‘Sparkle’ Producer Debra Martin Chase Reflects On Career & Whitney!
By Darralynn Hutson
Posted May 6th 2012
The veteran movie producer shares her career journey and explains the industry’s evolution!
There are a small number of Black female producers in Hollywood who have been able to stay relevant and profitable; Halle Berry, Oprah Winfrey, Tracey Edmonds, Queen Latifah and then there’s Debra Martin Chase. Her name may not register with the general public the same way as the aforementioned women, but her credits speak for their self: Cheetah Girls, Cinderella, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, 1 and 2, Princess Diaries, 1 and 2 and most recently, Just Wright. Some may consider her work “chick flicks,” but Martin Chase makes movies for a living and the living is good.
Still an artist at heart, the movie veteran is producing two films set to release in 2012 and one on 2013; Sparkle, starring Jordin Sparks and the late Whitney Houston in her final theatrical performance; Dirty Dancing with director Kenny Ortega and Elixir, another Sanna Hamri collaboration. BlackEnterprise.com caught up with Martin Chase on the Detroit set of Sparkle as she dished out lessons on Hollywood moviemaking and staying ahead of the curve.
As a producer, can you talk about your pitching process?
The pitching process has evolved over the years and certainly I’ve become savvier about how I do it. There was a time when I was younger and fresher and probably more innocent. I’d find a story and be passionate about it and I’d say, I’m going to make this movie. I’d go in and tell the story and do my best to sell it. Now, I’m picking my projects and being smart about it; how you sell it, where you sell the project and also, the name of the game for me, as a producer, is that I have to make product. That’s what I do. The more product I make that’s good and that does well, the more power I have to do more things. In today’s marketplace, it really is about pitching how you’re going to sell the movie as much as it is about how good the story is.
Are musicals harder to sell to studios these days?
Actually, this period is the renaissance of the musical. MGM and old Hollywood was built on musicals [and became] some of the greatest movies of all time—from West Side Story to Funny Lady. And I always say that Bollywood, which is the largest film industry in the world, is really all about the musical.
Today you have Glee, which is a huge success; you have High School Musical, which again has been enormously successful with the best album of the year for two consecutive years. You have Hairspray, Chicago; you have had a lot of success with musicals. People are interested and Hollywood knows they’re interested. Actually selling a musical, particularly if it’s based on and existing property, which is really the direction that Hollywood is going in general—it actually gives you an edge.
How do you decide whom to work with once your projects are green lit?
It’s really important for me to work with good people. I start with a vision for something and you have to find people that share that vision and will build upon and expand it to places that I didn’t even imagine it could go. Also, you’re in bed with people for a long time. We [were] here in Detroit for a month. It’s just important for me to be around people who not only are immensely creative and talented but who are good people. That’s why I adore Salim [Akil] and Mara [Brock Akil] because they are just good people. This is the first time I’ve worked with a husband and wife combination. So it’s been very interesting to see their process. They very much so are respectful of one another yet very collaborative. And it’s just great to watch them work.
Sparkle will be Whitney Houston’s return to the big screen but this isn’t your first time working with her. When did you work with her previously? [Edit Note: This interview took place before Houston’s untimely passing.]
I ran Denzel Washington’s production company for four years when we had a deal with TriStar. During that time, I developed a movie called The Preacher’s Wife. It took four years and Whitney was attached from the very beginning. I got a chance to know her and her team. She’d done The Bodyguard and Waiting to Exhale and wanted to grow her company so it worked out. I’d started with Denzel right after his Oscar for Glory. Malcolm X was in the can. He was a very respected actor at the time and I took that journey with him as he became the legendary actor that he is today. And producing became less important to him because he was doing back-to-back movies; so it was during the production of a The Preacher’s Wife that I sort of transitioned. Martin Chase Productions has had a deal with Disney for 10 years. I’ll partner on individual projects but I’ve been doing this for a long time.
What the difference between Hollywood now versus 10 years ago?
Hollywood has changed a lot. Studios and production companies are now divisions of larger corporations so of course it’s all about the bottom line and making money. They need things to make money. It’s about commerciality. What happen to the music business a few years ago with the advancement of the Internet and technology is killing the movie business. Just a few years ago, DVDs were holding up the legs of major studios. There was a lot of money made in DVD sales, now those sales have gone away. I haven’t bought a movie in forever. Even our distribution system has changed. They are again trying to figure out how to get people back to the movie theater.
How do we get people invested again in the big picture experience?
That’s why there are so many historical titles making it to the big screen now, because people have some kind of recognition to the characters. I’m doing two remakes, Sparkle and Dirty Dancing next year. It’s a way to say that there’s a built in audience and if we can bring that audience back, plus another audience, we’re one step ahead of the game. My mentor in this business was a man named Frank Price, in retrospect, he’s one of the last of the Hollywood studio bosses and I just adore him because he wanted me to learn and he saw me as a part of his legacy. Frank was all about the story; we’d sit in a meeting and analyze what would work and what wouldn’t work in a story; versus now, it’s, “How do I sell this, what’s the one sheet on this, what’s the one-liner that I can hook my marketing campaign on.” It’s real but unfortunately where the business had gone.