How Filmmaker Susan Cartsonis Is Helping To Make the Entertainment Industry More Diverse and Representative
Fund female-led film ventures. I believe that where women lead, all inclusion follows. As women, we are a majority who are underrepresented, and we are sensitized to exclusion. I think that gender and racial equity are closely linked. Women are more likely to build mixed teams and make inclusive films. There are exceptional men doing the same: Tyler Perry and Paul Feig to name two.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Cartsonis. Susan is a Hollywood producer and one of the top five grossing producers of the year for What Women Want and Where the Heart Is. Her newest film Feel the Beat premiered on Netflix in June.
Cartsonis, an executive at 20th Century Fox for a decade, rose from script reader to Senior VP of Production. At Fox, she supervised the talent deals of the Farrelly Brothers, Geena Davis, Richard Gere, and Johnny Depp. Cartsonis is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The Television Academy, and the Independent Committee of the Producer’s Guild. She is a board member of the screenwriter mentoring non-profit, Cinestory, and is a mentor for the Meryl Streep- founded, The Writer’s Lab, which mentors female screenwriters over forty. Cartsonis is an advocate and frequent speaker on and for the representation of the female perspective in the film.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Susan! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I drew pictures when I was very young, and when I was four, in Pittsburgh, Mr. Rogers held up one of my drawings on his local television show with Miss Josie. I was bitten by the show biz bug. Film production is a combination of creativity, people skills, and organization. I am the oldest of five children from a middle-class family, which means that with two working parents I organized, fed, and entertained a small army while my parents worked. I dreamt up creative meals and activities for my younger siblings. When I was 8 my twin brothers Jonathan and Michael were born and I would tell them stories before they went to bed. My parents (an urban planner/architect, and social worker) were active in progressive politics in a conservative state (Arizona) and it had an influence on me. In 8th grade, I organized a walkout on a racist teacher and cowrote and directed a 5 minute super 8 movie called “Alice’s Nightmare” which won the first Arizona State University Film competition. The film started in color (like “The Wizard of Oz”). Alice, an innocent girl in a pinafore, falls asleep in an orange orchard. She wakes on a street and the film is suddenly black and white. She is confronted with the ills of modern society, which if I remember are rudeness, drugs, and pollution. Finally “Alice” screams and wakes from the nightmare and finds herself in color, in the orange grove again. After a childhood of putting on plays, and with my father’s encouragement, I set my sights on film. I thought I would be a director but saw that Lina Wertmuller and later Gillian Armstrong were my only female role models and correctly surmised that the barrier to entry for women was very high. That combined with the expense of equipment and the fact that I didn’t have money for filmmaking made me turn to other ways to tell stories.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I was up for a junior executive job at 20th Century Fox while working as a reader out of the New York office while finishing my MFA at NYU. The legendary producer Scott Rudin wanted to know about me. He had a sharp tongue and a wicked wit. He found out that I had won a two-year subscription to New York Magazine through their weekly contest and that, in turn, won me the job. I had entered the contest because I REALLY wanted a subscription to the magazine, but had no money. My winning entry, it turned out, was his favorite of all time because it reflected his sensibility: “Create a sequel to a well-known book, television series or film.” My winning answer was: “Little Gloria…Dead at Last” (The real title was “Little Gloria…Happy at Last”.) It was mean! But it launched my executive career at Fox, where I worked and learned the business for 10 years.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early in my career while working as a major director’s third assistant, I was asked to make a horse riding lesson appointment for him and given the name of his instructor. In his Rolodex there were two cards with that name. I called one first and tried to set up a lesson. Later, as I was being let go, I found out that the second rolodex card was the instructor. The first was a producer friend who publicly teased the director about his riding lesson at a party!
Ok thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our discussion. Can you describe how you are helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?
I make an effort to interview minority candidates for both big and small jobs, and I make it part of the culture of every movie set. You build a culture with ever movie, and I want that culture to be inclusive. Teams with race and gender balance are more successful, and in the case of a movie, diverse perspectives at every level and in every job on production make the storytelling more interesting. Sometimes that means training people, giving them a shot, or recruiting. I am drawn to and seek out stories of people of color and people of cultures different from my own. Not just in the US, but as a global filmmaker. Our film product goes to countries with whom we have no diplomatic relations and speaks to people about who we are, especially when the story is about Americans. Narrative storytelling is important and global. Even what might appear to be a light comedy has deep thought about the choices the characters make and the visual storytelling through details that you might see on the set. When I make movies for a youth audience, I am acutely aware that this media may impact their lives in a long term way and have an influence on their thinking, so I try to make sure that there’s a representation and that the messaging is good. The Sundance Netflix Original Movie DEIDRA & LANEY ROB A TRAIN was originally conceived as a story of two sisters who were not people of color. We ended up making a story about a mixed family (Ashleigh Murray and Rachel Crow) with a white father and a black mother with amazing support from the studio. Then, inspired by the casting of the family, we made sure the rest of the cast was diverse as well. We cast Sasheer Zamata as a guidance counselor and Arturo Castro as a local cop, and we were excited and inspired not to stop there. We decided to take chances on fresh talent “below the line” and decided to hire department heads with broad representation as well: a Native American Trans Woman director, a Vietnamese American female cinematographer, an African American female costume designer, a team of Chinese-American female production designers, a female Native American script supervisor, and many more women on set, most in non-traditional jobs. FEEL THE BEAT is super inclusive in casting and story — and that starts with our writing team of Shawn Ku and Michael Armbruster. Shawn is a POC and both Shawn and Michael are gay and married. We have a deaf dancer, a central character who is LGBTQ, and a person of color. Our lead is Hispanic, and our kids are black, Hispanic, Asian and inclusion means white people too — so some of our characters are white. When I was researching the demographic makeup of Wisconsin, where the story takes place I realized that there are relatively few people of color in small towns — and so I decided with the director, Elissa Down, that we would create the Wisconsin of the future. Aspirational and more diverse Wisconsin — the Wisconsin we want to see in the very near future!
Wow! Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?
I produced FREAKY FRIDAY THE MUSICAL at Disney Channel and cast Ricky He as their first Asian male lead in a Disney Channel film. He was brought to us for a supporting role and I said, “He’s handsome, funny, can sing — -why isn’t he going up for the lead?” I spoke to the casting directors about broadening their view of the lead, the studio about my belief in him, and even his own agent about updating his photo with a non “nerdy” photo to help him go for bigger roles and avoid the trope of the “Asian nerd”.
On a separate occasion at Sundance, a black kid around 16 years old, thanked my producing partner and me for making a film with black people that was not about race. That made me happy.
I’ve been told by email, letter, and on panels that AQUAMARINE had a huge influence on the lives of now 20 something women when they were young — the message being that female friendship should not be devalued in favor of romance. And I’ve received letters from fans of the movie BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER who say that the movie saved their lives in high school. The message that you can be both pretty and powerful is a very important one for young girls — also the notion that we have abilities within us that will guide us is a hugely empowering idea. I see this superhero untapped power as a metaphor for intuition, which is a form of real intelligence, and is undervalued in our society because it’s mostly associated with women, who are also undervalued!
As an insider, this might be obvious to you, but I think it’s instructive to articulate this for the public who might not have the same inside knowledge. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important to have diversity represented in Entertainment and its potential effects on our culture?
- Geena Davis has often quoted/paraphrased Marion Wright Edelman saying “If you see it you can be it.” She goes on to say that when she played the president people came to her and said they could “see” a woman as president of the United States because they’d seen the show. She also points out through her research that there was a spike in enrollment by women in forensic science majors in college after NCIS featured a cool female forensic scientist. What we put on the screen matters.
- Movies and television are collaborative and the product reflects and is informed by the teams that make them. They are more specific and interesting and less formulaic when the stories have people who in some way represent the stories and characters generating the finished product.
- Success begets success. The film business and television business is driven by money and is surprisingly conservative about risk. So if there are more diverse projects, there’s more of an opportunity for projects that reflect diversity to succeed and for diverse storytellers to become leaders in the industry. Those storytellers will mentor and include more stories and storyteller who will enrich the tapestry of the stories our industry tells.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do to help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?
- Fund female-led film ventures. I believe that where women lead, all inclusion follows. As women, we are a majority who are underrepresented, and we are sensitized to exclusion. I think that gender and racial equity are closely linked. Women are more likely to build mixed teams and make inclusive films. There are exceptional men doing the same: Tyler Perry and Paul Feig to name two.
- Create training programs for minority candidates and nurture talent. When people are repeatedly excluded, they often stop trying. Our business of storytelling is made more vibrant by the diversity of storytelling and different perspectives. It makes the business healthier and less insular. Let’s welcome in more diverse voices.
- Watch movies and television by women and minorities. Storytelling brings us together and allows us to experience a bigger world. ROMY on Hulu, WORK IN PROGRESS on HBO, THE HALF OF IT on Netflix.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is leading by example and creating a culture conducive to collaboration so that success can be enjoyed and celebrated both personally and collectively.
When I walk onto a set I have over 200 people working for me, many of whom I have never worked with before, sometimes in a foreign country. I try to be sensitive to the culture and traditions of that country — when we shoot in Canada or Australia there’s a tendency to think that we’re the same because we all speak English, but that is not the case. I try to smile and engage with everyone there in a personal and professional way. I try to stay calm — which is often a challenge on a busy set.
People model behavior by the producer and the set becomes a happier place and/or a place where warmth, friendliness, and communication is valued. I learn names (or try!) and call people by their names. I say please and thank you.
When it’s called for it I am tough. The producer is the CEO of a movie and establishes the tone and culture of a production which makes its way into the DNA of the product. I speak to each department head about the importance of diverse staff in their department and seeking out and bringing minorities and women in to interview and giving them the job if possible.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Trust your instincts. They are more often right than not. Instinct and intuition are forms of intelligence that are often undervalued and more developed in women.
- Be bold. Don’t let fear drive action if you have an innovative idea. If you are ahead of the curve, people may laugh at you or ignore what you’re saying but don’t let that make you lose faith in what you believe or want to pursue. Just because it hasn’t been done that way before doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea. On AQUAMARINE my associate, Roz Weisberg, noted that Brittany Spears had record-breaking success with her perfume using a promotion that used text messages and her recorded voice. The studio was disinterested, but the director and I recorded materials with our three stars while we had them with us that were ultimately used by the studio — who had to catch up to the idea, to promote the film. I recently found some old memos pitching to my then boss the idea of a high school musical to be written by Alexander and Karaszewski (DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, BIG EYES, ED WOOD) — -back in the late ’80s.
- Be accountable. Don’t indulge in the blame game. Or try to hide your mistakes. When my father taught me to draw he said “never erase your mistakes.” I carry that with me.
- Tolerate silence. Women are taught implicitly or explicitly to fill up awkward silences and make people comfortable. In a negotiation that is a disadvantage with some people who use silence as a weapon or a tool. The head of a major agency, who wanted me to give one of his star clients the chance to direct a project of mine would call me on the weekend and then just go silent to make me uncomfortable and try to get information through the chatter. I fell for it at first, realized what he was doing, and finally called his bluff saying. I’ve considered being silent in the face of a pause in the conversation, especially a negotiation a “zen” exercise since.
- Kindness and Strength can coexist. You don’t have to be mean to be tough. I’m not afraid to show my anger when it’s in service of protecting the emotional or physical safety of someone on set, and I’m not afraid to be tough. My default personality is to be kind and I no longer worry — as I did when I was younger — about what people will think of me if I display anger or firmness — in fact, it’s probably a good idea for female leaders to do this once in a while to show that there’s a line!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
So many things…I’d love to amplify young women’s voices politically and artistically around the globe so they can step forward and bring the necessary balance to leadership. We need female leadership and influence in this country and around the globe to create balance and representation of humanity. I firmly believe that gender parity in the arts, education, business, and politics makes a better world. We have to improve the numbers in order to improve the world for everyone.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The key to success is to do your job like you don’t care if you’re fired.” That quote was from my first boss at 20th Century Fox, Sara Colleton. She used to say that, which I tried to follow and am forever grateful for, and “make sure you put on your lipstick” which I never really did but she always did!
When I started at Fox working for Sara everyone was scared of Barry Diller who was Chairman/CEO. He was powerful and would stride down the hall of the first floor of the executive building exuding a charisma I’ve never seen in any movie star. In my first meeting with him, I contradicted him about a Cohen Brothers movie that we were deliberating about making — we had just acquired RAISING ARIZONA — they were about to make MILLERS CROSSING. He worried that the movie might not make money. I had an out of body experience as I heard my 20 something-year-old junior executive self, saying “Making money is not the only reason to make this movie”. Barry turned his laser gaze at me and said “Oh really?” I heard the film gasp. And I listened to myself say, “If we make a second film with these great “signature” filmmakers, we will be saying to the filmmaking community that Fox is a home for great filmmakers. We’ll attract more filmmakers and ultimately gain much more than we could possibly lose.” Barry paused, then nodded and said, “Well said.” And turned to the next item on the agenda. The room collectively sighed. I hadn’t crashed and burned at my first meeting.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Tyler Perry. I have so many questions for him! The business he built by serving an underserved and diverse audience is truly remarkable and brilliant. The way he cultivated his distribution channel using his knowledge of black culture, entertainment history and then partnered with great partners are a testament to his creative and business genius. He spoke to an underserved audience in a way that was and is specific to them and has built an empire that. My dream is to do that for the female audience.