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'We All Have To Do Something': Nina Jacobson On Diversifying Hollywood


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 76th Hunger Games.


The fourth and final film in "The Hunger Games" series is out now.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) My dear Ms. Everdeen, make no mistake. The game is coming to its end.

MCEVERS: A franchise that so far has made $2.5 billion worldwide and set box office records. Which means at this moment, the film's producer, a woman named Nina Jacobson, is on top of the world. We wanted to catch up with one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, especially now when there's a lot of talk about how there aren't enough powerful women in Hollywood. And when I say catch up with Nina Jacobson, it is no joke. Trying to follow her around with a microphone involves running.

NINA JACOBSON: OK, so this has been our set.

MCEVERS: Oh, wow.

JACOBSON: We've been, like, basically living here, more or less, the last six months.

MCEVERS: She's taking us around the set of her latest project on the Fox lot here in LA, a retelling of the O.J. Simpson trial for the cable network FX. It's my first time on a set, and I'm pretty blown away by how well they've re-created the prosecutor's office, the courtroom, the jail.

JACOBSON: So this is where the jury deliberated.

MCEVERS: Oh, right.

JACOBSON: So we just shot that.

MCEVERS: And Judge Lance Ito's office, where Nina Jacobson says every prop was well thought out.

JACOBSON: The antacid - the non-branded, doctor-choice antacid on his desk.

MCEVERS: Nina Jacobson has been on this set almost every day overseeing shoots, making notes for actors, working with writers to make changes to the script. And she is constantly working on other projects, too.

JACOBSON: I will follow up on calls with agents. We have a pilot that we are putting together. Yesterday, we had a meeting with a couple of directors.

MCEVERS: She has so much going on, she actually leaves us on the set while she has to go take a conference call. So I sit down with writer D.V. DeVincentis.

She's doing this and she's in the middle of a call. Is that normal that there's like...

D.V. DEVINCENTIS: Yes, absolutely.

MCEVERS: ...There's like 16 things going on at once?

DEVINCENTIS: Yeah. Nina has a million phone calls to make a day. She's a billion dollar producer, even though she sits on this thing like a babysitter all day long. So when she gets the opportunity to step out and handle other business, she does.

MCEVERS: While I'm talking to D.V. DeVincentis, my colleague, producer Becky Sullivan, checks out what's happening on the "O.J." set. And she's going to help me tell the story.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It's the last day of shooting, and they have four scenes to do today. They're in the middle of setting up for number two, an emotional conversation in the prosecutor's office.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right, good. Ready?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'll grab it for you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And go ahead, exit.

SULLIVAN: They're almost ready to shoot the scene, the actors are coming back on the set and so is Ryan Murphy, another powerhouse in the business. He's the co-creator of "Glee" and a co-executive producer with Jacobson on "The People V. O.J. Simpson." We grab him to talk for a minute.

MCEVERS: Ryan Murphy is gay, and Nina Jacobson is lesbian. The two have known each other since the late '90s.

RYAN MURPHY: You know, a lot of people in our peer group were still very much in the closet. And Nina was one of the founders of a group, a little group, called Out There. And we used to all meet. It was 10 of us.

MCEVERS: Talking about being gay in Hollywood.

SULLIVAN: Which Murphy says was not easy back then.

MURPHY: Like, do we tell people at work that we're gay? What do we think about gay actors? What should our advice be to them? So that was my introduction to Nina. Then she became a studio head.

SULLIVAN: At Disney where she shepherded movies like "Pirates Of The Caribbean" to the screen.

MURPHY: And I used to think, oh, this is great 'cause I have a friend who's a studio head. And I used to take her stuff, and she would say, no, no, pass.

MCEVERS: Murphy told us Nina Jacobson is an incredible snob, that she's very picky about what material she wants to make into movies and TV.

MURPHY: Maybe that's because she gets these big, damn "Hunger Games" checks now where she doesn't have to worry about money.

SULLIVAN: Eventually, Ryan Murphy goes back to work.

MCEVERS: And Nina Jacobson is finally done with that conference call.

JACOBSON: Bye. Forty minutes - that was a little bit too long on that phone.

MCEVERS: And she moves on to the next thing.

SULLIVAN: We did talk to some people about Nina Jacobson off the set when she wasn't around. I swung by a soundstage in Burbank to talk to John Lee Hancock, a director who Jacobson hired to film a couple movies back when she was an executive at Disney - "The Rookie," which was small and "The Alamo," which was big and not profitable. He learned from Jacobson not to take it too hard when something flops.

JOHN LEE HANCOCK: She would be the person that would say, you know, sometimes they work; sometimes they don't. They're your children, you send them out the front door and into the world and you hope people think they're attractive, you know (laughter)?

MCEVERS: The sense I got from Hancock and others is that if Jacobson has a downside, it's that she is extremely practical, sometimes to the point of hurt feelings because if she has something to tell you, she is not going to waste her time dressing it up. That said, Hancock says he'd work with her again in a heartbeat.

HANCOCK: Hollywood people always talk about Hollywood being, you know, full of [expletive] or jerks and all that. It's - you know, I used to be a lawyer. It's no different. There are people that you can trust, people that you shouldn't trust, people that you want to be in business with, people that you don't. And you make those decisions up front. Nina's one of the good people.

MCEVERS: We did finally catch up with Nina Jacobson in her office in West LA. It's got modern, cool furniture but isn't flashy. She told us her version of a story that has become legend here in Hollywood, how she got fired from that big job at Disney in 2006. Her partner was in the hospital that day in labor about to have their son. Nina Jacobson got a call from her boss. He asked her to come to the office. She guessed why he had called.

JACOBSON: He really clearly didn't want to fire me on the phone. And I was like, OK, am I being fired? Yes. So I just had to kind of compartmentalize and say like, OK. That's that. That's work.


JACOBSON: This is life. This is more important. This is more interesting. This is more lasting. That's a job, and a job is a job. A life is a life - and focused on the fact that our son was being born.

MCEVERS: She eventually made the transition to producer. "The Hunger Games" is her biggest project yet. But the directors of those movies were men. She says it's on her to get more women in the mix. Women are half the population, she points out. Women buy half of all movie tickets. Women watch more TV than men.

JACOBSON: We're certainly not reflected that way so far on screen or behind the camera, so I do feel an enormous amount of responsibility to keep up the good work in that department.

MCEVERS: What do you think you personally can do about it?

JACOBSON: Well, I think that what you can do about it is to - on the one hand, you have a responsibility to hire the best director for the job. And on the other hand, in a case where it's neck and neck, then put your finger on the scale and hire the woman.

MCEVERS: The same goes for casting, she says.

JACOBSON: Why does it have to be a male protagonist? Why does that plumber have to be a guy? You know, when you're casting across the board, why wouldn't a movie or a television show be made up of a population that reflects our own in terms of both race and gender.

MCEVERS: Is it frustrating? Do you get asked this question a lot? You know, it's like, what can you do to bring more women in the business? And when the question maybe should be to your male colleagues, you know, what can you do?

JACOBSON: You know what? We all have to do something. And I am happy to talk about it until I'm blue in the face and will keep talking about it until it changes.

MCEVERS: Nina Jacobson says she wants to use the power she has right now to make stories that mean something and can even change people's minds. Next up, "American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson," that premieres in February, and an adaptation of the best-selling novel "The Goldfinch" and a little story you might have heard about, "The Odyssey." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.