and The Producers, a Drama Desk Award for Stomp and has had many other forays into the footlights. Recently he obtained the rights to Silver Linings Playbook and is adapting it for the stage.

 “Once you get the bug, you never lose it,” he says. “I love the theater. I started in the theater; that came first. The immediacy and electricity—I guess I’m a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. There’s nothing like Broadway. And you don’t have to defray the risks to different territories. It’s all there.”

Finally there is James Stern the political animal. A staunch liberal and brother of former Obama adviser on climate change, Todd Stern, he nevertheless told friends leading up to the 2016 election that he knew Donald Trump was going to win. He discovered more evidence to back up his assertion when making his documentary, American Chaos—which he directed—featuring interviews with Trump voters about why they felt the way they did.

He took flak from some friends on the left for that project, but he felt it was important to explore Trump’s popularity. “I told my daughter Trump would win, and she said I was insane,” Stern recalls. “I said, ‘Come with me and I’ll show you.’” The rest, as they say, is history, which is still playing out with dramatic twists almost daily. Stern also has written and directed other projects, including So Goes the Nation, another documentary, about the 2004 presidential election.

One of the problems with being James D. Stern is that he has a passion for the theater, film and television, a passion for producing, writing and directing, a passion for politics and a passion for basketball—and they are all competing for his attention.

“My ADD,” he says with a laugh, “has served me well.”


- production photos courtesy of Amazon Studios/Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

 

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