Synopsis by Tracy Weisert
It was very exciting to have the successful producer, manager, and author Marilyn R. Atlas as the guest speaker of our Casting Networks Inside the Industry free member seminar May 31st. As a veteran of Hollywood, Marilyn has kept updated in trends and how the business has changed over the years. Her views are contemporary and refreshing. Here is Marilyn’s bio-
Marilyn R Atlas is a Talent/Literary Manager and Producer. Among her credits as film producer are “Real Women Have Curves” for HBO, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, “A Certain Desire,” starring Sam Waterston, and “Echoes,” which won the Gold Award at the Texas International Film Festival. She produced a movie at Lifetime, based on a YA book, airing in summer 2014, titled The Choking Game.
In live theater, Marilyn co-produced the West Coast premiere of the musical “God Bless You Mr. Rosewater” by Ashman and Menken (the writers of both “Enchanted” and “Tangled”). She also co-produced the Ovation award-winning play “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday,” which was made into a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Peter Gallagher. She currently is developing a musical based on her Sundance winning film Real Women Have Curves (originally produced by Marilyn for HBO), amongst other projects. She was involved in several writers’ debut books for HarperCollins, Grand Central Publishing, and Source Books. She is in development on the movie Lola Goes to Roma, amongst other projects. She has long been committed to projects that celebrate diversity.
Marilyn is a member of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. Marilyn has spoken at various colleges, film festivals, and industry events on creating three-dimensional, non-stereotypical characters. She is the co-author of a relationship-based, screenwriting guide called “Dating Your Character,” about an organic approach to character creation for Stairway Press’s Summer 2015 catalog. She is also featured in the book “Write Now!” from Penguin/Tarcher.
Here is an overview of some of the items Marilyn covered-
Marilyn began with a hands-up poll of the attendees of how many of them were actors and writers in the room, so she could better know what to address during her seminar. She said, “I love the opportunity to speak to actors and writers. I thought I would tell you a little bit about myself and what I really want to do is hear your questions. I’m a manager and represent actors and writers with a very small client list of about 16 clients. I’m also a producer. I recently produced a movie for Lifetime that will air this summer. Many years ago, I produced a movie for HBO called Real Women Have Curves that I am now developing with a Broadway producer as a Broadway musical. We start that this summer. We will probably workshop it this fall. One of the things that I have been very committed to in my career both as a manager and as a producer is to diversity and to women. [audience cheers] The kind of projects that I develop, are usually written by a writer that may be Asian, African-American or Latino and the kind of projects that I develop all have multi-cultural characters in them. I prefer to project women in a non-stereotypical way instead of the limited way that I have that I have seen in the past. I think television is a great opportunity today for writers and actors. I see the best writing ever in television today and if I were an actor, I would want to work in TV.”
Marilyn continued, “I became a producer in kind of a circuitous way. Everything in my life has never really been planned. I didn’t grow up and say, ‘I want to be in the entertainment industry. I want to be a producer. I want to rep talent.’ I was a child actress in another lifetime from the time I was probably 7 to the time I was probably 15 or 16 but I suffer from major wanderlust and I like to travel. I think I have traveled to about 50 countries in the world and as a result, I felt that after I became an adult, that acting would be very limited. I didn’t want to be restricted when I could explore things. Eventually, it appeared to me that I would be a great representative of talent and that’s what I decided to do.”
She went on, “But getting back to the producing, it’s so much in my life, I get this intuitive feeling and I follow my gut and it’s been very successful for me. I was reading a newspaper one day about 15 or 20 years ago and I read that a book that I loved was about to be turned into a musical at a small theatre in New York. I said, ‘I need to produce that in LA.’ Of course, I knew absolutely nothing about producing. [laughter] Zero…but I am a very voracious reader and I read around 2 or 3 books a week and lots of magazines, etc…so I have a good sense of what I think would be interesting. I decided with this great passion and enthusiasm….and great naiveté, that I was going to produce this play on the West Coast. I mean, it was totally absurd. There was no Internet then and I did some research… ‘How do you acquire the rights for something if you want to produce it?’ So I found out and I called the representative of the two writers that wrote this musical and I said that I was coming to New York and ‘I very much would like to produce this on the West Coast. I’m a producer.’ I had produced nothing. Zero. [laughter] It’s like that line, ‘You are what you pretend to be, so pretend good.’ So I decided that I was a producer. So I come to New York and arrange to meet the representative of these writers. I told him my vision and how excited I was about the project, blah, blah, blah. He said to me, ‘Marilyn, I appreciate your passion and I appreciate your enthusiasm but you have zero credits’ (which was true). He said, ‘If you can find someone that has produced theatre that has some credits, I will give you the underlying rights to this project to produce it on the West Coast.’ Serendipity again….I only knew, I think, two or three people when I initially moved to LA. One happened to be a brain surgeon and I was having lunch with him and I said that I was very passionate about producing this play. He said, ‘I used to date this woman who was an investment banker and then she became a theatre producer. [laughter] She’s produced two or three plays. One of the plays she had produced was The Normal Heart which she produced in LA (and was just an HBO movie). I’ll call her and if you hit it off, maybe she’ll want to co-produce with you. So I called her up and I met her and she said, ‘Yes.’ She’s now been a friend of mine for over 25 years. I then called the representative and I said that I have someone that has three theatre credits, one a very major play…a little visionary….and will you now give me the rights? He gave me the rights and I then had to raise $60,000 or $70,000. I had never raised any money in my life before. Anyways, the play eventually got made and talk about an interesting story…it was the first musical that Alan Menken ever did [audience gasp]. Alan Menken went on to do Beauty and the Beast, Little Shop of Horrors, Newsies and Tangled…every major Disney musical on Broadway or in the movies. I think Disney came to see the production or the production got a lot of attention and as a result, his representative was able to go to Disney and say, ‘Here’s someone you should keep your eye on’ and the rest was history.” [applause]
Marilyn continued, “Then the second play that I produced also was something that I had read and it kind of resonated in me and I remembered that I had met a director that had a lot of heat on him for doing features. A young director but at this particular time for whatever reason, he wasn’t as busy. I met him socially and I called him up and said, ‘I’m about to produce a play. I think you would be great to direct it.’ He did direct it. It then became a movie, and he became a very successful producer and director in television again. He’s the producer and director on Blue Bloods which is on Friday night. But again, the point I am making is that I trusted my instincts. Now I think when you wear a producer hat or you’re a writer, you have to be far more savvy about the marketplace. On some level, I knew about the marketplace but didn’t really study it. Now I spend a lot of time. I read the Wall Street Journal once a week. I read the business section of different newspapers. I’m not going to go pitch an erotic thriller to Disney. [laughter] I have to know and change up the projects that I develop based on the (current) marketplace is. Just like someone who was developing a project now. If you’re developing a project about zombies or vampires, you would be incredibly late. It would be very hard to sell that. As producers or writers, you have to be ahead of the curve a little bit. You have to be thinking at least two or three years out because that’s how long it takes for a project to get made. More importantly, what is your hook to make this different than fifty other projects that are similar out there?”
- Trade Publications– “I think it is very important as I said earlier that actors and writers are reading the trades. That you’re reading IndyWire, The Wrap, Deadline Hollywood, that you look at the Business section…..That you are aware of what’s going on. What are the trends? Are you ahead of the trend or behind the trend? That you understand the marketplace. Sometimes writers will pitch me stories and I think, ‘I’ve heard that a thousand times before and you’re not bringing anything new or fresh to it. Where would I set that up?’ That’s the same thing in the book world. You want to find your own voice in telling it but also in a way that’s interesting and not clichéd.”
- Actors making strong acting choices and her idea for her upcoming book Dating Your Character– “Here was my theory. I teach this long course called Creating Non-Stereotypical, 3 Dimensional Characters and I talk about a variety of characters and why the writers and the actors made them so memorable and indelible. I think that I was making some reference that people spend so much time online and yet I look at all these writers or actors and they bring the same choices to the material that I’ve seen all the time. I’m always interested in someone that brings something different. Just to digress one second…the first play I ever produced, a very well-known actor today…this was 20 years ago….he came in and he made these choices that were so unbelievably interesting. I was like this (she made a stunned face). The director looked up, the casting director…it was Rick Pagano. We looked up and I was overwhelmed. The choices were all wrong for the character [laughter] but he was so compellingly interesting. I tracked his career for years. He’s had tons of series and he’s been on Broadway so although his choices were wrong for the overall vision of the director for the play, he was so interesting that I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I’d rather have someone an adjustment and say, ‘That’s interesting but it doesn’t really work’ and have an actor do that than have an actor come in and give the same thing. When I was a casting director, I remember every day, I would get really excited and get there by 9:30AM for the actors. By 10:30AM, I would go, ‘Ugh….I’ve seen the same audition over and over again.’ [laughter] Then someone would come in and do something totally unexpected or bring a dimension to the character that I hadn’t seen. That made it for me.”
- Producing Self Content– “If you have skills other than acting, utilize them. I made four book deals for actors that were first-time writers. They really were great storytellers. They’re writing in the young adult or middle school market which is a very, very ginormous market. If I were you, I would direct a play, a web series or a short. I would do something that is going to give me the stepping stone to something bigger. You get your work out there! Actors have a thousand more opportunities today than when I started in the business because of the digital world. (She previously referenced three actor/writers) They got 5 million hits and whatever they created was so interesting, that Shonda Rhimes, HBO and NBC said, ‘We want to be in business with these people.’
In closing, Marilyn’s last “words of wisdom” as she was looking through the stack of attendees’ headshots were, “Some of these pictures hook me right away. With some peoples’ pictures, I don’t think that they serve them well. Just quickly looking through here and my words of wisdom to actors are, your pictures are online. They are this big and you want to have a picture that captures what you could realistically be cast for. I’m not going to take the time to turn over someone’s résumé and look at their training if their picture doesn’t captivate me.. The same thing as a log line, you want to have a picture that is not generic. That could convey at least three or four roles that you could be cast for. At least three. If I had more time today, as actors, I would ask, ‘What is your brand?’ What are you selling that instantly, if you don’t have strong credits that someone could see and it’s all in the picture? I put 3 or 4 pictures of my clients online because if they have a range of pictures for all kinds of roles, then I’m going to submit the picture with the agent that is going to be the most beneficial in helping them get the job. My words of wisdom, if you’re writers or actors and you have the ability to create content, you should do it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a writer per se. You could be a producer or a director but it starts with having something that you are passionate about because it’s so time consuming. I mean, I’m on a project now with various incarnations now for almost 14 years of my life. [laughter]. I think for actors, really knowing what you can be cast for is important.”
Thank you Marilyn for an enlightening morning! Watch for Marilyn’s new co-authored book Dating Your Character to be published in 2015.