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SPEAKING THE SAME LANGUAGE - A Quartet of PGA Members Comes Together To Produce "Arrival"

Posted By Michael Ventre, Monday, January 9, 2017

Meetings aren’t always fruitful. Sometimes they’re simply opportunities for the parties involved to feel each other out, exchange ideas, chit-chat about current events, complain about traffic, enjoy bottles of water.

Shawn Levy and Dan Levine had a general meeting a while back with writer Eric Heisserer, known for such horror titles as The Thing and Lights Out. It was pleasant enough. They got to know each other. It ended with handshakes. But as Heisserer headed for the door …

“I asked him what he was reading these days,” Levy recalls. “He said, ‘I really like a collection of short stories by Ted Chiang called Stories of Your Life.’”

So naturally Levy and Levine—the producing tandem atop 21 Laps—perked up from that general meeting malaise. They got the book, read it and paid particular attention to one tale, “Story of Your Life,” about a linguist who learns an alien language. What followed is one of those quintessentially Hollywood string of felicitous events that film people gush over at awards season cocktail parties—if the picture is well received, at least.

producers Shawn Levy, Aaron Ryder, and Dan Levine 
en route to Arrival's Venice premiere.

In this case the prognosis is excellent, judging by the reception that the sci-fi drama Arrival has gotten. Directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and based on the aforementioned source material adapted by Heisserer, Arrival is about a language expert with a tragedy in her recent past, who is summoned when a bunch of mysterious space ships settle at different spots around the globe.

It all started with that general meeting, which set the tone for the high level of communication that developed among all the parties involved.

“We spent two hours with him,” Levine said of the meeting with Heisserer, which occurred about five years ago. “When he mentioned, ‘Story of Your Life,’ it was like a lightning bolt. It was one of the most incredible short stories we had ever read.”

From that point, usually the road to production becomes perilous, because a lot can go wrong. In this case, perhaps because of the admiration of the material by everyone involved, elements fell into place quickly.

The producers learned that the rights to the story were indeed available, but needed to spend some time convincing Chiang that his creation could actually become something Levy described as a “cinematically rich” motion picture before the author would agree to the option.

At the same time they were wooing Chiang, they brought the project to Villeneuve. As a directing entity, he’s been hotter than any sun in any galaxy, with Prisoners and Enemy released in 2013 and last year’s Sicario to his credit, as well as a current gig shooting the long-awaited reboot Blade Runner 2049.

Villeneuve warmed to the project immediately. With all of the principals having the same reaction to the story, momentum came naturally.

Producers Dan Levine and Aaron Ryder (left) confer with 
director Denis Villeneuve on set.

“I think if you ask Denis and my fellow producers, you might get a different answer for each person,” explains Levy, director of family-friendly comedies like the Night at the Museum series. “When you speak to people who have seen the film, it resonates in different ways for different people.

“For me it wasn’t because it’s deeply cerebral or spectacularly visual,” he continues. “For me it’s this core theme that, if you know your love will end in loss, do you choose it anyway? That for me is in the short story and in the screenplay and in Denis’ vision. It’s the first thing that got me kind of vibrating about this material—that fundamentally human question, that fundamentally human capacity, to choose love even if you know it will end in heartbreak. It’s beautiful. It’s resonant. That’s why.”

While the rights were being obtained and Villeneuve’s services were being secured, Levy and Levine partnered with David Linde, now CEO of Participant Media, and Aaron Ryder of FilmNation, and all four producers eventually set up the title with Paramount as distributor.

“It was kind of this fantastic gift that dropped on our desk,” Ryder explains. “I was attracted to it because I don’t think I’ve seen elevated science fiction in a long time. There was an emotional component to this as well. I haven’t really seen anything like it since Contact, which was 20 years ago, or Close Encounters, which was 40 years ago. Those two stood the test of time.”

Linde, formerly CEO of Lava Bear Films, was one of those enraptured from the start. “The script was submitted to us by 21 Laps,” he recalls. “We always felt it was a beautiful piece of material. We began to pursue it as a fellow producer and financier. Lo and behold, some of my best friends at FilmNation were doing the same thing. There was a lot of competition for the title.

“We and FilmNation and 21 Laps decided the best way forward was for us to all work together,” adds Linde. “And that’s what we did.”

Not every three-company collaboration works, but this one did. While having Villeneuve attached as director was considered a godsend, it was also a source of concern. After all, he’s a busy man these days.

The team at La Biennale di Venezia 2016 (from left): producer Aaron Ryder,
cast members Jeremy Renner and amy Adams, producers Shawn Levy, 
Dan Levine and David Linde.

“Our biggest obstacle was having the most prolific director working today,” Ryder elaborates. “He has quietly made five films—none of them small movies— over four years. We had to put the movie together and we cast Amy, but basically we had to put it on hold for the better part of a year to wait for Denis to finish another film. It was daunting to keep our arms locked together and not let the project fall apart. But that spoke to the faith of everyone involved in the project.”

Casting of the leads also came together relatively quickly. Amy Adams was a name that appeared at the top of everyone’s list and not because it was done in alphabetical order.

“Amy played Amelia Earhart in my second movie (Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian),” Levy relates. “She was very, very quickly, if not instantly, at the top of the director’s list as well as the producers’. If the producers are seeing it with Amy and the director is seeing it with Amy, it’s gotta be Amy. She instantly responded to the script and came aboard.”

Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, who after enduring a personal tragedy early in the story, is recruited by the military to try and communicate with an alien presence that has suddenly visited Earth. Despite the sci-fi trappings, the role emphasized the emotional life of the character.

“Part of her brilliance is that she doesn’t need to go big in order to find power on the screen,” Levy says. “I think this is a tour de force performance of quiet power. Amy’s eyes have a transparency to her feelings that carry the movie. Count the number of closeups—static big closeups. That is the bedrock of the movie. She can do a tremendous amount with simple things.”

The role of Ian Donnelly went to Renner, but that casting was less clear at the beginning.

“We struggled with the Ian role,” Levy recalls. “It never was going to be a big, loud starring role. We needed an actor with intelligence because Ian is a man of science. But we also needed generosity in an actor who could hold the screen with Amy without trying to find moments and make scenes his own. Amy and Jeremy knew each other from American Hustle, and she was a staunch advocate. She felt like he was the guy we were looking for.

“A bonus with Jeremy is that he brings wit and levity to a very serious movie,” Levy continues. “And I think audiences will be grateful for that.”

Producer Aaron Ryder consults with director Denis Villeneuve on set. 

The producers’ close communication in prep led to a blissfully uneventful shoot. “Our biggest challenge, production-wise, was the Hazmat suits,” Levine reports. “They were claustrophobic, hot and heavy, so we had to train our wardrobe team to be like an Indy pit stop crew to get our actors into them fast and, more importantly, out of them at lightning speed. They practiced over and over, and during filming they did an amazing job. They’re the real unsung heroes on the film.”

Arrival may be arriving at the right time. Given the frenetic pace and intensity of the current news cycles, the film represents a rare opportunity to pause and reflect. It works as sci-fi, as mystery, even as a thriller, but above all, it just gets you thinking.

“What’s beautiful about this movie is that it speaks to us and the audience in a myriad of different ways,” Linde shares, “from an incredibly thrilling, beautifully directed film to something that actually speaks to contemporary life in a big way about the necessity for communication and trust. They're pretty powerful messages.

“Denis’ incredible dexterity in mixing big powerful moments with almost incredible subtleties of direction is what makes this movie work,” he continues. “It’s that mixture of a very large canvas with the intimacy of character, especially Amy’s character, that I think is resonating so strongly. Denis is a unbelievable communicator.”

 Dan Levine and Aaron Ryder discuss an upcoming scene with
Amy Adams

Although Villeneuve is a relative newcomer to Hollywood, the four producers—all PGA members—have known each other to varying degrees for many years and are all fans of each other’s work.

“On a project like this, it’s always great to have the PGA at your back,” Levine says. “I’m really proud to be a member. I know Shawn is as well. It’s nice to know in the end you’re recognized by your peers.”

Said Linde, “Being a PGA member is one of the highlights of my career. I have been accused of being a hybrid, in that I enjoy doing many different things. But everything about my career has centered around the production of films by great filmmakers. To be recognized for that by the PGA is a thrilling moment.”

Levy is busy these days with a number of projects, including season two of Stranger Things on Netflix; he and Levine also have this season’s John Hamburg-helmed comedy, Why Him?, starring Bryan Cranston and James Franco. Ryder has the indie drama The Founder, among other titles, in the pipeline. Linde has A Monster Calls coming out at the end of 2016, directed by J.A. Bayona and starring Sigourney Weaver and Felicity Jones.

But right now they’re enjoying the rewards of that rare phenomenon in the movie business whereby the elements fall into place as dreamed—almost a Hollywood script unto itself.

“This is one of our great prides,” Levy smiles. “A classic, homegrown piece of development.”

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DO THE MATH - An Amazing True Story Plus A Dedicated Team Adds Up To "Hidden Figures"

Posted By Justine Neubarth, Tuesday, January 3, 2017

In one of the opening scenes of Fox 2000’s feature Hidden Figures, the camera floats above NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) lying on her back and fixing a car on a rural stretch of Virginia road. Even from its first moments, the film, which centers on the true story of three female African American mathematicians at NASA Langley Research Center during the 1960s, embraces women doing hard and sometimes unglamorous work. And it’s this hard work and persistence that Donna Gigliotti—one of Hidden Figures’ producers alongside fellow PGA members Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping and Ted Melfi (as well as non-member Pharell Williams)—sees as both the movie’s central lesson and something that she has embodied in her own career.

Gigliotti, producer of Shakespeare in Love, The Reader and Silver Linings Playbook, discovered the story in the form of a book proposal that landed on her desk in March of 2014. The author, Margot Lee Shetterly, was in the process of writing a nonfiction account of the black female mathematicians at the NASA program in Hampton, Virginia, whose calculations were integral to the space race and John Glenn’s 1962 orbit around the Earth. “I kind of couldn’t get over the fact that this was a true story and I didn’t know anything about it,” Gigliotti shares. “I thought well, this is a movie.” The book, titled Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, was released in September; the movie will be released on Christmas Day.

From left, producer Donna Gigliotti, Chernin Entertainment exec
Ivana Lombardy, i Am Other exec Mimi Valdez

Hidden Figures follows the trio of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), all members of the mostly female pool of human “computers” that NASA used for technical calculations during the space race. A math prodigy and scientific pioneer, Johnson was asked personally by John Glenn to double-check his landing numbers before his launch. Kevin Costner joins the cast as the director of the NASA Space Task Group; Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst also co-star.

The film proved a natural fit for Gigliotti, who professes an affinity for strong female characters. As a woman who’s fought for success in a male-dominated field, she found plenty in Hidden Figures to relate to. “A scene that I like tremendously is when Taraji Henson says, ‘I need to be in that room,’ and Jim Parsons says, ‘There’s no protocol for a woman being in the room,’ and Taraji replies, ‘Well, there’s no protocol for sending a man into space, either.’ Those are words that could have come right out of my mouth. Because as a woman in any business, I think making your voice heard is the biggest challenge.”

After reading the 55-page proposal, Gigliotti bought the rights and was on the hunt for a script when she met a young writer named Allison Schroeder. In their initial meeting, Schroeder declared that she “was born to write this script.”

“Now, I have been in the movie business a long time,” smiles Gigliotti. “And when people say that, you kind of roll your eyes at them.” Then Schroeder revealed that her mother, grandmother, and father had all worked at NASA, and Schroeder herself had interned there during summers while studying math and engineering in college. At that point, Gigliotti admits, “She kind of had me.” Once Schroeder had signed on, she and Shetterly—who was in the process of writing the book and is herself the daughter of a NASA Langley scientist—began their exchange of research and ideas.

Gigliotti then partnered up with director Theodore Melfi, who brought with him producers Jenno Topping and Peter Chernin at Fox 2000. Topping and Chernin, who had previously produced Melfi’s theatrical feature debut St. Vincent, were eager to work with him again. “The more you think about it”, says Topping, “the more [this film] makes sense for Ted in terms of his general interest and his oeuvre. He’s a humanist if nothing else.” When Melfi took himself out of the running for the next Spider Man film so that he could make Hidden Figures, Gigliotti was sold. “That kind of commitment and enthusiasm for a project is not something that comes along every day, and you have to acknowledge that that is a very potent motivator, when someone wants to make a movie at that level.”

Pharrell Williams, who joined the project as a producer alongside business partner Mimi Valdes, grew up just a few miles outside of Hampton, Virginia and is a self-professed NASA enthusiast. When he heard about the project, he pursued it “doggedly,” Gigliotti reports. While on a visit to New York, Williams invited Gigliotti to his suite in the Crosby Street Hotel and played her some ‘60s-inspired tracks that he had been working on. When he discovered that he didn’t have a recording of one song he had written, “I sat on the couch and he sang the song to me,” recounts Gigliotti. And so, with a private concert from Pharrell, the final members of the producing team fell into place.

Naturally, Williams took on responsibility for the film’s soundtrack, and brought Hans Zimmer and Ben Wallfisch on for help with the score. “The real, the big huge love affair that nobody knows about on this film is that Pharrell is in love with Hans Zimmer and Hans Zimmer is in love with Pharrell,” laughs Gigliotti. “You’ve never seen two guys riff on one another in the way that they do.”

Also key to his involvement was Williams’ history of advocating for STEM education. Women are rarely portrayed as being employed in STEM fields in popular media; a 2012 study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that across family films and prime time shows, there was only one female mathematician in over 10,000 characters. “So,” says Melfi, “here we are with a movie that has social and educational relevance for the entertainment industry.”

After Melfi undertook rewrites of portions of the screenplay (he and Schroeder are credited as co-writers), principal photography took place over 43 days in Atlanta. The city was chosen for both the tax incentives it offers, as well as for a few unique locations, including the last remaining full-size wind tunnel on the East Coast and the National Archives building. Given the film’s themes, Gigliotti was particularly sensitive to making sure there was as much gender and ethnic diversity as possible among the crew. “On average, on major motion pictures, approximately 12-15% of the crew is women,” she notes. “On our picture, I am happy to report it was 33% … Women gaffers? They exist. You just have to go and hire them.” 

producer and director Ted Melfi (center) on the set of Hudden Figures with cast members Octavia Spencer (left)
and Taraji P. Henson.

In its depiction of a segregated workplace, Melfi said he wanted to focus on “a different kind of racism that I think is more prevalent today: the everyday slights and the everyday unconscious biases that individuals grapple with.” On top of that, he adds, “The second most important thing to me was to get their home lives right, because we so rarely get to experience in cinema, middle-class African-American lifestyles and households in the 60s.”

But make no mistake, this film is also very much about space travel, culminating in John Glenn’s nail-biting launch in the Friendship 7. And in fact, the biggest difficulty of making the film proved to be “juggling three storylines, thousands of extras and the space race.” Gigliotti, Melfi confirms, was essential to making all of the gears turn. “Donna lived on set. She was the first champion of this movie … and is one of the best producers I’ve ever worked with.”

That support also included making sure that Shetterly provided her counsel during prep and filming. One of the first things Gigliotti asked of Shetterly was that she make all of her research available. Says Melfi, “I spent a lot of time with Margot. She took us on a tour of NASA-Langley when we first met … We kind of fed each other. It just kind of worked that way. She was writing, full-steam ahead, and we were actually shooting.”

The math of the story is incredibly complex, based in PhD-level orbital trajectory calculations. Even though much of it might be incomprehensible to the average viewer, Melfi and Gigliotti were attentive to the calculations seen on-screen and their accuracy. While Gigliotti says she is not a math person (“I went to Sarah Lawrence,” she cracks. “I don’t even know if they have math classes at Sarah Lawrence, in all honesty.”), she and the production team brought on Dr. Rudy Horne of Morehouse College to tutor the cast and crew on set. “Taraji P. Henson, she should be nominated for an Academy Award just because what she is doing on the chalkboard,” says Gigliotti. “Everything that she is doing, she is doing accurately.” Melfi agrees, laughing, “I got way too deep. I know more math now than I ever want to know.”

 Ted Melfi chats with fellow producer Pharrell Williams on the set.

Now that the final mix is complete and the film is set to be released, Gigliotti gets to participate in one of her favorite parts of producing: watching other people watch the film. “The truth is,” she professes with rueful humor, “for producers, you’re blamed if it doesn’t work, and if it does work, everybody else is the genius. So you got to take it where you can get it, and where you can get “it”—the affirmation of the work—is by actually watching audiences respond to the film.” She has already had the privilege of screening the film for the now 98-year-old (and “sharp as a tack”) Katherine Johnson.

“So we’re in Hampton, Virginia,” Gigliotti recounts. “Elizabeth [Adler, of Fox 2000] and I are in the back; Katherine Johnson is in front of us with her two daughters. And Taraji is up on the big screen playing Katherine Johnson. It was a little nerve-wracking, because you really hope that you’ve done a good job. But we did get a big thumbs up from both of her daughters and Katherine.”

Gigliotti estimates that from the moment she read the option to the release of the film, it will be have been two and a half years, which is “mind-boggling. In Hollywood terms, that is lightning speed.” She, Topping and Melfi all agree that there was a real and rare eagerness to get the film done as quickly as possible. “God, this was kind of one of the easiest [films] I’ve ever done,” Topping concurs. “They’re all horrible and this one wasn’t. It was a very happy set, a happy experience. And a great outcome, which is certainly amazing and refreshing.”

The timeliness of the story had a lot to do with it, according to Gigliotti. “I said to Margot originally—because I’d never heard this story and because what’s going on in the world and in the country¬—this is so special. It’s like you’ve captured lightning in a bottle. And anybody who read that script or the book felt exactly the same way: that the time was right. In the words of Martin Luther King, there was the ‘fierce urgency of now.’”

And of course, Hidden Figures is a true American story, one that’s perhaps particularly trenchant in our current moment. Says Melfi, “In my mind, the film is incredibly relevant to what we’re experiencing today. Here we have a time in the nation’s history where black and white, male and female put a man into space. The mission trumped all of the nonsense, trumped all of the racial inequality and the gender inequality. There’s a line in the movie, Kevin Costner says it: ‘We all get there together or we don’t get there at all.’”

Gigliotti echoes that sentiment. “It’s a movie, ultimately, about these women’s contribution to something in American history that was formative in the nation. The entire country—no matter your gender, your race, Democrat, Republican¬—the entire country was about America, and it was about America getting a man in orbital space. Maybe we need to be reminded, as a country, that we can be like that.”

- This article originally appears in the December/January 2017 issue of Produced By magazine.

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Kevin Feige - Cover Story: Meet The Guy Who Runs The Universe

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Some of us collected marvel comics as a kid. Some of us read those stories and wondered why there couldn’t be movies about those characters that were as big and bold and fun as the franchises that created the tentpole template in the 1970s and 80s… Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, James Bond. The popularity of Christopher Reeve’s Superman showed that comic-book superheroes could deliver on the big screen. So it felt like a weird and cruel injustice, to some of us, that obscure grownup legal wrangling seemed to consign our marvel heroes to live only through ink and newsprint, and maybe the occasional action figure.

Some of us only wish we could go back to tell our younger selves: hang in there, kid. They’re coming. It’s only taking so long ‘cause they want to do it right.

We are now eight years and 14 films into arguably the most ambitious undertaking in the history of popular filmmaking, an attempt to breathe life into not simply a single iconic character or story, but to animate an entire ecosystem of costumed heroes—all of them, from the household names to the “B-side” cult favorites. The 14-film track record, each title distinct in its own right, is already considerable testament to its success. The Marvel Cinematic Universe today is a day-glo, double-wide bus, packed with a good-sized riot’s worth of outsize heroes and villains flying down the freeway of global pop culture. And the guy behind the wheel is Kevin Feige.

For a fellow whose job it is to keep an entire slate of billion-dollar franchises spinning in the same direction, Feige brings zero pretense to a conversation. Almost aggressively accessible, he talks about the massive apparatus of Marvel filmmaking with the unforced directness you usually get from your workout buddy or your old friend from camp. Though Feige (like many who have graced our cover) voices profound admiration for his films’ writers, directors and stars, his deepest affinities, we think, are elsewhere—he loves and reveres no one like he does the audience. His success as the MCU’s architect and pilot are a strong argument for the producer as, essentially, fan-in-chief.

Running a cinematic universe is, he readily admits, too big a job for one person, and so it comes as no surprise that Marvel utilizes a “creative brain trust” model similar to those that have guided companies like Pixar and J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot. Feige is quick to credit the wider Marvel team with providing the essential infrastructure and feedback for each of Marvel’s distinct properties, and we’re happy to salute them—all, like Feige, proud PGA members—and their contributions within. Their success embodies the animating spirit of their studio: that the real story is not, in the end, about Spider-Man, or Iron Man, or Kevin Feige, but about the entire family tree, the push and pull between equally unlikely patchwork teams of superheroes and storytellers, the crossovers and synchronicities and reflections, the feeling that at any given moment, you’re focused on just one corner of a world that’s bigger than any of us.

They did it right, in other words. It was worth the wait.


Honestly, the Star Trek universe and the Star Wars universe meant much more to me as a kid. Those were the universes that I was most immersed in, in my fandom. But I learned that it was a sprawling world. I will tell you in the very first Marvel offices that I ever worked at, 16 years ago, a very small office off of Little Santa Monica in West LA, we shared space with the kite company that Marvel owned. That should give you an idea of where movies ranked for Marvel at that point. Avi Arad, who was running Marvel Studios at the time and who hired me after working on the first X-Men film, said he was going to move out to LA full-time to focus on turning these comics into movies. The space that Marvel Corporate gave us was a couple of offices off of this literal kite factory. Every day, people would walk past going, “See you guys later. We’re going to the beach to test these.” [laughs]

Feige (center) chats with direct Kenneth Branagh (right)
on the set of Thor, alongside (from left) co-producer Craig
Kyle and executive producer Victoria Alonso.

But in the conference room of that office, we had a giant poster that said “Marvel Universe” across the top, and it had hundreds of characters drawn on it. All of these characters were in a shared universe. I would stare at that poster, and try to find the smallest character. Spider-Man and Captain America were pretty large, and then other characters were tiny. People who would come into meetings, we’d ask “What’s the smallest character on there you can identify?” That poster in that office was a window into how a shared universe in publishing and storytelling worked.

Well, I owe my entire career to it. I was just starting film school at USC in the fall of ’94 and a couple of months in, I realized that the smart kids were getting these internships where you go and work for no money, but you got college credit and feet-on-the-ground experience. I thought, “Well, if I’m going to go work somewhere for free, wouldn’t it be fun to do it for somebody that I admired?”

They had the internship postings up on the walls. And if you were doing the Richard Attenborough version of that moment, you would have the golden light shining down onto the card that said, Donner/Shuler-Donner Productions. Of course I knew about Richard Donner because of Goonies, because of Lethal Weapon and primarily because of Superman, which is, I still think to this day, the model which we all follow, the most perfect superhero movie.

I went home. I filled out my very first resume, sent it in and got a call just a few days later. I interviewed with Lauren and ended up working there as an intern. Over the years, I worked there in a few different roles. One summer I was a receptionist and even got paid. I learned to enjoy the adrenaline rush of phones ringing, schedules shifting. There was something fun about juggling it all.

Feige (center) on location in San Francisco for Ant-Man with executive 
producer Brad Winderbaum (L of center) and director Peyton Reed (beanie)

During my final semester of film school, they were gracious enough to ask me to stay around as a paid PA. So I would go to class and then go there on the time off to be a PA. Right around that time they said, “Okay, you’re going to graduate. Dick needs an assistant. Lauren needs an assistant.” I’m not sure exactly if they offered me my choice, but I remember somebody saying, “Think about who you would rather work with.”

If I had been asked that question on my first day two years earlier I would’ve said, “[gasp] Richard Donner! He’s a director! I want to be a director! It’s Richard Donner.”

Having been there for a couple of years, I realized that when Dick wasn’t working, he would relax between projects and work from home. Lauren on the other hand was in the office every day, developing multiple projects and producing multiple movies. Noticing that the people who were higher up in the company used to be her assistants, I considered myself very lucky that Lauren brought me on in that role.

Well, sort of everything. Soon after I started working for her, she got hired to produce a film for Fox 2000 called Volcano. It was a very sudden thing. I ended up working on Volcano from start to finish and watched her navigate those politics, which were very tricky. Another producer had set it up—it was actually one of Neal Moritz’s very early movies. Lauren had been brought in as a more senior producer because she’d had that experience. But I got to see how she worked, how she did the job the studio wanted her to do, keeping it all on track, but also deferring to Neal in certain moments. Through that experience, I also met Laura Ziskin, who was running Fox 2000 at the time. She would end up being another important mentor for me on the Spider-Man films.

The next one was a project that Lauren had developed in-house at Warner Bros., a remake of The Shop Around the Corner which became You’ve Got Mail. That was another amazing experience for me, having more responsibility and taking care of things like product placement and additional duties on the lower end of the producer totem pole. On any movie, there are conversations that other people don’t want to have—somebody’s hairdo is not quite right, or so-and-so is starting to gain a little weight over the course of the production. Every awkward conversation falls onto the producer. I’d think, “I wouldn’t want to have that conversation.” And I’d watch Lauren say, “Yeah, I’ll take it.” And she’d achieve the desired goal, and they didn’t hate her for it! I thought, “Oh, there’s an art form to that.”

During that time there was a script that Scott Nimerfro had brought to Lauren. It had been through various drafts over the years. I started reading it because it was really interesting to me, and so I started doing a thing that I learned from watching other people, which was simply doing story notes. Nobody asked me. I just started doing notes. And because Lauren is so gracious and such an amazing mentor, she would read the notes and go, “All right, this note is good. That one’s not so good.” And she asked me to come to the next story meeting.

So suddenly I’m sitting in a story meeting with Bryan Singer and Lauren and Tom DeSanto on what would become, three years later, the first X-Men film. That was the career path. It was extraordinary, watching Lauren work with the filmmakers, balancing what the studio wanted versus what the filmmakers wanted, versus most importantly, what the movie needed. And I always say to our actors and filmmakers, “I’m on one side. I’m on the movie’s side. That’s it.” Which is also saying I’m on the audience’s side. I learned that from Lauren.

That time was an amazing learning period. At the time I thought, “This is what Marvel will do. We’ll license the movies out and then Avi Arad and I will go to studios and give as much input as we can.” We didn’t have a lot of contractual approvals, honestly. There were some. But as long as they weren’t putting Spider-Man in a purple flight suit, there wasn’t a whole lot we could say. So I watched Avi, and saw how he would gain their trust beyond just being “the IP holder.” It helped that I had come from a filmmaking background and had the experience on X-Men. That gave a little tiny bit of street cred instead of just being …

A couple of comic-guy IP holders, exactly. Avi got us into the position that led to where we are now by being a cheerleader for all these projects and understanding and inherently seeing the promise of what all of this could become … convincing Fox to make X-Men, convincing Sony to make Spider-Man, and then The Fantastic Four movies, again at Fox. We had a front row seat to three, maybe four different studios, each demonstrating different operating methods. And we took all of the lessons we learned from our Spider-Man films, Fantastic Four films, Daredevil, Elektra, and Ang Lee’s Hulk—amazing experiences across the board—and everything we had learned up to that point, good and bad, from all those other experiences and put them into what became Iron Man. David Maisel brought in the financing, and Avi got a deal at Paramount to distribute those movies. Suddenly we were in a position to do it by ourselves. I remember very distinctly the head of the company in New York asking, “Kevin, can you make these two movies in two years?” and I said, “Yeah! [beat] Yes. [half-beat] Yes.” [laughs] Then we just had to figure out how to do it.

Producer Kevin Feige on the set of Doctor Strange with cast member Benedict Cumberbatch.

Well, there were casting choices that were perfect and there were casting choices that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Usually, it turned out the audience would feel the same way. For instance, today Hugh Jackman embodies Wolverine. He is that character. But at the time of the first X-Men we were trying to solidify who that character was, and on the first day his hair was just not “Wolverine hair.” I told Avi, “I don’t know about this …” and he flew up to Toronto. Hugh wanted it to be right and Bryan wanted it to be right. So we went in, and with the hair and makeup department, just started getting that hair up higher, higher, higher. Because that was Wolverine at the time. So I learned to be audacious in translating the comics, being open to changing things, but not changing them out of a fear that something might not work.

To a large extent that’s true, but people forget that the first Iron Man film was very much an independent film. We had to presell territories to get all of the money. Fortunately, we don’t have to do that anymore. But that was a skill I learned, to go in and pitch the movie to the exhibitors from the different territories. My first reaction was, “Why do I have to do this? I’d just rather be in the room working with writers on the movie.”

But I soon realized that it was an amazing opportunity to tell the story to a group of people who are folding their arms asking, “Okay, what is this? What do you have here?” I could see where they would lean forward, where they would get interested. So then in the next pitch, I would adapt it a little to focus more on those aspects. And then I’d repeat the process. I’d go back to the room where we were developing the movie and say, “You know what? I think we should focus on ‘x, y or z’ because these people are responding to that.”

That’s not to say we made changes because we’d have an easier chance to sell it. But I looked at it like this was our first audience. So that was a good experience. Even though we don’t presell anymore, we’ve brought that into our process. We have an internal brain trust here at Marvel, and we’ll pitch them a project they’re not actively working on and see how they react. “Isn’t this a great thing? No? Well we’ll keep working on it.”

Sometimes, yeah! Absolutely. I love to be on set as much as possible. The entire producorial team we have here is amazing, and we always have an executive producer on the ground the whole time on each of the films. They’re all incredibly accomplished, with most having at least one billion-dollar success under their belt, in some cases two. That makes up the heart and soul of the studio. When you have trusted producers there that you’re in touch with all the time it doesn’t mean you have to go running over there all the time. But a lot of it is big picture stuff. One of the things that we’re lucky about is that our ratio of developing a movie and making a movie is about one to one, which we don’t take for granted. And it opens us up to criticism like, “Oh, people are making release dates now, not movies.” “They had a release date before they had a script.” Honestly? That’s every movie we’ve ever made. I don’t know if I would be good at doing it the other way. It really is an amazing motivator. It’s kept us going for 14 films and counting.

Yeah, people ask, “How much longer can this last? How many of these movies will audiences accept?” I remember getting asked that in 2003, when there were three Marvel movies coming out that year. And like I said then, comic books are not all the same. Yes, they all have colorful covers because they want to sell issues. And, yes, they’re all are drawn within panels, so the medium is the same. But the stories and the characters are drastically different. I’ve always said, there’s no such thing as the “superhero genre” or the “comic book genre.” We take these stories from the comics and they lend themselves to other genres: techno-thriller in Iron Man, a political thriller in The Winter Soldier, a heist movie in Ant Man, a space opera in Guardians of the Galaxy, a psychedelic mind trip in Doctor Strange. So being able to continue to surprise audiences with a depth of what a Marvel Studios film can be has been my focus since the very, very early days. Because that’s what the material is.

That’s what’s fun about The Avengers comics, is that it’s a genius billionaire philanthropist and this super soldier who’d been in ice for 70 years, and this Norse god from another planet and this spy from Russia. Couldn’t be more different from each other and now they’ve come together. How the heck is that going to work? That’s always what was most fun about The Avengers.

Wow. I know exactly what you’re talking about.

That’s one of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten. Because that moment in Ratatouille, I think it’s one of the greatest moments in the history of film. That’s awesome. We’ve always said we’re replicating the experience of reading the comics on a big stage, and it has to work for people who read those comics and know what that experience is like, but it also needs to work for people who never opened a comic in their lives. That we know the sensation we’re going to try to evoke in the audience gives us an advantage. Obviously with humor it’s easiest, right? People have said, “Oh, humor is one of the keys to your movies.” And while that’s true, we didn’t set out and go, “We have to make sure all of our movies are funny.” But we realized that all of our favorite movies, whether they were dramas, science fiction movies, other superhero movies … they all had moments of levity. I believe that when the audience laughs, they open themselves up to the movie. And then you can get them, and maybe they’ll cry. Or maybe they’ll be shocked at something. But it’s that laughter that opens them up to say, “Okay, let me see what this movie has got.”

Kevin Feige discusses a scene with cast member Samuel L. Jackson
on the set of The Avengers.

But it really always comes down to that sensation of reading a comic book. When there’s a setup, and then a character does something decisive, and then you turn the page and you have a double-page spread splash panel. Internally we referred to the airport battle in Civil War as “the splash panel” because that was what we wanted to go for in that movie. Certainly you could say the same thing about the finale of Avengers.

Another one of the great things that we’re copying from the comic books is when there would be some big, world-changing event, and then as the characters went back into their own books they would be changed from that experience. So Iron Man 3 is very much about Tony suffering that PTSD from the events of The Avengers. You don’t want to take for granted that he was fighting aliens and the Earth almost got destroyed. It affected him.

As we got into 2014, we started to coalesce into our “phase two” rhythm, where we introduced a new storyline for an existing character, Captain America The Winter Soldier, arguably taking a chance by having it be tonally very different from the first Captain America film. That’s what excited us about it. And then something new, Guardians of the Galaxy. And then 2015, the same pattern Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man. Now this year, Civil War, and Doctor Strange, a continuation of an existing franchise, and then something totally new and different. That’s actually our comfort zone. It’s nice when people are excited for a mega-giant movie, a big Iron Man sequel or Avengers sequel, “Oh, that’s gonna be huge.” I actually don’t like that as much as the “how does that work?” reaction. “Oh, so you’re doing a space movie? And one character is a raccoon and another is a tree? How is that supposed to work?” “Paul Rudd gets really small? What?” “Benedict, what? He’s a magician? How does that work?” I like confronting that skepticism and then surprising them and winning them over with the final movie.

People were saying, when we started our studio, “It’s too bad that you’re making your own movies now but you don’t have access to your biggest characters, the X-Men, Spider-Man and Fantastic Four.”

And I would always say, “What are you talking about? We have everything else!” Those early movies were about proving Iron Man is not a B-list character. We never believed in B-list characters, anyway. Guardians, people wouldn’t even call them B-list … C-list, D-list, who are these guys? That was exciting to us, to show it doesn’t matter the number of fans or the amount of copies sold. All that matters is, is it a cool idea that we think would make a great movie?

As we always say, producing is a team sport. During our interview, Kevin Feige made sure we knew that the success of Marvel Studios didn’t rest on one person’s shoulders, but on the collective skill and passion of the studio’s circle of executive producers who both manage the productions on set and provide essential contributions to story development. We asked them about some of their favorite Marvel moments and their experiences working in the studio’s unique creative environment.

There’s a trust and a shorthand that we have as a team at Marvel—and that’s probably because we’ve worked together for over 10 years and 14 films! Since we’ve been through the trenches together, we know each other very well and I think we have complimentary skill sets and personalities. There is an effectiveness to the way we interact, problem solve and ultimately, just get on with the work at hand. I think that if we didn’t have that kind of efficiency, we wouldn’t be able to make so many films a year. 
What I really treasure about working at Marvel Studios is that we operate as “on the ground” creative producers, embedded with the filmmaking team at every step of the process. Making movies is incredibly hard, even when everything goes right. So we try to be in the trenches, working the problems together with our filmmaking partners. In that way, it helps to build trust that we all share the same goal: tell the best story. 
The scene that keeps coming back to me is from Iron Man, where Tony Stark is working in his garage, and in walks Pepper Potts and Tony asks for her help. What made this scene so special besides it obviously being such a tender moment between the two characters was its evolution. Originally Tony was alone in the garage working with this elaborate machine. When the final budget came in, we had to cut a lot and this scene was on the chopping block. I remember sitting with Jon [Favreau], Kevin, Jeremy Latcham and Victoria Alonso, trying to save the scene. Jon starting riffing on how we could add Pepper to help, even ad-libbing the dialogue, and all of us knew we had something special. Not only did we remove the biggest costs, but we added a great character moment. If the limitation had not been placed on us, the audience would have seen a very competent sequence, but instead it got a seminal moment between two beloved characters.
Black Widow’s introductory scene in The Avengers is one of those scenes that really captures the tone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to me–it has real stakes but it is still genuinely funny. It gets to the heart of a great character relationship that will build over the course of the film and it gives the audience a great sense of the kind of movie that they are going to be watching. As the first scene after the title card, it has to really kick the movie off with a bang, and I think it does just that. 

Winter Soldier’s attack on Steve, Natasha and Sam in Captain America: The Winter Soldier was an incredibly intricate piece of action that required total cooperation between all of the departments on 1st and 2nd Unit, and was an amazing example of the Russo Brothers’ creative instincts when it comes to action. And because it’s Steve’s first realization that Winter Soldier is actually Bucky Barnes, his best friend from WWII, it culminated in an emotionally loaded moment that redefined the character and catapulted Captain America into the forefront of the Marvel Universe. 

The “12 percent of a plan/jackasses standing in a circle” scene from Guardians of the Galaxy feels 100% like James Gunn’s voice–you can detect his personality and sense of humor in every frame. It was a favorite scene in the script that was executed perfectly and ends up representing the whole movie in microcosm, with some of the film’s best comedy and most heartfelt emotion. That scene represented every decision we’d made along the way coming together to create something truly special, which I think is the platonic ideal of producing.

One of the most fun scenes I’ve produced has to be Luis’ “tip montage” in Ant-Man, where we got to go into the character’s imagination and see all those characters speaking with Michael Peña’s voice. It was a brilliantly entertaining way to deliver some crucial story points, playing off a cool heist-movie motif while keeping with Peyton Reed’s comedic tone.


- Photography by Kremer Johnson Photography

- This article originally appears in the December/January 2017 issue of Produced By magazine.

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GOING GREEN - Get The Lead Out: Time For Hollywood Pyrotechnics To Light The Way

Posted By Tassilo Baur, Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Lead-based FX work is a problem that’s been hiding in plain sight for many years. It’s old news in Europe, where lead is essentially banned from all pyrotechnics. However that isn’t the case in the United States. Traditional bullet hit/squib production FX, designed in the 1950s and made with lead-based explosive chemicals, are still used almost exclusively here in the United States. It’s an alarming fact considering that the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has stated “no amount of lead is safe.” The issue recently gained some long-overdue attention in the Los Angeles Times and in a report by Monona Rossol of Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety. But regrettably, the general response from Hollywood has been less than explosive.

Naturally the initial focus of lead exposure has been on cast and crew safety. However another risk mentioned but rarely emphasized is environmental lead pollution in both private locations and public spaces. Any location where lead-based FX are used could end up contaminated. As a pyrotechnician, I’ve seen these FX used in bars, restaurants, convenience stores, hotel rooms and kitchens, as well as the living areas and bedrooms of private residences.

Because these FX devices are designed to explode, significant amounts of invisible lead dust and contaminated debris are dispersed throughout the environment and remain there indefinitely after filming. Targeted cleanups with trained people, special equipment and testing can help make a difference. But unfortunately, effective cleanups are unlikely.

The EPA considers 40 micrograms of lead per-square-foot or more hazardous in residences. Yet a single, smaller-sized traditional squib can release 28,600 micrograms of lead dust and debris—more than 700 times the EPA’s limit. And that’s just a single one. It’s common to use multiple, larger devices.

It’s 2016—time for Pyro 2.0.

As Flint, Michigan has reminded us, lead contamination poses grave risks. “Green pyro” isn’t a contradiction in terms; it’s just an idea whose time has come. Lead has been effectively removed from paint, gasoline, July 4th fireworks, stage and theme-park pyrotechnics, and theatrical blank ammunition. Why is it still in production FX?

Other departments already get this. For example, grips replaced lead with stainless steel in shot bags a long time ago. Lead is out of makeup, pigments and art materials, too. With respect to pyro, I’m happy to report that New York City, Warner Bros. and a few of my colleagues seem to be on the right path. But apologies are in order: Hollywood’s pyrotechnicians should be leading the charge. Most of us aren’t even following it yet.
No one should have to risk lead exposure, especially when it’s easy to prevent. Unfortunately, like many legacy industries, physical FX is bound by tradition and a reflexive resistance to change. There are many FX, stunt, cast and crew people who want things to change but don’t dare speak up for fear of being branded as troublemakers.

But there are budget-based reasons for hope. While some lead-free devices are currently more expensive than traditional applications, others are actually less so. And all are cost-effective when you factor in potential problems from lead exposure risk, including legal liability. Every insurance policy is different, but lead contamination can be defined as “pollution” and excluded under conventional production insurance. Producers should check with their insurance vendors to make sure they are covered in case of a lead exposure issue.

Don’t get me wrong: FX done properly are a great way to bring visual thrills into your production. They just need to be done responsibly, which in this case means adopting safer, readily available lead-free alternatives that can protect the cast, crew, public and the environment. These solutions have been around for many years. We simply have to start using them.

Full disclosure: I work with some of the companies that offer lead-free FX alternatives to the production industry. I’m doing that because I want people to be safe and personally want to be on the right side of history. These devices aren’t perfect or zero impact. All pyro has risks. But at the very least, we can strive to be lead-free. If you can safely get the same effect in front of the camera without lead, why would you choose otherwise? 


  • Take lead-pollution seriously, speak up and spread the word. 
  • If there’s pyro in your show, make sure it’s done with limiting the environmental impact in mind, and by using lead-free materials.

  • Even if there’s no pyro in your show, but you’re shooting at a rented stage (and especially if your shoot involves minors), ask if there were action sequences with bullet hits shot there previously. If so, bring up the lead contamination concern, ask how cleanup was done, and ask to see the post-cleanup testing report. If they don’t have the right answers, point out that your production is taking an unknown risk, and try to negotiate a discount to offset the trouble and expense of precautions you might need to take in response. This will leave an impression.

  • Please visit for more information and resources.

Tassilo Baur is a state and federally licensed special effects supervisor for movies and television in Los Angeles, and an internationally-recognized author, trainer, expert and lecturer on special effects-related safety.


 - This article originally appeared in the October/November 2016 issue of Produced By magazine

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STORY IS EVERYWHERE - The Multi-Platform World of Caitlin Burns

Posted By Justine Neubarth, Tuesday, November 29, 2016

There is a moment in my conversation with transmedia producer and PGA member Caitlin Burns when I wonder whether she might know… everything. It is after she has walked me through the intricacies of treating acute childhood malnourishment in developing countries but before she has explained the mythology of the video game Halo. “Pretty much everything I talk about is somewhat complex,” Burns tells me when she sees my slightly-awed expression. “But that’s because the world we live in and the ways audiences engage are complex.” 

Burns’ task as a transmedia producer is to tease simplicity out of complexity, ensuring that the multi-platform products of a narrative project or franchise—video games, social media content, animation, novels and everything in between—are produced as part of a cohesive story. She began her career at Starlight Runner Entertainment, where she worked her way up from intern to full-blown producer on big-budget projects for the Walt Disney Company, Microsoft and Coca-Cola.

After 10 years there, she is now an independent creative producer, serving clients both small (like Serial Boxes, a company that releases serialized novels digitally) and large (Disney). She also serves as the Vice Chair of the PGA’s New Media Council and the Co-Chair of PGA’s Women’s Impact Network, and this summer was awarded the PGA’s Mark Levey Distinguished Service Award.

The term “transmedia” may have a tech-y, futuristic ring to it, but whether the product is books or virtual reality, Burns is adamant that her work is about how humans interact with technology and not the other way around. This belief bleeds into her side projects too—this fall she and her husband will be launching an online magazine, titled Pax Solaria, which focuses on humans in a high-tech future. “The real key is that all of my work is centered on the story,” she says. “Even when I’ve worked in nonfiction, it’s thinking about the ‘story- world’ and how to execute it as part of the narrative.”

Currently much of her attention goes to her role as the Entrepreneur-In-Residence at the US Fund for UNICEF, where she is a narrative designer and consultant for UNICEF Kid Power—an ambitious project aimed at increasing activity among American children while also fighting childhood malnourishment abroad. Burns describes it as a “21st century Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF.” Children wear a pedometer around their wrists, which is synced with an app, and the steps they take unlock funding for ready-to-use, therapeutic food packets around the world. Burns is responsible for the in-app content, as well as the social media, digital initiatives and live events.

Complex indeed. “As a transmedia producer, I am intimately aware of the challenges of explaining what I do,” she says after explaining the layers of the UNICEF project—just one of many that she has a role in. As it happens, she is very good at explaining things. Listening to her thread together ideas and cultural references is like watching someone stitch together a giant quilt, and it seems only fitting that before she was one of the first people to be formally credited as a transmedia producer, she studied costume design as a drama major (and environmental systems minor) at NYU.

When it came time to look for a professional internship to fulfill her major, she initially focused on costume design. “I went through all of these rigorous you-can-work-for-me-for-free applications and no one wanted me to work for them for free,” she says, laughing. “Through a series of twists and turns,” she ended up at the newly-formed Starlight Runner, which had only just begun its experimentation with multi-platform storytelling.

“When Caitlin came in to sit and talk with us, she just blew us away with this encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much everything,” says Jeff Gomez, founder and CEO of Starlight Runner. I share how my mind had similarly been blown.
“Ah,” he nods sagely. “So you’ve experienced the Burn.”

He clarifies: “She literally could talk about any subject you brought up with a degree of authority, and if there was something she didn’t know that much about, within a matter of hours she would come back knowing everything.”

Soon after Burns joined Starlight Runner, the Walt Disney Company walked through the door with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, looking for some help in managing the books, games and upcoming films that were unspooling from their unprecedented 2003 blockbuster. Burns was immediately hired as the company’s first employee, “and all of the incredible nerdy skills that I had brought in with production design and systems science suddenly clicked with the work we had to do with the Walt Disney franchises.”

For many of the franchises they work on, Starlight Runner produces a “mythology” of the story world: an honest-to-God book that is passed on to executives, game designers, writers and anyone else working on the project. Burns wrote large swaths of the first one the company ever produced—an 11” x 16 “ leather-bound tome imprinted with a skull and crossbones, a compendium of all things Pirates of the Caribbean. Some of the research Burns did on piracy—especially on pirate codes of law—ended up feeding back into the films, as well as fueling a blog about pirates that she wrote for seven years. Now, she adds, “I know more about ransoming than anyone who’s not directly involved with that really needs to know.”

Since then, Burns has produced “about 16” mythologies, including an ethnography of the Na’vi for Avatar. More broadly perhaps, her time at Starlight Runner taught Burns how to use transmedia to engage fans and build a community. Gomez says that Burns truly understood from the beginning that “fans were going to play a pivotal role in the success and the sustenance of entertainment properties.”

Perhaps that’s because Burns is herself a fan of the projects she works on. Speaking about her time working on Pirates of the Caribbean, Burns said she had to watch the 143-minute film 45 times “in quick succession” to make sure they had gotten everything right. “And I was exactly the kind of nerd that really, really, really loved it.” More recently, she worked as a franchise strategist for Disney’s Descendants, and spoke enthusiastically about reading the books with her daughter.

Growing up in Arizona, the first thing that Burns was ever a true fan of—“hands down”—was Jurassic Park. Her fandom is very much alive. In 2012, she and co-producer Steele Filipek launched a feature-length parody of the film, set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and titled McCarren Park. Made for $3,500, the film was released via app; viewers could “go from location to location and see another scene.” The app launched at the Tribeca Film Festival. Overall, she marvels, “It came out much better than it had any right to.”

Burns puts fan development front and center in her work, but sees transmedia as far more than a marketing tool. “A lot of people, when they’re thinking about [the transmedia] part of the producing team, they’re thinking about it as, ‘How do we reach the audience and engage them in a promotional way or in a simply outreach way?’” she tells me, “as opposed to thinking about the real power of what you can do […] when the narrative is building out into all of these platforms so that people can find it. And that sort of creativity ends up paying off hugely in fan development, rather than just audiences.”

Jenni Magee-Cook, an executive producer on the Descendants franchise, echoes this. “You don’t have to go practical anymore. You don’t have to do ad campaigns and marketing in the same way,” she says. “To me, [Caitlin] opened my eyes to accessing how millennials and younger actually consume information, and how you can actually speak to them and communicate with them. I think Caitlin had so much awareness of that.”

“Caitlin understood fairly early that transmedia storytelling was going to be important,” Gomez tells me. “Not just in terms of making more money for big movie studios, but in terms of how the world was changing in terms of communication.” That understanding has allowed Burns to apply transmedia techniques to not just entertainment, but social justice projects as well. That passion is currently manifested in her work at UNICEF, but it began at Starlight Runner, where she and Gomez worked on community development and population activation projects in Mexico and Colombia. Doing that kind of work “gave me the opportunity to work with cognitive scientists and ethnographers,” Burns tells me. “And that’s something that feeds into the work that I do today very strongly.”

And when it comes back to the entertainment industry, diversity is a priority for her. She’s excited about her involvement in the PGA’s Women’s Impact Network but also sees transmedia itself as a way to address Hollywood’s diversity problem. For one, franchises can be ever expandable with the help of transmedia. “The canvas is bigger,” Burns observes of the current landscape. “We don’t have to be stuck.”

She encourages her clients to test more diverse characters in ancillary novels and games, just to see how well audiences respond. “As attitudes toward diversity and representation have changed, they can also be supported by less high-budget experiments where [one] can see: ‘Is a female character going to be interesting?’ Yes, she is.” Later she adds, “It’s not just better business to think in terms of diversity, it’s an inescapable reality. Ignore it at your peril.”

A transmedia producer is an inherently forward-thinking role—the PGA credit itself includes those who have worked with “technologies that may or may not currently exist.” So I ask Burns what she thinks is next. “Honestly—I’m so excited about immersive theater,” she answers immediately. She begins painting a future where immersive theater experiences like Sleep No More will incorporate virtual reality technology. “We’re going to hit people with emotional and exciting and transcendental experiences in a very physical way, both in virtual universes and the real world, in theatrical experiences. And that’s when we’ll really have something cool.” She pauses. “And after that, I have no idea.”

And so for now, Burns is back to focusing on what she enjoys most: storytelling and combining the basics of narrative with the cutting edge of technology. “For me, the most interesting things happen when we connect people and technology and stories. That means I deal with new stories on old platforms, and old stories on new platforms,” says Burns. “I’m lucky I’m curious.”


- This article originally appeared in the October/November 2016 issue of Produced By magazine

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