It never ceases to intrigue me, the route or path taken by others that I discover through blogs/interviews. Their background, interests, motivation, passion are as unique as their fingerprints. I had the chance to discuss, in length, the amazing story of the trail blazed by top film industry executive Suzanne Lyons. She went from Miramichi, NB to Los Angeles: really makes me shake my head in amazement. These are two polar opposite places in every way imaginable.
Jim: Could it be that your two film divisions; one called Snowfall Films and the other Windchill Films were named for sentimental reasons or are a reminder of why California is pretty consistent with great weather year round? On a more serious note, I am sure you get back home when time permits and the good people of Miramichi must be proud of you as all of New Brunswick is.
Suzanne Lyons: Yes, you are absolutely correct. One of the things I miss about home is the beauty that comes with that first snowfall of winter. Not necessarily the cold, but certainly the beauty. And it makes for a great looking logo (http://www.snowfallfilms.com). Wind Chill was another all too familiar New Brunswick word that we heard most winter mornings and I thought that would make a fun name for the horror division of Snowfall Films. I really love the Wind Chill logo as well (http://www.windchillfilms.com).
I do try to get home every summer for three weeks. I’ve been home for a few Thanksgivings as well and plan to do more of that. And a few of my sisters and brothers (I have 5 sisters and 2 brothers) are talking about all getting home for Christmas in the near future.
Movies and My Mother Saved My Life
Jim: Growing up in New Brunswick, were you attracted to theatre, stage, and film at a younger age? Did you foresee or internalize that one day you would become a force in the entertainment industry. Was this somehow preordained or a combination of experience and opportunity?
Suzanne Lyons: I think it started on an unconscious level for me. I went to a one-room school in Millbank from grades 1 to 7 and I have to say, I was not a big fan of school. I liked recess and the Christmas concerts and those types of things but I really didn’t like the subjects. However, when the teacher would show the Newsreels to the older students I was mesmerized. I loved… absolutely loved the newsreels. I didn’t care what they were about; I just lost myself in the story of whatever it happened to be. That escape into another world for me was like an incredible adventure.
I recall another moment like that when I was eight or so and my cousin Rosemary and I went to see the “Sword and the Stone” at the Vogue Theatre in Chatham. When that little boy pulled the sword out of the stone it was magical for me. Movies could take me anywhere and I loved the anticipation and the excitement. I loved the escape.
I spent a great deal of time in the hospital as a child. I had a benign tumor behind my eye which continued to grow from the time I was two until I was eleven. It became malignant when I was going on twelve and I had well over a dozen surgeries by then. Although I loved my hospital stays and those trips to Saint John and Montreal, the intense fear of the surgery itself and my growing phobia of needles were at times overwhelming. I think that because the newsreels and films transported me to another world for a while, the joy and freedom I associated with that was a healthy escape. Even now watching the opening of a movie feels like Christmas morning to me. (Suzanne credits her Mothers love, inspiration and intuitive sense with saving her life, Even her doctor was convinced that was the case)
Preparing and Prepping for the Road Ahead
Jim: So in high school you were part of the theatrical scene? What course/program were you enrolled in at the University of New Brunswick (UNB)? Did you obtain additional education/studies after graduation?
Suzanne Lyons: In high school I participated in the drama club and at University (UNB in Fredericton) drama was my second major. In my third year at UNB we launched our on-campus TV station and I was one of the people who literally laid the cables in the tunnels of UNB to get it started. My first job when we launched was to be the camera person for a basketball game and I will never forget that moment. I fell head over heals in love with the whole idea of producing and directing for television. I knew I had to finish my degree (English and Education) and I had a year and a half to go but I still applied to a bunch of Broadcasting Programs across the country. I ended up choosing Fanshawe College in London, Ontario and after I graduated from UNB I studied TV Broadcasting (with some film courses). So yes, experience and opportunity, I guess, both played a part in my choices.
Chasing the Challenge
Jim: You worked for a few of years in Moncton, N.B., at the Canadian Television Network (CTV) – affiliate ATV where you were directly involved in creating, producing and directing for commercials, news and specials, and then for a number of years in Halifax at ATV/ASN where you became a Vice-President of Marketing and Promotions. Given the experience and exposure to the production and financial aspects involved in the televising process was your next move to Philadelphia part of a career path or more of an opportunity? For it would take you into the realm of sales and distribution of film along with television.
Suzanne Lyons: I was blessed to have had the opportunity to work at ATV in Moncton and then ATV/ASN in Halifax. Both were fantastic work experiences… great people, wonderful learning curves and excellent cities. The thing with me is that I really need a challenge all the time and once I’ve learned how to do something I want to move on to the next thing. My husband is the same. We met at Fanshawe College and like me he loves to keep learning.
Suzanne Lyons & James Thorpe
We tend to look at the world as our playground and although we loved our jobs at the time we were in a discussion about what was next and we thought, why not try the UK or France or the US? One of my favorite quotes is Helen Keller’s “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” I try to live by it as much as possible. For us at the time, we didn’t have kids and didn’t want them so we had no real responsibilities. So why not apply to a few places and see what happens. Within three months of sending off our resumes we got jobs in Philadelphia where I worked in domestic and international distribution for film and television, stayed five years and then continued west to LA.
Flash Forward to Snowfall and Windchill in Los Angeles, Outrageous!
Jim: You were the co-founder of the Flash Forward Institute and I would like to know about this and how it came to be?
Suzanne Lyons: A lot of my background, when I was at ATV/ASN, was in marketing and promotions and when I moved to Los Angeles, I quickly saw how people in the entertainment industry (especially creative people) were terrible at marketing themselves. I consider myself to be pretty entrepreneurial and it would never occur to me to relinquish my power and hand my career over to someone to manage and control. Yet, that’s what is done a lot here in Hollywood. You hear people say it all the time… “Getting more auditions is my agent’s job,” “I really want that directing job, but it’s up to my manager to make it happen.” I could go on and on about this. It makes me crazy.
I believe we are the president and CEO of our company. Whether a person is a writer, director of photographer, costume designer, whatever, we all need to take 100% responsibility for getting out there and making our careers happen. I was only in LA four months when I met Heidi Wall, who shared my opinion about this, and we started the Flash Forward Institute with our signature program being the Flash Forward workshop. I’ve led entertainment industry seminars to well over 15,000 people in the US and Canada.”
I haven’t had much time the past few years but I am planning a few workshops this fall here in LA. It’s great fun to teach this program. It’s a month long program where people take on a goal (a big goal) and with the help of their team, coaches, mentors and the business tools I provide, they get to accomplish those goals. Very cool and lots of fun. BREAKING NEWS: Suzanne has just made it known that The Flash Forward Institute returns this fall (2011) and three seminars have been booked including the famous Flash Forward Workshop! More Info at http://www.flashforwardhollywood.com
Jim: In Los Angeles you co-founded Snowfall Films Inc. from which you have produced at least 6 feature films (http://www.snowfallfilms.com) and have worked with many high caliber actors including Christopher Walken, Naomi Watts, James Caan, Alfred Molina, Brenda Blethyn, Jon Lovitz, Dean Cain, Wynona Ryder, Peter Fonda, Adrian Paul and Ariel Winter. You have been awarded a BAFTA, had a film shown in the Directors Fort Night at the Cannes Film Festival. An amazing track record. What was that like to be honored for your work and especially by your peers?
Christopher Walken & Lee Evans (Undertaking Betty)
Suzanne Lyons & Alfred Molina (Undertaking Betty)
Naomi Watts (Undertaking Betty)
Suzanne Lyons & Adrian Paul (Seance)
Suzanne Lyons: It’s always great to win awards and especially fun to go to the festivals and events to receive them. In 2004 “Undertaking Betty” was the highlight of the Osaka Film Festival in Japan. After the screening I was interviewed on stage (with an interpreter) and then signed programs for hundreds of people. It was so much fun, I felt like a rock star. And of course being at the Cannes Film Festival for our nomination for “The Heart is Deceitful” and Montreal for our award for “Jericho Mansions” (which I shot in New Brunswick!) and in Cardiff (Wales) for our BAFTF for “Undertaking Betty”… all great fun”
Jennifer Tilly & James Caan (Jericho Mansions)
Jim: Snowfall Films Inc. created a genre division, aptly named Windchill Films Inc. and has experienced great success by selling two films to Lionsgate and one to Screen Gems. In fact the film “Séance” won Best Picture at Shockerfest. You obviously foresaw horror returning and being in vogue again and took proactive measures by creating Windchill Films, Inc.? Again, anything looming on the horizon for Windchill?
Suzanne Lyons: I was lucky that I got a few horror films produced before the market saturated in 2007. These films were done for what is called the SAG ultra low budget which is $200,000 and under and we had so much fun producing them. Got into some great festivals and won a few awards with these films as well. While we were shooting our horror films we worked with a writer to develop what was going to be our next one. It’s called “Most Likely To…” and it’s about ten friends who get together for their high school reunion and I’m not going to say any more because I don’t want to spoil it for you. I still plan to make it but the last few years have not been great for this genre. However the economy is turning around and the market demand for genre pictures seem to be coming back so there is a good chance the time is right for this project.
Jim: What can we look forward to in the near future, feature productions wise?
Suzanne Lyons: What’s next is amazing. I am in the process of raising the funding for an animated Christmas feature, “OMARR THE CAMEL”. I’m working with Byng Productions in Nova Scotia and I have interest from Randy Travis and Amy Grant, and Ariel Winter (“Modern Family”) has just written a song for the film. I have a website set up called http://www.omarrthecamel.com. I’m working with Producer, Michel Shane (“Catch Me if You Can” “I Robot”) on a Mini Series of a historic WWI family drama, “SCOUTS HONOUR”. I have a courtroom thriller, “HARDCOURT”, by writer Mark L. Smith (“Vacancy”), and an action suspense project by U.K. writer Leslie Rogers titled “GETHSEMANE” with Roger Spottiswoode (“Tomorrow Never Dies” “Turner and Hooch”) interested in directing.
I am really excited about two other Canadian projects that I will be producing. One is a thriller based on a Canadian best-selling novel “THE CALLING” and the other is based on a Newfoundland manuscript called “MISTY’S MISADVENTURES”. It’s a hilarious comedy and the writer has just completed the screenplay. We were one of the winners of the Toronto Women in Film and Television Development Incubator program, a program designed to develop Canadian film projects. Since my husband is a big TV producer/writer here in town I took full advantage of him and he wrote a one-hour TV pilot for me called “Out of Time.” It is a detective story with a bit of a sci-fi element. As you can see I’m keeping busy but having a ton of fun at the same time.
Jim: I had the chance to look over “Outrageous Strategies” and the tips you pass along in demystifying film jargon and the industry are both brilliant and basic. By basic I mean you take the reader to a translated world for all to understand. A technique you also employ on your you tube channel. How did you or was it just natural for you to speak to instead of at clients, Audiences?
Suzanne Lyons: Yes, I’ve been leading seminars of one sort or another for twenty-five years now and I think the technique you are referring to is how I have always taught. I never lecture. My form of teaching is all conversational in tone. I think I started teaching to learn things for myself. I would take something I found difficult or confusing and break it down into language that was easy and fun to grasp. Plus I add a lot (a lot!) of humor which makes the learning process (and the teaching process) so much more light and fun. My book is written that way as well and Focal Press seems very happy, which is good news.
Branding Your Buzz and Having Fun
Jim: You are a much in demand speaker and a quick look at your speaking engagements gives me a snapshot of 40 such commitments, plus your coaching sessions, and workshops. You are one busy person, how do you keep it fresh and relevant? You seem to have embraced Social Networking, as you now utilize twitter, you tube, face book amongst your networks. Do you feel it is imperative to keep in line with the ever changing technology in terms of communications?
Suzanne Lyons: Yes, branding is the big buzz word these days and when I read Gary Vaynerchuk’s book “Crush It: Cash in on Your Passion” I really took it to heart. He is a big believer in the power of social networking. I’ve been building my network slowly, beginning with a free monthly newsletter that is based on “10 Tips” about something to do with the entertainment industry. For example,“10 Tips to Creating Relationships in the Entertainment Industry,” “10 Tips to Getting a Mentor,” “10 Tips to Getting Investors.” People sign up by going to the newsletter section of my website, http://www.suzannelyons.net/newsletter
I had started the free newsletter nearly a year before I read Gary’s book pretty much because I love teaching and because I was so busy with my films, writing the newsletter was a great way for me to continue to teach. I get such lovely emails from people about the impact that my newsletters has had on their careers and what surprises me is that many of them are not even in this business. They have just taken the tips and mapped them on to their own lives and careers.”
I started turning my “10 Tips Series” into E-Booklets last summer and am nearly finished writing my seventh one which is on “10 Tips to Getting Investors.” I wrote six last fall and had to stop because of my book deadline but having fun starting to write them again. I have a total of twenty titles planned and three more that are personal stories I want to tell. Doing the research and getting quotes from industry professionals helps keep me up to date and fresh. I also provide a daily tip on my facebook page called “Outrageous Strategies.” These tips follow the theme of that month’s newsletter. This past March I started taking the “10 Tips Series” and doing a Tuesday and Thursday YouTube and recently I’ve been inviting guests to join me on my YouTube. They are only five or six minutes and really fun to produce.”
In addition, when I was having my personal website designed early on in the process of my social media campaign I really made a point of creating a consistent look. The logo, my headshot and even the color scheme on my various internet sites and channels is consistent. Even my personal business cards match the site. I started slow and just took it a step at a time. When I got my book deal with Focal Press to write “Indie Film Producing: the Craft of Filmmaking” they emphasized the importance of getting my social networking numbers up. So I was thrilled that I had already started that process. My job now is to continue getting the numbers up. I recently became a partner and instructor with an incredible online University for performers. We are launching August 1st and I think being part of this group will really help increase my online presence. Our goal is to get tens of thousands of hits per week. You can check it out at http://www.mastertalentteachers.com
Who Says You Can’t Go Home Again
Suzanne is coming home to the Miramichi on vacation this summer and on July 24th she’ll be teaching a one-day version of her “Indie Film Producing” workshop. For details/information click on this link: www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10150349749298135&id=672348134#!/event.php?eid=177753532279623
Jim’s Final Thoughts
Suzanne Lyons is a master of many things. Because of her thirst for challenge and new quests, she continues to evolve. She has a way of tearing off veneers or facades enabling others to grasp and apply techniques relevant to any pitch, product, in or outside the film industry. She is clearly comfortable in her relm and speaks in a clear manner, almost as if to say “got it, apply it, let’s make some profit and have a hellva time doing so”. But, don’t confuse her laid back persona with indifference because she brings a wealth of experience and hands on experience into any arena she is in. She is not where she is by just talking the game but by doing it. Her story is one of “Why Not Me” and taking control of her destiny. She is proud of her ownership of success, proud of her New Brunswick roots, her family and shares easily her pride in them. “My sister Deborah, although not in the entertainment industry, has a very interesting life. She is Canada’s Deputy Ambassador in Washington, DC. An amazing job! I think growing up on the Miramichi (and our Mom’s influence as well) had a big influence and impact on her as well. Her daughter, Tessa, just graduated from Harvard in May.”
Suzanne is a straight shooter, in a world of double speak. It is like a breath of fresh air talking to her. Good on you Suzanne and thank you for sharing.