Gail Berman Talks BermanBraun's Secret to Success: 'No A**holes Allowed'
Gail Berman and partner Lloyd Braun have relied on two primary mantras in running their company, which in less than five years has emerged as a player in developing TV series on broadcast and cable, creating websites that pull in millions of visitors and placing several feature films in development and production.
"Every day we have to have a couple laughs," says Berman. "And no assholes allowed."
Berman is buoyant as she talks about the privately held company's rapid growth. Wearing a pantsuit in her bright and airy west Los Angeles office, she laughs as she shows off some of the very personal art on her walls, such as a picture of Queen Elizabeth with Berman's head pasted on it that was a gift from comedian Steve Martin; a portrait of Alfred Hitchcock, her favorite filmmaker; and a mounted lightbulb that she says inspires her to have "good ideas."
It's Berman's sense of humor, as well as her humanity and humility, that Braun says made him go after her as his partner to create a "21st century media company."
"So often you begin to feel people are lying to you," says Braun, former chairman of the ABC Entertainment Group. "There isn't any of that with Gail. She is first and foremost a wonderful human being. When you add on that she is a fantastic businesswoman, has fabulous creative skills and is trustworthy, you know why I feel fortunate to have found her as a partner."
Adds Braun: "She's also a hell of a lot of fun to be with. You're going to have bad days, shit happens. When you have somebody down the hall who you can sit with and laugh, it makes all the difference."
Under Berman's watch, BermanBraun has cultivated three thriving divisions: TV, digital and features. In scripted TV, they have Alphas on Syfy, just picked up for a second season; the Brad Meltzer unscripted Decoded for History Channel, entering its second season; Swords, in its third season on Discovery; Junk Gypsies in production for HGTV; and the Jenny Bicks pilot Modern Love, being developed for Lifetime. (They have a first-look deal at NBC, where they are developing both comedy and drama pilots.) On the features side, upcoming projects include Ben Stiller's Rent-a-Ghost with Fox and Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus for Summit.
But it's in new media that BermanBraun has scored with sites like Wonderwall, the primary celebrity destination on MSN, and Glo for women, created with MSN and Hachette Filipacchi Media, which draws more than 5 million unique visitors a month, according to ComScore. Braun says they expect to have 10 sites by the end of next year, which they divide according to their areas of expertise. On Glo, Braun defers to Berman. "Gail knows that area better than I do," he explains. "She spends far more time making sure the editorial voice remains true and consistent. I'm capable of doing it, but I know she's going to be better at it than I am."
Before the current phase of her professional life, Berman, 55, already had a stellar reputation. When Jennifer Salke, now president of NBC Entertainment, was at Fox Broadcasting, she watched as Berman took the network from fourth to first place during her five-year tenure. She recalls Berman as a "great leader" but not the typical executive.
"It was common to see her walking down the hall with no shoes on with a megaphone calling out to everyone, 'Come on, what's going on out here? What's everybody excited about? We should be celebrating this!' " says Salke. "She was just great about rallying the troops and getting people motivated and excited to work for her."
Now Salke is enjoying working with Berman at NBC, where the two have partnered on such projects as the comedy Apocalipstick (being done with Universal TV) and the drama Masters and Apprentice.
"Talented people are incredibly loyal to her," Salke says. "She has deep ties with the writing, producing and acting community because she really knows her stuff. She's also very strong and direct, but not a bitch. It's a rare combination."
Berman began her career from a rare vantage point. The daughter of an insurance executive and a housewife, she graduated with a degree in theater from the University of Maryland in 1978 and got her start in show business producing a live stage version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in Baltimore (later taking it to Broadway, where she produced several other shows) before working for Comedy Central. She'd met her husband of 31 years, comedy writer and producer Bill Masters, in school, and when he got a movie deal a decade later (his credits include Seinfeld and Murphy Brown), they moved to Hollywood with their twin children, a boy and a girl, now in college.
She joined Sandollar Productions (owned by producer Sandy Gallin and Dolly Parton), which launched the Fox hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a series she went on to produce. That was where Peter Chernin recruited her to start a TV division for a joint venture of New Regency and Fox, where she created such hits as Fox's Malcolm in the Middle. That success led her to Fox, where as the network's first female president she launched juggernauts like American Idol and 24.
"She pushed people to get out of their comfort zones," says Salke. "In that way she was very inspiring to a lot of young executives."
Nina Tassler, CBS president and her longtime friend, met Berman when they worked on a pilot for Regency in 2000. Tassler adds another layer to Berman's appeal: "Gail has always listened to her inner voice," Tassler says. "She has exquisite taste and great instincts."
When Berman left Fox to become president of the movie division at Paramount in 2005, those instincts told her she wasn't in the right place. She never adjusted to the corporate life and was out as part of a studio restructuring after 18 months (with two years left on her contract). Her gut told her she wanted to be entrepreneurial without the pressure of a big corporation.
"You have to be self-motivated to do this," adds Berman. "And Lloyd is a wonderful partner. I don't know that I would feel so great about it if I were doing this alone."
Also: "I never wake up with that feeling in the pit in my stomach. That's a positive sign."