There’s more than one way to break into the film industry. We’re curious about how other people are making it work, and eager to gain insight and inspiration from interesting success stories. We sat down with independent producer Jane Applegate. Jane Applegate is the founder of The Applegate Group, creators of The Applegate Network. Here, she sheds some light on her own career trajectory and what it’s like to work as an independent producer on her own terms.
Photo provided by Jane Applegate.
NYFA: Hi, Jane, thanks for sharing some of your story with our student community! Can you tell us how long have you been an independent producer?
Jane Applegate: I made a transition from writing and producing business news shows and cable documentaries to working on independent films in 2004. In 2006, I produced a short documentary about a theater program in Bosnia run by a professor at Dartmouth College. That project, “Much Ado About Mostar,” launched my independent film career.
NYFA What did you do prior to starting your own company? For how long?
JA: I started my career as a journalist, writing for the San Diego State University Aztec, an alternative weekly newspaper called the Reader, and then several newspapers and magazines in San Diego — including the San Diego Union. I joined the staff of the Los Angeles Times in 1983 as an investigative reporter specializing in white-collar crime. It was a challenging and rewarding job, but after a few years and winning some major awards, I decided I didn’t want to glorify criminals. I was offered a chance to revive a weekly small business column in the late ‘80s, when millions of people had lost their jobs and were trying to start their own businesses. My “Succeeding in Small Business” column was a big hit and went into syndication. The popularity of my practical, how-to column lead me to writing books, hosting a radio show for CBS, and speaking all over the world. I quit my job to start The Applegate Group Inc. in 1991.
NYFA: Can you talk about your transition from working for a corporation to working independently?
JA: I loved working in the newsroom and feeling the excitement of covering the news, but I wasn’t a very good employee. I questioned my bosses and was considered a bit of a troublemaker. I decided to start my own multimedia communications company because the LA Times wouldn’t let business reporters accept speaking fees and I needed to make more money.
Our company was the first to produce multimedia content about small business owners for bigger news outlets. We started a streaming video website — Small Business TV — with help from CNN, and produced web, video, print and live events for big corporations including Sprint, American Express, Wells Fargo, Verizon, Cox and Bloomberg. The biggest challenge was leaving behind my well-paying corporate clients and a job as a vice president of production for a big company to break into the indie world. I had to start out as a producer’s assistant for $100 a week. Starting at the bottom was the only way to break into the independent film world when I didn’t have the money to produce my own films. I was passing out carrots at craft services and handing out meal money — very humbling — on my first film, but I learned that my production skills were totally transferrable from TV to film.
NYFA: Do you think there is a unique experience to being a woman producer?
JA: I think women must work harder and be smarter than men to get ahead in the entertainment business. People in the TV and film world tend to hire their friends, their college buddies and people they know socially. Women have a tougher time getting jobs, but once they get a foot in the door things are easier and you can move up the ladder.
NYFA: What types of projects do you produce? Are there criteria that you use to decide which projects you’ll take on?
JA: I’ve produced a variety of projects from music videos to short films to independent features. I’m now producing a TV pilot for a Caribbean cable network. The writer-director, Mariette Monpierre, won a pitch contest and needed to attach a New York City-based producer with experience to secure the funding for a pilot. We’re deep into pre-production and will be shooting “Caribbean Girl NYC” in May for Flow, which is based in Barbados. I’m at a point in my career where I can be very picky and only work with creative, lovely people who I respect and admire.
NYFA: In your opinion, what makes a good producer? Is there a certain skill set that you think up-and-coming producers should focus on developing in order become successful?
JA: Producers must be able to multitask — kind of like a plate spinner at the circus. There are always plates falling and crashing, so you also need to have steady nerves and a great sense of humor. When things are going wrong on set, I always remind people that we are not curing cancer — we are making a film or show, and it is supposed to be fun. Good communication skills are also important. Being a careful listener is critical. Just letting people vent when they are upset or angry can diffuse most combustible situations. I always have a clip board or a notebook to take notes during a shoot. Leaving a notebook on the craft services table is also a good idea for producers. Encourage people to write down their problems and then review and prioritize what needs to be done at the end of the day. Knowing how to use production software programs is also a good hard skill. I’m learning how to use Movie Magic Scheduling very late in my career.
NYFA: How can students make the best of their NYFA film school experience? How would you suggest they go about building their producing career?
JA: I didn’t go to film school, but my daughter, who is now an accomplished film editor, did. I think school teaches you how to work on a team and how to delegate responsibilities. Production is a team sport. Studying film theory is great, but it won’t help you get a job. I think everyone in school should get as much real world experience as possible. Volunteer to work on set with directors you admire. Work on as many films as you can, especially short films, which are quicker to produce. If you are not in film school, work on as many different projects as you can. I recommend setting up a profile and using Staffmeup.com to find production work. You can make it through one day and move on.
NYFA: How valuable is networking and can you offer any tips to students?
JA: Most of my jobs and opportunities have come through networking. I’m a member of the Producers Guild of America and New York Women in Film and Television. I attend as many mixers and workshops as possible. I also teach workshops on creative financing, marketing and best production practices. My network of business friends is growing all the time. People know that I’m always open to making introductions and connections. When you connect two people and something great comes of it, they both remember and are usually happy help you connect with someone you need to meet.
NYFA: Is your career progressing as you had hoped it would?
JA: I have been very fortunate to work on a variety of wonderful projects from music videos to live corporate events. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to take big creative and financial risks. Some have paid off, others not, but it’s been a wonderful ride.
NYFA: And lastly, what are some of your hopes for the future?
JA: I would love our Caribbean pilot to be a hit and lead to a full series. Future episodes would take us to shoot on the four islands where the principal characters are from and I’d love to visit more Caribbean islands. I’m also working with friends on two feature projects, one based on a best-seller by a Greek author and the other about Sylvia Beach, the American bookseller who published James Joyce’s controversial and banned book “Ulysses.”
Many thanks to Jane for sharing a bit about her producing career with the NYFA community! To learn more about Jane and to follow her work, visit her websites www.theapplegatenetwork.com and www.theapplegategroup.com. Ready to launch your own journey into the world of film producing? Check out NYFA’s Producing School.