The producer Jean Doumanian is the founder of Jean Doumanian Productions, an Academy Award and Golden Globe nominated, and Tony Award winning, film, television and theatrical production company.
You recently produced the film “Una”. The premiere will be in London in September, in New York the first week of October. It is an adaptation of the Olivier Award winning play called “Blackbird”. The main actors are Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn and the young actress Ruby Stokes. You started in television with Saturday Night Live and then produced films and plays?
Yes, it is all part of my creative process. I’m a producer at heart, and I like to find a story and then decide which medium it best fits. I have enjoyed expanding into, and working in, all areas of entertainment.
You produced “The Book of Mormon”, why is it still successful?
It is a perfectly executed musical. It has lasted so long thanks to its unique sensibility, it is at the same time a kind of homage to musical comedy while being totally original. Like the more recent smash hit “Hamilton”, it has an originality which comes from breaking the rules, in Hamilton’s case with Rap and a contemporary sound used to illuminate an amazing chapter in American history, while also completely honoring the form.
What is the difference between cinema and theater?
I love them both, but there is an immediate and visceral experience that one gets when seeing a play that can’t be replicated in film, just as there are epic and beautiful stories that can be told on the screen but not on the stage. I think a great story is a great story, and it can transcend its medium. And even though cinema is becoming more and more about the larger blockbuster films, there are beautiful independent films that I encourage everyone to go out and see. And here is where I will shamelessly plug my upcoming film Una, there’s nothing wrong with “Wonder Woman” and “Iron Man” but people must pay attention to the wonderful and interesting independent films that are being made.
Did you recently produce a TV series?
I produced an eight episode comedy series called “Shrink” that people thought was hilarious and which I am incredibly proud of. It is airing on NBC’s digital platform Seeso and has been very well received.
Was doing it something different from films and theater?
There was nothing that I had not experienced before, I had done TV series in the past, but this was special as it was half scripted and half improv. I went to Chicago to shoot it, because the makeup of improv is in Chicago thanks to places like Second City. The show stars the incredibly talented Tim Baltz, keep an eye on him, he is going to be a star.
Has your job changed a lot since you started?
The process has not changed. You have to find the product and develop it; you have to sell it; you have to cast, etc…. But because of the expansion of television that happened within the last five years the medium has shifted. As outlets like Netflix and Amazon have expanded and become prominent players the landscape has definitely changed. Audiences can subscribe to all these different services. You can have Apple TV, you can have Google TV, you can access content a million different ways. And inevitably that has affected the way content is developed and sold.
Are things going better for you since the arrival of Netflix and Amazon?
Well, I don’t know yet, because I haven’t sold anything to Amazon or Netflix yet; but they have a lot of money!
Is the story still what is behind every production?
The story is the entire thing.
Why do people like fiction so much?
It’s an escape. People don’t have to think about what they did today at the office, or the political realities surrounding them. They can just sit back and escape to a different world. It’s all happening to somebody else. The thing people love most is fantasy, not the genre, but the ability to remove themselves from their own lives for an hour or two.
How is your life as a producer?
It’s never easy, but it is always exciting. You’re always trying to discover or develop. You find something, you try to find a writer to write it. Everything is a gamble, isn’t it?
Yes, but particularly in your business. You never really know if something will be successful or not.
No, but you believe in it and you strive to do it. And the journey and the execution is the fun part.
Are you working on any theater at the moment?
I am working with UK producers on enhancing a US production of Hangmen by Martin McDonagh which won the Olivier in London. I loved it when I saw it there. Robert Fox produced it, so I called him and said “If you bring it to New York I’d love to be a producer with you.” And he agreed. We have such confidence in the play that we decided to do it at a nonprofit, and just enhance it. In other words, raise enough money for them to be able to afford to put it on. Hopefully it’s so good that we’ll be able to transfer it to Broadway without a star.
Generally speaking do people go to the theater to see a star?
Nowadays in theater production it is difficult and very rare to find financial success unless you have a movie star. You need a star to get the audience. It was not like that before.
Why do you live and work in New York and not in Hollywood?
I have made a career out of living in New York, and have never felt that it in any way hampered my success. Theater is also so important to me and theater is here. I have my own little niche here and I love it.
Is Hollywood still very much alive?
Oh yes. The industry is strong, especially with this amazing age of television. There are of course still some really good films being made, but independent film is getting harder and harder to finance.
Did you enjoy working with Woody Allen?
I always find Woody funny in our personal relationship. I had fun because it was my introduction to movie making, and what it entails and how much it costs.
You made money?
No. Neither the films nor I made money.
But at the end of the day are you proud to have produced that kind of movie?
You always want to be associated with good work, and if you have any involvement it is very uplifting.
What is your experience of working with actors?
I’ve loved working with actors, so many of them are wonderful, and with success they become even more wonderful. I have great regard for the profession, it is indisputably an art form to admire. Actors can make us feel and think and transport us.
You co-produced “August: Osage County” with George Clooney and Grant Heslov’s company Smokehouse. Are you a friend of George Clooney?
George and Grant are wonderful and I so enjoyed working with them. We are not extremely close, but we had a great time working together and I would jump at the opportunity to do it again.
What is the most difficult thing about your job?
The most difficult thing is to find the right project. Once you have that finding the money and right team are challenging. But discovery is the most rewarding thing ever.
And how do you proceed?
You find a property, and then you have to option the property. And then you try and find the team that will make it most successful.
Is the person who writes the story the most potent person at the beginning?
Yes, because without the story what do you have? That story has to be something that appeals to you as a producer, and then you have to convince others that this is a very good property that they should be involved in, from actors to financiers. I have people that have invested with me before and trust me. They have to believe in the property enough to join me.
What do you like most about your job?
I like the journey of discovery, and the thrill of selling. If I believe in something I can do anything.
When a new film comes out or a new play goes on are you scared it could be a flop?
I never think of a flop. I always focus on what I can do to make it succeed. Sure, I’m sometimes scared that the audience won’t get it, but if I love it and I think it’s good, then I’m happy.
What makes a production work?
Besides the amazing team that is needed to get it on its feet, PR is very important. It can make or break a show. Sometimes it’s a sleeper, takes a little time for it to catch on. Sometimes, believe it or not, it could be word of mouth.
Was “The Book of Mormon” an immediate success?
I went to the workshop and I thought this is the funniest, the best musical I’ve seen in years. It was really a little risqué, but it was so funny and I wanted to be involved in it, immediately.
And then it became successful, just like this?
I wouldn’t say that. An enormous amount of work went into that show over many years from a supremely talented team and from lead producer Scott Rudin, and I don’t want to ever ignore that. But once it arrived on Broadway it was a huge hit immediately.
And how do you feel when something is successful?
Great. I feel great for myself, the entire team and for my investors. One of my investors that invested with me in “The Book of Mormon” made millions from a $250,000 investment.
Do you need much more money to produce a film today?
Of course, but there are new possibilities in filmmaking. Young people are producing films on their iPhone for $2,000, and some of them are pretty good; they are even putting them in festivals. New technology is so available that anybody who had the dream of making a film could invite their friends and do it. It’s an exciting moment.
But they would be outside of the circuit of your work?
They are not within my realm right now, but if a neophyte came up with an idea to do a film that he loved and he said to me, “All I need is two thousand dollars!” and I loved it, I would raise the money.
In fact you would still do the same job?
I love it. That’s what it is. If you’re going to have a career in something that’s satisfying you really have to believe in your own self.
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New York, August 2017.