Rise of the Kid Producer: How Young Actors Are Making Big Career Moves

Eli Joshua Ade/Universal Pictures
Marsai Martin (right) with director Tina Gordon on the set of 'Little.'

From 'Black-ish' star Marsai Martin’s first-look deal at Universal to Millie Bobby Brown’s detective feature at Legendary, child stars "aren’t just waiting for the phone to ring for another acting job."

Nail-biting parents are routinely seen on the soccer sidelines or in the audience of ballet recitals. And occasionally they turn up in Hollywood pitch meetings.

Crystal Grace found herself in a stretch of such meetings early this spring, sweating as she watched her 12-year-old daughter, Captain Marvel star Mckenna Grace, parry queries from film executives four times her age. The young actress was trying to set up an adaptation of Annie Hartnett's Rabbit Cake, a coming-of-age novel that struck a chord when she read it two years ago.

"They asked some tough questions and I didn't think she knew the answers," recalls Crystal. Adds her daughter: "Every single day, we went into meetings after meetings. It was nerve-racking. I really hoped they liked the characters as much as I did." In the end, Mckenna did have the answers; Amazon Studios bought the package, making her one of the youngest producers ever in Hollywood. "She knew exactly what she was talking about, more than I would have," says Crystal. "She shocked me."

Grace isn't the only member of the under-18 set taking the producer reins, as more and more child actors are making decisions and deals to determine their career fate. Stranger Things' Millie Bobby Brown, 15, is heading into production on Legendary Entertainment's Enola Holmes, a movie about the little sister of famed detective Sherlock based on a young-adult fiction series; Brown is producing and will star alongside Henry Cavill and Helena Bonham Carter. Black-ish star Marsai Martin, meanwhile, has at 14 become the youngest producer ever to sign a first-look deal — inking with Universal after the production of April comedy release Little, which she executive produced.

"It takes a little bit of getting used to, but after a while, you forget you are talking to a teen," says Will Packer Productions' James Lopez, who worked with Martin on Little. She pitched the idea for the alternative take on Tom Hanks starrer Big when she was just 10; development started when she was 11, with Martin offering script notes on early drafts, especially on dialogue between the younger characters. At 12 she was sitting in on casting sessions. Little earned $48.7 million at the global box office (on a $20 million budget), and Martin has set up two other projects as a producer — Amari and the Night Brothers and StepMonster.

So how can you produce when you can't legally drive a car? The answer: There are adults in the room. Martin's company, Genius Productions, is run with her parents, Joshua and Carol, whereas Brown will be producing Enola Holmes with older sister Paige. "Collectively, as a family, [the Martins] have realized that the future is forging your own path and controlling the type of projects you want," notes Lopez. "They aren't just waiting for the phone to ring for another acting job."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.