nice girls who think big: arlene gibbs, expat hollywood screenwriter

This is the second in the series "nice girls who think big", where I interview women who have taken chances and risks to live the life they want to be living, both professionally and personally. Some people work their whole lives in demanding industries, feeling that they cannot both be in the industry and also take command of their own lives and do things their own way.  And there are people who deny that paradigm and do exactly that - build a successful career on their own terms.

Case in point.  The entertainment industry.  It's so specific to one geographic area.  I lived in the LA basin for years, and I know the magnetic pull that the industry has.  It's mind blowing.  Everything in LA is about seeing and being seen, the right exposure, the right connections.  You can barely pump gas into your car without the attendant giving you his card - because he's trying to break into the "business" and thinks you might know someone who knows someone.  You have to be there, in LA, if you want to succeed in the industry.  That's the going vernacular, at least.

And then there is my friend Arlene Gibbs.  After years in the LA scene, she decided to trade being hyper-connected on a minute-by-minute basis with the serenity that comes with choosing one's own geographic location.  And for Arlene, that geographic location happened to be Italy.  It was here, in the eternal city of Rome, on her own terms, that she wrote the spec screenplay for the hit movie Jumping the Broom, currently in theaters nationwide.

Arlene is an expatriate entrepreneur who has decided that location independence is key to her own personal happiness. I am also fortunate enough to have Arlene here at the B&B as my guest on occasion, and we share many of the same thoughts regarding how recognizing opportunity and taking action to make it work for ourselves are critical to a life well lived.

Here's my interview with Arlene.   You can read more about her thoughts on her popular blog NYC/Caribbean Ragazza.

Arlene, you moved to Rome a few years back after a successful career in film in LA.  How did you get into the industry and what made you move to Rome?

Okay, I will try to avoid a super long answer.  After working in DC and on a several political campaigns in Texas, Little Rock and New Jersey, I moved to Los Angeles to work in film.  It's something I was always passionate about, but I didn't have any family in the business. It seemed like an unattainable dream. Before my move, I started reading scripts for a producer in NYC while working my full time job.  Nobody in Hollywood cares what jobs you've had before.  99% of the executives, agents and producers started out as assistants.  That includes Harvard MBAs or people like a friend of mine who used to make six figures as a lawyer, then went to work at one of the big agencies "on a desk" making less in a year than what she used to make in a month.

Once I arrived in  L.A., I freelanced in public relations while looking for a job. I was offered a position as an assistant to the producer of the movie LOVE AND BASKETBALL. I was the oldest assistant on set.  However, it was a great experience.  That job led to a low level development job (Creative Executive) and I continued a slow and painful move up the D-girl ladder. The hours were long and the pay horrendous.  I did get to work with some very talented people.

My first trip to Rome changed my life.  It felt like home the minute I stepped off the plane.  This made no sense as nobody in my family is Italian.  I had traveled internationally before and as a teenager dreamed of living in either London or Paris.  I never even thought about Rome. Three year later I quit my job and moved.

Do you find that moving to Rome changed the way you viewed yourself, both personally and professionally?

Yes, absolutely.  Professionally, if I still lived in L.A. I wouldn't be a writer. On a personal level, for the first time in my life I feel like I can just "be".  Living abroad I'm defined by my nationality before my race.  In a weird way I can appreciate America more in Italy than I can in my home country.

Tell us a little about your three years in Rome, how being in Italy effected/influence/helped you develop your writing, and what led to your screenwriting debut with the movie Jumping the Broom.

My life has changed a lot since I moved to Italy. Creatively, this is a great place for me to live. I feel very inspired here being surround by all this art, culture and history.

When I was a VP for Forest Whitaker's production company, I wanted to take an Italian class. It had nothing to do with "the business" and I thought it would be a good idea before my first trip to Italy. I was worried he would say no, as I would have to leave work at a reasonable hour, like 6:30 instead of 8:00, to get to class.

Instead he said, "Of course. How can you be a creative person if you're not living in the world?" I think about that quote often. Yes, as an actor Forest might have a different POV than some other people in our business. In Italy/Rome, I'm living in the world in a way that I was not in Los Angeles.

Regarding Jumping The Broom, several years ago writer Elizabeth Hunter and producer Glendon Palmer pitched the idea to me. I thought it was a great idea, but the production company I was working for didn't have any discretionary funds.

Cut to almost three years ago, I asked Glendon what ever happened to that project. He had just read a sample script of mine and liked my writing. I was getting ready to work on another spec (meaning you are not paid to write it) script and we decided it would be Jumping The Broom based on Elizabeth's treatment.

I was advised not to write it by someone else in the business. They said it was too small, would never sell and would pigeon-hole me. I wrote it anyway. The writing process was fantastic. Glendon and Elizabeth had excellent notes. Once the script was ready, Glendon gave it to his boss, Tracey Edmunds and also slipped it to DeVon Franklin at Sony. Sony bought the script.

Most scripts are never turned into movies. Other scripts get stuck in "development hell'. JTB was very usual. The film was in theaters less than two years after I gave my draft to Glendon and Elizabeth. Elizabeth did all the production revisions. It helps that JTB only cost 6.5 million, with the average Hollywood film budget over 100 million, not including marketing costs.

Originally our film was going to have a limited release, about 700 screens. After the very positive test screenings and advance screenings, the number kept growing. Opening weekend we were on about 2000 screens and we far exceed industry expectations. Our small film made $15.3 million beating films that were on more screens and had much larger budgets.

The premiere was a surreal experience.

Arlene, do you view life differently now after your time in Italy?  How are your priorities different now than before?

Yes, I do view my life differently. I have more balance now. Before the move, my priorities were all about work, work, and work. Italy forces me to slow down.

In L.A. I felt very disconnected despite having a lot of friends.  I think Paul Thomas Anderson really hit the nail on the head with MAGNOLIA.  The loneliness in L.A. can be crushing at times, especially if you're single.

So while I still work hard, my social networks are stronger. There's a sense of community.  I no longer feel invisible.