Award-winning producers Nikki Silver and Tonya Lewis Lee have been married to their spouses for more than 20 years--but from the way they talk, you'd think they were married to each other.
"It's a little bit like a mating dance," Silver says of their business relationship, seated in a director's chair at a nondescript studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. In 2012, the two launched ToniK Productions (the name was inspired by "Tonya" and "Nikki"), which creates entertainment focused on the stories of young adults, women, and minorities.
Currently, Silver and Lee are working on a film adaptation of Monster, a 1999 novel penned by Walter Dean Meyers, about a 17-year-old African-American student who is wrongfully accused of murder, and faces the possibility of a lifetime in prison -- or even death. There's already a stellar cast lined up, like music artists Nas, Jennifer Hudson, and A$AP Rocky. As an intimate portrayal of what it means to be black in America, Monster is a project that the founders insist has gravity today.
"Our hope is that people will leave the theater and have difficult conversations about race, race in this country, criminal justice, and social justice," said Silver.
The challenges of running a production company
Silver and Lee may have the support of high-profile artists, and some successful projects under their belts (a film adaptation of Lois Lowry's The Giver, starring Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep, and The Watsons Go to Birmingham, based on a novel by Christopher Paul Curtis), but that doesn't meant that running a production company is easy.
To start, the duo finds the stories they deem worth telling--the ones that are often absent in Hollywood--and then pitch them to potential financiers. "We're the ones pushing it up the hill, and the ones that get paid last," says Silver.
Funding for projects are generally meager. While blockbusters (think: The Hobbit) frequently amass hundreds of millions of dollars in financing, ToniK typically sees between $5 million and $20 million. The founders wouldn't disclose the budget for Monster, but it's likely to have fallen in the lower range. "A financier is not going to put $20 million into a story like Monster," says Lee, "so we really have to find people who are passionate about the material and can think about ways of making it bigger than what it is."
Running in a business in a predominately male (and white) industry
Lee and Silver acknowledge that they are no strangers to discrimination and sexism. "There are projects that I've been involved in that, had I not been a black woman, I think would have gone faster, or would have happened more, or people would have been more open," said Lee.
To her point, people of color are still drastically underrepresented in Hollywood. In 2014, Minorities held just 12.9 percent of lead roles in 163 films--despite making up almost 40 percent of the U.S. population. Meanwhile, behind the camera, fewer than 7 percent of major films released since 2007 have had black directors.
Still, the industry is starting to realize that diversification is good for the bottom line. A 2015 report from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA found that, for the third consecutive year, movies and TV shows with diverse casts sell more tickets and earn higher ratings than those with all-white casts.
Darnell Hunt, a professor of sociology and lead author on the study, says that companies "are leaving billions of dollars on the table" by failing to represent what America really looks like on screen.
Here's how you can survive in a cutthroat industry, and create a powerful movement in the process.
1. You don't need as much money as you think you do.
During my visit to the set of Monster, I was struck by the realism of the courtroom: Towering, archaic walls swathed three rows of benches before a wooden stand. The team originally intended to film the trial at a Brooklyn courthouse, but the location was too expensive to justify. "Because of the constraints, we figured out how to build it ourselves," Silver said.
Independent production companies might also outsource labor wherever possible, which could reduce overhead cost. ToniK generally hires external associate producers and researchers on a per project basis.
2. If possible, finance the business yourself, and seek investors later.
Lee and Silver have each invested a significant portion of their own wealth in the business--a feeling that they say is both nerve-racking and empowering.
"You have mornings when you wake up and you look in the mirror and go, 'What are we doing?'" Silver concedes. "But I think we both feel, better our money than someone else's. We're our own masters." ToniK has not yet raised venture capital, but the founders say they're considering doing so in future.
3. Accept that you can't make everyone happy.
The biggest business mistake Silver recalls making was trying to please everyone at once. Lee adds that it's common among women. "Men often just kind of go through and they don't really care," she said. "I was raised to be a good girl, and to please everybody, and still, as a grown woman, I fight against that."
4. Trust your gut, and don't sacrifice too much.
When working on a project that has social and political relevance, it's important not to sacrifice too much of the story for the sake of getting it financed.
"It's very easy to do something for the project that you think will make it easier to get it done, but may not be the right thing by the project," Silver explained. "And in my opinion, that's one of the reasons why there are so many middling films out there."
5. Operate through two lenses: a business owner, and an artist.
ToniK's goal is to find the intersection of art and business. "It's about taste--and yet, at the same time, it is a little about the numbers," explains Silver.
It's important to keep yourself, and your partners, realistic, without making the sacrifices -- taking agency away from a character, for instance -- that you'd regret in the long run.
6. Trust your partners.
Just because you trusted your co-founder enough to build a business doesn't mean the relationship ends there. Lee and Silver argue that trust is something that you continue to work at over time. "We each have egos managing each other," Lee laughs.
Say Silver: "I would say you just keep working on that. It's no different than a marriage."