February 2006 | Meredith Bagby

Meredith Bagby (Writer, CNN Reporter, & Creative Director for DreamWorks SKG)

“At all of the schools I went to – Harvard included – the entertainment industry, and especially the movie business, seemed kind of frivolous,” admits DreamWorks creative executive Meredith Bagby with a shrug.  “But ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the movies.  I used to watch all these old movies with my mom, and at some point, I thought, ‘You know, the weather’s really nice out there, and I’m just gonna try it.’”  

Lots of people come to Hollywood based on equally impulsive reasoning, though not all of us get to tell ourselves, as Bagby jokes she did, that “If I fail, I can always go back to being an attorney.” It’s possible, of course, that Harvard grads have this sort of Plan B in greater numbers than average, but Bagby stands apart from the run-of-the-mill attracted-by-sunshine set thanks to the colorful career she had before arriving in Los Angeles. Having written a book as an undergrad, served as a financial correspondent on CNN, and testified before Congress repeatedly as a member of the think-tank Third Millennium, Bagby could perhaps be accused of having a short attention span if she ever failed to stick with an endeavor long enough to be successful at it. And listening to her tell her story, a narrative she presents as full of spur-of-the-moment or under-thought-out decisions, you can’t help but be charmed by the idea, however untrue, that success can be achieved so offhandedly. “About job decisions, I think you can analyze something to death, but a lot of times the best decisions are made on instinct,” Bagby insists, “based on what feels right, if that makes any sense. Different people approach things differently, but the way I approach career stuff, is just sort of instinct.”

Bagby wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that she’s always followed her gut. “When I got out of Harvard,” she grimaces, “I did what so many people do, which is go into investment banking. It’s the least original thing, but everybody does it, and I did that. But I didn’t really like it, and I didn’t really fit in very well, so I wasn’t an investment banker for very long.” Faced with the prospect of finding a new and more satisfying path, Bagby left Morgan Stanley and fell back on the book she wrote during her time in Cambridge, the well-regarded early-’90s Gen-X call-to-arms The Annual Report for the United States: “I wrote to somebody at CNN and I said, ‘Hey, here’s this book I did, and I’d really like to work there, and I think that you guys are missing a segment of the population.’ I made some ridiculous argument for why they should hire me – ‘I’ll help you get younger viewers,’ or something like that – and obviously I got really lucky. I must have landed on the right desk. But sure enough, I got an interview, and I worked there for a couple of years.”

Working as a television finance reporter offered an outlet for one of Bagby’s greatest gifts, as she used her ability to break down and explicate complicated economic information regularly in on-air reports. But part of her time was also devoted to continuing her studies. “I’m not really sure why I went to law school, to be honest with you,” Bagby says modestly, “but I started going to Columbia, I guess, thinking I might be an attorney. And during my first year of law school, CNN went through a couple of waves of layoffs, and I was swept up in one of them. My show got cancelled, so as I finished up law school I was sort of glad I’d gone!”

Somewhere around this point was when the allure of sunny CA took hold of Bagby, and she headed west to be an entertainment lawyer. “But when I got out here,” she recalls, “I realized that lawyers don’t ever really get involved in the creative process, and if I wanted to be involved in that process, I had to start over again, and not be an attorney.” The impetus for her taking an entry-level job in DreamWorks’ Story Department, which eventually led to her promotion to executive level? One of those little Harvardwood updates that clutter up your email inbox every few days! “I was, like, a day away from taking a law job,” Bagby laughs, “because I was thinking ‘Aw, man! I’m never going to get anything good in entertainment!’ But the night before, I checked my email, and I saw, ‘Oh, there’s a Harvardwood listing! I’ll apply!’ And I applied, and I got the job, and I was like, ‘Thank God I don’t have to be a lawyer!’”

Bagby admits that her family participated in the time-honored tradition of relatives expressing bafflement at an Ivy League education being put to use as a phone-answerer in a Hollywood starter gig: “I remember my parents were, like, ‘We spent all this money sending you to law school! What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘Well, it just feels like the right place.’ I turned out to be right, but at the time it was, at least in their eyes, a somewhat ridiculous decision.” But she concedes that her “bookish” family may be an influence in her efforts to bring more substantial material to movie screens, even as she uses her investment banker’s analytical skills to realize the importance of films of all types: “There’s a place for things like ‘Syriana,’” Bagby notes, “which are really challenging and carry a message, but there are also places for ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin,’ for the guy who works hard all week and wants to go out on a Friday night and just laugh.”

She says she’s adjusting slowly but comfortably to the big change from more nuts-and-bolts financial reporting to subtler matters of cinematic storytelling, but the enthusiasm for her current projects in audible as she talks about them: “My favorite project right now is ‘Dreamgirls,’” Bagby says of the Bill Condon-helmed production due out later this year, “which is going to be awesome. You don’t realize how fun musicals are, but working on it, watching the dailies come in…” Bagby pauses a moment, once again downplaying the long hours and commitment it takes to do any of the many things she’s done as she adds, “It definitely doesn’t feel like work.”

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