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5 Secrets of Success, From the Badass Women Who Produced ‘Selma,’ ‘Dope,’ ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘The Walking Dead’

5 Secrets of Success, From the Badass Women Who Produced 'Selma,' 'Dope,' 'The Hunger Games' and 'The Walking Dead'


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“Dear White People” producer Effie T. Brown, moderator of the “Women Make It Happen” panel at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, opened with a very particular directive for the 90-minute conversation to follow, which featured producing heavyweights Dede Gardner (“Selma,” “12 Years a Slave”), Nina Yang Bongiovi (“Dope,” “Fruitvale Station”), Nina Jacobson (“The Hunger Games,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” franchises) and Gale Ann Hurd (“The Walking Dead”).
 “I’m not going to focus so much on the sort of ‘woe is me woman thing,'” Brown told the audience. “I’m black and a woman, been so all my life. I know it’s hard out there, we know it’s hard out there, the statistics show us that, so duly noted.”

Her goal, she said, was to dig into “the[ir] experiences, their strength and their hope,” — in other words, examine how these women managed to transcend the status quo and forge their own paths. Below, we’ve provided a brief summary of some of the most potent points that emerged over the course of the conversation. You can share your thoughts with us in the comments sections below.

1. Find a partner who shares the same vision.

It took Gardner and Yang’s respective producing partnerships with actors Brad Pitt and Forest Whitaker years to take shape. The success of “12 Years a Slave,” “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station,” however, are indicative of how the wait was certainly worthwhile for both women’s careers.

As Gardner noted early on in the discussion, her relationship with Pitt began with him as her boss and over the past decade, has gradually evolved into more of a partnership predicated not only on trust, but also, and perhaps more importantly, their shared goals. “Brad’s a unique guy,” she said, “he’s an artist, he’s a cinephile, and he said from the very beginning, it’s not about a vanity deal, it’s not about stuff for me necessarily, this is about filmmakers [and] it’s about creating safe harbors for telling stories that won’t get made otherwise.” Gardner seemed to recall that Pitt also told her that he “doesn’t believe in the shelf-life of a movie” because “you and I didn’t find our favorite movies in the movie theater — and we’re going to make some that work and some that don’t, and as long as we don’t regret them, then I will consider those successes.”

Yang, who has been producing with Whitaker for six years now, first met the Oscar-winning actor nine years into her own journey working in the film industry, both in the United States and abroad in Hong Kong. “I was in the industry, stepping on every landmine there was, for about nine years,” she told the audience, “and my big break came in year nine when I met Forrest Whittaker, who believed in what I was doing and said ‘let’s team up and discover great projects to produce together.'”

2. Don’t fall into the trap of hiring yourself.

When you’re considering whether to bring someone on to your team, be sure to listen more than you speak. “It’s really easy to go into an interview situation or meeting and you’re talking and they are agreeing,” noted Jacobson. It’s important to listen more than talk, she warned, because you don’t want to make the mistake of hiring someone based on who you want them to be versus who they actually are. It’s an easy pitfall for producers to fall victim to because, as Jacobson point out, when you are interviewing a writer or director, you enter the meeting with the desire to work with the person because you admire their work. Given your preconceived ideas about the turnout of the meeting, Jacobson said, “you think that you’ve had a great conversation, but you’ve [really only[ had a great conversation with yourself.”

3. Build relationships with your financiers.

“There is a lot of money in Asia,” acknowledged Yang, “but the thing is [it’s about] finding the right partners and investors that will back you long-term.” These long-term investors, she said, “support us in all the endeavors that we do because they believe and trust our instincts.” The investors’ underlying trust in Yang and Whitaker’s instincts stems from the fact that Yang has and continues to always remain honest with her financial partners — managing their expectations by making sure that they are well aware of how the the social mandate of these films is much more important than making money off them. Yang said she makes sure that investors are clear on the risk involved — that in the short term, the films may not make money. Yang said that by helping to “tell the story of so many different ethnicities” across the United States and the world, the hope is that these films will be seen as more viable internationally.

Case and point is writer-director Chloé Zhao’s “Songs My Brothers Taught Me.” Zhao is a Chinese filmmaker who directed a film set within the Native American community from the South Dakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Following its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” ended up screening in the Directors’ Fortnight section in Cannes last month. Moreover, Yang noted how her relationship with financiers has even started to transcend the film space altogether as viewer behavior continues to modify itself in accordance with changes in technology. “We’re really strategizing with our Asian partners because the ecosystem has changed quite a bit, not only in feature films but we’re talking about mobile content,” Yang concluded.

4. Develop a skill that will pay the bills when you are in between projects.

“When you’re a producer, you are working on spec,” said Hurd. “People aren’t paying you until the cameras start rolling” — which stands in contrast, she pointed out, with how producers used to be able to “set up 10 [or] 15 projects a year and get a $25,000 development fee, so even in between projects you could support yourself.” Because the production landscape has changed so much, Hurd said that she encourages every producer to develop a skill set that can help them obtain additional work that will help pay the bills in between the projects they produce. Hurd told the audience that her experience line producing for Roger Corman at the beginning of her career has proved fruitful time and time again over the years.

5. Making it is a myth. Every step of the way counts, so settle in for the long haul.

“The only difference is people return my phone calls,” Hurd told the audience when asked whether she feels like she’s “made it.” Even after a project reaches success, she insisted, it’s still an uphill battle to get the next project of the ground. Said Hurd: “Everyday you wake up and you want to make another show [and] you’re starting from the bottom and working up. Ninety percent of the time the doors are going to be closed — sometimes still slammed in your face — or the worst, is when people say maybe because they don’t want to say ‘no’ so you’re actually holding out hope that [it] maybe will turn into a yes and [then] it doesn’t.” Unlike an executive position, she told the audience, a producer title “just gives you the opportunity to continue to try again with each new project.”

Recapturing the success you may have enjoyed on a previous project, Hurd said, requires a producer to remain current. To demonstrate her point, Hurd cited her recent experience using Kickstarter for the first time in order to raise funds for the production of “Mankiller,” a documentary about Cherokee leader Wilma Mankiller. Although “Mankiller” marks Hurd’s third time producing a documentary about a Native American subject, much to her dismay, the project got turned down by virtually every grant organization, save for Native American public television, which awarded the project a tiny sum to put towards production.

Managing a Kickstarter campaign, however, is no walk in the park. It’s a damn lot of work,” she said. “Literally, it was twisting the arm of everybody that I knew to either donate or put something up as a reward for people who pledged. I was sweating for that $150,000, and we made it, [but] every moment my heart was in my throat,” she said.

Of course, the pressure to constantly reinvent oneself makes it difficult to strategize your professional life along the lines of a particular trajectory. Gardner, however, doesn’t believe you should be too bothered by the perception of professional chaos.

“I worked in physical production, I was doing locations and then I was doing art department and then I worked in an agency and I sort of learned the theater and then I was at a different agency and I was doing books, and I was like, this is ridiculous,” she told the audience at one point. “But I didn’t [realize] that there was a common denominator to all those experiences, which was me and my brain and my heart — that I was sort of sorting my way through this and I was assembling something that was more linear and that had more intention that I realized.”

Gardner continued: “So I guess I would say, in those moments where it all sort of seems
[like] a scramble, trust that it probably has more logic than you think.
Give yourself time to kind of dig that out. I really believe that, I actually think people, they start leading
their life, their dream or whatever much sooner than they realize.”

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