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At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the two PGA presidents and longtime producers (between them, they’ve worked on Elvis, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Great Gatsby and Jarhead, among others) met with its national executive director to crunch the numbers on how much longer the organization could last in a challenged financial situation: As a trade organization and not a union, the PGA relied on member dues and especially its annual PGA Awards ceremony for revenue. But as the pandemic erupted and members began to lose jobs, the organization told members they didn’t have to pay dues they couldn’t afford, while the future of their in-person awards ceremony for the next few years was in question. The group determined that “we had enough for nine months if we didn’t make a single cent, which would have been the worst-case scenario,” recalls Fisher.
It was a scary moment in the presidents’ four years presiding over the Guild, with their second and final term ending later this month (elections are still ongoing to determine who will next head the organization, which advocates on behalf of producing staffs in film, TV and new media). That worst-case scenario never came to fruition, however: The PGA created an emergency fund for members through the Actors Fund, drafted COVID safety protocols for independent filmmakers and ramped up its “Hire PGA” program for employers, among other measures, as the pandemic lingered on, which helped get members re-employed — and the dues flowing in — again. The group held a virtual awards ceremony in 2021 and continued to welcome new members, too: about 8,500 strong, the PGA is now the largest it’s ever been. “So we feel really good about avoiding hitting an iceberg on our watch, and, also that it’s [the PGA] actually in good shape,” says Fisher. “And now we just want to get producers in the strongest position they could be in.”
Indeed, as the pair prepares to step down, producers at large remain in a precarious position. Backend compensation and non-writing film producer overall deals are increasingly rare, while there remains no one go-to health insurance plan for producing teams (the PGA is continuing to vet potential ways to fill that gap, and in the meantime offers information on different options to producers). “Producers are challenged in this day and age,” says Berman. Still, she adds, “That said, there’s an incredible amount of opportunity out there. And our membership can take advantage of the fact that we are producing so many different kinds of projects now.”
Before they leave their posts, the producers and former studio executives — Berman was president of Paramount Pictures and head of entertainment at the Fox Broadcasting Company, while Fisher was vice chairman of Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group at Sony Studios and the evp of worldwide production at Warner Bros — spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about their successes, failures and challenges at the Producers Guild and what the industry can do after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
What do you consider to be some of your greatest achievements in your role as presidents of the Producers Guild?
Gail Berman: I hope we were able to give the Guild a sense of professional continuity, meaning that Lucy and I are both active producers, we are women, we are examples of leaders that we hope that people liked to see — that we led by example, that we were able to continue our work during COVID, that we take the profession very seriously and we wanted the organization to be looked at as an organization that really understood the problems and the accomplishments of producers. We hope that we moved the ball forward in the sense that we respect producers and we hope we presented ourselves to the world as people who wanted others to respect the profession.
Lucy Fisher: I’d also like to add [that] when there were issues that came — Black Lives Matter obviously came up as a very big issue and diversity and DEI and all the inclusion efforts — we tried to address it in the fastest, most proactive way we could. We immediately set up our One Guild [member committee, which focuses on underrepresented groups in entertainment]: We had it before, but it didn’t have the same mission, which was to help every way that we could in that area. And I would say that when people would be critical, which God knows there are plenty of things to be critical about, our style was always to invite them in and say, “You have a really good point” if they did, which they often did. And “We haven’t thought about it that way yet before,” or “That’s a great idea coming to the tent.” I do think our personal style is a lot more that way than some places. And the Producers Guild is a scrappier, smaller organization than some other ones and so we can move fast. We do have a board, but we have quite a bit of liberty, too: Our board can meet at a moment’s notice and we can pivot on something or we can make changes. So I would say, not that the work is by any means done, but the consciousness of making it a priority has affected every area, from the p.g.a. mark to the composition of the board to how do we best help emerging producers to how do we make the tunnel entrance wider?
Just to brag a little bit about something, there’s a program called PGA Create that just started this year that Google helped finance. And it was for emerging producers of color and, and it’s astounding. In the first cohort, five of them have already become [PGA] members, one has already gotten a p.g.a. mark. So it really was a real version of not just “okay, be my mentor,” and now I said I was your mentor — it was actually practical stuff, and they’ve made shorts and they have projects that are going. Another thing that we both so respect is the quality of our members, how much time they devote: When we say we need more mentors, we don’t have to beg people, people want to do it. I think people feel proprietary towards other producers and want producers to succeed because as, as we all do better, producers can get more respect, possibly more authority, possibly even more money someday.
What were your biggest failures that you feel you had in your years on the job?
Berman: We still haven’t conquered the health insurance issue. And that is primarily because we are not a union and we face the same issues that the Affordable Care Act faces, which is people who don’t join or younger people who don’t participate. And so it’s been a difficult situation for us. We have decided to tackle it on a number of different levels, not just completely forward-facing [like], okay, how are we going to get health insurance for everybody, but also through some of the relationships that we have with studios and the idea of having a line item included in the budget for producers in order to pay for healthcare. A variety of different plans that we will be handing off to the next leaders have moved forward. So we have made incremental progress, but we have not completed the task of delivering that yet fully for our members. And that’s been a big disappointment.
Fisher: Please don’t make that be the headline (laughs).
Berman: It’s a challenge and, and we’re still working on it. We think we’re going to get there, funnily enough. Sometimes you build these trails and somebody else gets to finish it for you. But we didn’t fulfill that goal completely.
What did you find to be most difficult about your time in office at the PGA?
Berman: Fully understanding the structure of the organization. When we first came in, I can tell you that it was it was a little bit byzantine and little difficult to understand how it all worked (laughs). No, I mean, I’m kidding on that, but I think that we really wanted to move the ball forward and sometimes you come in with great intentions and then you think that you’re going to travel in one way and then something happens like COVID or the EDI [equity, diversity and inclusion] movement or other things that happen on your watch and your attention shifts to those. Those become your agenda. And so we hope that we delivered for our members, that as the new issues came up and problems arose, we stepped up to address them. That is different than having a four-year plan and staying on plan. And those are the kinds of things you do during your tenure as an executive, you set the agenda and then the reality hits of what your term is going to be like. So I think we have faced the challenges that have come in front of us and that’s been the most difficult thing, but that’s also been the most rewarding thing.
Fisher: Both of us have been studio executives, so we’re used to big organizations. Our organization, when it started and merged with a separate producing organization, had 400 members. And a lot of the rules and the bylaws were all written for an organization of 400 people, where [we] are now 8,500 people. So obviously getting our arms around that and saying, okay, what’s the best way to actually manage what we have, which is very different from how it was conceived. So we needed some amendments, we’ll say — that’s one thing.
The other thing I wanted to say is one of the things that I love the best about being a producer [is] producers — and it was never proven more than I think during this whole COVID thing — like to make things happen. They like to figure out solutions to problems. If someone tells us “no,” we say, how do we reframe the question? How do we make the “no” a delayed “yes,” how do we ask somebody else? How do we completely throw away the whole model and go in a different way? And COVID really threw that in our faces. Like, how do we get up and be the leader for a crew of 250 people or whatever it is, 400 people, 10 people? Each of these versions has its own way of how you handle it, but I’ve come away with even more respect for what producers do, which is they make something out of nothing. And it never has been harder than during the last two years to do that. And yet people still have their sense of humor. They still have their pluck. They prevailed. People said, oh, the movie business is going to be over, life as we know it is over, but that’s not what happened. What happened was that people put their foot to the pedal and they tried to figure out ways to get back into business and we did. So I would say we don’t take credit for that, but we were in a position where we could certainly help cheer it on and help oil it, however we could. And I think it really says something when you go to a set and you see how we have the added 20, 25 percent to the budgets [during COVID], [and] we’re still going to work and we’re still doing it. And it’s pretty great, that part.
As you finish out your tenure at the Producers Guild, the ability for producers to receive backend is increasingly rare, as are overall deals for non-writing film producers. Last year a group of independent film producers launched a unionization effort in response to low producer fees, deferred producer fees and the onset of the pandemic. What is the current state of producing, in your view, compared to the past, and what is the role of the Producers Guild in this moment?
Berman: Producers are challenged in this day and age. The removal of the incentive of backend from a lot of the work that we do is problematic. We’re independent people, we’re spunky and we’re resilient and we’re all of those things, but at the end of the day, we too have to pay our bills. And we have a membership that’s above-the-line membership, we have below-the-line membership, we have a lot of of different people in our Guild. And you know, the goal is to keep everybody working, and the goal is to encourage an environment where producers can succeed. And right now some of that is challenged and that’s just the fact of the business right now. I’m hopeful that things will improve as as people’s business models stabilize: We know that this is what this company is doing, and this is what this company is doing and we can react to that in an individual manner as opposed to the sweeping idea that nobody’s paying backend anymore. It’s an unfair situation, I think, for producers to have to face. That said, there’s an incredible amount of opportunity out there. And our membership can take advantage of the fact that we are producing so many different kinds of projects now. We’ve got feature films that are being made, we have films being made for streaming services, we have limited series being made, docs are being made more than they’ve maybe ever been made. So there are real opportunities for our members out there. Our goal is to represent members’ interests as a trade organization, which is what we are, and be able to help them find opportunities and deal with the challenges of the business.
What do you think are the industry trends that the Producers Guild will need to proactively tackle next? What challenges will it need to face or start thinking about now?
Fisher: I would like to answer a little bit because it goes with the other , which is, were we not leaving in a few weeks, the issue of the backend would be the next thing that we would probably really want to try to focus on. It’s so recent. And so dismaying and damaging. So it’s something that I think producers will face. We said we were risk-takers and problem-solvers and we like to bet on ourselves and we don’t have a way to now because we’re bought out. And so the idea of giving it all you have and getting a jackpot doesn’t quite exist anymore. And that’s that doesn’t seem fair for somebody else to be accruing income for many, many years when the creators aren’t. So that’s something I think producers and therefore the Producers Guild, whose job is to protect producers, are going to have to see how we can try to impact that problem.
This spring mega-producer Jason Blum wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times arguing that the streaming model of paying creatives a flat fee upfront without giving them a stake on the backend creates the wrong creative incentives. As longtime producers and former executives, what are your thoughts on that argument?
Berman: Whenever I invest in a project, I’m invested from the beginning to the end, no matter what.
Fisher: Can’t stop ourselves.
Berman: No matter what my circumstance is in it, otherwise I don’t take it. Having seen what ownership can do and the benefits of that, obviously that’s something that we would like for our members and ourselves on projects that we invest in. But I can tell you just personally, if I’m in it, I’m in, in and up to my eyeballs, no matter what. That’s the commitment I make to the creative people that I’m involved with, I make it to the studio or financiers that I’m involved with. So as far as I’m concerned, that’s how I approached my own work. But I do think that an examination of backend is a worthwhile exploration for our members.
Fisher: You can’t teach producers not to care, no matter how much they get shoved and knocked around, they’ll come back and still care.
Gail Berman: And that’s the right way to do it.
When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in late June, you both issued a statement saying the decision was “deeply dangerous” and “will create untold harm.” As producers, how are you thinking about future production work in states where abortion is banned and do you want any more guidance from industry leaders here?
Berman: I think we can only speak individually right now. When we released the statement, we spoke as individual women facing a future that is a desperate future for our daughters and our children and our grandchildren, et cetera. I think we have members that are in states that are dealing with these issues now. I was very heartened last night to see the response of women to the [Kansas amendment vote]. There were a lot of women, there were a lot of men who came out and said, “No, women are in charge of their health reproductive care and we don’t want you in our business.” That is my position personally and I believe I speak for Lucy, too. So we made the statement as individuals because we felt like we had to, but we need to confer with our fellow unions and studio partners, et cetera, to come up with an advocacy plan for it. We don’t have that yet.
And as you prepare to leave the top post, do you have any hopes for what the next president or presidents could achieve at the Producers Guild?
Fisher: More and better. Our mission is to protect producers, so that means protecting their right to be creative and it means protecting their right to make a living and it means creating a community, all those things. But the more leverage and power we can have, we always need more people to do that. And the Producers Guild has worked in tandem with the other Guilds I’d say much more during our tenure than I think was happening before, because strength in numbers. We already mentioned the healthcare thing, which is a big thing.
Berman: I hope they’ll be able to put that over the finish line. I also will say that on the ballot, there’s some incredible board members and potential officers. It’s going to be a fantastic new group of people. It’s very exciting. I mean, it couldn’t be a better bunch of people on this ballot.
What’s next for both of you in terms of the projects that you’re working on?
Berman: We’re finishing up the run of Elvis in theaters. We’re still in theaters, so it’s great, and it’ll start its PVOD run shortly. And Monarch comes on September 11th, which is our show that is three generations of a country music family, that’s coming on Fox, [with] Susan Sarandon and Trace Adkins and Anna Friel. And of course, Wednesday is coming on Netflix. And I have another show called Grimsburg, which is John Hamm’s animated series, we’re working on that. So a bunch of television things around the corner.
Fisher: And we made our first foray into television and totally loved the experience. So we have a show called Joe Pickett that’s just shooting the second season now. And it was the biggest show that Charter ever had and now it’s on Paramount+. So we’ve really enjoyed dipping our toe into that water.
Berman: We got Lucy to come to the dark side. Lucy and Doug [Wick, the producer, Fisher’s husband].
Fisher: We’re spoiled. We love it. There’s so much cause and effect. It’s like, you work on a movie for 10 years and then they said, “Oh, well, now we’re never making it.” But TV, you talk about it, you make it, you’re on to the next one. It’s fun. But anyway, yeah, we’re doing some sequels, which I can’t really talk about, but some sequels to some of our bigger movies and we are doing more smaller movies too. We have one called I Heart Murder with Sony, we’re casting it right now. And yeah, we’re a bunch of other television things too. I think we’ll enjoy having a little more time to spend on our own projects too when our tenure is up.
Berman: You know, they told us it was an hour a week, this job. It turns out…
Fisher: An hour day was more like it, or five hours (laughs). We had a lot of emergencies.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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