Debra Martin Chase Biography
Film producer Debra Martin Chase is one of just a handful of minority women who wield power among the back offices at the major Hollywood studios. Chase's job entails overseeing the production of new movies on their way to the multiplex, and she scored her first genuine hit in 2001 with The Princess Diaries. This former corporate attorney had always dreamed of being a Hollywood player, she recalled in a 1997 Essence interview. "I'm the kid who was in the movie theater every Saturday," she told journalist Audrey Edwards. "I've been a movie fanatic since I was a child, and my images of the world were shaped by what I saw on the screen. I want to do my part to see that Blacks are not only represented in film but also enhance it."
Born in the mid-1950s, Chase hails from Illinois, but moved around with her family during her youth. They lived in the Northeast as well as in Pasadena, a suburb of Los Angeles. For college Chase headed east again to attend Mount Holyoke, a prestigious Massachusetts college. After earning her undergraduate degree in 1977, she entered law school at Harvard University. At Harvard, she met her future husband. The couple relocated to Houston, Texas, after graduation day in 1981. Taking an entry-level associate job with a law firm there, Chase realized that she had erred in her choice of career. "I hated every minute practicing law," she admitted to Essence in 2003.
Chase bounced around during the 1980s. She worked as a legal consultant, a freelance writer, and for the 1988 presidential campaign of Democratic Party nominee Michael Dukakis. When her marriage ended in the late 1980s, Chase decided to try to get a job in the film business, and headed to Los Angeles. She knew someone at Columbia Pictures, and won a spot in its executive-training program. One day in 1990, she was introduced to a top executive with the studio, and a few days later convinced him to hire her as his executive assistant.
Never starstruck, Chase admitted that she wavered for a second when she spotted actor Denzel Washington one day in the Columbia studio offices, and worked up the courage to introduce herself. Impressed by her moxie, Washington suggested that they set up a meeting. Even more impressed after their meeting, Washington hired Chase to run his production company, Mundy Lane Entertainment. Chase had attained, in a few short years, the production job she'd longed for. Film—and television—producing involves finding material for possible movie projects. Sometimes the material comes from original ideas in scripts passed around Hollywood, while in other cases books, magazine articles, or even old movies provide the basis for a new story idea. Producers then interest top names in the project, which helps land a deal with a studio to cover the massive cost of filming, marketing, and distributing a film.
Working with the Oscar-nominated Washington, fresh from his success as the lead in Malcolm X, was the lucky break that Chase needed to become a Hollywood dealmaker. "I learned a lot from Denzel," she told Essence. "One of his mantras is 'Let the work speak for you.' He said that if I did good work, I'd be one of the top producers. Period." Chase worked on a number of Mundy Lane projects, including the adaptation of Walter Mosley's crime-novel Devil in a Blue Dress and the 1995 television movie Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream. She was also executive producer for the 1996 Washington-Meg Ryan military drama, Courage Under Fire.
In the late 1990s, Chase left Mundy Lane in order to run pop diva Whitney Houston's production company. Under Chase's leadership, the company scored a major coup in late 1997 with a television remake of the Cinderella story, which starred Houston, Brandy, and Whoopi Goldberg. The musical scored major ratings, with some 60 million viewers tuning in, as well as seven Emmy nominations. Because of her involvement in the updated rags-to-riches tale, Chase was targeted by an agent for a young-adult author who'd written a Cinderella-type novel. Chase agreed to read Meg Cabot's book, The Princess Diaries—about a California teen who learns she has inherited the throne of a tiny European principality thanks to the late father she barely knew—and loved it.
Chase sold the Princess Diaries idea to Disney, and the movie became one of the top-grossing films of 2001, starring Anne Hathaway as the unlikely royal and Julie Andrews as her formidable grandmother. It grossed $109 million at American box offices alone, with the foreign and DVD rights adding even more to its profitability. Chase was thrilled by the success. "It's been amazing and gratifying to see how Princess Diaries spoke to girls everywhere," she told Dinah Eng of USA Today. "When the first film came out in 2001, the conventional wisdom was that if you made movies for boys, the girls would come, but there was no market for girl movies."
Chase also knew that she had finally hit her stride as a producer, she explained to Daily News writer Bob Strauss. Most producers work in a specific niche, she noted, and hers was "these female wish-fulfillment/empowerment movies. I love stories that reinforce…that we each have the power to be whatever we want to be, that we are only limited by our own vision." In her own Cinderella-like career twist, Chase was able to form her own company, located on the Disney lot. She still worked closely with Houston, however, on such projects as The Cheetah Girls television movie in 2003.
Chase produced Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, released in 2004, and was also working on a film adaptation of the Ann Brashares book, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Ideas for future projects include a television series based on Barbara Neely's detective novels featuring an African-American maid-turned-crimesolver, Blanche White. Chase admitted that although The Princess Diaries had made a small fortune at the box office and her future in Hollywood would seem assured after that, it was still a high-stakes game getting any studio to sign on to any project. "People don't want to give up a piece of the pie to anyone," she commented to Hines in Essence. "If you're different—or doubly different as a Black woman—it makes it easier for them to exclude you. They think, We don't know you and don't have to know you."
Home for Chase is the Hollywood Hills, where she has spent more time since cutting back on her once-tough work schedule after surviving a serious car accident and a thyroid condition. She hoped to some day fulfill her dream of moving to Italy in order to write. The future is never far from Chase's mind because she understands how quickly life, especially in her business, changes. "This is a mercurial business," she reflected in Essence. "Too many people think it's going to go on forever. Then they wake up, and not only has it changed, they're not prepared for it."
Films as producer
(Executive producer) Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream, 1995.
(Executive producer) Courage under Fire, 1996.
(Co-producer) The Preacher's Wife, 1996.
(Executive producer) Cinderella, 1997.
The Princess Diaries, 2001.
The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, 2004.
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), August 16, 2001, p. L5.
Essence, September 1997, p. 108; April 2003, p. 138.
USA Today, August 11, 2004.
Variety, May 3, 2001.