At Sunday’s Produced By panel “New Voices,” Precious director Lee Daniels and fellow panelists talked about fighting fear and resistance with guts and hustle, reports Amy Dawes:
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I actually had to try to convince Disney executives that African-Americans could play characters other than a pimp or a maid,” Daniels said, describing his early years as a casting director and manager of actors. What seems ludicrous today was actually true even 20 years ago, he reminded. Daniels described a long and discouraging path in which he struggled to find work for his clients that reached a turning point after he watched “the constant rejection” send an actress friend into a destructive spiral of drug use. “I said, I’m not doing this anymore,” Daniels related. “I decided to take my career and my destiny into my own hands.”
He produced the low-budget indie drama Monster’s Ball, for which star Halle Berry won an Oscar, and then The Woodsman, starring Kevin Bacon. “I come from the streets, so I’ve always had a hustler in me along with the artist,” Daniels said. “It comes down to your hustle, your belief in yourself and your fearlessness.” By the time he turned to finding funding for Precious, Daniels said, “it was the easiest money I ever raised, because I had lost my fear. I know what I was doing, and I knew what I had to do.” Daniels, who is now in pre-production on Selma, about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, stressed a message of self-belief that seemed to resonate strongly in the panel’s diverse audience. ‘I’ll repeat,’ he said, ‘Hollywood instills fear in you. Don’t buy it. They don’t have the answers. You do.”
Writer-producer Mara Brock Akil shared the strategic thinking that helped her sell Girlfriends, a series she created and exec produced, to UPN. “I was in the right place at the right time,” she said of her breakthrough. “I knew that the network was struggling – some actors wouldn’t even read there.” After selling the sitcom about the love lives of four urban women, she threw herself into making sure it would be done right. “The network wanted to cast L’il Kim,” she said. “I knew they couldn’t afford her, but I played it out. I scrambled to find amazing actors, and when Li’l Kim passed, I was ready.” Since she was a first-time showrunner, the network assigned two other producers to supervise her. “I played politics,” she said. “I took them to lunch and said, ‘I dig your credits, but I want to be clear. I only believe in the success of a show with one vision. If you can support me in that, this will work. And by the third season, I want it to be my own show.’ The show went on to run 172 episodes and win multiple Image Awards. Akil went on to create and produce another series, The Game, and is now also a consulting producer-writer on Cougar Town on ABC.
Ali LeRoi, co-creator of Everybody Hates Chris, urged new producers to be aware of the thinking on the other side of the table. “The question they are always asking is ‘How are we going to get our money back and make more on top of that?’” he pointed out, adding that financiers see brand-name talents as “viable commodities they can leverage.” That’s how co-creator Chris Rock became the ‘character’ in Everybody Hates Chris, he said — Rock realized that would bring an audience to the show. “It’s like carnival barking,” said LeRoi. “They’re looking for the hook that will get people into the tent.”
Producers of entertainment aimed at African-Americans often hear that there’s “no foreign sales market” for such fare. There are ways around that, said panel moderator Tracey Edmonds, producer of Soul Food. “Companies like Screen Gems make urban films even with the assumption that there’s no global market, and from time to time there are other companies that do the same,” she said. “Also, you can find out from the studios what talent they want to be in business with, and then find out who had a deal with that talent or that studio and partner up.”
Darlene Caamano Loquet, president of NALA Films and producer of projects ranging from Bordertown and American Family to In The Valley of Elah, said she has defied the conventional wisdom by creating a strong network of relationships with reliable foreign partners over the years, and has used those relationships to ensure pre-sales for ethnically themed or cast projects. “They give me my budget, and then I take the project out over here,” she said.
Dante Di Loreto, executive producer of Glee, said that Fox television was actively seeking diversity when he and creator Ryan Murphy developed the show, which features a gay teen whose identity is strongly supported by his straight father, and a teen character confined to a wheelchair, among others. “We also knew that the network had been trying to get music into a television format that was something other than a reality show,” he noted. “There was definitely no model for a one-hour comedy with music. Even we didn’t know what the show would be, but we knew it would be a joyful celebration of diversity.”
“Ultimately,” he said, “The goal is for the audience to just see the characters as uniquely talented individuals. We’re all misfits, after all. When a show is most successful is when you’re creating a community out of everyone’s differences.”