Episode 1 - From Harvard to Hollywood: A Conversation with Debra Martin Chase

Redefiners Podcast
Hosted By:
September 21, 2021 | 31 min
Debra Martin Chase
President and CEO of Martin Chase Productions

“Hollywood finally realized that diversity, both from a racial and a gender perspective, was good business. Once they realized that, the doors went wide open.”

Debra Martin Chase grew up talking about TV and movies around the dinner table, but noticed that few of the characters she saw on screen resembled her. After attending Harvard Law and practicing in corporate firms for a few years, she made the pivot to Hollywood producer.

As one of the industry’s first African-American female producers to have a deal with a major studio, Debra shares anecdotes and insights on how she became the name behind some of TV and film’s most popular titles, and how she then uses her influence as a board member and mentor to help women and people of color thrive in the industry and beyond.

Here’s a taste of what you’ll hear from Debra in this episode, in her words (edited for length and clarity):

Debra’s Redefiner Moment: Breaking in, and breaking out
I was a really good lawyer, but I was not happy and I knew that it was not my calling. Finally I said, "If not now, never." I realized that I wanted to come up with stories and help shape the narrative. That was either a studio or network executive or outside producer. Then I had a goal to work towards.

I spent a year while I was still working as a lawyer talking to anybody who would talk to me about how things worked, going to seminars, reading Variety and Hollywood Reporter every day. One day I sat next to Frank Price, the Chairman at Columbia Pictures, at a program luncheon. He told me he was developing a book that was set at Harvard. We talked about my ideas and a couple of months later, he asked me to be his Executive Assistant. That was my big break. I went with him to all of his meetings, read scripts for him, and I got to ask whatever questions I wanted. He really wanted me to learn.

I made up my mind that I was going to succeed. I know that sounds a little naive, even in retrospect, but it's true. You have to make up your mind that within your own moral parameters, you are willing to work harder, be better and not give up to succeed. I made that commitment to myself.

The next big moment came about six years ago. The business had changed. Everybody who had a stake in my success was long gone. I realized that by definition, if everything's the same for that long, something's wrong.

For me as a producer, what was important was finding stories that I believed in and then figuring out what was the best platform for them. I looked at the changing landscape and then I made this big shift to TV, not to give up on movies, but to change the emphasis of my business. And equally if not more important, Hollywood finally realized that diversity, both from a racial and a gender perspective, was good business. Once they realized that, the doors went wide open.

On turning a difference into an advantage
I had already realized that when you walk in a room and you stand out, you can use that to your advantage. This became even more useful in Hollywood when I would often be the only Black person and the only woman in the room. The first time you open your mouth, people listen because they're curious. So you have to be smart and strategic. Once people see that you’re not what they expected, they will listen to you.

On D&I in Hollywood and building a talent pipeline
Progress is definitely happening in Hollywood. It's a combination of wanting different stories to be told and finally understanding that people who have a connection with the stories are the best people to tell them. Women and people of color have been given opportunities and have really delivered. You want to support them and you want them to win, because failure sets the whole thing back.

We try to build people up in our crew so that we have a pipeline. Maybe they can't run the department now, but with two years of experience, they can come forward and take on more responsibility or go somewhere else and use their talents there.

On what she would tell her 18-year-old self
Keep moving forward. It took me a while to learn that. When you're younger, you get depressed about things or you hold onto things longer than you should. Just keep moving forward with purpose.

On the theme that runs through her career
The theme that runs through most of my work is that you have the power to change your life, to determine what your life will be. When I talk about The Princess Diaries or my film Harriet, it’s about an ordinary person faced with extraordinary circumstances who finds the courage within themselves to change their life and in doing so, to change the world.



Debra Martin Chase
President and CEO of Martin Chase Productions

Debra Martin Chase is an entertainment industry icon and trailblazer as the first African American female producer to have a deal at any major studio—EVER. She is also the first African American woman to produce a film that grossed over $100 million. To date, her films have grossed over a half billion dollars at the box office.

Chase’s work has garnered Academy Award, Emmy Award, NAACP Image Award and Peabody Award nominations. Her company, Martin Chase Productions, currently has an overall deal with Universal Television, a division of the NBCUniversal Television Group and previously had one with The Walt Disney Company from 2001 to 2016. Prior to that, Chase ran Whitney Houston’s BrownHouse Productions from 1995 to 2000 and Mundy Lane Entertainment, Denzel Washington’s production company, from 1992 to 1995.

She currently executive produces THE EQUALIZER TV series starring Queen Latifah for Universal Television and CBS that premiered on Super Bowl Sunday 2021 on CBS. Her most recent film via her Martin Chase Productions banner is HARRIET, starring Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo. Chase has produced three beloved multi-film franchises—THE PRINCESS DIARIES, THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS and THE CHEETAH GIRLS as well as SPARKLE, JUST WRIGHT, COURAGE UNDER FIRE and THE PREACHER’S WIFE.

Her television credits include RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN’S CINDERELLA, Lifetime’s MISSING, Disney Channel’s original musical LEMONADE MOUTH, HANK AARON: CHASING THE DREAM, LOVESTRUCK and ZOE EVER AFTER.

Chase graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude from Mount Holyoke College and the Harvard Law School. Prior to entering the entertainment industry, Chase practiced law at several major law firms and Fortune 500 companies in New York City and Houston.

Chase serves on the board of directors for B & G Foods, Inc., the boards of the New York City Ballet and Second Stage Theatre and the advisory boards of the African American Film Critics’ Association and The Mayor’s Fund of New York City and co-chairs the Athena Film Festival. She is also a member of both The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

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