Director Nisha Ganatra made a major mark at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with Late Night, which earned a standing ovation, rave reviews and $13 million from Amazon, the highest price ever paid at the fest for a film by a female director. Written by Mindy Kaling and co-starring Kaling and Emma Thompson, the comedy is a departure from reality in the sense that it centers on a veteran late night talk show host (portrayed by Thompson) who’s a woman. Late night talk, after all, is a male-dominated arena.
However, looking to make art imitate life on a parallel track, Ganatra is pushing to become a comedy director in the spotmaking/branded content sector, another area traditionally the province of men. Shortly after Sundance, she signed with Chelsea Pictures for her first commercial representation. Ganatra brings major comedy chops to Chelsea, not just with Late Night but also for her Golden Globe-winning and Emmy-nominated work on Transparent (Amazon). She is the co-EP and director of You, Me, Her, as well as co-EP and director of the Pamela Adlon series Better Things.
Ganatra’s episodic credits span such shows as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Girls, Red Oaks, Fresh Off the Boat, The Last Man on Earth, Mr. Robot, The Mindy Project, Love, Future Man, Dear White People, Married and Shameless.
Ganatra said that she was drawn to Chelsea by David Gordon Green, a director there, and company president Lisa Mehling.
“Breaking out in advertising and becoming a force is something I want not just individually but as a way to help other women do the same. There’s tremendous comedic talent among so many women and that needs to be brought to bear in commercials. We’re watching women creating incredibly funny television yet no one is asking anyone in that world to do commercials. That seems strange to me.”
Ganatra is a friend and colleague of Green. They met years ago on a train headed for a film festival where they both had independent films debuting--Green with George Washington (a 2000 release) and Ganatra with Chutney Popcorn (1999). “I admired David’s range of work, and what he had done in commercials,” recalled Ganatra.
She credited Green with later getting her to contemplate the creative possibilities in the ad sector. “He asked me if I had ever done commercials. I said ‘no, but I watch them all the time.’ With music videos and commercials you can sometimes feel images in your head that you want to express somewhere but cannot in TV or film--high impact images like these are needed within a short time frame. Commercials have to be more visual in one sense because there’s less time to tell a story.”
Ganatra came to Chelsea with some branded content/entertainment experience, having directed a Google Home campaign last year featuring Amy Poehler, Amy Sedaris, Chelsea Peretti and Maya Rudolph. And at Chelsea she landed a commercial for Plan B, the morning after contraceptive pill for women, which dovetailed nicely with her past work at and commitment to Planned Parenthood.
Mehling assessed, “Nisha is an extraordinary talent and I believe she’s going to become a major influence in the advertising and brand space, with a new perspective to bring to the comedy performance arena.”
Ganatra knows first-hand that sometimes all it takes is one progressive person who thinks differently and is willing to extend an opportunity. At one point, she couldn’t break meaningfully into television. But Transparent creator and director Jill Soloway wanted indie filmmakers for her groundbreaking series. That in turn wound up being Ganatra’s big directorial break into television/streaming comedy.
However, well before getting and then being able to take advantage of any career break comes extensive preparation. Ganatra began interning and serving as a PA in Southern California, and then went to film school at NYU. Beyond her student film work, she benefited from hearing and getting advice from luminaries as part of the curriculum there, including the likes of famed filmmaker Spike Lee teaching a directing class, and director Barbara Kopple discussing the ins and outs of documentary filmmaking. “What was so amazing about that school is that these are people whose movies you watch. These are your film heroes and you’re sitting in class with them,” said Ganatra who went on to first firmly establish herself in indie film with Chutney Popcorn which performed well on the festival circuit.
Ganatra has seen the perception of indie film evolve. Early on the conventional wisdom was don’t share that you’re an independent filmmaker because you’ll be regarded as someone who can’t do bigger budget pictures. Fast forward to today and the indie filmmaker is a superhero, someone who can make a picture look good no matter the budgetary constraints. “What used to be a liability is now a big asset,” she affirmed.
Asked to reflect on her Sundance experience relative to Late Night, Ganatra noted, “It was like a dream. You hope you go to Sundance, have your film screened before a sell-out audience and that the film sells that night in a bidding war. You dream about having that one breakout movie at the festival. It took me awhile to realize that it was my movie and it was happening to me.”
While Late Night did not perform as well as anticipated at the theatrical box office--despite stellar reviews--Ganatra noted that it has been successful online. “Amazon was really honest,” she said, relating that they weren’t sure how the film would perform in theaters but felt confident that at the very least it would “blow up” online, and it has. Grappling with theatrical exhibition and online platform exposure is still a delicate balancing act but Ganatra feels gratified to have Late Night now finding a receptive audience.
As for what’s next, Ganatra is embarking on her first studio film--with Working Title. It’s a comedy to be released by Universal and Focus Features with a cast including Tracee Ellis Ross, June Diane Raphael and Kelvin Harrison Jr. Ganatra also has a TV series in the offing, with Poehler producing. The series is autobiographical in nature for Ganatra as it centers on a young woman coming of age in the late 1980s/early ‘90s, navigating life between two cultures, part Indian, part American, and having to push through obstacles to realize her dreams.
Green said of Ganatra, “It’s always exciting when the voice of an emerging artist begins to be recognized in wider circles of industry and culture.”
In that vein, on July 1, Ganatra was one of 842 notables invited by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to become members of the Oscars organization. This marked the first time that a new class of inductees had reached gender parity. Half of the new invitees to the film academy are women.