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A Look Back: Marian Rees

Posted By Chris Green, Monday, September 10, 2018

Last week, the PGA office received word of the passing of one of its most revered members, Marian Rees.  One of the great producers of long-form television and one of the most dedicated members to have served the Producers Guild, Marian was an inspiring figure for generations of PGA members. A recipient of the Guild’s highest service honor, the Charles FitzSimons Award, Marian was a long-time member of the National Board, also serving a term as the PGA’s Vice President of Television.

In honor of her life and work, we here re-publish her Produced By cover interview, which ran in the Winter 2002-03 issue.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, Oct. 20 at 2:00 pm at Eagle Harbor Congregational Church, near her home on Bainbridge Island, Washington.  In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Eagle Harbor Church or the University of Iowa Foundation.

In Memoriam - Marian Rees 1927-2018


Some producers like to hear themselves talk.  Marian Rees is not one of those people.  Some producers waste no time in telling you how many awards they’ve won.  In a 90-minute interview, Marian Rees doesn’t mention a single one of her many honors.  Some producers dominate a room with their presence, their voices. When Marian Rees speaks, the room gets very quiet; the room comes to her.

Born, raised and schooled in Iowa, Marian Rees has the clear-eyed and plain-spoken directness that’s characteristic of her native state.  She has little patience for pretense, though she’s generally too polite and too dignified to let that impatience show.  The simply-appointed offices of Marian Rees & Associates, across the street from the CBS lot in Studio City, are a testament to her modesty, though that same modesty masks a tenacity that’s as deeply held as any in Hollywood.  She is a 50-year veteran of the entertainment industry.  She started her independent production company at a time when the conventional wisdom said that women weren’t cut out to be motion picture producers, much less company CEOs; she’s continued producing right up to this day, long after most purveyors of that conventional wisdom have hung it up and headed for the golf course.

“I liked her immediately,” says Fay Kanin, Rees’ one-time collaborator and long-time friend.  “She’s very talented, very smart, and modest about her smartness.”  Those qualities have served her well in her career, which began in 1952 with a job as a secretary/receptionist at NBC.  After graduating from the University of Iowa with a degree in Sociology—a distinction she talks about far more readily than her Emmys or Golden Globes—Rees found herself in California following the disappointment of not finding a position with her organization of first choice, the United Nations.  The NBC job was intended to be temporary, but she swiftly rose through those ranks to become an Associate Producer on legendary tributes to Frank Sinatra, Ethel Barrymore and Fred Astaire.  In the following decades, she spent seventeen years at Norman Lear’s Tandem Productions, Associate Producing the pilots for such groundbreaking series as All in the Family and Sanford & Son.

In 1981, Rees founded Marian Rees Associates, where she has since made her home and reputation as the gold standard of producing movies for television.  For the company, Rees and partner Anne Hopkins have produced over 40 films for network, cable and public television, including ten for the prestigious Hallmark Hall of Fame, and the five films that comprise The American Collection on ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre. Her work received many honors, including eleven Emmy Awards and 38 nominations, as well as a pair of Golden Globes, seven Monte Carlo Television Awards, Six Christopher Awards, the Humanitas Prize and a Peabody Award.  Asked to speculate on Rees’ recipe for success, long-time collaborator Dorothea Petrie pointed out that “every time out, she tries to do something special, special for her and special for her audience.  She knows that story is the most important aspect of any of her films, but they always include strong emotional content, and comedy, too.  Just like life does.”

This is the tenth in Produced by’s ongoing series of Case Studies of the careers of successful producers.  Produced By’s Chris Green had the good fortune to be able to sit down with Marian Rees and talk about Iowa, Hallmark, and the challenges of producing long-form television in a rapidly changing industry.

 

Chris Green: You grew up in Iowa, and I know that despite your many years in Hollywood, you’re still an Iowan at heart.  How has your background affected your career as a producer?

Marian Rees: Growing up where I did and when I did truly shaped my character, and that has been a fundamental part of the work that I’ve done.  Now that I have a body of work, I see it even more clearly.  You begin to see a pattern.  The character of Iowa is distinct, it truly is.  The educational system in Iowa has been historically the best, bar none.  Public education there is truly a heritage, a legacy.  The communities were dedicated to families, and education was at the heart of it.  Every citizen in that state has that birthright.  But when I first came out here I was very self-conscious about being from the Midwest.  I had not planned to enter this business at all.

When did you come out to California?

In 1952.  And with my B.A. in Sociology, I was going to do great social work.  And so being in the entertainment business was always intended to be a temporary job.

This is getting to be a long temporary career.

That’s right. (laughs) But the part of the industry I was in—live television—was very new on the West Coast and there were so many exciting people involved, young guys like Arthur Penn, Bud Yorkin, Jack Shea, John Rich, Norman Lear.  They were driven, and alive, and they were the ones that created and shaped that little industry out here.  They were all from the theatre, and I felt myself to be an outsider for a very long time.  But this whole component of a good education really buoyed me throughout all of that.  There were some instances when I realized I had an education that equipped me better than some I saw around me. For instance, one of the things that I’ve learned is that though I’m no English or literature major, I’m blessed with good grammar.  Now that may sound like a little thing…

Not to a magazine editor, it doesn’t.

That’s right.  You know.  If you’re working with writers, it becomes kind of a screening device.  When you read a script that is so lacking in that fundamental writing tool, it tells you something right away.

Marian Rees with Mario Machado and Tyne Daly
at the Emmy Awards

So, assuming the grammar is up to par, what’s the next thing you see in a script?

As a producer, the thing that has served me well is an ability to recognize a good story.  I’m more comfortable with my role in the community when we talk about ourselves as storytellers.  That’s a source of great security for me—I’m still insecure, even after all this time.  But it has to start with the story, and the best work is done when the producer has that passion and that vision, and allows him or herself to be guided by that story’s strength, its power. That’s when a film for me becomes organic, it has a life of it’s own; it will tell you what to do with it; it will tell you when you’re not paying attention to something; it speaks.  That may sound really quite odd but having made 36 films, you can find the voice in every film and every one will be different.

So, for you, what are the elements that make a good story?

Character.  It’s characters first, plot second.  There’s so much demand for plot-driven material now that it’s hard to persuade people to have the patience that character development requires. 

Did the medium used to be more character-driven, and it’s become more story-driven?

I think the sense of movies has changed.  I was talking with a colleague yesterday—a studio executive—and we were talking about the changing nature of the movie for television, the way the template is different.  It’s a genre that is really so vulnerable and threatened right now.  The way of telling the story is different; the pacing is different.  I think a lot of it is driven by demographics, so there’s almost a built in constraint.  Your movie won’t feel liberated.  You won’t get into the depth of character that will take you where the power of the story is.

Obviously, changing demographics have altered the way lots of producers frame their projects.  Are there other factors?

Well, the vertical integration of the industry has had more impact than anyone is willing to admit; it could have been predicted when deregulation happened.  We fought a losing battle on that, but the consequence was predictable and the vertical integration is clearly in place.  And so it’s not the storytelling that’s important as much as it is the ratings and the advertising revenue.  So we see programming where the story and the drama are eroded by added minutes for commercial time.  That’s a constraint on your story.  Instead of 94 minutes, the standard is down to 80 minutes, and it gets smaller and smaller.  That’s a real constraint.  You can’t let loose the power of the story through character development.  That takes time.

That’s an interesting metaphor: looseness versus constriction.  It sounds like a matter of giving a story room to breathe, room to find itself.

I think that’s true.  And that struggle begins to dissipate some of the strength that a producer can bring.  That’s why the producer’s central job is holding to that story.  That process requires constant vigilance. I keep coming back to passion and management.  I think when you do movies for television, you learn management; there’s no way around it.  The budgets are so stringent and you learn to manage the budget by managing the story.  You control the budget from the very beginning of the story development.  On our first movies, we would bring in our line producer, the late Bob Hudelson; we’d have him read the outline, the first draft and then say, “okay, Bob, where will this balloon? Understand we’re not going to change the storyline, we can’t distort characters, but give us a guide.” We did that to protect ourselves, as we had no contingency.  So it became crucial that we had a cushion, and Bob understood that.


So what were some of the tricks that he taught you?

Bob was brilliant at suggesting ways to compress.  I think that a lot of what he could see—from that outside perspective—was non-sequiturs, or redundancies that you don’t catch sometimes.  He’d say this was a non-essential scene, and he was right.  But if you start with a story and everybody understands that that story is to be protected at all costs, then the adjustments can be made through a process that makes sense.  That’s storytelling.  That isn’t just making a movie, it’s telling a story.  To me there’s a difference. 

What is that difference?

You don’t tell a story with the goal of getting an Emmy.  You tell a story for its own sake, and you do the best you can.  If it’s honored and in other ways recognized, that’s a consequence; it’s not the goal.  But I have many colleagues—and they’re not to be judged—who make movies for volume, for the business side of it, and for reasons that are important to them.  And that’s perfectly legitimate, but that hasn’t been my experience and hasn’t been my goal. 

At the same time, that’s a tough way to make your fortune in the world.

You don’t make a fortune doing it this way.  That’s really one of the reasons I started my own company, to separate myself from the need to drive a volume for another company.  I simply couldn’t do it well.  It was so much more important to me not only to tell the stories I wanted to tell, but also to own those movies.  I knew enough to know that that’s where the real security was.  Otherwise you’re an employee without benefits, without equity.  We don’t own all our films but we have a nice library.  They’re all films that have been personally directed in their development. They are the ones that sit well in my heart, and I’m proud of them.


So, which are the titles that you feel closest to?
 

For me, Love Is Never Silent is the embodiment of that process, both its difficulties and its satisfactions. 


What were the challenges in putting that story together?

It was in 1982, and I just started the company; we had just finished our first film.  So the next one up was a book that was brought by Juliana Feld, who optioned Joanne Greenberg’s book In This Sign.  The book is about a young deaf teenage couple who find each other and marry.  They have two hearing children and one, the younger boy, dies when he falls off a balcony, his cry for help unheard.  And so the fate of this family was in Margaret, the hearing daughter.  That was the crux of the story: her coming of age, conflicted and ambivalent about her role in that family being the ears, the communicator.  And the conflict when she falls in love and wants to have her own life:  How can she leave this mother and father for whom she has been the door to the world?  She finally marries and does leave.  Her telling her parents her decision is probably one of the best scenes that I’ve seen in a movie.  It still moves me, and I’ve seen it recently.  That story went right to the core of me when I read it.  And I didn’t know anything about deaf culture except my own passion for it.  Because if I’d thought about it, I would have said, “Well, nobody’s going to make this movie.”  But you can’t say that, not if you really care.  But Dick Welsh from Hallmark Hall of Fame came and said, “Is there something you really feel passionate about that you want to do?” And I said, yes, I want to do this book.  And he listened, and I told him there was one caveat in it: I had made it a binding agreement with Juliana Feld, herself a deaf actress, to use deaf actors in those principal roles of the parents.  If it fell apart on that, then it would fall apart on that.  So Dick said, “I’ll go to Kansas City and I’ll go to Brad Moore and ultimately to Don Hall.”  That’s where the decisions were made.  They liked the story, and when they heard of the legal binder, they came back in 24 hours and said, “yes.”  They would honor that legal component. So the next thing was to get it to the network.  At that time all the Hallmarks were at CBS, and the head of CBS said that under no circumstances would there be deaf actors.  He would not approve it.

That must have put you in a very difficult position.

I had to hold firm.  I would not unravel the legal thread in all of this.  I couldn’t do that.  And to their great credit, Hallmark wouldn’t budge either.  They held firm.  And it came to a real loggerhead. I’d get calls that said, “he’s not going to let you cast [deaf actors] Phyllis Frelich and Ed Waterstreet, but he’ll give the green light if you get someone like Paul Newman and Joanna Woodward to play the parents.”  Long pause.   And I said, “Isn’t it appreciated that even if we could get these consummate actors to play these roles, they don’t speak one word in the whole 98 minutes of the movie?  And frankly, I’m not sure that Paul and Joanne would want to void the integrity of this piece.”  That was my opinion.  By this time, we had people already on location. The train had left the station, but we had no green-light.  And finally, again to the great credit of Hallmark, they jumped networks.  Carl Meyer and Brandon Tartikoff were at NBC and they liked it.  So I went to Dick and asked if there was any possibility that Hallmark’s passion and commitment to this was sufficient to go outside CBS and go to another network.” When the word came back, Dick said, “I’m going to go to NBC.” And in 24 hours we had a green-light, with a cast in place, and we went off and made the movie, told the story. It was a good story. It just needed somebody to care about it.  And it became history. [Ed. Note: Love is Never Silent was nominated for four Emmy Awards, winning for Best Picture of the Year and for Joseph Sargent’s directing.]

It just struck me when you spoke about Hallmark and going out to Kansas, that this is another Midwestern sensibility.  I can see that their steadfastness spoke to you with a kind of kinship.  

I can’t say enough about the integrity of that company.  And especially in today’s context, with corporate America being judged by the example of Enron.  These scandals speak to the lack of that very integrity, the ethics, that is at the core of Hallmark. They’re very modest, self-effacing.  They know their audience, and they’ve served it well for all these years.  It’s the longest-running dramatic program in the history of television—50 years of uninterrupted programming.  That’s a huge commitment, and you don’t make that unless you believe in it.  We’ve had the good fortune of making 10 Hallmarks.  And you’re right, I understood them, and they understood me.  It was and is a place to tell great stories and have them embraced and promoted.  It doesn’t get better than that. 

How does that compare to the series of films you produced for The American Collection, on PBS?  Was that a slightly different way of working?

Not slightly different, grandly different.  It was a wonderful idea that Dr. Carolyn Reid-Wallace had as the Executive Vice President of Development and Education at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).  She was having dinner in London with a guy who was head of the BBC who remarked, “You know, Carolyn, doesn’t it seem odd to you that all the dramatic programming on PBS has an English accent? Isn’t that odd?”   It really sent her home thinking and she came back to change that.  She went to the Corporation’s board and said, “We need to change this.  I want to do movies based on American literature and American writers.”  They supported her, and then she set about to find a producer to do the series. She wanted the movies to be like Hallmark Hall of Fame dramas.  So she sought us out.

Obviously this represented an incredible opportunity for you.  How do you approach a chance like that?

I didn’t seek the job nor did I audition for it. I just wanted to help her.  I was absolutely taken with this woman’s vision and her passion and her determination to see it come to fruition.  She single handedly nurtured that idea, selflessly put herself in some jeopardy, and you can’t help but respond to someone like that.  She had the task of getting PBS to come aboard.  That was tough, strangely enough.  I was surprised that there was the initial resistance to it. 

Really?  I have to say that I’m surprised, too.

Well, it was new.  Where did we fit?  Where was our place in all of this?  Here we were on the West Coast, and outside of the PBS community, in a way.  Regardless of our credentials, we were outsiders, and we began to feel that.

I imagine it’s just a very different culture than your usual network. 

It is.  I’ve met some wonderful people that I would have never met before, people who are truly committed to the public broadcasting system. They’re deeply caring, well-educated people and are comfortable without the affluence that sometimes is a demarcation in our community.  And that distinction was reflected in other ways.  Our budget for the five films was 15 ½ million dollars.  Though it was the largest single grant in the history of the CPB, that isn’t a lot of money in Hollywood terms.  That makes one low-budget picture.  So I knew we would have to depend on the good will of this community.  And they came through!

When you say this community, the Hollywood community? 

Yes, I introduced Dr. Reid-Wallace to the heads of agencies.  I felt if they got the story from her, they’d understand why I made my commitment.  And they came on board and said, “just tell us how we can help.”  Their clients were encouraged to be a part of it. We had to set ceilings, and everybody bought in; if they didn’t, they didn’t come aboard.  Wonderful talent came aboard!  They went out under Exxon Mobil Masterpiece Theatre, some very different titles that might not have been chosen by someone else. 

Hopkins and Rees at the Caucus for Television Workers,
Producers and Directors Honors. 

 

That’s true.  It’s a very unique collection of titles.

Yes, eclectic in scope and not driven by any demography at all.  I just felt that it was essential that diversity was a central component of the project.  I was somewhat mis-quoted by the New York Times saying that I didn’t want to do works of dusty, dead old white men.  What I didn’t want to do was to go into material that wasn’t relevant, that didn’t have currency.  I didn’t care if it was written recently like Esmeralda Santiago’s story [Almost a Woman].  That’s a very contemporary story, but at the same time, it’s also an immigrant story, and that’s the oldest story of America.  But they had to be relevant; they had to be doable.  You can’t make an epic on $3 million.  I thought it was important that we had a piece that dealt with the South and the Civil War, but I wanted a different aspect of it.  That’s why Langston Hughes’ short story [Cora Unashamed] spoke so clearly to me. He set it in Iowa, which is a different point on that whole compass that directs us to the knowledge and the history of the Civil War or of slavery.  It will always be a part of our life story as a nation; we can’t leave it behind.  Interestingly, Cora Unashamed became the highest-rated movie on Masterpiece Theatre in its 16-year history.  I just learned that about two months ago, and that was rewarding.

I want to ask about your years at Tandem working with Norman Lear and about producing things with a social conscience; that seems to be a goal that’s very close to you.  Especially since there’s often so much hesitation about including a social message in a commercial production.

Well, HBO is doing it.  NBC is doing it, with The West Wing.  You can find it.  It isn’t absent.  It’s the independent movie for television that’s absent; as a result of the vertical integration, there’s a lot of in-house production.  So there’s not that demand for the independent voice.

Norman Lear’s voice was and is as independent as they come. 

That’s certainly true.  Tandem was a comfortable place for me to be because it was risk-taking and challenging.  It was raising the voice of contrariness, and going to a different level of commentary through comedy.  That’s what Norman was: a social commentator.  And Norman was fierce, both fierce and graceful.  But he has that ability as a human being to invite others in and let them become a part of it.  I think about Bob Wood, who was President of CBS and who was the other hero of all of this.  He kept the shows on.  Norman found his voice, and Bob understood what he was saying and put his own job on the line.  They became partners in this commentary.  I think television will always attract people like that. Television is spontaneous, it’s immediate, you know that you’ve connected.  There’s vibrancy and vitality about that and it’s measurable in a far different way than the box office.  It’s compelling, it holds you because of that.  I think it’s the most exciting medium in our lives.

In the very beginning of the interview, you talked about sensing the pattern to your career, looking back on it. The last question I’d like to ask is, when you’re looking at that pattern, what do you see?

At the heart of every movie, there is that central family.  Maybe it’s dysfunctional, or incomplete, or non-nuclear, but it’s that which binds people together with the kind of common thread we find in family.  There’s a kind of human yearning to be connected.  And if we don’t get it in the family, all hell breaks loose.  I think that yearning is universal, it’s timeless, it’s where we need to be, where we want to be… to be “at home.”  And yet we need to be independent.  And we are, some of us fiercely independent, and yet in that fierceness we recognize our own dependency.  I’m not sure that that isn’t a part of almost every movie I’ve made.  In fact, your question puts me in mind of another interview I had many years ago.  And perhaps your question gives me solace in the same way that question did two decades ago.  I never ever felt myself credentialed in this business.  I never felt I belonged; there were always others by whom I was awed.  Fay Kanin awes me.  I was awed by Norman, by Frank Schaffner, awed as I sat in his control room.  Literally in awe… it’s an awesome business in a way, isn’t it?  And so I was asked this question: Aren’t you really proud of this work?  Don’t you have a feeling of real pride in this?  And I started to tear up and I confessed, “Jack, I feel like a failed sociologist.”  It was just a revealing moment, for me as well as for him, and he took a long pause and let me have my little cry.  And he said, “Marian, these films that you have made, look at them.  Don’t you realize that you are a sociologist, working in the field?  That’s what you’re doing.”  And I never had those doubts again after that day.  That feeling was spent, and as a result, I looked at the work differently, and I answer your questions differently. I have a place in this industry.  No one is going to throw me out except myself. I’m comfortable with the movies that have succeeded, and I’m comfortable with who I am.  Looking back, I’m doing exactly what I should be doing and I’m at home. 

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GAIL BERMAN & LUCY FISHER - The PGA's New Presidents Have Some Big Plans

Posted By Chris Green, Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Typically when we interview a pair of producers for our cover, they represent two halves of a long-standing partnership, with a significant collective body of work behind them. The two subjects of this interview aren’t producing partners—at least not in the traditional sense—and it’s fair to speculate that the duo’s most lasting joint achievements lie ahead.

On June 9 at the Guild’s General Membership Meeting, the PGA welcomed its new Presidents, Gail Berman and Lucy Fisher. In taking the office, they represent the fourth pair of producers to share the duties of the PGA presidency. Not only does their election promise new opportunities for the Producers Guild, it presented a novel prospect for this magazine: the chance to sit down with the incoming leaders and discuss their priorities, as they chart the Guild’s course for the next two years. In years past, incoming Presidents have been the subjects of feature profiles recent enough to disqualify them as repeat cover subjects. But Gail Berman (we’re almost embarrassed to note) has never appeared in our pages prior to this, while Lucy Fisher, along with her producing partner and husband, Douglas Wick, was last seen gracing the cover of this magazine back in 2001, in the sixth issue we ever published.

Needless to say, it’s a vastly different PGA and entertainment industry that we’re a part of today. But if anyone is up to the challenges of the moment, it’s Berman and Fisher, who each bring to the job a lengthy producing career informed by a significant tenure as a network/studio executive at the highest levels. This also marks the first time a pair of women have held the PGA Presidency. Berman and Fisher were both instrumental contributors to the Guild’s landmark Anti-Sexual Harassment Guidelines released earlier this year, and their election is a sure sign that the Producers Guild intends to continue to lead the industry as it reappraises its professional culture.

In taking on the PGA Presidency, we conjecture that Berman and Fisher must have somehow discovered a few extra hours in each day, busy as they are with running their respective companies, The Jackal Group (which Berman founded in 2014) and Red Wagon Entertainment (where Fisher joined partner Wick as Co-Head in 2000). Berman was kind enough to dedicate a couple of those hours to hosting Produced By at The Jackal Group offices in Santa Monica, where the following interview took place.

 

So of course, we need the origin stories. How did you guys find your way to producing?

GAIL: I started my career as a producer in a pretty unusual way.  After graduating from the University of Maryland in my early 20s, a friend and I wound up producing a version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which we initially put up at Ford’s Theater in Washington and then took the production to off-Broadway and then finally to Broadway— which served as the show’s initial debut on the big stage. So at a very young age, I wound up being a producer and was purely a producer for the first 10 years of my career. Then I became an executive who was also producing, working for Sandy Gallin, which lead to my running production companies and also producing. However when I went to Fox in 2000, I served solely as an executive for the first time in my career.

 

Well, we’re glad you’re back.

GAIL: I am too. When I went to work as an executive, I missed being a producer. I missed being close to the product. I missed “touching” it. I enjoyed my years as an executive, but I always knew that I would go back to getting as close as I could to the creative idea and to the group that I got to put together to fulfill somebody’s creative vision. And I love that.


 

It sounds like it’s part of your DNA, at this point.

GAIL: It kind of is, I think.

LUCY: I had the opposite trajectory. I was an executive for 25 years, at five different studios. I worked with a number of producers and lived with and married a producer. I was very lucky in that I got to work with some great visionary producers. I worked for Francis Coppola for two years as Head of Production when he had his studio, Zoetrope Studios, on Las Palmas and got to see him work as a producer and director.  And I did many movies with Steven Spielberg, mostly as a producer but sometimes as a director. So I was able to watch some masters in action. I got to watch my husband [Douglas Wick] manage Gladiator and see how he kept three separate writers all still engaged on the project, reading new drafts and scenes even when somebody else was writing those drafts.  Even as an executive, I always liked to think of myself as sort of an executive producer on the movies that I worked on, because I loved to be down in the details of the process.

But as I rose up the ranks as an executive, I kept finding myself further and further away from the creative side I loved, until I was finally offered the Chairmanship at Sony. But I realized that if I took that job, I would be in a room I didn’t want to be in, instead of the room that I did want to be in, which was the room that said “Yes” as opposed to the room that said “No.” I wanted to be a part of putting together the team of talented people who would work together to make something better than it could ever be if any one person did it by themselves. Being a part of that collaborative process is, I think, one of the greatest pleasures of working in entertainment.

 


The Producers Guild, as an organization, has had a few different acts of its own. What was your impression of the Guild before you joined, and what did you discover about the PGA as you became familiar with it?

GAIL: Well, I really dived right in when I joined, but to be perfectly candid, I didn’t know much about the PGA before that. Initially it felt to me that the Guild lent itself more to the film community than it did to television. I realized after I joined that I was mistaken about that, that there was an interest in really broadening the goals of the organization. I felt like I fit right in, that I could participate, get my point of view—and certainly the television point of view—across. Now that I’m working more in film, it’s a pleasure to access the experience of some of the veteran film producers that have lent their services to the Guild. It’s an impressive group.

LUCY: I came to the Producers Guild through Wick, who also later turned out to be my business partner in Red Wagon. But at that point, I was still a studio executive and he was very involved in the early stages of the creation of the Producers Mark, along with Kathy Kennedy, Mark Gordon, Hawk Koch and so many others.  Seeing them put together the definition of what a producer did, and create and sell the value of the Mark is what turned me on to the PGA.

What I came to see after I became a producer and joined it, was that the PGA, as an entity, has a lot of the same qualities that I admire in producers; it’s scrappy, it’s not bureaucratic, it wants to get things done, it welcomes different points of view and it’s okay to argue. I love that its ways aren’t set in stone and it doesn’t have such an old history that precedent always has to take precedence. Instead people are encouraged to speak up. We can act nimbly because we’re not mired down. So I think that the Guild has a similar personality to the best aspects of producing. I like that.

 

What is it that you’d like to see the Guild do? What sort of difference would you like to see it make in the lives of producers or in the lives of people in the industry?

LUCY: That’s a great question. I’ll answer it in a few different parts. At this particular point in time, I was especially attracted to the opportunity because I want to help make the producing community more inclusive. Producers are naturally leaders. They have to lead a lot of disparate individual people all the time, while still trying to keep their eye on the big picture.

With the new attention to diversity and emphasis on stopping sexual harassment and trying to create more equitable workplaces, I felt like this was a point in time where I could actually make a bigger difference at the Producers Guild than maybe I would have been able to at other points in time. I mean, the accomplishment of the Producers Mark is supreme. It’s a hugely significant achievement. So now hopefully another great achivement for us can be to provide leadership and provide a model for some of the ways that we’d like society and our industry to conduct itself. That opportunity is extremely appealing to me and to both of us, I think.

GAIL: Because our world is in the midst of a revolution, and our business is changing at a pace that is almost impossible to keep up with, the opportunities that I see for our members are going to continue to grow exponentially from traditional platforms to the expanding universe of OTT services and emerging technologies.

It is an incredible time to be a producer. But at the same time, I also think we have to continue to protect and fight for producers, as we look to the future and to all of these exciting new places for content. Many people and many companies who have not previously been in the entertainment business are entering the space. Producers potentially can become diminished by that, by the lack of understanding of their role in the project. People seem to know what a director does and what a writer does. But oftentimes the producer, the visionary who started it, the person who’s in charge of putting things together and keeping them together, that person needs to be valued and advocated for in this new world order, if you will.

So I think that one of our goals is to take the organization into the future and to make sure that our current members as well as those who expand the ranks, are respected going forward and enjoy the opportunities that the revolution will provide.

LUCY: That was great. I want to say what she says.

[LAUGHTER]

GAIL: Thanks!

Lucy Fisher discusses a scene with cast member Tom Hardy while on location in Georgia for Lawless.

 

What you’re talking about is the paradox of the producer’s job. When you’re responsible for seemingly everything, how do you get others to understand or appreciate the nature of that responsibility?

GAIL: People used to ask me, “What does a producer do?” And I said, “A producer is the person who gets no credit when the show is successful and gets all the blame when the show isn’t successful.” [laughs] That was my definition of a producer. I think 30 years later, it still holds up as a good definition of a producer.

LUCY: But just adding to that, in the film world, despite the fact that movies are often linked to the star or the director in the public’s mind, when it comes time to handing out the Oscar for Best Picture, it goes to the producer. That’s one of the things that the Producers Guild worked really hard on, to make sure the right people, the ones who truly did the work, receive the credit they deserve.

I think Gail is absolutely right that in this exploding universe of entertainment, we want to make sure that we can protect producers the same way. That requires identifying the work. That requires educating people. And it requires having talented people to do that job. I think we do. We have thousands of members and we’re getting more every week.

I think the expanding ranks of the PGA is evidence that the organization has touched a lot of people, has built a community for producers to be able to communicate, share ideas, share frustrations, and be a place that individuals can find work and feel protected. I think that’s a really good way to look at how to grow this organization and to continue to move its ranks into television and into what the Guild still calls “new media.” I hate to tell everybody, but “new media” is at this point, ironically, a very old term.

GAIL: As a guild, we’re exploring a lot of different ways of going about producing in that space. Certainly that is something that we’re doing at my company. And I’d like to think that’s some knowledge that I’ll be able to share with our membership.

LUCY: On a separate but related note, in terms of the membership, I think the PGA’s expanding and redefining what the AP Council represents has allowed a lot more people and younger people to join the Guild. I mean, that’s our lifeblood. We’re excited that those people can find their way in and find work through their membership.

 

Executive producer Gail Berman (back left) with team members from 2016's The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again. Back row: Berman, producer Lou Adler; Front row: cast members Reeve Carney, Victoria Justice, Ryan McCartan, Laverne Cox, Tim Curry, director Kenny Ortega

That’s what a guild is supposed to do, advance your career and give you a trade.

GAIL: That’s our overarching goal: to keep expanding the ranks so that you can start at one place and begin to grow in your career as well as within the PGA.

LUCY: One of the things that I know I’m excited about and I think the Guild is excited about is that in Gail, we have a President who comes from such a deep television background, even though she’s doing features now too. But we haven’t had that in the Guild at such a primary level before. Since there’s now a highway between film and television, with people commuting from one medium to the other, having that perspective is going to be really valuable.

GAIL: I think the lines are blurred. Here’s the good news: We’re all about quality content. We’re all about encouraging our membership to create and be involved in high-quality content. Going forward, that content will be seen on any number of platforms—platforms that we’re all familiar with, the big screen, broadcast television, cable television and now any number of over-the-top services that are being developed or are already in the game.

I think the key here is not so much to think about serving a given distribution platform, but to think about content and the necessity for high-quality content to populate all of these different ways of distributing product. It’s an incredibly ambitious time for producers. It’s an incredibly scary time for producers. But I am a believer that, when you have this kind of tumult, amazing opportunity comes from it. For those who are willing to look and find it, there is a new day dawning. I’m very happy to be part of helping the Guild be a part of this new day and get it to wherever and however we can benefit our members the most.

 

We’ve already spoken a little about the Producers Mark. It remains the signature achievement of the Guild. Lucy, you had a ringside seat to the creation of the Mark.

LUCY: At first it felt like a pipe dream, that the Mark would ever be accepted by any studio, much less all of them. Studios were not in the habit of respecting producers to the degree that they deserved to be respected. It was a very hard process, which our predecessors undertook brilliantly. But when we finally saw that little “p.g.a” next to our names, we were really excited. People asked us, “What is that?” And then they usually said, “We didn’t know you played golf!”

[LAUGHTER]

LUCY: Of course, we explained what it really meant. Anyway the fact that it caught on the way that it did, and the fact that people wanted to have those initials next to their name and wanted to signify that they really did the work, and that they were proud of the work that they did, all of that happened really quickly once it started. I think it’s certainly a crowning achievement of the Guild, at least in the film sphere.

Now we have to figure out how to keep it relevant and how to make it so people can’t game the system. We have a slew of problems that we never anticipated because some people now want the Mark so badly that they are trying to figure out ways to circumvent or bend the rules. So there will be a constant process of massaging or reevaluating those rules. And it’s something that we would like to explore expanding into the television world.

GAIL: Yes. We really believe that, while it’s a more complicated venture to add it to television, it’s certainly worthy of exploration. We have members that I know are interested in seeing that happen. A full evaluation of what the Mark means and what it could mean for television producers is a conversation that we’re going to take up quickly … just in an exploratory way. What would it mean to expand the Mark?

We’re not going to make any promises. We don’t imagine that this is an issue that can be tackled quickly. But we will certainly engage in the conversation.

 

Certainly the kind of tumult you were just talking about suggests that this is a more Malleable PHASE than we’ve seen.

GAIL: That’s why I think this may be the moment to really begin these conversations because at a certain point in time, producers need to answer certain questions such as: What is a film? What is a television show? What is digital content? If a film doesn’t appear in a movie theater, does that mean it’s not a movie? These are all questions that have to be raised. Producers themselves have to engage in the conversation about these things so that other entities are not deciding this for us.

We want to be at the forefront of that decision-making. We want to rise to the occasion the same way the Guild did when confronted with the issue of harassment impacting the industry as a whole. We want to be the first out. We want to be setting the agenda for our membership, as opposed to bringing up the rear.

 

That’s a perfect segue, because that’s exactly what the Guild made it a point to do in delivering its Anti-Harassment Guidelines for its members—to give them a fixed point to hold on to in the middle of a lot of swirling uncertainty. I know that you both were very key to that process. What was your experience like, of getting together and really digging into this sensitive area during what everyone sensed was kind of a watershed moment?

LUCY: It was incredibly intense. People felt really strongly about many different aspects of the issue. I will be forever impressed with how quickly the Producers Guild acted, A) in convening a task force and B) encouraging the multitude of points of view about what should be done and what measures could be taken. As happens in good producing, everybody was heard. And we actually came to practical solutions in terms of creating a document that became the template for the other guilds.

So the Producers Guild really stepped up very quickly to address the problem. Did we take a great first step? Yes. Will we have to continue to be vigilant? The answer is yes. We have a membership that’s very committed to those issues. They’re serious. This wasn’t a passing whimsy that will be forgotten in a month. It’s a part of our culture that’s going to stay. I think the Producers Guild really stepped up quickly and intelligently.

GAIL: I think what Lucy said is exactly right. I think it was a proud moment, especially in that we took on a painful situation that some of our very own members contributed to. So we needed to be proactive about it. We needed to take a strong stand, the way we want to do with a lot of things going forward. The very fact that we’re in this position—that the PGA for the first time has elected two women as its Presidents—that in itself sends a powerful message in this moment.

We can’t dictate what our membership does creatively. But what we can do is create a standard that we would like to see our membership uphold. If we can just express that priority to the membership and have them embrace it, that will make our tenure really, really worthwhile.

 

At the same time, the pushback against harassment is taking place within a larger context. Lots of voices that historically have been excluded from the industry are speaking up to be included.

GAIL: First and foremost, we have to make sure that those are individuals that are in our Guild, from the very start. If they’re not in our Guild, you can’t represent people that aren’t present. So the Guild itself has to open the doors up and be inclusive of the kinds of individuals and issues that we are concerned about.

I know both Lucy and I are very determined to make sure of that, just as our predecessors were. Gary and Lori did a tremendous job in terms of diversity within our organization. I think we’re going to take that mantle and run with it. These are important issues of the day and we need to have a Guild that’s representative of what we stand for, which is inclusion.

By having those people in our Guild, they will tell stories to the world that other people might not tell. It’s incredibly important to us and I think to the world at large right now, that diverse points of view are represented in entertainment and in every sphere. The artistic freedom to be able to express a panoply of points of view can only happen with a majority of people expressing their experiences.

LUCY: It feels like the world is about narrowing voices right now, putting them into a homogenous box. The PGA should never be about that. We should be about the expansion of storytelling, the freedom of storytelling. We need to protect that for our membership and, really, for our industry as a whole.

Gail and I were talking earlier about the news, how local news has been diminished so much that the news that we’re getting is from fewer and fewer sources. We don’t want that to be the case with entertainment, because entertainment represents people’s dreams and hopes and experiences of life. It’s really important to defend that, not just allow all studios to become one studio that makes one movie.

 

I’ve seen that movie, I think. It’s another paradox of the producer’s world right now—the platforms are multiplying and yet the number of people who are actually in a position to purchase content appears to be narrowing. How do you as producers navigate that kind of tension?

GAIL: These are really important questions, precisely because they’re difficult to answer. It’s complicated. I mean, it’s not easy when one giant company is buying another giant company and you’re not sure—if you’re me, at least—who you actually work for.

[LAUGHTER]

I think these are questions that don’t have obvious answers right now, but as a producer, you do your best to navigate what you’re given. It’s just hard. Everybody is dealing with some version of that question.

 

Thank you for being so candid. Just to have other producers read and recognize that the Presidents of the Producers Guild are ultimately dealing with the same issues they’re grappling with creates real solidarity within the membership.

LUCY: The explosion of digital content is, in part, a reaction against having only a few people deciding what other people are going to get to see. That’s one reason that space is so interesting right now: They’re not asking permission. So we’re watching and we’re learning, same as everybody else.

 

Here’s a big-picture question… The PGA is officially nonpartisan, politically. We don’t endorse candidates, and we respect the diverse politics of our members by basically staying out of them. At the same time, we have fully embraced inclusion, and we now live in a world where that represents an inherently political position. Given that culture is at the heart of so much of the tension and the tribalism that we see today, what’s our responsibility as culture makers?

GAIL: Well I think a big part of our job as producers is to allow somebody to come home, put their feet up, turn on whatever device they want to turn on, and relax and simply enjoy entertainment. I think it’s an increasingly important thing to be able to provide to people, after a difficult day that’s fraught with problems and saturated with messaging. It’s a real blessing to be able to give that to audiences, because people need it so badly, and they need it more in a world that’s as divisive as ours is right now. It’s a wonderful part of what we can do, to bridge the gaps that exist in this world that we’re in.

 

That’s really well put.

GAIL: I also think it’s important to remind ourselves that what we create is, in so many ways, one of the great exports we have to the rest of the world. It’s some of the best product that anybody could ever want to export and represents what our country is like and what our values are. It’s something for us as a country to be very proud of. It represents us really well around the world, when other things may not represent us so well.

LUCY: At the same time, the best of entertainment can travel the globe precisely because it talks about the commonality of the human experience and because it reminds us that there is a commonality of experience. So yes, we provide escape and entertainment and the excitement that comes from being thrilled or moved or any of those things, but it’s also important to remember that it binds us to each other. The Greeks sat in the theater outside to watch plays and experience those stories together. It’s the same impulse you see in response to something like The Handmaid’s Tale, where different people all around the country are calling each other, “Did you watch it yet?” It makes a community, whether you see it on your TV or on your phone or you see it projected onto your eyeball in 10 years. There’s something that binds us together, that makes us feel connected to other people rather than feel threatened by other people. It’s like that moment at the end of Sullivan’s Travels, where the prisoners are all laughing together at a movie or the first time you see a foreign movie and you forget that you’re watching the subtitles because you identify so much with the characters … That’s a magic gift that we have, and we hold it very dearly.

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Full Spectrum - Exceptional Minds Create Vital Opportunities For A Unique Set of Students

Posted By Deborah Calla, Friday, July 20, 2018

About a year ago, I was invited by Susan Zwerman, a visual effects producer, PGA member and a DGA Frank Capra Achievement Award recipient, to come and visit Exceptional Minds, a school and studio dedicated to teaching visual effects and animation to young adults on the autism spectrum. As an activist for the employment and depiction of people with disabilities in media, I jumped at the opportunity.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences. The term “spectrum” reflects the wide variation in challenges and strengths found among the autistic population. The Center for Disease Control estimates autism’s prevalence as 1 in 68 children in the United States alone, including 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls. 

I met Zwerman at the school’s boardroom where she shared the history and mission of Exceptional Minds. As I was guided from room to room and felt the amazing pride the students, artists and staff took in the work they were doing, I was blown away. I got to watch clips of finished work for big-budget Hollywood films and TV series such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Spider Man: Homecoming, Game of Thrones, and Prison Break being done by young adults on the autism spectrum. Sensing my wonder, Zwerman explained that a laser-like focus comes in handy when you need to adjust individual frames of a movie. “They’re really into details,” she tells me. “They zoom in, and they really want to fix it to the nth degree.” I wanted to know more.

Based in Sherman Oaks, Exceptional Minds is the world’s only vocational school and studio that gives people on the autism spectrum an opportunity to learn animation and visual effects and work on a range of post-production jobs from rotoscoping, to green screen work, to 2D animation.

“If you want to know what’s on their minds, just look at their computer screens” says technical director Josh Dagg, who has supervised student artists’ work for feature films like the Golden Globe winner American Hustle.

The training program lasts three years and is taught by instructors and teachers who work in the industry and who have received training from behaviorists on staff in working with people with autism. Once the students graduate, they are eligible to join the studio and start earning a paycheck. Exceptional Minds also tries, whenever possible, to place those graduates who demonstrate the desire and ability to succeed as full-time employees into major post-production positions at Hollywood companies such as Marvel Studios.

Tony Saturno, a 2017 graduate of Exceptional Minds, has worked on The Good Doctor, Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther. He says he became interested in learning about visual effects after watching the first Iron Man. “I came from Maryland just to attend Exceptional Minds,” he shares. “Just that has given me a great deal of independence.”

Exceptional Minds was born out of a sense of necessity. A group of parents with kids on the autism spectrum wanted to see their children grow up to be independent and active members of society. But as they looked around for their children’s futures, the stats were abysmal: 90% of adults with autism were and are unemployed or under-employed and an estimated 50,000 teens with autism become adults and lose school-based autism services each year.

Yudi Bennett was one of those parents. She was a successful assistant director having to face raising her son Noah, who is on the autism spectrum, alone after her husband passed away. Thinking back on how well Noah had done in an after-school digital program, Bennett started to conceive of what a school that would teach animation and special effects to young people on the autism spectrum would look like. Exceptional Minds was launched in 2011 with nine students, software donated by Adobe and a fierce belief that as a society we can do better to create opportunity for others who are different.

“I have seen how diversity of thought may be the most meaningful form of diversity that our society needs to recognize and foster and include,” notes PGA East Chair William Horberg, whose own child is on the autism spectrum. “There is a growing population whose minds are wired and think differently, and who have meaningful contributions to make to society and to our industry.”

Once the school was up and running, it became clear that it wasn’t enough for these young adults simply to learn skills and occupy themselves. A job, and the attendant sense of responsibility and accomplishment, had to be the next step for Exceptional Minds. Bennett convinced her best friend, Susan Zwerman, to leave her successful career in VFX and help set up the studio. For Zwerman, it was a no-brainer. She had watched Noah grow up and felt committed to giving him and others like him a chance.

Zwerman accepted the challenge and took on the task of producing, scheduling and budgeting work to come into the studio. “For me, personally,” she says, “this has been a spiritual journey. I have had such a good career in the industry, and this is my way of giving back.”

Zwerman used her industry connections to get the studios to come and see the work that was being done at Exceptional Minds. Fox was the first to sign up, followed by Marvel Studios. Today the program has become so popular that they now have three potential students vying for every single spot in the school. People travel from as far as South America and Asia to come learn. Their summer session draws about 160 students for two-week classes.

“Yudi Bennett is a pioneer and a hero,” says Horberg, “for the work she does at Exceptional Minds to create awareness and opportunities for employment in media for these young people. I wish there were a thousand more like her!”

Unfortunately, there aren’t. As we reassess the nature of equality in employment and the portrayal of minority groups in the entertainment industry, people with disabilities—who today make up the largest minority in the country—are often left out of the conversation.

Janet Grillo, Chair of the Education Committee for PGA East, is on point, observing, “Children with autism become adults with lifelong challenges, as well as aptitudes which are uniquely suited to aspects of our industry.”

So why can’t we fight for the inclusion of people with disabilities and offer best practices with the same fervor we are now doing for women, people of color and LGBQT?

The answers vary, but in truth, they don’t matter anywhere near as much as the simple recognition of the value that people with disabilities bring to the fabric of our society and the contributions they can make.

John V. Chapman, the father of an Exceptional Minds student, poignantly states, “For the first time in our 22 years with Christopher, we have found a place where people care deeply about him and understand his plight, where people believe in his abilities and can help our beautiful son do more with life than bag groceries at Vons or stock shelves at Sears.”

As a society we have moral responsibilities. As artists we must reflect our society. And as an industry, we have the opportunity to tap into a market with  $200 billion in buying power.

People with disabilities want to be productive members of our society. Our community must step up and support programs like Exceptional Minds that teach, employ and serve as a bridge for this unique group.

“As working producers,” observes Grillo, “we have the chance to create opportunity, by telling stories by, about and with people on the spectrum—and by offering them a place on our sets,iourproduction houses, in our community and in our hearts.”

 

Deborah Calla is the Co-chair of the PGA Diversity Committee and the Chair of the Media Access Awards, which celebrates people in the entertainment industry who advance the portrayal and employment of people with disabilities.

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Voices From ABFF

Posted By Shirley Williams, Tuesday, July 10, 2018
Updated: Monday, July 9, 2018

The American Black Film Festival (ABFF) is America’s largest annual gathering of African-American film, web and TV enthusiasts. Held in Miami, Florida this year, the festival took place at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel and drew nearly 12,000 attendees. The home of Marvel’s Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, ABFF is sponsored by its long-time partner HBO. At this year’s festival, Sony Pictures premiered Superfly along with screenings of Universal Picture’s The Purge and TNT’s Claws. BET premiered The Bobby Brown Story about the life of the R&B star along with a screening of the film of his late ex-wife Whitney Houston, Whitney.

Ryan Coogler headlined the “ABFF Talk Series” where he discussed his journey to success, from his start at ABFF in 2011 where he made his directorial debut with Fig to his Hollywood hit Black Panther. In 2011 Coogler was rewarded $20,000 through HBO’s Short Film Competition; this year, HBO awarded $10,000 to director Alfonso Johnson for his short Moths and Butterflies.

Panel highlights included “Write Or Die” featuring panelists Cheo Hodari Coker (Marvel's Luke Cage), Karin Gist (STAR) and Kriss Turner Towner (Greenleaf) who shared tips on getting scripts greenlit, and discussed diversity in the writers room. Programming also included Master Classes where festival-goers got a chance to learn from power players like Karin Gist (STAR) EP, (Grey's Anatomy) on how to become a showrunner and Taj Paxton (Head of Logo Documentary Films) & Darrien Gipson (National Director of SAGindie) on how to get feature films financed.

Cadillac offered Ride With Cadillac, a complimentary shuttle service offering rides to all ABFF festivities as well as a VR lounge where you could build the first-ever XT4 Sport crossover. American Airlines hosted a lounge where attendees could check out the ABFF history and meet the official 2018 Filmmakers.

Pharrell Williams with Mimi Valdes

I got a chance to catch up PGA’s own Mimi Valdes, the Hollywood producer responsible for films like Netflix’s Dope and Roxanne Roxanne as well as the hit motion picture Hidden Figures to discuss how she as a woman of color makes sure her work spaces are always reflective of the world we live in.

 

Shirley: Tell me about your role at I Am Other.

Mimi: As Chief Creative Officer I am in charge of film and TV and our media ventures at I Am Other. I’ve been at I Am Other since Pharrell started it back in 2011 but working on film and TV since summer of 2014. That’s when we did our first movie, Dope. Pharrell considers it a creative collective. It’s really the umbrella company for all of his projects, but I’m specifically handling film and TV.

 


Do you have any upcoming projects?

We have a kids’ show that we’ve been developing for a couple of years now. We’re in post for Netflix. It’s a show for 8 - 12 year olds, similar to Brain Games. We partnered with the guys who created it - Atomic Entertainment - to do a kids’ version. We haven’t announced it yet because we’re still trying to figure out our launch date but that’ll be the next thing that comes out.

 

What are some of the things you do outside of I Am Other?

I am forever a student. I’m super curious. I just love discovering new things. I love people. I’m constantly trying to learn as much as I can about the world. I don’t really have a lot of time to do things outside of I Am Other. I do speaking engagements. I still write every now and then. I come from journalism; I used to be a magazine editor. I did a Solange cover story for Glamour a couple of months ago. I’m a storyteller first and foremost. In any medium that I can have an opportunity to tell a great story, that’s where I go. Wherever.

 

How do YOU bring diversity into your work spaces?

The magazine world has always had a lot of diversity. I’m from New York City, born and raised. Diversity to me is like normal life. It doesn’t feel comfortable if I’m not around lots of different people, and not even just people of color. I want all sexual orientations, I want different religions, I want everybody, because coming from New York - Manhattan, specifically, which is such a melting pot—that’s what makes me feel comfortable. But what I found in Hollywood is that there aren’t a lot of us. So what’s frustrating is you’re constantly on the lookout to make sure that our crews reflect the world that we live in. It’s not easy, because there’s not enough of us, in Hollywood, that have these positions of power, whether it’s greenlighting a film, or knowing the buyers that are making the acquisitions. But it’s important that we’re not just focused on the glamorous roles. We need all the positions. Whether it’s production designer, costume designer, craft services, line producers…we really need to be represented in all facets of putting together a production, but there’s not a lot of us. What I’ve tried to do is expose as many people as possible to these jobs, starting within my own personal crew of friends and family. We have to continue to let people know there are jobs in this field beyond just director, actor, producer. All of us that have been blessed and lucky enough to be in these positions where we are creating content in Hollywood. We have a responsibility to bring other people along with us and just let people know that these jobs exist.

 

Dennis Williams

I also spoke with Dennis Williams, HBO’s SVP of Corporate Social Responsibility, about his role at HBO and how it impacts the content the major media brand produces.

 

Shirley: What would you call social responsibility?

Dennis: I would call it “Robin Hood.” (laughs). I would say it’s just good business. You know, I’ve been at HBO for a couple of decades now but there was a time when people talked about things like business ethics—not just that you have a product and you make money, but is your product good? I think, fortunately in our culture now, we’ve gotten to a place where people are asking that question again and holding brands accountable in ways that we’ve not seen before. And we’re seeing brands understand in a very, very real way that consumers will choose to engage with you if they feel like your values match their values. If they feel like your product is welcoming and supportive of their experience, then they will support and buy your product. And if not, if that relationship isn’t authentic, then consumers will step away. I think it’s good business. I think it’s ethical business. I think it’s about business that has a moral compass. I think it’s the way that all companies should behave and operate, particularly in the media space. Media is so incredibly influential and powerful in our lives, it really nudges the culture forward in some very unique ways, so I think we have an even greater responsibility because we’re shaping ideas. We are speaking to people who feel invisible in the middle of nowhere, and they turn on their television and they see themselves reflected or they see their stories reflected or they see issues that they are grappling with handled in a mature, thoughtful, complex, compelling way and you can’t take that for granted. I think you have to be responsible with that power.

 

Talk about how you, growing up in Kansas as a child, didn’t see images of yourself reflected in the media and how that inspired you.

You called me out on my very selfish examplesometimes I say a “boy in Iowa.” (laughs) In my experience, it was growing up as an African-American kid in the midwest. My community was full of people who looked just like me and who were bound by the same kind of constraints that generations of folks had been bound by. So it was very difficult for me to see or to know what I didn’t know, right? It was hard to think outside of that. So media was key for me. I was incredibly fortunate to be born during the time that Oprah Winfrey launched her nationally syndicated talk show. I was obsessed with it. She looked like people that I knew. If up until that point all I had ever seen was Phil Donahue, then I could have never imagined that for me, because little black boys didn’t grow up to be old white men—not that we grew up to be black women (laughs) but at least that’s a little closer, you can get there. That’s not a bridge too far. Oprah is the best example, the shining example, and seeing her made a difference. Then I started to look for myself in other stories and other programs that I watched. As I grew older that became increasingly complicated, because I realized I’m probably not like the other boys here. I’m probably not going to grow up and marry a woman. I’m probably going to grow up and hang with other boys. I didn’t see that reflected. In this kind of crazy, scary way, my identity was so limited because I just didn’t see it reflected anywhere else. So I understand in a very personal, deep and visceral way how important it is to see yourself reflected, and if you don’t, it can be incredibly isolating and that leads to people going to very, very bad places. I’m fortunate that there were some examples there that showed me another way. I tell this story pretty often—and my mother is probably going to get upset with me—but I was so obsessed with television as a kid, that I would literally sit and time television commercials. I’d heard that television commercials were 30 seconds, and I didn’t believe it! I was like, that’s just not possible! There’s a commercial and the black woman is sitting at the table and her son comes in behind her from the army, surprises her, and they cry and they eat? How do they do all that in 30 seconds? And so I would sit and time television commercials. I was that into media at an early age. And my mother would say—in particular about Oprah because I watched Oprah all the time—she’d say, “Oprah has hers, you need to figure out how you’re going to get yours, television is going to get you nowhere in life.” And now I’m like, “Hey, you know that company HBO? That worked out pretty good for us, didn’t it?” (laughs). But like they say, if you knew better, you’d do better. My mother was working with the cards that life had dealt for black folks in Kansas. It didn’t look like we were going to be media moguls. Teacher, preacher, post office – that was what we were encouraged to strive for. Thankfully it got bigger for me.

 

The ABFF festival has proven to be essential to the growth of the African-American creative community. It has created platforms for untapped talent, granted award money to gifted artists and continues to be a space for emerging talent to meet other creatives to build relationships and cultivate partnerships. ABFF has signed a deal to return to Miami for the next three years. The 2019 American Black Film Festival will be held June 12-16, 2019. See full ABFF winner list below!

 

ABFF 2018 WINNER’S LIST

 

2018 HBO SHORT FILM AWARD, sponsored by HBO (Prize: $10,000)

Moths and Butterflies written and directed by Alfonso Johnson

 

2018 TV ONE SCREENPLAY COMPETITION WINNER (Prize: $5,000 and a production deal)

Connected – written by Rashim Cannad

 

2018 TRU TV COMEDY WRITERS COMPETITION (Prize:  $5,000)

Harold Williams Wait…What Had Happened Was

 

2018 TURNER TV WRITING CONTEST WINNERS (Prize: $500/each)

Craig T. Williams Allergic (Comedy)

Terrence L. Moore Uptown (Drama)

 

2018 BEST WEB SERIES, sponsored by Xfinity (Prize: $3,000)

 KELOID U.S.A., written, produced and directed by Huriyyah Muhammad

 

2018 JURY AWARD FOR BEST NARRATIVE FEATURE, sponsored by Prudential (Prize: $5,000)

Sprinter directed by Storm Saulter

 

2018 JURY AWARD FOR BEST DIRECTOR, sponsored by Cadillac (Prize: $5,000)

 Storm Salter, Sprinter

 

2018 JURY AWARD FOR BEST DOCUMENTARY, presented by ABFF (Prize: $2 500)

Not in My Neighbourhood, directed by Kurt Orderson

 

2018 JURY AWARD FOR BEST SCREENPLAY, sponsored by Time Warner

 JINN, by Nijla Mumin

 

2018 AUDIENCE AWARD, sponsored by BET Networks (Prize: $10,000)

 Sprinter, directed by Storm Saulter

 

2018 NBC HOSTING WORKSHOP PARTICIPANTS

Kamie Crawford

Winston Marshall

 

2018 NBC SPOTLIGHT ACTOR AWARD (Prize: $5,000)

Zoe Renee, performance in JINN

 

2018 SCRIPT TO SCREEN COMPETITION, sponsored by BET Networks and Color Creative

Courtney Perdue & Baindu Saidu, African-America

April Blair, Curves

Darnell Brown, The Good Book

 

2018 ABFF COMEDY WINGS WINNER, sponsored by HBO (Prize:  $2,500)

Blaq Ron

 

Post by Shirley Vernae Williams

@ShirleyVernae



 

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Natural Born Producer - Indie Veteran Lynette Howell Taylor Takes Aim At The Heart of Hollywood

Posted By Katie Grant, Friday, July 6, 2018

“The truth is I feel like I’ve been producing since I was five, or maybe three. My mother was the one who always said to me, ‘When you were in preschool, you were the one telling everybody where they should play and organizing everybody. So in some ways, it’s just kind of in your nature.’”

Lynette Howell Taylor sinks into the oversized denim-covered easy chair in the white brick-walled conference room at 51 Entertainment (her latest production company)—no makeup, a long sweater coat, hair down, bottle of water in hand. Everything about Howell Taylor—her attitude, her environment, her willingness to share—seems easy. There is no artifice here—not in the room and not in this very successful indie-turned-Hollywood producer who already has over 30 credits to her roster before hitting 40, including indie hits Half Nelson, Blue Valentine and Captain Fantastic. This fall marks her biggest credit to date, Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born, starring Cooper and Lady Gaga.

Howell Taylor, of course, backs up her mom, “You recognize that there is a confidence in your ability,” she says. “You’re not afraid of being in charge. You’re not afraid of making decisions on behalf of yourself and other people, and I think that’s something that you can certainly learn, but it’s also something that a lot of people are just kind of born with.”

Howell Taylor’s love of story began in Liverpool, England where she grew up in a blended family of five kids and her working-class parents. If her head wasn’t buried in a book, escaping into the worlds of The Lord of the Rings or Sweet Valley High, she was performing with her brothers and sisters in the backyard—and by age 11, charging for tickets.

She spent her formative years acting in musicals with a youth theatre and might have become an actor if she hadn’t been rejected from the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts’ acting program. The head of the drama program passed her application on to the head of the Music, Theatre and Entertainment Management program, and she was promptly accepted.

In retrospect, it was a fortunate turn of events. “Oh my god,” she declares with palpable relief, “thank god [producing] is what I’m doing and not the other … I just didn’t enjoy performing as much as I enjoyed the other side. It’s a very entrepreneurial program. And to me, that’s the cornerstone of producing—figuring out how to manage not only yourself but also a business and other people and situations and projects. I really learned the foundation of those skills while I was at that university.”

Producer Lynette Howell Taylor (left of center) consults with director Matt Ross (seated) while on location for Captain Fantastic.

After receiving her diploma from Sir Paul McCartney himself, founder of the school, she worked for an agent and then a casting director in London. But casting fell flat for her, and she was itching to get into production, specifically musicals. So that casting director put a call in to a producer and got her a job as an assistant. “I was so lucky that I had these incredible mentors that just helped me,” she adds.

The musical she went to work on was financed and produced by the company East of Doheny, which eventually provided her ticket to LA. She arrived in Southern California and was overseeing the various shows the company produced in the West End and on Broadway, loving every minute. “I was working in musical theater. I was working for a producer, and it was awesome.”

The jump from theatre production to film was prompted by watching every hour of the behind-the-scenes footage for Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, the book she regularly escaped into as a kid. “The reason I got into the movies was pure escapism,” she admits.

“I was just fascinated by how that [film] came to be,” she continues, “and how as a storyteller, you could make that. I was obsessed. ‘Wow, how did they do this?’ I love big fantasy, I love Star Wars, and I’m a big science fiction fan. I love the escapism of it, the notion that stories can take you to this other place.”

Howell Taylor has made all kinds of movies and considers herself “platform agnostic,” but when asked about the common thread among her varied credits, she has a ready answer. “That’s easy. It’s character. Genre to me is irrelevant. We all want to feel like we care about the people that we’re watching. It’s not just about the plot or the events or the story. It’s about human nature and the specificity that defines us and makes each individual character who they are. So I’m always drawn to the projects that have strong characters. The plot is so secondary.”

Guided by that conviction, Howell Taylor has assiduously sought out collaborators who can match and extend her passion. “For me, producing is the practical application of making somebody else’s vision a reality. I’ve always seen that as my role, an enabler of someone else’s idea … I can love a script, I can love the story, but if I’m not excited by the filmmaker, then it’s not for me, it’s not the right project, and I’m not the right person. But it’s incredibly exciting to me to find a short, meet the filmmaker and [go on] to help them become the filmmaker that they are destined to be.”

She helps a burgeoning filmmaker achieve that vision by instilling a realistic understanding of their budget, walking them through decisions that will directly affect their vision or sharing her knowledge and experience to let them “be the best that they can be” without overwhelming their creative voice. She calls to mind a “visionary Sherpa,”someone who easily carries your heavy load and tends to your every need but is unflinchingly honest about the rough terrain you are about to enter. She especially loves working with first-time filmmakers and directors, like Andrew Okpeaha MacLean (On the Ice), Brie Larson (Unicorn Store) and of course, Bradley Cooper.

Lynette Howell Taylor reviews footage with director Derek Clanfrance (center) and cast member Bradley Cooper (right)
on the set of
The Place Beyond the Pines. 

Howell Taylor was brought on relatively late in the game for A Star is Born, joining the already robust team of producers that included Bill Gerber and Cooper himself. That kind of collaboration is what brings her the greatest joy. “[Bradley] and I had worked together on The Place Beyond the Pines and he called me out of the blue. There [were] a lot of great, competent producers on the movie, but there was a lot to do, and Bradley wanted to bring me on … to really have a voice creatively. So I was deeply involved in the script development work with everyone else.”

Asked what makes a story good enough to remake, she answers, “I mean, love is timeless. It’s a love story and, as Bradley says, ‘What better way to express love than through music?’ Because you can’t hide in music, and I think it’s, like anything, specificity of character [that makes] any story fresh.

“And that, to me, is what this new incarnation is,” she continues. “I think it has enough about it that the fans of the original will feel that we’ve paid homage to those films. But [Bradley’s] done his own version.”

We discussed how A Star Is Born shot at live concerts like Coachella, Stagecoach and Glastonbury to capture the true crowd feel and avoid prerecorded singing per Lady Gaga’s suggestion. Howell Taylor reports, “It was complicated. It was a lot of coordination and a lot of relationships. But that’s why it took a lot of us to make that movie.

“Bradley was the true leader of all of us,” she elaborates. “He had very clear vision for what he wanted to do, but more than anything, such a deep passion for the material and a commitment to excellence. When you work with somebody who is committed to that level of quality, it makes everybody rise to the occasion.”

With this current studio piece under her belt and Oscar buzz starting already, will Howell Taylor ever return to the indie fold? “Yes,” she answers. “The primary reason I will always do indies is because that’s where you discover new voices.”

Those new voices, however, still come at a price when talking financing. She contends, whether she’s working with an unknown filmmaker or big names in the business, the fight to finance remains the same. “I’m still dealing with the same issues I was dealing with when I started. I’ve made a lot of movies where no one wants to finance them before they’re made: Half Nelson, Blue Valentine, Captain Fantastic. People that do want to make them, want to make them for a lot less than what they need to be made for. I am forever trying to figure out how to deal with that gap, between financial safety and what the movie needs to be.”

She’s constantly trying to get the script that’s on the page made for the budget it demands. The usual objections—it’s too risky; can we change the cast?; and can we do it for this budget number instead?—haven’t changed. “[Like in 2010] … when no one wanted to buy Blue Valentine, and then it ends up getting distributed and it gets nominated for all these awards, suddenly, everybody loves it. So then you go into all these meetings with financiers and studios and they’re like, ‘We really want to make a Blue Valentine.’”

Howell Taylor learned about financing from the other side of the table at East of Doheny, who were financiers as well as producers. She found “being the first stop” for investors a fascinating role, learning the best ways to approach people for money, and more importantly, the best ways not to.

“Ultimately,” she reflects, “I realized that every company and every individual that decides to finance something has their own reasons for doing it. And you have to figure out what their reasons are—you can’t talk them into your reasons for why they should do it. Learning that lesson early on was really the foundation for me figuring out how to go and find partners for the movies I want to work on.”

Working on a film, for Howell Taylor, even meant venturing to the other side of the camera on one occasion. The experience only reinforced her deep love and respect for actors, when she was tapped to play a role in The Place Beyond the Pines for Derek Cianfrance. (Sadly for her fans, her character ultimately didn’t end up in the film.)

“Derek is so committed to truth and his actors really embodying their characters,” she observes. “He wants to do whatever he can to make those experiences in front of the camera as honest as possible. Even if he has a script, he loves to improvise. So he asked me if I would play a role that was in support of Bradley’s character … just to provide more color.”

Howell Taylor said yes and approached the challenge with total focus, leading the improvised scene with Cooper and Emory Cohen. “It wasn’t scripted, and I was fucking terrified,” she admits. “So I said, ‘Okay, I cannot be a producer today.’” Howell Taylor was picked up by a teamster to get to set, sat in hair and makeup, was fitted in wardrobe and was greeted by the first PA, who walked her to set like any other cast member. “I rode through the full process and I’m terrified the whole time. And what I realized was that every single interaction I had on that day helped me. So when I stepped in front of the camera, I was able to do what I was there to do.

“It really made me appreciate what kind of conditions you need to provide for your actors,” she continues, “in order for them to do what ultimately is the most important thing. You can prep your movies every which way but, at the end of the day, if your actors don’t have a space to work within that allows them to do their best, it’s literally all for nothing. Getting to know the other side of that was the most incredible experience, and I’m so grateful to Derek for giving me that.”

Howell Taylor with director Matt Ross on the
set of
Captain Fantastic

Howell Taylor also feels fortunate to be in a position where she can consciously choose content that’s more representative of the diversity of her audience. I asked her if she sees a creative cost to that choice. “I don’t think that there’s a cost to doing it at all,” she answers. “I think that the cost, if anything, is just the continuing effort to educate the industry that there’s a benefit to it. But it doesn’t feel like a cost, it feels like a responsibility.”

And she is determined to carry that responsibility to her crew. “In front of camera, I’ve always had a pretty good commitment to inclusivity and diversity. But she admits, “Definitely behind the camera, I have not had the same level of representation. So I have a deep commitment to the projects that I’m producing, moving forward, to making sure I improve that. But there’s no cost to it. There’s only opportunity.”

What’s next on her plate? Howell Taylor is moving into heavy development. She plans to “really focus more on optioning books, optioning articles and working with artists earlier on [in the process].” Perhaps that will help her fulfill her wish “to contribute positively to the content that [my daughter] watches.” She sees everything her kids watch and doesn’t worry about the strong protagonists available to her son, but her young daughter, although a tomboy and fierce soccer player, is already obsessed with princesses. Howell Taylor aims to solidify the notion that “she can do and be anything.”

It’s a notion she’s clearly taken to heart when she reflects, “I think if I hadn’t gone into the arts, I would have tried to be an astronaut.” Let’s be glad she stayed here on earth and managed to find another way to reach the stars.

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