‘Hidden Figures’ producer Donna Gigliotti began her career as Martin Scorsese’s assistant
The gig: Donna Gigliotti, 61, is the Oscar-winning producer of movies including “Shakespeare in Love” and “Silver Linings Playbook.” As president of New York production company Levantine Films, she produced the acclaimed space-race drama “Hidden Figures,” which is nominated for three Academy Awards including best picture.
Early life: Gigliotti grew up in upstate New York, where her mother worked in real estate and her father worked in insurance. She learned at a young age to never be satisfied with success. When she came home with straight A’s her father would ask why they weren’t A-pluses.
The first movie that Gigliotti saw was “The Sound of Music” at the Stanley Theatre in Utica, N.Y., when she was 7 or 8 years old. That movie didn’t inspire her film career at first. “I came out of that theater being absolutely exhilarated, but I came out thinking maybe I should become a nun,” she said. “At some point I made an adjustment and decided making movies was the way to go.”
At Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, she focused her studies on filmmaking and film history.
Aiming high: Gigliotti knew she wasn’t cut out for a career in directing, but still wanted to get into the movie business. So when she graduated in 1977, her goal was to work for one of three people: Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese. She sent Altman a letter that got no response (they would later become close friends), and she took Coppola off her list after learning that the troubled production of “Apocalypse Now” had taken a toll on him.
Then there was Scorsese. Gigliotti got an unsatisfying job selling non-theatrical films for New Line Cinema. One day, in a serendipitous encounter in a dark screening room, she unexpectedly ran into actor and frequent Scorsese collaborator Robert De Niro, whom she mistook at first for the projectionist. She wrote down her number on a piece of a Styrofoam cup and asked De Niro to give it to the filmmaker. Two weeks later, she got a call saying the “Taxi Driver” director was looking for an assistant, and she went to his office for an interview.
“I said, ‘There are two things in the world I really want. One’s a Cartier watch, and the other’s to work for you,’ ” Gigliotti recalls. It was a bold move, and he gave her the job. When she eventually moved on, Scorsese gave her the Cartier watch — and a note that said “Get some new goals.”
Intro to L.A.: Gigliotti was Scorsese’s assistant for almost two years during the production of “Raging Bull.” She journeyed to Los Angeles for the first time when Scorsese was casting “The King of Comedy,” where she arranged dinner meetings at the L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills with George Lucas, John Cassavetes and Samuel Fuller.
“You just thought, ‘Oh, this is what Hollywood is all about,’ ” she said.
Winning formula: Gigliotti joined the studio system in the early 1980s, with executive roles at specialty division United Artists Classics, and later Orion Classics, known for acquiring indie and foreign films. But Gigliotti hankered to do more than that. Her idea was to make specialized movies at a relatively low cost, focusing on stories that would appeal to under-served audiences, particularly women.
“In the theatrical business, there’s nobody who actively makes the movies for those segments,” Gigliotti said. “You’re not hitting home runs, but there’s money to be made if you’re keeping your negative costs in check.”
Setbacks: She set out in 1990 to raise $100 million to start her own production company with Steven Spielberg and Scorsese, with a goal to make $13-million movies for specific audiences. Gigliotti threw in the towel after a year of failing to find investors, but still believed in making lower-budget movies for select audiences.
In love with “Shakespeare”: While working for Miramax in 1993 as executive vice president of production, she persuaded co-founder Harvey Weinstein to extract the screenplay for “Shakespeare in Love” from Universal Pictures, where the script was languishing. Once Miramax secured the rights, Gigliotti took on the project as a hands-on producer alongside Weinstein. “We were not executives in a normal sense of the word,” she said. “We did everything.… You were acting as a baby producer.”
She won the 1999 best-picture Oscar, sharing it with Weinstein and three others.
But instead of using her momentum to produce movies on her own, she went back to being an executive, a move she calls her “one regret.” She spent two years as president of production at Barry Diller’s USA Films in the early 2000s. In 2010, she joined the Weinstein Co. as president of production, where she produced best-picture nominees “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Reader.”
Calculated risk: Gigliotti finally went independent in 2014 with Levantine Films, a production company backed by Houston-based Crest Investment Co.
About three years ago, she read a 55-page proposal for a book called “Hidden Figures” about black, female engineers and mathematicians who helped get the first Americans into space. Gigliotti thought that the idea had commercial potential. It was a story of triumph over adversity that she thought would connect with two big demographics that have traditionally been underrepresented in Hollywood.
“Many people thought I was crazy for even thinking that there was a movie in a story where the three leads were African American women, and the story was fundamentally about math,” she said.
She turned out to be right. The film, released Christmas Day by 20th Century Fox, has grossed more than $120 million in the U.S. and Canada so far.
Personal: Gigliotti lives on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson River. Her hobbies include skiing (both on water and snow). She still wears the Cartier watch that she received from Scorsese.
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