Women's Impact Report: Exceptional Execs

Linda Benjamin likes boxing. She doesn’t box but used to represent boxers. So the exec VP for business and legal affairs at Relativity Media is particularly keen on “The Fighter,” one of Relativity’s own films coming out in December.

“One of the boxers I represented was training in Big Bear to fight (Oscar) De La Hoya, and I’d go up to watch him work out,” Benjamin recalls. “Then for fun I’d put on the gloves and get in the ring. But one little tap from these guys and you’re on the floor.”

Relativity, which burst on the scene in 2004 and began drumming up huge amounts of cash, has taken its knocks too, from rivals, in the press. But more recently, as the economy tanked, wallets snapped shut and others threw in the towel, Relativity has stayed the course, and founder Ryan Kavanaugh and his team — including Robbie Brenner, exec VP of production; Shannon Gaulding, senior VP, production; and Julie Link, senior VP, development for RelativityReal, the company’s newly minted TV division — have gained newfound respect.

They’re among few in Hollywood just now who can still raise dough: for slate deals, or for their growing inhouse film division.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I joined the company,” says Benjamin, who has been there two years. “I have been pleasantly surprised. It’s an adventure.”

“I think Relativity’s strength is in its team,” she adds. “Everybody starts every day asking how can we move this vision forward? How do we make smart decisions? How do we take calculated risks? It takes a lot of people to watch all of the angles.”

Benjamin, a former chief operating officer of Intermedia Film, works on the single picture business, movies the company makes on its own. “Brothers,” a Lionsgate release, was the first. “Dear John,” distributed by Sony’s Screen Gems, was the hit that knocked “Avatar” from first place at the box office.

The company plans to release six to eight films a year with budgets of $20 million-$60 million.

She also oversees Relativity’s music operation and helps out with TV, including an international distribution pact with Sony Pictures Television inked last spring.

This summer, the company made two major deals. It agreed to license its films to Netflix to stream to its subscribers during the traditional pay-TV window. Benjamin calls that deal a “game changer.”

Relativity also took over the distribution and marketing operations and some assets of Overture Films.

Robbie Brenner, exec VP of production who joined the company in May 2009, likens the vibe of Relativity Media to that of Miramax, where she spent eight years. “Our work spans the spectrum from unique films such as ‘Catfish’ to filmmaker-driven movies like ‘The Fighter’ to epic tales like ‘Immortals.’ ”

The last title, a 3D adventure about the Greek warrior Theseus, is directed by Tarsem Singh and will be released in November 2011. “There are so many closed doors right now,” says Brenner “and Ryan and (president of worldwide production) Tucker (Tooley) are saying yes.”

Gaulding spent 11 years at Sony, where she helped oversee production on “Dear John,” based on a book by Nicholas Sparks, which grossed more than $112 million worldwide. She learned how that kind of movie served a female audience, a segment growing in power and recognition.

Relativity recently won a bidding war for Sparks’ latest novel, “Safe Haven,” now in development. “Nicholas Sparks writes stories that resonate for women in Middle America,” says Gaulding. “They see in his characters the best in themselves and connect deeply with that. It gives them something to take home.”

Gaulding grew up in a farming family in Missouri and Tennessee, and her background influences her sensibilities about films, but also how she approaches her work. “I learned on a farm to work cooperatively,” she says. “Oddly enough, the farming approach of everyone working together was perfectly suited for the collaborative effort required in filmmaking.”

Link came aboard in 2008 with Tom Forman, for whom she worked for 10 years at Endemol USA and then Forman Prods.

With more than 20 shows in the pipeline, Real is known for its reality programming, with 90% of the company’s projects unscripted, although the TV arm is increasingly pursuing scripted programming as well.

The Texas native is especially proud of the “Police Women” series on TLC, about female officers working in a man’s world while juggling kids, husbands and boyfriends. “Those women remind me every day that you can have a great career and a life and don’t have to choose between them,” says Link.

Concludes Benjamin: “This is as exciting a time as ever to be involved in the entertainment business, particularly with respect to the ways people can both make and experience content on such a personal level. We get to create business and creative paradigms that were unimaginable a few years ago. What could be better than that?”

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