Producer Sheri Singer
I interviewed producer Sheri Singer by phone 11/7/02.
Born in Skokie, Illinois, Sheri got her degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Oklahoma. "I started out as a news producer at age 19. After graduation, I produced news in Chicago for WLS-TV, the ABC-owned station, and WMAQ, the NBC-owned station. I produced the Phil Donahue Show from 1975-82. Norman Lear moved me to Los Angeles, where I was a studio vice president and a producer at his company, Embassy Television. Norman sold the company to Columbia. Then I produced the soap opera Days of our Lives. After that, I went to Disney TV for four years, where I was senior vice-president of movies for television. Then I went to Lifetime [female-oriented cable TV channel] as the head of Original Movies. Following that, I went out on my own as an independent producer at the beginning of 1997.
"TV movies was one of the first areas to be friendly to women as TV movies have women as their primary audience. Most of my movies have been aimed at women and children."
Luke: "How's business?"
Sheri: "I've been lucky but [the downturn in the TV movie market] is effecting me. I feel the train slowing down."
Luke: "What have you been doing to survive in these difficult times?"
Sheri: "I'm pitching features. I will know more next year when I see what happens. I've cut my overhead. I'm selective about what projects I spend money on. I have a big background in reality programming and I'm looking at doing specials. A lot of TV movie producers in this town have not produced anything else. And I have and it is something I could do again. I'm looking at drama and comedy series ideas. I'm taking a big sequence of classes at UCLA in financial planning. I could foresee having a second career as a financial planner or investment manager.
"My company is still healthy. A year or two from now, I don't know where we will be. Nobody does anymore.
"The entire entertainment industry is ageist. When I hit 50 or 60 [years old], I'm not going to be ready to retire. I've got my eye open on a second career that I can work as long as I want in. That's not the case in this industry."
Luke: "How did you come to the Gary Kremen story?"
Sheri: "A woman who works for me, Ruth Fainberg, had a relationship with a writer who read a small article about the sex.com court case in the Los Angeles Times business section. He brought it in and we read it and I thought there was something there. Ruth started doing homework. She tracked down Gary."
Luke: "That Stephen Cohen is a slippery character."
Sheri: "When we do the movie, we will probably change all the names. In the general entertainment public, none of these are household names. There isn't any reason to use their names."
Luke: "Which parts of your job do you love the most and which parts do you hate?"
Sheri: "The part I love the most is the day somebody calls you and tells you they are making your film. I like bringing it to life. One of my favorite moments is on the first day of the first casting session and I hear the words read for the first time. I've done a lot of true stories and it is often a story I've been working on for years. And suddenly it is real. I like developing scripts. The part I like the least is selling."
Luke: "Do you finding producing TV movies the most fulfilling of your different jobs?"
Sheri: "No. Probably putting together the Lifetime movie franchise. I got to use every skill I have. I had to acquire a number of new skills as well and stretch. I got to use my producing skills, be an executive, learn about business and finance, and it was like running a small studio. Donahue was also a highlight.
"Lifetime started in the mid-eighties as a medical network. I joined at the beginning of 1994 before it began calling itself television for women. I went to the retreat where we decided to come out of the closet. It was seen as a service for women but it was never marketed directly as that."
Luke: "What do you view as your strong points?"
Sheri: "I have a great eye for a story. I can put talented people together."
Luke: "What was it like working with your husband Steve White at your own producing company?"
Sheri: "It was mostly an advantage. The disadvantage is that because you both do the same thing for a living, all the money goes into the same pot. If you are in the same business and the business isn't going well, that means you are both not doing well. I really like my husband. We have different skill sets. There are different people who like me than who like him, so there are different places to pitch. I felt like we were building a company for ourselves and we weren't doing it for a nebulous corporate giant. I liked having him around. I don't think we will work together again on the other end of Steve's NBC tour. Financially it doesn't make sense. We will share office space but we will be two separate companies.
"Steve is much more interested in physical production and special effects. Guy things. I am much more into telling a story. He likes commercial fare and I like things that are about an issue, that have some kind of larger socially redeeming value because of my background as a journalist and as a talkshow producer. I gravitate towards true stories. He doesn't like true stories."
Luke: "How do you know when you've done good with a film?"
Sheri: "It's an intangible feeling you get when you see it. You experience the right emotions. If it's a comedy, you are laughing. If it is supposed to be sad, you're crying. Watching something that keeps your interest and moves you in whatever direction..."
Luke: "Have you been surprised, while pitching projects, that there are certain themes people won't consider?"
Sheri: "Not anymore. This is such a niche universe. If you've got a good idea, you can find someone. There's an outlet for any idea I'd be willing to sign my name to. The one thing that has historically been difficult to sell to any outlet has been a period piece. I'm not surprised [because of the expense].
"That question would've been more relevant in the mid-eighties when I moved to LA. I was doing issues on the Donahue show that nobody would touch as TV movies. But gradually that changed. Daytime television was ahead of primetime television."
Luke: "What do you love and what do you hate about this industry?"
Sheri: "I hate the unstable nature and the insincerity of some of the people in it. I'm an adrenaline junkie and I love the highs of making television. I like that it is not repetitive and boring. After a certain number of years, you have some control over the people you work with, if you're not in a corporate environment. While there are some scary people, there are some interesting, vital and vibrant people."
Luke: "How long have you been married?"
Sheri: "This is my second marriage and I've been married for seven-and-a-half years. I have two children (16 and 14 years of age) and Steve has two."
Luke: "How has being a parent effected you as a producer?"
Sheri: "Until I started producing movies for the Disney channel, they didn't know my work existed. Since then, I've had them come to the set of almost everything I've produced for the Disney channel. They and their friends watch the movies over and over again. It was a much more congruent marriage of the two halves of my life."
Luke: "What's it going to be like for you to leave the industry? How much of you has been invested in making movies?"
Sheri: "A lot. In the end, it will be better to work in a profession I like than not to work in one that I love."
Luke: "How have you kept your moral compass on due north in this turbulent industry?"
Sheri: "I'm a Midwest girl. I don't have Hollywood values. I try hard to keep my kids from having them. I've never changed who I am."
Luke: "Would you encourage or discourage your children from getting into the industry?"
Sheri: "Totally discourage. It's an insecure unstable business and it is often not about your talent, but about who you know."
Luke: "Have you worked on any movies that have changed you?"
Sheri: "I think I've worked on more Donahue shows that have changed me than movies."
Luke: "Would you rather your children grew up to be addicted to cigarettes or to television?"
Sheri: "Television. My kids are not allowed to watch television during the week."
Luke: "Does it bother you the amount of television the average American watches?"
Sheri:: "No. I'm more bothered by violent video games and repetitive escapist computer games."
Luke: "What sort of things tick you off about TV programming?"
Sheri: "Jackass. Things that kids are susceptible to and give them ideas."
Luke: "What about the plethora of humiliating reality programming?"
Sheri: "I hate that too. I don't even like where some of the talkshows go."