BY JENNY WERTH
From the Hollywood Weekly
Mention Terri Melkonian and a myriad of powerful words come into mind- the challenge is where to start! She’s a powerhouse of a woman who embodies what it takes to “make-it” in the ever-shifting and challenging show business industry. Hollywood seemingly flows through her veins, she has climbed every ladder in Hollywood’s cut-throat business, all while soaking in every lesson made available to her with each step. She’s the quintessential multitasker; innovative problem-solver; and well, simply a dynamo. In our exclusive Q & A with Terri, we find out her next move; plus we hear how her experiences and positive attitude have molded her into the enviable success she is today.
H.W.: Terri, you are one of the most liked and respected studio executives in the industry – I can’t even count how many producers and execs I have interviewed who tell me you are the first call they make when looking for a home for their film or tv project. We can’t imagine Sunset Gower without your strong presence. What initially inspired you to take on the task of revamping a small indie studio as Sunset Gower after working for the super sized Universal?
T.M.: Thank you for your kind words, Jenny. The best part of my job is being able to meet and work with some of the most talented and amazing people I’ve come across during my 15 years in the studio business. This is a small industry where many of us know each other or know of each other. You are only as good as your word – integrity and respect is a big deal with me. What I value most is the trust my clients have in me and I would never, ever, jeopardize that.
My job at Sunset Gower came to me very unexpectedly when I called my friend Bob Papazian in mid 2006 – looking for stages and offices to rent. About a year before that, GI Partners had purchased both the Sunset Gower and the Nickelodeon Studio properties in Hollywood for $110 million. Bob Papazian joined them as the CEO and part investor. When I called Bob, I’d just left Universal after 10 years and was working as a producer. I’d heard Sunset Gower was struggling to keep their stages full and was asked by my Universal boss to send overflow business to them. I’d met Bob the year before and instantly liked him. Now that I was a producer, I wanted to bring my business to him. I called to let him know I was stopping by to tour his studio and after seeing stages and offices, Bob called me to say he had something else in mind for me. He offered me a job which he created for me – said he wanted me to come work with him and rebuild the image of Sunset Gower and build up the business. But I’d just left a great studio and was now a producer! I turned down the VP of Sales and Marketing job but he was persistent and asked me to take a week to think about it. I contemplated and realized what a great challenge this would be for me. That’s really what drove me to say yes. This studio was a diamond in the rough and I saw tremendous potential – I knew we could turn this place around. And I really respected and trusted Bob. He had a very successful producing career prior to Sunset Gower and was not driven by ego. We shared the same entrepreneurial vision and he respected my knowledge of the business and treated me as an equal. Once I arrived, I didn’t waste any time. The phone wasn’t ringing but that wasn’t going to deter me. I called prospective clients daily. With the support of industry friends producer Michelle Imperato Stabile and FOX VP David Starke, I brought their feature Alvin and The Chipmunks to the studio right away. I joined the Association of Independent Commercial Producers and lobbied for commercial production and we were soon flooded with commercial business. I called my friends at ABC and NBC and we brought new television shows to Sunset Gower. Within a year, business was booming and we became the Go To studio lot by producers and production executives. We promised service and made sure we delivered. I wasn’t about to let anyone call us the Sunset Ghetto ever again. Word got out about our revitalized studio and Bob began receiving phone calls from brokers with buyers. Sunset Gower was soon sold to a real estate company Hudson Capital and I heard it was one of the largest real estate transactions in Los Angeles. GI Partners, in just over 2 years, made a hefty profit! The revitalization of Sunset Gower Studios worked.
H.W.: Wow – and I believe it sold for over $200 million so you’re right, the revitalization efforts really did pay off. I can’t imagine Sunset Gower without your strong presence and I’m sure everyone misses you. Now that you’ve left the studio, what are you working on next?
T.M.: The studio is at a very good place with all of the stages booked – they’re going to be fine. Right before my departure, I secured a long term deal for Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama about a cable news show. Scott Rudin and Alan Poul are exec producing it and I’m blown away by the talented team they and HBO have assembled for this sure fire hit. When my friend Michael Hill, who is the Sr. VP of Production at HBO, first called me about the pilot script, I told him we have to do whatever it takes to bring this show to Sunset Gower Studios. Michael and Sr. VP of Production at HBO Jay Roewe met me several times until we sealed this sought after deal. Michael and Jay are such great men whom I respect very much – I was honored for the opportunity to work with them. And this high profile show, choosing Sunset Gower as their home over many other studios, was sure to bring high visibility and credibility to the studio. At this same time, I was thrilled to secure the new Shonda Rhimes drama Scandal– with the help of my favorite studio exec Gary French, who is ABC’s co-head and Sr VP of Production. He is one of the most ethical and kindest people I have met in this industry and his cool demeanor hasn’t changed one bit since I knew him at Universal – I’m certainly going to miss him. Shonda is such a gifted writer with already two hit shows, Private Practice and Greys Anatomy – and she can now call Sunset Gower Studios her new home!
After leaving the studio, it was time for me to venture on my own and I launched a development and production company, TERRIMEL PRODUCTIONS. I can’t describe how great it feels to have the freedom to pick and choose who I want to work and align myself with now. I’ve built great relationships with producers, writers, directors, and studio executives over the years and now I have the opportunity to work with them in a different capacity then when I was at Sunset Gower and at Universal. I love my newfound independence and the ability to surround myself with talented people whom I respect and continue to learn from, who have integrity, and who I enjoy collaborating with. I am reading film scripts daily and receiving projects in different phases of production. Some need additional funding and some need distribution only – if the project meets the criteria, I can step in and help close the deal. I’m also developing television projects and getting a lot of concept pitches, including some from my 11 year old son! I’m currently developing an unscripted new media project that has a fun gaming component to it and this show can work on multiple platforms. I am extremely busy these days but at the same time, I’m having a lot of fun working with people I love. I’ve also been receiving calls to consult for independent studios and if my time allows, I’m up for that, too!
H.W.: What makes your production abilities both superior and/or different from others?
T.M.: I don’t want to say that my abilities are superior to others because every producer has his or her own unique style and process for finding and producing projects. First of all, I’m a huge fan of writers. In my opinion, without a really good story, you have nothing worth producing. I respect their talent and love to be around their creative energy. I look for stories I can completely connect with. I have to feel passionate about it, or I can’t sell it. I’m creative, but I also have a good business mind and can grasp that part of filmmaking equally well. Having a talented director who can really deliver is very important to me. Foreign sales opportunities are more prevalent than ever now – so good casting is also key. If I’m bringing film investors who are trusting my judgment, it’s my job and reputation to make wise decisions and protect their investment as if it were my own money. I believe in partnering with good people and developing long term relationships – I’m not interested in making a quick buck at the expense of others. I also get tremendous satisfaction in helping others and nurturing talent.
H.W.: How do you envision a creative production? What will you do to make it more “interesting” than others?
T.M.: You don’t produce a film or television show by yourself – it’s a group effort. I’m somewhat of a perfectionist and I love working in a collaborative environment with talented people who share my standards and whose positive perspective bring out the best in all of us. Everyone on my team needs to be respected and valued. Their opinions matter and each needs to be heard. I’m a solution oriented person and have no time for negativity. Life is too short and work should also be fun.
H.W.: What do you feel is lacking in the productions (reality included) today? Why do the producers become so complacent?
T.M.: Our industry is moving and changing at rapid speed and we have to keep up with the new technologies and opportunities to stay on top of our game or we become insecure and stagnant. I’m a believer in being an innovator and thinking outside of the box. Business As Usual attitude will not lead you to success these days. Knock down road blocks and create your own path to get where you want to go. Knowledge is power so don’t stop learning. I was recently admitted into the Producers’ Guild of America and attend many conferences which also include think tank panels. The PGA gives us an opportunity to network and share ideas among our peers and I would recommend producers join this great group. I try to attend their film screenings followed by Q & A– it’s inspiring to hear the filmmakers sharing their experience. Recently, I attended the Machine Gun Preacher screening and realized I know one of the executive producers on the panel. This gave us a chance to connect again and we’ve planned to meet soon. It was good to run into Gerry Butler again, too – he gave a powerful performance in the film and he’s a great guy for any lucky producer to work with. The PGA also offers great learning seminars that producers can take advantage of – I recently completed a six part certification program on Film and TV Finance. I can now pitch more effectively to the networks having learned about their financing methods and ROI. With recent technology upgrades, the opportunities for producers/filmmakers are endless. Any creative individual can purchase a high grade camera and editing software at an affordable price – you can shoot video and upload it on YouTube instantly. Or, create a sizzle reel to pitch an idea to a studio or investors. You can create a web series and get it funded by a company by offering product integration and sponsorship. Contact corporate marketing departments or their ad agencies. The webisode can later be pitched to a network as a possible TV series. The bottom line is, there are many more opportunities for independent filmmakers today so go out and find one that fits and make it work.
H.W.: You are like a shooting star. really; who else has your energy, passion and talent? The whole world of producing will be changed once you are part of it; how does that feel?
T.M.: I think the world of producing is changing but not because I’m now a part of it. I want to be on the cutting edge and be ready for the changes as they come and create the opportunities for myself. Happiness in life comes from finding a deep passion for your work and then success will come to you in a very organic, unforced, way. We are all born with unique talents – we need to discover our gifts, however unassuming they might be, and develop them to serve our life’s purpose and we will, in turn, find true happiness and satisfaction.
H.W.: Can you give a few words of advice to aspiring producers (directors…). How would you advise them to “make it work” in a city that is so often seen as “impossible.”
Learn your craft, have an immense desire and passion for what you choose to do, and just go out and make it happen for yourself. Don’t wait for others to open doors for you, create opportunities for yourself and open your own doors. Stay true to yourself and don’t compromise your integrity and reputation for quick success – always protect your greatest brand, you.
H.W.: Finally, how do you maintain such a positive attitude with life and career challenges?
T.M.: I’m driven in life not by the achievement of personal financial success but by maximizing my abilities to achieve the highest levels of my capabilities. I don’t define myself or my happiness by my job title. I try to find a good balance in my life and acknowledge every day of life as a gift I am truly grateful for. I cherish every moment I spend with my family and they are my priority. I value my friendships and stay away from those that are consistently negative. I have a happy disposition and will always see the glass as half full – that’s just my nature.