Jane Startz and Understanding the Power of Storytelling

Audio Description

Jane Startz Productions has produced dozens of award-winning television and film productions adapted from high-profile children's and young adult novels. Hear Jane's secret to good storytelling, what motivates her work, and the most important financial lessons she has learned over time.


00:09 - 00:35

Hi, everyone, and welcome to The Big Stage where we talk to athletes, artists and entertainers about their legacy and impact. I'm your host, Adam Sansiveri, Managing Director and Co-lead of Sports and Entertainment at Bernstein. I'm joined today by Lisa Stone, principal and veteran wealth advisor at Bernstein. Lisa has many passions, but empowering smart, capable women to be successful investors is certainly a big one. Lisa, thanks so much for being here.

00:35 - 00:36

Thank you, Adam. It's great to be here.

00:46 - 01:45

Just in time for back to school, the children in your life are on a first name basis with so many of the characters that our guest today has introduced to screens worldwide. Jane Startz is the president of Jane Startz Productions. Her credits include Ella Enchanted, Tuck Everlasting, The Indian In the Cupboard, The Mighty, and the Babysitter's Club. Jane's multiple Emmy award winning show, The Magic School Bus, became a multi-platform franchise and the longest running science series in broadcast history. Her company's adaptation of the bestselling book series Spooksville received an Emmy and the Leo Award for Best Children's Series. I'll put it to you this way. Jane Startz has produced over 50 award winning television productions adapted from children's and young adult novels for HBO, CBS, ABC, Fox, NBC, PBS, and Nickelodeon. Whoo! That's a lot. Jane, thank you so much for carving out some time to speak with us today. It's an honor to have you on The Big Stage.

01:45 - 01:49

Thank you so much, Adam, for having me. It's a real pleasure to be here.

01:49 - 02:09

So Jane, let's start with your professional beginnings. Previously, you co-founded and served as the creative head and executive vice president of Scholastic Productions. You built the company into a leading producer of media for young people. Why did you transition from this role to that of starting your own namesake production company? And what goals did you have in doing so?

02:10 - 02:33

I really enjoyed my tenure at Scholastic, and what appealed to me was having the opportunity to start a company from scratch that reflected my vision and to build it into a very large international entity that supported and helped create wonderful shows for children, my sort of mission and calling in life.

02:33 - 03:15

And I say it's my genre for better or for worse, and has been, is to really create high quality programming movies, television, books, media for children and families and projects that parents can enjoy with their kids that have resonance to all kinds of people across class, gender, and race. And that really help kids understand the value of being ethical, responsible, empathetic, generous, adventuresome and brave and what it means to be a responsible member of a community.

03:16 - 03:51

So I really felt after being at Scholastic for a very long time that I had really grown as a producer and as a creator. So all the context that I had made for Hollywood context, I was sort of the bridge between the publishing world in New York and the entertainment world in LA. I felt that it was time for me to really see if I could make it on my own. I really yearn to be back as the primary storyteller and working with talent and working with directors.

03:51 - 03:54

You certainly accomplished that mission statement, didn't you?

03:55 - 03:59

Well, it worked out.

03:59 - 04:13

Jane, I have a question for you. Your creative focus is largely story driven. You acquire material, develop it and then you produce it. Is there a secret sauce you've honed after all these years? What is the secret to good storytelling?

04:14 - 05:04

Ooh, that's a good question. To me, the secret is you have to love your characters. You have to find characters who people are going to root for. For me, a good story is a story about somebody who changes over the course of a story, who learns something vital and becomes more expansive over the course of the experience. You have to have good conflict in a story. We spend a huge amount of time all the time talking about character arcs. What's the person's character arc, how do they develop over the story? What are the challenges that they meet along the way? And how do they figure out a way to be triumphant at the end?

05:04 - 05:45

I'm working on a movie for Disney, and I think sort of the metaphor for that movie really is a great metaphor for, I would say, almost all the work that I do. And that specific film is called Roller Girl, and it's about a young adolescent girl who falls in love with Roller Derby. She's always her best friend. They are joined at the hip. The best friend loves ballet. She loves roller derby. So of course, she assumes that her best friend is going to want to do exactly what she wants to do. And her best friend says, I'm not doing it. So this girl, Astrid, is just astonished and is left on her own to start this roller derby camp. And what she sort of learns

05:45 - 06:06

Over the course of this experience, and it's a roller derby term, it's how to fall small. Everybody's going to fall and you're going to suffer a lot of pain and disappointment, but you got to figure out how do you get up. That's the ingredient after you lose or after you feel you've failed. How are you going to create your own comeback?

06:06 - 06:30

So I think to me, that's always a really interesting character, a flawed character. You don't want characters who are perfect. You don't want characters who have figured it out because they have nowhere to go. And you obviously have to have a really intriguing storyline, but you have to really love the people. You even have to love your villains, even if you hate them. There has to be some explanation as to why they behave the way they behave.

06:30 - 06:53

Well, I can't wait to see that movie, and I'm going to drag my daughter along with me. So one of the things that really resonates with me about your work is that you often produce stories about young women finding their way and finding their voice and stories of empowerment. So what's an example of something that you produced that you're particularly proud along these lines? And maybe it's the movie you just described?

06:53 - 07:52

Well, it's interesting. There are two movies that I just finished, and the one for Netflix is a movie called The School for Good and Evil, and Paul Feig directed that film. It stars Charlize Theron and Laurence Fishburne and Kerry Washington and two wonderful young actresses. I have tremendous pride in that film because I helped develop the book. An author named Soman Chainani came to me with an idea to write a screenplay, and the story was about two girls in sort of medieval times in Europe. One girl was the prettiest, the most popular, seemingly the nicest. The other is the opposite. She's not popular. She has no friends. She lived near a graveyard and is shunned. And it really is about many things. But to me, the story is how people judge young women on externals. People make assumptions about who you are before they get to know you and get to value you.

07:52 - 08:16

Another one I have is a book series we're working on. It is a series for Apple. For young kids. It's called Always Anjali, and it's about an Indian American girl, South Asian girl who is ashamed of her name because nobody in her class has that name. She feels like a freak, and her parents explain to her, Your name means precious in Sanskrit, and you should be proud of who you are.

08:16 - 08:42

The second book is about this girl wants to play the tabla and is in a tabla competition, which is a mostly male played instrument. I would say there's something about all my movies that I've done that I am proud about. You know, Ella Enchanted was about a girl who had the curse of obedience, and she had to realize that she didn't need to have somebody tell her what to do. She could value her own voice.

08:42 - 09:46

So I think that the beauty of being involved in children's programming is that you can do all this messaging through stories, you know, and everybody always talks about in the children's and family movie and television business emulatable behavior that you have to be very selective as to what you show because media is the biggest influence on children in this country, and it's great to put good role models out there and once again, not role models who are perfect, but role models who are relatable and are figuring out how do I find my way in the world and how do I learn to really appreciate myself and value myself and value others and not always be a follower? Learn how to be a leader. I have another project about why it's important for girls to understand they can be leaders, and that's not a shameful thing. And, you know, issues of tolerance. All those things are very, very important. So that's why I do this.

09:46 - 09:52

Yeah. Well, it's so impressive. And clearly you're celebrating diversity and inclusion in your work.

09:52 - 10:16

And there was actually one I did want to ask you about, which was Llama Llama, the animated series you produced for Netflix, which is based on the beloved books by Anna Dewdni and stars Jennifer Gardner as the voice of Mama Llama, for those that have not seen it. But on the show, you introduce a fun and spunky character named Audrey, who happens to wear a prosthetic leg. In doing so, how are you seeking to challenge or educate the viewers around disabilities?

10:16 - 11:10

It's really interesting because I think people have finally become attuned to the importance of having diverse stories about diverse people, having diverse casts. But the whole sort of disability area is a far second or maybe third, and my partner on that series is the husband of Anna, who very sadly passed away right at the beginning of the series. And we really wanted to honor her work, and it seemed a good opportunity to be able to introduce a character with no fanfare and to show that just because this girl might look different or might move in a different way, she had as much to contribute and maybe more in certain areas than other people.

11:10 - 11:39

And we have another character in that series, Euclid, who is very, very smart and very precise. And he's on the spectrum, you know, and we never advertised those things, but we just thought, let's show somebody who learns differently, who seems to have a different neural pattern than most kids. And I have to say the letters that I got from grateful parents all over the world were so gratifying. Some of them really made me cry. They were just so beautiful.

11:40 - 12:10

So I think any opportunity you have to do that, you know, I just did this movie Sneakerella. It's going to be Disney Plus, its first original musical, and it's just an amazing film with an amazing cast. And we have 10 song and dance numbers and one of our dancers is disabled. He dances with crutches, with hip hop. And he's amazing. And why not have him? Sort of seeing is believing, you know, and he's fantastic, you know? Fantastic.

12:10 - 12:11

That's wonderful. Really wonderful.

12:12 - 12:21

You know, there's a lot of different silos all over the country. So I think if you have an opportunity to broaden people's perspective, it should be taken.

12:21 - 12:39

Jane, I want to switch directions a bit. Adapting well-loved books into a visual medium is something that I imagine has to be done with a lot of nuance and care. And you know, you want to honor the original source material while breathing some fresh life into a new incarnation on the screen. How do you approach this?

12:40 - 13:26

Well, that's a really interesting question, and I do a lot of speaking about that because I've done so many of these, you know, literally hundreds and I come from a publishing background. You know, my first substantial job was for Scholastic. But even before that, I've always been a huge reader and I've always joked that I have an obsessive-compulsive reading disorder. So in terms of the stories, I always really revered the book. I option a book because I loved the story, I loved the characters. I loved the message, and I always had a very, very strong relationship with the authors from the beginning to the end of the process. Because, you know, I feel like I am taking their baby and presenting it in a new iteration that they have to be happy with.

13:26 - 13:46

So for me, the important thing is to maintain the integrity of what this message is. What's your author trying to say? What's important to this character? What's important to the author? You know, we have those conversations and I think, you know, you know instinctively what's going to violate the essence of a story and what's going to honor it.

13:47 - 14:07

So you can expand the world, you can introduce secondary characters. You can change a story in ways, but not change elements that are vital. It's just my point of view. Not everybody agrees with it because I'm stunned to see some books turned into movies that bear no relationship, but I don't agree with that.

14:07 - 14:29

It's interesting, I think, post Harry Potter, and because J.K. Rowling was so adamant about what could be done and what couldn't be done, it's raised the profile of children's books so much more that people do pay a lot more respect now to underlying material and aren’t as cavalier as they once were. Clearly your formula is working,

14:29 - 14:56

so anyone who disagrees with you may, may want to listen up. I want to shift gears for a moment and pick your brain about really the entertainment industry. We talk a lot about it on this show, but there's the deep structural shift of the industry that has undergone around the distribution model, right with the rise of the streaming platforms. And I think everyone's aware of that. But walk us through what it was like early in your career to get a project made versus how the process works today.

14:56 - 15:23

You know, when I first started out, it was just sort of the beginning of the home video model market, that was the 80s. And when I first started at Scholastic Productions, our intention was to become a home video publisher. That was my pitch to the chairman of the company to allow us to get into the business. So what happened is we went out to LA and we were met with a lot of early success.

15:23 - 16:04

And the model then was people were buying a lot of material. Networks, films would develop a lot of material, so they would buy it. You would spend years developing it and then very few would happen because I think the economics were such that all the studios, all the broadcasters had such piles of cash that they could experiment much more. You know, all the contracts were fairly standard, you got a producer's fee and you would get some imaginary or mythical back-end that you could hope to get. Unless you had a very good gross position, you could really be assured that given Hollywood accounting, you wouldn't see the money. So that was sort of the standard model.

16:04 - 16:37

But now the interesting things with the streamers who are really now the dominant players in the game is they do less development. It's very targeted. This is my experience. It may not be the same experience for everybody. Every project that I have made a deal on is getting done. They are much more selective about what they're putting in development. They also have eradicated the notion of a back-end, instead have a different kind of formula, which I actually think is a better formula, depending on who you're working with.

16:38 - 17:15

So let's say I have four different projects at Netflix. They will determine what my compensation is. What happens is you get a fee, you get a producer's fee, which is a percentage of the budget. And they figure out based on the budget what would be fair for your buyout. If I made a big movie like The School for Good and Evil and it was out in the marketplace, I would make my money. If the film was a huge success, I would make a huge amount of money. If it wasn't a success or even a moderate success or even a success, I probably wouldn't make any back-end. But now they're all there.

17:16 - 18:00

The math that they do with their algorithms can pretty much figure out what the value would be if they didn't own everything, which they do because they don't have to sell it. They're looking for a subscribership. Your back-end is predetermined. And I actually think in that case, it's advantageous if you have a good lawyer, and you make a good deal. There's a very large disparity between what the different companies pay. So depending on what your goals are, if they're purely financial, you go to the company that pays the highest, if they're not purely financial, you try to place your project in its best tone and negotiate hard and get the best deal you can.

18:00 - 18:22

So I think that's a perfect spot to ask you some finance related questions because I think it really enlightens our listeners experience here. And I'll start by embarrassing Lisa for a second because I know you've built a valued relationship with her. Can you speak to your experience having switched financial firms and advisors later in your professional career as someone who has had so much success?

18:22 - 19:19

My first foray into investment was with my cousin, who was a broker at another company, and she, to her credit or discredit, I adore her, and she made a huge amount of money, she was a real cowboy. She wasn't a financial manager. She was a speculator. She either hit it or it was a big miss. So that was sort of crazy. And when I decided I had to be a grown-up and a responsible human being, you know, I am the major breadwinner in my family and I have three children. I figured, you know, you got to figure out how to have money managed for you and needed some kind of a nest egg. So I had a financial manager that was fine. I had always really been interested in Lisa, but I'm embarrassed to say, because I'm a very bold person. I was intimidated out of making the switch with sort of, Oh, you're going to have to pay all these taxes and, you know, it just won't be a smart move for you.

19:19 - 19:43

And finally, I decided to get over my own ridiculous insecurity and moving my money into Bernstein and working with Lisa, and I found her so smart and appealing and such an impressive woman and her values were so good, and she had talked to me about socially responsible investments, which nobody had talked to me about, and it's been a joy and productive in every way.

19:43 - 20:20

You know, I know the market has been boom lately, but I did make a huge amount of money and I attribute that to Lisa and the team. She really has taught me that don't wait for the market to drop, put more money in it. If you have money, don't let it sit in your account. She really has given me great advice about how much to invest, what to invest in, how to divide up my portfolio. I feel comfortable asking her any questions, so I have to say I have just the highest praise for her and her team.

20:20 - 20:54

You know, I was always like, dreading having financial discussions in my former situation because it just wasn't a good match. You know, I'll leave it at that. But you know, this one is and I'm glad to be working with a woman. I think that, you know, there's a certain shortcut in understanding that women do have with each other and they share similar formative experiences in the workplace and at home, you know, and one impacts the other, and that Lisa totally understands that and I don't even have to articulate it.

20:54 - 21:02

Thank you so much for sharing all that. It's wonderful to hear, and I think Lisa's blushing right now and I know we're running out of time. But Lisa did have one other question she wanted to ask you.

21:02 - 21:07

Well, thank you, Jane, for those very kind words. I am blushing. It's a good thing

21:07 - 21:18

this is a podcast and not a TV interview. So I'm hoping you can just share with us some of the charitable organizations or foundations that are closest to your heart and know how generous you are.

21:18 - 22:17

My husband has a foundation called Groundswell that I've given money to, and the mission of that company is to, you know, it's sort of the same as my work, but it's through documentaries. It's to give voices to underrepresented people. I was very involved in an organization for a while. I had a nephew who died of leukemia. That was Leukemia Foundation. I give money to Dorot, which is a Jewish charity for elderly Jewish people. A lot of them are widows, mostly, and I also go there and bring food and stuff; and SmileTrain. You know, there's several other ones. Graham Windham, which is a foster care charity. I've given money to Stacey Abrams to get out the vote. No political contributions, but you know, it's mostly like any nonprofit trying to help somebody.

22:18 - 22:40

Well, it's very inspiring the way that you've not only given back, but the work that you're doing and the impact that it's made and and it's continued to making. I think our listeners have shows to watch across all the platforms for the next couple of months, and we're so excited to see what you come out with next. And we're just so grateful that you could spend this time with us, Jane. So thank you so much for being here.

22:41 - 22:45

Well, thank you for having me and thank you, Lisa, for your great guidance and friendship.

22:46 - 22:46

Thank you.

22:46 - 23:09

It's been a pleasure for me too. Thank you so much, Lisa, and thank you all for listening. This has been The Big Stage. If you enjoyed this episode, and you'd like to subscribe, please go to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you listen to podcasts. Please e-mail us your thoughts, questions, and any feedback to insights@Bernstein.com and be sure to find us on Twitter and Instagram at BernsteinPWM.

Adam Sansiveri
Senior Managing Director

The information presented and opinions expressed are solely the views of the podcast host commentator and their guest speaker(s). AllianceBernstein L.P. or its affiliates makes no representations or warranties concerning the accuracy of any data. There is no guarantee that any projection, forecast or opinion in this material will be realized. Past performance does not guarantee future results. The views expressed here may change at any time after the date of this podcast. This podcast is for informational purposes only and does not constitute investment advice. AllianceBernstein L.P. does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice. It does not take an investor’s personal investment objectives or financial situation into account; investors should discuss their individual circumstances with appropriate professionals before making any decisions. This information should not be construed as sales or marketing material or an offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any financial instrument, product or service sponsored by AllianceBernstein or its affiliates.

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