Lori McCreary Learned How to Pivot Early. Then She Met Morgan Freeman

Four years ago, Revelations Entertainment CEO Lori McCreary saw the writing on the wall: the funding for the meaningful mid-budget films she and company co-founder Morgan Freeman favored was drying up. Friend and fellow producer Mark Gordon suggested she consider television, so she set up a lunch meeting with then-CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler. She had no projects to pitch, only questions about what to do. Tassler told her to find a person or place that viewers could spend 100 hours with, then get back to her.

Initially, McCreary was at a loss. It was hard enough to find a character sufficiently interesting to warrant a 90-minute film. Then she saw Hillary Clinton’s forceful reaction to the controversy surrounding the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, and she had her answer. It would be a series loosely inspired by Clinton and the two other women who’ve served as U.S. Secretary of State (Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice). The result was “Madam Secretary,” created by Barbara Hall and starring Tea Leoni, now in its fourth season on CBS.

Like McCreary’s other Revelations projects, “Madam Secretary” strives — and succeeds — to be a popular entertainment that explores challenging, socially relevant issues. And the path McCreary took to bring it to the screen is consistent with her history of jumping in head first, asking tough questions and seeking out new solutions.

It started with her first film, the 1993 adaptation of the Percy Mtwa play “Bopha!” She had been struggling to bring the anti-apartheid drama to the big screen since 1986. After six years, it was finally set to go at Paramount with Freeman directing and Danny Glover in the lead. But, at the time, McCreary was a computer programmer who had never made a film, and they were going to be shooting in Zimbabwe, working with as many as 500 extras.

“I was told by all these producers that Paramount was never going to send me to Africa to make a movie,” recalls McCreary. “They’re going to put a real producer on it.”

But when McCreary was called into a meeting with a Paramount exec, she came armed with her Compaq portable computer, equipped with an early DOS version of Movie Magic budgeting and scheduling software.

“He said, ‘You have too many grips, cut it down by seven’ and, not knowing what a grip was, I did control-search-grip, changed it to the number he was asking, and said, ‘we’ll save this much money,’’’ recalls McCreary. “Because I knew the computer, I could tell him all these things, so they just gave me the benefit of the doubt that I would know what to do on set, which was very generous.”

Her nimble response wasn’t a fluke. It was the product of years of technological-creative cross-training.

Growing up in Antioch, Calif., 45 miles northeast of San Francisco, McCreary dreamed of one day opening her own theater. She began working in local stage productions at the Storyland Theater at the age of 8, and by the time she entered Antioch High School, she was a veritable stage vet, tasked with running the cutting-edge computerized lighting board in its new state-of-the-art theater.

“The first show I designed with it, the computer didn’t turn on on opening night, and I was like, ‘I have to learn this thing called computers,’” says McCreary.

McCreary wanted to double major in computer science and theater at UCLA, but, forced to choose one or the other, she picked the former, figuring she already had a wealth of stage experience. While at UCLA, she co-founded the software company CompuLaw. It was a success, but, a few years out of college, she decided she didn’t want to spend her whole life helping lawyers bill more effectively.

After seeing “Bopha!” at the National Theater in London, she and a partner took out an option on the play, and McCreary’s Hollywood journey began.

In the years since, McCreary has kept up with the cutting edge of entertainment technology, often dragging her peers along with her. In 2005, Revelations partnered with chip maker Intel on its Digital Home initiative, designed to educate the industry about the coming wave of tech and the potential for secure streaming content distribution. In 2006, she and Freeman put those theories into practice, co-founding the internet movie distribution company ClickStar, which was the first to offer legal streaming of a movie (the Freeman-starrer “10 Items or Less”) while it was still in theaters.

In 2009, she had Revelations fund a side-by-side comparison test of seven digital cameras to educate the industry on the capabilities of each system. And as president of the Producers Guild of America with Gary Lucchesi since 2014, she’s been active in anti-piracy efforts.

“Lori has been way ahead of the curve on everything,” marvels Gordon. “She has her finger on the pulse.”

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