When the Terminator Opens the Door
Illustration by: Mila Spasova
Adriana Getz is a content producer, specializing in intellectual property rights licensing for film, television and advertising. She has been living in Los Angeles for more than 20 years with her husband and child.
What have you studied?
I graduated from Sofia University, St. Kliment Ohridski, with an M.A. in Cultural Anthropology and a B.A. in History, and previously from 114 English Language High School in Sofia. After moving to Los Angeles, I completed a series of professional development courses in journalism and entertainment marketing at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA.)
How did it all start?
From the get-go, I was interested in the media industry. Of course, I had no idea how hard it would be to break in, or what immense and tough competition I’d have from all over the world. But even if I had known that, I still would have been unfazed in my desire to give this my best effort. According to one statistic,
I found my first job there through a “help wanted” ad for an intern for the renowned producer Douglas Wick (Divergent, Gladiator, The Great Gatsby). The internship was unpaid, but in Columbia Pictures, so in reality I financed my own entry into the industry by working 10 hours a day without pay, and then working a second paid office job in the evenings.
Hollywood made sure to give me a seductive welcome. In the first five minutes after setting foot for the first time on the Columbia Pictures lot, I shook hands with one of my idols — the director Francis Ford Coppola — and the elevator door was held open for me by the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said in his trademark Austrian accent “After you.”
Douglas Wick asked to meet me in person in his office. As is customary in Hollywood, one of his first questions was “Where are you from?” He proceeded not only to surprise me with his knowledge about my home country of Bulgaria, but next asked me how would I adapt the novel “Master and Margarita” (Mikhail Bulgakov) for the screen, without knowing that it was one of my all-time favorite books. To my genuine surprise, my approach turned out to be the same as Roman Polanski’s — approaching it from the love story angle as the backbone of the narrative. Finally, Douglas asked me to write an evaluation of the commercial qualities and market potential of a screenplay from a studio’s standpoint, but without letting me know its title or the screenwriter. Only after I delivered my evaluation and passed the test, did I learn that the screenplay was The Silence of the Lambs by Ted Tally, which was already in production and went on to win an Oscar for Best Screenplay.
These first impressions were sufficient to convince me without a doubt that this is the right industry for me.
From that moment on, my work has always required reading and evaluating written material — screenplays, books, articles, ideas, etc. So far, I have read thousands of screenplays, including many that have been produced.
I would say that over time, I gradually acquired an instinctive internal insight for the very specific cultural and commercial sensibility that is in demand, and that is being generated by the entertainment industry of America, and developed the mandatory taste and criteria for what works.
Thanks to my unpaid internship, I was hired at the legendary talent agency William Morris, founded in 1898, which, at the time, very rarely hired anyone who had been born outside the United States.
My initial days in the agency were trial by fire: 20 phone lines going off simultaneously, 10 emails a minute, hundreds of new names, tempers flying in every direction. My peers were the children of famous Hollywood personalities and legendary families from other industries. In the process of working together, I became friends with many of them and we are close to this day.
Everyone is left to fend for themselves and show how far they can go, and nobody can advance because of connections. This trial by fire situation had another benefit for me. My successful survival in this atmosphere boosted my self-esteem and forever cured me of any subconscious insecurities about having come from a small and unknown country.
I went on to become Vice President of a boutique film production company, where my job was to identify and develop original ideas to be sold to the studios in our capacity as producers. Hollywood very rarely buys concepts, because they have the longest, most complicated and most expensive journey to the screen. Each week, the film community sees an average of 300 screenplays offered for sale, of which only a tiny fraction are purchased or optioned. Yet, we managed to sell 5 concepts — to Disney and Universal — based merely on the strength of their high-concept.
For the last 6 years, I have been working as a Content Producer, specializing in the rights, licensing, negotiations and contracts for the use of intellectual property in film, TV, commercials and music videos. I do about 15-20 projects per year
Tell us about your average day.
I always start my day by consuming news from various high-quality sources such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Los Angeles Times and the business dailies of the entertainment industry. Next, I check and answer the emails I’ve received overnight, on average 30 or 40 and up to 100 during large scale projects, and then I prepare my daily to-do list in order of priorities. I meet with my team and brief them on the tasks at hand for the day and then take various meetings with either the network or the studio to discuss the project’s status. Depending on the nature of the project, the rest of the day is spent researching and selecting appropriate footage, photographs and music, and negotiating with the rights holders about the licensing of their content.
The expertise required in my work includes not only extensive knowledge of intellectual property law, but also of the numerous precedents and interpretations related to media use, of the different price scales for various media and territory rights, and of the intricacies of showing individuals on screen, regardless of whether they are professional actors or not. Each video clip has multiple layers of copyright: the video itself, each person in it, the location, consumer products, logos signage, and finally the sound — music, voice-over, etc.
My day usually ends with business dinners or attending industry events such as screenings, premieres, workshops, openings.
How did you decide to start this, what attracted you to the idea? Did you see a niche for yourself and did you have a lot of competition?
I arrived at the idea for my current business while at BBC America, where I helped manage the North American division of their visual content licensing arm, working on marketing, business development and licensing to film, TV and commercial clients in the US. My job there coincided with the explosion in new media outlets, the restructuring of the TV industry towards a great deal of reality programming, and the emergence of new distribution channels, all of which created the trend for more and more new programming created from pre-existing content.
The nature of my work is to work hand in hand with the directors, producers and financiers to find content and secure the rights for its reuse in a new context, all the while balancing the vision of the creatives behind the project with both the budgetary restraints and the legal complexities of using intellectual property. America is a country with uncompromising copyright law, protection and enforcement, and nothing can be used without its legal owner’s explicit permission and a signed license agreement that specifies the exact terms under which the reuse rights are granted — whether it is text, artwork, poster, footage, video games, music, logos, photos, likeness, trademarks.
There is of course competition, just like in any field, but possibly slightly lesser than other areas of the industry, due to the intimidating legal aspect of the work, and the burden of responsibility not to make a mistake that could result in a multi-million dollar lawsuit. My specific niche is in the fact that my experience and skills span both the creative and the legal side of the working process. I really love what I do, because it is so perfectly suited to my personal interests and strengths.
What are some of the most significant projects you have worked on?
Recently I worked on the Honorary Oscars — Governors Awards given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this year to Jean-Claude Carriere, Maureen O’Hara, Harry Belafonte and Hayao Miyazaki. This project required thorough knowledge of each individual’s life and body of work, and picking the highlights to compile the visual presentation for each award recipient. I negotiated the licenses to show clips with film studios, European companies, news organizations such as AP and CNN, and even foreign consulates. One of the most original projects I have ever worked on is the interactive music video for Johnny Cash’s Ain’t No Grave which is found online at www.thejohnnycashproject.com.
It was created as a living organism to illustrate the concept that the artist remains immortal even after his passing. The narrative of the video was created from existing clips from his films and performances where each individual frame can be drawn by a viewer and reintegrated back in the clip, thus making it an ever-evolving work of art. The algorithm was coded by one of Google’s founders. This project was awarded a Silver Lion at Cannes and a Grammy Award for best video.
A well-known project I did was the TV series “Law and Order Los Angeles” for NBC for which I had to find and license preexisting material to supplement what was filmed during production — footage of wildfires, oil rigs, aerials, high-speed car chases, architectural landmarks, etc. Another aspect of my work on the series was to make deals for collaboration with consumer products, brands and sports teams, such as Microsoft and The Los Angeles Lakers.
Very often I work on reality TV series, for which my responsibility is to identify and license the use of user-generated content from YouTube, and it usually requires me to find and negotiate the contracts for anywhere between 2000 and 5000 individual clips.
As for the my newest projects: I just finished a documentary feature about the cultural influence of the film “Urban Cowboy” and I am starting a new series for MTV about some of the top pop music stars of the moment.
How much time do you spend on the research for each project? What stimulates you in that process?
Usually, I have one to two weeks prior to the official start of production to do the preliminary research and preparation. During that time, I study the script or the creative brief and come up with the creative strategy of how to execute visually the idea that at that stage is merely a draft on paper. This is the most critical and challenging part of the process, since the ultimate success of the project depends on it. I am primarily stimulated by the process itself — conceptualizing and executing — always working on new topics and often with new people, by the incredibly fast-paced environment, and the invigorating process of negotiating.
Тell us about some of the most interesting people you’ve worked with: who has influenced you the most both personally and professionally and why?
I have been incredibly fortunate to have worked with many great people — screenwriters, directors, producers, business persons. This is the place that attracts the best and the brightest not only from the States, but from all over the world. Some оf them have left an indelible impression on me, for example, the legendary producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Caribbean, CSI, National Treasure, Bad Boys, Beverly Hills Cop), who interviewed me to work as part of his team.
One of the most interesting people to have a conversation with is the former drummer of The Police, Stewart Copeland, a true aristocrat, and a genuinely passionate erudite not just on the topic of music, but also art, photography, history, gourmet food, wine, literature. Also the director Bryan Singer (X-Men, Usual Suspects) who has a powerful intellect, an insatiable passion for pop culture, great imagination, and a razor-sharp mind combined with an attitude of healthy cynicism.
I had the rare privilege to have met and worked briefly with the late, great legend Mike Nichols, unsurpassed in his refinement, erudition, magnetism, and charisma, both personally and as a creator. The bold and unapologetic Michael Moore, who believes in his convictions with every cell of his body, and despises the commercialism of Hollywood. And, of course, one of the most controversial “auteurs” of the action film genre in the world — director Michael Bay (Transformers, Armageddon, Texas Chainsaw Massacre) — the uncontested leader in manipulative commercial moviemaking, whose confidence and arrogance are the gold standard of the industry. I met him at the by-invitation-only auction of the rights to remake Texas Chainsaw Massacre where he presented his 7 minute vision for the future film to a select group of high-level studio executives, who were then asked to pay $10 million for the privilege to finance the movie, and to make their decision right there, in the room. What we saw was unparalleled in its audacity, a terrifying glimpse deep inside the subconscious and a genuine experience of horrifying fear, created only through shadows, silhouette and sound design, without showing anything specific. After the presentation, the adrenaline in the room was so dense it could be sliced with a knife. The rights sold in the first 5 minutes.
My inspiration comes from people at the cutting edge, who have vision and see outside the box — Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Elon Musk, Steven Spielberg, Harvey Weinstein.
Why Los Angeles and not New York? What are the good and bad sides of living in a megalopolis of that kind?
From the minute I saw the freeways, the smog, five lanes of non-stop traffic moving at 70 miles per hour, the greenery, the single level houses, it felt simply irresistible, and I immediately felt that this is my home. It is the city of ideas, optimism, constant reinvention, constant forward movement, unbound by the chains of a status quo, the way New York is.
What was the last place that impressed you?
Virginia City, Nevada, is one of my favorite places. During the gold rush of the 19th century the town had been the epicenter of massive gold and silver mining operations, and subsequently declined. But to this day it embodies the spirit of the Wild West, and the spirit of the American Dream. Every Sunday, the local society dresses in Victorian outfits, cowboy hats, long dresses, ammunition and guns on the men’s belts (real and fully loaded), and go dancing in the legendary 19th century bar Bucket of Blood Saloon which has not changed in 150 years. Mark Twain started his career as a journalist and writer in Virginia City. In the early 1960s, hippies from San Francisco spent a summer there amongst the locals, which led to their inspiration for the hippie movement. This old town is a living representation of American history.
Citizen of the world, American or Bulgarian?
From an early age America has been my ideal. I came here seeking to experience first-hand the American dream and the feeling that you are in control of your own destiny, and that’s exactly what happened. America is the country of people who work hard in order to make something out of themselves, and who take full responsibility for themselves. I feel like I belong to this society and am an integral part of it. I also carry a sense of attachment to Europe and I am a worldly person. I feel equally at home attending the Oscars in Los Angeles, or talking with old fishermen in a village in Lefkada, Greece, or having dinner with friends in the center of Sofia. I am always curious about new things in all aspects of life, and that’s why every place is interesting to me.
If you had to describe the world to your child in one sentence, what would you say?
The world is your oyster — it is a wonderful place in which you can achieve anything you want, if you just set your mind to it.
If you could turn back time 10 years, what would you say to yourself?
As advice from the future: “Don’t sell your Apple stock.” But, seriously, I would just tell myself the truth: “If you could glimpse into the future, you would see that the best is yet to come.”