Cathy Schulman’s rise from Yale theater studies major and playwright to her current position as president of Mandalay Pictures included stints in film production, development, acquisitions, financing and three years programming the Sundance Film Festival. She won an Academy Award as producer for best picture “Crash,” and suffered through a much publicized legal battle with Michael Ovitz, whose one-time production company, APG, she briefly headed. Schulman talks with Eric Estrin about going from the depths to the heights — and how it feels to be sued by the most powerful man in Hollywood.
There’s no question for me that the low point of my career was being sued by Michael Ovitz and receiving an initial ruling that I had lost, a result that was later vacated by the court. I don’t usually talk about this. The only reason to revisit it, really, is to view it with the perspective of time, because I learned a lot from the whole experience.
I’ll never forget the day I walked out of my house, knowing there was going to be something in the paper about the lawsuit, but I didn’t know what. I was by myself standing in my front yard, and I saw the L.A. Times lying there with two giant color pictures above the fold — one of me and one of Michael Ovitz, telling the story about how in this David and Goliath case, me being David, Goliath had won.
I don’t want to get into the details regarding what the suit was about, but it was an employment dispute regarding the job I had at APG. I unfolded the paper, took one look at it, and I remember being frozen — frozen in time and space. The moment was right there. What do you do on the worst day of your career?
I stood in my driveway and I made what I thought was the most important career decision of my life. I took that page and removed it from the rest of the paper. I didn’t read the article and I folded it up, put it in my purse, decided to go to work and I never looked back.
If there was ever a moment, that was it. And the trick to it was to think, you know, it was embarrassing, it was terrifying, it was financially crushing, it was going to affect everything in my career and family and everything else. I was 35 years old. And I said, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to make my own company, my own kind of movies, and try to do the best I can to tell the kind of stories I wanted to tell, which was the reason I got into this business in the first place.
Like, what was your choice? You’re either going to fold and collapse — and he’s a very formidable foe — or you try to go on. There I was, standing right there in the driveway of my house, forming Bull’s Eye Entertainment at a time when I had no capital and had probably had the most career damage of any time in my life, which is not when you form a new company, but I did it anyway.
I don’t want to suggest that I got it together right at that moment; I think I was a quivering wreck for probably about a year. But I was intellectually decisive. It made me realize that the things that can make your life go crazy, like the external forces, have nothing to do with your internal goals.
I basically put the blinders on to all of the financial crumble and all the drama and all the press and all the stories and all the news. I feel that I learned so much in that time about the importance of pulling yourself off the pavement and getting back up. And it was only shortly thereafter that I was standing on stage receiving an Oscar for “Crash.”
Litigation teaches you a lot. It teaches you to be a really good strategic thinker. It teaches you to see the forest through the trees. But most importantly, it makes you unflappable, because litigation is a series of many battles. You lose some, you win some. And through all that, I think I’ve become better at everything I do.
So in a funny way, it was sort of a gift. The process strengthened me, and I feel like nothing could ever knock me down, career-wise, again.