“A great man doesn’t seek to lead; he’s called to it.”
This is the line spoken by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) to his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) in “Dune,” Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s iconic science-fiction novel. But it also underscores the remarkable journey that Mary Parent, vice chairman of Worldwide Production for Legendary and one of the film’s producers, took to become one of the most successful and respected executives in Hollywood.
As its Oct. 22 release in the U.S. increases the gross of her projects to $4.7 billion, “Dune” marks her 16th credit as a theatrical film producer, culminating an eight-year journey for Parent, whom Variety is saluting as a billion-dollar producer, to bring the adaptation to the big screen, and more than 25 years of a career marked by adventuresome creativity, business savvy and a tenacious dedication to marrying the two.
“People have always fascinated me,” says Parent. “Characters have always fascinated me and being a part of making something and entertaining people and telling stories where we see ourselves and the world that we’re in, to me, it’s the most satisfying thing.”
This was true even before the Santa Barbara native entered the entertainment industry in the early 1990s; while building a modestly successful women’s fashion company after studying business at USC, Parent’s investors saw that her true passion lay elsewhere.
“One of them said to me, ‘all you ever do is talk about what movie you saw this weekend and how much you loved it,’ ” she recalls.
The only problem with changing careers was that Parent didn’t have any connections to the business. She didn’t even know where to start. But the one contact she did have encouraged her to take a job at a talent agency, a path that many moguls have followed in the industry. What immediately set Parent apart from her colleagues was a willingness to do the work in front of her without trying to anticipate the rewards that may lie ahead.
“A lot of people were trying to figure out how to get promoted quickly. I was like, ‘I just want to pour your water,’ ” she says. “I wanted to do work and learn the work and learn the craft.”
Parent eventually was hired as a creative executive at New Line Cinema, where she succeeded by scouring turnaround projects to find treasures, including Takashi Bufford and Kate Lanier’s script for “Set It Off,” and then “Big” screenwriter Gary Ross’ directorial debut “Pleasantville,” in other people’s trash.
“I was hunting in the turnaround project pile and Gary was someone I had admired as a writer,” she says. “I would keep a list of writers and directors and actors, people I wanted to be in business with, and Gary at the time was on that list. Both of those projects had incredible characters at the center of them.”
After ascending the New Line ranks to become a vice president, Parent was hired by then-chairman Stacey Snider to serve as a senior vice president at Universal.
“I thought, here’s an opportunity to take all the things that I’ve learned at New Line and really level up and get to work on a bigger playing field, not just bigger films, but more films,”
One of the earliest projects Parent shepherded through production was 2002’s “8 Mile,” the semi-autobiographical musical drama starring Eminem that went on to gross $242.9 million and earn an Oscar for the song “Lose Yourself.”
Scott Stuber, a friend and colleague during her New Line days who would later serve with her as Universal co-president of production and together launch the production shingle Stuber/Parent there in 2005, recalls how much he admired her dedication to the film, and her foresight in recognizing its dramatic potential.
“It was one of those movies that I think easily could have been dismissed,” Stuber says. “And Mary worked with [producer Brian Grazer] and [screenwriter Scott Silver] and they treated the material the way it should’ve been treated. I give Brian and Mary a ton of credit for knowing that there was more there than just taking advantage of someone who might be a celebrity, but there was real depth to his story and a real hero’s journey there that I think turned out to be a terrific film.”
Cultivating strong relationships became a superpower for Parent, who advocated on behalf of her former New Line colleague Donna Langley to join the team at Universal in 2001.
While acknowledging the huge impact Parent has made in her life, Langley says Parent’s greatest skill is the ease and confidence with which she navigates the creative and financial sides of
“She’s a classical rounder,” says Langley. “She’s fearless, she’s got the courage of her convictions, and I think she has great taste. Mary can operate a business as well as she can make a movie. She can greenlight movies as well as she can get out on a set and physically make them. So she’s got a pretty unique skillset.”
After spearheading “8 Mile,” Parent would nurture Judd Apatow through his feature debut 2005’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” not just paving the way for a partnership with the filmmaker that continues today, but also setting off a string of successful comedies over the next few years at Universal including “The Break-Up,” “You, Me and Dupree,” and “Role Models.”
Her ascent would continue in 2008 when MGM hired her as chairman and co-CEO, a stint that proved short-lived thanks to the studio’s crippling debts, but galvanized Parent to what she really wanted to be doing.
“At that point, all I wanted to do was go back to straight producing,” she says. “And that’s when I made my deal at Paramount.”
The studio signed a first look deal in 2011 for her new imprint, Disruption Entertainment. By then Parent had been in the business for more than 15 years and had collected impeccable bona fides at virtually every level of production. It’s no surprise that big-name filmmakers practically lined up to work with her — Guillermo del Toro (“Pacific Rim”), Darren Aronofsky (“Noah”), and in 2015, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, whose punishing tale of frontier survival, “The Revenant,” she joined halfway through production to get it back on track.
“The first time that I sat with her, immediately I realized that I was not dealing with an ordinary producer,” Iñárritu says. “The most surprising thing that impressed was the weight and the depth of her understanding of the nature of this story. She never was focused first on economic or the logistical or political things. Her whole being was focused on how all of this made sense emotionally to the journey, and how it really affected the dramatic tension and the internal flow of the story.”
Parent would go on to help Iñárritu find a way to safely create rapids in Los Angeles (“in the middle of the desert,” he points out) that matched the early 1800s Dakotas landscape Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was navigating. After losing the snow while shooting in Canada, Parent helped to successfully stage the film’s final battle six months later in Argentina — in the middle of summer. Her tireless efforts led Iñárritu to his second Academy Award in as many years for directing, and DiCaprio his first lead actor Oscar after five previous nominations.
“Working with Mary is an actor’s dream,” DiCaprio says. “‘The Revenant’ shoot was over 80 days, across three countries, in some of the most extreme weather. Mary got us through one of the most difficult shoots. She is a formidable force who brings incredible passion and clarity to her projects, and I value our collaboration.”
The film netted her first Oscar nomination, for best picture, but again, the eventual rewards proved less important to her than helping a filmmaking achieve his vision.
“It’s a great honor, but what drives me is really the process and making things,” she insists. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s wonderful. But I’m not singularly chasing one thing. I just want to tell great stories of all different sizes and shapes, and I love working with some of the best artists in the world.”
After five years with Disruption Entertainment, Parent signed up to serve as vice chairman of worldwide production for Legendary Pictures, the media company that helped make several of her biggest commercial hits to date, including “Pacific Rim” and “Godzilla.” One of her first official efforts there was “Carne y Arena,” a virtual reality project that reunited her with Iñárritu, and received the first Special Achievement Academy Award in more than 20 years.
“I think without Mary, that project would have never gotten made,” the director says. “That was very scary because we were trying to solve things with [Industrial Light and Magic] that even now are very difficult, but four years ago were almost impossible. And she never quit.
“Once she believes in something, she does not stop, and she finds a way to make it happen.”
Meanwhile, “Dune” was first adapted for film in 1984 by David Lynch, and its colossal failure at the box office became an admonition for decades against trying to bring novelist Frank Herbert’s source material to the big screen.
Parent, however, took the same unhurried approach to adapting what she calls “one of the most seminal, philosophical, spiritual, ecological works that exists today” that she has with the rest of her career, first initiating a discussion about it with fellow producer Alex Garcia on the set of Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla,” and in fact selling the rights to Legendary a few years before joining
“It was in May of 2013 that we had our sort of first official meeting about it,” she says. “I can be a bit relentless and a bit of a dog with a bone, so when I sink my teeth into something and I really believe in something or really believe in somebody, failure’s not an option.”
Parent had already wanted to work with director Villeneuve when she read that he’d been dreaming of making a film of “Dune” since he was 14.
“That’s always part of the process, going after the dream people that you want to be involved in projects, and it can be a long process,” she says. “And that has never happened to me before. Probably will never happen again. But it would be hard to envision making ‘Dune’ without somebody like Denis, because it’s a hugely challenging piece.”
Villeneuve says Parent’s knowledge of the project throughout its development not only gave him the confidence to make bold choices — including making it two parts — but challenged him to resist settling into creative comfort zones.
“Those are the best relationships for a director,” he says. “You want a producer that will protect your vision, that will respect your vision, and that will embrace your vision, but that will always also push you.
“I came to Mary saying, ‘I think we need to do two parts,’ and spontaneously she said, ‘you’re right,’” he continues. “There was no discussion. I didn’t have to convince her. She’s a very grounded human being, like a rock. And I always, always, always felt that she deeply respected my vision, that when I wanted something, she really protected and embraced it. And it’s one of the reasons maybe that this movie is so close to me, because I was able to express myself completely freely.”
“Dune” was one of Parent’s two films whose release date was thrown into limbo by the pandemic; the other was “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which became a bellwether for the resilience of the entertainment industry in early 2021 when its simultaneous release in theaters and on HBO Max went on to generate $467 million worldwide. Villenueve’s film follows the same release pattern in accordance with Warner Bros.’ deal with the streaming service for its 2021 film lineup. With not just its own box office prospects but also the fate of an equally costly second part in question, Legendary CEO Josh Grode says Parent has shown uncommon nimbleness as the company — and indeed
the whole world — adjusts to what has become “the new normal” for communal gatherings including moviegoing.
“In the face of a changed the box office future that is for many companies an existential question, she has been an absolute partner in answering those questions on a creative level,” Grode says.
“There was an openness and a willingness to engage and embrace in what this business is becoming at the same time maintaining an absolute respect for the creators and the creative process. And for a senior executive who’s at the height of her powers to look at a new business model and say, ‘OK, how do we adjust, how do we position for the future and not lose sight of what’s important’ is very special.”
From the London set of “Enola Holmes 2,” a sequel to the 2020 film by director Harry Bradbeer that became Netflix’s seventh most viewed film ever, Parent spotlights a busy upcoming slate for Legendary, including “Fresh,” a thriller helmed by first-time director Mimi Cave; “Brothers,” a “comedy through the lens of a caper heist” starring Peter Dinklage, Josh Brolin and Glenn Close for director Max Barbakow (“Palm Springs”); and a reimagining of the cult 1984 film “The Toxic Avenger” also starring Dinklage and written and directed by Macon Blair.
Summarizing her presence and her impact in the business, Langley says that you need only to glance at her resume to see the effect she has made on the past 25 years of moviemaking.
“I think when you look at her career, her longevity says it all,” Langley says. “She has been in this industry for quite some time, and yet it still feels like she’s got so much more to do.”
But after everything she’s already done, Parent says that her ambitions remain focused on the process, while she lets the results speak for themselves.
“I think that I’m good at finding things that I really believe in, or people that I really believe in, and figuring out how to move those down, getting them made, and hopefully creating an environment where people can do their best work,” Parent says. “It can be a long and challenging process and like anything, it can have its ups and downs. Each film is different, each filmmaker’s different, and there are different challenges that come to play. At any given moment, there’s an obstacle in your path. Hopefully what I do is see those obstacles and figure out how to remove them.”