LA Film Festival Sun 6.14.2015

Women Make It Happen: Top Female Producers Talk Perseverance and Finding Your Tribe at the LA Film Fest

2015 Los Angeles Film Festival - "Women Make It Happen" Screening

Producing a film you’re not passionate about is “like sleeping with somebody you don’t like, every night, forever,” according to Nina Jacobson, producer of The Hunger Games films. Jacobson, a former senior-level executive at Dreamworks and Universal and former president of the Walt Disney Motion Picture Group, said that as an executive, “you can borrow the passion of others sometimes. As a producer, there’s no borrowing. You’ve got to love it.”

Jacobson was part of the Women Make It Happen panel yesterday afternoon at the LA Film Fest, which also featured producers Nina Yang Bongiovi, whose film Dope was a pre-Festival screening last week; Dede Gardner, Academy Award-winning producer and president of Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment; and Gale Anne Hurd, executive producer of AMC’s The Walking Dead and producer of such films as The Terminator and Aliens. Effie T. Brown, producer of last year’s Sundance hit and Film Independent Spirit Award winner Dear White People, moderated the panel.

“I’m not going to focus on the sort of woe-is-me woman thing,” Brown said right at the beginning. “We know it’s hard out there. The statistics show us that.” Instead, the conversation stuck to how the four women built their hugely impressive, hugely different careers in a constantly, rapidly evolving industry.

Perseverance was a major topic. “I was in the industry, stepping on every landmine there was, for about nine years,” Bongiovi said. “My big break came at year nine, when I met [my producing partner] Forest Whitaker, who believed in what I was doing.” Their first film together was Fruitvale Station—which, she added, was rejected by every studio they brought it to. But “those failures make us stronger and more determined.”

Jacobson couldn’t pinpoint a single big break, but did note that “the moments I took a big step forward, almost always I was getting up from being on the ground. It’s a lot of falling down, getting back up.” The life of the producer is not for the thin-skinned. Hurd, for example, got her big break straight out of college, when she was hired as an assistant to Roger Corman—who routinely fired her every few months. “Then the next day, I’d get an irate phone call,” she recalled: “’Why aren’t you here?!’”

“I was raked over the coals for what everybody thought was going to be this epic failure with World War Z,” Gardner said, “but you find your tribe, and you turn your computer off and you turn your phone off and you go into the cutting room and you just focus.”

The importance of finding your tribe, as Gardner put it, is enormous. “I think it’s instinct,” she said about choosing the people with whom to surround yourself. “It’s a radar—and you can be wrong. And then you can say, I was wrong; I’m moving on.” Bongiovi agreed: “It’s really about a feeling. It’s not about the money; it’s not about the offer. It hurts our soul to be around certain people, so you just have to move on.”

“What happens when you hit the first speed bump tells you a lot about people,” Hurd offered. “Generally, you don’t see someone’s true character when things are going really, really well. You can’t be partnered with someone who’s going to give up or [focus on] assigning blame.” Jacobson added, “It’s important not to hire yourself. You should listen more than you talk. People will tell you almost everything you need to know if you listen.”

While Brown outlawed any woe-is-me talk, the subject of women in the industry inevitably came up. While the statistics remain as dismal as ever, the numbers for women in the producing field are significantly better than they are for female editors, writers, directors or cinematographers. “I think that women are perhaps less attached to being right,” Jacobson said. “I find that people are pleasantly surprised if you don’t feel that you have to win an argument… I believe that you can be in control while being receptive.”

Hurd observed that none of the women present had named their companies after themselves—“I don’t think we feel the need to have ourselves out in front,” she said. Many of the panelists agreed that producing allows them more flexibility to be at home for their families more than directing would, and Gardner added that it is crucial for all women in the industry that more production comes to California. “If women could go home after directing all day long, I truly believe those statistics would change in a significant way,” she said.

All of them want more women behind and in front of the camera, but there are deep-rooted institutional barriers in place that cannot be easily dismantled. “’Black movies don’t travel’ was taught to me as fact,” Jacobson said. “’Girls will see a boy protagonist, but boys won’t see a girl protagonist’ was taught to me as fact. The only way that you can disprove those ‘facts’ is to defy them, and to put every bit of energy that you can into upsetting the apple cart—which is a really white, male apple cart.” She pointed out that even when she actively looks for a female writer or director, studio-approved lists of potential collaborators are usually overwhelmingly male, which means chances are the best candidate on the list will be a man—and you can only influence the status quo by making the best product you can, which means hiring the best person for the job.

While the gender gap is narrowing at an excruciatingly slow pace, other changes are coming to the industry faster than we can predict them. “The landscape is so kinetic right now,” Gardner said, “you can start thinking about things in completely new ways.” Jacobson agreed that if you want to make movies, “the beauty is that right now, you can. People are making compelling movies on their phones. Both the means of production and the means of distribution are hugely democratized, and if you want to [make movies], then you should—at any scale.”

And that’s how women make it happen.

Mary Sollosi / Film Independent Blogger