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2 Sisters Break Down Walls for Women in Film

There’s no one--including their own mother--who doesn’t offer Suzanne and Jennifer Todd an unsolicited opinion about what their third installment of HBO’s “If These Walls Could Talk” should be.

“Everyone calls us with their ideas. ‘You should do one on domestic abuse or genital mutilation,’ ” says Jennifer, the 30-year-old younger of the two sisters and producers known as Team Todd.

The Todds have their own ideas. Huddled in their unpretentious Melrose Avenue offices, surrounded by scripts and at least as many toys belonging to Suzanne’s 1-year-old son, Hunter, they’re exploring topics, corralling talent, reading screenplays and watching shorts of potential writers and directors.

All in a day’s work for the Todds, producers on the vanguard of young power players hard-wired into Hollywood’s inner circle.

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The fact that their prize television franchise won’t make anyone rich is OK with the tenacious producers. To them, their acclaimed HBO film series is a labor of love. The two pay the rent by producing such hits as “Austin Powers” for the big screen. The “If These Walls Could Talk” series tackles important and controversial social, political and cultural topics such as abortion and homosexuality and provides sorely needed opportunities for women filmmakers.

That may sound righteous, but it has worked twice for HBO, which has made it clear it would like to air the third show within the next 18 months rather than wait four years, as it did between the first and second. The cable network’s recently aired “Walls 2,” which dealt with lesbian relationships, scored in the ratings. The first “Walls,” which debuted in October 1996 and focused on abortion, is still HBO’s highest-rated original movie ever.

“It’s an important project that didn’t start out as a franchise but has evolved as a forum for filmmakers and actors to do work that’s topical and provocative and deals with subjects that are important to women,” says Keri Putnam, senior vice president of HBO Films.

“It’s to inspire conversation and maybe in a Pollyanna way bring about change in some small way,” says Suzanne Todd, a spunky, fast-talking, 34-year-old hipster who dresses in black and hardly seems a Pollyanna.

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She readily admits coming from “the pit-bull school of producing,” having cut her teeth as an assistant to Hollywood producer Joel Silver, who is as ferocious and tenacious as he is prolific. Todd worked for Silver for 4 1/2 years before partnering in a production company with actress Demi Moore. Jennifer Todd, who also got her sea legs working for Silver, later did time at Miramax and Bruce Willis’ production company before joining her older sister at Moore’s company. The sisters formed Team Todd 2 1/2 years ago.

The Todds--who grew up among the San Fernando Valley’s upper middle class and went to USC Film School--are still unknowns outside of Hollywood. But in the creative community, they’ve earned a stellar reputation. When their pal Mike Myers came to them with a wacky ‘60s spoof, they didn’t stop shopping the hard-to-sell project until New Line agreed to make it. They took the languishing original “Walls” out of cold storage at cable network TNT and got it made at HBO.

Their track record as partners--who have a first-look deal at New Line--has been mixed so far, with such hits as “Austin Powers” and its sequel (on which they were far less hands-on) and such duds as New Line’s recent release “Boiler Room” and Columbia’s 1999 horror spoof “Idle Hands.”

Most of their movies are small-budget fare. The producers are now seeking a director for New Line’s “Arcadia” (not based on Tom Stoppard’s play), a teen ghost romance, and are about to begin casting a remake for Miramax of the French film “Didier,” a family comedy to be adapted and directed by independent British filmmaker Stefan Schwartz.

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Their film “Memento,” a thriller from writer-director Christopher Nolan, has just been accepted into competition at the upcoming Cannes International Film Festival.

The Todds may bear little physical resemblance to each other, but they rarely disagree when picking projects.

“The nice thing is, as sisters we obviously have a very close relationship and have a shorthand, so we communicate very easily,” Jennifer says.

Both attended the private Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, then went to USC. Their other sister, they say, is the brains of the family. She really is a rocket scientist.

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“Our personal tastes differ a little. She [Suzanne] loves everything Disney, and I’m a big ‘80s movie fan,” says Jennifer, whose office walls are lined with a French movie poster of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” and a black-and-white poster of Cameron Crowe’s 1989 teen comedy “Say Anything.”

In her big sister’s office is an “Alice in Wonderland” poster, a Chuck Jones animation cel from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and Disneyland “attraction posters” of such rides as the Autopia and Rocket to the Moon.

When asked how she deals with her sister’s known bossiness, Jennifer grows uncomfortable and squirms in her chair. “You know, our relationship has only gotten better with time.”

Then again, says Jennifer, “Whenever I get into trouble or have a problem that I can’t figure out, Suzanne always solves it for me. . . . I appreciate that quality.”

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By the sisters’ own admission, Suzanne has always played the bad cop, while Jennifer, softer around the edges, plays the good cop.

The Todds come from a supportive family. Mom, a college professor, gives her students five extra-credit points if they bring in ticket stubs from her daughters’ movies.

And of course Mom has her own ideas about what the subject of the next installment of “Walls” should be. She favors one on women in the workplace, one of the topics--along with racism and women’s sexuality--that the producers are rigorously researching.

What makes compelling drama, say the Todds, is when the political, legislative and social changes of the times aren’t in harmony.

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Although HBO gives the producers the creative freedom in “Walls” to focus on issues they are personally passionate about, the cable channel has one demand: movie stars.

“You don’t get to make movies where you’re discovering some wonderful new unknown like Hilary Swank [a virtual unknown before her Oscar-winning performance in “Boys Don’t Cry”],” Jennifer says.

The Todds don’t want to divulge which stars they are courting. However, when Suzanne’s assistant announces that Julia Roberts’ agent, Elaine Goldsmith Thomas, is on the line, the producer turns to a knowing reporter: “Busted,” she laughs.

One nagging question the producers get from agents is why they aren’t interested in male writers and directors.

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“We always say it is absolutely reverse discrimination, and even though that’s true, we’re doing it nonetheless,” says Suzanne, unapologetically. “It’s not that we would never go to a man, but we would exhaust our resources first. . . . Part of what we’re doing here is trying to provide opportunities to women.”

Hollywood won’t be the same after the Todds get through.


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