By D. Dona Le
“You have to back your instincts in the face of opposition, especially as a producer,” says Tracey Bing MBA '01. “You might be wrong sometimes, and that’s okay. But without conviction, it’s really hard to do this job.”
Bing’s conviction in her judgment and choices as a producer and executive has certainly paid off. Her credits include March of the Penguins, which won the 2006 Oscar for Best Documentary, and most recently, Southside with You, a feature film about Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date. After premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Southside with You was released late this summer in the United States and garnered rave reviews from critics nationwide.
Asked to define what exactly it means to be a producer, Bing first laughs before launching into a clear and comprehensive job description.
“To me, producing is finding the story, working with the writer to develop that story, attaching the talent, and then finding the financing to make that movie.” She continues, “Then, overseeing that whole process from pre- to production to post-production until you deliver it to a distributor. Sometimes you get involved later on in things, but I like to be involved from the ground up.”
That was the case with Southside with You, which Bing executive produced. On a trip to London, Bing discovered actor Parker Sawyers (who plays Barack), developed the script, and helped secure financing. “Parker is so great in the movie as Obama, and it’s exciting to have seen [the film] from the script to the screen,” she says.
Today, Bing boasts over 20 years of experience as a producer in Los Angeles, New York, London, and even Kenya, developing and acquiring content across all distribution platforms. But she didn’t come directly to the entertainment industry after graduating from Yale University. Like many Ivy League graduates, Bing moved to New York immediately after graduation for an investment banking job, which she found unfulfilling.
“I made a deadline for myself. I said I would leave [my i-banking job] in three years, no matter what, even though I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next.”
Bing got in touch with one of her senior essay advisors from Yale for career advice. She had written her senior thesis on the American occupation of Haiti, and so her advisor put her in touch with Jonathan Demme, who was producing the documentary Courage and Pain about victims of political torture in Haiti. She was given the title of Production Associate—an unpaid position—and immediately got to work on the film.
“I coordinated all phases of production from conceptualization through post-production; did the research and gathered supporting documentation, footage and skills; and logged/oversaw transcription of 20 hours of Creole footage. We ended up showing it to Bill Clinton, who was president at the time,” Bing says, “to try to shape policy in Haiti. From that moment, I saw the impact that film can have on policy and making changes.”
She later worked on a UNICEF documentary for Hillary Clinton depicting issues of poverty in the Western Hemisphere.
The connections Bing made at Clinica Estetico, Jonathan Demme’s production company, quickly opened up doors to more entertainment job opportunities in New York. Demme, and another colleague Peter Saraf, introduced her to their contacts, eventually landing her on the set of David O. Russell’s film Flirting with Disaster.
For the next six years, Bing continued working in production in New York City. “It was all great fun,” she laughs, “and I went from one experience into the next, and I fell in love with filmmaking.”
She also worked on The Pallbearer with J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, Gridlock’d, The Yards, Welcome to the Dollhouse, and The Break. And she was associate producer on Too Tired to Die starring Takeshi Kanesiro, Mira Sorvino AB '89, and Jeffrey Wright, which premiered at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Having forged invaluable relationships with many filmmakers in New York, Bing decided to set her sights on Los Angeles.
But first: “I always thought of film as a business, and it was great to understand the creative side of the business, but I wanted to understand the business side of it too,” she explains. “I got into Harvard Business School, and so I went.”
After earning her MBA in 2001, Bing leveraged her HBS alumni connections to plot her move to Los Angeles.
Frank J. Biondi, Jr. MBA '68 (former President & CEO of Viacom, and former Chairman and CEO of Universal Studios) put Bing in touch with Sherry Lansing, former CEO of Paramount Pictures, who recognized that Bing’s extensive experience working in the indie film scene in New York would be a good match for Paramount Classics.
Bing ended up serving as Director of Acquisitions and Co-Productions at Paramount Classics, where she was involved in various projects including Bloody Sunday, Mostly Martha, and Man on the Train.
“It was exactly what I wanted: I could be in a studio but work on indie films still. It was perfect for my background and what I wanted to do.”
Her next position also came about indirectly through Harvard connections. Bing reached out to Alan Horn MBA '71 when she learned that Warner Brothers was starting an independent film division. After meeting with the division’s president, Mark Gill, she joined Warner Independent Pictures (WIP) as Vice President of Production & Acquisitions.
“It was great starting a division from scratch, figuring out how many films should be released every year, what those films should be, and what the mix of films should be. That was where my business school experience really came into practice,” Bing comments. “I have a business mind, and there have been a couple deals I brought to the table that I don’t think other people would’ve thought of. I see a marriage between the creative and the business [sides of the film industry], and I see myself straddling that line.”
While Bing was at WIP, she worked on numerous high-profile, successful projects, including George Clooney’s Good Night & Good Luck, Paradise Now, The Painted Veil with Yale classmate Edward Norton, and Before Sunset. In fact, WIP was the first company to receive Best Picture, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Documentary Oscar nominations in the same year for Good Night & Good Luck, Paradise Now, and March of the Penguins, respectively.
“When we acquired March of the Penguins, a French film, we knew we were going to change it considerably from the original version,” Bing reveals. “I oversaw those changes—we added Morgan Freeman’s voice, commissioned a new script aided by the National Geographic ‘penguinologist’ (yes, that actually exists), hired a new composer to write a completely different score, and cut five minutes from the film and added the ‘making of’ footage during the end credits, so it’s very different from the French version. It was a great experience and taught me that you can tailor content for different countries.”
But such a great experience was not without its own challenges. Executives at other studios doubted the film’s commercial prospects. And internally some people questioned the acquisition and whether the film should go straight to video. “Some people thought it was a silly little film,” she confides. “So I did doubt myself. I thought, ‘Maybe I made a huge mistake.’”
But March of the Penguins was a massive success, in terms of audience reception and box office figures, grossing $77 million at the domestic box office. “That really boosted my confidence in my ability to spot good projects. I realized I could trust my taste.”
Despite that success, another challenge was just around the corner. Warner Brothers unexpectedly shuttered its Warner Independent Pictures division.
“That was a really good life lesson, but a hard lesson to learn,” Bing admits. “A success doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re all set. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do after that, but I knew that I wanted to make movies.”
Bing realized that her production experience would make her an excellent consultant. Since leaving Warner Brothers, Bing has worked as an acquisitions and productions consultant for numerous companies, including Warner Home Video, Fox International Productions, K5 International, and Thirteen/WNET (PBS). She’s currently a consultant to eOne Features, where she also has a first-look deal. Films financed by eOne include Spotlight, Trumbo, and Eye in the Sky. The company also has a stake in Amblin Partners.
eOne has been “a really great home base—a place to generate content and to get feedback on potential projects and their value in the international marketplace.”
“It’s hard to make it as an independent producer,” she continues, “especially if you’re a woman of color. For me, as a black woman, I’ve always felt I had to be overqualified.”
Diversity—or rather, the lack thereof—has been an important topic of discussion in Hollywood of late. Bing doesn’t shy away from the issue and speaks frankly about what she terms “casual racism in the industry.”
She recounts being racially profiled while attending the Sundance Film Festival; at Cannes, she was called a racial epithet. In both incidents, she was working for a major studio, and yet “the studios don’t know how to support these kinds of issues. When it happens, they just want it to go away.”
One solution Bing proposes to mitigate these problems is for companies to provide internal support and mentorship for their diverse employees. She recognizes that existing programs designed to support diverse creatives—e.g., network diversity writers’ fellowships—are valuable steps toward creating a Hollywood that better reflects the diversity of our population.
But a crucial missing piece in the dialogue is the lack of diversity among studio executives.
“People of color are under-represented in the studio system,” Bing observes, “and it’s really lonely. It’s great that people are talking about [the issue of diversity], but the conversation needs to go beyond cocktail parties. We need more people of color in executive positions. There needs to be people who have green-light ability, who are higher up, who are diverse, in order to change the playing field.”
After all, diversity is simply good business.
But being an African-American producer doesn’t mean that Bing is only interested in making African-American movies.
“People are trying to feed anything to the [African-American] market because it’s underserved,” she notes, “and I find that so discouraging. I want to make different kinds of movies, not just African-American movies, but I do want to elevate the level of films being made in the African-American space. I want to create more opportunities for African-American filmmakers and talent in both films geared towards African-American audiences and those that aren’t. To me, that’s progress.”
Ultimately, Bing is doing her part to create that progress. She is inspired by diverse stories and unique voices, and her upcoming slate of projects demonstrates that.
Among these projects are romantic comedy Nappily Ever After together with celebrated producer Marc Platt (Bridge of Spies, Girl on the Train), which will start production in March of 2017; an adaptation of Mary Queen of Scots, which she describes as a passion project she’s had her eye on; a historical epic adventure to be directed by Peter Kosminsky (Wolf Hall); and a sci-film called Prospect with producer Chris Weitz (About a Boy, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story).
“It's easy to get jaded in this business, but you just have to keep moving,” Bing says. “I just love making movies and telling unique stories.”