This year's Produced By Conference is only a
couple of weeks away. And you know what that means. It's time for our beloved
THE TOP 10 REASONS I HAVEN'T REGISTERED FOR
THE PRODUCED BY CONFERENCE
10. Still holding out for one of the Angry Birds
to be confirmed as a speaker.
9. Sorry, I need that weekend to give serious
consideration to the Emmy nominations.
8. At this point in my career, I'm just not cool
enough to be at the same event as Russell Simmons.
7. My attorney has counseled me against taking
advantage of the free legal advice offered at the conference by Ramo Law PC.
6. I do all my networking via Twitter these
5. I've never attended a Produced By Conference
while there was a vacancy on the Supreme Court, and I'm not about to start now!
4. I'm not going unless the entire conference is
narrated by Morgan Freeman.
3. Come on, guys. Prince died only three weeks
ago. Too soon.
2. Not yet convinced the Russo brothers have
really proven themselves sinceArrested Development.
And the #1 reason I haven't registered for the
Produced By Conference is...
1. I'm too busy Making America Great Again.
We're in the home stretch of putting together a
spectacular event this year. Remember, Produced By routinely sells out, and we
want you to take advantage of the incredible lineup of speakers—as well as the
hundreds of other attendees to connect with. Click here
to register today, and I'll see you at Sony Pictures Studios on
June 4th and 5th.
LOS ANGELES (May 18,
2016) – Today, The Producers Guild of America (PGA) announces a new Conversation With… sessions and a slate
of additional speakers confirmed to participate in the 8th annual
Produced By Conference (PBC). The recently added Conversations With… will feature an in-depth conversation with box office hit-makers the Russo Brothers.
The 2016 Produced By Conference offers more than 30 panel
discussions, mentoring roundtables, networking opportunities and workshops
designed to foster connections and provide key insights into today’s production
marketplace. PBC takes place Saturday, June 4 through Sunday, June 5 and is
hosted by Sony Pictures on its studio lot in Culver City, CA.
Update: This article has been modified since its original publication due to last minute changes.
The Producers Guild also announced newly added speakers for
Produced By 2016. In alphabetical order, they include:
Edmonds, CEO and President, Edmonds
Entertainment; Co-Host, Extra; JUMPING THE BROOM, "With this Ring"
· Paul Feig, Principal, Feigco Entertainment; GHOSTBUSTERS, SPY
· Mark Gordon, CEO, The Mark Gordon Company; SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, STEVE
· Pete Hammond, Columnist and Chief Film Critic, Deadline Hollywood
Handelsman, Associate Director for
Science, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
Hartig, Senior Vice President,
Original Programming, Production Finance, Starz
· Hawk Koch, Principal, The Koch Company; SOURCE CODE, PRIMAL
· Dan Lin, Principal, Lin Pictures; THE LEGO MOVIE, SHERLOCK
· Brian O’Shea, CEO, The Exchange
Russo, Principal, Getaway
Productions; "Community,” "Happy Endings”
· Joe Russo, Principal, Getaway Productions; "Community,” "Happy
Ted Schilowitz,Futurist, 20th Century Fox and Chief Creative
Officer, Barco Escape
Molly Smith, Partner, Black Label Media; DEMOLITION, SICARIO
R. Decker Watson, Jr.,Co-Executive Producer, "Deadliest
Catch" (Original Productions)
* The above speakers, panel topics and mentor
roundtables are subject to change.
include Sony Pictures; Cadillac, the Official Auto Partner of the PGA; Delta,
the Official Airline Partner of the PGA;
PRG Production Resource Group; Branded Entertainment Network (BEN);
Panasonic; AMC Networks; ARRI; Background Images; Box; CAPS; Coca-Cola; Don
Francisco’s Coffee; Emmett Furla Oasis Films; Entertainment Partners; Film in
Iceland; Film US Virgin Islands; Freixenet Cava; Heineken; Hilton Worldwide;
Honolulu Film Office; HUB Entertainment Insurance; Indiepay; Intuitive Aerial;
Light Iron; Marriott International; Minnesota Film & TV Board; Momentous
Insurance; Pacific Mercantile Bank; Produce Iowa; Proximo Spirits; Ramo Law PC;
Reel Security; SAG-AFTRA; SAGindie; SmartSource; Technicolor; The Molecule;
VER; and Wanda Studios Qingdao.
Conference 2016 is chaired by PGA members Ian Bryce, Tracey Edmonds, Mark
Gordon, Marshall Herskovitz, and Rachel Klein. The Produced by 2016 team
includes Supervising Producer Barry Kaplan (EKG, Inc.), Program Director
Madelyn Hammond (Madelyn Hammond and Associates), Marketing
Consultant Lynda Dorf, and
Sponsorship Director Diane Salerno (Six Degrees Global).
The 2016 Produced By Conference is made possible by The PGA
Foundation, The Producers Guild of America’s charitable entity. The Produced By Conferences are the
cornerstone events that epitomize the Foundation’s core mission, to educate and
inspire those working in the producing profession. To review highlights from
previous PBCs and to receive news and the latest programming updates for
Produced By Conference 2016, please visit the Guild’s official website and
follow its social media channels for the event:
Admit it. You saw the ads. Fargo is a TV series now? How is that supposed to work?
Of course, if the films of the Coen Brothers
have taught us anything, it’s that the universe indeed works in mysterious and
unlikely ways. And true to form, here we are. Multiple Emmys and Producers
Guild Awards later, FX can proudly show off the unlikeliest adaptation in
recent memory, a reboot of a story that was never intended to be a franchise,
and arguably the best show on television.
In this magazine, we talk about "vision” a lot, often enough that we
worry that the word starts to lose its meaning. But we don’t know what else to
call it, other than pure creative vision, to plunge into a singularly
self-contained feature film and find an entire TV universe inside. In this
case, the vision belongs to a gentleman named Noah Hawley.
Regular Produced By readers
know that TV showrunners come from all walks of life. Noah Hawley can chart the
progression from musician (struggling) to novelist (well regarded) to
screenwriter (successful). His career in
television provided him with essential resources at every stage: a year writing
for Bones to learn the craft; a first series, The Unusuals, which aired only 10 episodes, but gave him the opportunity to
create and run a show; a second series, My Generation, also
one-season-and-out, paired him with TV veteran Warren Littlefield, who’s served
as his right-hand producing partner ever since. It was Littlefield who first
sparked to Fargo, and sensed what Hawley could do with the
story. The rest, well, that’s history, you betcha.
Produced By editor
Chris Green caught up with Noah Hawley while the producer was busy on location
in Vancouver. Kindly carving out an hour before the production day got rolling,
Hawley proved more than ready to dig into the nitty-gritty of producing
television in general and Fargo in particular, whether discussing how to
handle network notes, his approach to creating tension through the use of
music, or the privilege of enlarging upon the pitiless but humane spirit of a
Coen Brothers classic.
Not every writer becomes a producer or a showrunner. How did that
process unfold for you?
At one point I was between books, so I wrote
a script that I sold in a pitch. Paramount had optioned my first book, so I
ended up adapting that as well. Basically, within six months, I had three
feature deals, which was a huge left turn from writing fiction. And then at a
certain point—because my motto is "What else can I get away with?”—I started
talking to the TV reps at ICM. Out of those two meetings came two pilot deals:
one at CBS and one at FX. I soon realized that if any of those shows ever got
picked up, I should know how to produce television, right? So I came to LA and
did some staffing interviews and went to work on the first season of Bones with Hart Hanson, because he told me I would
learn how to produce on the show.
Right. So as part of your first encounters with the industrial mechanism
of making TV, how did Hart help acclimate you?
Hart was a great mentor because he taught me that there’s a
process to this, to being entrusted with a huge sum of money to make something
for a large audience, and then to still try to make something that reflects
your artistic drive. I think Hart’s style played into my natural inclination as
well. I’m not a battler. You rarely win in the long run by fighting every
single thing. Hart sort of taught me how to "manage up,” if you know what I
mean. I think the thing that most writers don’t realize is often half of your
time as a showrunner is spent managing network and studio notes, which is way,
way, way too much time to spend when you have a show to make. So the key is:
How do you do that in a way that allows you to get what you want while making
them feel like they’re getting what they want? A lot of it is figuring out what
does the note really mean? A note is often a symptom, a referring pain. They
think that they don’t like this scene, but really it’s because something
earlier wasn’t set up properly. They often aren’t experts at diagnosing the
problem. They just feel the pain. I mean, a useful note is "This is confusing.”
or "I know what you’re going for here, but I don’t think you got there.” A note
is not "I would do it differently.” That’s not a note. But rarely is the best
response to stamp your feet and yell. Sometimes the right solution is not to
engage with the note. You see how serious it is. If they keep bringing it up,
you can address it down the line if you have to.
When I was doing My Generation, we had
a scene where Mehcad Brooks’ character was stationed in Afghanistan. He’d been
shot at earlier in the hour, but he was telling his wife he was coming home ...
no matter what they threw at him, he was gonna come home.
Noah Hawley (right) on location for "Fargo" with cast member Angus Sampson
I’m a big fan of catharsis, that idea that you
can build emotionally to a release. So for that moment I picked this song that
worked perfectly, because it starts [as one thing] and it builds into [another
thing]. Paul Lee’s note came back that the song wasn’t right, that it was too
sad. I was confused. I mean, it’s not a sad song. It has this driving,
uplifting part. So I went around and around with them about how A) it’s the
perfect song and B) like, why do you even care? Why does it even matter, on
some level, what the last song of the second episode is? It’s not like you’re
going to have a massive groundswell of audience leaving or arriving based upon
that piece of the thing. But I was determined to get what I wanted.
Now, in the very beginning
of the song, when it’s quiet and more emotional, the singer is singing the
words, "I’m sorry.” And I finally realized that it was just those words—"I’m
sorry”—at the beginning, that were establishing a tone I didn’t intend. That
was where the note came from.
So I had the composer put a piece of score in
the beginning to replace that early part of the song, and then it built into
the second half of the song, and the score was sort of no less emotional but it
just didn’t have those words in it. I even sent an email to Paul, including the
lyrics to the song, and showing how positive they were. And I got to use it. On
some level, it felt like a complete waste of my time—literally hours and hours
that were spent analyzing the problem and figuring out how to address it. But
it was important to me and so I did it. Every season has hundreds of examples
If you don’t get what you want, it’s your
fault, on some level. Sometimes they’ll never give in, and it’s a losing
battle. But I start from the assumption that there is a creative solution. I
just haven’t thought of it yet.
how did Fargo come about? How did this 20-year-old movie, fondly
remembered, but without a lot of common currency, get turned into award-winning
Well, MGM had just come back
from the ashes one more time. Warren Littlefield had been looking at their
library and Fargo was a property that had some possibilities.
It was interesting to me, but it just didn’t feel like broadcast was the place
to do it. You’d just end up making Picket Fences, which is
fine, but it’s not what the movie was. So it sort of went dormant and I kind of
forgot about it until Warren told me that it had been set up at FX with no
writer. I just happened to be going into FX the same week about another
project. And so the discussion turned to well, how would I turn Fargo
into a TV show?
And I said, "Well, it’s not a TV show for a couple of
very clear reasons.” I mean, one of which being it’s this crazy and violent and
very odd case at the end of which Frances McDormand gets into bed and tomorrow
is gonna be a normal day. That’s her reward. And the reason that we watched
that movie is because that was the one case in her whole career that was that
bad. And if she woke up tomorrow—the start of the next episode—and there was
another crazy Coen Brothers case, A) you couldn’t call it a true story anymore
and B) it would start to become ungrounded and less believable.
Why is the movie called Fargo, after all? It’s set in
Minnesota. Only the first scene of the movie is set in North Dakota, and yet
the movie is called Fargo because the word itself is evocative of a
place, this northern frontier. As Joel and Ethan said, it’s Siberia with family
restaurants. It’s where you can have the Swedish meatballs at the buffet and
then freeze to death in the parking lot.
So what if Fargo was also a type of true crime case where
truth is stranger than fiction? An anthology series works perfectly in that
world because it’s the sensibility that remains but the story changes.
How receptive was FX to an anthology series?
The first season of American Horror Story had done well for them, so
they were open to it. What I like about FX is that "Fearless” isn’t just their
brand; they legitimately want to take risks and break new ground. If you’re
trying to differentiate yourself from the whatever, 52 other broadcasters or
outlets, you can only define yourself by the quality of your programming. So,
yeah, they were very receptive.
So how did you approach turning
that pitch into a story that lived and breathed on its own accord?
That’s the challenge of it, right? It’s not that they asked me to
remake the movie or make a sequel to the movie. It’s like they said, "Here’s a
painting of a city. We want you to paint the same city but with different
buildings.” You know what I mean? None of the characters are the same, and it’s
not the same story. So what is it? It’s something that has the same feeling to
it, but what is that? So, on some level I had to distill what it was that made
that movie, that movie.
How did you answer that for yourself?
It’s sort of not "articulate-able.” A lot of it is instinctual.
Knowing that Joel and Ethan were very happy with the script was very
encouraging. Having their work as a model gave me a certain leeway that I could
say, "Well, look. It’s not that I want a 10-minute parable
sequence in Episode 5 but, I mean, it’s a Coen Brothers movie, right?” There’s
certainly precedent there. At the same time, it’s not about idiosyncratic
choices just for their own sake. It’s about internalizing that there’s no such
thing as melodrama in a Coen Brothers movie. You never have a moment of purple
melodrama. And yet, in their best films, there’s still emotion. I mean, look at
Fargo. In the end, there’s a sense of human dignity
and beauty that comes through even though they never once tried to play to the
audience’s emotions. So then the question becomes: How do you effectuate that?
From a filmmaking standpoint, you have to figure out, how does the camera move?
How are we lighting? Editorially, how are we putting this thing together? On a
production level, I’ve always taken pride in creating an environment for the
artists that feels supportive and where everyone knows that we’re all going to
do our best work and then go home to our families.
Well, there’s "doing your best work” and "doing your best work while on
location in a frozen wasteland.”
It was well below zero for most of our
production calendar. There’s very little stage work on Fargo. It’s not a TV show where you have a lot of
standing sets and you keep going back to them. So we’re out most days. And
there’s a lot of story to move through, so it’s this constant jigsaw puzzle. We
had to figure out how to do that the first time, and then the second time I
went ahead and made it bigger with more moving pieces and more locations. I
think we had three extra days or an extra week added on to our production
calendar, but not a lot. Most problems you can solve one way or another if you
put your head to it the right way. I think that Colin Bucksey won an Emmy for
Episode 6 of our first season, which was the blizzard episode, with two huge
action sequences in it. Of course, it was sunny for most of that blizzard so
that entire blizzard is just special effects, which is a testament to John
Ross, our VFX artist.
It’s like a military operation on some level.
What it comes down to is having the confidence in your prepping and planning. I
choose every extra. I’m involved in every decision that gets made on the show.
I sit with every department and have a sense of how everything looks and how it
all works. We encourage all of our directors to storyboard the bigger
sequences. If you know what you’re looking for, and you know when you’ve got
it, you can make good time. But you have to know.
And not only do you have to know… your team needs to know as well. I know
that producers give tremendous thought to "casting” the crew and department
heads. What was that process like for you?
Well, it’s tough. We got lucky in some places, and in other places
we had to make real adjustments. You come across a certain attitude sometimes,
often among groups where people are accustomed to doing low-budget things.
There’s a sort of "good enough is good enough” attitude, right? "It’s just a
chair, what does it matter?” You know what I mean?
Basically, you’ve got to weed that right out.
You’ve got to tell people, "I want your best ideas. I want your most creative
ideas. This isn’t that show where ‘good enough is good enough.’ This is the
show you’ve been dreaming about working on, where you finally get to express yourself
as an artist.” At a certain point you realize that some people want that, and
other people just want to punch in and punch out. And so you have to weed that
out. So I’m not precious about that. That’s not to say you fire people
capriciously. You give people a chance to do their best work. But if they
can’t, you’ve got to make a change.
Noah Hawley on the set of "Fargo" with cast members Colin Hanks (seated left) and Allison Tolman (seated right)
Right. That feels like AN even more demanding mandate on this particular
show, which comes out of a specific authorial voice that everyone is already
familiar with. It’s not like you have the luxury of making up your voice as you
Certainly, we have these sort of rules that
we go through. There’s stuff that you don’t see in Joel and Ethan’s movies.
They don’t pull focus between a foreground actor and a background actor. You’re
going to either cut to a different shot to highlight that actor or you’re going
to let the actor be out of focus. The camera moves on the track in very
traditional ways. They very rarely use steadicam. They certainly don’t use
handheld. In general, it’s a pretty classic approach to filmmaking
This year I think I asserted a slightly more
aggressive style because I felt like it suited the period and the material—a
little more fast-pushing our dolly out in some places, that kind of thing. But
I understand my responsibility to Joel and Ethan and their work, and it’s an
honor to get to speak their language.
given the critical and audience response, whatever expansion the second
season represents seems to have worked for everybody. How did you approach
doing something that continues the emotional, thematic thread that the movie
and the first season have started, but widens the scope?
You can’t be afraid to throw it all out and
start again. I like to joke that the first bad idea was to make the show in the
first place, and the second bad idea was, once it worked, to throw it out and
start again. The minute that you know you’re making terrible decisions, you’re
just sort of liberated [laughs]. But what I have that a lot of other
people don’t have is a canon of films that I can refer to. Not that Joel and
Ethan have mined every nuance of every story, but all of their films are
reference points for me. There are dynamics or themes that occur in their work
that suggest a good jumping off point.
What I’ve found is
there’s usually a catalytic event. In the movie Fargo it was that a guy hired these people to
kidnap his wife. In my first season, it was a man who had been bullied by
everybody ends up in the emergency room sitting next to another man, who’s very
much his opposite. Where do you go from there? In the second season, it was a
woman who ran someone down and then drove home with the guy sticking out of her
windshield and started dinner. And then you think, well, that feels like the
right story, the right tone, so now what? I felt like I could build a story
around that. What does that story want to be?
musically, once we started editing, I realized I couldn’t put any of our music
from the first season into this second season, because they’re totally
different stories. In our first year, the musical sound of tension we had was
this sort of "washing machine sound” that would rise and fall, a very steady
mounting pressure. And then in the second year, when things get stressful, they
get more chaotic. Anything could happen. So we have these horns that come in. It’s a much more anarchic sense of tension.
All of that comes by building the whole thing block by block.
But it’s a process, and as much as FX and MGM
were 100% behind starting over, there’s still a ghost in the room, in that we
made a show that won every award that they have, and now we were throwing it
out and starting again. The first hour of the second year feels nothing like
the first hour of the first year. It doesn’t do the same things. So it took an
act of faith on everybody’s part, which was to trust me, we’re going to get
there. It’s going to work. But I was probably the only one who was 100%
confident of that, because I saw it in my head.
I do want to ask you about one of the most decisive borrowings from the
original film which is your "This is a True Story…” opening titles. What do
those titles mean to you? What do they do for the story that follows them, a
story which pretty definitively did not happen?
Well, it’s interesting. When I went into the network that first
meeting, I said, "What we have to figure out is: What’s our Mike Yanagita?” Do
you remember that character from the movie?
The Asian guy who she went to school with,
right? They had lunch or dinner or something. Right. So we’re in the middle of
our movie and this guy calls her, "Hey, Margie. It’s Mike Yanagita. We went to
high school together.” And then she ends up having this very awkward lunch with
him where he talks about the high school girl he married who died of leukemia
and how he’s just so lonely. She finds out later that he made that whole thing
up and the wife actually has a restraining order against him.
The first time you see it,
you’re wondering, "Why is this in the movie?” My answer was that it contributes
to the "true story” quality of it, because the only reason you would put that
encounter in the movie was because it "actually happened.”
The true story thing allows us to play against
the archness of crime, of crime movies on some level. Calling something a true
story liberates you from those clichés of plot that seem to dictate every story
ever written as basically white hat versus black hat on a collision course. In
real life, things don’t play out like they do in the movies. When people think
something is true, smaller moments become more dramatic and sort of allowed.So
when you say something is a true story it allows you to make those left
The audience has their expectations because they think they know how
these things play out. So you can use those expectations to steer them down a
different road. Again, because I don’t have melodrama available to me, we try
and invest the simplest moments with that kind of power. It’s how, in the
second season, Patrick Wilson’s daughter made him an ashtray at school and
gives it to him when he’s just had a bad day. And he gets a little teary. Now,
on paper, the scene isn’t that. To allow the dignity of these characters to
come through in the most dry and simple ways makes the story more powerful than
writing these big emotional turns that are manipulating the audience. On a
filmmaking level, it allowed the Coens and their camera to take a much more
objective role. I think on all those levels, the true story device allows us to
present this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction idea in a way that always has to be
grounded and credible while at the same time pushing those boundaries.
Last Thursday, April 28, the Producers Guild of America National Capital Chapter produced a seminar on the burgeoning topic of Virtual Reality. Hosted by Newseum, the seminar entitled "Virtual Reality, Storytelling, and the News" featured experts in journalism, virtual reality, and new media production. Read more about event and watch the full video of the seminar below:
Virtual and augmented reality are transforming the way information and news are conveyed and consumed, and important stories are told. The promise and challenge of these new tools is connected to theNewseum’s focus on how the rapid evolution of media technologies has fundamentally changed the news business and will continue to affect an informed citizenry and our democracy.
Recent advances in consumer products and innovative applications are creating a new market for production companies and journalists. With customized camera rigs, stereoscopic lenses, and streaming applications, news producers are creating experiences that document major world events as audiences prepare to dive into content in ways not felt, or seen, before.
The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) estimates that 1.2 million VR headsets will be sold in the US in 2016, and estimates that, by 2020, the overall VR market will be somewhere between $50-150 billion. As VR content moves onto mobile devices and cost-effective headsets at an increasing pace, journalists and news producers will be in greater demand for new forms of immersive storytelling.
Join us for the first of a series of programs at the Newseum demonstrating these evolving technologies and innovative content with a variety of the best content creators, producers, technology companies and others involved in this emerging field.
Watch the full panel here:
Cameron Blake, senior VR producer, Washington Post
Cam Blake is the senior producer and lead developer of virtual reality for the Washington Post, creating Oculus Rift, augmented reality, and immersive 360-degree programming. He was previously head of creative direction for the news section of the Washington Post, developing high concept creative visual direction.
Mitch Gelman, The Knight Foundation
Mitch Gelman is the vice president of product at The Knight Foundation, where he oversees digital product development in key areas for properties that include more than 90 national and local news entities across the USA TODAY NETWORK. In this position, Mitch has developed a cutting-edge content management system, launched 600+ iPhone, iPad, Android, mobile Web and desktop products; and engineered award-winning emerging technology applications using spherical video- and gesture-based interactions to create virtual reality experiences. He was previously the COO of THX Ltd.; and senior vice president and senior executive producer ofCNN.com, among other positions.
Robert Padavick, Lead USA Today Network Producer for Virtual Reality
Robert Padavick is the lead network producer for virtual reality at USA Today, where he produces 360-degree video, and other emerging forms of storytelling. Robert works with teams across Gannett to power and scale premium digital video for dozens of Gannett sites. He was previously the director of content, for the Enough Project at the Center for American Progress, where he implemented multimedia production and strategy across platforms for upstart human rights campaigns, including trips to Sudan with George Clooney. He was also the senior producer of original content, news, for Yahoo!
Paul Cheung, director of interactive, Associated Press
Paul Cheung is the director of interactive for the Associated Press, where he oversees AP’s portfolio of digital innovations and revenue-generating products including interactive, print and broadcast graphics, mobile app, digital news sites and two Knight Foundation funded projects. Paul has built a global team of interactive producers, data-journalists, programmers, designers, animators, and researchers to create ground-breaking journalism. He was previously the global interactive editor of the AP. Paul is the president of the Asian American Journalists Association.
Chris Pfaff; PGA New Media Council
A former board delegate of the PGA New Media Council from 2006-2013; former PGA New Media Council vice chairman, and former PGA Board of Directors delegate, Chris was one of the founders of the PGA New Media Council member in 2003-2004. He leads a consultancy – Chris Pfaff Tech/Media LLC – that represents some of the leading service providers, audio/video technology firms, networking vendors, and media companies in the world. A veteran of the start-up world, Chris helped launch more than 20 ventures from the Lucent New Ventures Group, including iBiquity Digital; Flarion; Lucent Digital Video, and GeoVideo Networks, among others. In addition, he has helped launch AT&T’s Internet strategy; the Viacom New Media division of Viacom, Inc.; Sony Electronics’ Digital Betacam format, and Sharp Electronics’ LCD product division, among others.
In November 2015, an article in the New York Times by Maureen Down took a deep dive into the state of women in the entertainment industry. The statistics presented where frustrating and depressing. The piece stated that in both 2013 and 2014, women were only 1.9% of the directors for the 100 top-grossing films. A study by professor Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University reported that in 2014, 95% of cinematographers, 89% of screenwriters, 82% of editors, 81% of executive producers and 77% of producers were men. This is despite the fact that in the same year, women made up 50.8% of the U.S. population.
The one bright spot in this
maddening set of figures is that female representation in the producing ranks
is slightly better than in most other areas of the business. As more voices
have spoken out about correcting the inequity of men versus women in front of
and behind the camera, both in regard to pay rate and simply the number of people
filling the jobs, mentorship is often brought up as a key factor of the
equation. And if you ask some of today’s most prolific female producers about
pioneering mentor figures, one name comes up over and over again: Debra Hill.
Hill’s body of
work includes both commercial and critical successes, such as the Halloween
series, Escape from New York, Clue, Adventures
in Babysitting and The Fisher King. She passed away in 2005 at the age of 54 after a battle with cancer.
While she may not be entirely responsible for the better-than-average
representation of female producers in the industry, one could make an argument
that she had a significant influence on getting more women into the producer
pipeline. And it’s not just because she made a point of encouraging other
women— it’s also because she was a fantastic producer. She didn’t just open
doors for her colleagues—she demonstrated how to expertly do the job once they
walked through them, thereby helping to set them up for longevity in the
Producer Debra Hill and friends on the set of "The Dead Zone", 1982. Getty.
Hill earned her
crack producing skills by doing practically every job on set before taking on
her first producer title. She started as a PA on documentaries and worked her
way through many different departments, including script supervisor, assistant
director and second-unit director. Her big break came in 1978 when she co-wrote
and produced Halloween with director John Carpenter. The film,
purportedly made for about $300,000, had a domestic gross of $47 million. This
made her one of the very first independent female producers with a bona fide
box office hit.
As she progressed
through her career, Hill maintained her passion for the process of moviemaking.
Many of those she worked with and/or influenced, such as Stacey Sher and Gale
Anne Hurd, have commented on what seems to be Hill’s defining legacy:
There’s no above
and below the line— it’s all one crew moving forward, trying to get there and
make the day. Every person on a film or TV crew is essential to that project’s
success, regardless of their title or role on production.
producing credits range from Gattaca to Erin Brockovich to The Hateful Eight,
was Director of Development at
Hill/Obst Productions in 1985 and eventually became Vice President of
Production. "I think she was an unbelievably detail oriented, hands-on
producer,” said Sher. "She kept track of every nickel of every petty cash
receipt. She certainly had a great sense for story—she cowrote the Halloween
movies with John—but I think that while she had a great story sense, she made production
more creative. She found creative solutions and always looked at things from a
directorial and producer’s point of view.”
memorial, Barri Evins, who served as President of Debra Hill Productions from
1995–2001, provided an example of this when talking about their attempt to make
a film version of the television series Sea
Hunt. During a meeting, special
effects experts laid out complicated plans for filming the project, which was
set in the world of scuba diving. After listening to all of their ideas, Hill
laid out a much simpler plan using a small tank, green screen and specific
lighting package. Described Evins, "Their mouths dropped and there was utter
silence. And after a moment they said, ‘We think that would work.’ I honestly
don’t think they’d ever been in a meeting with a producer who turned around and
said to them ‘No, I don’t think so. I have a different idea and I’ve thought it
In addition to
her deep knowledge of physical production, Hill was known for her generous and
affectionate nature. This manifested itself in every aspect of her career, from
her work on set to her support of emerging women in the business.
inclusive and supportive of other women,” said Sher. "I also saw the ‘protect
your space at the table’ mentality in Hollywood. I don’t think it’s true
anymore. We’re going to see more and more women coming into the business, with
every Lena Dunham, Sofia Coppola and Amy Schumer. You can’t be what you don’t
see. I really believe that now. I saw women who had my job, so I knew what I
wanted to do.”
Hill’s friend Gale Anne Hurd added, "It was more than mentoring. She looked at all
women, regardless of where you were on the ladder, as equals. It was less of a
mentor/mentee relationship than a ‘We are all sisters and we are all equal, and
we should share our knowledge, share power.’”
Hill and producer
Lynda Obst did just that while running Hill/Obst Productions together at
Paramount Pictures in the 1980s. During her remarks at Hill’s posthumous
Celebration of Life, Obst described the landscape when the two of them began
working together. "When we met in the ‘80s, there was no Women In Film. There
were very few women in film, in fact. And no women producers. There was no
women’s networking. There were executives, and at that time if one was fired,
one would be drafted to take her place.”
The two producers
met while Obst was working for Peter Guber and Hill came to her with the pitch
for Clue. "By the time I had met her, she had done every job on a movie set,
including making hit movies,” said Obst. "One of the first female studio heads
initiated some early ‘girls club’
networking —the late, great Dawn Steel—and suggested that Debra and I become
partners. She saw the yin/yang of us. Debra knew everything about physical
production and I knew development.”
Babysitting was everyone’s first
movie but Debra’s, and she generously taught us all. A key thing among a
thousand things she taught me is that a set is where a producer belongs. Not on
the phone or at the studio, but with the director, with the crew, making the
movie that you’d nurtured.”
Hurd, whose long
list of producing credits includes The Terminator, Alien and TheWalking Dead, said the most important thing that she learned
from Hill was to always be thoughtful and supportive regardless of how
frustrated you might be.
be treated with respect,” said Hurd. "That’s why I think Debra was so important
as a positive role model because she could be tough, but she was always kind and
caring. Very rarely did she let the slings and arrows that we face every day in
this business get to her. Many of the rest of us had to become tougher and
tougher to give as good as the guys. And she never did that. She was able to
really maintain that level of grace that the rest of us just aspired to.”
Paul Reubens had
a similar experience working with Hill, who produced Big Top Pee-wee, which he cowrote and starred in. He said that on a particularly
difficult day on set Hill pulled him aside for a chat. "I don’t know if you
realize this,” she said, "but you dictate the mood of this whole set. You are
the star of this film and you wrote this film, and [if] you come in in a bad
mood, it just spreads so quickly.”
"And that was something I didn’t know. That’s something I have been able to
take with me from that movie and has helped me—and probably all the rest of the
people who have to work with me—quite a bit.”
Hill’s desire to
help succeeding generations of producers has continued beyond her death in the
form of the Debra Hill Fellowship, which was established by the PGA in 2005.
The Fellowship is awarded annually to "a man or woman completing an accredited
graduate program in producing, and whose work, interests, professionalism and passion
mirror that of Debra Hill.”
the Fellowship at Hill’s memorial service. "With Debra, giving a hand to the
women who followed her wasn’t an afterthought to her success. It was an article
of faith. Despite a career’s worth of critical and commercial successes, I
firmly believe that if Debra had found herself 20 years later to be the only
woman producing feature films, she would have been profoundly disappointed.”
SVP, Scripted Television, ITV Studios America, was the first recipient of the
Debra Hill Fellowship in 2005. She had just graduated from UCLA’s MFA producing
program and was concurrently working as a creative executive for a production
company based at Sony.
"The boost of this award was all about me being at
a place where I was at the bottom of the totem pole but I had potential. It was
a validation that I had some of the qualities that would help me prevail in
this business at a time when I wasn’t so sure,” said Papon. The grant she
received allowed her to join networking organizations like Film Independent and
Women In Film, as well as to option material.
"When I think about Debra’s legacy, it’s all
about tenacity and passion,” said Papon. "I think that you have to really love
this business and love the messiness of collaboration and love storytelling and
love every job in the process—but it’s hard. I still had plenty of meetings
well into my career where I was the only woman in the room. So I appreciate her
devotion and commitment to our own authenticity, to speaking up with her own
power and most importantly, to never being afraid of rolling up her sleeves in
doing the work. I think the legacy of Debra Hill is that you do whatever is
asked of you to tell the best story you can and find the audience where they are.
I think that’s the foundation of producing.”
2010 Fellowship recipient Jacob Jaffke was
inspired by Hill’s passion for collaboration with writers and directors. A
horror fan himself, he has worked with writer/director Ti West on several films
including The Innkeepers (2011) and The Sacrament
(2013). Said Jaffke, "I’m not
saying that we’re Hill and Carpenter yet, but they’re definitely a duo that we
Like Hill, Jaffke worked his way through a number of jobs on the call
sheet before earning his first feature producer credit on Sleepwalk With Me, a project cowritten and codirected by, and starring comedian Mike
Birbiglia. Jaffke directly credits the Fellowship for the opportunity to
produce the film. He came out of Columbia’s graduate film program with a large
amount of debt, was living paycheck to paycheck and didn’t have the liberty of
cherry-picking his projects. He described himself as, "a gun for hire, working
on whatever projects I could to pay the rent.”
The Debra Hill Fellowship changed that.
"I think the most valuable thing the
Fellowship gave me was the ability to try out my own path and pick my own
projects,” said Jaffke. With the money from the Fellowship in the bank and his
bills paid, the young producer was able to pass on several films he didn’t
believe in and instead wait for the script with which he wanted to make his
mark. Sleepwalk With Me served him well, going on to win a number of
awards, including the Best of NEXT Audience Award at the 2012 Sundance Film
Festival. Jaffke was nominated for the 2014 Independent Spirit Piaget Producer
Award, and currentlyheads development for Eric Newman and
hisStudioCanal–backed production company Grand Electric.
Hill’s effect on
successive generations of producers extends beyond those she personally worked
with or those who received money from the Fellowship in her name. PGA member
Lotti Pharris Knowles (Chastity Bites, I Am Divine) cites Hill as one of her heroes in the business.
A self-proclaimed "horror freak,” she came of age watching Halloween
after school every day while her mom was at work. "Sometimes I would have to
stop at a certain point because I got too freaked out,” she said, "but I just
was obsessed with the teenagers, the dialogue, the building of tension—it’s
had aspirations of being an entertainer by junior high. She described how at
some point during her multiple watchings of Halloween, "It hit me that there was this woman’s name who
had cowritten the film and produced it. This made me realize that I could be
something beyond just a movie star—there were other options in the
entertainment business. Debra Hill was this person that I could look to and
say, ‘Oh, women are doing this and it’s cool and I can do it too.’ By the time
I was about 12, 13, 14, I was telling everybody I was going to make horror
movies when I grew up ... and here I am.”
Knowles is currently working on a variety of projects, including The Black Rose Anthology, a horror series featuring female directors of
How vital was Debra Hill to the PGA? Vital enough to serve as the
subject of Produced By's first cover interview, back in 2000.
One can imagine that Hill would be thrilled to hear that her body of
work and reputation have served as both encouragement and as an example to the
next generation of producers. She was honored by Women In Film in 2003 with the
Crystal Award. During her acceptance speech, she said, "I hope some day there
won’t be a need for Women In Film. That it will be People In Film. That it will
be equal pay, equal rights and equal job opportunities for everybody.”
When asked for a
reaction to that statement 12 years later, Gale Anne Hurd paused and said, "We
still need Women In Film.”
Hurd then went on to say
that there have been inroads but, "It certainly isn’t reflective of either the
diversity in this country or the gender equality in terms of actual stats of
the population. There are now a lot of women who are shining a spotlight on the
fact that it continues to this day. Women are paid less. Given less credit. And
it hasn’t changed as much as we would have liked. But at least the discussion
is now part of the zeitgeist. Debra began that.”
Krinsky is an Emmy award-winning writer/producer, actress and broadcast host.
She recently hosted the PGA’s coverage of the Producers Guild Awards.