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Lena Waithe and Rishi Rajani see the possibilities in smaller-budget films

J. Clara Chan – Los Angeles Times (TNS)

At a time when studios are zeroing in on existing intellectual property and tried-and-true storylines to fill up their film and TV slates, Hillman Grad is looking in the opposite direction.

The production company, led by writer-producer-actor Lena Waithe and Chief Executive Rishi Rajani, has put its weight behind projects from emerging and first-time filmmakers including Jingyi Shao (“Chang Can Dunk”), A.V. Rockwell (“A Thousand and One”) and D. Smith (“Kokomo City”) — all of whom released their directorial debuts with Hillman Grad last year to much acclaim.

With belts tightening across Hollywood, Waithe and Rajani share why they see an opportunity for more upcoming filmmakers to get their shot and why a streaming culture that prioritizes a one-size-fits-all, mass appeal approach hurts creatives and viewers.

Q: How has the vision for Hillman Grad changed since you started the company? 

Lena Waithe: The business has changed, society has changed, the way we take in content has changed. But for me, what I want to do is really get back to the creative. Sometimes, because of everything that’s going on, we can lose sight of the creative, and it can be about commerce, which I understand. This is a business, things have to make money. There has to be an audience, there has to be supply and demand. But I think there are ways that we can reinvest in the unknown.

Studios and networks want to make things that appeal to a lot of people. I think the tricky thing is, there’s a lot of content. I want to continue to find things that make people talk and that make people really lean in, because I think there’s so much content, it’s easy for things to kind of come and go. My vision for Hillman Grad has been about what can we do to make sure audiences, our people, our community, really feel like they’re engaged in the work.

[Personally,] I want to get into theater. I’m working with Debbie Allen on something for the stage that’s a musical, but I also want to just do a straight-up play. I want to learn that craft and understand and speak to some amazing playwrights before I hop into that, but I think that, to me, is actually in a way, of the future. I don’t think everything has to be Broadway. You can make theater affordable. That’s where my head is.

Q: Say you’re bringing in a new filmmaker under the Hillman wing. What does that experience look like? 

Rishi Rajani: What we were finding is there’s a lot of frustration with the “diversity programs” for finding new talent, because it felt like they were very performative. It was like, bring a writer on to staff on a show for one season, or bring on a filmmaker to shadow on a TV series, and there was no follow-up. There’s no continuing mentorship, there’s no guidance, there’s no interest in their careers beyond that. And so when a filmmaker comes into Hillman Grad, say, for example, they make a short film in the incubator program with Indeed and Rising Voices, it is our goal and aspiration to continue building up their career.

A great example of this is Jingyi Shao. We were really excited about him off of a script and a short film that he had done with HBO. We really liked him as a creator, so we brought him on in the writers room for our show “Boomerang.” We gave him the opportunity to direct on our show “Twenties.” We then developed his feature film script with him, workshopped that, sold that to Disney, produced “Chang Can Dunk” with him— I was on set with him in Connecticut for three months. What it was was actually giving real mentorship and real guidance.

A.V. Rockwell got to direct an episode of “Boomerang,” her first episode of television that she was asked to direct. And then we developed “A Thousand and One” with her. Now we’re looking forward and going, OK, what are the next projects that we can do with these individuals? Because for us, it’s not just a one-and-done thing.

I think that’s actually the smartest business model for Hillman Grad as well. Obviously, there’s the element of wanting to shift the culture with the filmmakers that we’re working with, [but] we want to keep working with people that we really like working with and continue to build on the success of stuff as well. It is a different experience for filmmakers because we’ve really invested in them and invested in their careers holistically.

Q: You’re building a network of creatives. 

Rajani: And if someone’s not quite ready for their first feature film, how do we help them get the experience? We don’t go, “Go out, find the experience, do it and figure it out yourself.” That I heard a lot when I was coming from the studio system. It was like, this is a filmmaker to track, which, to me, is kind of lazy. It’s like you want someone else to go help them do the work, you want them to go scrape by and make their first film by themselves, and then you want to capitalize on that success and achievement. I just don’t really buy into that system, especially when it comes to people that don’t necessarily have the access to the resources to just go make a movie by themselves. It’s a very privileged position to be able to not work for a couple of years and just go make an indie movie funded by [your] parents.

Q: How do you pitch projects from newer filmmakers?

Waithe: It is tough. But what we try to do is say, “Hey, this could be the next ‘Get Out.'”

They’re business people. They’re not creatives, even though, yes, they have creative executives who are there to help you develop your material and make it as good as it can be. But they have to report to people who don’t care about the creative. They just care about dollars and cents. So when a movie that isn’t supposed to do well does really well, it sends a message to these heads of studios. That’s why so many people use “Get Out” when they pitch, because that’s now something we can say. This was done well, this has worked. And that’s how you got to speak to them.

It’s about supply and demand. That’s why the audience is just as important as the artists, because what they support, what they show up for, what they see and where they go, everybody follows the money. Or the eyeball, the viewership, when it comes to streaming. They literally can tell where you are, how long have you watched? Transparency is so helpful, because we want to know: How many people watched my show? Where were they? What are the ages? Who’s my audience?

Q: Netflix just released its transparency report on streaming viewership. Do you think more studios will follow suit?

Waithe: I don’t know, but I would hope so. Transparency can be helpful for everybody. It’s just good for us to know what we’re watching. I mean, even Pornhub tells you what you watched this year. Spotify tells you what you listened to.

If someone was on a show and they think that a lot of people are watching it because [they] only hear from [their] fans and think, Oh, this is killing it, but [that’s not reflected on the] report, rather than feeling like a failure, it’s more about, hey, how can I reach more people? How can we make sure more people know about my series? Where would be a good place to advertise?

Q: Do you feel like it has been harder to sell projects now that companies have pulled back on streaming?

Waithe: As an artist, it can be difficult to decide where you want your show to live, because you don’t know a streamer’s identity. Some artists can say, I don’t care where my show lives, as long as it gets up, [that’s fine]. But every streamer is different. And they speak to different audiences.

It’s a marriage, depending on where [your show] lives. And so, if it lives on the wrong streamer, you might not reach the right audience. And then your show goes away not because it’s not good, but because it might have been on the wrong streamer. But the thing is, streamers have to decide who they are, creatively. We’re asking, who are y’all? What shows y’all want to make? Then I can tell you if I have something that makes sense for you. But it gets muddled if every streamer is like, we just want to sell it to everybody.

Q: What do you think the studio system needs to change so it’s more open to new voices?

Rajani: It’s kind of twofold. On one hand, it’s quite frankly getting more decision makers from underrepresented backgrounds into higher ranks of studios and giving people actual greenlight opportunities. We tend to have kind of the same type of person at the top of all of these studios, and they are, quite frankly, straight, white, male POVs and perspectives. And so I think the first step is having the decision makers in those roles be the people that look a little bit like the filmmakers they are trying to champion. You get a diversity of thought and a diversity of opinion that can be very helpful when it’s time to decide what is worth making or not.

Second piece is to understand that, fundamentally, there’s a real opportunity in giving filmmakers smaller budgets and the opportunity to create something. In the studio system, people are spending a lot of money to make movies. And I get it, when it’s $30 million, $40 million, $50 million to make a movie, It’s harder to make a bet on a first-time filmmaker.

You can make really smart business decisions around taking bets on smaller-budget movies, especially as we enter this new kind of scarier post-strike moment for studios. I would encourage a lot of the studios to go, OK, what does a $5 to $7 million movie from an early filmmaker look like, and could that be a big breakout potential success for us?

We’ve made movies from $3.5 million to $15 million, and there’s such an incredible opportunity there if studios are willing to buy into the idea: Give producers like us who can make movies for a budget [a shot], give filmmakers a shot who would be so excited to, quite frankly, work their asses off if given a $5 million to $7 million budget. And can that be the next slate of big hits for a studio?

Q: Are the majority of Hillman’s projects on the lower-budget end?

Rajani: Yeah. When you’re making a movie in that $5 million to $7 million range, there’s such a greater opportunity for success for everybody. I just fundamentally believe that the budgets have gotten a little bloated. And, look, the world is shifting and changing. We’re having to fight for attention from audiences from so many different angles. You have to really break through creating a cultural conversation, whether that’s like what “Everything, Everywhere” did or what Barbenheimer did, you have to give people a real reason and something that feels really distinctive. You can’t just go down the middle with projects.

Q: Any industry wide predictions for 2024? 

Rajani: It’s gonna be even harder to make projects. I think the contraction that everyone’s a little bit afraid of is going to occur. We’re already kind of seeing the hesitancy in buyers and the marketplace. The unfortunate thing is we’re also hearing that people are less interested in supporting emerging creators, which feels, unfortunately, very coded language for people from disenfranchised backgrounds. But with every difficult moment in the marketplace, I think we’ll start to see where the opportunities are. I do think that the low-budget space is going to become an opportunity. I’m hoping that because all of these streamers and studios still need content, there’ll be an increase in the independent film market and people will be more willing to acquire projects that are fully finished that they can watch and review. I’m hoping that [lights] a little bit of fire into that space.

Looking at the movies that really broke through [in 2023], I’m anticipating and hoping that movies that really take risks are the ones that audiences are craving more and are willing to actually make the effort to go out and see. The movies that are really bold and ambitious, the movies that try and do something really different, are going to be the ones that succeed in a very difficult marketplace to capture people’s attention. The movies that are a little bit more familiar or formulaic or just try to do kind of the same thing with the same stars aren’t going to be as successful, because there’s not going to be a real reason for people to make the effort to go and watch them.

Rapid fire questions

Q: What are you listening to now? 

Rishi Rajani: The Broadway soundtrack to “Merrily We Roll Along,” which I recently saw. I find it very resonant for the place the industry is in right now.

Q: How do you get focused? 

Rajani: I started boxing. You have to just be in the moment, and it helps me get really focused, energized and ready to tackle my day.

Lena Waithe: I’ll definitely light up my own strain [of weed] called First Draft. To get focused I need to get clear, to relax, so that’s what I do every time.

©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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