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March 22, 2012

Wendy Finerman on Staying in the Picture

The Hollywood hit-maker talks about breaking into the boys club, thriving in a cutthroat business, and banking some of the biggest movies in history.

wendy fineman

Photo Credit: JUCO

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You started your own production company in your mid-20s. How'd you do it?
A woman I greatly admired named Dawn Steel had become president of Columbia Pictures — I had developed projects at Paramount and knew she was a huge advocate for women. I called her and said, "I'm thinking of trying to go out on my own. What do you think?" There wasn't even a pause. She said, "I think it's a great idea. We'll back you. You'll get no salary, but you'll get an office where you can hang your shingle." And that was the beginning. It was really the luck of having the support of this woman.

Is a business background essential for being a producer?
I graduated from the Wharton School of Business, which was very helpful. I love working with numbers; it's actually something that's fun for me. I feel very comfortable going through budgets and can quickly figure out where to find the financial risks and opportunities. Years of crunching numbers drilled into me the skills that I use every single day.

One of your movies, Forrest Gump, went on to become the highest-grossing film of 1994. But nobody was interested in it originally, correct?
It took nine years to make. One of the challenges was that Rain Man had come out during our development process, and some of the studios thought that the two story lines were similar. Another obstacle was that the story of Forrest Gump was very episodic and told in an untraditional way. But I thought it was a great story. I'm drawn to things people can relate to and identify with — and everybody knows someone who looks at the world in a different way.

The movie went on to earn six Oscars. How did you celebrate?
The whole Forrest Gump family attended many after-parties that night. It was great, but in the back of my mind, I was thinking about getting enough rest to drive my kids to school the next day. [Finerman has four children.] It was important to me that they knew they were my first priority, despite the thrill of the Oscar win.

You oversee about 20 film and TV projects at any given time. How do you decide whom you want to work with?
I look for someone whom I would enjoy spending time with. A great way to look at it is, Would you want to sit next to that person as you travel across the country in a plane or if you were stuck in traffic? Are they bright, insightful, entertaining, and, most important, polite? When I hire a writer, it's because I'm impressed with the voice, not because he sold 10 pictures in the last week. And I work only with "we" people. When I hear someone refer to it as "my film," I want to say, "Were you the only person who worked on it?" Somebody with that kind of attitude isn't going to be able to be a team player.

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