Diane Nabatoff AB '78 HBS '82 has worked as a studio executive, production company executive and producer of film and television over her 30-year career. Nabatoff loves discovering new voices and is known for launching multiple first-time directors including Pete Berg, Joe Carnahan, Kathryn Bigelow and Liz Friedlander.
She has worked in theater for the legendary Joe Papp at The Public Theater; in television at The Landsburg Company; and in features at Feldman-Meeker, Vestron, Fair Dinkum Productions, and Interscope Communications.
While at Interscope, she developed and produced an eclectic group of films ranging from OPERATION DUMBO DROP to VERY BAD THINGS, working with talent including Pete Berg, John Favreau, Lesli Glatter, Ken Branaugh and Leonard Nimoy.
After Interscope, Nabatoff started her own company, Tiara Blu Films, where she has produced a wide range of projects. Her films include: TAKE THE LEAD and NARC as well as the award-winning documentaries DANCING IN JAFFA and 999:THE FORGOTTEN GIRLS OF THE HOLOCAUST. In television, she executive produced KNIGHTS OF THE SOUTH BRONX for A&E (SAG and Namic Vision Award nominations); RACING FOR TIME for Lifetime (two NAACP nominations); She co-executive produced pilots SCENT OF THE MISSING by Carol Mendelsohn for TNT and BASEBALL WIVES by Tom Fontana and Julie Martin for HBO. She also conceived and executive produced three seasons of the ground-breaking AFTER HOURS WITH DANIEL for Mojo.
Q: Congratulations on becoming Harvardwood’s new President! Can you tell us a little more about how you got involved with Harvardwood? And what’s been your favorite part about working with the organization?
I originally started out as a member. When Mia [Riverton Alpert, Harvardwood Co-Founder] asked me to volunteer on some of the committees, I realized the breadth and power of the organization, so I just kept getting more and more involved. My favorite part of the organization is the tremendous sense of community.
Q: When you’re not at the helm of Harvardwood, you’re primarily a producer. Can you talk about any upcoming projects that you’re working on?
I am developing several features with different studios as well as with independent financiers.
For television, I am developing several scripted series with the streamers and studios as well as a limited series.
Almost all of my projects are based on true stories but they range from musicals to drama to comedy.
In addition, I am adapting a film I produced, TAKE THE LEAD, into a Broadway musical that will have its out of town production next year and then go to Broadway in 2025.
I have a small documentary, 999: THE FORGOTTEN GIRLS, that just won the Human Rights Award at the Hamptons Documentary Film Festival and is coming out in 2024.
Q: Can you share insights into your time at Harvard and your early career experiences? How did these early experiences shape your approach to the entertainment industry?
When I went to Harvard you could not major in theater; all theater was extracurricular. At the time, I wanted to be a Broadway actress/singer so I had to figure out how to find my way into the arts on campus. I ended up engaging in three different ways.
1) The first week I was on campus I started auditioning for the musicals. I made sure to do a musical each year at Agassiz or one of the houses.
2) I realized that the only a cappella singing group that existed was The Harvard Krokodiloes which was all men, so that was the impetus for deciding to start The Radcliffe Pitches, which I co-founded with Kathy Manning AB '78. Despite having to overcome quite a few obstacles and lots of derision to get the group formed, we created a wonderful community of female singers that still thrives today.
3) The other part of the year I worked on The Hasty Pudding Show. I started out running Props then sophomore year was the Tour Manager, junior year the Publicity Manager and then my senior year became the Producer. And because I was the first female producer in 130 years, there was a lot of press and I
received an unexpected offer from Joe Papp to work at The Public Theater. Realizing this was an extraordinary opportunity, I postponed my acceptance to The Neighborhood Playhouse (where I was planning to go) and went to work for Joe Papp, which was the start of my career. I was still singing in nightclubs in NY and funny enough at one point I was singing at a club called the Grand Finale and Joe Papp had his own show at The Ballroom. I never stopped singing but decided to focus on producing as my career.
Q: You're known for launching the careers of several first-time directors. What qualities or potential do you look for in emerging talents, and how do you support them in their early stages?
Most of the first-time directors I worked with had written the scripts they brought to me and had a passion and vision that was so clear and specific for the material. It was obvious they were the best person to direct their films.
With any first-time director, you want support them by surrounding them with a great team and encouraging them to ask questions and learn from everyone around them. In the end, we all have the exact same goal – to make the film the best it can be- and if everyone works from that directive the process is much clearer and more successful.
Q: Your career has spanned various genres, from features like OPERATION DUMBO DROP to award-winning documentaries like DANCING IN JAFFA. How do you navigate such a range in your projects, and what draws you to transformational stories and ordinary people overcoming challenges?
I worked at different companies and studios for years before starting my own company. When working at the studios, you have to make movies that fit their mandate. When I started my own company, I decided I was only going to work on projects that shifted the paradigm. It could be any genre but it had to make you think differently.
The most inspiring and exciting stories I have come across are true stories where an ordinary person does something extraordinary and changes the world for even a few people. To give you an idea of a few of my projects, right now, I am working on The Barbara Jordan story with Viola Davis and Searchlight. Barbara was a trailblazer who changed politics, perceptions and the lives of many who followed in her footsteps. I am doing a musical with Allen Media Group about a group of men and women from Harlem who are 55 and older (cops, housewives, janitors, ex-cons) who always wanted to sing but life got in the way. Now they are given a second chance in life, to sing and tell their stories, because of one extraordinary woman - Vy Higginsen. I have so much admiration for the people whose stories I tell. They are truly exceptional and it is important to shine a light on their endeavors. It inspires others to do something courageous and shows the impact one person can have on many people’s lives.
Q: After your tenure at Interscope, you started Tiara Blu Films. What inspired you to take the entrepreneurial path, and how has running your own production company influenced your creative and business decisions?
I loved my job and the team at Interscope. It was an incredibly unique job where we were the producers finding the material, developing it and then producing it - and we were also the financiers. Very few companies were doing what we were doing. I went out on my own right before the company was sold to Universal. I had been making movies that fit a studio or production company mandate for so long. I thought I would try seeing what it would be like to find and fight for stories I loved. My first film was NARC followed by TAKE THE LEAD, then others. When I first started it was much easier to sell and make projects. Today with the focus on tentpole movies there are fewer financiers for the stories I tell, so it just takes a little longer and more ingenuity to get them greenlit.
Q: Many of your projects are based on underlying intellectual property. Can you elaborate on the importance of IP in your creative process and how it contributes to the storytelling in your projects?
When I started with IP not many people were doing it. Now it is almost essential when selling something. For me it is just about falling in love with someone’s story and being able to share it with others. Because a film could take years to get made, you have to really love the stories you are committing to tell.
Q: Your work often focuses on true stories and diversity. How do you balance the responsibility of telling real stories while also creating engaging entertainment that resonates with a broad audience?
I am very upfront with my subjects that we are creating a movie and we need to make sure the story works in that format. I keep them involved every step of the way so they are not shocked when they see the final product. If they understand why you are making a change and are included it is usually fine. If they have an issue with it, then we figure out a solution that works for everyone. Don’t forget these are scripted films and series - not a documentary - but they are also about someone’s life. They have one chance to tell their story, so you want to be sure they are as proud of the film as you are. Even after the film is finished, I continue to have long term relationships with the people whose stories I tell.