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When Paula Wagner and her producing partner Tom Cruise announced in early November that they would be taking an ownership stake in United Artists, with Wagner taking on the CEO role, the news swept like wildfire through the film business.
It wasn’t just because Wagner and Cruise had been under fire ever since Viacom chief Sumner Redstone embarked on a very public feud with them, leading to Cruise/Wagner Prods.’ exit from Paramount Pictures. And it wasn’t just because Hollywood has had a dearth of senior female executives with greenlight authority ever since Sherry Lansing stepped down as Paramount chairman and Stacey Snider left Universal for DreamWorks.
The excitement was partly due to the fact that many female producers have proved particularly friendly to talent, both in their development process with writers and in their willingness to take risks on relatively untried directors. They also frequently have proved willing to pursue bold and original material, even when it is not obviously commercial.
“As a producer, I have almost always been drawn to story first — as opposed to a specific genre or a vehicle for stars,” says Julia Chasman (2000’s “Quills,” Sony Pictures Classics’ “Driving Lessons”). “I am not sure that starting with story- or character-based material is necessarily the most commercial way to approach things. But I don’t start out looking to sell projects; I start out looking to make a film that I’d like to see.”
“I obviously gravitate toward material that is typically more challenging,” adds Stephanie Allain (2005’s “Hustle & Flow,” Paramount Vantage’s slated 2007 release “Black Snake Moan”). “And my work as a producer is distinguished by the fact that I have worked with writer-directors who have a more singular vision.”
She also has worked with women in ways that some male producers might not. Indeed, Allain points to her female ensemble comedy, Focus Features’ “Something New.” “It was driven by women in that it was about women and also directed by a woman and written by a woman. I don’t think a white male could have produced that movie.”
Allain is one of the few leading female producers who is African-American, as were the principals of “Something New.” While she has favored more ethnically diverse fare than most, she shares traits with many other female producers who have been inclined toward difficult or offbeat films, have given breaks to other women in various capacities and have taken risks on first-time directors — as Allain did with “Something New’s” Sanaa Hamri or “Hustle & Flow’s” Craig Brewer.
In fighting for such difficult projects, many of these producers have shown an exemplary tenacity that perhaps stems from their own experience of fighting to make a mark in an industry that for many years resisted having women in powerful positions.
Few, however, have shown quite the tenacity that Cathy Konrad did in getting 2005’s “Walk the Line” made.
“I try to play the game very strategically, and I try to play the game with a long, man’s view as opposed to short (-term) view,” she says, explaining her approach to producing. “I don’t like ‘no,’ and I don’t give up very easily. And I sometimes think there is a tenacity in women — not to say men don’t have it, but I do think that women tend to stick to things a little bit longer than men.”
Konrad and her husband, writer-director James Mangold, developed “Line” for years and then kept pushing to get it off the ground even when it was put into turnaround at Sony. (They eventually shot it at Fox.)
“Because I am not a volume producer, I am very focused with what I want to get made,” Konrad says. “”Walk the Line’ was a decadelong journey. And the new movie I am making, (Lionsgate’s planned 2007 release ‘3:10 to Yuma’), is almost the same. Both were projects that Jim spoke to me about in 1995, when I first met him. In both cases, they are genres that nobody wants to make: Nobody wanted to make a biopic (like ‘Line’), and nobody wanted to make a western (like ‘Yuma’).”
Other female producers also have spent years getting cherished projects off the ground. Chasman devoted considerable time, energy and money to making “Edgardo Mortara” — the true story of a 19th century Jewish boy who effectively was kidnapped by the pope and brought up as a Catholic. Even with Anthony Hopkins onboard to star, financing fell through when Chasman left Los Angeles for Italy to do preproduction.
She is still trying to get the film made, years after she first bought the script, and now has finally gotten the rights back after appearing to lose them when the production was shut down.
In speaking of her own tastes and traits, Chasman emphasizes that they are an individual’s idiosyncrasies and as such, are separate from those that women as a group might share. While it would be simplistic to generalize, many of these producers do reveal patterns of behavior, both on the set and in the ways they run their companies, which differ from those of some of their male colleagues.
“Obviously, there are certain kinds of material that women are more drawn to or where the studios might say, ‘It would be great to have a female director’ — though usually it is the other way around,” notes Rosalie Swedlin, who’s developing “After Life,” based on a 1999 Japanese film.
Swedlin is loath to emphasize other characteristics common to her peers, but it is hard to imagine many established male producers developing the passion she had for Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books,” the best-seller that she is now developing as a film.
Other female producers stress the contribution they make on-set as well as off.
“I tend to make a very familial set,” notes Lynda Obst (1998’s “Hope Floats”). “I like a very friendly set.”
And, she says, she often notes aspects that her male peers might not. “I am very interested in things like how the actresses look — costumes and makeup; I am very aware of that, and I tend to think that women are extremely conscious of it.”
Many female producers are conscious of something else: bringing a distinct and nurturing management style to their production companies.
“(Longtime Warner Bros. chairman) Steve Ross, my old mentor, had a management strategy that I admire the most: If you can hire great people, let them do their thing,” says Lucy Fisher (2005’s “Memoirs of a Geisha”). “That’s ideal. Some people like to micromanage for the hell of it; many people want everybody to always go through them. But I don’t like to operate that way at all.”
In her many years as a senior production executive at Warner Bros. Pictures and then Sony, before she turned producer, Fisher developed a reputation as an expert script analyst and as a master at dealing with talent, particularly when discussing the underlying material of a film.
When she is giving script notes or working with staffers on development notes, Fisher says, she stresses a kinder, gentler approach with the writer or director.
Her notes as a producer “are the opposite of studio notes that the director or writer takes one look at and never looks at again. If you can identify a problem as opposed to rushing to a solution, that can really help a writer or director to use their own creativity to come up with solutions.”
In other ways, too, Fisher’s approach is more nurturing than that of some of her hard-hitting male peers, right down to her office setup.
“My office is more like a living room,” she says. “It is more about making people feel comfortable than trying to exude power. That’s not deliberate; it’s because it makes me feel comfortable, too. I do like to make as reassuring an environment as possible, as opposed to one that says, ‘I am the boss, and they’re not.'”
Like Fisher, producer Heidi Jo Markel (Millennium Films’ “The Tenants”) has an office that feels like a home — but that’s because it is actually in her home.
“I have created my office on the first floor of my home and done it very specifically so that I can be hands-on with my family responsibilities,” says Markel, the mother of a 6-year-old daughter.
Like many producers, Markel has had to learn to juggle her different roles.
“Women are born multitaskers because they have so many of these responsibilities — family, careers — and that’s why they make great producers, if they have the confidence to put themselves out there.”
If confidence is an issue some women producers have had to deal with, so is establishing authority. But Denise Di Novi (1990’s “Edward Scissorhands”), for one, says that has shifted over the years.
“It was different when I started 20 years ago,” Di Novi says. “You always felt you had to prove yourself. But now, I think, thank goodness, that doesn’t exist anymore.”
Because of this, she says, she has developed a management style, both on the set and in dealing with employees, that “a friend of mine describes as strict but fair.”
She adds: “I never raise my voice. I try to never lose my composure or my cool. But I try to really get clarity in a situation. Because when one person is angry, if you get angry, too, you lose all clarity — and if you have two irrational people, it is a very long road to get to be rational. If I have to intervene (over an issue), I really try to just speak the truth and be calm about it. I would say, almost every time, you get through to people, and you are able to maintain a respectful relationship that way. Some people only respond to screaming and bullying, but I find those people to be very few. And if they are like that, usually the screaming and bullying doesn’t work anyway; you just feel bad about yourself for doing it.”
Stacey Sher (Paramount’s “World Trade Center”) shares this approach and argues that it is more commonly found among female producers than male.
“Instinctively, we have a nurturing quality — a sort of warm, maternal, familial way of working, making sure that everybody is OK. Of course, there are extremely aggressive women and extremely nurturing men. But it has never been my style to sort of ‘get into it.'”
That is a lesson many men have started to learn, too. Perhaps, as one era gives way to another, the men will learn from the success of female producers and come to agree with Di Novi that “the nurturing, communicative, emotional nature of women lends itself very well to producing.”
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