The Trusteeship

Member Interview: Martha De Laurentiis

MARTHA De LAURENTIIS (Producer) started her career as an assistant auditor on the NBC mini-series The Dain Curse in 1976 and rolled into the busy NYC film production through which she met Dino De Laurentiis in 1980, as the New York production accountant on his production of Ragtime, James Cagney’s last film.

After the completion of Ragtime, De Laurentiis made her head of administration for Dino De Laurentiis Productions where she oversaw his production slate. Firestarter marked her arrival as an associate producer, lead to producing more films, such as Cat’s Eye, Raw Deal, Maximum Overdrive and Bedroom Window. Together with Dino, she produced more than 20 films including Desperate Hours, Bound, Breakdown, U-571, Hannibal, Red Dragon, and Hannibal Rising and together built three film studios in Wilmington, North Carolina, the Gold Coast in Australia, and currently running De Laurentiis-CLA Studios in Ouarzazate, Morocco.

Just what does a film producer do? Having such a great teacher and mentor in my husband, Dino, we’ve crafted a specialty as being independent film producers meaning that with our own financing, we purchase books or scripts as well as develop our own ideas and hire the writer to bring a script to the point we can attach a director and key cast.  We’ve always liked our autonomy in this business, and the studios appreciate that we bring to them the “package.”   Sometimes we don’t take it to the studio, but put together the package, pre-sell distribution rights outside the US (Dino invented this practice) and decide the destiny of the project in the domestic market – studio release versus other avenues.  In short, we’ve never wanted to be an employee of the studio system, so the more we bring to the table, the more we have the control.  I’ve just touched on a piece of the beginning of a project, and obviously it’s crucial that we “cast” all the elements that make up and finish a film the way we conceived it.  If the film is a success, the director takes most of the credit, but if the film is not, it was the producers’ fault from miscasting one or more “pieces” of the puzzle.

Coming out of college with a degree in business education-office administration, you took a movie production job as an assistant auditor that seemed to have kick-started your career.  Was this a survival/first job choice or was this part of a planned career path? I actually moved to New York to model after I graduated and found it unfulfilling.  A friend of mine was working as an assistant to an extra’s casting agent and knew of the job opening, which changed my life and direction.   Frankly, I never wanted to be an accountant, or teacher, but had it to fall back on.

You started in the very early eighties in a specialized segment of the film industry.  How were you received as a young woman handling financial information? I’ve been fortunate to have such a dynamo as a partner, handing financial information or budgets came easy to me.  What has and is always in my mind as my personal challenge, is to be perceived as “it’s Martha AND Dino De Laurentiis” not just Dino De Laurentiis…(LOL)  Dino’s personality is such the showman, often times he can’t help himself as being the one-man-show.

Did you feel there were glass ceilings you had to break?  What were your challenges and how did you overcome them? On the theme of working with a one-man show, it’s all grand if everyone is in agreement.  Film is such an extremely collaborative and creative world, sometimes this creates imbalance of wills.  I’ve done quite a bit of mediating, problem solving, cheerleading, (but I was a majorette!!) exerting diplomacy, husband-wife manipulation, psychology, and artistry to keep this delicate ego-feeding world in sync.

It has been said that cash flow is “queen”.  Given the downturn in our economy, how has the management of cash flow changed in your position as producer in comparison to the earlier years?  Are there some good practices that have been implemented as a result that you believe will be/should be incorporated into future strategy planning? I think everyone in our group has been touched by the recent and current downturns – we have to set a limit in our minds to what we are willing to risk and set a date to which to decide to go further or really downsize to the point we’re a mom and pop (period!) show.  We have invested “x” in our current slate and have different stages of progress.  If we see that we don’t have deals put in place to further the project, i.e. no outside financing taking over our investment and risk, we may choose to abandon the project, cut losses and continue on with what seems to have momentum.  We’re realistic about what we would do “if” – so we have discussed PLAN B for quite sometime.  Neither of us will be devastated if we needed to retire from active development.

And yes, cash is ‘QUEEN.’  It gives you the liberty to acquire, something this town now seems very reluctant to do without guarantees – and everyone knows in this business, there ARE no guarantees!

You have been known to take risks by hiring new and/or younger directors? What is your opinion of this strategy in economic downturns? We have always supported new blood and now, even the studios would rather risk the millions on first-timers than shell out rich deals with large back—end participations.  They are always looking at when they would breakeven and when they’d start to make money.  This also colors their (studio execs) creative minds, as the numbers seem more important than the gambling on something edgy and creative.  That’s why you’re seeing many remakes, reboots, stale rom-coms, ad finitum.

OK, we’re guilty also – for rebooting BARBARELLA and MAC GYVER!!!   We, too, recognize a brand that can be mined!

We’ve also hired (young and less expensive) writers who are just on the edge of their big break – yes, it’s risky because they are not as seasoned, but then we also, too, have to put much more into the creative writing process than ever before.  We’ve been successful 50% of the time with this scenario.  Again, we have to be willing to risk “x” to get “y.”

You are in the process of doing a remake on the cult classic, Barbarella.  The original Barbarella character has been said to have physical fearlessness, ingenuity and sensuality.  We understand that your goal is to create a Barbarella that is a free modern girl who survives in a futuristic world through her fighting skills, intelligence, and sexuality.  Are these the characteristics that you hope women will identify with universally? I hope that women will identify with the sexual and spirituality of Barbarella.  We have the physical, emotional and spiritual journey  (her character journey) along with a love story at the core.  Any situation where we feel attraction, awakening, passion, interest, inspiration, creativity, and enthusiasm – sexual energy is at work – now don’t you want to ask me about the boys/men???

Emotion, energy, mood seem to be important to you in telling a story.  Can you share your thoughts around this concept? In reading a script or in plotting out a story, it is essential to identify whom the main character is and why do we care, what are the stakes involved.  If we can’t answer those ourselves, how can we expect anyone else to jump on board, especially an audience?  Stories have to be personal in order to be profound.  We need connection to the story.  I have a note card I keep in my top drawer with the following questions a story/character journey should answer:

  1. What is our own weakness and psychological need
  2. What is our desire
  3. Who is our opponent
  4. What is our plan (to get our desire)
  5. Our plan results in battle
  6. Reach a self realization which points us back to our own inner weakness or psychological need – do they want the save the world??
  7. Arrive to a new equilibrium

Sure, this is creative writing 101, but it would shock you how many writers or scripts written do not address the emotional connection and the need to see the psychological need resolved.

For you to feel a movie has been perfectly produced, what elements need to be in place? It all starts with the screenplay – it has to be crafted skillfully so it delivers a profound story.  From there, we have to cast the right director that can handle the subtleties, action, dialogue, tone, etc.  From there, the actors that can play their parts spot on – this goes on for every key position, not to forget the importance of editor and music composer.  It’s all a wonderful puzzle – that hopefully delivers.  I thought this past year AN EDUCATION was a perfectly produced film.

Of the many movies you have produced, which are you most proud?   Why? Every film is like your baby so how could you love one baby over another?  You work hard during the gestation period of development, to the financing, shooting and completion then release it out into the world for audiences to appreciate (hopefully).  We used to take 9 months in the olden days from script to finish – but nowadays, years….

Perhaps the dream experience was working with Thomas Harris,  Ridley Scott and Tony Hopkins on HANNIBAL – it seemed there was such momentum from ten years before the novel was released, it was all challenging and rewarding.

A big disappointment for us was not going through with ALEXANDER THE GREAT with Baz Luhrmann, but save that for another time…






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“A dynamic group of intelligent, notable, exciting, giving, caring, fun, and gifted women of different careers, background, education and ethnicity. They stand united as one voice for the betterment of all women everywhere throughout the world. It is such an honor to be a member of The Trusteeship.”

– Martha