Guild boosts membership with practical approach

The PGA East, little sibling to the Producers Guild of America, has undergone a remarkable growth spurt in recent years, tripling its ranks to nearly 300 active members.

While it remains a tiny organization lacking the big-name clout of the PGA and other West Coast film and TV organizations, the PGA has big plans for its New York-based offshoot. Executive director Vance Van Petten believes it can be the cornerstone for the organization’s overall growth, predicting it will reach 1,000 members in a relatively short period of time.

Such ambition requires strong leadership, a cohesive vision and, Van Petten says, a very active and hands-on approach. Leadership was put in place in the summer and has promised more activity this year.

“They’re doing a really good job in terms of events and seminars,” says Kit Golden, a producer on “Chocolat” who joined the PGA East in 2004. “They have a really good balance in the type of events.”

Nancy Goldman headed up the first burst of expanded activity, pumping up numbers in part by developing seminars, screening programs and a job forum as well as offering membership discounts to attract new faces.

But Van Petten says that that to reach the next level, Goldman felt the org needed a high-profile name and deep connections to independent film.

“Nancy had built a viable organization but knew she was not able to tap into the independent film community enough,” he says, adding that Goldman, who remains on the board of governors of the Associate Producers Council, was very involved in recruiting candidates for the summer elections.

“The heart and soul of the independent film community is in New York and in 2005 we need to successfully identify ourselves as the voice of that community. We can’t make that claim right now,” says Van Petten.

The PGA found what it wanted in its triumvirate at the top. The new chairman is David Picker, who provides the clout Van Petten had hoped for. As a top executive at United Artists, Paramount and Columbia, he was involved in projects ranging from “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Last Tango in Paris” to “Saturday Night Fever” and “Ordinary People.”

“He has the experience and the name and he has done it all,” Van Petten says.

The vice chairs, Lydia Dean Pilcher and Harvey Wilson, have experience that goes to the core of the New York production community. Pilcher, the president of Cine Mosaic, is a veteran of the indie film scene (she just produced “Vanity Fair”) and Wilson has spent a quarter-century producing television.

Picker, who “wants to give something back to the profession,” says the new leadership is still creating guidelines and goals but that they will strive to run the PGA East in a way that emphasizes the differences in the New York community.

One obvious difference is that the Gotham group is much smaller; Picker and Pilcher believe it is essential to team up with others to get things done.

Pilcher, with members Dick Wolf and Jane Rosenthal, joined other groups from television and film last year testifying before the City Council in the successful push for tax incentives for filming in New York.

And, Pilcher adds, the PGA East helped by making it clear this would lead to jobs for all New Yorkers. “We are not a very diverse industry but diversity is a huge priority for the PGA so we told the council we will work together to develop diversity programs,” she says.

Picker points to a recent seminar in new media that the organization co-sponsored with the Television Academy that drew more than 100 people.

“We have to pick and choose other groups to give us a broader ability to communicate,” he says.

Pilcher says East Coast producers would be “interested more in the broader agendas, in having their positions voiced collectively,” whether in negotiating with government or with local studios or in finding ways to work together with other parts of the local film community.

So PGA East is looking for other seminars in the spring on topics of particular interest to the New York production community, ranging from children’s television to equity financing for independent film.

It’s crucial to find the right topic and to do effective outreach, Picker says. “In California if you have an event people will come but in New York there are a lot more things going on.”

Still, the enthusiasm seems to be there — Picker says that after a “Finding Neverland” screening the Q&A with the producers lasted over an hour.

Indeed, whatever their reasons for joining, newer members cite the Q&As as central to the guild’s appeal. “If you want to talk about the aesthetics of a film there are other places you can do that, but here they talk about the process of putting a movie together,” says Wei Ling Chang, who joined last year after finding out about the guild from a friend.

Chang, a film and TV producer who previously worked on the studio side for Miramax and Metropolitan Films, is a typical New Yorker in that she was window shopping and lured in by a sale. She had begun looking at the guild’s Web site and noticed the discounts for new memberships so she signed on, hoping to “meet people and be part of the New York film community. On the East Coast you can feel kind of alone in the film community.”

Chang plunged in, attending seminars and workshops even if the topics weren’t of particular interest to her, looking for ways to learn more and get to know other members. She was so enthusiastic that the board invited her to become chair of the events committee, helping to plan for the guild’s future growth.

Kit Golden came in via a different route but also finds the screenings are a central part of the appeal. Her entree is also a typical New York story — it revolves around real estate.

The producer was drawn in by a membership drive party that “Oz” creator Tom Fontana hosted.

“It was at his fabulous New York apartment and I think everyone who was there went because they wanted to see the apartment,” she says.

There she found it a pleasant surprise “to be in a room with people who know what a producer really is and who can talk about how hard it is to get a movie made.”

She says she goes to screenings of movies she wouldn’t ordinarily see, like the recent “Harry Potter” film, “because the people involved are so open about how they got their money and how they got their movie made.”

She adds that the networking aspect for her is appealing not because she might meet someone who could be a job connection but because she might meet someone who could have a source for film finance.

Golden is further along in her producer career than newer members like Chang, and Picker says one major goal is expanding membership to reach people just starting out.

“That’s easier in New York and we want to encourage people who haven’t quite made it yet and have them grow up in the guild,” he says. The board is still sorting out how to draw in these people (he points to new media as one area of interest), how to make it affordable and how to define the qualifications for membership. One possibility, he says, is reaching out to the city’s film schools.

But Picker plans to do something dramatic, something splashy.

“We want to have an annual PGA East event, perhaps working with one other organization, that pays tribute to something done creatively here,” he says.

“We want to expose people to the things we do in here in the East.”

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