Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury
by Guest Blogger Peter Belsito
I have known Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury for many years. They are straight forward, down to earth, generous and serious. And they have great taste. I thought it would be useful to get their input on our changing movie biz environment and, of course, they had lots to say.
Midge Sanford hails from New York City. She went to high school in Mamaroneck, New York and then to Sarah Lawrence College, majoring in psychology. She married, had two children and lived in Manhattan until moving to California with her ex-husband, a literary agent. She went back to school to get her master’s for a teaching degree and taught for 5 years, in Malibu and at Crossroads, a prestigious private elementary school.
She considered going back to school to get her Masters in Social Work but ultimately decided to try the film business. “I wanted to be with grownups but soon discovered that film people can be just like kids … only taller.” (Still feeling the need to help people, for 20 years she has facilitated a women’s support group at Step Up on Second Street, a mental health facility in Santa Monica.)
She started in the film business working as a reader for New American Cinema. Bob Estrin, a film editor, started the company to be more involved in filmmaking. Carol Baum, a producer, introduced them. She moved from reader to development executive, finding books and scripts, listening to pitches and finding writers for projects. Some projects were set up in house, others at studios. A few of the early writers she worked with were Larry Gross, Ron Shelton and Naomi Foner.
About this time Midge met Sarah through some writer friends.
Sarah Pillsbury is from Minnesota. She went to boarding school in the East, then Yale for a history degree. She also lived in Africa for a year working at a museum. She moved to L.A. to work with college friend Walter Parkes on a documentary, The California Reich (1975), an intimate look at the American Nazi party in California. She also worked on the influential documentary Babies and Banners, but within a few years realized that dramatic films was her real passion and produced Board and Care with director Ron Ellis, which went on to win the 1980 Live Action Short Film Oscar.
Throughout her career, Sarah has been a committed activist for social change. In 1976, soon after arriving in L.A. she co-founded the Liberty Hill Foundation with Win McCormack, Anne Mendel and Larry Janss — their motto — “Change, not Charity”. Liberty Hill took a different approach to philanthropy. Believing real change happens from the ground up and requires patience, the founders invited activists to join donors in the grant-making process— investing in grassroots community organizing and leadership.
Liberty Hill raised expectations for this type of community work. Since then, organizing and advocacy powered by Liberty Hill has influenced and changed national policies, launched movements, transformed neighborhoods, and nurtured hundreds of outstanding local leaders.
They started by supporting grass roots change of society beginning with anti nukes, women’s issues, rent control, and reparations for Japanese Americans’ WW2 internment in concentration camps.
Today front line issues are the living wage campaign, housing and homelessness, civil rights and environmental justice (“because the people most likely to suffer bad environments are poor and of color.”) For Sarah this work has helped ground her “outside of the Hollywood nonsense”. It has made living in a progressive city like Los Angeles possible.
Major films at this period also dealt with important social issues and inspired them: Norma Rae, Chinatown, Silkwood, The China Syndrome.
Midge Sanford (MS):
Our company started after Sarah won an Oscar for Board and Care and then struggled to find a development job. Her family and business connections were in Minnesota and Sarah decided to raise money there to start a company and looked for a partner. Luckily that turned out to be me!
The idea for this company would be to acquire projects and fund development, much like the one at which Midge had been working, New American Cinema. It was at first difficult to finance a new company, but eventually they raised $450,000 through a limited partnership. This allowed them to stay small, develop properties, option books and scripts and work with writers.
After three years they made their first film, Desperately Seeking Susan. That was a big success. For the next decade, they were able to make another film about every year and a half. Their deal with their limited financial partners meant all incoming money was put back into the company, not taken out as profit. They took small salaries for six years and were able to pay the limited partners back three or four times their initial investment. Twenty-five years after the release of Desperately Seeking Susan, their investors still participate in net profits on that film as well as on River’s Edge.
From the beginning, Midge and Sarah’s goal was to make movies that they would want to see – telling stories that were both entertaining and meaningful, and neither violent nor exploitational. Among their codas was that a woman’s story arc should not be about her trying to get a man. It is not surprising that two of their early efforts — Desperately Seeking Susan directed by Susan Seidelman, and Love Field directed by Jonathan Kaplan– share similar themes. Both tell the story of women in failed marriages, who can’t admit to themselves they are unhappy. In both cases the women characters become obsessed with another women and that obsession takes them on an adventure that sparks an internal journey.
However, Midge says,
We weren’t aware of the similarities between these films until we were assembling clips of our past work for a conference celebrating both the 100th anniversary of psychoanalysis and the 100th anniversary of film.
Sarah Pillsbury (SP) – In today’s film business, the system has so changed that the risk taken on a project is totally on the film’s producer. Formerly you could make a deal on a pitch. Now that support from the big companies for early financing is gone.
(MS) – For ten years we set up a number of our projects at studios. We developed ideas with writers and got paid a small development fee. I should add that none of those projects were ever made. Our successful films were all ‘spec’ scripts or book adaptations, which eventually we brought directors onto and found financing for.
Today, for example, they have a project with a “name” director based on a book and the script is being written on spec. They’re working with a great casting director to approach bankable talent. It’s going very slowly but they’re hopeful it will come together.
Another problem for them today is that their kind of fare, “adult drama”, feels “a bit like it’s poison today. We also feel like studio people used to be more entrepreneurial … not anymore.”
MS – In the beginning we were both pretty naïve. We were very impressed with each other. Sarah had experience in production, I had experience in development. Neither of us knew that much but we each knew more than the other.
SP – Our brains work differently and that has made us good partners, but intuitively, we usually respond to the same material – to characters who are so real that we KNOW we can bring them to life.
MS – There used to be more risk taking in the companies back then when we started. For example, Orion did three out of our first five movies – DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, EIGHT MEN OUT and LOVE FIELD. We made RIVER’S EDGE for Hemdale. So of our first five movies all but one of the companies that financed them went out of business.
SP – We were grateful to be asked to produce for HBO And the Band Played On about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and the discovery of HIV. It really showed us the power of TV by bringing the issue out to a wide audience at an early time in the disease’s progress.
MS – That was a tough assignment too. The Director, Roger Spottiswoode, left the show in post-production. But he did a brilliant job and it won an Emmy for Best Made for TV Movie.
SP – In 2000, two things happened to us that changed things.
Our Dreamworks deal ended and then we lost our key development person in a car accident – a horrible tragedy. Jan Vusich died Jan. 2, 2000, she was a real daily link for us to the working business world in Hollywood. She had developed a tremendous number of relationships and good will. It would have been hard for anyone to fill her shoes or get up to speed on the projects she had initiated. And without the DreamWorks deal, we weren’t able to hire someone who was experienced.
But by then, the niche we occupied was getting smaller and more people, younger and hungrier, were trying to get into it. Of course, trying to produce meaningful, character-driven films was never easy, but we used to have champions inside the studios – peers – but many of them moved on and the few who remained moved so far up they had to delegate any development to younger executives, whom we didn’t know.
Plus many companies went out of business or were bought by multinational corporations. Executives became much more risk-adverse, because they had to answer to people who neither understood the movie business nor had a real passion for film. Financially, risk was shifted to independent producers who were expected to develop material themselves on our own dime.
MS – Overhead is also a concern. We’ve cut expenses in this new situation we all find ourselves in. We’re learning how to work leaner.
SP – Eventually, I could no longer say that this was what I do to make a living. I will always be a producer and I am sure we will make more movies, but the further away you are from your last picture, the longer it takes for people to get back to you. People may say how much they respect you, but, frankly, what they call “respect” in Hollywood, is something I can do without. Frankly, I don’t care whether people in the business “respect me” – I just want them to return my call.
At this point a lot of assistants don’t recognize our names. Quite a change from the time when young women would tell us how much they loved DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN and that we were why they came into the business.
Yet we are still perplexed at WHY there aren’t more meaningful films being made.
MS – The population for films is aging. This is a trend for us to consider. Sometimes viewers will choose films and put them in their Netflix queue, but they still love movies and the theatrical experience. So some films do attract audiences who want to go to the theater.
SP – And there are so many talented professionals who are sharp yet wiser than they were. Since so many of us have downsized, we all could afford to make movies for less money, but even that money is hard to find. These days we like to team up with people who have had more luck recently putting together financing.
However challenging the process has become – to push the rock up the hill – we have projects that we love that we continue to push forward, and new ideas and new talent that give us hope and excite our passion.