Black, Blonde and Bold. Making it in Hollywood When You Don’t Fit the Mold.
It’s not every day you read an excerpt from a late 18th-century Scottish poem at the start of an article related to breaking it into the movie business. But bear with me. In more ways than one, this poem bears witness to the life, times and career of Yolanda T. Cochran.
Yolanda spent just over 12 years at Alcon Entertainment, where she oversaw the productions of such films as Blind Side, The Book of Eli, and Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. By the time she left in 2014, she was Executive Vice President in Charge of Physical Production (the #4 person at the quickly growing mini-studio). She’s a member of the National Board of Directors at the Producer’s Guild of America and she’s a member of the Academy. Since leaving, she has consulted at Netflix, started a small story IP development company, co-produced the “Breaking the Glass” video and podcast miniseries for Radio Film School, and is currently in the screenwriting process for an original sci-fi action feature she’s co-writing with her husband. Like the hit song from the musical “Hamilton” that illustrates why the eponymous founding father was so accomplished, this woman is “Non Stop.”
Yolanda has had the pleasure to work with some of the most talented filmmakers in Hollywood, but her journey was…
- Not at all what she planned
- More rewarding than she dared to imagine, and
- Also fraught with a generous portion of pain, doubt, frustration, anger, and disillusionment.
No matter what aspect of the business you aspire to reach, she has a story and a lesson for you. But to understand where she is now, you have to go back—back to where she began.
Yolanda grew up in Houston, TX—daughter to a Creole father who was a manager of a company that sold grocery store supplies. Her mother was a welder and member of the United Steelworkers Union of all things. (I can’t help but imagine a black “Rosie the Riveter.”) As an African-American union worker, Yolanda’s mom was predisposed to “fight the power” during the chaotic years of the 70s when race and labor relations were volatile.
“There are those choice few memories from childhood that make VERY strong impressions on you” Yolanda shared with me. “Among them for me were my parents’ fights and break-up AND my mom and aunt’s union meetings and the strike. I was there at the picket lines and at the union hall at various occasions. There are many of my mom’s old coworkers who remember me being there at the hall telling people which sign-up sheet they should sign. It’s why to this day I’m VERY pro-union. Atypical perhaps of a producer who’s primarily worked on the side of ‘the studio.’
The young Yolanda’s penchant for telling people which sign-up sheet they should sign was no doubt a precursor to her role as a producer, specifically heading up physical production. Her path to becoming a producer was not one she intended though.
Those School Daze
Ironically enough, Yolanda didn’t even go to film school. She was an accounting major at the University of Southern California’s Leventhal School of Accounting.
“If I had done what I thought I was going to do, I probably would’ve been back in Houston, overseeing some company like Enron at some Big Six accounting firm. But lo and behold, I met JD Cochran, and everything changed.” [Laughs]
If you haven’t figured it out yet, JD is Yolanda’s husband, an indie filmmaker and talented writer in his own right. And it was this chance meeting that diverted Yolanda from the path to Big Six partnership.
“I didn’t officially go to film school. I feel like I tangentially went” [giggles].”I went to USC and met JD who was enrolled in theater arts at the time, and very soon after applied to the film school and got in as a minor; but through him, I met many, many of our life-long friends, who were also in the film school. Actually, I joined a campus organization…AAFA (African American Film Association).”
I would be remiss not to interject during this part of Yolanda’s story, and give some context as to these friends to which she’s referring. They’ve all gone on to varying degrees of success in all aspects of the industry—actors, writers, producers, etc. Names like J. August Richards (who played Charles Gunn on Angel and Deathlok on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), James Lesure (who played Mike Canon on Las Vegas and Holly Robinson Pete’s husband Mel Ellis on For Your Love), Dayna North (a writer and Co-Exec Producer on HBO’s Insecure by Issa Rae), and Prentice Penny, the Exec Producer and Showrunner of the aforementioned HBO comedy hit. But before any of these guys were who they are today, like most people who start out in this business, they ran around town, making scrappy short films for school. And Yolanda was right there with them.
“And I was doing all the stuff they were doing, except I wasn’t doing the cutting and splicing of the 8mm film, but I was carrying around equipment, camera-operating at times, and I recall several late nights!” [breaks out laughing] “I remember this one night, it was so freaking cold, I was both starring in my friend Edu’s short, and also, like, gaffing. I will never forget it. It was about video games. Instead of Nintendo, it was NoFriendo, and I was standing in the cold, wearing this short skirt or something, while holding this light. So I feel like I got an honorary film degree while I was there.” She laughs again.
As she reminisces about those days crewing and acting in student films, it becomes glaringly apparent how genuinely fascinated and enamored she is with the whole process, in particular, the importance of collaboration.
“It’s amazing how collaborative it has to be to really get the best work. But you know, we all tend to see and revere only a handful of individuals for any one project, and there’s sooooo many people who are involved in making that film or TV show come together.”
I couldn’t help but ask her, “How did that make you feel when you were in that less revered position?”
“Oh, I didn’t care.” [We both laugh] “It’s funny because, my Twitter handle is rat_in_a_wheel, and the reason it’s rat_in_a_wheel is because I enjoy that behind-the-scenes work. I want to be the person running around making sure there’re pencils on every desk, and there’s paint and supplies…so when Picasso shows up, he’s got his paints, and everything is set up just like he wants it and he can create this beautiful painting. And I love that part.”
“What is it about that you love so much?”
“Well. That’s a good question. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that each project is its own unique puzzle, and I love solving puzzles.”
She pauses again as this topic raised an issue that has obviously been a point of discussion between her and her husband.
“JD always gets on me about this… my regard to myself as a creative person. I definitely have some creative input to give to the world. However….hmmm….how best to say this? I have very definite perspectives, that I would like to see communicated through art. But I don’t necessarily want to be the person who’s like ‘Oh, I’m going to direct this!’ That’s not me. I’m not that kind of artist. I don’t enjoy that. I enjoy being a part of pulling all the pieces together. I can literally appreciate a great painter, let’s say, or a great artist. And them being able to put together a beautiful picture. I’m so amazed and so appreciative of a great film, or a great TV show. And so, I feel like I can offer to those filmmakers, from a story standpoint, or even sometimes a visual standpoint, ‘Oh this would be beautiful, or that would be beautiful, or this is a great message to put in there.’ But me actually putting paint to the paper, that’s not within me. So I really dig providing the tools for those artists to be able to create this beautiful work of art. And so that’s why I feel like I’m a producer, because that’s what producers do.”
“So, it sounds like you’re incredibly self-aware about what you’re good at and what you’re not. How important do you think that is in this business, and how much do you think it actually exists?”
“I don’t think it’s important at all.” [cracks up laughing]
“You don’t think it’s important at all?” I can’t help but laugh with her.
“No! I think it’s rare for someone to have self-awareness. Particularly for what they’re not good at. There’s something so harsh about the business that you have to be, almost crazy…well, [maybe] not crazy. But there has to be such an overwhelming amount of confidence and gumption, to really make it. And to really push yourself and to really be heard! Quite frankly. I think the people who can excel at it, very rarely are self-aware. They just think they are amazing. You almost kinda have to. You have to think you’re amazing. Maybe it’s a testament to where I am, or the amount of time it took me to get to where I got to, regarding my self-awareness, thinking ‘I can’t do this, or I can’t do that.’”
“What do you mean by that? How long it took you? Because you were too self-aware, you didn’t excel as quickly?”
“Yes! For sure.”
“When you reflect on that, would you have done things differently?”
“I would do things slightly differently, but not too much. I mean… I like my journey. I personally am very glad that I’ve done all the things that I’ve done, and kind of been the kind of person who had no problems making photocopies or whatever the case may be, and doing every job, because quite frankly, the experience and knowledge base that I have is entirely owing to all the things I did that a lot of other people might necessarily didn’t do to get to the same level. But, I have such a vast knowledge base and experience and reference base. And I wouldn’t have that deep well without having done all the things I did and spent all the time I spent.”
“So, would you say you have no regrets?”
Without any pause, she immediately, confidently and emphatically answers “Oh no, I don’t have any regrets. No regrets.”
“Ahhh. I like that you answered that pretty quickly.”
“I, at a very young age, like in Junior High School I think, made an agreement with myself that I would not have any regrets.”
“Tell me about that.”
“I was literally like, ‘I’m going to be deliberate about the things I want to do. And that doesn’t mean I’m not going to make mistakes. But if I make mistakes, I’ll just learn from them; but I’m not going to beat myself up about making a wrong choice.”
“How do you think that’s served you over the years?”
She contemplates her response. “Uh….that’s a good question. I think it’s just made me kind of, uh, not necessarily fearless, but a little bit bold and like, not afraid to take chances. If you’re not really going to be afraid to make mistakes, you’re more likely to try more things. Life’s too short. We don’t have time to, you know, spend time on the past!” [Laughs]
She’s Gotta Have It
I was still curious to know how an accounting major, albeit one hanging out with and actively participating in the projects of film students, made her way to Hollywood.
After graduating from USC, she spent the next two years working the entertainment side of the accounting firm KPMG (where she eventually earned her CPA.) She also continued to help her film school graduate friends on their respective projects.
The next significant diversion along her path came in the form of a phone call from a recruiter to become a production auditor at Disney (who at the time still owned and ran Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures). It was her job at Disney to make sure all the productions adhered to Disney’s operational procedures. This was her first “official” job in the entertainment biz.
After Disney, she took her first major leap of faith and freelanced as a production accountant for five years. It was a move that went against the straight-laced, business major side of her. It was a scary endeavor. But she always found work. I asked how she was able to stay so busy for so long.
“Everything is who you know in this business. I had gone out auditing shows that Disney was producing, and I met several production accountants who liked me, even though I was there to audit them.”
Naturally, this begged the question, “Well, what if you don’t know anybody?”
Her response: “You gotta start somewhere. Once you get a start, and if you’re good, people will keep you going.”
“Yeah, but that’s my point. How do you get a start if you don’t know anybody?”
“You gotta start literally at the bottom. You have to have a little bit of luck, a little bit of opportunity. You gotta be willing to keep knocking on doors and knocking on doors, and be willing to take literally, the lowest rung thing that someone needs. And what inevitably happens, is there’s too much work for the number of people around; and if you’re halfway good at something, people are more than happy to throw you more work. And if you’re good at that, they’re gonna keep wanting you to work more, and then the next time they’re gonna want to hire you for something more elevated.”
She Got Game
A common theme for Yolanda during these early years in the business was that she lived up to that role of being great at her job and people coming back for more. And it was precisely because of her talent, hustle, and work ethic that yet another recruiter called in October of 2002. This time for the relatively young production company, Alcon Entertainment.
“I was hired initially as production controller, which was essentially all production finance related. However, they had not previously had someone in-house who was in charge of the oversight of physical production per se. So because I had the proficiency when I came in, over time, I took on a lot of that functionality, and in January of 2006, I officially became head of physical production, in addition to all the finance side.”
For all intents and purposes, a head of physical production is like an in-house line producer, handling production finances and logistics. However, whereas a typical line producer is only involved during pre-production and principal photography, a head of physical production continues work on a project throughout the post phase, up until the film or TV show is delivered to the distributor.
Now, I realize that unless you’re a left-brained analytical type, the stories and reflections of a line-producing, production-auditing, finance-managing professional might not float your boat. But this is where I think Yolanda’s unique background and perspective shine. As she mentioned earlier, she’s not your typical producer type. She has an appreciation, love, and respect for the creative side of the business that you might not normally associate with a producer or studio representative. She has a profound level of admiration for all kinds of creatives: from writers to actors, and yes, even to post professionals.
“I will tell you. We had some movies that we shot…and I won’t name the names of the movies or who they were, but we had some terrible performances by people. And it was like,’Ugh! This is going to suck!’ And it was like, important characters in the story. And we had some editors create some performances like you wouldn’t believe! And after that, I was like, man, these actors need to be sending these editors like gold watches or something, because they crafted a performance in editorial, from cutting. And here I am like, ‘Oh, those performances across the board sucked and so now the movie is going to suck because the performances are so bad, and then you get to post and you’re like ‘Whoa, that actually comes off really kinda good!
The Inside Woman
When you have an opportunity to speak with someone who’s worked on Oscar-winning films with creatives and business people at the highest echelons of the business, you take that opportunity to get some inside knowledge. So I straight up ask her, “Are there any particular productions that come to mind, that stand out to you, in terms of either the work involved, or any stories that happened that you can tell me.”
She starts to laugh at the question before I can even finish it. “I think probably my favorite film to work on was The Book of Eli.”
“Why is that?”
“I think because I had assumed a level of authority that I felt was warranted and that I aspired to. And I was being brought in and actively involved on the production side of things FULLY. But beyond that, from the filmmaker side of things, it was really a lot of fun to interface with the Hughes Brothers. Those guys are interesting characters unto themselves. They are down to earth guys. They definitely have a very specific creative vision. And it’s obviously unusual to have a directing duo, and even more so, a directing duo that are twin brothers, AND a directing duo that are twin brothers that are biracial, African-American on one side, Armenian on the other side. I mean, those guys are just characters, they would have so many stories. They have so much creative talent. And it was fun to see that all come together throughout the process. It was so wonderful to see two minority directors do such great work, be so adept at what they were doing, and have the opportunity to work on the kind of picture that it was. It was just so refreshing and it gave me so much hope and it gave me a lot of pride to be able to be involved in that.”
Her work on The Book of Eli (as well as The Blind Side) opened her world up to a larger involvement in every aspect of the creative process. It seemed at that point she began to evolve into the consummate producer, so I wanted to know if she thought whether it was important for producers to know some specific aspect of the business well (similar to how directors are encouraged to know about lighting and editing).
“Interesting though that you ask the question because there’s been a big shift and change in content creation in the last ten years. I’m a member of the Producers Guild, and I’m on the education committee, and I felt strongly about it, that I wanted to spearhead a seminar we did on visual effects. Because I feel like in the last ten years, there’s been a dramatic shift in that, almost all content you see has some visual effects component. It’s stuff you wouldn’t even think has visual effects. I’m not talking about superhero movies. I’m not talking about fantasy films or action adventure. I’m talking, run of the mill dramas that have visual effects in them. And I truly feel that producers do themselves a disservice when they don’t understand the entirety of it, from soup to nuts, how visual effects is incorporated into your project, what are the tools that you need to be able to understand it, to be responsible with it, to do it effectively so that it adds to the creative content, so that you’re not wasting time and money; so that you’re approaching it strategically and effectively from the start, not just when you get to post and you say ‘Oh we need to fix that!’ or ‘Oh, we’re going to do visual effects in the end.’ But then you do all these things that shoot yourself in the foot while you’re shooting, that is going to add time and money to your post budget because you thought it was a post issue, when it’s really something you should’ve been thinking about from the early stages of pre-production.”
She gave as an example the drama/thriller Prisoners, the Alcon Entertainment movie directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terence Howard and Maria Bello. There was a good amount of visual effects in that movie that no one would imagine. Villeneuve wanted a particular tone and look for the film that required more rain than fell naturally. So in order to add rain, as well as match looks to shots throughout the film, VFX were heavily used.
At the time of the interview, I didn’t know Alcon had produced that movie.
“I didn’t know Alcon did that movie.” I tell her. “That would explain why they’re working with [Villeneuve] to make Blade Runner .”
“Yeah. He’s a great director.”
“Um, yeah!” I enthusiastically concur. She laughs. I continue. “I’m really looking forward to that one. Is Harrison Ford a replicant in that one?”
She and I both laugh at my lame and rather blatant attempt to get the answer to one of the greatest sci-fi movie debates and mysteries in cinematic history. Whether or not Deckard, played by Harrison Ford in 1982’s original Blade Runner, is himself a replicant (a scene in the director’s cut that wasn’t in the original theatrical release, suggests that possibility).
She coyly responds, “Everyone has got to show up in October to find out.”
“So for your job then, you have to read a lot of scripts ahead of time, right?”
“Yeah, yeah, for sure.”
“So then, as a film lover, was that hard for you? Reading all these films you’re essentially spoiled on.”
“Oh my god! I’m spoiled on it so much more by so many other things!”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m speaking for me personally, you lose all objectivity with a movie, at least I do, because you’ve seen it in all its shapes and forms, naked, warts, everything. It goes through so many phases. And I’ve said this before, I feel like there are three “writing” periods. There’s the actual writing, of getting it on the page. There’s the production “writing” where the actual filming of a movie or TV show, there’s something about it that writes itself in the performances, in the direction. Like there’s a life breathed into that piece during that timeframe. And then editorial, post, that’s an entirely different writing/rewriting period to me because there are so many creative choices you can make about what you captured on film and how you present it to elicit reactions to that material. To emphasize things about the material, that maybe on the page might not have been emphasized; but if someone shoots it in a certain way, like a close-up on someone’s mouth? If you’re on a close-up on someone’s lips during a bit of dialog, that will automatically lend an immense amount of importance from the words coming out of their mouth that might not be on the page. So that’s another writing phase in post. A big one.”
The various and varied topics we discussed during this interview illustrate a resolve and boldness that is poignant, refreshing, and at times comical. At one point I brought up the movie Swimming with Sharks, where Kevin Spacey plays a cold, heartless, movie exec that runs an assistant over the coals. I commented on how it’s supposedly based on the writer/director’s real-life experiences with producer Joel Silver. Yolanda laughed and said…
“Yeah. I’m sure. I’m sure. All you have to say is Joel Silver.” Laughs again.
“Can I quote you on that?”
“What was he like? I’ve heard bits and pieces but…”
“That guy. I mean, I’m not holding it against him. He has a body of work that few people have done. But he is like, a bull in a China shop. He’s one of those individuals I was referring to earlier, that is furthest from self-aware. He just wants what he wants when he wants it, and fuck off everything else…” she laughs “…and that’s just how he is. And maybe that lent to his success.”
Yolanda has no shortage of colorful commentary and opinions. And that was particularly evident when the topic of La La Land came up (the Oscar-winning, and best picture nominated 2016 musical from Damien Chazelle). Boy, did that strike a nerve. After a big sigh and laugh, she says…
“Ok. I’m going to be completely candid with you about La La Land.”
“I would expect nothing less.”
“As I was watching it, I was like, ‘I have to keep watching this movie to see how ridiculous it continues to be.’ ”
“It was like watching a car wreck. Or not a car wreck but…Oh god!” She laughs. “Here’s the thing. I’m conflicted. There are things about La La Land that I have a TON of respect for. That opening number was amazing! Because I know what it took to be able to do that. I know all the things required to be able to pull that off on that freeway. All the different departments. All the pre-record, the rehearsals, the photography, the shutting down the freeway, the choreography. The vehicles. The…oh my god. Pulling that shit off is like crazy town! So, I have such enormous respect that they did it. But then, I’m just like….I don’t care!” Laughs. “It’s just ridiculous. It’s a ridiculous scenario.”
“But why? It’s a fantasy scene. That didn’t really happen.”
“Yes. Yes. But…that’s not my cup of tea I guess. It’s like, “Oh, that’s cute. What did I really learn?”
“It’s a musical!” I retort, defending what was actually my most enjoyable movie-going experience from last year. “What musical has a musical number where you think, ‘Oh, what did I learn from that?”
“I just… I don’t care. Maybe musicals are not my cup of tea.”
“Did you not know it was a musical when you entered it?”
“I figured as much. But having said that, here’s my thing, and maybe why I’m not big on musicals, but, I’m not cool listening to some fucking music and singing just for the sake of it. If you’re going to do it, advance the story. All they did was dance and sing about being on the freeway in L.A.”
“It set..” I try my best to get a word in.
“Ugh I can’t!”
I try again to interject amidst her rising emotions. “It set the story up. The whole song is about coming out to Hollywood and making it. They’re telling her story.” (Referring to the main character Mia played by Emma Stone who won the best actress Oscar for her performance.)
Begrudgingly Yolanda responds. “Yeah. Yeah. I’ll give it that.”
Personally, I think she caught the movie on a bad day. She acknowledges how amazing the photography and production design were. And she loved Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash and felt that it was worthy of a Best Pic nod. But there was just something about this particular movie that didn’t sit right. I think more than anything, it was the time period the movie harkens back to and the socio-political climate in this country at the time she originally watched it. (She admitted as much by the end of our discussion on the topic that that was most likely her issue.) She also wasn’t crazy about the lack of African Americans in predominant roles in a movie with so much focus on jazz (John Legend notwithstanding).
There was too much funny, provocative, and insightful material to mine from that conversation not particularly germane to this article. So if you’re so inclined, I excerpted that discussion from the full interview which you can listen at the end of the article. You won’t be sorry.
You should now have a pretty clear picture of the person and character of Ms. Cochran. She’s bold. She’s confident. She knows what she knows and puts life and her career in perspective. All good traits to have in this business.
But when it comes to the discussion of where she is now, and where she wants to go, we start to see the slightest bit of vulnerability, and dare I say, angst.
“In the last few days, something has been coming and reinforced in my mind, and to a certain degree, rather disheartening.” She briefly pauses then… “It’s actually not been a great thing, as a black female, to achieve the level of success that I’ve achieved.” Surprisingly, this causes her to laugh as well.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because…you get to a place where you have a certain amount of confidence, you have a certain disposition, you have a certain way you present yourself, and you’ve achieved a certain level, so that the next stages of development require even greater stature and ascension, and as a black woman, there are barriers to continue that. You’re almost disserved by attaining that level, because you hit that glass ceiling and you can’t keep going.”
At this point, it’s worth noting that since leaving Alcon, Yolanda consulted for Netflix for nearly a year, but has run up against that proverbial glass ceiling when applying for studio and production company jobs commensurate with her experience. In a few of cases, she lost out on physical production lead jobs to men (both white and African American) with a fraction of her physical production experience.
The positive side of all that has been the ability to spend more time with family and work on the aforementioned science fiction script with JD. But, the experience has been somewhat demoralizing. She continues.
“I was having a text conversation with a colleague of mine, and it’s a conversation JD and I have had, [where he asked] ‘Do you think it’s your hair?’” (You guessed it. She laughs.) “So I mentioned this to a female colleague of mine—actually a business partner—as I was having a short pity party for myself, and I said ‘I think I may have to change my hair.’ And she was like ‘Wow. Now that you mention it, you may be right. Maybe you need to change the color.’ And I was like, ‘I actually think the length is a far bigger issue than the color.
“There’s this thing that I think is holding me back, and there are a lot of barriers, and biases, and obstacles that women face and minorities face and definitely that a double minority faces. But you get into these situations and you can’t point to it. And you can’t pinpoint it, and you can’t say for sure, ‘Oh, I didn’t get an opportunity because of this; you can’t say ‘Oh it’s because I was a woman.’ Because there’s plausible deniability.
“[And my colleague] had just sent me this article of this Harvard study that demonstrated that females, in order to be able to continue to advance, need to be seen as “warm” by their colleagues. Whereas, for men, it didn’t make any difference. And I was saying to her, ‘I exude a certain amount of confidence. I don’t think I’m brash, I don’t think I’m boorish, or anything like that. The problem with the length of my hair is that it makes a very definite statement. And the statement is, ‘I don’t feel the need to conform to your idea of womanhood. And I think that, coupled with a lot of things, all rolled up, may suggest to people who haven’t spent time working with me, and understanding what I can do, and valuing what I can do, may not regard me as warm.
“And so, I’ve definitely come to understand how unconscious biases affect professional relationships and professional development. And it’s going to take active, deliberate countermeasures to right the ship on that.”
“So, what’s a bold, confident, short-haired blonde African-American woman to do?” I ask, somewhat in jest.
Laughing heartily, she replies. “Ha! That’s a great question. I haven’t figured it out. But when I do, I’ll tell you.”
I have a sneaking suspicion, that this little mouse, or rather, this “rat in a wheel,” will be more like a cat, and land on her feet; ready to pounce the next big opportunity that comes her way.
Photography by Jenny Sherman