One of the most important lessons Fuzzy Door Productions president Erica Huggins has applied in her career is how to say no.
At the production company Seth MacFarlane founded in 1998, Huggins oversees the creative direction and development process of the company’s feature films and television series. She’s been the executive producer on projects including Peacock’s “Ted” and “The End Is Nye” and Netflix’s new animated take on Norman Lear’s “Good Times.”
A key lesson has been how to champion “material that you really believe you can win with,” she told TheWrap for this week’s Office With a View. “Most people want to hear the truth and sometimes it’s hard to say no to somebody [or] that you like something but you don’t love it, or you don’t know how to push it through the system of development and get it made,” she added.
Before rising through the producing ranks, Huggins started out as an apprentice editor on John Waters’ “Hairspray.” After doing more films with the iconoclastic filmmaker, she went on to work with Allan Moyle, Touchstone Pictures and Interscope Communications on “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag.”
Interscope later recruited her as a producer — “something that I had no idea what it was about,” Huggins recalled. But she was excited about the move: “They had faith that a person who could tell stories in editing could do that in the development process.”
After a 10-year stint at Interscope and 14 years at Imagine Entertainment, she found herself stuck on the film production side of things at a time when streaming was elevating the importance of TV series. That’s when she made the move to Fuzzy Door, where she could pursue both.
Talk to me about a specific experience where you applied the lessons learned over your career.
I worked back in the day with [Dustin] Lance Black on “J. Edgar” and over a series of years tried to get the rights to “Under the Banner of Heaven,” which was this stunning book that Jon Krakauer had written. I knew the only reason that he agreed to meet with us was because I had gotten Lance to read the book and say he would write the movie.
Lance wrote a beautiful script, we set it up in a big studio and then the world changed. At that time, the streamers were the ones who were doing the big dramas, not the big studios. And so when the door closed on us getting the movie made at the studio, we decided to rethink it as a limited series and then we pitched the show to FX. They loved it, the show was a huge success and Lance was the glue that held all of it together for all those years.
I left Imagine before the show was actually greenlit because the business at Imagine wasn’t set up at the time for an executive who ran the movie department to run a TV show. So that was my cue to think about another path. Fuzzy Door gave me the opportunity to learn new skills and find a way to change my situation.
Was there anything you had to unlearn to continue to excel in your career?
I was pretty good at what I had done in the movie business and thought I could apply that knowledge to the television business. In some cases, it is a one-for-one — you’re working with writers, you’re writing scripts, you’re making content. On the other hand, a showrunner was something completely new. And so that was a really interesting change.
The other thing was there was a whole ecosystem of people in the television business that I had never met and they didn’t know who I was. So there was a learning curve for me in building those new relationships and trying to use the relationships I had with directors and writers who were moving from movies to television.
The last thing I would say is that the six-act structure in TV is very different than the three-act structure in movies. Even if you’re a rule breaker like I am, those lessons are still very much in place, and you can’t break the rules successfully unless you know the rules. So it took a little while to understand how it would work and what the ingredients that made a great pilot were.
What is a common industry problem that you believe needs to be solved, and how would you solve it?
We are such a divided country and trying to make universally exciting entertainment has become more and more stressful in terms of how you reach everybody. And I think the idea is still to try and reach as many people as possible and not just make content for a particular small group of people. So I think that’s a big problem and solving it is [about] being able to open ourselves up to seeing how the world is responding to things and making adjustments.
What is your advice for young people looking to break into the business?
Imagine had a very robust internship program. I’ve used that model at Fuzzy Door. So we have anywhere from five to 10 interns every summer and we keep some interns on throughout the year. They start to understand the process and the way that you and your company do things. So there are a lot of people who start as interns that become PAs, that become assistants, that become executives. The hope is that you’re creating a place where people want to keep moving up, want to be part of and stay within the context of the company that you’ve created.
I think outreach is really important, finding avenues to bring people into the business. If they’ve already had a career or started something or have an interest in something, you can use that to become a producer. Having an understanding of particular subject matter is really important in making movies and making television and knowing what you like is so important.
I talk sometimes at classes at UCLA and USC and a lot of people ask “How do I make a movie these days?” or “How do I become a writer?” And I think that there are so many opportunities now to find programs where you can be mentored, but you can also make a movie on your iPhone these days. When I started out, making a movie entailed a huge amount of very expensive things that were very hard to do. I think that people now can actually find their way to the movie business in a slightly different way.
What should content creators be keeping in mind to ensure they’re reaching the widest possible audience?
I think entertainment has a lot to do with zeitgeist and timing. It certainly does in the movie business… sometimes you get to the end of the deal-making process and what felt really, really timely or even evergreen, we’re looking at six or nine months later [and] you have to readjust because the world changes so quickly.
I think that the mood of the country has a lot to do with it too. Right now, everybody’s talking about blue sky and making things that make you feel good and nostalgia. I think that’s all true. When I look at movies, when I want to watch something on television, I don’t want it to be a bummer. I’m looking for things that make me feel like there’s some sort of positive, fun idea at the center of it.
That doesn’t mean that we’re only gonna make fluff pieces but I do think there’s a way to look at the world and mirror our world [in a way] that is hopeful, that doesn’t have to feel bleak. A big theme for us is the idea that there is hope and there is something to be joyful about and to hopefully take away that entertainment is supposed to feel good at some point. Even when you’re telling a drama or when you’re talking about true crime and there are things that are happening that aren’t necessarily positive, we as humans react in complicated ways. So sometimes laughing and crying can happen at the same time.
What do you look for in pitches?
What I would say is there has to be some hope at the center of it. I don’t think we would do anything where it just felt completely bleak, where nobody was going to win, where everybody felt sad.
The idea of genre is really important these days and that means every kind of genre. Mixing genres like science fiction and comedy, or creating a ’90s half-hour comedy that lives in a more nostalgic world that we can look at and have fun making fun of our world today through the lens of that nostalgia, I think is really timely and also evergreen.
When you look at science fiction, you can talk about things that aren’t necessarily modern-day imagery through the lens of science fiction or tomorrow’s world and you can say things that you couldn’t say if you were making a modern TV show or a modern movie. I’m not saying we’re not doing modern-day, we are, but oftentimes it’s a lot easier to make fun of and to look at really hard things through the lens of the past and the future.
Are there any trends that you’re looking at?
There are only so many [streaming] subscribers. It’s finite and, at some point, people aren’t going to want to pay for 10 different streaming services, they’ll pay for one or two.
As the business shrinks and as we see some of the streamers go away, there’s still an audience for high-level, elevated material and sometimes that gets lost in the conversation. I do think that when you’re seeing something well-produced at a high level, it’s just so much fun to watch… I understand that half-hour sitcoms and reality shows are definitely part of our world today, but I do think that we all do still tune into those shows on HBO and Apple and Netflix that make us come together as a society and in a different way than we could before streaming happened. So trying to lose that, I think, is a mistake.