'Hidden Figures' Behind-the-Scenes Drama Raises Questions About Producer Credits
While Pharrell Williams was instrumental in the Oscar nominee's music and marketing, he may not have met all the qualifications for the Producers Mark, which he was awarded for his work on the film.
In mid-August 2016, three anonymous producers met in secret to determine who would receive the coveted "p.g.a." mark for the film Hidden Figures, a decision that would affect who will go up on stage to accept a best picture Oscar on Sunday night should the film win.
With the December opening of the drama about a group of African-American women at NASA four months away, the trio of panelists evaluated the contributions of several key players and decided that Pharrell Williams, Donna Gigliotti, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping and Ted Melfi would all earn the distinction. The Academy, following the PGA's lead, named all five as the nominees for the best picture award, so the entire group will be invited on stage in the event of a Hidden Figures victory.
But a source with first-hand knowledge of the deliberations and the ruling says that unlike the other four, Williams, who wrote and performed music for the film, didn’t qualify for the distinction under the guild’s guidelines, based on the written statements and testimony submitted on his behalf. The source says Fox 2000, the studio behind the film, pressured the PGA to include Williams, and the PGA subsequently conveyed that message to the panelists before their August hearing. The panel was encouraged to make an exception. “So, all of the rules were usurped,” the source adds.
The move, which gave Hidden Figures a high-profile pop star and African American among a group of white producers on a film about black women, highlights the issues at play in awarding coveted credits on awards contenders.
The PGA won't comment on the specifics of the Hidden Figures credit arbitration but denies that Fox gamed the outcome.
"The allegation that Fox controlled or inappropriately influenced the Producers Mark determination in this matter is outrageous and untrue," a PGA spokesperson says. "An independent, qualified and pre-approved panel of producers made its determination in accordance with applicable rules, and the PGA supports the panel's decision.”
A 20th Century Fox Film spokesperson adds: "Pharrell Williams was an integral member of the Hidden Figures producing team and an influential voice throughout the movie’s creative process -- every step of the way. Any suggestion from an unnamed party that the studio pulled some non-existent string in order to gift him something he clearly earned not only smacks of spin from the competition, but also flies in the face of his tireless and brilliant work on this film."
Williams declined comment.
Though the Hidden Figures case can be chalked up as a one-time exception made at least in part because of the industry's awareness of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that engulfed the Academy Awards for two years running, it also raises questions about the integrity of the p.g.a. mark and whether the guild is susceptible to outside pressure.
The Producers Mark was created in 2012 so that real hands-on producers would receive proper acknowledgement for their work at a time when financiers were essentially buying producing credits for themselves in a bid to rush the Oscar stage on the film industry’s biggest night. The determination is made by the PGA, and the Academy then follows the guild's recommendation.
The PGA established 36 criterion and said that in order to receive the mark, a producer must have a hand in a majority of those functions. When there are disputes or questions about who deserves the mark, a three-member panel is convened, whose make-up is intentionally not revealed so that its members are not subject to outside pressure. A producer denied a mark can then appeal for a review of the decision.
But critics of the mark say the rules have not been consistently applied. On 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, the since-tarnished producer team of Riza Aziz and Joey McFarland got the mark, but Alexandra Milchan -- who claimed in a lawsuit that she spent years developing the book by Jordan Belfort, commissioned screenwriter Terence Winter and brought Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese to the project -- did not. More recently, Fifty Shades Darker producer Dana Brunetti was initially denied the mark, then publicly waged war on the PGA and was granted it on appeal.
The question surrounding Williams is whether he qualified under the existing guidelines, especially since in mid-August when the decision was made, the film’s marketing campaign, in which he played a crucial role, had not kicked into full swing. According to the source familiar with the Hidden Figures case, Fox conveyed to the PGA prior to the arbitration that Williams soon would be heavily involved with the film’s marketing.
According to the guild, the Producers Mark should go to "the person(s) expected to exercise decision-making authority over a majority of a 30-plus item checklist of specific job functions including selecting the writer(s), director, co-producer and unit production manager as well as principal cast in consultation with the director."
Hidden Figures had been in development since 2014 when Gigliotti became aware of Margot Lee Shetterly’s 55-page book proposal that would become the basis of the movie. As of February 2016, when Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer were cast in the leads, the studio listed only Gigliotti, Chernin and Topping as the producers. It wasn’t until April 2016 -- one month after production had begun -- that the music star officially joined the project as a producer. In addition to writing and creating original songs, he oversaw all musical elements for the motion picture and soundtrack.
“Never mind the criteria. Given the timeline alone, there is no viable way Pharrell deserves the mark,” says a producer who has served on dozens of PGA arbitrations over the years but was not involved in the Hidden Figures case. “The system in this case has clearly been rigged.”
Other producers polled by THR say that Williams, who helped launch the film at the Toronto Film Festival, deserved the producing credit the studio gave him, since he was eventually front and center in Fox’s marketing campaign and likely played a significant role in helping the movie become a box-office success. But those contributions by themselves would not necessarily have met all the criteria for the p.g.a. designation.
The questions surrounding Hidden Figures come at a time when the PGA is defending itself from some critics that its Producers Mark system, though an important means of fully crediting producers, is also flawed.
In October, when Brunetti aired his grievances, other producers came forward to defend the mark, with Doug Wick calling it “the difference between a merit-based credit and a bully-based credit.” Others like Craig Baumgarten backed Brunetti, telling THR that “sometimes the prejudices or preconceptions of the arbiters -- many of whom have spent most of their lives being screwed over by studios, directors and movie stars -- overlie the facts.”
For his part, Brunetti says he will continue to fight the guild to change the way it determines the mark. He suggests a panel comprised of lawyers or non-industry people who understand the guidelines but are free of bias. As it is, arbitration panels, like the one that made the determination on Hidden Figures, are made up of other working producers.
"It should be a panel of people who aren’t producers," he says, "because producers can be like, ‘Oh that guy is an asshole, or I’ve worked with that guy in the past.’ These are people with egos and biases. And the PGA has never adjusted [how it determines the mark]. It’s like written in stone. I mean even the Constitution has Amendments.”