Todd Lieberman on "Making It" in Film Through Confidence in Ignorance

Todd Lieberman is a partner and co-owner of Mandeville Films and was one of "Hollywood's 30 Most Powerful Producers" in 2015. His repertoire of films, which include Beauty and the Beast, The Fighter, and The Proposal, have grossed well over $1 billion domestically. His newest movie Stronger, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman, a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombings, is currently in theaters. Before graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1995, he was a member of The Mask and Wig Club, the nation's oldest collegiate all-male comedy troupe.

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Stories worth noting:

1) How Mask & Wig got him his first job in entertainment
2) How Todd decides which movie is "the golden nugget" to pick up
3) From spraying cologne and teaching Hebrew to “making it” in the industry

What first got you interested in media and entertainment? Did you come into Penn with that in mind?

Ever since I was a kid, I was always involved in theater doing plays and writing things and directing and producing. Simultaneously, I always loved movies. The first movie I ever saw in the movie theater was The Champ with Ricky Schroder and Jon Voight. It's a boxing movie, and that has a direct correlation to wanting to figure out how to do a boxing movie and finding the passion of a boxing movie. It was the first movie that I really remember seeing in the theater that I was like, "Holy cow, like, that's possible? Maybe that's a job that someone can do, and if those kids are doing it, why can't I do it?" — was the Goonies. It was this group of kids on this great adventure, and I was like "God, those kids at my age. They're doing — they're working in that movie. That's incredible!" It became the inspiration behind my movie, The Fighter.

Ultimately, that was really inspirational to me and I figured I wanted a career in that. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where film was not really a big industry back then. Also, at the time there was no internet so you didn't know how to navigate anything. So coming into Penn, I knew I always loved entertainment and I always loved theater and movies, but there weren't really film classes here. Now, fortunately, there's a lot of new film programming. Editor's note: Check out Penn's Cinema Studies (CIMS) department.

While I didn't formally study [film], I did find Mask and Wig, an on-campus comedy group. I had a great time with those guys - writing, directing, acting, singing — all that stuff. It was inspirational and there certainly is a direct correlation from that to figuring out a way to get to Los Angeles and the film business. The first real job that I ever had in Los Angeles was working as an assistant for a Mask and Wig guy ten years before me after meeting him at a Mask & Wig reunion. I spent an extraordinary amount of time in Mask and Wig and had a high level of dedication to it. It shaped and continued to cultivate my creative desires. Editor's note: Take a look at the Fall 1994 Mask & Wig show Todd was involved in, "Carpe Stouffer: Seize the Tray"!

But the movie business was always an enigma. I had no idea what I was going to do. Senior year of college, I moved to Los Angeles on a whim with some friends, and there you have it.

That's amazing. Since media studies at Penn at the time wasn't very developed, you ended up majoring in psychology, right? Was that a deliberate choice?

I wish I had a high-level answer to that question. The real answer is I don't remember, but it felt just like a way to get through school.

So you just wanted to focus on Mask and Wig and extracurriculars?

It wasn't even that I wanted to focus on Mask and Wig. Frankly, the one regret I have about my undergraduate experience is that I wish I had taken more classes. I wish I had taken advantage of the education that was offered here.

I still have an extreme interest in psychology. I think the human brain is fascinating but I never intended to be a psychologist. I really didn't know what I wanted to do, honestly. The idea of the movie business, of a career in entertainment, wasn't something that seemed accessible. It wasn't like I came from a family in entertainment or knew anyone that did it. I grew up in Cleveland. My dad was a dentist and my mom was a school teacher.

There wasn't a clear path to film so college was not only an amazing experience of meeting people that I still have longstanding relationships with, Mask and Wig, and the high level of education, but it was also a way of finding confidence in myself — knowing what I liked and didn't like, exploring different avenues so that by the time I got to senior year, I had the confidence to be able to give film a shot.

If you were to go back to young Todd and give yourself some advice on how to build this confidence and be more prepared, what would you say?

Two things. One is, I would get my hand on as many screenplays as possible and continually read. Plays and musicals are two-act structures. Movies are three-act structures. I wasn't familiar with that so it took me many years to cultivate my taste, know structures, and understand how characters worked within that. You should write at least ten scripts before you show them to anyone because you want to cultivate that skill set.

Had I known I had the resources to do it, I would have read the scripts for movies I liked and didn't like to learn both sides — to not only understand structure, character, and emotion but to also hone in on what I loved about a story and what my taste was.

Can you remember one moment that was just so powerful and so great about being a producer that you were like, "I just absolutely love where I am now"?

Oh boy. My favorite part of producing is the discovery of a story, finding that nugget that you emotionally connect with and saying - 'Oh my gosh, I really want to make others see this the way I see it' - and then unveiling that vision. There have been so many moments in which you sit in a room full of people and show them a film that you're really proud of and see them collectively get moved by the experience. There's nothing like it.

alt Is there a movie that most vividly stood out to you in that way?

Stronger is really emblematic of that. There's an extraordinary amount of emotion and uplift that comes from this movie. If I've seen a movie multiple times, I don't watch the screen anymore, I just watch the crowd. In a comedy, you know when something's working when you hear that uproar of laughter. For a movie like The Proposal, I think of times when you can't hear the lines because the laughter is so loud. For a movie like The Fighter, I think of that rousing third act and feeling the energy of the crowd. But in a drama, I'll look for someone wiping their eyes. In this particular movie, Stronger, there are multiple instances where you'll see hands go up to faces.

So on the flip side, what are some difficult moments you had as a producer?

The hard part about being a producer is that there isn't a specified job description. There isn't one particular thing that you are the best at so you have to know a little bit about everything.

The challenge as a producer is knowing when it's my turn to step in and change direction, while also having the confidence to step back and know that the process will figure itself out. It's like being the CEO of a mini-corporation.

It's managerial, but it's also very creative. It's no secret that there's a lot of personalities in the movie business, so my job involves balancing a lot of different opinions. It's my job to corral that and make sure that everyone feels good about the direction we're headed: everyone feels heard, no one feels ostracized, and we're kind of a big family unit of many people moving forward to a collective vision.

As a producer, you sometimes see tens or hundreds of scripts before you find the right one — the golden nugget. For you, how do you know?

I make decisions — this is going to sound really corny — with my gut and heart rather than my head. I never tend to intellectualize or analyze something. I truly go off of how it affects me. And that's really it. I guess people call that a gut check.

If I'm laughing, tearing up, or feeling inspired, that signals to me that I can't be the only one in the world who will feel that. That's kind of my barometer.

There are a lot of jobs that have very clear-cut paths. Film can be the complete opposite sometimes. How did you have the confidence to know that this is what you want to do?

I wish I could call it confidence. At that time [at Penn], it really was complete naïveté. I was just going in blindly and thought "oh, that sounds cool." Confidence in ignorance is what it was.

I love the brutal honesty. How did you navigate that first year in Los Angeles?

Not well.

I had about 18,000 different jobs. I was on a television series, I was spraying cologne, I was a bartender, I was a bouncer, I was teaching at a Hebrew school. I was doing all kinds of things that were all over the place. I just kind of figured my way out there.

I didn't even know what producing was, frankly. I just knew that somehow, somewhere I wanted to be involved in movies.

How did you keep yourself motivated?

You know, in retrospect, I suppose it should have been discouraging but it wasn't so. I remember very vividly just approaching it day-by-day rather than worrying about my long-term plans.

In the same way that I analyze scripts, the choices I make in my life either feel good or don't feel good. I know that if I didn't feel like I was doing the right thing, I would have done something else.

Lastly, if your life was a movie that you're producing, what are the two main scenes so far that made you who you are today?

Wow, a very philosophical question.

One is my decision to move to LA. Though at the moment, it didn't feel like such a big moment. It just felt like something I needed to do. But now, suddenly, I have a family, a wife and two kids, and consider LA my home. It's very strange for me to think that that is where I ended up.

The other one is the decision to go to Penn. The decision was a random one, in the same way that everything else seems to be. We were on a college tour on the East Coast, and my mom was the one who said we should stop at Penn. And I was like, "Ah, nah." But we were driving through on the way to Boston and so we stopped there anyway. I looked around the campus and I ended up meeting somebody who happened to be the Midwest Regional Director of Admissions. We sat and talked for two hours and in that moment, Penn became the place I was going to go.

That decision informed basically all the rest of my decisions — the confidence to do Mask and Wig and meet all these different people, which enabled the passion to go to Los Angeles to make movies, and you know the rest.

Editor’s Note: I was introduced to Todd by Matt Rosler, a former President of the Penn Club of Los Angeles and creator of Penntertainment, a community website for Penn students and alums interested in media & entertainment. Todd was hosting an advanced showing for his new movie, Stronger, when I introduced The Sign.al and our mission to him.

His story about not knowing what to do for years after graduating, working hundreds of odd jobs while still having faith that he was in the right place for the right career, was incredibly inspiring. So many students worry that they won’t have anything come senior year, but we forget to look past our narrow perspective. For Todd, it was never about the well-structured plan, but rather the hustle and luck of getting yourself in the fray and letting life happen.

Laura Gao

Aspiring designer, entrepreneur, writer and everything in between.

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