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Beyond 'Blood Diamond' - How Social Impact Campaigns Add Lasting Value To Productions

Posted By Bonnie Abaunza, Thursday, January 16, 2020

The civil war in Sierra Leone began in 1991 and lasted 11 years. It claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people. When it began, diamonds mined in the strongholds controlled by a rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front, were sold to finance the war effort or traded for weapons and military training. Journalists and human rights activists on the ground raised the alarm and alerted the international community about the sale of these “conflict diamonds,” or “blood diamonds,” as they came to be known. But it wasn’t until the 2006 feature film, Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, that the public learned the term and the role that diamonds played in the devastating civil war.

The film’s impact campaign, spearheaded by Global Witness and Amnesty International, helped to educate the global community about blood diamonds, as well as the Kimberley Process used to certify conflict-free diamonds, the complicit role of some international jewelry companies, and the specific actions that individuals could take to be responsible, conscious consumers of diamonds. Global Witness and Amnesty International mobilized their members to spread the word about the film.

Thirteen years after the movie’s release, jewelers still promote to customers that their diamonds are certified conflict-free. Like blood diamonds, the terms blood minerals, blood chocolate and blood gold are now also part of the progressive vernacular, in large part due to the film and impact campaign. Blood Diamond has been integrated into the curricula in high schools and college courses, and is referenced by organizations in international human rights legal cases. Numerous other documentaries focusing on conflict minerals and gold have modeled their social impact campaigns after Blood Diamond.


The Value of Social Impact Campaigns

In the most widely used structure of social impact campaigns, organizations partner with studios and filmmakers on projects that can be mutually beneficial: the films help raise awareness with the theatergoing public about the issues these organizations confront, and in turn, organizations help mobilize their millions of members to support the film during its theatrical release. The NGOs also provide a “seal of approval” about the film’s accuracy and help generate stories in both mainstream and nontraditional press about the film partnership. The same model of cooperation has been used for documentaries, TV series, streaming and other media.

When Jeff Skoll started Participant Media as a company with the double mission of producing socially relevant films that also had impact campaigns, the company set a high bar and firmly established the landscape of social impact entertainment. Campaigns for films and documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth, FOOD, Inc., and most recently, Roma, helped drive audiences to theaters and inspired people to take actions that led to tangible changes.

Some films have had lasting social impact long after theatrical release or broadcast and are still being used by organizations, educational institutions and community-based groups. An Inconvenient Truth continues to energize people to engage on the issue of climate change, Blackfish assisted the animal rights movement in compelling Sea World to end its captive orca breeding program and phase out its orca shows, and Super Size Me and FOOD, Inc. led to changes in the fast-food industry. The documentary The Hunting Ground continues to be screened by colleges as part of their Title IX commitments to combatting campus sexual assaults. The music video for the Oscar-nominated song “Til It Happens to You,” written by Diane Warren and Lady Gaga, was an initiative of the film’s social impact campaign. It has been viewed more than 47 million times, and the Sexual Assault Hotline number included at the end of the video resulted in an increase of 34% in calls during the first 48 hours after the video premiered. The music video is still being viewed, and survivors of sexual assault continue to call the hotline.


Developing and Executing Impact Campaigns

Social impact campaigns bring together filmmakers, production companies and distributors with nonprofit organizations, think tanks and foundations. Collaboration is vital from the beginning. It is also critically important to define initiatives, metrics and goals in partnership with the people doing the work on the ground, on the policy side, and in agencies that have the power to effect change. Working with organizations helps filmmakers analyze issues from different perspectives. NGOs have credible experts who understand the complexity of the issues in the films and provide valuable insights.

Building a strong coalition behind a movie takes time, partly because securing NGO support requires many levels of approval. This is one reason why it is essential to give social impact campaigns a long runway. It allows the impact campaign team to see the film far enough in advance to start partner outreach, develop a strategy with initiatives and goals, and execute the campaign.

In terms of budgets, a social impact campaign for a studio feature film averages around $300,000; documentaries and independent films between $75,000, and $150,000, depending on length of campaign (6–18 months), number of initiatives, and domestic and international events. Filmmakers and distributors should consider the fact that campaigns can bring numerous additional benefits to a film’s release and can create value long past theatrical and into other platforms.

American Factory directors/producers Steven Bogner and Julie Reichert with President and Mrs. Obama


Delivering the Message

Filmmakers sometimes express concern that an impact campaign will politicize their film or will cause the public to perceive the film as a “message” movie that will lecture rather than entertain. In general, documentaries lend themselves to hard-hitting messages while some feature films benefit from a more nuanced “Trojan horse” approach to implementing a campaign. In both cases, the campaigns should complement the marketing and advertising for the film, and should be aligned with the goal of driving box office attendance or drawing viewers to broadcasts or streaming services. The organizations and groups supporting the impact campaigns are a built-in audience that can be mobilized to turn out for the films and to be active partners in promoting them through social media.


Current Campaigns

Two critically acclaimed Netflix documentaries have robust campaigns in progress:  Knock Down the House and American Factory.

Knock Down the House, produced by PGA members Regina K. Scully and Stephanie Soechtig, follows four extraordinary women—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin—as they take on the congressional establishment by mounting grassroots campaigns and building a movement during a time of historic volatility in American politics. Knock Down the House’s campaign focuses on the importance of civic engagement, voting, and inspiring young girls and women to pursue elected office.

The outreach initiative has formed partnerships and alliances with a broad base of nonpartisan organizations, community groups and schools. To date, there have been 400-plus high school, college and community-based screenings, and more than 40 nongovernmental organizations are supporting and promoting the documentary.

American Factory, presented by Higher Ground Productions and Participant Media, is the first title from President and Mrs. Obama’s production company. It documents the revitalization of a factory in Dayton, Ohio, and provides a startling glimpse into the global economic realignment playing out in cities across the country and the world. The documentary serves as the launching pad for a national campaign to seed a conversation around the dignity of work, bring visibility to the fractured compact between workers and employers, and build support for a future of work that benefits everyone.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and students from the documentary Knock Down the House

Its social impact campaign include a national tour with film screenings in communities across the country. The tour kicked off in Louisville and will continue on to Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Boston, Detroit and Seattle. Experts from the AFL-CIO, New America, and Working America have partnered to create discussion guides and an impact tool kit. Screenings are also being self-organized by individuals and groups in 35 states across the U.S., Italy, Luxembourg and Puerto Rico.

Knock Down the House and America Factory are resonating with a wide variety of organizations and people who are taking action through the impact campaigns. Judging by the engagement metrics, both films are poised to have short- and long-term impact.

This past spring, The UCLA Skoll Center published its landmark report The State of Social Impact Entertainment that maps this landscape, examines frameworks for evaluation, establishes best practices and highlights key issues in the field. With contributions from studio executives, distributors, filmmakers, impact campaign producers and others analyzing the campaigns of narrative and documentary films, television, theater and emerging forms, the report finds that “the financial and critical success of social impact entertainment proves that audiences have a real hunger for stories that entertain, engage and inspire.”

- Photos courtesy of Netflix

Bonnie Abaunza has been an impact campaign producer for 20 years. She is founder of the Abaunza Group, which develops and executes campaigns to help films move the needle on critical social, political and cultural issues. 


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Once Upon A Film Fan - Bill Hader Sets His Sights on Story

Posted By Katie Grant, Friday, January 10, 2020

The Jaws T-shirt was a clear giveaway when Bill Hader showed up to work as a PA in the early 2000s on sets like The Scorpion King, Collateral Damage and Critical Mass. A giveaway that he is, was, and always will be a film nerd. Since those days, the former SNL cast member has earned more distinguished titles, such as multiple Emmy winner (for acting and producing), DGA winner, WGA winner, showrunner and producer. Most importantly, Bill Hader can now finally call himself a filmmaker. Well, as he puts it, he can do that—but only when he’s “alone in the shower.”

Hader headed to LA from Tulsa with the singular goal of making movies. “I just want to see how these things are made,” he remembers thinking. That spirit of curiosity and humility, still very present, made way for Hader’s climbing success. After all, he never meant to be in front of the camera. He ended up on SNL purely by chance when Megan Mullally saw him in a backyard performance with his four-man improv troupe—which he landed in because he simply wanted something to do, something creative. Mullally called Lorne Michaels, Hader auditioned, and the rest is history.

Hader started making his own films as a teen chasing his willing sisters through the woods with a camera for action scenes. Without an editing system, he would try to cut his work between VCRs but mostly edited in camera on the VHS format. The positive feedback he got from a high school teacher who said, “You’re really good,” combined with the creative high he felt, kept Hader going and fed his drive to make movies.

True to form, Hader can’t help but use a film reference to explain how he sees producing: “Well, it’s kind of like Lee Marvin’s character [Major Reisman] in The Dirty Dozen. He pretty much puts everyone together. He’s the person that says, ‘We need an explosives guy. We need this. We need that. We need this so we can pull that thing off.’ And sometimes the filmmaker, the producer, will oversee that aspect.”

Currently as co-creator, co-executive producer, writer, director and star of Barry (HBO), Hader tries to think like a producer, but admits that after all his years in the business, it’s “instinctual. That’s the hardest thing about all this. You have to have the experience in order to get the experience. You have to kind of win the lottery.”

Bill Hader on the set of Barry 

And win the lottery he did. Landing SNL gave Hader the ability to reach out and meet, or better yet, work with, artists he looks up to. As a big Pixar fan, Hader asked to collaborate with their visionaries and Pete Docter, in particular. That turned into a writing credit on Inside Out, the Oscar-winning animated feature on which he played the voice of Fear. He was actually asked to play Fear after recording a temporary voice track for the animators to work with that featured all the characters. Speaking in that voice of Fear, Hader has become an unofficial and very vocal spokesperson for anxiety, citing the terror he experienced working on live TV for SNL.

Hader also worked with the writers of South Park, aiming to hone his story structure. That stint became his first producing credit and his first Emmy win. If working as a PA taught Hader how to run a crew properly, SNL showed him how to produce his own work, suggesting costumes, makeup and basic set pieces for the sketches he wrote. And then South Park let him see that producing stories is really about finding the emotional heart of the piece rather than a three-act story structure or the hero’s journey.

“I used to think it was that stuff. And it's not. What I learned at South Park is you follow the emotion and have a logic. And I think that's why Alec [Berg] and I write really well together. I’m like almost all emotion and he's almost all logic.”

Berg is Barry’s co-creator and co-EP whom their mutual agent paired Hader with in hopes they’d nail an idea for Hader’s HBO deal. They happened upon the premise of a hit man, which Berg famously did not like at first. But once Hader explained that it would be him, not the slick, skinny-tie-wearing idea of a hit man we usually see, they were off and running—straight to an acting class for research. And therein lies the brilliance of Barry, because placing a hit man with PTSD from his military years in an acting class so he can get in touch with his emotions is unexpected, interesting, dramatic and funny.

That acting class was taught by Howie Deutch—famous for directing films like Pretty in Pink and Grumpier Old Men—at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. Hader had plenty of experience in improv classes but not acting classes, which are a whole different animal. Between Deutch’s consulting on the first season and a cast full of actors playing actors with decades of class time between them—not to mention Henry Winkler, who studied with the famed acting teacher, Stella Adler—the show is so true to form that it adds to Barry’s already disturbing nature. And that combo of Hader and Berg playing off the right and left sides of their respective brains is, literally, a winning one. Sixteen awards later, the team is currently working on season 3 of Barry.

Hader, Stephen Root and Barry co-creator Alec Berg

Hader learned on the job how to make hard production calls like the one he cites from Barry season 2’s final day of shooting. They were slated to film a big shoot-out scene on location as well as a three-page monologue for Stephen Root’s character, Fuches, Barry’s crime boss. But it was raining, so sound was an issue. The suggested plan was to do the shoot-out, wait on the rain and do the monologue, hoping to make it in between storms. Hader said, “I don’t want to do that to Stephen because he’ll be in his head going, ‘I have to nail this. I have to get it right.’”

Hader made the costly decision to bring the entire crew back for a half day at the end of the week when it wasn’t supposed to rain. He says he was met with an “awful, dead silence. That was a big one where I felt like I dropped a bomb and then walked away. It was really for the actor… I didn’t want him trying to give a long monologue, and then instead of listening to him, we’re looking at the sky.”

Hader credits keeping it simple and taking things one day at a time for getting through days like that. “It’s kind of the mountain climber thing where they have to look right in front of them. It they look at the top, they’ll just freak out. So you have to look in front of you and not see how much longer you have to shoot.”

Besides Barry season 3, next up for Hader is a feature film called Henchmen that he wrote with four other people. It’s about “two guys who learn they are henchmen for a bad guy.” He also continues to contribute as a writer, producer and performer to the Emmy-nominated Documentary Now!, a farcical mockumentary series he created with Fred Armisen, Seth Myers and Rhys Thomas for IFC. “Documentary Now! is like an ultimate collaboration between people who have their own shows. Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, those two guys make that show happen. We make the jokes and stuff and talk about the recipe basically. But they have to go and make it. So I give them most of the credit for that show.”

Hader is also a dad helping raise three girls and, when asked to compare parenting and producing, he offers, “I think people just like feeling heard. You try to do things with as much respect as you can and hear people as much as you can, even if you think you know the answer to something. The flip side is if you’re too nice, people feel like they can take advantage of you. So you have to just be nice but really honest and no bullshit. And that might involve saying, ‘This isn’t working.’”

Hader’s advice for up-and-coming fellow film nerds is simply to fail. “The big thing for me was failing and learning from failure. When I was coming up, it was so expensive to make something and make it on a professional level, but now you can do it with your phone. So you don’t really have an excuse.

Henry Winkler with Hader in season 2 episode

“I think the thing that holds people back is fear of failing. They get nervous and I just would make it, see what happens and learn. If it comes from your life, then it’s easier to write because you know how you felt. Everyone starts off copying the stuff that they like. You do that for a while and then slowly, you start to know what you like, and you start just being honest in your storytelling.”

Honest stories, Hader says, must include both the dark and lighter sides of life. “Life is like that if you’re open to it. You have bright moments and terrible moments and that’s just how it works. So when you don’t have that, it feels weird. I always feel like when something’s too light, I kind of roll my eyes at it. Or if something is too serious, I roll my eyes at it.”

Casting Barry was another exercise in authenticity for Hader. He says Anthony Carrigan won the part of NoHo Hank because of the way Carrigan listened in the audition. “Sometimes people like to cut out the listening and I like to watch it. I like seeing the thought enter someone’s head. I love just sitting and watching someone behave.”

One of Barry’s casting directors, Sherry Thomas, was hired partially because she, like Hader, happened to have Winkler on her short list to play acting teacher Gene Cousineau. She came in to the interview with that list, admitting presumption, but that bold move was a sign to Hader they were on the same page.

It was a show that, by the way, Hader couldn’t believe anyone was actually watching until Barry got 13 Emmy nominations for the first season. Those accolades won’t keep him from working hard, though. Even when he’s called a “TV auteur” by the press, Hader offers, “It’s nice, but you can’t look at yourself that way. It doesn’t make you better at your job. You’ve got to just keep trying to get better.”

What he’s improving on now is point of view. As an 8-year-old boy, watching classic films with his dad, Hader realized he “was always moved by scenes that had a very strong point of view, like the scene in Taxi Driver when DeNiro’s on the phone with Cybil Shepherd after their disastrous date, and while he’s talking to her, the camera just kind of dollies off of him. It’s almost like the movie can’t watch what’s happening.”

On Barry, holding to that point of view gets harder with all the hats Hader wears. “You have to do it all as one job. You’re telling a story, then you get out of the way of it and then everything else, the acting and directing, it’s all just enhancing that point of view, that story. Every aspect of filmmaking is to harness that and to try to foster it or get out of the way of it.” Judging by his work, Bill Hader is one film nerd-turned-filmmaker who’s mastering that process.

-photos courtesy of Isabella Vosmikova/HBO

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MARTA KAUFFMAN - The Wildly Successful Producer Makes TV History, Creating Seminal Series and Iconic Characters

Posted By Peggy Jo Abraham, Monday, January 6, 2020

Producer and writer Marta Kauffman attributes the success of her mega-hit Friends and her current Netflix favorite Grace and Frankie to the fact that the shows are comfortable, exude warmth and are easy to relate to. Upon meeting Kauffman for the first time, one immediately realizes these are the same characteristics you could use to describe her. Although Kauffman says her days shooting all 16 episodes at once for the final season of Grace and Frankie is a bit like “being on a hamster wheel,” she appears calm and organized.

When asked what she would be doing if she weren’t in the entertainment industry, Kauffman says she would have probably been a teacher or a veterinarian—interesting choices, especially given the paths her three children are on. Her oldest daughter is not only a producer in Marta’s production company, but Kauffman says she was actually the one to come up with the original premise for Grace and Frankie: two women who don’t really like each other whose husbands end up getting married. Her son is a composer for the show, and her youngest daughter is an equine studies major. It’s clear the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

What is also clear is that Kauffman is grateful for her success. Hers has been a career predicated on the philosophy that it’s important to only pour your heart into projects you feel passionate about. That dedication has resulted in seminal series and iconic characters that will forever be part of television history. It is why the PGA is so proud to name Kauffman the recipient of the 2020 Norman Lear Award, the Guild’s highest honor for TV producers. “I am deeply honored to receive this award from my peers at the PGA, particularly as it's named for a legendary producer who has impacted my career from the beginning,” says Kauffman. “Thank you to the Producers Guild for this meaningful recognition.”

It is truly our pleasure, Marta.


Marta Kauffman directs Lily Tomlin on the set of Grace and Frankie

I want to start with the fact that you created you production company, Okay Goodnight!, well before the “Me Too” movement, and it’s an all-female company. What were some important factors that went into that decision?

Well, I’ve always been a feminist. And having a company that tells women’s stories was not only intriguing to me but felt necessary because women’s stories aren’t told as often as men’s stories are. When my company started, we pitched an idea that had a female lead for a film and the man we met with said to us, “Unless it’s Meryl Streep or Sandra Bullock, it’s not getting made.” So that just made me mad and I thought, “All right, I’m going to take that one on.”


In terms of parity with men, where do you think women are now in the entertainment industry?

I think it’s much better. There are more women, more opportunities, more writers’ rooms that have a good percentage of women in them. There are more female showrunners and more female producers. Where I think we run into some problems is on all the roles that used to be considered secretarial, like the script supervisor and the coordinator. They work as long of hours as anybody else and work harder than anybody I know, yet they don’t get equal pay to most of the men on the crew.


What if a man was a script supervisor?

Well, I’ve never met a male script supervisor. I’m sure they exist, but I’ve never met one. And so I don’t know.


Well, there you go. The fact that you’ve never met one is very telling.

Yes, and I’ve been doing this for a lot of years.


Turning to your work, I read that after getting involved with Grace and Frankie, you were surprised at how funny you were.  And I thought, really? Friends was so hilarious. I couldn’t fathom the fact that you wouldn’t consider yourself a truly funny writer.

I feel like my strength was never the jokes. I can write humor, but I don’t write jokes. And I feel like my strength in storytelling is the reality of the story, the shape of the story, the emotional content of that story. That’s always where I felt I have been most successful. I have a hard time calling myself a comedy writer. I think I am a generally witty person but because I don’t write jokes, I don’t think of myself that way.


Well, fair enough. But Grace and Frankie don’t tell jokes and they’re both really funny. 

But there’s a lot of people in the writers’ room, so that comes from many people.


You did Friends, and now you’ve created a show with 70- somethings, and it’s also being watched by millennials, both male and female. Who does that? How does one do that?

One does not go into it thinking that’s how it’s going to happen.  That’s for sure. I mean, when we started the show, we really thought we would have a very narrow demographic. And I think it was one that Netflix was interested in encouraging. The fact that it has reached beyond that demographic is thrilling and surprising. I think one of the things that this show does is that besides being aspirational—we all want to be like that or have a friend like that when we’re their age—it has a quality of warmth.  I think it’s comfortable. Someone once called it comfort food. And I think that is what it is. These people love each other and none of them are awful.


Were the roles of Grace and Frankie written with Jane and Lily in mind?

No, no. We had Jane and Lily first.


 Wow. How did that come about?

It was just a fluke the way this all happened. I was having lunch with Marcy Ross, who runs the TV department at Skydance. And she said that Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin want to do TV. I thought she meant together. I called my agent and I said, “Is it true that Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin want to do a TV show together?” and my agent said, “I don’t know. I’ll call you back.”  She made a bunch of phone calls, got back to me about 20 minutes later and said, “They do now.” So we had Jane and Lily first.

Kauffman and cast discuss a scene at Grace and Frankie's beach house.
Photo courtesy of Ali Goldstein/Netflix


That’s crazy because when I watch I think, “How could you write this and then find the most perfect people in every way, shape, and form?”

No, fortunately we got to do it the other way around.


Jane and her co-star Sam Waterston have been making news lately for getting arrested in D.C. while protesting climate change. Talk about relevant …

Actually, the writers and I have been talking about going to Washington to protest with them. Jane is really something. She puts her money where her mouth is, and she’s amazing. She doesn’t stop. She’s the Energizer Bunny.


What is the biggest challenge of working on all 13 episodes of Grace and Frankie at once?

We start with preproduction which means we start with the writers. And that’s all it is for the first 10 weeks—the writers trying to figure out how this is going to work, what’s the arc going to be, what’s the through line, what’s the theme, how do we shape the season. And once we start production, we’re also doing post. So, the process for me, who is here from the beginning of preproduction to the end of post, it takes about a year to do all of the episodes. This season will be even longer because we’re doing 16 episodes. I have a notebook I use and every morning I write down what I have to do for the day. And I can’t tell you how many days I have something to do on every single episode.


So that’s the new normal with streaming now, right?  I mean, that’s not how you did Friends.

No, it’s not how we did Friends. First of all, Friends was multi-camera, which is a little different. And the schedule was different too. There was a hiatus every three weeks so that we could catch up. As far as this goes, it’s like being on a hamster wheel a little bit. Once you get started there is no stopping until it’s finished. It’s a crazy, wonderful, jam-packed day.


It sounds exhausting.

It is a long day. And as executive producer/showrunner, I do a bit of everything. I have to check costumes. I have to go to post.  I have to do a spotting session for music. And we’re still writing this episode while we’re rewriting that episode. Plus going onto the set for all the rehearsals and all the masters.


There is so much multitasking involved.

It is a lot of multitasking, and it’s actually an area where I’m hoping that between the Writers Guild and the Producers Guild, we can figure out a way to give a showrunner a different title.  Because executive producer seems to be a title that goes to a number of people who don’t function like this in a day-to-day way. But people like to get the executive producer credit, and it’s the only credit we have. So, I have that credit, and then there are people who have that credit who don’t fulfill that role. It’s a little frustrating.


How involved are you with the music on the show? I think it’s so good.

Oh, thank you. We spot the music with the composers. We listen to every cue. We give notes on every cue. And then we have to do the mix playback where we listen to all the cues and all the sound as well. We’re involved every step of the way.


Here we are 15 years after Friends ended, and it’s still this huge commodity. An entirely new generation is watching. How are they different from the original audience in the way they view the show?

Well, I think one of the big differences is—and I think it was David Crane who said this—if the show were to be done today, they’d all be sitting on the couch on their phones. Young people are enjoying the warmth, the conversation and the shared experiences. My youngest daughter is 20. When she was about 15, someone at her school said to her, “Have you seen that new show called Friends?” They thought it was a period piece. So that’s also how they’re looking at it, like it’s from another time frame. It too is aspirational and extremely identifiable. You can identify with the characters. You can identify with what they want, as opposed to some of the darker comedies, which are harder to invest in emotionally.


And it’s still funny.

Yeah, I hope so. [LAUGHS]


I recently read where Jennifer Aniston joined Instagram with just one photo, from one reunion dinner, on one night, and 812  million people viewed it. She set a Guinness World Record!

That is unbelievable. As you said, they are still in the zeitgeist.

Photo and lead photo by Kremer Johnson Photography


It was common knowledge back in the day that when the cast was renegotiating its salary, they were negotiating as one entity for the leverage it brought to the table. It was a unique situation at the time.

I think it was more than just for the leverage. I also think it was because they were an ensemble and deserved to be treated equally. You know, one shouldn’t make more than another in an ensemble cast. So, the fact that they were negotiating as a group, I thought was great.


So even though it might cost you more money, you were good with it?

I thought it was fantastic. I thought it’s exactly what it should be. It didn’t make negotiating any easier. But we got through it.


Is there a character you’ve created who you most identify with?

I’m a real combination of Grace and Frankie. So, I identify with pieces of them very strongly. But I think it’s Monica. I can be bossy, too. And I can also be anal about things like making you hear the click when you close your marker. Marshmallows in concentric circles on the sweet potatoes. Stuff like that.


I’d say being a combo of Grace and Frankie is not a bad thing to be.



When you started Grace and Frankie, what was the toughest part of writing without your longtime collaborator, David Crane?

After working with him for 27 years, this was like a whole new profession. David and I wrote everything together. He always sat at the keyboard. I felt like I wrote out loud. When I had to write my first script by myself, I had to have conversations with myself, like, “Is this a stupid idea?” Then, “Yeah, Marta, that’s really dumb.” I felt like I had to imitate that dynamic. I’ve gotten better at it. I don’t need to do that anymore. I’ve learned that I have certain rhythms which I didn’t know before, that I have rhythms in my writing. I have to sort of ride these waves of inspiration and then I have to walk away from it for a little bit and let things percolate, and then I go back to it. It was definitely a difficult transition. But I have to be honest—it would have been worse if I lost him as a friend. He’s still my dearest, dearest friend.


Now Grace and Frankie is the longest-running series on Netflix.

That’s right. It will be when it’s over.


Can you talk about what that distinction means?

Well, they don’t do long-term series anymore. Everything is three seasons and out. So, we feel it’s very special that we have that to claim.


Looking ahead, what do you have in the pipeline? Are you interested in writing a dramatic series at all?

Yes. As a matter of fact, we wrote a film based on a book called We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which is quirky but it’s dramatic. We’re working on another project that’s dramatic, and a one-hour that’s a comedic drama. And we’re developing a pilot about drag queen nuns.


Drag queen nuns?

Yes. It’s based on a real order called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Obviously, they’re not accepted by the Catholic Church, but they do all the good work that nuns do. And it’s really fun.


So you’re fine with going in any direction.

I am. I’m good with any of it as long as I feel passionately about the project. That is what we look for, not just to get a bunch of stuff on the air, although that’s nice too. But it’s really the stuff that we are deeply passionate about because you work too hard not to be invested.


Is that a luxury you have now due to your past success?

Actually, I’ve always felt this way. This isn’t something that’s new. When David and I were doing Friends, we realized back then that when the projects weren’t from our hearts, they never turned out as well. And that to me is the big lesson. If you aren’t wholly invested in your soul, it’s never going to be as good as if you are.

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University of Scorsese - Emma Tillinger Koskoff Learns From A Master How To Bring Humanity To Her Productions

Posted By Sarah Sanders, Friday, January 3, 2020

“Lead with kindness.” These aren’t the words I was expecting to be the guiding philosophy of the woman best known as “Martin Scorsese’s producer”—the woman behind such dark, gritty blockbusters as The Wolf of Wall Street and The Departed. But from the moment she says hello, it’s clear producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff not only values but also embodies a genuine kindness. She’s in Manhattan for the New York Film Festival, where The Irishman and Joker both had premieres, and when we meet in her hotel suite, she’s just raced back from a morning screening. Despite her packed schedule, Koskoff is warm and welcoming, and by the end of our conversation I feel as though I’m talking to someone I’ve known for a long time.

This warmth becomes less surprising the more Koskoff talks about her work philosophy, and how relationships and human connection are of paramount importance. Indeed, for the past 17 years, her working relationship with Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese has been at the center of her career. Koskoff worked as his executive assistant for three years and in 2006 was promoted to President of Production for Sikelia Productions. She now works alongside Scorsese on all aspects of his film and television projects.

“I will say I have the greatest gig in town,” Koskoff says. “I've been so fortunate to be raised and mentored by Marty in this job. He’s so giving and patient. He’s extremely demanding,” she adds. “He has taught me so much, so it’s been 17 years of growth and a great learning process. It’s like my own private film school.”

Koskoff never went to traditional film school. From the time she was in high school, she knew she wanted to start working in entertainment right away. “I knew that I did not want to go to college. I knew that I did not want to go to film school. I knew that I wanted to just get out and get into the workforce,” she says. “My father's a theater director. My mother's an actress, writer, director. So this is in my DNA. And now, I feel like the luckiest producer.”

Over the course of the years, Koskoff and Scorsese have built a meaningful relationship and learned how to work together really well. In addition to handling the production demands of their films, she prioritizes protecting Scorsese and his creative process. “My main focus, and what I pride myself on, is putting the support team around him and help make the shoot, the edit and the post as safe and secure as possible for him,” she says. “I always want to be able to give Marty the freedom to create and do what he does.”

Balancing creative and logistical demands was both a joy and a challenge throughout work on The Irishman. The star-studded film brings together a legendary cast including Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci—and marks not only a reunion for De Niro, Pesci and Scorsese, but also the first time Pacino and the director have worked together. According to production notes, The Irishman is “an epic saga of organized crime in post-war America told through the eyes of World War II veteran Frank Sheeran, a hustler and hitman who worked alongside some of the most notorious figures of the 20th century.” Koskoff loved the screenplay and working with the cast. Further, the idea of the film had been De Niro’s passion project for a long time, which added an extra special element to the process. “To be able to help him see that come to life was just very moving and amazing,” she says.

Even though Koskoff and Scorsese are no strangers to giant films, the scale of The Irishman was immense: It spans 50 years, and production involved 320 scenes in 117 locations. “It’s always challenging making a film,” she explains, but “this was particularly challenging, just given the amount of days, the scope and size of what we were doing.”

Scorsese apparently agreed. She recounts with a smile how he “would come to the set sometimes and say, ‘Who are all these people? What are all these trucks doing here? What is going on? Emma, this is not how you make a movie!’ And I would laugh and say, ‘Remember  though, we are carrying nine cameras at all times because we're shooting digital, and we're shooting film. Marty, that’s three camera crews! It’s a lot of people! This is how we’re making this movie!’” she says. “And he’d go, ‘Ugh, this is crazy!’ and then he’d go off laughing.”

In the midst of such a complicated production, it was especially important to Koskoff to ensure that Scorsese and the actors had the space and time they needed to do their creative work, and to be “malleable to the needs of the actors,” who were diving into intense, dramatic roles.

“I'll always err on the side of the human needs as opposed to the production demands,” she says, while also acknowledging that she’s deeply involved in handling all of those aspects, from budgeting to scheduling. “I'll always figure out how to compensate on that [the production] side to make sure Marty and the actors have what they need,” she explains. “Whether that’s making difficult phone calls to add a day, or whatever I have to sort of handle so that it’s handled, I’m happy and willing to do it.”

Still, not even the best preparation or negotiations can account for the weather, an element that has made for some of the most memorable days of Koskoff’s and Scorsese’s shoots. She tells the story of one particular day shooting The Irishman during a February cold snap when the windchill brought the temperature to below zero. They were by the water in Red Hook, Brooklyn, shooting a scene in which De Niro and actor Bo Dietl push taxi cabs into the river. “It was so cold, I can’t even tell you,” she exclaims, even with hot-air blowers they had brought to try to keep people warm. “I literally put on my ski gear: my ski pants, my winter boots, my ski jacket, my face mask.”

“It was a big scene,” she explains, involving a crane, choreography from DP Rodrigo Pietro—and a three-hour reset to get the taxicabs out of the river in case they didn’t get the shot. “You know, with Marty, if it's not the way he wants it, we’re doing it again,” she says. “And we got the shot.”

While that day was difficult, Koskoff says nothing compares to shooting 2016’s Silence, a film Scorsese had been wanting to make for nearly 30 years, and which was shot entirely in Taiwan. “That was a beast. It was an incredibly difficult film to put together. I remember saying to him, ‘It’s you and me: We can't call LA when we get into trouble. We've got a finite amount of money. We've got a finite amount of time,’” she recalls. But Scorsese “was an incredible producing partner to me. I had to have tough conversations, we had to make tough choices, and we did it together.”

The most challenging of those days? Driving up a mountain at 4:30 a.m., preparing for a giant scene involving many background actors and getting a call that there was a downpour so torrential that the extras’ tents had blown off the side of the mountain. There was lightning, and the whole set was flooded—and the scene they were shooting was meant to be on a hot, dry day. “That's a situation where you have to just go with go with it,” she explains, though she did briefly consider calling it a day. “But we got up there, the rain stopped, the lightning stopped, we got those tents back up, and we made our day.”

Indeed, the work required to produce Silence made the project all the more meaningful to her. “My blood, sweat and tears went into that film, and I am so proud of that movie,” she says. It was the first time she felt secure in the knowledge that “I got this. I actually can produce a film,” she explains. “Somebody was saying I have imposter syndrome—you know, ‘They’re going to find out I don’t really know what I’m doing.’ But that really gave me a level of confidence that I didn’t have before.”

Koskoff was met with a new kind of challenge working on Joker: producing with someone other than Scorsese. She met Joker director Todd Phillips a couple of years ago. The two hit it off, and initially Scorsese’s production company was interested in making the film. While Scorsese ultimately was not able to be involved due to scheduling constraints, when Phillips asked Koskoff to stay on and her own schedule allowed, Scorsese gave her the go-ahead.

“It was quite terrifying,” she says. “I was very nervous. I sort of second-guessed myself. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I shouldn't be doing this. I don't really know what I'm doing … I don't know that I really know how to produce for somebody else.’” However, after some encouragement from her dear friend—producer and manager Rick Yorn—and her husband, Nick, Koskoff agreed. Phillips was “extremely supportive and welcoming and nurturing and championing,” she says, and working on the movie was a great experience.

Koskoff's 17 years with Scorsese have been, she says, "like my own private film school."
-photo courtesy of Niko Tavernise-

“It was another film that really gave me a level of confidence that I didn't have,” she explains. “I have a lot of insecurities and I have a lot to learn, and I know that. I’m confident in my ability in what I do, so I’m confident in the room. But I'm also not afraid to be vulnerable and to ask for help when I need it, and to lean on people when I need it. I make sure to surround myself with the best of the best because I stand on many, many shoulders.”

In fact, an element of working on Joker that Koskoff valued was being able to hire and bring along several crew members she had worked with before, including AD David Webb, with whom Phillips had been wanting to work for years. She’s very close to the crew members, explaining, “I’m attached at the hip to the line producer and the AD and the DP.”

Making sure the crew is happy is something Koskoff takes very seriously. “I want the crew to feel just as important as the actors and the director, and just as well taken care of. That's sort of how I like to operate, and I do operate,” she explains. “I’m a big fan of food trucks, a big fan of spoiling my crew, a big fan of, you know, Friday night wrap drinks,” she says. “It’s gonna be hard work, so let’s make it as much fun as it can be.” 

When I ask what she does for herself to decompress at the end of a long day, Koskoff is quick with her response: “I love to have a big, tall glass of red wine. Maybe two,” she says. She loves to sit in the trailer with her team and recap the day, “take a deep breath, and get ready to do it all again,” she adds.

It seems like Koskoff will have many more days to “do it all again.” She’s currently preparing to shoot Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon in Oklahoma over the summer.

No matter how busy or stressful a day may be, though, Koskoff insists that having empathy is a vital element of producing. “Really try and keep your humanity,” she says. “Everybody is a human being. Everybody is there to do the same thing. Lead with kindness, lead with authority, lead with confidence. But most importantly, lead with kindness.”

Words to live by, on and off a film set.

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Taking A Long View of Short-Form - Quibi and Others Are Counting On An Appetite For Mobile TV

Posted By Chris Thomes, Monday, December 9, 2019

In a world where it feels like there can never be enough content to satiate the ravenous “I want what I want when I want it” viewer, it seems that any content—even nontraditional programming—can find its legs and make a go of it. However, there is one area of programming that has yet to actually make it over the top of the hill without rolling back—which it has many, many times—premium small-screen programming.  

I have written about this format for the past several years, and the story is always the same. A wave of enthusiasm comes along, investment happens, jobs are created, content is produced, and then, without a sustainable business model, it all unravels. This wash, rinse, repeat cycle has included the wrecked ships of Disney’s Stage 9 and Maker Studios, Go90, Machinema and Vessel. While all of these platforms have tried and failed to find an audience for short-form video programming, it looks like “groundhog’s day” may actually be coming to an end. With a very serious $1 billion-plus programming budget, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman’s premium short-form platform, Quibi, leads this latest run at the windmill.

As a refresher, mobile content of this ilk is under 14 minutes, has high production value, is original or derivative in nature, and often serialized. Most of it to date has been lifestyle programming. Very rarely has scripted short-form made a go of it, but it did have its day a few years back. Spurred on by the launches of streaming services and content slates like Seeso, Fullscreen, ABC’s ABCd, and Comcast’s Watchable, dozens of short-form content studios emerged to capitalize on the voracious appetite for stories told in 10- to 15-minute increments. But the market was short-lived, as subscribers failed to materialize and digital advertising competition from Google and Facebook made it hard to recoup budgets.

However, as mobile consumption continues to grow, Hollywood’s digital producers have been turning their attention to a new crop of potential buyers with increasingly deeper pockets. Over the last two years, the major streamers (Netflix, Amazon and Hulu) started experimenting with show formats and lengths. Amazon funded Funny or Die’s short films, Netflix funded new episodes of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (which range from nine to 23 minutes each), and even Hulu started to populate ancillary short-form programming alongside its related main shows in the extras section.

Driving this momentum for the streamers is the notion that short-form series have started to become a cost-effective way to keep fickle young viewers engaged between, say, new seasons of Stranger Things or The Handmaid’s Tale. The average cost of a digital project is typically about $10,000 per minute, but that can stretch higher than $20,000 if a project or the talent (actors, writers, director) warrants. Those budgets might have been more than the digital ad market could bear in the early, sponsor-supported days of short-form, but they are a fraction of the billions of dollars that Netflix and other streamers spend on programming every year.

Professional organizations are also starting to recognize the seriousness of the short-form market. Our own PGA now honors short-form with its Outstanding Digital Series award, and the Television Academy has several Emmy categories for short-form programs including animation, drama, comedy, variety, and actress and actor in a short-form drama or comedy series.

All of this interest is dwarfed, though, by Quibi’s investment in the space.

Initially, Katzenberg raised nearly $600 million from investors to put up a shingle for his new digital media and technology investment firm WndrCo in early 2017. Then, at the tail end of 2018, having teamed up with former eBay CEO Whitman, Katzenberg launched Quibi, a short-form, mobile-based subscription streaming service that debuts next year.

With $1 billion in backing initially from the likes of Disney, WarnerMedia, Fox, Viacom and NBCU, among others, Katzenberg and Whitman started with a lot of muscle. And their approach has moxie, too. At the Produced By Conference this past June, Whitman touted that “We’re the first OTT service launched without acquiring a library,” which means all that investment will disappear pretty quickly as they ready their service for debut.

Quibi isn’t the only major player investing in this space. Former Lionsgate co-COO and Motion Picture Group co-president Steve Beeks and former Fox Division president Mike Dunn have launched Elemental Content And Solutions, a new short-form production and distribution company that will be a fulcrum for funding and creating live action and animated series, told in three- to five-minute segments. Like Quibi, they are betting the 18–34 demo will spark to a new way of consuming content—that is, in short bites.

Quibi will drop videos in seven-to 10-minute chunks, which is very similar to the 11-minute segments on television today in between ads. As with TV, monetization will come from advertising, but there will be no more than 2 ½ minutes’ worth of ads in an hour. There will be a 15-second ad pre-roll for a five- to 10-minute session, and for those less than five minutes, there will be less than a five-second ad.

Elemental’s content is shorter in length and its initial focus will be to align with mobile telecommunications carriers in high-growth international markets whose youthful customers are clamoring for such content. The early emphasis is overseas in Asia, South America and Europe, and their intention is to launch programming slates with those international carriers by the first half of next year.

While all of this sounds well and good, for the producer looking to capitalize on this market opportunity, there are some serious things to consider.


Is there a potential market for it? Absolutely.

Mobile video consumption continues to rise. Quibi’s bet is that it will have the ability to grab a percentage of viewers who are willing to pay for programming that’s far superior to YouTube and other social platforms. And with the general trend of consumers paying for streaming content, Quibi executives feel like they have a great shot at capturing on-the-go viewers. Their thinking is that if there are people who are watching more than an hour of video on their mobile devices every day, it’s not that crazy to believe that Quibi can get 2% to 4% of those consumers to a paid experience.

What are the deals like? Surprisingly generous.

Quibi’s deals are great for studios, but not necessarily for Quibi. As part of its deals, Quibi pays the cost of a show, plus a 20% production fee. For this, Quibi exclusively licenses the content in bite-size viewing form for seven years, after which the rights revert back to the creators and producers. But crucially, after two years on the service, creators will be able to edit the short-form version into one feature-length project and can sell the rights to international buyers. This innovative IP ownership model has upsides for both producers and platforms and stands in stark contrast to a streamer like Netflix, which takes all global rights for long periods of time. For producers, short-form has always felt challenging in terms of revenue streams, but Quibi offers a way to break out of that with potential real value for the producer and distributor.

Is there revenue to be had? People are starting to bet on it.

According to reports out this past July, Quibi has already booked $100 million in upfront ad deals from advertisers including Google, Procter & Gamble, Walmart and PepsiCo. Quibi’s starry and well-funded commissions give a clear sense of its ambition in the short-form market, while backing from both investors and advertisers suggests a high degree of confidence that it has the right ingredients to captivate audiences and generate impressions.

Does the viewer actually want short-form? That’s the million-dollar question.

Short-form, premium content may have the wind pointing in the right direction, but astute producers will wonder if it’s really filling a consumer need. Do people actually want premium short-form? Well, you could ask the same thing about the iPhone. There were plenty of mobile devices out there before the iPhone came along. What Apple did was make people want the iPhone. They created the desire for it by portraying it as a cultural phenomenon and tapping into the consumer’s sense of a cool factor.

Changing consumer behavior is not easy, and it takes a lot of money to create programming consumers will watch not just once, but many times—and hopefully recommend to friends. It will also take a lot of money to market it as a mainstream choice, something sorely missing from prior short-form efforts. Quibi and others are well aware of the hurdles, but they’re hoping their investments will get the train over the hill. And even if there is no consumer appetite yet, these new ventures are going to do their best to make you hungry.

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