Industry Pro: Film and TV Producer and Production Consultant Robert D. Cain
The career of today’s profile subject seems almost preordained when you find out about his childhood. Parents with an interest (and background, in the case of his mother) in the film business coupled with an inexplicable early sense that China would becoming a dominant force in the world seem to be the key ingredients to what Robert Cain is doing now. His company name, Pacific Bridge, could actually be his job title. Read on to find out about how his internships helped pave the way and about how his first paid day was also his worst day…
Current position (or recently-completed project or projects): I am a founder and partner in a company called Pacific Bridge Pictures, which is focused on film & TV production in Asia and co-productions between Chinese and U. S. entities. We have several projects in development; a low-budget romantic comedy, for instance, that will shoot in Mandarin for the Chinese market. We are developing English-language films that will shoot partly in China and partly in the U.S. And we are representing studio pictures with budgets of up to $200 million each, helping the studios attract partners and financing from China.
Acting as the intermediary between the major U.S. studios and Chinese film entities and financing entities? Yes, exactly. I should mention we do consulting, too. We’re working with some producers in China on animation projects and with U.S. entertainment companies, advising and doing business plans.
Hometown: I was born in New York, but grew up mostly in Cincinnati, Ohio. My family is all in New England now.
College and degree: A Bachelor’s in East Asian studies from Harvard College and an MBA from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.
What made you major in East Asian studies? It sounds like I am making this up, but I had an epiphany when I was 12 years old growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio that China was going to become very important to the world. And at 12, I wasn’t thinking about money or anything like that. But I was interested in China and I decided to commit as much as I could to learning about it and going there and doing work there. This was in 1974, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, although I didn’t know anything about that at the time.
Did you have an internship while you were in school? The summer between my two years at Wharton, I turned down a very lucrative summer job consulting in New York to intern in L.A. for New Line Cinema and for the Writer’s Guild. I couldn’t afford to do that, but I did anyway. I wanted to get into Hollywood.
What made you want to be in entertainment? What were you picturing when you envisioned working in the industry? I had always loved movies. My parents both had amateur involvement in entertainment. Actually, my mother worked for MGM when she was younger. So an appreciation for movies was kind of in the blood. I decided when I started business school that I want to have some involvement in entertainment. So part of the purpose of interning was to come check it out, see if I liked the business and if I wanted to live in LA, and, if so, to get a sense of what I wanted to do.
What did you learn from your internships? Did they entice you? Yes, absolutely. They were both great. New Line was terrific because it gave me a rotation through an entire mini major studio. I got to work in development, casting, marketing, and distribution. I got to meet the people running those departments and work with them. At the Writer’s Guild, I had a very specific project doing a study on the creative rights of screenwriters. It gave me the desire to learn more about screenwriting, which ultimately I picked up and started to do on the side. And in addition to the internships, I started working as a script reader for a couple of different companies, including Edward Scherick’s. He was a prominent producer at the time.
When you got your MBA, did you move out here right away? Literally. I had my diploma in hand, grabbed my new wife, jumped in a beat-up old car, and drove across country back to L.A.
And what was your first job in the entertainment industry? My first paying position was with the Screen Actor’s Guild as the Director of Research, which really meant I was the first MBA they had ever hired. My main focus was providing the Guild Leadership and the president with information on the industry, and especially supporting them with their negotiations with the studios and the employers of the actors.
So give me an idea of your career path from there. Okay. My idea, which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend, was to become a generalist and work in as many areas of the business as I could.
After SAG, I went over to the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers (AMPTP), which is the Collective Bargaining Organization for the major studios. I ended up doing the negotiations for all the talent guilds. And then I went to Spelling Entertainment, Aaron Spelling’s company. I was the head of business development there, launching new divisions. I worked in finance, creative development, distribution, marketing… That was really great. I got to launch a couple of companies together with some of the executives there. We launched what became a very big TV division, Big Ticket Television. I also had a hand in building Spelling Films, which did a lot of great movies.
Then I launched an entertainment-related startup. It failed, but it got me a taste of being outside of corporate roles and being entrepreneurial. My career since then has really been, you know, what I described producing and consulting. I have had a few stints that I can mention. I have made some movies in China. I worked in Russia for three years, setting up and running production companies. I have launched digital media companies. A few of them have worked out, some of them haven’t. I did other advisory work for the studios in Hollywood and for entertainment companies around the world.
It sounds like when you left Spelling, your experience had been with domestic film and television. When did you pull that China piece from your childhood into the picture? Actually, while I was at Spelling, almost from the time I started, I seized the responsibility of approaching Chinese buyers to try to make some sales. And I had worked in China before that as early as 1987. But as far as entertainment goes, in 1995, I started interacting with Chinese companies and potential buyers and partners. Nobody had enough money at that point to buy any of our shows, but I was focused on developing relationships. Then the first major project I did was in 2001 when I was brought in by CCTV, a big Chinese television network, to help them produce a television broadcast, a ‘three tenors’ concert called, “Three Tenors of the Forbidden City.” I advised them on production and taught them how to do delivery to international buyers and then I sold the broadcast rights around the world.
You mentioned that you had worked in China before Spelling, but that it was not in entertainment. I started doing strategy consulting right out of college for one of the big Boston firms called Monitor Group. I was in China for about three years, then I got a client for myself in Hong Kong and moved there. I wound up living in Hong Kong and Taipei, Taiwan and a little bit in Shanghai for a few years.
Now I’m going to ask you a few questions about your path and your point of view, et cetera… The first question is, “What’s the best career advice you ever got?” One of the heads of the television department at Universal told me to just be politely persistent, that that had been the key for him to getting where he was. What he meant was, it’s an industry that tends to reject; you know, put up walls, reject people, reject ideas, even good ones. You just have to bulldoze through that, but in a way that will encourage a long-term relationship.
Now, I’m looking for a “eureka” moment when you realized that you did or did not want to do something or that you should do something differently. The thing that jumps to mind is screenwriting. I first had a notion that I wanted to write screenplays in college. I’m a good writer and I always did very well with my writing. But for some reason, it was daunting. I was afraid of plunging in and writing scripts. And it took a real push. I was in Russia running a production company, having an incredibly difficult time finding anything that I could produce. Sort of out of desperation, I started writing, thinking that I could write better than the stuff I’m seeing. It was hard for sure, but I found immediately that I loved it and I was good at it. I kicked myself at the time for not starting 20 years earlier. And the lesson was that I had let fear get in the way and I lost a lot of time not pursuing something I really wanted to do. Since then, I have won all kinds of awards and I have had interest in my scripts from production companies. It’s only been a few years since I actually started writing, but I know I will get some things produced before long.
So describe a typical workday in your current position or your current position? I have very long days by choice. Once I get my kids off at school in the morning, I probably spend half my day in meetings with a mix of writers, directors and producers, production company executives, partners and clients I’m advising. I try to limit that to half my day. The other half I spend writing, which could be writing a business plan or a contract. It could be working on a screenplay, although that tends to happen after hours. And then late into the night, I will be on the phone with China and sometimes people in other places around the world.
What is the worst job or worst day you’ve had in the entertainment industry? I don’t want to name names, but the summer I came out here, my internship wasn’t starting until a week later so I took a temp job with the office of a very famous producer. I wasn’t working directly for him. I was working for the head of business affairs. But I was walking by his office and noticed him sitting in an office just basically munching on a sandwich doing nothing else. So I just very sort of politely said hi and asked if I could take 30 seconds to tell him about myself. He said yes, so I did and then I told him I’d love to get him my resume. He said sure. And then at the end of the day, I saw him walking down the hall. He was talking to somebody. I just said, “Oh, hi. I’ll send you my resume.” He looked a little upset. I got a call from the temp agency that night saying that he had called to tell them that I was not to show up the next day, that I was never to contact him again, and that I was probably never going to work another day in the industry.
That’s crazy. But not unheard of. I probably overstepped my bounds. But I know I wasn’t obnoxious. Anyway, you run into those I’m glad I did it. I haven’t had a worse day than that since. I guess if I’m going to have a worst day, having it on the first day is probably the best way to do it.
So what’s the best thing about your current job? Oh, so many things. My favorite thing is working with other people and even working on my own to create stories, telling stories. That’s why I came here. It’s really telling stories that can have a positive impact on people, that shed light on some situation or problem that deals with what it is to be human and in an uplifting way. You know, when I really step back from it and think about it, I think what we do in this business of making movies, it’s very important. And to me, that can be spiritual at its best.
What’s the worst thing about your current job? I think it goes back to something I said earlier. The worst thing is when I realize that I am letting my own fears or belief in my limitations get in the way of doing the best that I can. It can be a very daunting and challenging business and I am really most effective when I set my worries aside. I try to be as positive and productive and generous as I can and the worst times are when I realize that I haven’t been behaving that way because I’m being selfish or fearful.
I’m looking for a brush with greatness. It can be a celebrity encounter or just being exposed to somebody being brilliant at what they do. One of the things that brought me here was a movie called FIELD OF DREAMS written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson. And in my internship for the Writer’s Guild, as luck would have it, Phil Alden Robinson was on the board for the Writer’s Guild and he had a personal interest in writer’s creative rights. So I got to work with him. One time I asked him to sit down and tell me how he put together FIELD OF DREAMS. It was a great story. He’s great storyteller. It was very inspiring and exciting to meet somebody like that and get to work with them in my first few weeks in the business.
Have you connected with him since to tell him what impact he had? Yeah not in a while but, yes, I did. I corresponded with him from time to time.
Next question: What’s the one thing you wish you would have known when you started? I wish I had known that I could write a screenplay and finish it. Then, more than that, that I could do it pretty well.
What do you consider the secret of your success and/or what advice would you give to somebody starting out in the business? Find yourself a mentor, a true mentor. Someone who is 10 or 12 years older who has been down the path that you want to go, who you genuinely connect with, who will take an interest in helping you along the path, giving you valuable advice, you know, helping you through challenges. Find someone who will make a personal investment, who will take a stake in your success.
What is your next move? Where do you go from here? Well, it’s very possible I’m going to move over to China again in the near term. Whether I do or don’t, I’ve put together a company that is focused on creating scripts and projects for coproduction between China and the U.S. So I’m raising money for that and, you know, getting that up and running is really the next step.
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