How Producer Courtney LeMarco Is Helping To Make The Entertainment Industry More Diverse and Representative
Patience, patience and more patience are key to surviving in entertainment. The creative process is not something that should be rushed. From concept to development to pitching to a network, bringing a show to life can take a year or more, and that’s only if it gets the green light. If you’re working on a creative project that you’re passionate about, keep working at it.
Success in the entertainment industry doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, effort, and a lot of footwork, but don’t let that scare you from chasing your dreams.
As a part of my series about leaders helping to make the entertainment industry more diverse and representative, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Courtney LeMarco, CEO and Founder of LeMarco Brands.
From high school dropout to running a multi-million revenue-generating production company, Courtney LeMarco is the self- made American film & television producer who rescued one of America’s most popular reality television shows from a company going out of business — without any formal TV production experience behind him. Now touting more than 25 years of experience in business development and management, Courtney is a sought-after film & television producer. He is the Executive Producer of the Emmy-Nominated A&E series Hoarders and the Founder and CEO of LeMarco Brands, LLC, a Seattle-based brand management firm with interests in multiple industries, including entertainment, fashion, music, and consumer products. His client list includes notable brands, including Neiman Marcus, Comcast, Disney, Amazon, and Conde Nast.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My pleasure. It’s a very winding story, so I’ll try to keep it simple. I’ve always had an interest in the creative arts; I experimented with music at a young age and moved on to graphic design and making simple videos by my late teens and early twenties. By tenth grade, I’d dropped out of high school. My family circumstances, at the time, were difficult, to say the least. My father had never been in my life, and my mother suffered from mental illness — I didn’t even know where she was at that point in time.
So, I had to make a choice: starve or get a job. I walked out of my history class for the last time and found myself a dishwasher job at a restaurant. Eventually, by my luck and because I was the only one in the back kitchen who spoke proper English, the head chef picked me to fill in for one of the other line chefs who was sick. That opportunity led to another job at a restaurant where the head chef also managed a catering business. He asked if I’d help him design menus and build a website, which I quickly learned how to do in a weekend with an Apple computer he’d purchased for me as payment. Soon enough, referrals started coming in, and I started making brochures, business cards, and other collateral for small businesses.
One day, out of the blue, I got a call from an executive at Amazon who hired me for photography and video services at an event where Jeff Bezos was speaking. That was essentially the kickstart to my career, and I began producing more high-end corporate content. My clients became Nordstrom, Conde Nast, the Department of Defense, and Neiman Marcus, where I worked with their former Fashion Director, Ken Downing. Ken became the catalyst for my first television idea, which unfortunately hasn’t been made yet, but it helped me get my foot in the door with the production company from where I’d eventually take over production on Hoarders.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I wouldn’t even know where to start. Despite being born in Los Angeles, I’ve lived in Seattle most of my life, far away from the bright lights of Hollywood. The past year has been filled with a lot of incredible moments that all have special meaning to me.
One of the funnier situations, however, was being at the 2019 Emmys and having some cocktails for a small group of people I was conversing with. After the drinks were done, I walked back to my partners and was approached by a woman who asked if I knew who I was just standing with. I really had no idea, and to my surprise, she informed me that I’d just bought drinks for the cast members of Game of Thrones. I, unfortunately, am one of the five people on planet Earth who’d never watched the show, so I hadn’t recognized them…
Little instances like that would happen quite often, where I’d find myself in a room or at a dinner table with a major Hollywood actor or producer. And as a high school drop-out not having even known when my next meal would be, I have to check myself often as I adjust to the new normal of being surrounded by stardom. It’s certainly made life quite interesting, to say the least.
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 on in my television career, I was getting really excited about all these new opportunities that were opening up for me and I was eager to get the ball rolling. As you can expect, when you’re just starting out, you tend to take people for their word, and well, naivety got the best of me and put me in situations that I can only laugh at now.
One time, I’d been in contact with these two ‘producers’ in LA, and I flew down from Seattle for a meeting. We met at a restaurant frequented by celebrities and execs, so of course, I never second-guessed the legitimacy of the engagement initially. When I think back now, I should have known something was off when they’d shown up 30 minutes past our meeting time without notice. When they finally arrived, we started having a great discussion about a project of mine, and they agreed to pitch it to a major network where they supposedly had a relative who worked as an executive.
Well, as the meeting went on, they rather quickly shifted their focus on how excellent the food was and ordered probably the most expensive meals and wines at the restaurant. And when the bill came, one of them immediately got up and went to the bathroom, and the other quickly left to take a phone call that never actually rang. Of course, it quickly hit me then that I’d just been gypped. I paid a rather impressive bill, to say the least, but I’m grateful I had enough to cover the meal and not put my dishwashing skills and experience to use!
I get a good laugh about it now. I was naive, but damn did they put a ton of effort just to get a free meal. And hey, I know better now about who I trust!
Okay, 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?
It’s quite simple from my perspective. The U.S. population is becoming increasingly diverse every year. When people look at entertainment, I think most people want to see actors who like them and showcase stories that they can relate to. So, for myself, I always make an effort to discover projects that share real, meaningful stories told by people who represent a wide range of ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds.
One of the projects I’m particularly eager about is The Big Pitch. We’ve created a quarterly competition giving an opportunity to minority and women creators to submit their film or television concepts. We then pick ten worthy candidates to pitch their ideas to our well-affiliated executives and producers, and the finalist will develop their winning concept alongside our production company for pitching to networks and studios. We’re so incredibly excited because we know this is going to provide great opportunities for minority creators waiting for their shot.
Wow! Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?
That would probably be my partner Erik Bernard. Erik is an Army Ranger who is transitioning out of military service and into the entertainment industry. We met at a networking event that I’d held at an ad agency I’d worked at. I could tell just by speaking with him that he had great ideas and a serious passion for storytelling. We soon became great friends and close like brothers. When I got the opportunity to produce my first television show, Erik was the first person I called to come on board and help me.
It was the best business decision I’d ever made because it allowed Erik to step on and take a role that he was built for. His tactical thinking, foresight, and military discipline made him the perfect choice to lead our production company. He’s grown into an entertainment industry exec that is well on his way to taking our company to the next level. I would give a lot of the credit for our success in television to Erik’s leadership.
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?
The US is a melting pot of numerous unique cultures and backgrounds. However, the entertainment industry, especially in film and television, doesn’t exhibit the diversity in our country. Less than 20% of film leads are people of color — that is a sad number for a country valuing equal opportunity. It also sends a message to the rest of the world that we don’t practice the acceptance that we preach.
Another reason, and probably the most important, is the entertainment industry’s power to influence society. The music played, the news circulated, and the movies and shows produced are all contributing factors to social standards, trends, and sometimes how we perceive a group of people. As representatives of our industry, it’s our responsibility to remove the misnomers placed on different cultures and, instead, embrace the diversity of our country.
Lastly, a lot of people find themselves in entertainment. We like to seek out things that we find relatable to our own individual lives, and it encourages us to feel more comfortable. Frankly, not everyone is going to relate to Robert Downey Jr. just as how not everyone relates to Eddie Murphy or Jennifer Lopez for that matter. That’s why it’s so important to showcase a variety of people from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?
I’ll break this down. On a community level, I think it’s important for us to realize that, beyond our own differences, we all have issues, problems, fears, hopes, and dreams. Under the skin, we’re pretty much the same all around. And what we need to do within our own community is be more inclusive towards people who may look different or come from different backgrounds. From there, we can only hope that it’ll become a ripple effect of kindness and inclusivity for all.
Society, as a whole, needs to recognize that we’re all in this together. We’re all on the same ride on this rock hurtling through space. Any environment that dampens inclusivity hurts all of us. And the more exposure we have to each other’s cultures through media and entertainment, the better it is for all of us because we’ll gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.
The entertainment industry is making progress, but more can certainly be done. I find that I’m often the only African American in the room in most of the network meetings I have. I believe, first and foremost, companies need to place more qualified minorities into executive positions on the network and studio level. I think that would be a good start in regards to bringing more diverse projects to the screen from creators who come from marginalized communities. Great talent and storytellers are everywhere — we just need to help find ways to bring them to the forefront.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I think true leadership is about willingness to learn and grow in order to lead. When I took over the Hoarders series, I found myself in charge of a group of talented people who had years more of entertainment industry experience than me. Had I come in telling everyone what to do and acting as if I knew better, I’m positive that everyone would have quit and the show would’ve undoubtedly failed. Instead, I chose to sit down and listen to their process. I asked questions about things I didn’t understand, and I made suggestions on how to improve certain things that I knew could be done better. Most importantly, I trusted and supported them. In that process, I learned more than I could ever imagine, and the knowledge I acquired helped me become an even better leader. As a result, my team trusts me just as I trust them, and here we are with one of the top reality shows on television.
What are your “4 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
The first thing I wish someone would have told me was that the entertainment industry requires you to be nimble. As with any job that requires collaboration, you’re going to run into miscommunication and inefficiencies when working with larger companies, studios and networks where there are multiple departments who all need to weigh in on various aspects of a particular project. The process of approvals can be daunting with multiple checks and balances, but that’s how the industry is. There are times where we have to be the ones who track things down, or stay on top of our clients through email and phone calls in order to make sure we’re hitting milestones. It can be challenging at times, but it’s been a great learning experience. Our company is small as well, which allows us to have more room for flexibility to make major decisions without layers of unnecessary oversight.
The second thing I wish someone would have told me is that if it makes sense, then you’re probably doing it wrong. Our team experiences this on a regular basis as we work on projects in entertainment, consumer products, fashion, media and advertising with a wide range of clients. The first time I heard this phrase was when we were brought on by a client to produce content. When we arrived, we discovered that they had an in-house department who was better equipped to do the job, so I asked my client why they weren’t just doing it themselves. He answered that he and the internal team weren’t able to see eye-to-eye on the project, so they decided to outsource. At that point, my client told me that they live day-to-day by the phrase “if it makes sense, then you’re probably doing it wrong,” or just learn to go with the flow. It didn’t make sense, but we were able to come in and deliver exactly what the client was looking for, so it worked out in everyone’s favor.
One of the most important things I wish someone would have told me before I got into entertainment was to not be afraid to be too forward-thinking. At times in the television world, many networks can be hesitant to invest in a new idea that goes beyond the traditional equation of what’s successful, such as the singing competitions, family comedy/dramas or true crime shows. While these types of shows are a proven formula, the way that media is consumed today has been flipped on its head in just five short years. Streaming services that lend the ability for us to binge-watch our favorite show is the new norm, and short-form content is what’s next. These new methods of media consumption are unchartered territory for some of the heavy-weights in the industry, but the beauty here is that they open up a new world of possibilities for stories that haven’t been told before.
Lastly, patience, patience and more patience are key to surviving in entertainment. The creative process is not something that should be rushed. From concept to development to pitching to a network, bringing a show to life can take a year or more, and that’s only if it gets the green light. If you’re working on a creative project that you’re passionate about, keep working at it. To put this into perspective, Stranger Things was rejected fifteen times before the Duffer Brothers landed a deal with Netflix. Success in the entertainment industry doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, effort and a lot of footwork, but don’t let that scare you from chasing your dreams.
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. :-)
This is a great question. We are actually in the process of bringing a lot of good to the people of Washington state. In 2019, I created the Washington State Entertainment Industry Political Action Committee (WSEIPAC) with the hope of bringing a tax incentive program to the state that is comparable to the current program in Georgia. Washington has some of the most remarkable landscapes in the country, and there’s an enormous amount of talent and industries that would benefit from such a program. Passing legislation of this magnitude could bring billions of dollars in revenue to the state and create thousands of jobs for people living in the state of Washington.
I’ve been working with political strategist Michael Charles, Senator Joe Nguyen (WA-D), and Senator Bob Hasegawa (WA-D) on the process. We now have a draft of the bill in review, and we hope to have it brought before the Senate in 2021.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The first quote that comes to mind is, “No good deed goes unpunished.” I learned this lesson when I took over production on a television series from a production company that had to go out of business. They left almost all of their employees in the dark and many people were still owed money. I stepped in to recover the show and rehired a majority of the team under our new production company, TLG Motion Pictures, however, the process of taking over came with its challenges.
After a few months of negotiations, we were eventually able to find a good resolution that fulfilled the previous production company’s financial obligations to the banks and also allowed for all of their former employees and contractors to receive the back pay they were owed. It was a win-win for everyone in the end, despite the hurdles we had to jump over to get there.
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. :-)
Yes — Barack Obama. His ability to keep his composure and professionalism throughout his entire presidency and beyond was astounding. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with his decisions during his presidency, I think that most would have to admit that very few people could maintain such a level of mental discipline under the amount of pressure he endured. I try to uphold that type of mindset in my professional and personal life, which is challenging from time to time, but I’m always willing to improve. And if he’s not available, then I’d pick Halsey… because… well, she’s Halsey.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Personal Instagram: @courtneylemarco
Personal Twitter: @CourtneyLeMarco
LeMarco Brands Twitter: @LeMarcoBrands
LeMarco Brands Instagram: @LeMarcoBrands
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!