Before Debra Martin Chase was a big-time Hollywood producer with huge brands like The Princess Diaries, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and The Cheetah Girls under her belt, she was a practicing attorney educated at Harvard Law School with a dream of working in television and film.
“I always loved television and film, but I went to law school by default. I was a black woman who needed to support myself, and that was the safe pathway for me.”
But that passion for television and film was always there, and she was particularly interested in telling stories that she wished she’d seen as a kid and young woman—stories with strong women who looked like her with stories that resonated with everyone.
“Producing is not easy for anybody, but I told myself that I would rather fail than say to myself, ‘If only I had taken my shot,’” Martin Chase said. “I just didn’t want to have any regrets.”
So, she took a chance and moved to Los Angeles to enter an executive leadership program designed to train studio executives with a variety of backgrounds.
The gamble paid off, as she found a strong mentor in Frank Price, an executive with Columbia Pictures. She got her big break running Denzel Washington’s production company Mundy Lane Entertainment, which produced The Preacher’s Wife and Courage Under Fire. She later ran Whitney Houston’s production company Brown House Productions, which produced Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, starring Brandy, Whitney Houston and Whoopi Goldberg, before striking off on her own and founding Chase Martin Productions in 2000.
As head of her own company, she’s focused on developing projects with strong women and diverse casting. She partnered with Disney to produce The Princess Diaries films and The Cheetah Girls movie/musical franchise. She also produced the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants films, as well as the film Just Wright and the television series Zoe Ever After.
While she says that it’s gotten easier over the years to develop projects with more women and diverse roles, she’s had to work hard to open those doors. Success with a project that defies Hollywood’s conventional wisdom can open doors for future projects, and she’s spent her career pushing back against those conventions and trying to open those doors.
As a producer, she focuses on creative project development—seeking out stories, books and ideas and then shepherding the project to fruition, from putting together financing to building a creative team of writers, directors and casting, from being on set to keep things running smoothly to managing marketing and publicity efforts around the project.
“I try and find the universal and the specific—i.e. stories that are about something very specific—characters, locations, etc.—but have themes that will resonate with all people. I think that’s what good movies are about—the ones that stay with you and change your life.”
With the success of this year’s film Wonder Woman, Martin Chase is seeing huge changes in opportunities for female directors and writers. She expects that Black Panther will “kill” at the box office this year and open up new opportunities for actors, writers and directors of color.
“It’s a time of great change, and it’s exciting,” Martin Chase said.
She noted that industry is constantly changing, with more and more rapid cycles, and students interested in working in the industry need to be prepared to anticipate changes that are coming down the road.
“It’s about being prepared when opportunity knocks,” she said. “In New York and L.A., you’re meeting people all the time—you could just run into someone you end up working with on a big project.”
Debra Martin Chase visited Natasha Davison’s class “Big Shows: Producing Commercial Theater,” which is offered by the College of Fine Arts’ Arts Management and Administration program. The program was made possible thanks to the support of the Allen J. Becker Program in Arts and Entertainment Business, the Fine Arts Diversity Committee and the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies.