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KEMP “The responsibility of the executive producer in TV is the same as in film—we protect our crews, in all ways. So can you imagine trying to protect your crew from something that is invisible, that you can’t smell, that you can’t touch or taste?”
Paula Hart Makes Her Mark
Paula Hart braves pandemic filming and earns the first Producers Mark in streaming movies Written By Katie Grant
“Mom, you’ve been a producer since 1996 and you’ve never gotten one of those.” Paula Hart’s children would often say this to her after watching a movie together and seeing the Producers Mark, “p.g.a,” after a producer’s name in the credits. “I have always wanted one,” Hart says. “And I’m so honored to now have that after my name. Anytime I can be honored by my peers is just a real boost to my self-worth.” Paula Hart is best known for producing the hit TV series Sabrina the Teenage Witch starring her daughter, Melissa Joan Hart. In fact, Hart first got into producing because Melissa wanted to be on TV at age 4. And she was. They were living on Long Island and trekked into New York City for auditions. Hart started a management company for children about six months into Melissa’s start of a long career as an actor and now producer and director. Paula then moved into casting and, finally, producing. Her producing career began when she found a comic book copy of Sabrina on a city playground and pitched it. Viacom bought it the next day. Melissa had starred in Clarissa Explains It All on Nickelodeon and wasn’t excited about the offers that were coming in, but Paula found the type of material Melissa preferred with Sabrina. Since 1993, Paula and Melissa have been co-owners of Hartbreak Films, where they focus on family-friendly material and find projects for Melissa to star in and/or direct.
PAULA HART MAKES HER MARK
This year’s Hartbreak production of Dear Christmas for Lifetime, a longtime home for Hartbreak holiday films, became the first movie to earn the Producers Mark for the new streaming category added in 2020. Hart certainly earned that mark, considering she was the first producer to begin filming with all the new pandemic protocols in place. “It was really, really hard. There were so many variables out there and I would wonder, ‘Am I doing this right? Am I protecting everybody?’ It really made you change your mindset,” Hart says of the very first Hollywood COVID-era production back in June: Feliz NaviDAD, also for Lifetime. To start filming Dear Christmas and Feliz NaviDAD, Paula had to write a protocol that needed approval from the unions, SAG-AFTRA and the DGA. Her
Paula Hart on the “snowy,” COVID-safe set of Dear Christmas
first draft, culled from UK and Australian protocols, was turned down and needed revisions. The approved protocol included three-times-a-week COVID-19 testing for the cast and crew who were filming in the Lake Tahoe area of Nevada, temperature readings every hour, and sanitizing hands and equipment every half hour. Masks were required, of course, and they had to forgo craft services for individual snack bags that were handed out daily. As with all of Hart’s productions, the Dear Christmas cast and crew were like family. They socialized only with each other during their time filming to stay safe. They would go river rafting on the Truckee River or barbecue on the beach in their downtime. “For me, it’s really important that we all get along. Life’s too short to be miserable. So let’s make it fun,” Hart says. “Let’s have a great time as long
as we get the work done. This crew that I’ve got and the crew that I had on Sabrina was the same way. Even though Melissa and I are real family, blood family, these people are my work family for sure.” Hart is actually a trailblazer in more ways than one. She is not just the first producer to earn the Producers Mark for the streaming movies category, but she is also the first woman to claim it. And, of course, she was the first to get back to filming during the pandemic. She attributes this success to never giving up. Her mantra is “The worst they can do is say no.” Example: When she applied for the Producers Mark, she didn’t even know the category of Televised/Streamed Motion Pictures had opened up. She submitted Dear Christmas as a feature film and thought, “Why not ask and see what comes of it?” What came of it was seeing her name
PAULA HART MAKES HER MARK
in the opening credits twice for both Executive Producer Paula Hart, p.g.a., and Produced By Paula Hart, p.g.a. She asked for both credits because, she notes, “The executive producer credit on television is the utmost credit, so when I’m producing a television series, I want that executive producer credit. But when it comes to movies, I did all the work, honestly,” she laughs, “so I at least need to get the Produced By credit, too. And this one was a lot of work.” Part of that work meant revising the already approved Dear Christmas script to make sense for the COVID era. “We altered from the original script so that we could do it post- or during COVID. I went back to the writers who wrote a number of movies for me—Christmas Reservations and A Very Nutty Christmas—and said, ‘Listen, can we do this with fewer cast, fewer locations, and no extras? They’re the ones who came up with being outside of the party and watching it, and I think that it was really successful in still enjoying the time without making it obvious that there was nobody there,” Hart says. “They also put in a subtle tribute to honor the people who are working so hard for us—the health care workers and first responders.” Getting buy-in from the crew to be safe and keeping everyone healthy was not hard. She said to them, “‘Listen, I’m 64 years old. I don’t want to get sick. I don’t want any of you to get sick. Let’s do what we need to do. Let’s work when we can because a lot of people aren’t working, and we’ll keep us all safe.’ And they were all up for that because they were honestly afraid, too.” So they hired a licensed COVID nurse to be on set and had a budget of $134,000 just for COVID-related costs. Those costs included housing each person in their own hotel room rather than bunking them in pairs as usual. But they saved money by having people drive up on their own, including star Ed Begley Jr., as they didn’t want to risk flying. The crew also pitched in for the lack of background actors, which, Hart says, was one of the challenges but also made it fun.
“IT WAS REALLY, REALLY HARD. THERE WERE SO MANY VARIABLES OUT THERE AND I WOULD WONDER, ‘AM I DOING THIS RIGHT? AM I PROTECTING EVERYBODY?’ IT REALLY MADE YOU CHANGE YOUR MINDSET.” A crew member would volunteer to do a walk-through, and costuming would give them a sweater to throw on as they were filming a wintry Christmas movie in the heat of the summer. But to Hart, it’s all worthwhile. “I think everybody, especially this year, needs a little Christmas. Everybody needs a little lightness and brightness in their dark world right now. And I think that it gives people an opportunity to escape. I’m really proud of the networks for getting as many movies done as they did, considering the challenges that we were up against.” Hart even notes that during her days on Sabrina the Teenage Witch she always wanted to produce a Christmas movie. “I love the genre. I love Christmas. Anything to do with Christmas. So who knew I would have Christmas all year-round?” When asked if she keeps her eye on the other popular Christmas movie channel, Hallmark, Paula says how much she enjoys their films. But, she says, “I’m trying to do
something that’s a little out of the box. Lifetime has always been a little different.” Those differences often include more diversity in casting and going beyond just having a strong female protagonist. “I actually have one in for next year,” Hart says, “that I’m hoping they’re going to pick up where I flip that. And, with Feliz NaviDAD, we flipped it on its head by having a male protagonist, which is really rare. But generally they want to have that woman whom women can either aspire to be or can be inspired by, or they are partly a wish fulfillment.” Hart’s advice for aspiring producers? “Things are very tricky right now, and up-and-coming producers just need to understand what we’re up against now and take it really seriously. I’m afraid that it’ll get lax maybe as restrictions lessen, but this is a very serious disease.” She implores everyone to stick to the protocols and what the government is telling you to do or not to do. “I do feel terrible for the LA people in production.
PAULA HART MAKES HER MARK
It’s horrible. I have a lot of friends who are below-the-line, people who are struggling to make ends meet right now. And my heart goes out to them because it’s a terrible time to be in this business.” Being in this business and being a successful producer, though, means knowing all facets of it. From makeup to lighting to wardrobe, Hart says she paid close attention to each aspect of production to learn her craft, because a producer is responsible for it all going smoothly. “I think there is a huge bonus to learning on your feet. I did not study this in school. This was something I learned on set. You want to hire the best people doing their best job. And how do you find them? By working with them on set.” Now that she is a veteran producer, Hart loves seeing those she gave a start to moving up the ladder of success. “I look at some of the people who worked for me, whom I gave their first jobs in Hollywood, and now they are super successful. I’m so proud of them. They’re like my kids.” Hart believes it takes great followthrough to achieve longevity as a producer. “Follow-through is really, really important. You can submit a script and not follow through, and it could be somebody’s favorite script. You need to push a little bit, remind them, and then just keep going. Having tenacity, I think, is really important.” She also thinks having good taste, knowing what you like and don’t like, is key to producing. “Do you think that the audience is going to like this? It’s all about making choices. It’s knowing what you want to see on screen and having the best crew possible to help you see your vision.” Hart’s personal taste favors producing over directing, which she did on A Very Merry Toy Store. “Directing is not for me. I’d much rather be a producer. There are technical things in directing that I’m not educated enough about.” Hart also prefers TV over features, noting there are “fewer fingers in the pot.” She and her husband, Leslie Gilliams, finance their productions and have built a library of films that are now getting
Mother, daughter, partners: Paula Hart, p.g.a., and Melissa Joan Hart
renewals and going through renegotiation. One she’s most proud of getting the remake rights to was Disney’s Watcher in the Woods. It took her 17 years of asking every year for the rights and continually getting turned down. She finally asked a highly placed colleague to find out why. The reason was due to its being made so long ago that it was before everything was computerized—it was just too hard to track down all the paperwork! Well, Paula had the persistence, and that meant Melissa got to direct Angelica Huston in one of her favorite childhood movies. That spirit of never giving up and not being afraid of hearing no are what make Paula Hart the successful and prolific
producer she is today. “I just want to tell other producers not to give up. I didn’t know what I wanted to be until I was 36 years old. I love what I do. And I’m always looking for the next project. After the three movies we made this summer, I couldn’t wait to stop for a while. And now that Christmas is here, my mind is spinning. I have people pitching me ideas, and I can’t wait for the next job.” For now, you can find Paula Hart watching her all-time favorite Christmas movie, White Christmas, all by herself or enjoying Elf when her family is around. She’s earned that downtime. Along with the recognition of the PGA for “lots of years of hard work.”
Paula Hart Braved Pandemic Filming and Earns the First Producers Mark in Streaming Movies