Gigi Pritzker

“People want a variety [of entertainment], and they want to consume in a variety of ways. Yet it is interesting to notice that in this wave of technology, what has also gotten bigger are music festivals and live events. People still want shared experiences.”

Gigi Pritzker, co-founder and CEO of MWM (Madison Wells Media). She is known for producing feature films such as Hell or High Water, Rabbit Hole, Drive, Ender’s Game, and Rosewater, among others. She produced the Emmy Award-nominated National Geographic scripted series Genius and CMT’s Sun Records, based on the Tony Award-winning musical Million Dollar Quartet, which she also produced. This narrative is excerpted from an interview with the National Museum of American History, October 24, 2017.
 

On growing up (with lots of music and TV) in Chicago

I am the youngest of five. We grew up in the suburbs of Chicago in the ’70s. Chicago is deep in me. I feel like a Midwestern upbringing instills a sense of deep community roots. It’s a place people really feel is home. I feel that too.

Frank Sinatra on stage
Ella Fitzgerald took this snapshot of Frank Sinatra in 1961.

I had three brothers and a sister, but my sister was gone to college early in my childhood. So I had all these boys ahead of me, and I was very much a tomboy. I remember a moment when my mother bought me a tutu, and I can still feel how raw my throat was from screaming at her because I didn’t want my brothers to know I was a girl. Each of my brothers is responsible for a discrete piece of building who I am. The oldest, Tom, was my life mentor; the youngest, Dan, was my music ambassador; and my middle brother, John, was the one who always made me feel good and was there for me emotionally.
 
My dad loved music, so there was always music in the house. He loved Barbra Streisand and Ella Fitzgerald. My mother still adores Frank Sinatra. And American TV was very forefront in my childhood. I remember watching [The] Lawrence Welk [Show] and Hee Haw with my dad, and there was always a news program on Sunday morning. We watched Mayberry [on The Andy Griffith Show], and all the afternoon shows like Bewitched. My siblings and I would watch American Bandstand and Soul Train. We came home for lunch, and I remember watching Bozo’s Circus. Looking back, these eclectic cultural references from my childhood may have had an influence on what I ended up doing with my life.

The story of our heritage was an important one for all of us. My great-grandfather came from Russia as a 12-year-old. He became a refined thinker and an intelligent man who worked very hard to make a life in America. He had energy, curiosity, and resourcefulness, and my grandfather built on those traits. And between my great-grandfather and my grandfather, they built a name that stood for integrity and honesty. Then, my father was able to form his company because the banks believed in the family’s ability to be honest and good stewards. So we tell our kids, the value of a name is nothing to take lightly.

Nepalese 500 rupees
The design on Nepalese currency, here a 500 rupee bill, contains expressions of cultural and national identity.

“You should go to film school. You’re too creative.”

I went to Stanford, studied sociocultural anthropology, and spent a year in Nepal. My thesis was on cultural transmission through folktales, so how does a Nepali kid become a Nepali kid and what role do folktales play. That year changed my whole life. But I will never forget the moment I came back to Stanford and had to give my thesis to a bunch of anthropology professors. I think about it now as my Flashdance moment. When she’s dancing and does the water thing, and they all look at her like she’s crazy? I did that (metaphorically). My dreams crashed down in front of me in that room. I walked out of the room and Professor Jim Gibbs, who was not on the panel but had instructed my anthropology film class, walked up to me and said, “Well, that didn’t go so well, did it?” And he said, “You shouldn’t get a master’s in anthropology, you should go to film school. You’re too creative.” No one had ever said I was creative. In my family, creative wasn’t really a thing. It was nice, but it wasn’t an end of its own. I loaded up my car, drove to New Mexico, and went to the Anthropology Film Center.

Reels of film
The film The Endless Summer was released in 1964 and shot on 16 mm film.

On getting started in the film industry

I worked at the bottom of the barrel on a set for a number of years. I worked at a very bad TV show that shall remain nameless. My first job there was to open the mail, and if the letters said anything bad about the host, I would put them in a drawer he would never see, and when they said good things, I put them on his desk. Deborah Del Prete was producing the show, and she and I became very good friends. She went on maternity leave, and I produced the show in her absence. When she came back, I told her I was going to go out to start on my own. And she said, “Well that’s a great idea. Let’s do it together.”
 
We started a production company called Dee Gee Entertainment, and we hustled and hustled and did anything that we could. We did music videos, corporate films, PSAs, commercials, and documentaries. I literally took seven cans of 16 mm film all around L.A. to try and sell distribution. Though I am no longer partnered with Deborah, there is still nothing I won’t do if it’s in service of getting my film or my product out there.

“I often say we went to the Tonys as help one year, and the next year we won”

After many years, we sold Dee Gee Entertainment and started OddLot (which is now rebranded as MWM Studios), which just did feature films. Since we weren’t part of the L.A. industry yet, we were really outsiders. We had to figure out how to do it differently. Agents weren’t going to give us the big scripts. So one of the things we decided to do was align ourselves with a theater group that was doing theater readings. We underwrote their readings in exchange for the first rights on film adaptation of their material. We became very close with a theater company called Playwrights Kitchen [Ensemble]. One day they said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a theater?” And then, “You won’t believe this. You can buy the Coronet Theatre.” My first reaction was, “Wait, what? I don’t need to be in the theater business.” But much like I never thought I would be in the film business. … So we hired Ted Rawlins, who is still with me today, 15 years later, to come and run the theater. We had a theater business based on a physical theater, but we also developed theater in a separate company, Relevant Theatricals, which has now been rebranded as MWM Live.

Million Dollar Quartet was a reading that happened at the Coronet Theatre. Then we did it in Seattle at the Village Theatre as a real production, and we saw that it could have a life. Being from Chicago, I had a relationship with the Goodman Theatre, so we asked to use their small theater and put it up as a commercial production. It soon became apparent that everyone wanted to see it, so we moved to the Apollo for what we thought would be three months. Before we knew it, it became eight years, the longest-running musical in Chicago, and we even won a Tony Award for it.

T-shirt with printing 'Grateful Dead, High in the Rockies'
T-shirt worn in the mid-1970s by Matthew Dickstein as staff at a Grateful Dead concert in Colorado

I think it is important to support opportunities for kids to see that artistic pursuits, imagination, creativity, and play are valid, important, and can lead you to a career. There are ways to express yourself that can lead to a fulfilling life. When we did Million Dollar Quartet, we would do a lot of school visits and talk about the nuts and bolts, so the kids would know that there are opportunities for them. How is theater populated? What’s a stage manager? How do you get there?
 
Right now, we are in the midst of our show called Red Roses, Green Gold, which is the music of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter and an original story that is playing off-Broadway. It is so personally interesting to me because of the music, which is beautiful and largely acoustic and very evocative of early Americana. It comes out of jug band music and folk music, the traditions of American music. It’s banjo, it’s mandolin, it’s acoustic guitar, and it is beautiful.

On some of her favorite projects … so far

I met an extraordinary man, Brother Thomas, at a Benedictine retreat in Erie, Pennsylvania through my father in law who was his closest friend and art dealer, and we had a great connection. A couple of years later, my father in law had the idea to do a film of Brother Thomas’ life, so I did a documentary called Gifts From the Fire: The Ceramic Art of Brother Thomas. My father-in-law was an amazing cheerleader for the project, and I still think the movie holds up. People watch it today and love it. He opened himself up in ways that he was uncomfortable doing and hadn’t done before, and I felt a great responsibility. He was really happy with the movie, and that makes me really happy. We did it as a co-production with CBC, Canadian Broadcast [Corporation]. It is one of the things I’m most proud of.

Rancher Gerald Ward
Gerald Ward, Marksville, Louisiana, 2009, by Henry Horenstein, depicts a contemporary rancher.

One of the reasons I’m so proud of Hell or High Water, aside from the fact that I think it’s a fantastic movie, is that it really starts a conversation: Who are we as Americans now? What are the roles of government, society, and banking? Where are ranchers and farmers in today’s America? These are issues that I think are really important. But it’s not a documentary; it is entertainment. You have to get people in because it’s compelling and interesting and the characters are well-drawn, not to jam a message home.

I bought the rights to [the Walter Isaacson book] Einstein a number of years ago and developed it for many years as a film, and I kept failing. Every time I tried, I wasn’t happy with the outcome, and I never wanted to make the movie that we kept writing the script for. We’d get another writer on, and we’d attack it a different way, and it still wasn’t good enough. Then episodic TV started to really snowball, and there were opportunities with Netflix and Amazon and streaming to tell stories episodically. I started to think, Well, maybe Einstein doesn’t fit into a two-hour, three-act structure. Maybe his life is just too big. So we reshaped and refashioned and rethought and came up with this idea for a 10-part series [named Genius].

On how the entertainment industry has changed with the digital revolution

Madison Wells Media is the name of our company now. We have evolved as a group of people and the way that we organize ourselves. We focus on our ability to tell stories across platforms, whether it’s live, film, TV, virtual reality, or digital media. It’s all about working together with intention and putting storytellers and creatives in the center.
 
The film business is changing a lot. Making movies has always been hard, and it got harder with the digital revolution. People have all sorts of mobile devices, and there is so much material that fights for attention and dollars. As a producer in this storytelling world, you can’t just think of it as one way and one audience. Tent-pole movies are important and they’re wonderful, but they’re one thing, not the only thing. People want a variety, and they want to consume in a variety of ways. Yet it is interesting to notice that in this wave of technology, what has also gotten bigger are music festivals and live events. People still want shared experiences. Or look at how the advent of podcasts is back to radio storytelling. In a time when we are deeply visual with a million images in our brains and flashed at us every day, people also still want to sit quietly and listen for two hours. It’s kind of amazing.
 
Storytelling on film is very much a director’s medium. I am giving you messages of how I want you to perceive the story by my choices of angle, by how tight I go, how wide I go, what music I put behind it — all of those things are my choice as a director. It is the opposite in virtual reality. It is not up to you, the director. Instead, your job is to set out a complex and rich narrative on multiple levels and then relinquish control. You are setting a table that has a lot of silverware and glasses, and the user gets to choose how to go through that dining experience.

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On Michael Jordan’s 1996 Chicago Bulls jersey and Hello, Dolly!

Basketball jersey
Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls jersey from about 1996

As a Chicagoan, it was amazing for me to live through the time that the Bulls were reigning. My mom is a huge sports nut. She was always at the games, and I would go with her. She is 94 now and still a huge sports fan, but she watches everything on TV. Sports is the closest thing we have to tribalism in America. The beauty of America is that we aren’t tribal but when it comes to sports, so many of us have an allegiance that’s irrational.

Phyllis Diller in 'Hello, Dolly!'
Along with Carol Channing and Barbra Streisand, Phyllis Diller has also portrayed matchmaker Dolly Levi.

My experience with Hello, Dolly! was the movie with Barbra Streisand, not the live show. That movie was huge in my house. And I apparently did a great imitation as a child from the scene at the really nice restaurant with Horace. She is speaking incessantly while eating, and she is clearly not of the same socioeconomic branch as the other folks in this restaurant. She leans in, and he’s slightly mortified, and she says, “Eat your beets, Horace! Eat your beets.” My family would fall apart when I would imitate that. I loved Hello, Dolly!