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Film and TV producer Debra Martin Chase stands out in Hollywood for a number of reasons, but her distinction as the “Queen of Tween” is surely the most noteworthy. This month, the empowered heroines of two of her popular franchises sing and saunter across screens big and small — “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2” hits theaters Aug. 6 and “The Cheetah Girls: One World” premieres on the Disney Channel Aug. 22.
The Emmy-nominated Chase spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the need for black Cinderellas, female empowerment and paying opportunities forward.
Hollywood Reporter: Do you feel like a rare commodity when it comes to creating these types of young female-driven properties?
Debra Martin Chase: I’m in a small group of people that are doing it. But yeah, I feel like a rare commodity for a couple of reasons. [laughs] The young female movies are something that I love dearly, and I’ve had some success with them. I just keep trying to push the envelope.
I call my niche “female wish-fulfillment and empowerment.” It’s talk about dreams and having the power to do whatever you want to do, but also imbue the pieces with some strong values and messages about self-esteem and believing in yourself. When I talk about my take on “girl movies” it’s not just “Does he like me?” or “Am I going to the prom?” It’s how girls and young women fit into the world today.
THR: Why do you think more films and TV shows aren’t made for this young-girl demographic? Or do you feel that it’s changed?
Chase: I think we’re at a different stage in the cycle. “The Princess Diaries” really was a breakthrough movie in the sense that, when that movie came out the general wisdom was you could make a movie for boys and girls would go, but you couldn’t make a movie for girls and have it be successful. And we proved that to be wrong.
THR: You mentioned “Princess Diaries” as a real breakthrough. Do you think that opened more doors for you and the demographic than “The Cheetah Girls?”
Chase: Both have been monumental in different ways. “Princess Diaries” opened the door for “girl movies.” But as a female producer it was my statement to the community that I’m a filmmaker — period. I’m looking for good material. It can be white, it can be black, it can be Latino, it can be Asian. I don’t want to be labeled in an ethnic sense.
“The Cheetah Girls” was so immensely popular because it was the first time this kind of traditional story of trying to balance family and friends with your dreams was told with a multi-cultural cast. And I fought really hard for that. It took a little while for everybody to get it. “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” even further back, had colorblind casting, and it was really a turning point for television.
THR: You got your first-look deal at Disney in 2001. Did that seem miraculous at the time?
Chase: It was a really big deal. It made me the first African-American woman to have my own producing deal at a major studio. Which I didn’t really realize in the moment. It was only after the fact that I realized I had broken this barrier. It was a real milestone for me in terms of my career.
THR: You always hope something like that breaks open the door, but I look around and it’s just you and Shonda Rhimes….
Chase: I know. You know, Shonda started out as my intern. When she was in graduate school at USC I was running Denzel (Washington’s) company, Mundy Lane. I gave Shonda her first writing job. I helped her get her first job job. And I hired Shonda to write “The Princess Diaries 2” for me.
THR: To what extent do you run into pressure like: “You’re one of the few African American women in Hollywood, so you’ve got to carry this banner for us…”
Chase: At the end of the day, if I am successful, I help open the door wider. I’m able to bring people behind me, which I have done, just by the very nature of what I do.
And with that empowerment you can reach out and bring other ideas to the fore, hopefully get some things done that might not otherwise be done, and pay it forward.
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