Stephanie Allain Biography
Brought Street Culture to Columbia, Made Muppet Movies, Began Homegrown Films, Selected works
Independent film producer
In the 1990s Stephanie Allain became one of the most respected and powerful producers in Hollywood, holding positions at Warner Brothers, Columbia, and Jim Henson Productions. She became known for her ability to create independent-style films within the studio system, making a huge impact at Columbia as producer of Boyz N the Hood, the 1995 debut of writer and director John Singleton. Before Singleton arrived at Columbia, Allain was one of twelve readers at the studio, and one of only two black readers. She was influential in encouraging and developing a black filmmaking community in Hollywood that began to flourish at the start of the late 1990s. Between 1996 and 1999 Allain presided over Jim Henson Productions, where she was responsible for overseeing such quirky children's movies as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland (1999) and Muppets from Space (1999). Allain's talent has always been best applied to hard-hitting movies with "street" influences. In 2002 she was named as one of the top fifty power brokers in entertainment by Black Enterprise magazine. Since 2002 she has directed her energies to her own production company, Homegrown Films.
Stephanie Allain was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on October 30, 1959, to Dr Charles Allain, a biochemist, and Gwen Allain Miller, an educator. She has a sister, Pamela, and a brother, Greg. During her early childhood the family moved from New Orleans to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, eventually settling near Los Angeles, California, in 1965. Allain was educated at Catholic schools in and around Inglewood, first at the Cathedral Chapel School and later at St. Mary's Academy for Girls. After graduation she attended the University of California, Santa Cruz, graduating with a bachelor's degree in English and creative writing. She considered signing up to the master's program in critical analysis, but was attracted by the opportunity to write and study dance in San Francisco. By 1985 Allain's ambition and drive was beginning to surface; she was disillusioned with the poor rewards available to dancers and moved back to Los Angeles. She married Mitch Marcus in 1988 and they have two children, Wade and Jesse. They divorced in 1999.
When Allain arrived in Los Angeles in 1985 she was pregnant and desperate to find work she could do while looking after a baby. Almost immediately she picked up some work as a freelance script reader for various agencies including Creative Artists Agency (CAA); within three months she had landed a staff position reading scripts three days each week at CAA. She joined the Story Analyst Union in 1987. Allain had a talent for reading and assessing scripts and quickly earned a reputation for accurate judgments. She worked at CAA for a year before being hired by Amy Pascal at 20th Century Fox as a reader. When Pascal moved on, Allain applied to Warner Brothers and was hired as a reader and analyst on a salary of 75 thousand dollars in 1988. But the twenty-two week strike by Hollywood writers that year meant that studios cut back and Allain was one of the first to lose her job. She was again hired by Amy Pascal, by then working at Columbia, and as she explained to Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) she became Pascal's "mouthpiece and record keeper."
Brought Street Culture to Columbia
In 1989, within a year of being hired, Allain was promoted to creative executive at Columbia, with responsibility for shepherding movies through the production process. She told CBB that she became a "golden retriever" for Columbia executive Dawn Steel, seeking out promising projects and bringing them to the table. One of the projects Allain rounded up was John Singleton's groundbreaking Boyz N the Hood. She explained that at the time Columbia was in the process of being bought by Sony and about to move to new premises at Culver City. There was very little activity at the studio, which was "in disarray." When Singleton's script arrived she described being overwhelmed by its power. Set on the streets of South Central Los Angeles, the movie portrayed an environment familiar to Allain. She was determined to champion Singleton and his project, which arrived at exactly the right time: "After nothing happening, suddenly there was this big thing."
Boyz N the Hood was a groundbreaking movie for its hard-hitting realism and its "street" outlook. It also brought black ghetto culture into mainstream movie theaters, so the process of persuading Columbia to make such a new type of movie was far from easy.
Allain described to CBB how she pitched the project to each of the Columbia executives in turn, persuading them to read the script. Most of the feedback was positive, but when it came to the final meeting none of the executives who had expressed support were willing to go through with it. It finally came down to the deciding vote of Frank Price, an industry veteran with a reputation for conservatism. Despite the movie's violence, its attitude, and its non-mainstream ghetto edginess, Price actually liked it. Once approved, the movie went into production within two months, showing at Cannes within a year. Boyz N the Hood was a huge hit, winning its writer/director John Singleton two Oscar nominations and several other awards. Costing between five and six million dollars to make, it brought in around 60 million dollars and established Allain with a reputation for being able to make what she described as "independent movies in the studio system."
Made Muppet Movies
Allain stayed with Columbia until 1996, supervising over a dozen films in her time there and rising to Senior Vice President of Production, the highest position ever held by an African American in the organization. Her choice of projects at Columbia reflected her interest in small-scale productions with a big impact. For example El Mariachi (1992) was originally budgeted at just seven thousand dollars but managed to gross over 2 million dollars and in the process make a name for its writer/director Robert Rodriguez. Allain teamed up with Singleton again to produce 1995's Higher Learning, a campus movie with a charateristically hard edge. Then in 1996, after the birth of her second son, Allain moved to Jim Henson Productions, where she produced Muppets From Space (1998), and The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland (1998). The difference between the decidedly adult movies she worked on at Columbia and Muppets from Space, which carried the tagline "Space: it's not as deep as you think," is significant. But when asked about it Allain told CBB that she brought a more adult tone to the Muppet brand. Despite its perceived lack of success, Muppets from Space grossed over 127 million dollars at the box office.
Allain admitted that her time at Jim Henson Productions was a career mistake. She thrives on networking and contact with people, and the small-scale, isolated world of what she described as "basically a repertory company" left her cut off from contacts in the rest of Hollywood. In 1999 she quit Jim Henson Productions and spent almost a year away from the industry, writing scripts and a novel; she also took hip-hop dance classes with her son. In 2000 she took charge of 3 Arts Entertainment, developing projects with Chris Rock and Matthew Broderick, among others. Over the course of two years she rebuilt contacts and, as she put it, was "reintroduced to the crowd." In 2002 she started her own production company, Homegrown Films.
Began Homegrown Films
Allain's commitment to making movies, and her excitement at being involved in what she sees as an "explosion" in black Hollywood in the first few years of the twenty-first century, drove her to sell her home to bankroll her production company. Her first movie as an independent producer was 40, a short film by writer/director Michael Caleo that made its theater debut at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2002. In the meantime she also produced Biker Boyz (2003) for Dreamworks, citing her time on set on this movie as what made her an independent producer "by accident." In 2004 Allain was focusing on Hustle and Flow, the work of first-time writer/director Craig Brewer, a white, Southern filmmaker for whom she had high hopes. After several years of trying to find backers for Hustle and Flow, Allain finally teamed up again with John Singleton to make the movie.
Allain's career has taken her from high-level executive positions in major studios to battling for money in the independent filmmaking scene. She also teaches producing in the Entertainment Studies division of the University of California Los Angeles. With Hustle and Flow she told CBB she is "poised to be a real producer," making the movies she wants to make. Despite the problems of being outside the major studios she said she is "pleased to be out…if I'm sleepless at night thinking about the movie I'm happy."
Films as producer
Boyz N the Hood, 1991.
Poetic Justice, 1993.
El Mariachi, 1994.
Higher Learning, 1994.
I Like it Like That, 1995.
The Craft, 1995.
Muppets from Space, 1998.
The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, 1998.
Biker Boyz, 2003.
Good Boy!, 2003.
Hustle and Flow, 2004.
Black Enterprise, December 2002.
Biker Boyz, www.bikerboyz.com (October 28, 2004).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Stephanie Allain on October 28, 2004, and from material supplied by her.
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