And now there’s a producer in the mix, standing at the precipice of a very big breakthrough: Effie Brown.
Producers generally exist as background players. They are the last line in the creative food chain before you hit The Money — studios and financiers. But in the fourth season of “Project Greenlight,” it is Brown, not director Jason Mann, who has emerged as The One To Watch. The HBO show, created by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, documents the filmmaking process. Each season, they head a team of people charged with selecting a director, screenwriter or both to make a small-budget film. In earlier seasons of the series — which returned this fall after a decade off the air — the films got small theatrical releases. This season, the resulting movie will air on HBO on Nov. 2.
Brown’s profile began to rise hours after the fourth season premiere aired on Sept. 13. Brown, Damon, Affleck and the rest of the selection committee were discussing the individuals they’d chosen as finalists to direct a script, chosen and recommended by the Farrelly brothers, called “Not Another Pretty Woman.”
Brown, the only person of color in the room, began to raise her concerns.
“I just want to bring up something,” Brown said. “I just want to urge people to think about whoever the director is, the way that they’re going to treat the character of Harmony. Her being a prostitute, the only black person who gets hit by her white pimp. You have this group right here, who you’re picking, and the story that you’re doing.”
Damon, 45, interrupted to inform Brown that the duo she liked, “the only team left with diversity,” as he put it, were the only ones who hadn’t raised objections to a script that was very obviously in need of doctoring.
Except they had. “One thing that whoever directs this should keep in mind, is that it’s important that Barry makes the judgment on Harmony, but the film doesn’t make the judgment on Harmony, because it can very easily go the route of slut-shaming,” Kristen Brancaccio told the committee earlier, as Brown vigorously nodded her head.
Nonetheless, Damon continued.
“Everyone else had problems –”
“But riddle me this –,” Brown broke in.
“– with exactly the things that you’re bringing up and exactly the things that we brought up to each other –”
“Not necessarily true,” Brown shot back.
And then came the flub: “When you’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show,” Damon said.
“Whoo! Wow. Okay,” Brown responded, visibly laboring to maintain decorum. Even Damon later admitted to the Hollywood Reporter that upon viewing the exchange, his reaction was, “Oh my God, I look like an a–hole.”
As Damon was speaking, Brown did some quick mental calculus. “I think a lot of times people have this moment like, well, what’s worse?,” Brown said in an interview with The Post. “Do you possibly get publicly humiliated by your peers or people who you want desperately to be your peers? Or do you turn your back on your mother, your grandmother, your family that brought you up, the women that surround you, the sacrifices that have been made so that your behind could be in that room? Do you turn your back on that and not bring it up?
“And I was like, ‘I don’t care. Matt Damon or facing my mother?’ My mother won out.”
The following morning, a Twitter user shared a truncated, edited clip of the exchange. “Matt Damon speaking over the only black person in the room so he can explain diversity to her is SO WHITE it hurts,” he wrote. It was retweeted more than 6,700 times. That afternoon, Jezebel published a post entitled “Matt Damon Interrupts Successful Black Woman Filmmaker to Explain Diversity to Her.” DuVernay tweeted an endorsement of Brown.
That was all it took. Overnight, Effie Brown became a hero.
She is a lionness in the world of independent film and has produced some well-loved and award-winning projects. One of her early jobs was line-producing “But I’m A Cheerleader,” a film that starred Natasha Lyonne in a coming-of-age comedy about a group of teenagers enduring gay conversion therapy camp. She followed it with her first gig working alongside A-listers on the Rodrigo García film “Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her.”
Line producers are directly responsible for overseeing production finances and ensuring projects are delivered on time and on budget, a feat in which Brown takes great pride. As her career progressed, she moved up the ladder to creative and executive producing, including for “Real Women Have Curves,” “Dear White People” and “In the Cut.”
Now Brown, 43, sits on the board of Film Independent — the organization that produces the Independent Spirit Awards — with García. The two worked together on shows for WIGS, a Web channel that was part of the YouTube Original Channel Initiative, that’s been described as a cross between Lifetime and HBO. She’s got several projects in the pipeline, including a film adaptation of Omar Tyree’s “Flyy Girl” trilogy starring Sanaa Lathan.
On “Project Greenlight,” Brown co-produced a film with Marc Joubert of Adaptive Studios for HBO (though Affleck and others have mistakenly demoted her by referring to her on camera as a line producer). Point blank: Brown is the reason why the “Project Greenlight” audience sees a black location manager, assistant director and production designer when it tunes in on Sunday nights. She was in charge of assembling the crew.
“I wanted to be inclusive and I wanted to show how the industry can be inclusive with qualified people. All the crew that I hired, the people I brought on, were all uber-qualified, but they also looked like America,” Brown said, purposefully using the word “inclusive” because when people hear “diversity,” “their eyes glaze over.”
Ten years ago, Brown remembered watching “Project Greenlight” and thinking, “‘Oh, that is not a show for me.’ There were no people of color, it was all white guys, and I felt really shut out, just from watching it, like, ‘Oh, they weren’t even checking for me,'” she said.
Then she got a call. HBO was looking for someone who could produce a low-budget film. Though Brown had previously done four conventionally budgeted films for the network, she’s also known in indie land as a woman who can stretch a dime. “If you don’t have enough money to make a movie, you go to Effie Brown, and she will make your movie for you on pennies,” Brown said.
Brown figured that she wouldn’t be seen much, but it might be a good opportunity to make some new contacts and potentially slingshot herself into the next phase of her career.
“As producers, we’re behind-the-scenes people for a reason. It’s a really s—-y job a lot of the time,” Brown said. “To be real about it, it is. A lot of times, we have to finagle things. We have to spin things. We have to say ‘no’ a lot. There’s a lot of horse-trading, robbing Peter to pay Paul. And who wants to see that?”
She took the job, despite the risks of how she could be portrayed on reality television, because she wanted kids of all races to see themselves in her crew. “I’m very public about that being my mandate, about having qualified people and about having all my sets look like America,” Brown said. “…Diversity works because you have new ideas, an influx of new energy and it just works better than having a big homogenized group of people making something, whatever it may be.”
From an early age, growing up on a corner lot in a two-story house in Willingboro, N.J., Brown was animated by the idea of what it meant to be an outsider and she loved watching movies.
“Alien” came out when she was just seven years old. Right away, Brown said she realized something about the movie was different. “There was a woman that was in charge,” she said. “She was leading a crew of people. That crew was really diverse. The black guy didn’t die. He got to live almost to the bitter end. His best friend was Harry Dean Stanton. That stuff as a kid, that’s what I took in, and I loved it because they were all against a common enemy.”
She fell in love with John Hughes movies, but felt conflicted about the fact that she didn’t see any black people.
“I remember watching movies as a kid … and seeing how we were represented as drug dealers, gangsters, hookers or welfare people,” Brown said. “It was always poverty. We were never represented on the whole growing up. I never got to see my story and my image of a middle-class black family, parents still together, until the Cosbys, honestly.”
When Brown was in middle school, her father was transferred to a better job and the family moved to Upland, Calif., a suburban town at the foot of the San Gabriel mountains. Her father, a post-Army professional, and mother, a high-school black history teacher-turned-social worker, scrimped to afford to send Brown and her older brother to private school, hoping to chart a course that would circumvent inequalities both small and savage.
In her most earnest attempt to fit in, Brown got a Jheri curl. She wore blue eye shadow and acid-washed jeans. Her parents sent her to St. Lucy’s Priory, an all-girls Catholic high school, because Brown had discipline issues.
“It was an awkward, awkward, awkward time where I just couldn’t pull it together to fit in ever,” Brown said. “…Which also makes sense with the movies that I like to do, always about outsiders … I’m so textbook it’s ridiculous.”
Brown was accepted at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles on a theater scholarship, but soon realized she wanted to turn her attention to directing. That meant she’d have to switch schools within the university. Brown steeled herself for a fight, and marched into the office of professor Howard Lavick, who was handling admissions for the school of film and television.
“When a hurricane blows into your office, you tend not to forget something like that,” Lavick, who retired this year, said in a phone conversation. “It was probably about 25 years ago when Hurricane Effie came into my office.”
The 18-year-old whirlwind of humor, emotion and drive informed Lavick that she would one day she would be “bigger than Oprah.”
“I was all geared up for a fight for the institution not letting me in,” Brown said. “I was so ready and I had all my arguments together and he was like, ‘Got it. No worries. You had me at heart. Let’s do it.'”
In film school, Brown realized she was surrounded by storytellers whose tales were going nowhere because they lacked producers, so she decided to produce them herself. Here was a role where the mettle and ingenuity handed down from her father’s Army days and the compassion Lavick identified in their first meeting served a clear purpose.
Said Brown: “I heard the call, and I was down to lead that charge, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
When Hurricane Effie blew into the offices of Adaptive Studios, she had already read the script for “Not Another Pretty Woman.” It was not, to be polite, her cup of tea. She was frank with Joubert and Adaptive chief executive Perrin Chiles.
“So you guys picked this script to be controversial because you know people are going to come at you for this script, right?” she asked.
But the same earnest charm that won her a spot in her college’s school of film and television had Joubert worried that Brown was too nice to be a producer. However, by the end of the meeting, he and Chiles liked her so much that they dumped a candidate they’d been eyeing and hired Brown instead — two hours after her interview ended.
“I like to think that big pivot is because I came in and I was so uber-qualified for the job and everything I said made perfect sense to them,” Brown said. “But I’m sure they saw an opportunity where this type of subject matter about inclusion, gender politics in a working environment, me being in that mix probably gave them a little something extra.”
Brown is acutely attuned to her own self-preservation. She could probably raise her profile more if she live-tweeted “Project Greenlight,” but Brown has chosen to remain largely silent online about the making of the movie. She refrains from watching the show as it airs every week.
As much as the series has been about documenting the filmmaking process and its many warts, its fourth season in particular feels like a workplace drama, complete with characters that don’t like each other, rank-pulling, power plays and undermining of authority.
As the series progressed — the fifth episode aired Sunday night — Brown quickly emerged as a central, often-beleaguered character aiming to serve a director who comes off as entitled and obstinate. Within minutes of winning the contest, Mann was cornering Affleck and Damon with new demands, including asking if he could fire the writer. Eventually, Mann negotiated to adapt his own short film, “The Leisure Class,” into a feature film instead.
There was also the long-running issue over whether the movie would be shot digitally or on film. Mann, for artistic reasons, insisted on film and finally got his way by doing an end-run around Brown, his boss. Though Brown had been told by the studio that they were absolutely not shooting on film, HBO eventually acquiesced, raising the budget 10 percent from $3 million to $3.3 million after Affleck and Damon initially volunteered to forgo part of their fees to cover the extra cost.
Then there was the location crisis. Mann wanted to film at a place that looked like a Connecticut manor built during the 1800s, but traveling to the East Coast was out of the question because of the budget and the logistics. After much delay, Mann finally assented to one of the location manager’s original suggestions of Douglas Fairbanks’ Beverly Hills home just days before shooting was scheduled. This presented its own issues: The time crunch squeezed the production designer’s timeline for dressing the sets, and the location manager wasn’t able to obtain the mandatory signatures from neighbors who would be affected by the lights and noise caused by shooting at night. The fifth episode of the show ended with Brown informing Mann that he would have to rewrite nighttime scenes as daytime ones because the crew wasn’t able to obtain the necessary permit.
But perhaps the worst plot development was when Peter Farrelly, charged with mentoring Mann, decided he no longer wanted to be part of the production. He cited a tense phone conversation with Brown, who was miffed when Farrelly took Mann to a post-production company to show him the benefits of shooting digitally — something Brown had already done. Brown was frustrated with what she saw as Mann’s continual end-runs around her to get what he wanted and everyone’s willingness to capitulate to his demands, which in turn undermined her authority.
When Farrelly walked away, everyone seemed to turn on her, and the coded language began to flow.
“Effie wants drama,”Farrelly said, followed by: “I don’t want to engage.”
Farrelly told Joubert, “I can’t be myself around her.”
“That makes me feel unsafe,” Mann said, after Farrelly quit. The next day, he continued. “I’m feeling a little bit scared that Effie doesn’t have my interests for what the movie is in my mind.”
“Seeing yourself reflected on TV, you realize, ‘I am really tough,'” Brown said. “I didn’t know I was that tough. In my mind’s eye, I think I’m funny and I get the job done but I can see … if I played that with a little bit more sugar, I would have been able to get what I want, to solve this thing … it’s like playing chess. Do you want to get to X, or do you want to get to X with everybody loving you and having a great time?”
“Project Greenlight” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.