August 21, 2020
Ali Brown is the President of Prettybird, an award winning production company with trophies from the Cannes Lions, One Show, Clio Awards and more. Ali has also produced the award winning Sundance film Possibilia, served as the AICP/West President and presided over the Young Director's Award Jury in Cannes 2018. But her journey to the top didn't come without it's fair share of struggles. In this episode, Ali tells us about her humble beginnings in the industry, the life changing accident that turned her world upside down, and how she outworked everyone on her path to success.
Find this episode on Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Also available at Creatives Offscript.
Nate Watkin: Welcome to the Creatives Offscript Podcast, hosted by Assemble. My name is Nate Watkin and I am thrilled to be join by Ali Brown, the President of Prettybird, one the pre-eminent production companies in the world, located right in our backyard here in Los Angeles. In addition to cultivating Prettybird’s industry-leading roster of directors, winning prestigious awards, producing feature films and much more, Ali is also heavily involved in many industry initiatives, promoting diversity and women in film, along with serving as the AICP West President and generously giving her time to help propel the industry forward. So without further ado, welcome to our show Ali.
Ali Brown: Thanks so much, that was a great intro, thank you.
Nate Watkin: Awesome. Great. So looking forward to chatting with you about a ton, but to start off, you’ve had such an incredibly successful career and rise to the top of this industry. But I really want to start at the beginning. You had a very blue-collar entry into the world of production. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you landed your first production job?
Ali Brown: Yes, it was very blue collar indeed. I was living with a friend, sharing literally her childhood bed at her parents’ house with her, super broke, no car. She would drive to school that she was teaching at and I would substitute there sometimes or she’s drop me off at a Barnes & Noble and I’d comb ads trying to send out resumes. And I remember I had to like, each fax at the time, because there was no emailing your resume, I think each fax was 10 cents or something from the library, so I’d walk to the library. I sent out probably over 300, if not 400, and nobody responded, not one. I mean by then I’d probably moved out, we had our first apartment, and I got a phone call or page, something like that, I’m sure maybe I had my pager, and there was a production company called Atlas Pictures, that needed somebody to fill in to cover their phone gig and that was it.
So I jump at it, because it was literally better than being a hostess at the Crocodile Cafe, which was my other job at the moment, and I went and, thank heavens, they decided to change phone system, literally the week that I was there. So I suddenly, by that Friday, became the only person in the building that actually knew how to work the phones. So the owner at the time was like, “Great, you’re hired. You can come back on Monday and we just won’t keep the other receptionist.” And I was like, “What?” So I came on that Monday and I was in tears and I’m just like, “Sir, I just can’t do this,” like a child crying my eyes out. And the girl who had been the receptionist walks and she’s like, “Oh my God, it’s fine. You’re hired, you’re the receptionist. I’m promoting myself to the office manager, let’s get working.” And so to this day, she literally is one of my best friends. But I remember it was that moment of like, I couldn’t believe that I could be taking this poor girl, who finally got a vacation’s job and she was just this incredibly strong bad-ass chick that was just like, “Oh no, I’m promoting both of us.” So yeah, that five day gig basically became I was there for two years, two and a half years, so by just total luck of that phone system getting replaced that week.
Nate Watkin: Yeah, that’s really serendipitous, to turn that temp job into a full-time job. And what was that feeling like when you got your first job in production?
Ali Brown: I mean, it was amazing. I came down here, I hadn’t gone to film school or anything and I had kind of a crisis of conscience after school about what I really wanted to do, and I ultimately landed on wanting to make documentaries. So I came down here with that in mind, I think super naively I really didn’t know anything about this business, and didn’t know anybody in it, it was just completely naive to the whole thing, not just commercials, but anything involved with entertainment. So I just felt that hopelessness of just sending out so many, I mean, when I say I sent out that many resumes, it’s not like anyone even responded. There was no glimmer of hope. My first responses on this five day thing, and that was after months. So I think that I was determined when I went in there to kind of making myself indispensable by hook or crook, and just kind of outwork anyone around me. So it meant everything. It changed the course of my life really, those five days did.
Nate Watkin: Yeah, that’s really inspiring. I mean, so many people in this industry probably have similar experience of just knocking on doors that never opens so to hear that is really inspiring. And you mentioned making yourself indefensible early in your career and how that really helped you. Can you tell me more about that?
Ali Brown: I mean yeah, I’ve always kind of had the mindset of like, it’s survivor, you have to outwit, outlast, outplay. Every single day you have to come ready to survive and it sounds so funny because it’s not, as an industry, we’re saving lives, but I do believe in the value of providing entertainment and escapism for mental health. And I just feel like job, we do something incredible every single day. We’re so fortunate that this is what we get to do with our lives and we work very hard for it, but I think that that survivor mentality has always been kind of my key. I felt like I was never the person that could be the best at everything, but I did feel like I could work the hardest.
So I just kind of made up my mantra, every single person that I would pass in an office, I would say, “Do you need help?”. Was there anything I could do? If I saw anyone staying late, I would stay late too, whether I needed to or not, I was like, “No boss is going to go home before me.” I just kind of felt like my way or learning the business, learning the personal dynamics, learning what people are people and kind of learning the secrets to everybody else’s success around me, when I didn’t have any, it just required me to figure out what people needed. And once I could figure out what they needed, whether there was an EP that just hated marks on the walls, literally, scuffs on the wall, hated it. So I would paint the walls. Going to PAs, we would stay at night and we would repaint our office probably once every two weeks, literally, so there were scuffs, but that mattered to him.
And if it was somebody else, was a director that I really cared about and I really liked, and I knew that they weren’t great at writing their own treatments, I’m going to learn how to write and I’m going to learn how to write to sounds like them. Or if I saw we need to hire additional help, I was like, I’ll learn how to bid. Tell me what I need to do, I’ll learn how to bid and I’ll just do it. So I think that, by my nature, I’m curious and so that’s helpful and, by my nature, I like to work hard, but I think that from a strategy standpoint,
I just discovered early on that if you could make it so that somebody needed you because ultimately, we’re all replaceable, right, anybody else could be an EP at Prettybird. Life would go on in any company in any place if a single person leaves. You have to have a company that’s greater than any single person. But if you can make yourself as indispensable as possible, within that ecosystem, and have as many skillsets as you possible can, your chance to have more opportunities just raised.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. That’s great advice. And so, from that company, next in this path of your career, you get to work for the famed actor Forest Whitaker, and his production company, Spirit Dance. What was it like collaborating with an artist like him?
Ali Brown: I mean, Forest is just one of the most incredible humans I’ve ever met in my life so it was a total dream. I was working at the production company at the time still, and there was a short film project that got paired with him to direct. So he was running it through our company and we very quickly needed to turn around a treatment for him. And at the time, even though I was working staff there, I was also writing a lot of the treatments as well. So he did this call and he wasn’t really familiar with the commercial process… it’s funny, it was more of a branded film at the time.
So he did this conference call and back then, conference calls were recorded literally on a tape, by and external tape recorder. And I totally remember, I took that tape, that recording, and I put in my Jeep Wrangler, and I listened to it and I hand wrote out a treatment. And then I went inside to my apartment at the time, and I had a super old desktop computer, I wrote up the treatment, sent it, and he remarked like, “Who did this? What is this? How did you do this from just… were you on the call? How did you hear this?” He was just so kind of blown away that but then he actually asked if I wanted to write something else for him, like a music project, which I gladly did, so I huffed on that. And in the course of this shoot, for the project that he was on, I also was acting as the coordinator on that job. I basically would, in addition to the staff job, every opportunity I could go physically work on set or do something else, I kind of did all of that.
So in the course of that job, he basically was like, “I’m starting this company, I’d love for you to come over and work.” And leap at it, he’s just phenomenal human being, he truly defines renaissance man in just his ability to write, I mean, he has incredible operatic singing voice. He can play so many instruments, he’s a genius. So I learned an incredible amount from him in terms of storytelling and development and just the filmmaking process. And honestly, partnership in terms collaborating with an artist and understanding that, as much as you admire their taste and their instinct and their skillset, that you have to also make sure that they trust your instinct and your taste and your work ethic. So, it was an incredible opportunity for me.
Nate Watkin: Yeah, that’s amazing. And it sounds like you really were a Swiss-army knife early in your career and just willing and capable to do anything and everything. Did you know what you wanted to do at this point in your career, in terms of the production world?
Ali Brown: It’s funny you said that, because it’s one of those things I always looked back on at a certain points in my life, maybe 10 years ago, five years ago even, I would look back and just kind of be like, “God, I just did everything. I should have just worked in the William Morris mailroom and been on a straight trajectory.” I really went from all side of production, different formats, writing, producing, all the different side, and it doesn’t sense I think for a long time. I think I felt a little aimless in it, but now that I’m where I am now, I see how all these things literally were the perfect storm to lead to life now. But I don’t think that I had a super clear strategy. I mean initially, I thought that I would be more on the creative side of things and finances kind of dictated me to start making a living quickly without much of an income, so I kind of got put into the producing side of things, or the production company side of things, but my heart’s always been trying to write or be more creative. And I think that now the back and forth makes a lot more sense than it did at the time.
Nate Watkin: Yeah, absolutely. And so, you started in independent film before getting into commercials. Tell me how the skills you developed in the film world translated into branded content?
Ali Brown: I mean, it’s interesting because my independent film experience was also kind of separate from the other two so, the first place I worked was music videos and commercials. Then I worked for Forest and then simultaneously when I was working for Forest, or kind of just prior, I started volunteering for film festivals. So for AFI, there was a festival called Nodance, that was back when Sundance kind of spawned all these other secondary and tertiary festivals up there. I just started volunteering. And actually ended up dating the founder of one of them for several years. And because of that, got very involved in that festival.
And I think that what I really learned from all of the independent filmmakers was just the amount of heart and passion that it goes to create something. And not created until it’s made, but to get it seen as well. So I think that between that and my experience with Forest, I really learned a connection with artists, I think, on a very immediate level, they weren’t just people that you’re plugging into a project, like the motivations and just the thought process, and like I said, just the vulnerability that it goes into creating things when there isn’t a short monetary reward. I think that they really informed how I look at artist’s talent. How to manage them, how to support them, how to understand that it’s worth it if there’s no passion. There’s no point to try to force somebody to do something if they really can’t connect to it. So I think that probably has made me a better EP, for having those sort of experiences.
Nate Watkin: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point, just having that genuine connection with the creative and I think that’s something the “business” side of things can overlook in terms of how an artist connects with a piece of work. So that’s really insightful. So from there, you join Prettybird. So I’d love to hear just how this came about and how you started your career with Prettybird.
Ali Brown: Well, it was from working with Forest, it’s interesting, I had an accident, I was bit by a dog and so I lost everything under my nose and I basically was at home having eight reconstructive surgeries over the course of almost a year. And so what’s interesting is that, I kind of got thrust out of all worlds and was supporting myself really kind of freelance writing, like ghost writing everything from like, self-help books to website copy, I just kind of got taken out of the world in an abrupt sort of way.
Ali Brown: But it was interesting because that Swiss-army knife aspect of it, I was still able to support myself, but life looked very different. So I was bless in that, one of the Eps from the very first company that I worked with, called me, and he would call me every Friday and say, “Are you okay? Do you need anything?” And I couldn’t speak so I would just go, “uh-uh.” And that was it, that’s literally all I could say. I hadn’t seen him in years and years, it’s not like somebody that I was regularly in touch with. But you find that if you go through something like that, all of your immediacy of your friends and your family, they worry about you, and then as life kind of moves on, they too have to move on with their lives. It’s natural, somebody can’t stay in your pain and your journey for a year. It’s just huge ask.
But this person, this EP, his name was Eric Barrett, every week, consistently, I don’t know if he had an alarm set or what, he would call me every single week and say, “Do you need anything?” So at the end of almost a year, he was having a celebration for his wife’s birthday and invited me to come. And I felt so beholden to all he’d done for me by checking for me, I was like, “I’m going to go.” And it was one of the first times I’d left my apartment. I’d probably only seen 10 people in that year. So I left, and I showed up, and I made like five minutes before I totally was like, “I’m not ready to be out in public, go home.” And he called me the next day and he’s like, “Hey, thanks so much for coming.” I was like, “I’m really sorry I couldn’t stay, it was just too much for me. And he’s like, “Oh no, it’s no problem,” he’s like, “but I need you to be my head of production. Here’s the address, I’ll see you on Monday.” And what I have now learned about myself is, you can kind of guilt me into anything or tell me anything that involve somebody needing me and I’m like, “I’m there.” So, not realizing that he had astutely assessed that I was never going to leave my apartment otherwise, I showed up at this address and he has put a chair on the other side of a desk and he was like, “Cool, let’s do this.”
And it was a production company called Mirror Films and we had a handful of directors and he saved my life, truly. He got me out of my apartment and I was like, I could never see clients or directors or forward facing again and he was like, “It doesn’t look to the rest of the world but it looks like to you.” So he and I worked together, and I got a phone call one day phone, from Kerstin’s assistant, asking for me to meet with her, and we didn’t really know each other. I’d met her a handful of times but I always tease her that I’d met her 16 different times and she had no idea who I was. But somebody had told her, she was starting Prettybird, “Hey, you should meet this girl,” we had a couple of mutual friends that were like, “You should meet Ali and maybe she’d be a good fit,” because she was kind of looking for someone that hadn’t come up through a lot of the main production companies.
So I went over to meet her, honestly, not even looking for a job. I was completely fine where I was and beholden to Eric for all he’d done for me. And the two of us just clicked. I think I spend two hours trying to tell her out of hiring me, explaining like I didn’t know any of the rules for unions and I couldn’t bid jobs at the level that they were doing jobs. I mean, literally, I think was secretly trying to get her to just be, “Okay, you can leave now.” And everything I brought something up she’s like, “That’s not why I’m hiring you. You can learn rules. I need someone that can be in there with me and work their ass off.” So I’m like, “Okay.”
So I ended up basically accepting the job, calling my previous boss in hysterics, being like, “I swear I wasn’t out looking for a job interview and I’ll give you eight months notice.” And he just was like, “You go over there, I’m so proud of you, my only deal is you have to let me call you if I ever need anything or if I have questions.” And I was like, “For the rest of my life.” So I went over and started working with Kerstin and I mean, that’s been 11 years now. At the time, it’s like we were a company of three directors, really, that we had on the roster, it was teeny-tiny. And now, when I think about how we’ve grown, I think we always as a company, had the vision to be different. I think that her vision in hiring me was kind of part of that. It’s just like she was looking for somebody that had different experience.
So we’ve always tried to be kind of the island of misfit toys, we’re somebody who could call another company and be like, “oh, I want so and so on this roster and so and so on this roster and I wonder who Prettybird has, or I wonder if Prettybird can solve this?” I think we very early on, wanted to carve out that space for ourselves.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. That’s such an incredible story and I would just love to back to that for a minute, you said you were basically a year out of the public life and out of work. I just wonder what was going through your head at that time and what you thought about your career and where you would go next during that time?
Ali Brown: I honestly think, at that point in my life, it sounds so cheesy to say but I think it probably the only time in my life that I stopped being focused about what I was going to do. I think that it’s the first time where I just was truly just surviving and I felt like I just was fortunate that I could still be writing and doing things, that I could still me making an income. I mean, that was incredible for me because the hospital bills and you can just imagine the cost that were involved in something like that. And I just think that it would be one of the only times in my life, even from when I was a young child, where I just was kind of waking up and putting one foot forward in front of the next.
And beyond that, it really didn’t get much more complicated and my best friend at the time, who’s now my husband, he would come over every single day and make sure I was fed and bathed and would feed me out of an eyedropper if I needed to and I just was so focused on just getting through the day and getting better, I think that it was a break from my brain of trying to my life problems of what I was going to do when I grow up.
Nate Watkin: Yeah, wow. Great. So you joined Prettybird, this exciting new opportunity, this new vision that you share to grow this company. What was the first big commercial you did where were like, “We made it, we’ve arrived as Prettybird, the company?”
Ali Brown: The big commercial at Prettybird. I mean, honestly, for me, the first one which, I’m sure everyone at the company would have a completely different answer. The biggest accomplishment that I feel when I look back on it was the 2016 Olympics. We did the campaign with Wieden for Nike, with the Daniels and with Max Malkin. That, and there was other things prior, of course, incredible spots prior to that. But there was something about that job as a landmark for me personally. I think we had always really wanted to get a big Wieden job. We’d always some smaller Nike job, some things here or there, but he’s our first really big one ass Prettybird. With Daniels, who were definitely, they’re part of our DNA. We signed them up of one music video that they did for like $200.
So for them to be helming this massive campaign, and then to have a sister campaign that was led by Max Malkin, who is somebody that we… he had directed some, but was primarily known as a DP. And when he came to Prettybird, early one, really because Kerstin had such long relationships with the other director, Max kind of become the first director that I was really connected with. He and I were kind of like the team. So it just felt like a big win. He had also left the company and had then come back and rejoin. And it was a real heartbreak when he left, so the fact that they had come back and now in the campaign I had the Daniels getting this massive spot and beating out huge names in the business and then Max, who is somebody that I had had a long history with, who I’d lost and then who had come back, I think that was that moment where I was like, “Yes, this was a big one to put us on the map.”
Nate Watkin: Yeah. That’s incredible. It’s like the island of misfits has now made it. Nike, the Olympics, Wieden+Kennedy, pretty much as big as you can get.
Ali Brown: Exactly, so that why it’s like, there was other incredible job prior to that for sure, and each one was a win. I just think that was the one, that for me personally, it was a win for us as a company, for them trusting us as producers, for them trusting our talent, and putting in our hands, this massive campaign when they had incredible bidders up against us, like Matt Honeycutt, head of production there now. He really staked himself on. Of course, the creative did, but he really took a chance on us, in the sense of giving us that big spotlight moment.
Nate Watkin: Absolutely. Great, and so you’ve obviously grown this company to such incredible success, but surely there had to be some hard times along the way. Can you tell me a story any lessons you learned the hard way early on?
Ali Brown: I think that one of the hardest things for me to do was when I first started, there’s two things that kind of stand out. And both in terms of being and EP. I think one was, because Kerstin had had relationships with the directors when I first joined, I didn’t. And so they all wanted to talk to her, all the agencies wanted to talk to her. Nobody wanted to talk to me, I didn’t really exist. And I think having to figure out who I was going to be, what my relationship was going to be, how I was going to carve out my own identity. That was a struggle.
And I remember there was a time when I totally messed something up and I can’t what it was but it was like, not securing the right crew person or something that I completely messed up. And one of the directors called and was the laying into me, like just going for it, just ripping me a new one. And Kerstin happened to be sitting next me, we were on our way to an event or something. And she could hear, and she was horrified like, “Who is talking to you like that? That’s crazy, give me that phone.” She’s the most incredibly protective person I’ve ever met, of everyone that works her, or our Prettybird family. And she was just horrified. And I remember, I put the phone on mute and I looked at her and I was like, “You can’t because this person’s finally talking to me. You take it now. Even if I’m getting yelled at, at least they’re acknowledging my existence in the moment.”
So I think it was learning it the hard way for sure because I got reamed. But it helped breakdown that wall and I realized that you have to be bold and you have to put yourself in there, you just have to dive in, you can’t sit and default and let people just default to what they know. You have to figure out a way to get your voice heard and present yourself as a leader and as a safe leader and as a comrade and as a peer, rather than just kind of let things run as they do because I think that at first, I did more of that. I kind of let other people’s way of doing things kind of just stay the course and I was a bit too timid to kind of get in there myself and embrace who I was and be fine with the fact that how I did things was different but also that I was going to have a voice and that my opinion mattered, so that definitely took me awhile to kind of get that confidence.
Nate Watkin: And since then, you’ve built this incredible roster of directors and you’re really known for recognizing emerging talent. How do you do that? How do you find the up and coming talent?
Ali Brown: I mean it’s a hodgepodge. I mean, we’re completely fortunate in that we get reached out to, by a lot of young talent, which is great. And that’s as much a result of people that we’ve grown to the incredible directors that are on our roster and people that want to emulate them. I think that is spawns people that are like, “Hey, I want to be the next Malina or I want to be the next Daniels,” and so they’ll reach out. So for the incoming inquiries like that, honestly, anyone that sends me something personally, I write back. I speak to them on calls, I write back, I give feedback, I try to meet people when I can. I don’t think there’s a person that write me that I don’t reply to. And that is, as much as people are like, “Oh, it’s crazy that you do that,” well of course I do that, that could be the next superstar.
So that’s one way that you do it is you actually engage because somebody may have one thing on their reel that you’re not sure about but when you meet them and they’re incredible, and you hear what they wanted to do, and that’s a person that’s worth investing some energy in. Or somebody could have some stuff that’s great but they’re jerks and you’re like, “Okay, not interested.” So that’s one way. I mean, obviously, I try to do as many of the award shows that are connected to young talent as possible. I believe that those award shows, that specifically acknowledge, like the YDA, and Adfest they did a lot of stuff that was focused on emerging talent with the Lotus Awards. I think that those are critical categories because it gives a spotlight to that work, it gives a spotlight to that attention. So staying involved with that is, yes I love doing it, it makes me feel good, but it’s of course selfish too because you can find incredible talent there.
And we do that across the board, everyone in our company… Suzanne Hargrove is one of our EPs and Candice Dragonas, who’s another one of our EPs, who runs the music video department as well. So I think across the board as a company, it’s again, just part of our DNA and right now, we have three directors that walked into our building as PAs. Didn’t know anybody, just came in as PAs and they’re on our roster as full directors now. Because they were awesome and they deserved it. But we were able to kind of grow them when we saw the things that they were doing and nurture them and then they took off. So I think we’re incredibly proud of that as well.
So I think there’s a lot of ways that we do it, but I think what matters is that we constantly do it. Doesn’t matter if we think we’re going to be able to get that person a job in six months or not, we’re very clear about what our strategy is, we don’t just sign people and throw them up on our website. We try to make sure that they’re being nurtured, that they’re learning the business, that they’re doing jobs that reflect the kind of work that they ultimately want to be doing, and only putting them kind of forward facing when we feel like they’re actually ready. So I think that it’s critical, it’s kind of our entire growth or our company has been about having an incoming class, freshmen, juniors, seniors, sophomores. We try to have somebody that there’s constantly a flowing channel.
Nate Watkin: Right, just developing that bench and having that pipeline.
Ali Brown: But meaningfully, not just having a bench to have a bench. Even the bench is a great place to be I think because we really, really, really care. We really worry as much about our bench as we do our marquee directors. It’s our lifeline, having that bench allows us to evolve and as cycles and trends change in this business, people need people that do different things and you can’t just get comfortable with kind of one group of people. So I think that the bench, it almost sounds too diminutive because that bench is like the heart of the company, is that bench for us. And the limbs and the head and the legs the people as they grow out, but that core, that pumping blood is like, that bench is constantly with new energy, keeping us youthful, giving us that next generation of filmmakers to help put into the world.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. Given the way that you came up in the industry, making yourself indispensable, making yourself that Swiss-army knife, do you kind of have an affinity for some of the people that start out as a PA?
Ali Brown: For sure. For sure. I think it’s something I tried over the years to eliminate that bias, because it’s not fair to anyone but yeah, I like the underdog story for sure. I want the person that is working hard, that is earning it, that understands production, that has put themselves through the ranks, I have a great appreciation and respect for it. So I think, when I see somebody busting their ass, it is completely noticed every single time and I will go out of my way to help that person. Not that there’s anything wrong if you are the sixth generation of a commercial film director, I have had children of very successful directors too that work their asses off and that are incredibly talented and I don’t work any less hard for them but I’m sure a sucker for an underdog.
Nate Watkin: So you said that young directors are the part of the business you are most passionate about. Can you describe a time when you saw a new director’s work and it just jumped off the screen to you.
Ali Brown: I mean, I hate to keep hitting the same note but honestly, the Daniels, I mean I think that there’s not a better example for our company because what they did with so few resources was so completely unique. So, well a lot of times you have new directors work and they’re like, “Yeah, it could have been better with more budget or it could have been better with more this.” To this day, I feel like, you could tell them they have $5,000 or $50 million and if they say yep, they’re going to make something great, just full stop. So to have that sort of maturity and ability so early on, and then to keep that sort of MO consistently, like you could look at their work across the entire span that they’ve done and you see themselves in it every single time. It’s like Picasso. They can go through different periods but you can the signature, you know who it is. And I think that the Daniels just embody that. There was nothing imitative about their work. They just, from day one to day now, everything they do is so clearly theirs and it doesn’t matter what the budget is, there’s no apologies every connected with their work. What they do is what they do and they do it so beautifully and so uniquely that I think they’re the best example of just consistently blowing me away since day one.
Nate Watkin: I would agree 100%. I remember the first time I saw a Daniels music video, it was like, “What was that? That was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and will never forget it.” So I agree completely. So what can an up and coming director do to get noticed by you?
Ali Brown: I mean, to get noticed, there’s multiple parts of that right? I guess it’s, they have to do something in their work that’s unique. And that sounds so boring, even to myself saying that, but it’s just true. You have a POV that is your own, because as a young director, if you’re going to try to do what the greats of advertising do, but with less resources, less budget, and you’re just trying to imitate something that’s being done out there, for my standpoint, if I’m putting you up in a bid pull against them, you’re going to lose, right? Because they’re default back to, what’s the body of work in the reel, even if you’re written the most incredible treatment. So you’re 10 times better off not creating another Nike specs spot that everybody knows isn’t a really Nike spot. You should be creating that short film that is uniquely yours and that is personal and that showcases your style as a filmmaker. I think that’s first and foremost.
I think in terms of the practicality or the pragmatic part of getting noticed, write a really smart note. When you’re sending, don’t just say, “Hey, happy Thursday. If you’ve got a minute?” The informality, like I don’t know you so say something that makes you stand out, show me who you are in that introduction. There’s a metric for myself, which I’m not sharing because it’s my secret metric, but if people do certain things in how they reach out, I will set a meeting with them every time. And I feel like if you can get from inquiry to actual face-to-face meeting, that’s the key. So that first reach out, it’s critical. I can tell you right now, I have so many emails that are coming in with director reels. During the middle of pandemic is the worst time to say, “Hey, can you sign me?” That’s bad timing.
So it’s little things like that, like show that you can read a room, show that you understand not just the mirror that in front of your face and what your goals are, but how do you approach the company in a way that’s the right timing? How do you say something about the person that you’re reaching out to that shows you’ve done your homework. Don’t, when I say, “Who are your top five favorite commercial directors?” say either, “I don’t really watch them,” or say five people from my roster. I think doing your homework and showing that you are educated about this as a business, because there’s so many talented people, that if you add knowledgeably about the process or the business, or just showing a proclivity towards that, I think that automatically gets you to a next level.
Nate Watkin: That is an incredible download of advice right there for up and coming directors so thank you for that. Speaking of up and coming directors, you have a program where you mentor emerging directors. How does that work?
Ali Brown: So at our office, our operations manager, Thomas, started a program where basically, to be a PA at Prettybird, he looks for, there’s an application process, and he selects three filmmakers, some of them are directors, some of them are producers, they can kind of be any sort of interest in the industry in general. He selects three of them and they have very specific kind of schedule and routine where they work under all the different departments. So they’ll have exposure to accounting, to music videos, to development, to production, and they kind of go through all those different departments of the company and they learn from each of the people involved there. And they have specific period of time which they then graduate, and they have a final presentation piece that they do, as part of their graduation piece.
So it’s really cool because it’s a new group of young, very young, sometimes they’re just exactly out of school. And it’s great, it’s like we get all these incredible young filmmakers and the last group that just graduated did this beautiful project as their final piece so that’s kind of one way that I think, as a company, we stay really involved with trying to mentor the next generation.
Nate Watkin: That sounds like an incredible program. So you’ve produced several feature films, can you tell me how you balance the schedule and timeline of doing a long form production with the fast pace of the commercial productions?
Ali Brown: I mean, I don’t know that I do it well. I think I have to switch brains very often. Currently we’re finishing a series for Quibi that’s been ongoing for a really long time, and just in the course of that one production, how many commercials we’ve done simultaneously. It’s really is almost like a completely different brain, but I think that that’s where that Swiss-army knife component of my personality comes in, because I like that challenge, I like being able to be the first responder on every email that comes in and try to get everything set up and get the job, and then having also at the same time, being able to work on story and development and figuring out partners, all that sort of thing. So I think actually, that’s one of those things that probably falls in the Ali selfish category of that it keeps me feeling very fulfilled to have kind of those multiple types of projects going.
Nate Watkin: Absolutely. What was the craziest experience you had in production on a commercial?
Ali Brown: I would say, I’m mean, Max and I got can of spaghetti, Spaghetti-O’s, thrown at our head in New York on that Nike shoot. But I think that they craziest one was, we did a job that I believe it was six countries and nine cities. We had a week and a half of prep. I took the European leg, Kerstin did the US leg, and I was taking the train, the Chunnel, between France and London almost daily, between babysitting the different shoots, going on each portion of the different shoots because we had three different directors across it. And we were back in London on a shoot and something happened with the location, it fell out. And it was our fault, it was production’s fault.
So we had to find another location with the same architect that had the same sort of all glass wall, shoot at an exact time day, I mean it was this whole logistical nightmare. We were going to have to pay for it because it was an added day of shooting. And we get there, we finally secured it, we pulled it off and I was just sick to stomach about the whole thing. I’m like, “Okay, we pulled this off.” And I looked to the agency and I go, “Okay, I need the phone.” It was for a product shoot, was a phone. And I go, “Okay, we need the phone, we’re ready for it.” And the women that was carrying that was carrying the product, supposed to be in charge of the product from the agency, looks at me and turns white. And I’m like, “Where’s the product, we’re ready, sun is going down.” And she’s just like, “It’s on a plane. I forgot. It’s going to Germany.” And I was like, “What?”
So I call the agency that was on the plane, and they’re like, “We’re pulling away from the door right now.” I’m like, “Get off the plane. Get off the plane.” Trying to get them to stop the plane, to get off, to come bring us the product back. They couldn’t, and I can hear them ding ding ding ding to the stewardess, couldn’t get off the plane. I call the service company in Germany. I’m like, “I need you to buy a ticket back to London, have somebody meet this plane, this is when it lands, bring the product back. ” Sent a PA on a motorbike in London to basically go to Heathrow, from where we were, to meet the person that, after they landed in Germany, was then going to turn around and fly the product back to London.
This PA, I’m like, “Do you know how to drive? Can you do this?” And he was this sweet, I think he was 16 or 17, not kidding. From the country, first day ever on a production. Here’s this crazy American woman that’s like zillion feet tall with too much hair, like out of a Roger Corman movie, being like, “You can’t let me down.” And I just remember telling him, “It’s like Bourne Identity.” And he was like, “Right, right, I think I could do it.” This poor kid, sweating bullets, gets on a motor scooter, on the back of one of those messenger motor scooters, gets to Heathrow, meets the plane, bring it back and I’m not kidding, sounds like I’m making it up, but it’s like, as the sun’s about to dip and be gone, the director pulls off the shot. We then give the phone back to the kid to take back to the airport to fly back to Germany. So that was probably the craziest one where it was just like, it’s nice because no life or limb was threatened, but it was one of those production miracles where it like, this just has to happen.
Nate Watkin: Wow. Getting the shot.
Ali Brown: I still think about that kid, I’m like, “Did I ruin him for life?” He is like, left the business immediately after that shoot. I should find out.
Nate Watkin: Well, he sounds like a hero to me so…
Ali Brown: He was. That’s what I said, I was like, “You are a hero dude, you don’t understand.” The guy was totally… everyone applauded him when he walked in.
Nate Watkin: That’s amazing. So you’re incredibly passionate about diversity and access to opportunity in the film industry. What inspires that passion?
Ali Brown: I mean, I think as a kid, I didn’t know this business existed, right, in terms of the access part of it. I thought that actors wrote line, I didn’t know this was a business, I didn’t have any kind of exposure to this industry, this world. I think that I’m very lucky in that, my mom sacrificed a tremendous amount for me as a kid and I’m very lucky that I was able to get a scholarship to go to college and access a world that was sort of outside of my reach. And I know that that took hard work and it took intelligence, but I’m not naive to know that it didn’t take luck. And it was somebody who read an application and took and change on me. So I just know that my whole life is kind of… I can point to the specific people in my life, that’s why I mentioned Eric, I want to call that out. There’s people that have changed the course of my life, and whoever gave me that scholarship to go to college changed the course of my life.
And I’ve always been cognizant of the fact of like, access is completely and totally limited to a few, just is. And so, if we don’t fight… if I don’t personally try to fight to make sure that people just know that there’s a place to them in this world, if they want to be in this world. Or that there are people that are willing to take chances on them. Or if I don’t support other people that want to create opportunities for people to get those chances that they need, I’m not just paying back the great karma that was paid to me. And I just think it’s super personal, it’s just one of those things that everyday I just count my blessing, truly. And it’s all luck-based and it’s all because somebody took a chance on me and somebody gave me the ability to access a world that otherwise would have been completely shutout. And again, I didn’t even know existed.
So I think that that’s the biggest part of it, and that comes from economics, it’s race, it’s socio-economics, it’s so many things. But I feel like anytime I can be involved with an organization that creates access, that’s great. And if I can create opportunity, that’s the goal.
Nate Watkin: That’s great. That’s great. And so what are your hopes and dreams for Prettybird in the coming years?
Ali Brown: I mean, we always say it, we want to win an Oscar? I mean I think that we keep manifesting it as that but I think what that really represents is that we want to be well-respected in every outlet, every distribution outlet, every form of media as we possibly can. So that we can be in a position to kind of support and partner with our directors 360 degrees. So that any director who we care, whose voice we think deserves to be heard or that we want to hear. If they come to us and they’re like, “Hey, this is something I want to do,” I want to be able to be a company that’s a value-add to that proposition. I want to be in a position to help them get that made. That something that they want to do but they can’t do on their own, if they’re like, “Oh, well Prettybird is a part of that package,” and people are like, “Oh my God, that’s amazing.”
So I feel like goal is to strive to diversify as much as possible as a company, to be able to have as solid as reputation across film and tv. Music and brands obviously, that’s going to place as our heartbeat and that’s where we stared, but I think that, as we look out, we’re trying to figure out how can we do it kind of across all the realms so that really anything that anybody dreams of on our little island of misfit toys, we can help make true.
Nate Watkin: Yeah, that’s an exciting feature. And so last question. I like to ask this of everybody, but if you had to start your career all over again, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
Ali Brown: I think, as I said, it’s hard because I think for a long time, I wish that I had stayed on more specific path. It was one of those things I kind of felt that I was a bit of a gypsy that I’m kind of walking between all these words and I think that if early on, I would have focused on doing what I loved and felt less of the pressure of trying to support myself but really tried to focus on being a writer, I still have hopes for myself that I can get to that someday, like I have all these half-started screen plays that I’m like someday I’m going to get to them. So maybe I wish I would have given myself a shot, I wish I would have given myself at least a beat to try to really follow that path before just kind of feeling the pressure of economics and being like, “Oh I just go to get a job and make money how I can afford this.” That or I would have become a neuroscientist, but probably focus on a writer.
Nate Watkin: Yeah. That’s awesome, well…
Ali Brown: I gave up on myself too quickly. Does that make sense? Maybe that’s a better way to say it. I feel like I gave up on the dream of being a writer too quickly. I think that I never gave it the time and the space. I was too fearful of rejection and of not making it so that I never really hunkered myself down and gave it shot, and I think that that’s probably why I have such tremendous respect for all of our directors, because I know all of them come from all sorts of different circumstances, a lot of them are not… they have the exact same economic pressures, if not worse, and more things up against them then I did. But they took the shot on themselves and they risked everything to kind of stay in that path and to stay focused on the dream. So I think that I didn’t. I was too fearful and I gave up. But I think that by doing that and by now being able to work with people that didn’t, it makes me so diehard passionate and protective of them, because I don’t want any of them to give up like I did.
Nate Watkin: Wow. Makes you really respect the struggle of the starving artist.
Ali Brown: I do. 100% because I was too afraid of it. I was simply too afraid of it, and it’s like, that’s a weakness and I wish that I didn’t have it, because that’s where I think it goes back to there’s so many people with talent, right? And there’s so many things that combine with that talent, you have to have access, you have to have luck, you have to have knowledge of the business that you’re in so that you can play the political game, you can understand the nuances of social dynamics when you’re on a conference call. And you really have to have all of those things to really make it. And I think that for me, it was too daunting, I just was too afraid to put all my chips in on being a writer.
Nate Watkin: Well, thank you so much and you have seen incredible success in your career so don’t be too hard on yourself about the writing.
Ali Brown: No, no.
Nate Watkin: But it sound like there’s a lot of excitement in the future for Prettybird and I hope to see you on stage accepting an Oscar soon.
Ali Brown: Thank you. Thanks so much.
Nate Watkin: Absolutely. Thanks for joining us.