Q&A: Film Producer Peilin Chou

We take a peek behind the curtain and chat with Peilin Chou, the Chief Creative Officer of Pearl Studio (formerly Oriental DreamWorks), an accomplished producer who has worn many hats through her diverse and fascinating career in show business.

This accomplished CTI alumna began her career with Walt Disney Studios, went on to work at Nickelodeon, MTV Networks, AZN Television, and even helped to launch Spike TV. Peilin has also kept her foot in the stage door of Broadway, where she was a Company Manager & Artistic Associate at the Roundabout Theatre whose projects included Cabaret and Sideman, and helped to launch the Tony Award-winning musical Fosse.

 

Can you talk a bit about your position as Chief Creative Officer of Pearl Studio? What are some of your responsibilities? What are some of your goals?

As Chief Creative Officer of Pearl Studio, I oversee all the content created by Pearl Studio. A CCO is a bit like a CEO, but for all things creative. My job includes overseeing everything from buying and developing ideas and scripts, to overseeing films in production, to working with writers, producers, songwriters, and visual artists on all facets of the development and production process. I am also responsible for the overall creative direction and goals of the studio. The mission of Pearl Studio is to be a premier family entertainment brand, creating original world class films that enchant, inspire, and awaken audiences around the globe. My goals are every day to actively do something towards that mission.

 

What led you to this career path? How has CTI affected you?

Growing up, I never thought working in film, TV, or theater was something you could do for a career. I never knew anyone who worked in the field. I went to college at UCLA, and ended up doing a bunch of internships, including one on a scripted drama television show where I really got to see (through fan mail) the strong impact that what we were creating had on viewers there. From that moment, I was hooked! I was lucky that my first job out of college was at the Walt Disney Studios in Creative Development. Since that time, I have pretty much worked in creative development for my entire career. It has spanned a number of mediums and genres — film, television, animation, digital, and of course, theater, but always in creative development. CTI has been a great inspiration to me, as well as a great resource for networking, finding talent, and learning about new projects. I did what I like to call the CTI “trifecta” of programs — the NYC 3 Day, the O’Neill 3 Day, as well as the NYC 14-week. Each of them was a different experience, but I got a lot out of each of those programs.

First, being in the CTI community is always inspiring — being in the company of others striving to achieve similar goals, as well as hearing the stories and experiences of speakers that have achieved certain goals, was always energizing and exciting. Second, I have met so many people through CTI that have directly led me to very fruitful creative endeavors. It’s been so fruitful, I’ve actually kind of lost count. One example is I met an actress at a networking event during the NYC 3-day, which directly led me to producing a musical. And that experience led me to meeting songwriters who I actually ended up hiring on a film project right here at Pearl Studio! You never know where one thing will lead to. The other great thing I love about CTI is the camaraderie amongst those in your classes. These people are your peers and potentially your greatest supporters — you kind of end up growing up in the industry together in a way. The relationships I made in the programs I participated in definitely extended far beyond the duration of the class.

 

What do you think makes content global? What are steps that producers can take to make a production appealing to a wide audience?

I think one of the key things that makes content global is having universal themes that everyone can relate to. The idea of home, and finding home, for example, or the concept of family or belonging, are meaningful whether you’re a child in Brazil or a grandmother in China. There are certain things that can resonate worldwide. When you’re looking at global content, I think it’s important to make sure the broader scope of what you’re saying or talking about is wide enough to be universally relatable. The particulars and details of course can (and should) be specific to a character or a culture, but the larger themes can be relatable to any culture.

 

What makes a project exciting to you? Are you working on anything now that you are particularly enthusiastic about?

What makes a project exciting for me is working on something that I feel people are going to be moved by, and that has the potential to perhaps expand the way that people see the world. We talk about “awakening the audience” in our mission statement — and that’s really at the heart of what we mean by awakening. We currently have two projects in production at Pearl that I’m really excited about. ‘Abominable’ is the story of a Yeti trying to get home to Mount Everest with the help of three Chinese teenagers. This is being produced in collaboration with DreamWorks Animation and will be released worldwide by Universal Pictures in the Fall of 2019. Our second project is called ‘Over the Moon.’ It is being produced in collaboration with Netflix and is the story of a little girl who decides to build a rocket to go to the moon, in hopes of meeting a legendary moon goddess. What I’m most excited about on ‘Over the Moon’ is the opportunity to work with animation legend Glen Keane, who is directing the film. Glen was at Disney for almost 40 years and is the animator who created so many beloved Disney characters, including Ariel from ‘The Little Mermaid,’ The Beast from ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ Aladdin, Pocahontas, Tarzan, and Rapunzel from ‘Tangled.’ Watching Ariel and ‘The Little Mermaid’ was one of the things that made me want to work in animation to begin with, so it’s kind of a lifelong dream to be able to collaborate with him on this film. I know he will make ‘Over the Moon’ an unforgettable and deeply moving film.

 

Can you discuss the major differences and similarities between producing in the film industry versus the theater industry?

There are many practical differences in terms of budget, players, approach, or scope, but actually there is also a lot of overlap as well. Probably more than you think. First, at Pearl we hire talent from the theater world all the time. Playwrights as well as songwriters are most common, but sometimes set designers or choreographers as well. And of all the film genres, the process of animation development and production is probably the closest to theater, because of the storyboarding process. All films are storyboarded first before they are animated, so you get to see the whole film up on reels (storyboards) before any sequences ever go into animation — which is quite similar actually to the workshopping process of theater. You get the opportunity to see something up on its feet, and then re-write or reconceive based on that experience, and then go at it again. Unlike live-action where footage has been shot, storyboards can be quickly re-drawn and changed to be something completely different. It’s one of the parts of the process that I really enjoy the most, because getting at the heart of characters or story and being able to see what’s working and what’s not working — that’s to me the purest and most meaningful part of the development process. And that’s true regardless of the genre or medium you’re working in.

 

Do you have any advice for our readers?

My advice would be to always follow your passion and listen to your heart when it comes to picking your projects. No one can tell you that your taste or what you love is wrong — it’s your taste! When I started out in the industry, I was playing a lot of catch-up, and I often found myself questioning whether the things I loved were worthy or worthwhile or “right,” but what you learn over time is that no one really knows or has all the answers. And so much of it is also about climate, and timing and medium and purpose.

I remember early on in my career I came upon an obscure student film that I thought was really hilarious, and I took the initiative to try to share that film with other executives at my company in hopes of being given the opportunity to pursue other projects or ideas with the directors of the film. At the screening, people were bored and restless, and all of these seasoned and well-respected executives left the screening room before the film had even ended. I was mortified and thought certainly they would never value my opinion again. A short one year later, the directors of that film, launched a then unknown television show called…’South Park!’ And Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the directors I had been trying to “champion”, became household names forever. So, as you can see — you never know!

Q&A: Tony Winning Producer Jill Furman

This week we cast the spotlight on Tony Award-winning producer Jill Furman! Jill is also a recipient of the CTI Robert Whitehead Award, whose credits include Hamilton and In the Heights.

Learn about how growing up in New York City led Jill to the film industry, an early reading of In the Heights in the basement of The Drama Bookshop, and even founding her own production company!

 

Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 14.19.28Can you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to commercial producing?

I began my career in the film business, working in both NYC and LA. I had a series of jobs – from producer’s assistant to development executive – and then decided to leave LA and get my MBA at Columbia. I knew I wanted to start a production company (at the time, I was thinking it would be a film company), and I thought having the business background would serve me well. After graduating, I produced a small, independent film. Soon after, my father, who had been investing in and producing theater for a while, started his own theatrical production company with two other producers. Having grown up in NYC, I was a huge fan of theater, and thought it would be fun to learn about the business. So, I joined my father, and associate produced three productions with him, two on Broadway and one off-Broadway. While involved with the revival of Sly Fox, in February of 2003, I went to see a very early version of In the Heights in the basement of The Drama Book Shop. I was blown away by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s talent, and getting involved with that project changed my life forever.

 

As a recipient of the Robert Whitehead Award and a Commercial Theater Institute alum, how has CTI affected your career?

CTI was enormously helpful at the start of my career. I learned so much about the business, hearing from representatives in all areas of the industry, and got a chance to network too. And of course, winning the award was a huge honor, and is something that will be in my bio forever. The icing on the cake was that Lin-Manuel presented me with the award.

 

You founded Jill Furman Productions. What type of work does your company produce? Is there anything in particular that excites you about potential projects?

I don’t take on too many projects, because every project is a labor of love, and I need to feel passionate about each one. I look for material that is unique and special, but because it is a business, I have to believe the projects can have broad appeal. An aspirational or relatable tale, a singular idea, vision, sound, or fresh take on a story are all elements that speak to me.

 

Jill Furman Productions has multiple projects in development that span television, film, and theater. How do these mediums inform one another? How do they differ?

Film is more of a director’s medium, whereas theater and tv are more writers’ mediums. Also, producers in television and film get paid at least some of their salaries upfront, whereas theater producers don’t make a dime until a show is actually produced. Theater is more of a research and development business. But at their core, each medium represents different modes of telling stories, and great stories being told in exciting ways are what interest me.

 

Do you have any advice for our readers?

The first piece of advice I always give people who are interested in theater is to talk to as many people in the industry as you can and reach out to people in positions of power whom you respect or who inspire you, to set up informational interviews – many won’t respond, but some will.  I always recommend taking at least the CTI 3-Day seminar, because it’s a great crash course. Finally, always trust your gut, and do things you’re passionate about.

Learn from Producers on the Connecticut Shore

 

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Next month we begin our O’Neill Summer Workshop. Led by Tony Award-winning Broadway producer Tom Viertel, this CTI course offers producers-in-training the opportunity to “risk, fail, and risk again.” There’s a reason the O’Neill is a destination for creators around the world. Come explore the magic and inspiration of this beautiful campus yourself at the O’Neill Summer Workshop.

Tom Viertel, Chairman of the Board of the O’Neill, sat down with Executive Director, Preston Whiteway, to discuss the history of this legendary theater.

 

Photo by Isaak Berliner, courtesy of the Eugene O'Neill Theater

 

Tom Viertel: The O’Neill has won the Tony Award for Regional Theaters. Do you think of the O’Neill as a regional theater? If not, how is it different?

Preston Whiteway: The 2010 Tony was an incredible moment of recognition for us, however, the O’Neill is so much more than what we often think of as a “regional theater.” In addition to our programs in music theater, plays, puppetry, and cabaret, we also support emerging directors, arts journalists, student playwrights, an undergraduate school, and house museum. The works and artists we develop leave our stages and play regional theaters across the country as well as Broadway, off-Broadway, and film/TV.

 

Photo by Isaak Berliner, courtesy of the Eugene O'Neill Theater

 

TV: The O’Neill has had an enormous impact on American theater, including being the launchpad for so many important careers. Can you talk about some of them and how they got their start at the O’Neill?

PW: The O’Neill is home to thousands of artists. Some of our most high-profile are: writers August Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Edward Albee, John Patrick Shanley, Kia Corthron, Christopher Durang, Jeanine Tesori, John Guare, Robert Lopez, David Auburn, Theresa Rebeck, Samuel D.Hunter, Jennifer Haley, Alfred Uhry, Tom Kitt, and John Logan; directors Lloyd Richards, Jason Moore, Leigh Silverman, Thomas Kail, and Rebecca Taichman; actors Michael Douglas, Meryl Streep, Danny DeVito, Kristin Chenoweth, Al Pacino, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Cynthia Nixon, Kelli O’Hara, and Steve Kazee.

 

Photo by Isaak Berliner, courtesy of the Eugene O'Neill Theater

 

TV: The O’Neill has been growing over the years you’ve been Executive Director. How is it different now than it was when you took over?

PW: One of the greatest joys of the O’Neill is the ways the organization is able to be innovative and adapt to serve the theater of today and tomorrow. We have shifted methods in response to our artists and to better serve the field, and as a result, our programs are stronger than ever. Over the last decade, the O’Neill is in sound financial footing and has established a broader national reach, with consistent premieres of O’Neill-developed work across the country and the world. What hasn’t changed one bit is the magic of our campus and the absolute focus on the artists- they remain at the very center of everything we do. What’s improved, many will be happy to hear, is the quality of our housing and food.

 

Photo by Isaak Berliner, courtesy of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center

Q&A: Manhattan Theatre Club’s Jim Joseph

AX3O4921-2Jim Joseph was born and raised in The Bronx, NY and currently is the Theatre Manager at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, the Broadway home of Manhattan Theatre Club. Since graduating from Marist College in 1991, he has worked in many different areas of the performing arts and Broadway including Development, Education, Marketing, Box Office and most notably Front of House and Theater Operations.

In December 1995, he was a part of the inaugural staff at The New Victory Theater, the city’s first theater dedicated to kids and family programming, helping to launch The New Victory Usher Corps – a groundbreaking, youth development program for NYC youth. From 1995 until 2008, Jim hired over 400 teens and young adults, giving most of them their very first job and helping some of them launch careers in the professional theater as artists and administrators.

Jim has worked in the off-off Broadway community as a director and producer, working with the ground-breaking Latino Theatre Company, Vaso de Leche Productions, and the actress/poet/activist La Bruja on her one woman show Boogie Rican Boulevard among others.

As an arts administration consultant, Jim has worked with The United Palace for Cultural Arts in Washington Heights, The Kupferberg Center for the Arts at Queens College, 59E59 Theatres and The Apollo Theater.

In addition to his theater operations consulting work, he has been an advisor to the theater program at Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2010 and has served as an adjunct instructor of theater management.

He is a graduate of the Arts Leadership Institute (2010) and the Commercial Theater Institute (2014). He is a member of the Venue Committee of the Broadway Green Alliance, the Broadway Security Steering Committee and the Broadway League’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee.

 

Please describe your current position and company.

I’m the Theatre Manager for Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway home – The Samuel J. Friedman Theater.

 

How did you prepare for this career?

No one ever chooses to work in Front of House – Front of House chooses you!  LOL

I was offered an opportunity early in my arts management career to house manage an off-Broadway production and I discovered very quickly that I had the skill set to do the job.

 

What are some of the challenges of your job?  What are some things you find the most rewarding?

Every day I have 650 variables to my workday. Every audience member presents a unique set of challenges and demands, making no two performances alike. It’s the ability to adapt to many different variables but still deliver consistent service that makes the job a challenge.

 

How has the Broadway landscape changed over the past decade or so?

With the success of WICKED and the Disney musicals, we are seeing less original ideas on stage. Most works are adaptations of well-known properties and their success is dependent on the audience’s knowledge of the source material. Movie studios see the potential profits of a successful musical and are becoming more and more involved on Broadway.

 

What steps is the Broadway industry taking towards inclusion and a more diverse workforce?  How effective do you think these efforts have been?

I don’t think there have been too many steps taken, sadly. Broadway producers don’t think of the Broadway industry holistically enough to even think about answering this question. They are concerned about their show and selling enough tickets to pay back their investors so that they can invest in the next project. There have been efforts made to increase diversity by the non-profits in their administrative offices and some shows have had success using “color conscious” casting.

 

What can be improved?

Producers need to work harder on developing new creators and new properties.  Invest in creators of color. Find the next Lin-Manuel, the next John Leguizamo, and don’t forget about the talented writers of color who have been under-represented on Broadway – the Lynne Nottages and Nilo Cruzs of the world.

 

How can we attract more young people from all walks of life to the theater?

Create work where they can see themselves represented. It all starts with the art that’s being produced.

 

Lots to do in Tony Limbo

TV TONYWe’re in the fascinating and short time between Tony nominations and the awards themselves as I write this.  It’s a period when there are interesting things to learn about how shows are looking at their nominations. You’ll only be able to get a personal view, since you won’t be in on the overall strategy each show is using but if you’re sensitive to what you’re seeing, you can learn something. Producers and their marketing teams spend a lot of time talking about who their main audience is and how to reach them. Are they dedicated theater-goers who look at the New York Times or theater websites?  Are they predominantly TV watchers? Are they tourists who are looking for a show to see and spending time in Times Square? Are they millennials who are focused on social media on their phones?

These producers have suddenly been presented with a new “asset” – Tony nominations – and armed with that news, they are making choices within (and often exceeding) their budgets about how to reach their specific audience. So, pay attention to how much of that information you’re getting and where you’re getting it from, and you might begin to get a glimmering of a show’s overall strategy. Are you seeing paid advertising or social posts on Facebook? Dominating ads in the Sunday New York Times or in a strip banner across the Arts page? On a billboard or a trash can in Times Square? On TV?  There’s only this short time for producers to make the most of this opportunity because once the awards have been given the value of nominations quickly fades. Producers are trying to make the most of it, and so should you.

Tom V.

Q&A: Thom Clay – Theatre Management: Keeping Broadway’s History Alive and Taking it to New Places

Thom ClayThis week we pull back the curtain on a man who has spent his career wearing a multitude of hats throughout his decades in show business.  We sat down with The Nederlander Organization’s Director of Theatre Management, Thom Clay!

Learn about how Thom’s early days as a company manager and stage manager led him to travel across the country, work with stars such as Daniel Radcliffe, Kathleen Marshall, and Matthew Broderick, and even manage a concert in the East Room of the White House.

 

What is your current job and what does it entail? What do you enjoy most and least about your job?

Tom Clay: My current position is Director of Theatre Management.  I work with a team in the Operations Department of the company and we are responsible for the operation and management of nine Broadway theatres.  Part of my duties include working with the managers in each theatre to ensure that all of their weekly financial paperwork is in order. Each week we “settle” the box office receipts and expenses with each production so there is a large amount of detailed documentation required. Every theatre employee is paid weekly so in addition to accurate paychecks, union benefit reports must also be prepared and submitted.

Other responsibilities that are under my supervision are the preparation of emergency plans for each of the theatres, staff training in safety and customer service, and the review of employee performance. I also work closely with the production in each venue, especially when new productions are about to begin performances. The “taking in” of production involves a large number of people to execute it and it often happens in a fixed time frame so there is little room for error.

One final area that I am involved with is small renovation and restoration projects.  Several of our theatres are between 80 and 100 years old, so they require constant maintenance and upgrading.  Today’s audiences have high expectations when attending a Broadway show, so we work to provide a magical experience from the moment they arrive at one of our theatres.

There are many things I enjoy about my position, but the thing I think I enjoy the most is being able to work in a creative and constantly changing environment. While Broadway is a business, the people that make theatre are wonderful, interesting individuals who I get to see make magic every day. With so many varied productions in our theatres, I am fortunate to be part of an always evolving experience.

As for what I enjoy least, I don’t think there is any part of the job that isn’t enjoyable in one way or another. Everyone here has one goal and that is to put on the best possible Broadway experience for our patrons and producers.

 

Can you describe what the Nederlander Organization does?

TC: The Nederlander Organization is one of the largest family-owned entertainment enterprises in the world. While the primary focus is on owning and operating nine Broadway theatres, the company also owns and operates venues in other cities in the U.S. and U.K.  Additionally, the company is leading producer of many of Broadway’s hit shows.

 

Are there any interesting goals or projects with which you are currently involved?

TC: As the spring is a busy time across all of Broadway with many new shows opening, there is one project that I am involved with that is unique and exciting. Later this year the 108-year-old Palace Theatre will be restored as part of a massive development project happening on the corner of Broadway and West 47thStreet.  In partnership with real estate developers, the theatre will be restored to its former glory along with the addition of new dressing rooms, lobbies and stage equipment. As part of the construction project, the theatre will be raised 35 feet from its current position and a new entrance created on West 47thStreet.  A new hotel will be constructed on top of the theatre and retail space created below.  The entire project is estimated to take three years.

 

Can you describe your career path and what led you to this job?

TC: The start of my career was like many, I believe. I was attracted to the magic of the theatre in middle school and thought about a career as an actor. I was in the plays and musicals while in high school and then pursued a college degree in theatre. While in college I began to see that the life of an actor could be difficult and challenging so I began to question if that was something I was ready to commit to. Through taking a variety of theatre courses, from directing to design, I realized that I could still work in the theatre without being an actor. I began to stage manage for the school productions and found it to be even more fulfilling that any of the acting roles I had. After completing my undergraduate degree, I was fortunate to be offered a stage management position at the local children’s theatre. I would also work in the summer as a stage manager for local musicals which were both great opportunities to learn about the craft of theatre outside of an educational setting.

After working as stage manager for about five years, I became interested in opportunities beyond stage management and was attracted to the work that producers were doing. I wanted to be heading in that direction and decided to get an advanced degree in theatre management to grow my skill set. I received my Master’s Degree from Columbia University in 1996 and began working in the management offices of the Really Useful Company. After 3 amazing years working in that office I took a job as the assistant company manager on the national tour of Riverdance.  I remained with them for 3 years and for the next two decades worked as Broadway company manager as well as a tour manager for Radio City Music Hall.

After a fulfilling career as a Broadway company manager, I began to look for the next theatre opportunity. Having worked in many Nederlander Theaters I was well aware of the company and its importance to the theatre in this country. I was in contact with several colleagues within the organization and when my current position became available I accepted immediately. It’s been great to continue to use my skill sets and contribute to this wonderful organization.

 

Previously, you were a company manager and a stage manager — can you describe what each of these do? What are some of the things you liked about each of these lines of work?

TC: Both the stage manager and company manager fill two important roles on a production and work very closely together.

The stage manager is responsible for the actual running of the performance. In rehearsals, they work closely with the director to rehearse the production and gather all of the information that will be needed to execute a performance. During performances, the stage manager ensures the actors, crew and staff report on time and maintain their performances as directed. While the show is running, the stage manager directs the crew and scenic elements through the calling of “cues.”  Basically, the stage manager is in charge of the backstage area and to make sure the performance happens as planned from beginning to end.

The company manager’s job differs in that they do not work backstage in the same function as the stage manager but functions as representative of the producer. The company manager usually oversees the day-to-day business operation of the production from generating the payroll and paying bills to assisting with ticketing and marketing initiatives. Company managers often create contracts for the cast, crew and creative team, and assist in executing the contract terms. As there are over a dozen unions on Broadway, the company manager must understand each one’s rules and carry them out accordingly. The company manager works closely with the theatre’s box office to record ticket sales and box office revenue. These are just some of the major areas the company manager is responsible for and those duties can change depending on the needs of the production.

As you can see from the above, both positions have different responsibilities but each manager works closely to keep all areas of the production running smoothly. As a stage manager, I always enjoyed the rehearsal process to see how the show gets created before an audience sees it. As a company manager, I really enjoyed seeing all of the elements from the “big picture” perspective and how they all come together to create a show.

 

What have been some of your most memorable work experiences?

TC: This is a hard one! I have been so fortunate to work on some amazing productions and alongside some remarkably talented individuals. I have enjoyed working with great directors like Michael Grandage and Kathleen Marshall as well as talented actors Matthew Broderick, Daniel Radcliffe and Janet McTeer. Because it was unique in so many ways: I was asked to company manage a concert of Broadway music held at the White House in 2010.  As part of a series on Public Television, I assisted in organizing some of Broadway’s top talent to perform for The President and Mrs. Obama in the East Room. That one is hard to top.

 

What kind of training/degrees do you have and which of these would you recommend for a young person wanting to enter this business?

TC: I have both a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre and a Master’s Degree in Theatre Management. I think each person has a different path to a theatre career, so a university degree may not be for everyone. I wanted the university training structure which also led to connections within the commercial theatre, but many of my colleagues have degrees in other fields. The one thing I can recommend for someone looking for a career in this business is experience. That is often more important than a degree. Learning how theatre works, what the various roles – on and off stage – are, and who the current players in the business are are all key to success. Immerse yourself in theatre. Observe and learn from others. See as much as you can and read about theatre in New York and around the world. Working as an intern or volunteering as an usher can be very beneficial to experiencing how theatre professionals work day in and day out. This will prove to be an invaluable asset.

 

What kind of advice would you give to someone wanting to enter the commercial theatre business?

TC: To echo the above, learn as much as you can about all aspects of the business. Understand how directors and designers work and interact. Know how advertising and marketing agencies operate and sell shows in the digital market place. Learn about budgeting and unions as in the end, everything comes down to money. Read about the latest playwrights as they are the ones providing the new productions on the horizon. Hone a critical eye and form your own opinion about what makes good theatre. Love the art and artists, but always remember that at the end of the day, it’s a business.