BY SCOTT HUVER | April 28, 2014 | People
Women have long dominated the back lots of Tinseltown. But the front offices? Today, alpha females are giving the Industry’s leading men a run for their almighty dollar: helming studios, creating sitcoms (and netcoms), and even directing for… Disney! Is Hollywood finally going XX-rated? Meet some of the town’s hottest (read: powerful) commodities…
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“I like where creative meets business,” says NBCUniversal’s television production head Bela Bajaria, an admitted lover of multitasking who divides her duties between cultivating fresh series concepts, then arranging marriages with ideal network partners. “The job is so fun because we get to work with great creative voices,” she says. “Really sitting with the talent and saying, ‘We can go to all these [networks] now, and if you have an idea you love, let’s find the right home for your vision.’”
Tasked with rebuilding and rebranding Uni’s TV arm in 2011 after it had been folded into the NBC network, Bajaria needed to quickly convince Hollywood she was out to deliver series to outlets beyond the Peacock. “There was definitely skepticism over, ‘Will you really sell shows to other places?’” she says. “We absolutely love [NBC], and we want to provide them with a big hit… but it really is about having a diverse portfolio and looking at all of these different channels.”
Sealing the deal by placing Mindy Kaling’s sitcom, The Mindy Project, on Fox in her first year on the job, she says, “was really the planting-the-flag moment, because that was the thing that showed people that we were going to do it, versus telling them.” Today a mix of Bajaria-shepherded programming airs across the dial, including NBC stalwarts like Grimm, Parks and Recreation, and Parenthood, the breakout Fox comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and A&E’s horror hit Bates Motel, building brands within brands.
Bajaria, a former Miss India USA who emigrated from London with her family when she was 8, says her task-juggling bent was built in. “I think that’s still my skill set: I like to put a lot of pieces together and really help shepherd something through,” she says. “My mom will say, ‘Look at you—you have three kids and you do all this.’ I always say to her, ‘Exactly—I do what you do!’ I think it’s very much in the gene pool, and yeah, I like multitasking. I always like the one extra thing on my plate.”
Dress, Dolce & Gabbana ($1,775). 312 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-888-8701. Earrings ($6,250) and necklace ($635), Samira 13. 8661 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 310-652-1313. Hair by Christina Buzas for ABTP.com. Makeup by Christina Henry using Chanel Beauté. Photographed at The Walt Disney Animation Studios, Burbank.
Screenwriter and animation director Jennifer Lee has been on a direct path to Disney since childhood. “I drew all the time, but I didn’t realize that I was drawing stories,” she says of her early artistic efforts. She tried her hand at writing prose, “but it wasn’t fitting. And then I realized: I’m a visual storyteller.” Lee, 42, eventually ditched a decade-long art director stint in publishing in favor of film school. “I knew that there were stories brewing, but I also lived my life,” she says, experiencing marriage, divorce, and single motherhood. “By living life a bit—real world, not imaginary world—stories inspired me a lot.”
Ultimately, her lively yet emotionally grounded sensibilities (“Give me the messiest character—I don’t care how many mistakes they make; if they’re warm, I’ll go anywhere with them”) caught Disney’s eye. Her Wreck-It Ralph writing prompted the breakthrough offer to co-direct Frozen, making her the first animation writer elevated to helm a feature, not to mention Disney’s first female director. “I was very nervous at first: Would I have something to contribute that was enough?” says Lee. Her approach—giving animators insight into the characters’ emotional journeys—resonated with her co-director Chris Buck. “I felt I could come at it purely from story,” says Buck, a Disney veteran, whose other credits include The Little Mermaid and Tarzan.
A billion-plus box-office dollars and armloads of trophies—including an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature—later, Lee reflects on her inadvertent glass-ceiling shattering: “[My success] made me realize that there’s a need for more women in creative positions.” Next up: Lee’s eager to craft something wholly original, leaning toward the sci-fi genre she adores (“Not just okay sci-fi—I want to do something amazing!”) and maybe live action (“Disney’s a big place, so there may be opportunities”). “It’s that feeling of the blank page,” she says, “and knowing, in a wonderful way, I can do anything right now.”
ON MARY JO (LEFT): Top, ALC ($645). Intermix, 110 Robertson Blvd., LA, 310-860-0113. Pant, Escada ($750). 9502 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310-271-0034. Hampton cable necklace, David Yurman ($2,950). South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, 714-444-1080. ON MARYANN: Sweater, Tom Ford ($3,370). 346 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-270-9440. Pro Bardot cropped jeans, DL 1961 ($178). Bloomingdale’s, Westfield Century City, 310-772-2100. Hoop earrings, Samira 13 ($235). 8661 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 310-652-1313. Pink sapphire and diamond pendant necklace, Kimberly McDonald ($5,775). 8590 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 310-854-0890. Ring, Brandon’s own. Hair by Christina Buzas for ABTP.com. Makeup by Christina Henry using Chanel Beauté. Photographed at Bad Robot Productions, Santa Monica.
As editors putting together mega-producer/director J.J. Abrams’ forays into the fantastic, Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon have worked on each of his TV series and as a duo cut each of his blockbuster feature films: Mission Impossible 3, Super 8, and two Star Trek movies. Already a relatively rare breed as female film editors—and even more unique in their work on seemingly boy-skewing blockbusters—they’ve informed the pop-storytelling sensibilities of a genre-loving generation (and have had a blast doing it).
“I cut the first hour of TV that [Abrams] ever directed,” says Markey. “I can’t say enough how much fun it is to work with him.” Brandon remembers how her initial reluctance to take on the long hours and lower pay grade of TV editing were wiped away when her first meeting was little more than laughter and one-liners with Abrams. “I thought, ‘Okay, he’s never going to hire me,’” she says. “Which is a lesson to all of us: If you can make people laugh, then they want you around.”
With an equally adept approach to widescreen-style action sequences and intimate character moments, both work prolifically separately and together, with and without Abrams (solo credits include Markey’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Brandon’s How to Train Your Dragon). “A lot of what we do is almost creating a scene that doesn’t exist from footage,” says Markey. “You need a moment, so you go through and find a little piece of this and a little piece of that to create something you didn’t really have in the first place.” They particularly value how Abrams trusts their creative instincts, says Brandon: “You can go, ‘Hey, I think we should just take this bit out and put what happens 60 minutes in at the beginning.’ And he will just join you in an idea and go down a road.”
No strangers to reinterpreting icons, they’ll next edit Star Wars: Episode VII, where Brandon says the filmmaking team is “very dedicated to honoring what Star Wars is, as well as bringing it forward into the future of what the franchise will be.” They’re just not sure yet if they’ll be using the “arcane” but signature scene-transitioning wipes from George Lucas’s original films. “I can’t tell you how many people have asked me if we’re going to use those wipes,” laughs Markey. “And I have no idea!”
Photography by Andrew Macpherson for Netflix; Photographed at Siren Studios, Hollywood.
Growing up in small-town, pre-cable-revolution Nebraska, Cindy Holland’s lifeline to the indie, foreign, and documentary movies she loved was the sole art house theater 20 miles away from home. “I had such a passion for those films, and ultimately what led me to Netflix was an equal passion to have [today’s] kids see those films too, regardless of how far they live from the theater,” says Holland, age 44, who joined the innovative online streaming and disc delivery service in 2002. “I really believed that at some point the Internet would be a way to free those kinds of projects for more widespread distribution.”
Today, Holland leads Netflix’s reinvention of the way TV series are delivered and devoured, creating original fare in genre niches Netflix’s algorithms suggest have enthusiastic audiences. The results—with high-buzz, critically acclaimed productions like House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and the revived Arrested Development unveiled in full seasons for insta-binge-viewing—have been no less than revolutionary. House of Cards’ A-list Hollywood patina in particular—the first online-only series to receive a Primetime Emmy nomination—made it clear, she says, “that we weren’t creating webisodes for the Internet; that this was really premium content.”
For Holland—an avid cyclist, who for several years has completed a charity ride from San Francisco to LA benefiting AIDS/LifeCycle—the trek to success has led to a diverse slate of series ahead, including a family thriller from the creators of Damages and a sci-fi opus from the Wachowskis and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski. “We have an engineering mentality: We’ll look at any aspect of any business that we go into and we’ll see if there’s a better way to do it,” she says.
Dress, Max Mara ($675). 451 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-385-9343. Earrings ($150) and bangles ($125 each), Alexis Bittar. Nordstrom, The Grove, LA, 323-930-2230. Limited edition Waverly ring, David Yurman ($3,900). South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, 714-444-1080. Studs and sunglasses, Rosenberg’s own. Hair and makeup by Garen for Exclusive Artists using Kanebo Sensai. Photographed at The Walt Disney Studios, Burbank.
“It’s the longest overnight success story in the history of the world,” laughs Melissa Rosenberg of the winding path that led her to pen the screenplays for the billion-dollar-plus grossing Twilight franchise. “After a 20-yada-yada-year career, I’ve learned that every single little step leads to the other one.” When her statuesque six-foot frame made dreams of becoming a dancer/choreographer unlikely, Rosenberg learned new moves: Her writing for TV series such as The O.C. and the first Step Up film paved the way to adapt Stephanie Meyer’s hotly devoured vampiric YA novels into five films.
“It was utterly surreal,” says the 51-year-old writer of her ringside seat at the most frenzied pop-culture phenomena of the decade. “You go to the premiere, and it’s this massive, crazy, wonderful thing with this incredible energy. And the next day you wake up, and you still put on your dog-hair-covered fleece and sit there facing a blank page.”
Simultaneously, she took home a Peabody Award for her even darker work on Dexter’s early seasons. Aware of how easily dismissed even the most successful Hollywood scribes can be, she shrewdly hired a publicist to help capitalize on her creative cred. “I’d seen a couple of writers who’d become a brand and I thought, that’s what you need to do in order to have creative control.”
Now Rosenberg, who’s married to TV director Lev. L. Spiro, is executive producing Marvel Studios’ Netflix series adaptation of acclaimed comic book Alias, featuring ex-crime fighter-turned-P.I. Jessica Jones (“a really complex, interesting female superhero—and a damaged, flawed character at that”). She admits a “corny” fondness for bootstrap-raising protagonists. “My favorite theme in all storytelling is to dream big and make your dreams happen,” she says. “And that’s certainly been my experience in life. I know how rare it is.”
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The best part of Robbie Brenner’s job: “Being able to say, ‘I was watching the news, and I saw this great story that would make a great movie. How can I put those pieces together?’ It’s like you have your own canvas that you can paint on every day.”
Brenner, age 42, has shepherded a diverse array of films (Immortals, Limitless, Catfish, Don Jon), but none resonated more for her than Dallas Buyers Club. After she graduated from NYU film school, one of Brenner’s first friendships formed in LA was with screenwriter Craig Borten, who’d been toiling to bring maverick AIDS patient Ron Woodroof’s story to the screen.
“It was just a movie that got under my skin and stuck with me,” she says of spending 15 years attempting to realize the film. Her perseverance was rewarded with six Academy Award nominations for the film, including a Best Picture nod and wins for stars Matthew McConaughey (Best Actor) and Jared Leto (Best Supporting Actor). “It’s been the most rewarding and hard… and exhilarating experience.”
A nine-year stint during Miramax Films’ heyday—“the greatest boot camp”—taught her, “You have to just be really, really passionate about what you do,” she says. “You have to will things into existence.” Upcoming projects include Casey Affleck’s next, as-yet-untitled directorial effort, which she calls “sort of like The Blind Side meets The Fighter”; a new adaptation of the comic book hero The Crow; the sci-fi adventure Earth to Echo; and a third collaboration with author Nicholas Sparks, The Best of Me.
Ultimately, Brenner says her professional triumph provided an important personal lesson at home, where she and her husband, finance VP Aaron Sanor, have two daughters—Isabella, 9, and India, 5. “It’s great that my children can see that it doesn’t matter how you finish,” she adds, “but if you commit to doing something and you believe in it, then you’ve got to see it through—no matter how many times you get knocked down and are told that it can’t happen.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ELISABETH CAREN; STYLING BY STACEY KALCHMAN