PGA's Produced By Conference Finds Progress Lurking in "Hidden Figures"
Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer (l) and Stacy Smith, director of the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative for USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. Spencer and Smith were panelists on the Produced By Conference session "Social Change and the Box Office: The Potential of Gender Parity, Diversity and STEM" (photo courtesy of Producers Guild of America).
Guild confab generates insights, sheds light on varied issues, topics
  • CULVER CITY, Calif.
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Hidden Figures, a theatrical feature directed by Theodore Melfi and slated for release next year, tells the story of three African-American female mathematicians--Katherine Johnson (portrayed by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae)--who were integral to the success of NASA. Spencer talked about the film during a Saturday (6/4) panel discussion on industry diversity--or the lack thereof--at the Producers Guild of America’s Produced By Conference on the Sony Pictures Studios lot in Culver City.

Sponsored by SAG-AFTRA, the full title of the Produced By session was “Social Change and the Box Office: The Potential of Gender Parity, Diversity and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).” Joining Spencer on the panel were director Paul Feig (the new Ghostbusters, BridesmaidsSpy), principal in Feigco Entertainment; Dr. Jo Handelsman, associate director for science, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; producer Lydia Dean Pilcher (Cutie and the Boxer, The Queen of Katwe) of Cine Mosaic, and the PGA’s VP of motion pictures; actress Yara Shahidi (Black-ish); Stacy Smith, director of the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative, Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California; and Judith Williams, global head of diversity for Dropbox. The discussion was moderated by producer Lesley Chilcott (CodeGirl, Waiting For Superman).

Spencer recalled that upon first being approached about the role of Vaughn in Hidden Figures, she thought the inspiring story was fiction. “When I found out it was true, it hurt me to the core,” said Spencer, explaining that she was astounded that these three women who made major contributions to the country’s space program had generally been “left out of history.” Famed astronaut John Glenn once said that he wouldn’t go into orbit until Johnson “checked the math.”

Dr. Handelsman affirmed that having positive role models like those being depicted in Hidden Figures positively impacts society by showing girls they can aspire to greatness in the STEM field. “If we don’t deal with image” in order to help students--regardless of their gender or ethnicity--see themselves as scientists, engineers and mathematicians, said Dr. Handelsman, there won’t be enough qualified Americans to fill desirable job openings in the tech sector, meaning that the U.S. will fall short in the global economic marketplace.

Meanwhile the entertainment industry itself has fallen far short when it comes to telling stories that promote diversity and feature valuable role models, according to Smith of USC’s Annenberg School. Smith noted that the three female mathematicians in Hidden Figures exponentially increase industry representation of females and people of color in science-based capacities. During a recent five year span, reported Smith, there were some 160 feature characters with STEM jobs, 26 of whom were female, with only seven of those being ethnic minorities. “One film (like Hidden Figures) can make a huge difference, said Smith, noting that this should serve as incentive for filmmakers to follow suit.

Producer panelist Pilcher of Cine Mosaic has such a film, The Queen of Katwe, directed by Mira Nair for Disney. The story centers on a Ugandan girl growing up in a slum who turns out to be a chess prodigy. Pilcher said that the movie is part of an effort by the Disney studio to step up diversity in its filmmaking.

The lone male on the panel, Feig, has seen his high-profile diversity effort--having an all-female team of Ghostbusters--spark criticism, if not outright vitriol, online. Feig was startled to see the misogyny in many of the online comments. He gets the fact that a number of fans were just legitimately upset to see such an iconic pop culture film being remade--but he added that at times misogyny is laying in the weeds of such criticism, providing camouflage for negative, regressive ideas and behavior. 

Spencer chimed in that she finds it “mind boggling” that people take umbrage to an all-female Ghostbusters.

Panelist Williams of Dropbox noted that it’s not just vitriol but rather unspoken, unintended, mistaken perceptions that serve as an obstacle to progress. Part of human behavior, she said, is “unconscious bias”--such as the notion that the arts are a female province while math and science are inherently male. As a community, affirmed Williams, we need to increase awareness of such bias--in ourselves and others--in order to clear a path to inclusiveness and diversity.

Shahidi, who portrays teenager Zoey Johnson in Black-ish, said that as a young person of color and mixed ethnicity, she was hard pressed growing up to find positive female and ethnic role models in the media at large--one exception being cartoons where “blue people” and all kinds of characters are represented.

Panel moderator Chilcott produced and directed another exception--last year’s documentary CodeGirl in which high school-aged girls worldwide develop apps for an international competition. They are bucking the norm in that some 80 percent of app developers/code writers are male. Chilcott shared that for her an observation by one girl in the documentary personally hit home, underscoring the value of role models. The aspiring code writer said simply, “I can’t be what I can’t see.” 

Other highlights of the two-day (6/4-5) Produced By Conference included:

Elizabeth Banks on Pitch Perfect 3
A delay in shooting prompted Elizabeth Banks’ decision to bow out as director for Pitch Perfect 3 because the revised schedule would have interfered with her parental responsibilities. Banks and her partner in Brownstone Productions, husband Max Handelman, remain on as producers of the film with Banks also reprising her role as competition commentator Gail Abernathy-McKadden-Feinberger. Banks’ comments came during a Saturday morning conversation with her and Handelman moderated by Dan Lin, principal in Lin Pictures, who worked with Banks on The Lego Movie (Lin was a producer on the film, with Banks serving as the voice for Wyldstyle/Lucy). At the Produced By session, Banks talked about young people hanging onto ideas too much and that opportunities emerge when they instead share more. She explained that you have to give up control at times so that amazing collective brain power can come together on a project. She noted that she comes to everything as an actor first and foremost. Banks became a producer because she wanted more control over her time and how she wanted to tell stories. She started her Whohaha site to discover female funny voices in answer to a Vanity Fair article from about 10 years ago by Christopher Hitchens who said that women are not funny.

Insights into Superstore, The Affair 
In “The New Creatives: How These ‘First Timers’ Got It Right” session on Saturday, among the panelists was America Ferrera, known for her title role in Ugly Betty, who talked about the Amazon series Superstore, in which she stars and serves as a producer. Created by Justin Spitzer, Superstore looks at the lives of employees at a big box store. Ferrera said she was drawn to the show for its presentation of a “working man’s point of view” on life in corporate America. And while it is first and foremost a comedy, Superstore, said Ferrera, delves at times unobtrusively into an ethnically diverse working class grappling with cobbling together an existence on minimum wage. She noted that these workers are intelligent with a well honed sense of humor, quite a departure from the stereotypical notion of what members of the retail working class are about. Spitzer has put all this successfully in the package of a workplace comedy.

In that same Produced By session, fellow panelist Sarah Treem, who teamed with Hagai Levi to create Showtime’s The Affair, said she wrote a letter of apology to Beau Willimon, showrunner on House of Cards, the Netflix series on which she and Levi earlier worked. The apology was grounded in the fact that based on her subsequent experience on The Affair, Treem now knows how hard the job of showrunner is--and didn’t fully appreciate at the time all the Willimon was doing. Treem shared that there was a tremendous “learning curve” in becoming a showrunner and among the lessons she’s embraced were those that were part of Netflix’s written protocol which included properly delegating responsibilities, encouraging your colleagues and “to compliment before you criticize.”

A conversation with John Landgraf, Noah Hawley
John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks and FX Productions, wants to make programs that endure, that people will be watching 20 years from now because of their originality and engaging stories and characters. At the same time, he’s not looking for a series to endure for additional first-run seasons if the show’s creator feels it’s time to wrap. On the latter score, he noted that Fargo would not have come back after season one if series showrunner/creator Noah Hawley didn’t think he had the story/content justification to do so. Happily, Hawley felt there was more to tell and Fargo has continued successfully. Landgraf praised Hawley for how incredibly original the TV adaptation of the Coen brothers’ movie Fargo is, which has caused the show to resonate for the FX audience. Landgraf and Hawley were featured in a Produced By Saturday morning conversation moderated by PGA national executive director Vance Van Petten. For Landgraf the primary intent of a show should be to tell a great story and to not imitate what someone has done before. He said that takes being brave and working with brave people to bring their vision to life. Hawley observed that it’s an artists’ market in the respect that you can tell your story at a different home if needed, an example being The Mindy Project which ended at Fox but moved onto a new life on Hulu. In terms of competition, though, Landgraf takes a dim view of the Silicon Valley business model which he regards as monopolistic--from Amazon to Google, Airbnb to Uber. He described it as a “winner-take-all,” “crushing the competition” model which is bad for the future of creative and “terrible” for society.

Andrew Karpen discusses the indie feature market
In the Saturday session “Is The Sky Falling?: The Challenges and Opportunities Facing Independent Film Producers,” panelist Andrew Karpen, CEO of Bleecker Street Media, was asked if he foresaw the success of Eye in the Sky among different age groups, including the younger demographic. He candidly said no, explaining that Bleecker Street’s focus as an indie in the market is to realize the opportunity for platform releases designed to appeal to viewers audiences 35 years and older. In terms of its casting and themes, Eye in the Sky was tailor made for that core audience and then happily found viewers in other age quadrants, reinforcing Karpen’s belief that there is still “a robust theatrical marketplace.”

New technology perspectives
A Sunday morning session titled “Field of Vision: How New Technologies Are Redefining Cinematography and Finishing” included panelist Sherri Potter, head of Post Production Services at Technicolor, who described today’s era as “incredibly exciting for post facilities,” citing High Dynamic Range (HDR) as an example with colorists enthused over the potential of top-drawer quality brightness in imagery, allowing viewers to experience great highlight detail along a continuum ranging from the whitest whites to the darkest blacks while at the same time providing a greater depth of shadow richness and detail in those shadows. The impact of HDR in terms of drawing viewers into a story is just starting to be realized. Still, continued Potter, there are hurdles in that the technology is expensive relative for example to professional grade monitors. Furthermore the HDR marketplace “hasn’t standardized or stabilized just yet.”

In that same Produced by Conference discussion, panelist Glenn Kennel, president and CEO of ARRI, Inc., noted that HDR was prominent at CES in terms of TV set manufacturers rolling out different models. He added that Netflix is slated to start showing HDR with the new season of Marco Polo in August, and that Amazon has been presenting HDR fare for about a year. Kennel said that ARRI film and digital cameras can capture and accommodate HDR.

And fellow panelist Lori McCreary, president of the PGA, described herself as being for some time an advocate of “delivering in any K beyond 2K.” She pushed successfully, for example, to go with 4K for the National Geographic Channel series The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. Nat Geo valued the move to 4K with results justifying the higher cost; furthermore, even the 2K version down-resed from 4K looked better than a 2K capture would have. SHOOT later connected with Brad Hughes, director of global media systems for National Geographic, who noted that The Story of God was one of many key shows that Nat Geo targeted for “a 4K experience through our pipeline.”  He added that in the last year, “the shift has been to get a finished product at UHD 4K size to future proof ourselves for when the UHD floodgates open up.”

The art of the TV pitch
In another Sunday session, “The Art and Craft of Pitching For Television,” Marshall Herskovitz, partner, Bedford Falls Company (thirtysomething, My So Called Life), noted that in a pitch there’s anxiety on both sides--for the person pitching and the one being pitched. Herskovitz suggested as a possible pitching framework--in the interest of being concise and succinct--his concentric circles theory. To best convey the concept and story, a writer/creator should be able first to lay out a show idea in one sentence, then three sentences if needed, and at most beyond that 10 sentences. In his own experience, Herskovitz said he’s never gotten through the 10 sentence phase when delivering a pitch. Invariably he’s either lost the audience by that time or the pitch recipients are engaged and he’s fielding questions from them. Those questions and the resulting conversation are always more important than any planned pitch spiel.

Meet the digital buyers
Digital buyers were featured in a Sunday panel discussion moderated by John Heinsen, CEO/EP of Bunnygraph Entertainment. Panelists were Jason Kwong, head of content programming & acquisitions for FullScreen; Craig Parks, VP programming, Watchable (Comcast); and Ben Relles, head of comedy and unscripted programming, YouTube Originals. Relles suggested that prior to pitching show ideas to YouTube, content creators should consider checking to get a handle on the most subscribed to YouTube channels and which videos are trending. Such advance research makes for a more informed pitch. Kwong noted that digital platforms are willing to try things that others might not, backed by the knowledge that he and his counterparts in the digital space have the benefit of real-time data to see what works and doesn’t. Parks provided a handle on Watchable, an OTT service with curated short and long-form content, and a lineup currently consisting of some 300 shows.

High 5 priorities for producers
In the Sunday session “Top 5 Things A Producer Should Know, among the panelists was Jeremy Alter whose credits include Touched With Fire and Inland Empire. His top 5 consisted of: Budget, which is essential from the outset to make sure everyone is on the same page; provide support for the director and the creative process; take care of your crew, understand their needs, and realize that sometimes you save the most money by hiring the most expensive person; plan in advance and budget for deliverables; and simply plan and prioritize. For the latter, he said have a plan on what to do next if something goes wrong or the unexpected happens. Being prepared is tantamount, he said, to deciding what items you would save from a burning house.

Future proofing
Also on Sunday, Michael Cioni, president of Light Iron, a leader in digital workflow solutions (which was acquired by Panavision in 2015), introduced the “Future Proofing Your Productions” panel, by sharing the dynamics behind progress in an evolving market. For example, seatbelts, airbags and antilock braking systems--while each an important breakthrough--combined over the years to significantly improve vehicular safety. This “additive” dynamic also applies to innovative technology and capabilities in the entertainment industry. Future-proofed resolution (UHD), dynamic range (HDR) and color depth (WCG--wide color gamut)--while each important--have a collective “additive” effect which Cioni described as “the tripod of fidelity.”  When the three innovations stand together, they are stronger and thus help producers to “be prepared for anything” in terms of future proofing content.

And future proofing can prove to be relevant much sooner than many project. He noted that “tipping points,” as chronicled by author Malcolm Gadwell, can yield immediate impact. For example, as a case study from history, such dynamics as AOL, T1 lines being installed at numerous universities and the advent of Napster were instrumental in making Apple’s iPod business viable, with that technology replacing Sony’s Walkman--after 25 year of dominance--seemingly in the blink of an eye. Cioni conjectured that profound change is now again in the offing, citing a shift from broadcast to broadband, and research Light Iron conducted by sounding out film school students. When these students were asked to rate the current imagery standards, they graded the current status quo a 9 on a scale of 10. But when these future content creators got a look at high resolution, HDR and WCG, they rated these breakthroughs as a 30 on the same scale, reinforcing Cioni’s belief that the entertainment industry is nearing a tipping point.

Morgan Freeman, the Russo brothers
Among the other marquee speakers at the weekend PGA event were Morgan Freeman who in a session with McCreary, his partner in the production company Revelations, touched upon their work under that shingle over the years, including the feature film Invictus (for which Freeman earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Nelson Mandela) and the CBS TV series Madam Secretary. Also reflecting on their careers in a standalone Produced By session were Anthony and Joe Russo, directors of the Captain America feature films and the upcoming Avengers 3 which is slated to start shooting later this year. The Russo brothers also enjoyed extensive runs in TV with the series Community and Arrested Development. Back in 2004, Anthony and Joe Russo shared a primetime Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series on the strength of the pilot for Arrested Development. The Russo brothers are also co-founders of commercials/branded content production house Bullitt.

Election results
During the course of the Produced By Conference, the PGA held its general membership meeting where results of the Guild’s recent election were announced. Re-elected PGA officers were: presidents McCreary and Gary Lucchesi; VPs of TV Tim Gibbons and Jason Katims; VPs of motion pictures Pilcher and David Friendly; and treasurer Christina Lee Storm.

Elected PGA East chairs were William Horberg and Kay Rothman.

Gail Berman, Ian Bryce, Yolanda Cochran, Donna Gigliotti, Julie Goldman, Chris Moore, Peter Saraf and Jennifer Todd were elected to the Producers Council Board of Delegates. 

Camille Cellucci, Ukeme Emem, Blaine Graboyes, Charles P. Howard, Valerie Johnson-Redrow, Ed Lantz, Kate McCallum and Rhoades Rader were elected to the New Media Council Board of Delegates.

And for the Associate Producer Council Board of Delegates, elected in the associate producer/production manager/production supervisor category were Chris Gaida, Jethro Rothe-Kushel and Jillian Stein. Elected in the postproduction category were James P. Axiotis and Mary Kay Kelly. Elected in the segment/field/story producer category was Katy Garrity. And elected in the production coordinator category were RJ Hume and Christine Marino.


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