Vice-president of creative affairs for Jane Startz Productions
by Sara Bodnar '03
This profile originally appeared in Bowdoin magazine, Vol. 75, No. 1, Fall 2003
In the children's section of Hawthorne-Longfellow library, flanked by Aesop's Fables and The Giving Tree, lies a copy of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. As a junior, Gillian MacKenzie '94 gained the opportunity to buy books for the art department. She harbored a fondness for children's literature and seized the chance to place the contemporary fairy tale collection on the library's shelves. Three years later, Gillian's eye for stories like The Stinky Cheese Man became a pivotal force in the development of her career.
Following graduation, Gillian began to gravitate toward the business side of children's literature. She worked with children's literary agent Marilyn Marlow, but yearned for a job that would allow her to have more of a hand in shaping the product. "I loved to be able to see the books and talk to the authors," Gillian said. After a two-year position with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gillian made a crucial discovery. A family friend gave her the number of Jane Startz, the head of Scholastic Productions. Gillian and Startz met at a deli in New York, where the two shared their thoughts about children's literature and found they both had a love for tales like The Stinky Cheese Man. As Gillian continued talking to Startz, she quickly realized that she happened to be in the right place at the right time. "I plan on starting my own family entertainment company," Startz told Gillian towards the end of the meeting. "I'll call you in a month."
One month later Gillian started working as vice-president of creative affairs for Jane Startz Productions, a New York City-based film and television company whose niche is family entertainment. "Jane took a huge risk on me," Gillian admitted. "I knew nothing about film and television. I grew up in a house without a television. It was definitely a leap in that sense." But when Gillian arrived at the office on her first day of work, she was relieved to find hours of reading ahead of her. "Everything Jane did was based in children's books," Gillian said. Throughout her reading, she began to search for books to develop into films. "When I started, you could call an agent or publisher about a book that had won the Newberry honor and it would be available for film option," Gillian said. "But now everything has been pawed over, so it's a lot more competitive to get the source material."
A typical day for Gillian now involves a plethora of activities. In addition to finding books to mold into films, she hunts for available book rights, secures film rights, listens to pitches from authors and screenplay writers, and helps find directors and actors. "You babysit the project in many ways," Gillian said. "You're bringing together the best talent possible in order to make the best project possible."
Gillian is currently juggling 20 different projects at various studios like Disney, Miramax, and Paramount. At the end of each project Gillian hopes the movie will encourage children to return to the book. One of her company's recent projects was the film adaptation of the children's classic Tuck Everlasting. After the movie was released in October 2002, the novel was number one on the bestseller's list for children's books. "You definitely have to attribute it to the film," Gillian said. "I read when I was a kid and it was my greatest pleasure growing up. It's nice to see that there are things that bring people back to the book."