Native Angeleno April Shih is not only a TV writer for “Dave” and WGA Award winner for “Mrs. America” — she is now on location with Season 5 of “Fargo” — but she’s an avid poker player.
You can tell that by the way she is willing to take on risk. After tiring of making shorts, she put in two years earning no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em poker money in Las Vegas. Her poker pilot script launched her lucrative writing career, thanks in part to Jen Goyne Blake, who selected that script at the 2017 Sundance Episodic Lab, which Blake ran for six years.
The two women are inspired by a new way of producing projects that combines the Duplass’ brothers’ DIY aesthetic and the mentoring wisdom of Sundance workshops. As Shih was closing an overall deal for Diversity Hire at FX and Hulu, she brought in Blake and expanded the company’s footprint to include producing, developing, acquiring, and financing independent features from diverse filmmakers.
I first met the two women on the terrace at The Grand in Cannes last May, before their first film, Saim Sadiq’s “Joyland,” won the jury prize at Un Certain Regard, became a hit on the global festival circuit, became the first Pakistani film to make the Oscar shortlist, scored at the UK and French box office, and played New Directors/New Films before Oscilloscope opened the film in New York (April 7), to be followed by Los Angeles and other cities.
The two women were overwhelmed and excited by their first Cannes. “Joyland” marked a huge learning curve. “So we had set up a few TV projects,” Shih told IndieWire. “But we’ve always loved film. I wanted to be a filmmaker myself. So let’s expand into the feature area. We were developing a couple of feature ideas, but we know how slow that process is, right? I mean, it could be 10 years.”
After meeting Shih in Vegas, poker player and distributor-turned-consultant Steven Friedlander brought “Joyland” to Diversity Hire, who loved the script so much they agreed to invest in it. “It’s not that much [money] in the larger scheme of things for indie film finance,” said Blake, “but for us, that’s money that could be going to option books or me buying a house. It was a final push to get this thing into production. We met the filmmaker and saw his short film, and it felt like a no-brainer.”
During the pandemic, while Shih’s writing was going well, she did some soul-searching and asked herself, “‘What does the bigger picture look like for me?’ Because this is great, but I felt like there was a bigger purpose that was building a community of artists, and uplifting other voices and using my advantageous platform as a lucky working writer to help tell other stories as well. A production company felt like the smartest thing to do.”
April Shih, Jen Goyne Blake
Meanwhile, Blake was also asking how she could transition from helping writers at the Sundance Labs. “Is there another way I can be of service to artists in the industry?” she asked. “A lot of the fellows that I was supporting were selling projects and getting staffed, but in terms of getting a series to the final finish line, there was a real stopgap.”
Blake and Shih decided to pool their resources and try to help mid-level writers develop and push completed projects over the hump. When Shih was negotiating her overall deal with Hulu and FX, she figured the money was enough to cover their overhead for the first couple of years. She asked her agents, “Can we pivot this into a podcast deal and production deal?” And that they did.
Since Diversity Hire closed that deal in January 2021, they’ve set up a dozen television shows, tapping into their stock pot of friends (including executive producers Miranda July and Alma Har’el) and Blake’s knowledge of Sundance talent. “I have all these untapped voices that I believe in already,” said Shih.
As far as seeking diversity in their selections, Shih and Blake ask the question: Is this a story that needs to be told? One of their hard comedies is a rom-com about a disabled man. The half-hour TV series set up at FX, “Mature Adult Stuff,” is based on a true story about a woman about to end a relationship with a man in a dead-end job until he suffers a stroke. They wind up married.
Diversity Hire spent some of the deal money on taking writers on curated retreats to kick off their project. The two producers roll up their sleeves with a whiteboard and help the writer break the story.
“What pushes a project over the line is surrounding the artist with monetary or personnel support,” said Shih. “And writers who get that support are typically writers who are more experienced, they tend to be a certain demographic, the ones the studios are willing to take a chance on by giving them a pilot or a writers room to figure out what their show is — while more marginalized communities, the newer voices, aren’t given those resources or opportunities. Shooting a pilot is so invaluable to get something on its feet and figure out what a show is. They’re not given the room or support. We’re doing all we can from our end. It’s not like we have development money. We’re taking money out of our own pockets to be in the room together, break story, figure out what the show is. So they usually feel good about what the pilot and the series is as they go out to write.”
So far, FX hasn’t greenlit any shows, though they commissioned some things they eventually passed on that Diversity Hire can take elsewhere. To sell one show, instead of sending it out or pitching it, Diversity Hire mounted a stage reading of two half-hour episodes at their agency UTA with a professional cast for buyers “to demonstrate the tone,” said Shih, “like a pilot, right?” Although they didn’t sell the show, they learned that they want to turn it into a one-hour or a movie. “We want to do more events like that in future.”
“We’re trying to think outside of the box,” said Blake.
“We want to be a name on the top of some list when people are thinking of potential producers for their films,” said Shih. “Because we have a film at Cannes, our investment paid off because people are thinking of us differently. Now, we’re not just the TV girls, but have some relationships on film.”
The long-term goal is to create an artist-owned studio. “The goal is to give other artists ownership,” said Blake.
“How do we create a studio that actually gives profit participation back to artists?” said Shih. “Our bottom line is not squeezing every cent out of every project. If we can figure out how much do we have to actually maintain in order to be self-sustaining, but then have a pot of money that we can actually get better points or whatever, then can we get back equity? Or is it like we create these slates of things?”
What’s next: On a Zoom call, Shih and Blake brought me up to date. Since May, their slate has burgeoned, with projects set up not only at FX but Warner Bros. and Paramount TV. The question is, what’s going to happen to all these projects? “Since last year, and the success of ‘Joyland,’ we’ve really gotten some momentum on some of our feature projects,” said Shih, “ones that we’ve been developing from scratch from the beginning. They are now finally ready to be packaged and taken out and produced.”
Shih’s also working on directing a feature, “Life of the Party,” written by two comedy writers (Nora McInerny and Brandy Finmark) about a woman who lost her husband in her 30s. “We don’t as a culture know how to grieve,” said Shih. “So this is a funeral comedy. I’m putting together my lookbook, and we’re starting to go out to cast. So it’s a very exciting time.”
They’ve also developed “Time Capsule: The Silver Chain Season One,” a true Minneapolis swingers podcast series made with producer Jack Huston and podcasters McInerny and Paul Ditty. They’re aiming for a September release.
After Cannes, Diversity Hire jumped on board another foreign-language film, Cyril Aras’ Lebanese romance “It’s a Sad and Beautiful World,” which should shoot in the fall. “We were constantly asking ourselves, ‘How can we be of service?’” said Blake. “And how can we help get these things made? Whatever, whether it’s creative support, financial support, whatever it is. We’re able to be nimble like that.”
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