From legal ace to movie maker
Every good movie needs a few plot twists, and film producer Zola Marshariki has embraced that storyline strategy often, especially in her own career. She grew up in Brooklyn—her mother was a manager at IBM’s Brooklyn plant, and her father ran a college bookstore and started an organization to provide services for Vietnam veterans. At one point, Marshariki wanted to be an obstetrician. “I loved the idea of helping bring new lives into the world safely,” she says.
“I guess metaphorically that is still what I do.”
At Dartmouth, she first studied Japanese (“I was great at the written language but my pronunciation was horrible”) and then got on track to become an attorney. She went on to Harvard Law School and worked as a corporate attorney for Proskauer Rose LLP in New York and then Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP in Los Angeles. Just when the credits could have started rolling for her happily ever after, Marshariki made a 180-degree turn when she decided to break into show business in 2000. She started at the bottom of the heap as an intern at Fox. “Most people thought I was crazy,” she admits.
That gamble paid off, though. Now the senior vice president of production at Fox Searchlight Pictures in Los Angeles, Marshariki has brought to the screen over the past 14 years such features as Antwone Fisher, starring and directed by Denzel Washington; The Secret Life of Bees; and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a hit that earned more than $135 million worldwide. She’s also behind the sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold
Hotel, due out in March 2015. In 2010, she joined the faculty at the University of Southern California to teach advanced producing to graduate students in the School of Cinematic Arts.
Marshariki spoke with Diversity Woman about rolling the dice on a new career, how her lawyering chops translate into show biz, and rethinking movie marketing for a diverse audience.
Diversity Woman: Where did you get your acting and theater bug? Were you a ham as a kid, or a natural leader?
Zola Marshariki: I was very shy as a child but came out of my shell in high school. I had always loved reading plays, but the theater bug hit me when I went to college. A friend convinced me to try out for a play with him, and I got cast as one of the leads in Spell #7 by Ntozake Shange [the poet and playwright who also wrote For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf]. It was being directed by an upperclassman, Shonda Rhimes [who later became the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal]. She pushed me really hard, but I fell in love with the arts and took over the student theater when she graduated from Dartmouth.
DW: Why didn’t you pursue the arts as a career after that?
ZM: I knew when I was at Dartmouth that I loved entertainment, but I didn’t think there was a career to be had. So I applied to law school in an attempt to delay having to decide on a career. While I was in law school, I applied to USC’s prestigious Peter Stark Producing Program. In Hollywood, it’s the equivalent of obtaining an MBA in film. I thought if I could combine my creative interests with my legal background, I would be an asset. I practiced law in New York City before moving to LA and attending USC. A few years into my law career, I knew I needed to make the leap, or I would never pursue my passion to work in film.
DW: When you jumped careers, did most people around you think you were nuts, or did they cheer you on?
ZM: They thought I was crazy. At that time I had never taken a film course, but I really loved cinema and knew that I wanted to pursue a producing career.
DW: People think of a movie producer as the person sitting behind the desk who gives the green light on projects and holds the purse strings. What are some aspects of your job that people don’t realize?
ZM: I didn’t know my job even existed before I got to Hollywood. I think people don’t realize how important it is to have a creative executive. It’s like having a book editor: every director and writer needs someone they trust who will help them shape their vision. Knowing a story, knowing how to cast a film, knowing how to write notes and how to communicate that something could be better—while not offending a writer who has put his or her heart on the page—these are some of the things I do.
DW: How has your law career and background helped you in the film world? Beyond the legal expertise, what skills have crossed over, and what new skills did you need to develop?
ZM: I no longer practice law, but I know that jurisprudence is tremendously beneficial—identifying all angles of a situation and figuring out the fairest solution. My law degree really helped in the communications department, too. But I have had to develop a whole host of new skills: learning how to tell a good story, to communicate with agents and lawyers, to motivate the team, and to build long-lasting relationships while not overstepping boundaries.
DW: Today, what kinds of movies and stories inspire you? How do you discern between what excites you and what will sell to a wide audience? ZM: I love stories about people overcoming challenges—finding a way when it appears that there is no way out. I love true stories, too. They’re challenging to adapt, but truly rewarding and inspirational.
I think about the audience every step of the way and just try to make movies that audiences want to see. I look for universal themes, as they are relatable. It’s important to find specific, new, and unique ways of expressing and sharing stories.
DW: What would you like to see change in the development or marketing of films about African Americans?
ZM: I would love to see different kinds of stories told: there are dramas and comedies and thrillers and period pieces that need to be made. And I’d love the marketing to reflect the diversity within the African American community. Someone once said to me, “My black is not your black,” and I realized it is so true.
DW: How have you tried to diversify the marketing, or broaden the reach, of one of your projects?
ZM: The Secret Life of Bees is a great example. We had three Academy Award nominees—and one winner, Jennifer Hudson—and a pop icon, Alicia Keys. With the absolute “top talent” in our cast, we were able to broaden the film’s appeal.
DW: What advice do you give people who want to break into the entertainment business?
ZM: There are a multitude of careers in entertainment, so don’t just focus on being an actor, writer, or director. There are editors, cinematographers, line producers, production managers, and more. All of those people influence how the material turns out. Find something you love and are good at, and pursue it!
DW: What was your first job, as a teen, and what did you get out of it?
ZM: I worked for my dad in his college bookstore. The worst thing about it was that I didn’t really get paid, but I was surrounded by free books! I read everything I could get my hands on. I always had my nose stuck in a book, which made me so happy. Storytelling is still what I believe in. DW