Nina Jacobson has her revenge on Hollywood’s old-boy network

Nina Jacobson, the producer of the ‘Hunger Games’ series, on the set of her latest film, ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul’, in Norcross, Georgia, November 3, 2016. Jacobson sees Colour Force, her boutique-sized production company, as an effort to bring to the screen stories centred on women and other groups underrepresented by a male-dominated film industry. — Picture by Audra Melton/The New York Times
Nina Jacobson, the producer of the ‘Hunger Games’ series, on the set of her latest film, ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul’, in Norcross, Georgia, November 3, 2016. Jacobson sees Colour Force, her boutique-sized production company, as an effort to bring to the screen stories centred on women and other groups underrepresented by a male-dominated film industry. — Picture by Audra Melton/The New York Times

LOS ANGELES, Dec 12 — Most mornings, Nina Jacobson drives her grey 2012 Tesla from her home in Brentwood to her office in Santa Monica with her two Australian shepherds, Hero and Pearl, in the back seat.

As she pushes through the traffic, she takes calls via speakerphone from fellow producers, agents, studio executives, directors and the occasional pal like Carrie Fisher, with whom she shares a yearly birthday soiree.

Jacobson, 51, is the founder and boss of Colour Force, the boutique-size film production company behind the US$2.9 billion (RM12.8 billion) Hunger Games franchise. On a recent morning, she parked the Tesla across the street from the one-story building where she works with a staff of seven and growing.

Before getting out of the car, she finished a call with her partner at Colour Force, Brad Simpson, who was in Atlanta keeping watch on the fourth instalment of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid film series, which has earned US$225 million globally at the box office.

When Jacobson opened the car door, the two dogs bounded out of the back seat.

“I said when I got fired I could bring my dogs to work,” she said.

She was referring to the low point of her career, when she was booted in 2006 from her job as president of Disney’s Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group despite having overseen one of that decade’s signature franchises, the Pirates of the Caribbean series. She bounced back quickly, though, establishing Colour Force in 2007.

She and her dogs passed through a wooden gate and went inside. The interior had the feel of a tech startup, with concrete floors, a kitchen and lots of open space. Twelve black-and-white portraits of Hunger Games characters took prime position on a wall outside her office, with Jennifer Lawrence, looking regal as the fierce heroine Katniss Everdeen, in the centre.

That blockbuster franchise fits perfectly with what Jacobson is trying to accomplish in a male-dominated industry: To bring to the screen stories centred on women and others underrepresented in movies. Among the projects she has in the works are adaptations of the novels The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, and for television, the American Crime Story series, which explores race, society and culture.

In late October, Jacobson met with screenwriter Christina Hodson, recently hired by Warner Bros to write a reboot of the 1993 action hit The Fugitive, who had an appointment to go over a script in development at Colour Force that centred on a mythological tribe of women warriors who invade ancient Greece.

Before they got down to discussing characters and story beats, Hodson described a run-in she had at the Austin Film Festival, where she was on a panel to discuss women and movies.

“This guy puts his hand up and says: ‘First of all, let me just say, I love women. Don’t mix me up with other guys’,” Hodson recalled. After his little preamble, the screenwriter said, the man went on to ask Hodson, who is half-Asian and was raised in London, if she owed her success more to the film industry’s attempts to hire women and minorities than to her own talent.

Jacobson rolled her eyes and said: “Oh, brother. You don’t ever hear about a man being asked, ‘How did you get that job’?”

“I was so pissed,” Hodson said. “I told him we have to work four times as hard.”

The conversation moved on to the movie, a tale of two sisters, one the leader of a fierce warrior tribe driving the action.

“I don’t want to make it silly,” Hodson said.

“No,” Jacobson replied. “These women are badass.”

State of the art

Jacobson knows how hard it is for women in Hollywood, on both sides of the camera.

“I’ve been fired from almost every job I’ve ever had,” she said.

But not long after she lost the big executive position at Disney, she was playing a key role in the development of the most lucrative franchise of the current decade, the Hunger Games series, which, in addition to making bank, has provided filmgoers with the most visible symbol of female empowerment since Thelma and Louise hit the road 25 years ago. And unlike her cinematic predecessors, it should be noted, Katniss does not meet a tragic end.

In producing such fare, Jacobson is an industry outlier. A recent University of Southern California study showed that women remain underrepresented among the industry’s directors, writers and composers. The same goes for actors, where men dominate women in speaking roles by a ratio of two to one. Minority and gay characters lag further behind. And the sexualisation of female characters is on the rise, the report said.

Jacobson, who is Jewish and gay, was raised in Brentwood and studied semiotics at Brown University. One of her first jobs after college was working for Joel Silver, the producer of the Lethal Weapon and Matrix action films. In those days, Jacobson wore Dr Martens as she read scripts and suggested ideas. Now, she mostly wears black.

She went on to work as a production executive at DreamWorks SKG and Universal Pictures. Once, she said, a male mentor told her, “You can’t be a kick-ass mother and a kick-ass executive.”

In 1995, she and producer Bruce Cohen, who would win an Oscar for American Beauty and receive a nomination for Silver Linings Playbook, started Out There, a grass-roots group comprising gay men and lesbians in entertainment.

By that time, Jacobson was in a relationship with Jen Bleakley, now her wife with whom she has three children.

During an Out There meeting held at Cohen’s house in the mid-'90s, Jacobson met Ryan Murphy, the producer and writer known for the television shows Glee and American Horror Story.

“It’s hard to forget how radical it was in that age for a gay woman to not be afraid,” Murphy said.

That night, he recalled, the group talked about how to add same-sex couples into scripts and fight discrimination in the workplace.

“It was almost like a gay kindergarten, where you learned the tools,” Murphy said.

War stories

Cut to a garden table at Tiato, a restaurant in Santa Monica on a sun-drenched afternoon, where Jacobson was meeting with two friends: Zanne Devine, a Miramax executive she has known for nearly 30 years, and Audrey Wells, the writer-director of the 2003 romance Under The Tuscan Sun, which Jacobson green lit in her executive days at Disney.

The lunch-table talk turned to how Hollywood has shown signs of change since then.

“You assumed that movies about women should be made, and women should make them,” Wells told Jacobson.

“Those movies work,” Jacobson replied.

“But you didn’t act like you were making a sacrifice or saying yes on a whim,” Wells said. For instance, she said, when she ran into trouble with an unruly Italian crew during the filming of Under the Tuscan Sun, Jacobson came through with support.

“She believed me instead of saying, ‘What’s wrong with you’?” Wells said, adding that Jacobson gave her two extra weeks of filming.

“Those were the days,” Jacobson said with a sigh.

As the three tucked into salads and glasses of iced tea, Jacobson told the story of how, exactly, she was fired in 2006. On a Sunday in July, Jacobson got a heads-up call from a reporter who had heard layoffs were in the offing at Disney. Jacobson called the studio’s chairman, Dick Cook, only to hear nothing back. The next morning, she was in the delivery room at St John’s Health Centre in Santa Monica, where her wife was in labour with their third child. To complicate matters, her father had been admitted to the intensive care unit, too. Then, Jacobson said, her boss finally returned the call. He fired her over the phone.

“I was furious, so mad, about how they went about it,” said Devine, the Miramax executive.

Wells added: “She had just done Pirates of the Caribbean, and it made no sense. The way I felt about it was: Today your vengeance begins. And, boy, did she prove that to be the case.”

“I was terrified,” Jacobson said.

Disney tried to make it up to her by offering her a production deal. But Jacobson turned it down flat.

“I was like, I don’t want to work for the people who just fired me,” she said.

Her most recent hit was with the Emmy-winning FX series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, an exploration of celebrity and race, which was hailed for, among other virtues, Sarah Paulson’s complex portrayal of the prosecutor Marcia Clark. For the second season of American Crime Story, Jacobson promises another deep study of American life, this time focused on Hurricane Katrina.

For the project, Jacobson sought writers of different socioeconomic backgrounds who understood Southern culture. “It was actually the most awkward thing I’ve had to do, call all these agents and say, ‘Hey, I need your black writers from the South’,” said Allison Friedman, an executive at Colour Force. The production company received 200 writing samples, which it winnowed down to 20 potential candidates. Of those, the company hired a diverse crew of eight writers.

“There were great writers I’d never heard of,” Jacobson said. “And that’s a problem.” — The New York Times

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