The Producer

The classic Hollywood route to producing movies: Come from money, with family connections. Pouya Shahbazian had neither. But he had drive—and some pretty sharp filmmaking instincts.

Mick LaSalle
7 Jan. 2019

In March 2018, the movie Love, Simon opened in theaters throughout the United States to strong reviews and a healthy box office. Based on the young adult novel by Becky Albertalli, this comedy-drama about a gay high school senior who comes out to friends and family was sensitively written, acted, and directed, and it connected with audiences.

But the man behind the movie, whose taste and business acumen brought that film into being, is not known by most of the public. Such is the familiar fate of producers. However, people who attended Santa Clara Law School in the early years of this millennium will recognize his name: Pouya Shahbazian J.D. ’03. Now a major producer, Shahbazian read the book and understood the potential for a good movie. From there, he went about putting together the team.

That Shahbazian, now 40, finds himself able to work with serious, in-demand talent is no accident. This has been his goal since graduating law school and leaving town to take his chances in Hollywood. Fifteen years later, he’s a producer whose films have grossed $825 million. These include the three films (released so far) of the highly successful Divergent series.

Though cinema is a tricky business, it’s a fairly safe bet that Shahbazian will enjoy continued success. He’s smart and ambitious and has terrific commercial instincts. To talk to him is to be impressed by his combination of enthusiasm and control: He sounds like he loves what he does, but that he also knows what he’s doing. A quality of laidback authority comes across even in snapshots from his student days.

Pouya In Law School
Before the Big Time: Shahbazian, right, and his friends during his time as a student studying law at Santa Clara University. / Photo courtesy Pouya Shahbazian 

So how did he arrive in the sweet spot he’s at now? It’s an improbable tale, one of single-minded focus and drive, sustained over the course of years, and of staggering confidence and wise, tactical humility. Cheap pasta figures into the tale as well. It’s fair to say that his is a story of how to make it as a Hollywood producer if you are born lacking the two biggest advantages a would-be producer can have: lots of wealth, and family connections in the picture business.

Shahbazian’s father is a professor at Long Beach City College, and his mother is a legal secretary. There are no movie stars in his family history. He was born in New York; the family moved to Sunnyvale when he was 10 years old, and he got his undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia. Santa Clara University Law brought him back to California. “The beauty of the way the University is run is it gives a really safe space where you can learn and grow as a person,” he says. “The professors embody that warmth that you really don’t get at a large university. There were professors, such as Bradley Joondeph, who were very personable with students in a way that made you comfortable to ask a lot of questions and grow within the school environment.”

After graduating from Santa Clara, Shahbazian took the bar exam—though he had no intention of practicing law. “Then I packed my car and said, ‘It’s going to be Hollywood or bust.’”

Pouya: Love, Simon
In the Movies: Shahbazian, right, on the set of Love, SimonPhoto courtesy Pouya Shahbazian 

Macaroni and the mail room

“I was on a single-track mission to become a successful producer in Hollywood,” Shahbazian says. He made sure to keep a low overhead. “I ate more boxes of Trader Joe’s Macaroni and Cheese than anyone should eat in their 20s,” he says. “Multiple times a week.”

At a party he met a woman who gave him two bits of important advice: Read the book TheMailroomby David Rensin, and find a mentor. “That book set up my path,” says Shahbazian. “In Hollywood, the mailroom is the great equalizer. If you can get a job in the mailroom of a major agency, you can be on even ground with a lot of people who are trying to make it in the business.”

All in all, it took Shahbazian nine months, from the point that he moved to Los Angeles, to get the first job he really wanted: working as an assistant at Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann, a boutique talent agency that eventually became a significant enough player to be bought by mega-agency ICM. Shahbazian started out in the mail room for a couple of days. Then he was moved to a desk, where he answered the phone and scheduled meetings.

“The key to that job is to be humble, quiet, and learn as much as possible,” says Shahbazian. “It’s really the key to Hollywood.” And, he says, “Add value in fits and starts when you can.”

The salary was certainly humbling. “That first year I remember my friends from law school who’d scored great jobs were making six to seven times as much in their yearly salary as I was making,” he says. “But I loved it. I remember getting up in the morning and being so excited to go to work for $11 an hour. It was my dream, and I wouldn’t have traded it for any amount of money. And I was very lucky. I learned all the ins and outs of the industry, and it was a great experience.”

In another business, being a great assistant can actually be dangerous to one’s future prospects. Bosses get attached to their assistants and are reluctant to let them advance. But Hollywood is different. “Ultimately,” says Shahbazian, “they want you to advance because it’s more profitable for them to have someone who is going to grow so much that they can actually run their own productions. That way, it makes their business much more profitable.”

One Sunday night, Shahbazian saw a segment on 60 Minutes about the soccer player Tim Howard that he thought would make for a good movie. The next day, he brought the idea to his boss, who loved it, and a team was put together to sell the idea. In another case, girlfriend (and future wife) Melissa Hook had a movie idea that he thought was brilliant. “I showed that to my boss, who ended up selling that in a big bidding war to a major studio for almost half a million dollars.” The idea was for a movie called Man Wedding that, in fact, never got made.”

In such a situation, you might well ask, “Who gets the money? The $11-an-hour assistant? His girlfriend?”

“The screenwriter got the money, and my boss commissioned it, so it was a big deal for him, and his client. I was a salaried employee. They gave me a high five,” he says matter-of-factly and emphasizes there’s nothing wrong with this practice. It’s just how it is. “Until you own your own shop, you don’t get to dictate any of these terms.”

Hit the books

After two years as a subordinate, proving both to himself and his bosses that he could come up with sellable ideas, Shahbazian went off on his own. He decided he would eat Trader Joe’s Mac and Cheese and start his own shop. “I did it in a 400-square-foot apartment in New York, and I worked multiple jobs.”

Why New York? His girlfriend got a job there, so he followed her. He had his smartphone and his network of contacts, and he knew that he could work in any city—so long as it was either London, New York, or Los Angeles. “I don’t think you can be a major movie producer from any other city. Because ultimately you have to be face-to-face with people, and if you’re a major player in the industry I don’t think you get through a year without working with different people in each of those three cities.”

Here’s where Shahbazian’s Santa Clara law degree came in particularly handy. “There are a lot of law firms in New York that hire temps—attorneys for doc review. I thought, ‘I can work a day job that pays the rent and pays for the food on the table—especially with the law degree.’”

For his movie ambitions, one big advantage of being based in New York was the time difference. Shahbazian could get off work at 5 or 6 o’clock, and it was still only 2 or 3 p.m. in Los Angeles. That left several hours each night to be making phone calls to the West Coast.

Soon he found his niche. “I realized there was an underserved market for book-to-film adaptation representatives. Let’s say Dan Brown writes The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown needs an agent to sell it to a publisher, so he finds an agent, and the agent sells it to Random House. The author and the book agent and the publishing company would all love to see Hollywood make a movie out of that book. So, they engage a book-to-film representative to help them find a home for the project in Hollywood.”

Shahbazian noticed something about how that process was working, though. “When I started, the book-to-film representatives were cherry-picking the best books and leaving everything else as a wasteland. A book agent would have one book that everybody wanted, and then ten other books that nobody paid any attention to.”

Shahbazian became an expert in this area of the business, with a special concentration on the young adult market. “Within a few years, when Hunger Games the movie came out, that was the tipping point. That was when my career really took off because everyone paid attention to books after The Hunger Games.

Diverging: Pouya focused on books that could become appealing movies, including the Divergent series before many others did.

Imagine something that isn’t

The business model works like this. A literary agent contacts Shahbazian with a book for him to read. If Shahbazian likes it, he goes to work. “We try to put the movie together in terms of who’s the right studio for it, who’s the right director, who’s the right screenwriter, etc.” There are times when Shahbazian just brokers the deal. Most of the time, though, he’s active in the packaging. “The producer’s job is to put the pieces in place, to find talent and get talented people working together and to be the manager of the project.”

This is creative work that most people never think about when they think about movies. In a sense, Shahbazian must envision a film that hasn’t been born yet, and use his commercial and artistic instincts to imagine what combination of people will work best.

Take Love, Simon, the most recent example. “It was really about capturing the voice, the experience and the point of view of this young man, and doing it justice,” says Shahbazian. “I wanted to put the right screenwriters in business with the author to find the right adaptive voice.” He ended up teaming with Temple Hill Entertainment, which specializes in young adult entertainment (Twilight, The Fault in Our Stars), and with screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, who also happen to be the executive producers of the hottest show on television, This Is Us.

Love, Simon
The poster from the 2018 movie Love, Simon. / Image courtesy 20th Century Fox.

Divergent, the series about a dystopian future in which people are separated into communities based on personality type, came into Shahbazian’s life when a young colleague, Veronica Roth, told him she was working on a book. “There was no book deal,” Shahbazian recalls. “It was just a raw manuscript—I get 100 of these in a year, of books in the early stages. I started reading it, and I thought it was amazing. We made a deal before the book was published, with Summit, which became Lions Gate. Summit had done the Twilight series, so they were experts in this type of material. The rest is history.”

Divergent, which opened in March 2014, was Shahbazian’s first movie to get made. At the time, he still had a second job, but when he noticed one of his coworkers Googling him, he decided it was time to let the day job go. By then, he’d been working two jobs for a decade. “I struggled for a long, long time,” he says.

Having achieved his dream, it was time for his first indulgence. What did he buy himself when he knew he had the money? “I have three young kids, so I’m very careful,” he says. “I’m not an extravagant guy. Sarah Jessica Parker said, ‘If you really become successful in life, you can go to the Barney’s store in New York, and you can go shopping, and it’s a great reward for your success.’ So I went and bought myself a really nice suit for the first time. That was my gift to myself. Black Label Ralph Lauren.”

For Shahbazian, making movies comes down to the simple joy of doing it. “I love a business where it’s really not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” he says. “I love the social aspect. I love all of it.” What does that mean?
“We’re talking about movies. We’re watching movies. We’re watching TV shows. We’re making movies and TV shows. We’re going 24 hours a day. When I get home, I want to watch a movie or a TV show of a director I might want to work with. When I’m on a plane, I’m reading a book or a screenplay as part of my job.”

Shahbazian gets on a riff, and he enthuses about what a joy it is to be doing this work. “I revert back to that guy who was making $26,000 when I was 25 years old and living in LA, with a law degree and student loans.”

He gets to be creative every day, he says. “And be a storyteller.”

MICK LASALLE is the film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and the author of four books on film, Complicated Women, Dangerous Men, The Beauty of the Real, and the forthcoming California in the Movies.

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