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ZEN and the Art of Showrunning - Chris Brancato Is a Hot Property Who Knows How To Keep His Cool

Posted By Sarah Sanders, Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Im a little intimidated as I wait to meet Chris Brancato in his Greenpoint office. The room is large and full of sunlight, with a striking view of the New York City skyline visible over warehouse rooftops, and Im not quite sure what to expect from the man best known for co-creating the gritty Netflix crime drama Narcos. His desk is topped with a nameplate that reads DO EPIC SHIT, and his bookshelf is full of books including the World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Gangsters of Harlem.

As soon as Brancato walks in, though, I am put at ease by his warm handshake and eagerness to talk about his work. The books are there for research on his current show, the Epix series Godfather of Harlem, set to premiere this fall. Brancato and his team are hard at work on postproduction, and his passion for the show is palpable and contagious.

“At the very beginning, Godfather of Harlem suggests a tradition of gangster dramas,” he says, but it’s made with an angle that “makes it feel just a little bit different than any mob show you’ve ever seen,” even as it draws inspiration from classics like Goodfellas and The Godfather. The series, which is inspired by true events, revolves around crime boss Bumpy Johnson, played by Forest Whitaker, and his friendship with Malcolm X.

“The initial concept of the show—the vision—was: This is about the collision of the criminal underworld and the civil rights movement in early ’60s Harlem. Those two things, criminal underworld and civil rights, usually don’t go in the same sentence,” he says. This collision, in addition to making for a compelling pitch to network executives, allows Brancato and the team to explore themes that are not only historically significant, but also resonant today.

Brancato and Forest Whitaker on the set of Godfather of Harlem.
Whitaker stars as crime boss Bumpy Johnson.


Brancato with Chazz Palminteri, who portrays the character
known as Bonano.


Brancato with Giancarlo Esposito who plays Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

“How do we use this friendship to create an examination of civil rights?” he asks, explaining that Godfather of Harlem sets out to look at the tropes of the traditional mob show through the “prism of crime” as a method of social mobility. “That’s what the show really is,” Brancato says. “It’s an examination of how different social groups—Italian, Black, German, Irish—move through an economic ladder to political, social, cultural significance.”

The show also draws many implicit parallels between events of the 1960s and current news. “We’re not trying to be on the nose about it, but we’re just simply depicting stuff that happened then that hasn’t changed all that much,” Brancato explains. He names a few of those issues: “An opioid crisis of immense proportions. A political divide in this country between right and left. Fight for political representation. Police brutality. The beginning of a social movement that’s similar to Black Lives Matter, in terms of not only the civil rights movement, but specific protests against violence against Black kids in Harlem. So what we have is a show that’s making a commentary about a lot of stuff that we’re dealing with today, but has the safe remove of distance.”

When Brancato invites me into one of several editing rooms, I watch as he works with an editor to fine-tune a clip of an interaction between Bumpy Johnson and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (played by Giancarlo Esposito). The few seconds I see are of a conversation about tenant rights and money in politics—topics that are as relevant as ever in New York City.

This kind of analysis comes naturally to Brancato, who studied history at Brown University. “I was a history major in college, so research and using research to support writing has always been part and parcel of my development as a writer,” he says. For Godfather of Harlem, Brancato and his team read a lot and conducted interviews with people in Harlem who knew the real Bumpy Johnson. The writing process for Brancato is “a combination of researched historiography, interviews with some of the players or people who knew the players, and the requirements of dramatic scene construction.” He adds, however, that it took him awhile in his career to come to projects and subjects that let him do this kind of work.

When I ask if being a showrunner was always his ultimate destination in the industry, Brancato laughs. Well my ultimate destination in this business was trying to make a living and put food on the table. When he first came to Hollywood in the 90s, he most wanted to work on feature films, as television wasnt known for the kind of excellence it is today. But in an effort to get whatever work he could, he pursued jobs in both film and television. He gradually learned more about the role of the showrunner, which did not have the kind of visibility it does now, and was drawn to the combination of writing and producing that the job involves. Youre actually really in charge of a massive endeavor, he says. Not just a two-hour movie, but a multiple-hour show, and youre the creative arbiter of the final product as much as the feature film director is arbiter of the final product in feature.

So Brancato decided to focus on showrunning for both artistic and pragmatic reasons. “I was trying to ensure my own longevity in the business,” he says, by pursuing a position where he thought there would be more job opportunities. “And then what happened, somewhat through dumb luck, is that feature films became $200 million tentpoles, and television—because of the technological advances and the streaming services and the multiplicity of channels—television suddenly became the place where you were making interesting, deep, character-exploration stuff.

“And so my decision to focus on showrunning turned out to be a good one creatively,” he says. (Actually, Brancato is no stranger to film. His writing credits include such features as 1997’sHoodlumand the upcomingSherlock Holmes 3, starring Robert Downey Jr.)

At this point in his career, Brancato seems confident in his understanding of showrunning. “When people ask me what it is at its core, I say it’s a benevolent dictatorship. There does have to be a decider, a person who’s weighing choices and trying to have the rhythm and the music of the show in their head … And, well, I created the show, or I co-created it, so I guess I’m the decider. I decide what sounds discordant or what sounds in harmony. And that’s a subjective judgment. I’m not always right.”

Brancato explains that for him, showrunning has four components: script development, preproduction, production and postproduction. In a typical day, he will be involved in all four of those at once—by, for example, giving notes on postproduction editing for one episode, visiting the set as another is shot, and rewriting the script for the one that’s shooting the next day. “You’re besieged at all times by questions and problems from all aspects,” he says. Rather than getting overwhelmed by the multitude of problems, though, Brancato insists that another crucial aspect of showrunning is remaining calm, understanding that problems are foundational to the job. “I realize the job is problems. The job is a never-ending succession of creative questions, problems, challenges to be solved. And if you get yourself emotional about the never-ending avalanche of problems, you’re not gonna be able to do the job well. So you have to try to maintain a zen-like calm most of the time.”

Those managerial responsibilities fall into the producing side of the showrunning, while the artistic decisions are also informed by the writing side. “There’s two different heads you wear as a showrunner. One is a writer head: introspective, interior, quiet, mousy. The other is producer: aggressive, tough, decisive. So you have to balance those.” 

While Brancato acknowledges that wearing both of those hats is a lot of work (and not for everybody), he also stresses the importance of delegating and speaks glowingly of his colleagues. “You’re hiring experts, all of whom are more talented at their respective fields than you are, and you’re trying to convey to them the vision of what the show is, what it looks like, with an allowance for them to add their own expertise, their own ideas, to push the boundaries of how you see your show—and then to accomplish it together, in collaboration.” Brancato believes it is important to trust his own gut instincts, while also allowing for his vision to be expanded by collaborators, whether they’re department heads or other writers. 

“Building a writing staff is always about finding component parts who do things as a writer better than you, so that you are supporting your own weaknesses,” he explains. Nothing makes him happier than reading a draft of a script from a writer and thinking, “Oh my God, they write the show better than I do!” he says with a smile. “That feeling does not inspire fear and jealousy. It inspires, how can I make that writer more comfortable? Can I give them an all-expenses-paid weekend away?” Again, that response comes from practicality as well as artistic generosity: a draft of a script that he thinks is excellent that can also be shot is good for the show as a whole.

Brancato’s balance of creative vision and pragmatism is maybe most apparent in his approach to pitching a series to networks. Here he is adamant that just having a good idea isn’t enough to actually get a show on the air. While the multiplicity of channels and sheer number of interesting shows available could make it seem like it’s easy to sell a good series in today’s “golden age” of television, Brancato insists that notion is false. “It’s actually harder to sell a series and get it on the air perhaps than it’s ever been,” he says. “Every executive—and I’ve grown up with most of these people over the last 30 years—has heard every pitch, in every incarnation. There’s almost no pitch you could ever give them that they haven’t heard in some way, shape or form. So how do you get it to on air, as opposed to in development?” The answer, he maintains, is to create a tsunami: a combination of factors, from the concept to the actors and producers involved, that together create something a network executive will not only be excited about, but also afraid to ignore. “The only way to get you [a network executive] to say yes is to make you terrified to say no—to make you worry that your competitor’s going to get that show. It’s not actually just about creating a good idea. It’s about creating that tsunami.”

And Godfather of Harlem did indeed create that perfect storm, bringing the shows unique premise, Forest Whitakers celebrity, and a full script developed by Brancato and Paul Eckstein together into a pitch that the newly appointed Epix president, Michael Wright, agreed to. Its reminding yourself always that it is a team effort, Brancato says of showrunning. You have to have a lot of humility. Youre very lucky to have been granted the money to do the show. Youre lucky to have all these talented people working on it. And now its off to the editing room. After all, Brancatos day is just getting started.


- Feature photography by Noah Fecks
- Set photos courtesy of David Lee/Epix

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NINA YANG BONGIOVI - Producing with Passion and Purpose

Posted By Peggy Jo Abraham, Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Her smile comes readily, but dont be mistakenher mission is dead serious. Nina Yang Bongiovi is a champion of filmmakers and a directors best friend, especially if that director is a woman, a person of color or both. Its definitely a long journey from Taiwan to East L.A., and one could argue its an equally long trek from there to Hollywood success. Bongiovi has navigated these waters with a fearless spirit and razor-sharp instincts, while facing devastating personal setbacks along the way. Both the professional roadblocks and family losses have given her a healthy perspective on her career as a producer. She does not sweat the small stuff now. And recognizing that its all mostly small stuff is, in her mind, a huge gift.

Bongiovi has an uncanny track record when it comes to believing in talent—often first-time or relatively unknown directors. Can you say Ryan Coogler? When she first met the director, he was still in graduate school, and Bongiovi says no one was giving someone like him a shot at success. Today she speaks of the “Coogler effect”—the fact that now so many people are looking for “the next Ryan Coogler.” This makes Bongiovi laugh, but she is also genuinely proud of having been part of that change, where Hollywood is more willing to be open to new, untested filmmakers.

This passionate producer has found the perfect business partner in Forest Whitaker. From an unlikely trip to China togetherwhen the two didnt even know each otherto the formation of their Significant Productions banner, they share an enthusiasm for diversity, in both subject matter and collaborators. Together they have been ahead of the curve, recognizing the need for inclusion before it was commonplace. But as Bongiovi puts it, they operate quietly, helping unknown or struggling filmmakers pursue their dreams.

The unwavering support she offers and the fierce belief in her directors are what set this executive apart. There are producers and there are pillars of strength. Nina Yang Bongiovi is both.

 

When you first thought about entering the entertainment industry, was producing a goal of yours?

I grew up predominantly in East Los Angeles, and I don’t think any of us were told that you can pursue a career in entertainment and in Hollywood. And even though the proximity is only about 20 miles away, we weren’t afforded that awareness—that you could pursue a producing career. So I would say no.

When I first got into the industry, I was in grad school at USC, and I got a job as an analyst in marketing and media research. Right away I knew this is not what I wanted to do. I wanted to make movies and I wasn’t even close to my goals with this corporate job. I knew by the time I graduated, I needed to make the move into the production realm.

I started as an assistant to an action director in Hong Kong, and then we ended up moving to Shanghai to continue working on films and television shows. So that was my first foray into the world of moviemaking—martial arts/action films.

 

What made you even consider working in the industry?

I thought I was going to be a journalist at one point. I remember at a very young age my mother said (in Mandarin), “You should be a news anchor.” That’s because when my family immigrated to this country, my mom watched Connie Chung on TV. She thought, “That’s a good choice for you.” It was because Connie was the one Asian American image for us as a family in America. That’s the closest I would say that the “entertainment industry” came into the fold. Fortunately my mom didn’t push me to be a doctor, lawyer or a scientist like what’s most expected from Asian families.

 

What was your first aha moment, when it dawned on you that you were actually a producer?

Well, I think there are levels of it. There’s the point where you’re thinking, “I need to be a producer. I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m going to do it and figure this out.” That first aha moment was when I was working on the Hong Kong films, and I was always in such awe of the action sequences. And I was like, “Man, the action is so good. If they only had a good script.” [LAUGHS] Then I thought, “I wonder what that process is.” But while I’m there, I’m just breathing in everything because I love the actual production aspects of making a movie. So I was enthralled with everyone’s roles on the crew.

 

At that point, did you think about becoming a writer and writing your own scripts?

I never thought of myself as a writer. I just thought putting together a project would be so incredibly exciting, but daunting at the same time with not knowing what it takes.

 

But you thought like a producer. 

Yes, now reflecting back

 

And you thought it would be a much better movie if it had a good script.

Exactly. But I didn’t have a say in the early development process. I was just an assistant to a director. I was getting tea and heating up soup. I thought if I was a producer, then I would have a say. I could go after projects I wanted to see on screen and put them together. I was very naive at that time, but it was a lofty goal.

Cut to 10 years later is when I really felt I was a producer. So from the time I started as an assistant to a director and then trying to figure out what producing was about, raising money, “producing” random projects here and there, I had never felt I was a real producer. I always felt a bit insecure about what it really takes to make a great film. It was an educational process.

Sometimes I would say I failed for the first 10 years of my career. But friends would tell me, “No. You didn’t. That’s your learning curve.” And it took me quite a while to understand that, but I never gave up on wanting to become a bonafide producer. Fruitvale Station was the first film I felt where I was able to drive something from inception all the way to the end and support an incredible filmmaker, Ryan Coogler, at the same time.

 

As a producer, what do you see as your main role, your most critical function?

I think the most critical function is to champion the filmmaker, to support the vision of the director that I have chosen to work with, or I have pursued to work with. And I need to do everything in my power to make that vision come through in the most resourceful way possible, balancing art and commerce.

 

No wonder people want to work with you.

[LAUGHS]

 

How did you first connect with Forest Whitaker?

I first connected with Forest in 2009. It was an adoption story, a movie that I wanted to produce in China to address racism, prejudice and cultural differences. I didn’t know it was a subject matter that actually appealed to him. I worked with a friend on a spec script that spoke about those issues, about an interracial couple going to China to adopt a Chinese baby. She’s Chinese, he’s black, and it deals with anti-black sentiment and discrimination they faced when they traveled there.

I made an offer to Forest’s agent at WME and thought, “I’m going to make an offer to Forest Whitaker, who just won the Oscar not that long ago. Maybe I’m delusional!”

 

Bold.

Yes, bold or blind faith. I submitted an offer backed by a financier, and Forest actually read the script and called me. I was quite intimidated. And he said, “I really love the story and what you’re trying to say here, but the script isn’t strong enough … I can help you.” And I’m thinking, “Who are you?!” I remember saying, “I don’t have the funds to hire another writer. I’m not sure what we can do.” And he told me, “I have a couple friends who are top screenwriters, and I’ll see if one of them is interested in supporting the project.” During that time he asked me when I was going back to China, and I told him I would be going back soon.

 

I read that was because you were dealing with some family issues.

Yes. My mom passed away, and then a year later my sister also passed away. It was a very dark time for me, so I was really going to see my family. My brothers were there. My dad was there. I was pretending that I was going to do work and research, but actually I was really depressed. And Forest says, “I’ll come with you.” And I’m like, “OK” and in my head, “Yikes.”

 

And didnt that blow you away?

Yes. It blew me away because I’m thinking he’s an A-list star who won the Academy Award for The Last King of Scotland. And he’s helping me with a story that I want to tell.

 

He obviously believed in the story.

He believed in the purpose. Thinking about it, every movie we’ve produced to date possesses a certain statement about race, culture and class. And so now it doesn’t surprise me, but at that time I was thinking, “What is happening?” And I actually thought, maybe my mom and my sister sent me an angel to help me in my career that I was so down about, because I felt like I was failing on so many levels.

Nina Bongiovi and Lakeith Stanfield on the set of Sorry to Bother You, winner of an independent Spirit Award.


So he didn
t know at all about what had transpired with your family before you got there?
 

No, not until we got to China. We spent some time together and I talked about it. And I think he’s so intuitive that he probably knew I was clinically depressed. He had a lot of empathy, but he didn’t feel sorry for me. It was more like he understood because he’s a very spiritual man. And then he also got to spend time with my dad and a couple of my childhood friends.

And what’s great is, when we went to Shanghai, many friends from my early production days resided there. And they said, “We got you. You come with Forest. We’ll take care of you. We’ll show him the city. We’ll show him how we work here. We’ll take care of him.”

So Forest was well taken care of by my old team from Hong Kong. And he had a great time. It was kind of scrappy, and I was hoping he didn’t mind, and he didn’t. I didn’t know him well enough then to know that he’s such a kind soul.

 

But just that he made the offer to come in the first place was some sort of indication of who he was as a person.

Yes. And I think he was very interested in the culture. He hadn’t been to China, and he wanted to see for himself what kind of issues I talked about in the story when it comes to prejudices and discrimination. He wanted to experience what it was like being a black man in China. But everyone was pretty kind to him because he’s Forest Whitaker. [LAUGHS]

  

Do you think with talk of racism and diversity in the headlines so much, that it makes it easier or harder to put together a film that deals with these topics?

Overall it’s still a struggle to get films and projects starring people of color and/or with directors of color green-lit or financed, especially with certain subject matters. We collectively have to operate at an excellent level when it comes to storytelling, scripts and vision, so if something produced is mediocre, we’re easily categorized as a niche and that niche isn’t worth betting on.

So I think it makes all of us, my peers who are in the same space, hyperconscious of what we have to do to continue to elevate what we produce. Because it’s too easy for the marketplace to say, “Black films don’t travel so it’s worth less. Or, films starring Asian Americans don’t have an audience base, except for Crazy Rich Asians.”

 

What about some of the recent success stories? Do they make a difference?

They do make a difference. I think of what Crazy Rich Asians has done, as well as Black Panther, Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Get Out, all these wonderful movies … they have paved a wide path in discussions of what’s out there for financiers and studios and networks to back. And I’m getting a lot of calls these days asking, “Do you have any Asian projects in development?” The real test is if folks will buy or fund scripts without the word “rich” in the title or subject matter.

However, what’s positive is that there are more opportunities for sure, where I hear of studios looking for filmmakers of color, making an effort to diversify above-the-line and below-the-line talent, to work with more women and women directors. So you see that shift happening, and it allows us to be in the room to talk about projects. It allows us to send projects to executives who have a keen interest and an initiative in giving diverse story perspectives a shot.

 

You were actually in the forefront of that with five films and five directors of color, and many of them first-time filmmakers. 

Thank you for saying that, because we’re really proud of it. Forest and I pride ourselves on being inclusive, but we do it quietly. We just produce our movies, and we push them out into the world by any means necessary. Fortunately all five of them launched at Sundance in competition, which is mind-blowing for us, and also catapulted all these wonderful filmmakers’ careers. We are in the forefront of this movement. I feel like we’re pioneers of it because we were champions of diversity at an earlier time, before it was really popular. And there are people coming to us asking, “Would your company adopt an inclusion rider?” And I say, “We’ve been doing that since 2010.” We’re just not loud about it, but everything we do represents inclusion.

  

Lets talk about Fruitvale Station and how it affected the careers of you and Ryan Coogler.

Going into Fruitvale Station, I had no trajectory. I mean, I wasn’t thinking, “This is the plan. We’re going to make this movie, launch this career and then have Ryan Coogler change the world with Black Panther.” That wasn’t it.

It came purely out of love for filmmakers who don’t have an opportunity to be championed. It was a professor at USC, Jed Dannenbaum (via Jane Kagon) who reached out to me and said, “I have this young man in my class who’s really remarkable.” I still have Jed’s email to me. The full email about Ryan is just beautiful.

So Ryan came into the office, and he was just an old soul, although only 23 at the time. I felt a certain kinship because he’s a kid from Oakland, not privileged enough to have the Hollywood connections. I thought back to myself growing up in La Puente, east of Los Angeles. No one was ever going to give me that opportunity. Ryan left me five short films that he directed in grad school. I watched them in my office and I remember crying at a couple of them, thinking, “These are so damn good.” That’s when I knew he’s a true storyteller. Forest watched them that night, and the next day he came to the office and said, “Tell him to come back in.”

And during that meeting, that’s when Ryan told us about Fruitvale and Forest goes, “Let’s make this movie.” That was the first time I felt like, “I am a producer. I’m going to do this. It’s going to be easy because I’m producing with Forest.” Wrong.

Ryan connected me with Oscar Grant’s (the young African American man whose killing by BART police is the subject of the film) mother, who held his life rights. And that process went on for quite a while because they were going through a civil lawsuit. They couldn’t talk to anybody in “Hollywood” about a movie because it could jeopardize their case.

So we discreetly spoke to her about what it would mean for us to make the film and what it would mean to the community. And there were conversations about building that trust and telling her, “We’re not the type of producers to exploit you. Our purpose is to create dialogue, very important dialogue, that’s seriously needed in this country.”

After about 10 months in, Oscar’s mother, Wanda Johnson, said, “OK, we can continue talking about it.” By then Ryan was out of grad school, and I was still negotiating the life rights. Wanda is a woman of God and many don’t know that at the end of the day she said, “Nina, talk to my church minister and explain to him what this life rights option is. And if he says it’s a go, it’s a go.” And I’m thinking, “Man, that’s a different type of pressure.”

Kenan Coogler, Bongiovi, Michael B. Jordan, Ryan Coogler celebrate at the Cannes Premiere of Fruitvale Station in 2015.

And did you talk with her minister?

I  did, and I remember being very nervous going through the contract with him on the phone, trying not to mess up. It was about 20 pages, and I was going line by line, explaining what everything meant. And at the last page he goes, That sounds great to me. And I had tears in my eyes, thinking I cant believe were getting this. I immediately called Ryan and said, She agreed! Thinking back, it was really funny because that was just the first big hurdle.

 

Who would have thoughtthe minister?

Yeah. It was an unconventional approach. [LAUGHS] And Im still close with Wanda.

 

I was wondering about that.

I sit on the board of the Oscar Grant Foundation, and it provides at-risk youths with scholarships in Oakland and educational support; plus Wanda works with coalitions across the country to address social issues.

 

And the film won the PGAs Stanley Kramer Award, which honors productions that bring to light important social issues.

We were a very intimate movie that was noticed by the PGA, and to honor us with the Stanley Kramer Award was huge for us. It was the film’s energy, love and its purpose that allowed it to flourish and allowed a filmmaker like Ryan Coogler to flourish. It was meant to be his directorial debut. It’s Ryan’s destiny to be this influential today from all his narratives.

 

Is it true that your biggest investors are old childhood friends of yours? 

Yes, particularly one of them—which means that you fight a lot and argue a lot but then you just go, “You know what? We’re like family so we move on.” It’s very different than working with traditional industry investors. You have to have a strong sense of humor. It came about when Forest and I were trying to make Fruitvale Station. Once we got the life rights option and Ryan started writing the screenplay, I was already in the process of raising funds for the movie.

I reached out to high-net-worth individuals within the U.S. And Forest talked to his connections as well. Every single person we spoke with turned us down. I was told, “Number one, Ryan’s a first-time feature director—it’s too risky. Two, he’s a first-time black director. Three, you have a predomonantly black cast, so that makes it even harder. And lastly, the story is too depressing and no one wants to see that.” We had all the odds stacked against us.

After everybody said no, that’s when I reached out to my childhood friend, Mike Chow, in Shanghai—who was not from the film industry—and I said, “I know you’re doing well in Asia. I hear you guys are all rolling in money over there, killing it. I need your help.” And he’s asks, “What do you need?” I say, “I need a million dollars to make a movie.” He’s a serial investor, so he starts asking me about the projections, ROI, IRR, and I tell him to just trust me and invest in the movie. And he said, “What if it doesn’t work?” And I replied, “If it doesn’t work, see it as philanthropy.”

I couldn’t believe I said that! And he responded, “That’s the worst pitch ever.”

 

But it worked.

It worked really well, and we still laugh about that terrible pitch.

Fruitvale’s success allowed us to set a mission for Significant Productions: to champion filmmakers of color and shift the paradigm of our business. After that we had Dope, which was a tremendous success with Rick Famuyiwa. Once again the project was challenging because Rick and I went to every studio that he wanted to work with and they all said no. They said no to a movie that to me is so fun, original, and not in the marketplace. I remember telling Rick, “Don’t worry. I’m going to get this funded. Let’s make it independently.” So that’s when I went back to my childhood friends—by now we’d gathered six of them and created a film fund.

           

Six of your friends?

Yeah, from Asia, Asian Americans, to create a fund to support Dope. Then concurrently we supported Chloé Zhao’s first movie, Songs My Brothers Taught Me. That was the third. The fourth movie was Roxanne Roxanne—a similar situation where it was tough for traditional financiers and studios to take on. But we had a fund so we got it done, and it went on to premiere in Sundance 2017.

 

Wow. Sundance has been good to you.

They’ve been good to us. They’re magnificent to collaborate with— to give our films and filmmakers a platform for the world to see, because these films are all underdogs. But underdogs that won at the end.

 

So all of your films have debuted at Sundance?

All of our independents, in competition. Every year they choose 16 films in U.S. Dramatic Competition, 16 out of 13,000+ submissions. So we’re very blessed that all five of them got that platform, and to have fans, distributors and buyers who love what we’ve done.

Bongiovi, A$AP Rocky, Shameik Moore, Mimi Valdes, Quincy Brown at 2013 Dope premiere.


Your 2018 competitor was Sorry to Bother You, directed by Boots Riley. Tell me about that.
 

I met him in 2015 through SFFilm and I thought, “This guy is cool. He’s different.” He’s an activist, a rapper and a musician. Boots and I kept in touch on his and his producers’ progress in their fundraising efforts, but there were no bites. Years had passed since he had written the first draft of his screenplay in 2010. I was on set in New York during the Summer of 2016, and Boots came to see me. I told him once I finish Roxanne Roxanne, I will take on his film next. I loved his vision but I honestly didn’t know what to do with the material [with financiers] because it was so revolutionary, so unique. That meant I didn’t let my core investors read the script. [LAUGHS]

I was nervous because it’s a very ambitious project to produce independently. But I believed in Boots and so did our amazing cast. I’m thinking, “Either this is going to be genius or it’s going to be a bomb. There is absolutely no middle ground. So let’s do this!” And thank God it’s genius!

 

Does the personal adversity youve faced have a big effect on your work?

It absolutely does have an effect on my career. Because before my mom and my sister passed away, there was the first seven to eight years of my career where I was unsure of my abilities and was taking things too seriously—and also taking the failures extremely hard. But then after they passed away, I didn’t take my work so seriously anymore. And the stress level that comes with producing doesn’t faze me because I think, “We’re in the creative field. How fortunate are we to get to do what we do?” And it doesn’t even compare to the heartache and intense pain of losing loved ones.

I remember when projects were just utter chaos, falling apart at every level, and I’m just laser-focused on solutions. And I remember people saying things like, “Why are you so calm?” and “Why aren’t you crying about this and that disaster?” I would tell them, “I’m all cried out. I cried when my mother and my sister died. This is producing. We’re not crying in producing.” Of course I wanted to punch people in the throat, but that would be unprofessional of me. [LAUGHS]

 

I understand you mentor people. What other ways do you give back?

I mentor a filmmaker every semester at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. I also started a nonprofit with Mimi Valdes, who is Pharrell Williams’ producing partner. It’s called Metta Collective, and our whole purpose is to educate storytellers and producers of color, because we’ve come to realize, and I’ve personally come to realize, that to have a seat at the table when you’re a producer means you’re making decisions that change the face of your production and evolve the industry. Whereas sometimes when you’re an actor or a director, you’re not in those rooms. So it’s crucial for producers’ voices to be in the rooms.

Forest and I are executive producing television as well now. Having a female voicea woman of colors voicereally changes the dynamics in the studio and network system. We express how critical it is to tell stories from authentic viewpoints, whether those come from producers, directors or writers. We also need to make sure we have inclusive crews, starting with heads of departments. Once we are conscious of these needs and make efforts to adopt them, it will lead to positive morale that gets reflected in the production and results in a great show. And thats what really makes us happy.

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East Meets Best - How Producer John Penotti Went Crazy. Sometimes, To Find Your Way, You Need To Get Lost

Posted By Kevin Perry, Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Last summer audiences booked their tickets for the woman-meets-world sleeper hit Crazy Rich Asians, but the journey of its lead character was more than just a pleasure cruise for producer John Penotti. “I many times joked that, minus a few years and with a few creative changes, I was really Rachel Chu,” quips the PGA member. He recalls “landing in the airport in Singapore for the first time and being completely blown away by how beautiful it is … there’s carpet everywhere, and there really is a movie theater there. It’s just a different experience. We see Singapore through Rachel’s eyes, and to me that felt very familiar because I had just gone through my discovery.”

It was a long, strange trip indeed, and it all started in Paterson, New Jersey.

Penotti was debating whether or not he should continue his med school endeavors when he suddenly found a more healing pursuit: filmmaking. He enlisted as an assistant director for the legendary Sidney Lumet and immediately left his scrubs behind. “I really loved the scheduling and budgeting and logistics side of the business. Coming from training as a pre-med student, I loved that kind of systemic investigation. I just kind of transposed it to film production. And Sidney, bless his heart, he noticed it and took an interest and very quickly made me part of the team.”

It was a crew that elevated analog filmmaking to gritty perfection. Penotti recounts Lumet’s unique pre-production ritual at the Ukrainian social hall in New York City. “We would tape out the dimensions of the important sets on the floor,” narrates Penotti. “It’s his process. He worked well removing all of the logistical unknowns, even down to deciding on lens sizes weeks before we ever got on the set, because then he allowed his actors to have total freedom and comfort and confidence without wasting time. That sense of preparation is probably the biggest thing I’ve taken away from the honor I had to work with him.”

Penotti leveraged that prep ethic into a deliriously successful producing career, catapulting movie after movie into indie nirvana. “Those moments when a project stands on the precipice of being done or going back on the shelf, bringing that kind of mechanical and specific understanding to the particulars of filmmaking right down to the details, has helped me to be a better creative producer.”

Tempering his assuredness with humility, Penotti adds that he “still [has] a lot of work to do, but I do think that when you understand what’s possible on the logistics side, you can help the creators really attain the vision that comes from their head.”

His fellow filmmakers have always appreciated Penotti’s generosity of time and talent. When tapped for comment, super-producer Charlie B. Wessler declared, “I was very lucky to work with John on a film a few years back. He is a wealth of knowledge and experience. He is one of those rare producers who can give astute, useful, creative notes on a script and at the same time juggle all of the complex financial issues. John is meticulously organized and, at the same time, the most fun guy on the set. Go figure.”

This combination of frivolity and frugality has served him well; the turn of the century was a golden age for John Penotti. His catalog covered the spectrum from popcorn teen flicks to brooding Oscar hopefuls, but a reckoning loomed on the horizon. “We had already had some great success with In the Bedroom, Prairie Home Companion and Swimfan. We had a nice run, but by the late 2000s it was very difficult. All the distributors had disappeared and DVD sales had plummeted, and streaming had no ancillary value at that point, so it was just a depressing time to be an indie producer and financier.”

Where would Penotti turn to salvage his faith in filmmaking? Go east, young man.

“I needed a new mission on how we were making movies,” he reflects, “but also I needed to see a different model. The indie model that we had been working successfully was collapsing. The international sales market had plummeted. So I went to Asia thinking there has to be a better way.”

The pilgrimage opened his eyes like the blossoming Tan Hua flower. “I just got intellectually interested in stories that originate in the east, whether it’s literature or folklore or action films. To me, it was like … wow! Genres I really relate to, but now told in a different language with different creative instincts and impulses. If I can marry these, this will be interesting again. So that was what my two years of research was about.”

John Penotti and novelist Kevin Kwan (center) chat on the set of
Crazy Rich Asians with cast members Henry Golding (left) and
Constance Wu (right). Photo courtesy of Anja Bucko.

And in that creative crucible, Penotti discovered the novel that would rewrite his career. “When I read the manuscript for Kevin [Kwan]’s book, I was already attuned to the idea,” explains Penotti. “Because I had spent time in Singapore, I had some exposure to the Crazy Rich Asians world already, so I was like, ‘This is real. This is not fiction.’ While it’s written as a novel, clearly [Crazy Rich Asians] is inspired by true events and real people, many of whom I have now met.”

As eager as Penotti was to make it rain onscreen, the funding didn’t come together as extravagantly as he had dreamed. “We went in hoping that something called Crazy Rich Asians, something as luxurious as the material and our view of what we knew we could accomplish, that we would be getting a lot more product placement and promotional contributions,” he relates before admitting, “It just really didn’t happen!” Taking a step back and tightening his proverbial belt, Penotti reassessed, determining, “We had to get more clever on how to deliver on the Crazy Rich portion of it.”

Luckily clever comes naturally for director Jon M. Chu. Penotti continues, “By the time we went into production, we were so confident in Jon’s vision of the film, that he was going to deliver something luscious, that it was our job to deliver for him. To make sure that he had the looks he wanted—that was our commitment. It had to happen.”

Penotti and Chu stormed the filmmaking frontier together, and the producer praises his cohort’s ability to prioritize on an epic scale. “Jon Chu, he knew how to spend the limited money we had. I’ll give you an example: We fought really hard, not for just one helicopter, but three. And that was a big-ticket item. So we cut other areas where we weren’t gonna have as impactful a moment.”

The filmmakers’ quest for the best took them from the heights of aviation down to the depths of decadence. But when they were searching for just the right jewelry for Michelle Yeoh’s character, they hit an emerald wall. “We were like, ‘Ya know what, we’re not getting it. Michelle what do you have?’ And Michelle brought in the beautiful ring,” Penotti reveals. “That was her ring: the hero ring of the movie, that was Michelle’s personal ring. That becomes iconic in the film.”

The stars of Crazy Rich Asians provided much more than bling; they represented talent from every corner of the globe. “We had casting directors in five different countries,” Penotti elaborates. “Constance Wu being the only person we considered for Rachel and obviously Michelle—who else would there be except Michelle to play that role?”

But the riches get even more embarrassing as Penotti praises the supporting players. “In terms of the comedy, I gotta say that was just something we were never concerned about because Jon very skillfully cast what we jokingly call ‘our special effects,’ the great comedians Ken Jeong and Awkwafina.”

Producer John Penotti (leaning on chair) watches a take alongside the Crazy Rich Asians team,
including director John M. Chu (center). Photo courtesy of Sanja Bucko.

Penotti has come a long way from the trenches of independent production to the contemplation of franchise fare, and he credits the evolution to his producing partners and fellow PGA members Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson. “These guys are working on a studio level that far surpasses any experience I had. I had sold movies to a studio, but I had never gone through that producing process.” Penotti positively beams, “To see how they operate and to balance the needs of the studio, I just learned a ton! And then to have the film work on this level—not only can you not plan it, you can never expect it.”

Penotti’s word “work” is an understatement as massive as the success of Crazy Rich Asians. The film shattered box office expectations, pulling in almost a quarter of a billion dollars internationally. Not bad given its production budget of roughly $30 million. Penotti, Jacobson and Simpson also earned well-deserved Producers Guild Award nominations for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures.

But for Penotti success really translates into opportunity. “It’s made the conversations when we acquire material so much easier,” he explains, “because Crazy Rich Asians has turned the tide toward understanding that these properties are valuable. These properties that speak about representation, telling international stories and diverse casting—they can work. Why shouldn’t they? And now we have something to point to in a very profound way.”

Inclusion is more than just an abstract concept for Penotti, it’s a calling card. “Our business model is specifically taking local stories and bringing them into global markets. So this is a validation. Crazy Rich Asians is an uber-validation of the original premise we had when we began.”

Drilling down to the bottom line, Penotti continues, “I just think it’s good business. We’re looking for audiences to come pay for our tickets, right?” He answers his own rhetorical question with a passionate plea for humanity and common sense. “It’s laughable to me that people only would want to look inward at a time like this, to go inward to the intense nationalism that is pervading a lot of countries. It just seems completely idiotic to me. On a human level, it’s ridiculous, and on a commercial level, it’s wildly shortsighted.”

Penotti’s vision is an inviting blend of passion and compassion. That empathic orientation helps him see the most intimate stories and pluck them from obscurity for the benefit of global audiences.

Now Penotti is focusing his sights on the red carpet. When asked how he is enduring the rigors of awards season, he replies with refreshing honesty and unabashed exuberance. “C’mon, I love it!” he grins. “I mean, I get to hang out with a group of people who—we’ve just become so close. Listen, people get close on movies all the time, but this is different. In my 35 or 40 movies I’ve done, I’ve never had the experience of this kind of continued camaraderie and rooting for people! The minute someone gets a job or something good happens, in the midst of it, there is genuine support. I gotta say if the awards season allows us more time to spend together, isn’t that great?”

 Once again answering his own query with warmth and confidence, Penotti surmises, “Yeah it’s been terrific.”


- Banner photograph by Kremer Johnson Photography.

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How The PGA's Diversity Workshop "Exemplifies Inclusion As a Solution"

Posted By Peggy Jo Abraham, Thursday, March 21, 2019

The PGA’s Power of Diversity Master Workshop is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to learn the art and business of producing. Renowned professionals from the worlds of film, television and new media offer individualized instruction on story development, pitching, packaging and financing. Sylvia L. Jones, one of ten producers selected to take part, expresses gratitude for the benefits she gained and the connections she made through this unique program.

- Read Sylvia's experience with the PGA Power of Diversity Master Workshop at HollywoodReporter.com

 

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Ghosts Of The Future - Bringing Performer And Audience Together In VR

Posted By Curtis Augspurger, Friday, March 15, 2019

At first it looks like theater. From a Victorian-appointed parlor, you are invited into a fully dressed foyer, all dark weathered walls and period furnishings. An actor greets you, declaring herself a physical manifestation of the ghost of Charles Dickens’ Marley, from A Christmas Carol. She engages you curiously, eventually directing you to a small writing desk on which rests an old, leather-bound ledger. Your name is already scribed into the weathered book.

 Seated at the desk, you see your reflection in a mirror. Marley gently places a VR headset on you. If there’s a moment when the theatrical illusion breaks, it’s gone as soon as you see precisely the same room around you, fully replicated in VR. The desk before you, the mirror, the one-to-one nature of the room—everything correlates, marrying what you see with what you feel. The sounds of horse carriages on cobblestones begin to filter in. Marley whispers to you, now beckoning from the other side of the wall.

 “Are you ready to cross over? Yes? You may not recognize me when you do … You may even think yourself an apparition.”

 After a show-stopper moment that seamlessly blends VR with the real world (I don’t want to spoil the surprise for future audience members), you are transported to a different time and place. Seeing is believing, but “feeling what you see” raises the bar to new heights.

 Now alone, you find yourself in Scrooge’s grand sleeping quarters. Thick velvet drapes. A large, intricately carved four-poster bed. An old smoking chair beside a warm fire. Reaching out to touch the digital bedposts, you find that they are physically there. Wandering over to the smoking chair, you can feel the gnarled, walnut arms and soft velvet back. Light filters in through tall windows; 1860s London is outside.

Just as you begin to feel comfortable in the space, you sense the eerie presence of another, whom you cannot see. In a swoosh of smoke, Marley gasps frighteningly to life (or rather, the afterlife) before your VR eyes. You are now in the presence of Marley in her ghostly digital form, being driven by an actor in motion capture gear. Flowing hair and tattered clothing expose the vacuous empty shell of what once was her body. She addresses you by name, reaching her chained arm forward, placing an empathetic (if decaying) hand on your shoulder. She informs you that on this night you will be visited by three spirits.

And so your journey begins. Over the next 20 minutes, you are immersed in the most memorable set-pieces of A Christmas Carol … Scrooge’s (and your) envisioned past, present and future, ending in an iconic Victorian graveyard, where you’re compelled to confront your own mortality in surprisingly personal fashion. Throughout the show you’re guided by the spirits, each of them rendered by motion capture actors, fantastical avatars who react and speak to you in real time. As with any kind of interactive theater, the more you give in response to the performers, the more you get more back from the experience.

This is Chained: A Victorian Nightmare, a one-of-a-kind dive into a fully immersive world that pushes the boundaries of storytelling possibility. The brainchild of creator/director Justin Denton, it’s a single-person immersive theater experience that marries VR technology to live actor-driven performance for a dark reimagining of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I was proud to produce Chained for its sold-out inaugural run in downtown Los Angeles this winter and was thrilled when Produced By invited me to reflect on the challenges of creating this unique show.

Chained is a new entry pushing the boundaries of the emerging Location Based Entertainment/VR market. To date LBE has been dominated by first-person-shooter experiences, esports and ride games. Early adopters have flocked to these experiences, powering a market that came close to $1 billion in revenue in 2018 and is projected to eclipse $12 billion by 2023 and comprise 11% of the VR industry. To encourage the audience’s adoption of this new market, the major challenge before us as producers is to create engagement models that place the technology at the service of storytelling, rather than vice-versa.

Developing and rehearsing Chained, from left: cast member Michael Bates, director Justin Denton,
interactive story producer Bruce Straley, cast member Haylee Nichele. Photos courtesy of Curtis Augspurger.

 

Getting Here

As with many of our origin stories, before I discovered my passion for film and digital media production, on a different path. As a graduate student in the School of Architecture at Columbia University, I was quick to realize that I couldn’t draw as well as I could see. We were still being taught with the traditional tools of the t-square and triangle, which gave me the foundation of spatial understanding but didn’t allow the freedom and interactivity I desired. Finding access to the highest-end software and computing systems (now less powerful than the phones in our pockets) at the time proved difficult, as the costs were in the neighborhood of $500K for a system. The Apple IIe had just been released, AutoCAD was just coming onto the market and the 3D visualization tools we take for granted today were then just a concept.

While working for architect Richard Gluckman on the Whitney Museum’s Breuer expansion project (now the Met Breuer), I brokered a deal with leading software and hardware companies and convinced Gluckman and the Breuer’s Director David Ross to take a risk. After several months of hard work photographing and then digitizing the Whitney collection (for the first time) and integrating it into Gluckman’s design on the computer, the board was allowed to see inside the design and take a ‘virtual walk-through’ with the collection in place, which helped the project win the build contract.

A demo of the Breuer expansion led to an alumni donation of a $10M computer lab to Columbia’s School of Engineering, where I then taught these same visualization tools to the next generation of student visionaries. The class eventually caught the eye of Hollywood, and after switching coasts from NYC to Los Angeles, I found myself immersed in building digital set extensions for Wayne Enterprises in Batman Forever, the digital swamp that Shrek called home, and ultimately producing animated features for Disney and Fox. Fast forward 25+ years, and we are still using bleeding-edge technology to strengthen the connection of story with the human experience.

“This project is actually not possible without having a live actor in the space with you. It’s at the core of how we wrote it and how we workshopped it with the actors. The technology of having the motion capture actor there is the reason why we can adapt to you as the guest and make it unique every time.”

~Justin Denton, Creator / Director

 

Bringing Chained To Life In Real-time VR

Not only would this type of project not be possible without the live actor in the space, but the technical ability to make this type of narrative experience didn’t exist a few short years ago.

The immersive tech Chained required is still in its nascent days and fraught with bleeding-edge incompatibility problems. So to produce a project of this scope, a faithful team of visionaries, a small village of talented artists, actors, set fabricators and engineers had to be pulled together to bring the curtains up in just under nine months.

With Chained, we were fortunate to have an experienced producing partner in Executive Producer Ethan Stearns and Associate Producer Christine Ryan, of Madison Wells Media Immersive, along with the support of Executive Producer David Richards of Here Be Dragons. MWM Immersive put tremendous faith in the project early on by backing it as their flagship immersive project. When our milestones slipped or our technology failed (as it did more often than not), Stearns’ previous experience producing Carne y Arena helped us keep the focus on prioritizing the audience’s experience with technology, in service of the story.

For example at one point in Chained, the story calls for a prop to be handed to the audience member by our mo-cap actor. Sounds simple, but it ended up being an enormous pain point—one that was more technical than story-driven. We needed the prop to feel as real as it appeared in the VR rendering. This required a tracking solution. With today’s tech, the two basic options were passive tracking (marble-sized reflective dots) or active tracking (tiny embedded LED emitters). Of course the passive solution is cheap and clunky, which could pull the guest out of the experience; while the active tracking solution is elegant and complicated, but at 10 times the cost. With an already challenged budget, support for this solution could have gone the direction of cheap and clunky. But in this case, our experienced partners’ commitment to stay true to the audience’s experience of the story led us to trim costs elsewhere and go with the more elegant solution, creating one of the more magical takeaway moments of the experience.

Actively tracking audience-held props notwithstanding, there were a large number of unknowns and unproven challenges we would encounter to achieve the narrative path. In an effort to control the complexity of the challenges before us, we chunked our goals down into a series of weekly sprints and milestones. We looked to align the project’s technical requirements with the conceptual design by adopting a game design pipeline. The milestones were broken into a few achievable categories; a minimum viable product (known as a ‘grey box’); vertical slice; green light; and ultimately a final EXE deliverable.

The grey box version merely showed temporary, untextured volumes representing the spaces, props and their interactivity (one month). For the vertical slice milestone (two months), we selected one of the scenes and gave it an approximate finish as a textured, lit environment. The grey box and the vertical slice demonstrated that the technology could marry the look/design with performance interactions, while still supporting our actors in the interactivity of the narrative.

To further complicate the design process, the visual effects from live-action events needed to be triggered (on the fly) during the performance, from a handheld tablet. Actor workshops held in VR headsets were used as an iterative back and forth, helping to get the actors comfortable with the technical demands of bringing the art to life. The story team also used these workshops to refine the story and staging for the mo-cap actor and their counterpart. Our live-action Marley thus transitioned to the stage manager, whose role was to orchestrate the live performance effects, trigger live-action visual effects and cue scene transitions on a connected tablet.

To streamline this intertwined production/performance process, we set up our ‘sandbox’ workspace and motion control camera systems at Aaron Sims Creative. ASC is the powerhouse design shop responsible for some of the biggest AAA character work in the film industry and who we chose to lead the creative design and the engineering of the EXE delivery. With imaginary walls lined in tape on the floor and tracking cameras in the ceiling, we were enabled to iterate directly with the VFX supervisor, Ryan Cummins, and his ASC engineering and creative team to bring the digital design work in line with creative goals. Cummins’ team collaborated with motion capture vendors Ikenema and Dynamixyz to integrate the body and facial capture in real-time to drive our spirits’ performances.

Beyond the one-to-one tactile relation of the space and their visual cues, the acoustical surroundings were critical for full audience buy-in into our immersive VR world. In most film productions, the sound is geared to the element of time, whereas in VR, the sound has the added component of spatiality and becomes more complex than a normal stereo mix. Making audio cues play from sources (diegetic sound) or from the ambient environment (non-diegetic sound) in a VR scene adds exponential science to the audio mix process.

To help us solve these equations, we partnered with composer and VR sound design wizard Dražen Bošnjak and his team at Q Department. Bošnjak and his talented team scored and mixed to make our London exterior and interiors sound like 1860s London. They created the entire audio landscape and score to work in concert with your spatial relation in the rooms and its objects. As you walk toward the fireplace in Scrooge’s bedroom, the crackle of the fire grows louder and the sound of the ticking grandfather clock responds to your position.

When soaring over London, the sounds and whooshes of the wind and passing clock towers surround your ears. You’ll hear each entry and exit that the spirits make into your virtual world, and as they finally usher you to the end of the experience and you reenter the world of the living, the familiar sounds of the clattering horses on cobblestones bookend the journey from where you began.

Immersive media has us all looking ahead to what is possible; what is next. As producers it may feel as though the years of learning the craft of storytelling are being overshadowed by the breakneck speed of technological advancement. However far we have progressed, the core techniques of storytelling, even in the face of modern technology, have not changed fundamentally. The latest headset experiences with either Magic Leap, Oculus, Halo Lens, Vive and whatever comes after, all continue to expand our ability as storytellers to move forward, reimagining legendary tales and new content to deepen the connection with our audiences in exciting ways. These emerging technologies not only offer the expansion of opportunity but simultaneously reinforce the foundational needs of the storytelling craft.

In this new frontier, the point to remember is that our role as producers has not changed. The fight to make story our primary focus, regardless of medium or technology, lives on and will carry the growth of the market.

As the epitaph of a life is being prepared and the birth and death dates are carved, Chained’s take-away message for the audience member is that only “the dash between” counts. How far we’ve come, and just how far we can go with storytelling in the digital age is solely up to what story you can dream up. If you dream it, there will likely be a new technology ready to bring it to life. Make the story of your dash count. 

PGA member Curtis Augspurger is currently finishing work on a 6DOF (six degrees of freedom) VR version of Othello with Oculus, Here Be Dragons and JuVee Productions, and embarking on a passion project to bring Light Immersion Therapy VR to PTSD sufferers.

- Artwork courtesy of Aaron Sims Creative

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