Lisa Cortes knows a thing or two about switching careers. The film producer, who produced dynamic films like “Shadowboxer,” “The Woodsman” and “Precious,” originally started in the music business as a manager at Def Jam Records. She helped shape the careers of several artists, including Run DMC, Public Enemy and LL Cool J, during her tenure, but realized after clocking in more than 10 years in music, she wanted to explore an interest that sparked during her undergrad years at Yale University. “My first passion was music and then I moved into this other space,” she said. “I’ve always loved film. I had studied film theory and production when I was in college.” Cortes was then able to develop that interest into a full-fledged career as a film producer and founder of her own production company — Cortes Films — which totally has us in awe.
We had a chance to talk with the Hollywood Power Player about her career, her professional relationship with Lee Daniels and what she learned from working with one of the most iconic record labels in hip hip history.
HelloBeautiful: How did you decide to make the transition from music to film?
Lisa Cortes: My transition had to do with two things 1) hitting the glass ceiling in the music business and 2) saying I want a different kind of platform to continue to tell the kinds of stories about people who are misrepresented and I wanted a platform that was not limited to language. I worked with artists who had made incredible songs and albums, but if you didn’t know and speak English, you couldn’t access the message in the work. I was sitting in a movie theater in India after I left the music business and I went away to clear my head and figure out what was next. I saw film. I didn’t know what they were talking about, but I knew what was going on. That really was that ‘Aha moment’ for me of like, ‘I still have stories and characters and worlds that I want to share and that I want to give a platform to that has integrity and that has global reach.’ It was that call to go back home (back to film).
HB: Are there any lessons you learned at Def Jam that helped you transition into film?
LC: One of the biggest things I learned from Russell Simmons is that you have to look at your artist as a total package. What do they look like? What do they rhyme about? What kind of artist is looking for them? That total process was very instrumental in terms of me being a producer and looking at the integrity before delivering it. When I was working with the team, there were many places that we took hip hop where it had previously been unwelcome. There was a time when MTV was not playing the videos. It taught me a lot about understanding audiences and how to present to them and how to consistently deliver in the right package. I discovered that there were so many things on the timeline from inception to creation to delivery that when I got into film, there was a similar creative process.
HB: What does it mean to be a producer of a film? What are some of your responsibilities?
LC: The producer has the wonderful opportunity to work with all aspects of production. Both the business side and the creative side. I’m involved with every hire, keeping the project on budget, supporting the creative vision and taking the project from a script to production to sales and delivery to a distributor. A producer gets their hands dirty, you can’t produce from a far. You need to be in it and wrap your arms around all aspects because it is a team effort and you have to put together a great team and support your team.
HB: Speaking of team, you have Lee Daniels as a friend of yours and worked with him on several projects, including “Precious.” How did you get involved with his team?
LC: The first project that Lee and I worked on was “Monster’s Ball.“ Lee and I had known one another for many years. When I left the music business and started working in film, it wasn’t an immediate transition. I produced EPKs, I helped young student filmmakers, I went to festivals, I volunteered, I immersed myself in that world to learn as much as possible. Lee called and, through the years, we had talked about projects he wanted to produce. One day he called and said, ‘I’m going to New Orleans to make a movie, come and work with me,’ and he said, ‘you will work with the director also.’ The production company did not want him to have an assistant. But, Lee brought me onto the project and I worked with him and Mark Foster on that film. After the project, he said, ‘I love producing; I don’t want to manage actors anymore.’ With Lee and another former colleague, Dave Robinson, we began the production company — Lee Daniels Entertainment. The first film we did after that was “The Woodsman.”
HB: What is the professional dynamic like between you and Lee Daniels?
LC: Lee and I have a very similar creative entrepreneurial sensibility. We’re born on the same day. We have known one another since the mid-80s. There’s a language; there’s an aesthetic. There’s a vision of broadening the range of storytelling that we wanted. We share a broad range of inspiration, and so I think it’s a short-cut in the creative language.
HB: What are some of the things that a film must have that makes you want to work on it?
LC: The characters and the story have to take me someplace I haven’t seen before. When someone comes to me and says, ‘I have a film and it’s just like…,’ that’s a big turn off for me. I’m not interested, unless, I want something new. I want to see new people in situations. It’s very important for me to take my broad experience and bring it to stories that don’t fit into the typical formulas that get told. My greatest love is reading, so it’s always going to come down to the story. I want to see stories of Black people that inspire us and show the ways we move through the world and how we change.
HB: What changes in the film industry have you notice since you started out?
LC: One big thing is that you can make fabulous movies for half a million dollars or less than that. You don’t just have to have millions to be able to tell your story. I think that is a really welcoming change. The various modes of distribution have broadened. It was a very fixed schedule – you were theatrical or you were DVD. Now, you have cases where people are theatrical and then, two weeks later, they are available through digital delivery. I think the shifting of the gatekeeper in terms of distribution is a great change.
HB: What advice can you give to someone who wants to be a producer?
LC: Everybody’s process is different. Some people go to grad school. That is certainly one way to learn. Even as an undergrad, there are all sorts of film schools and programs, but that’s not always in everyone’s reach. It is about getting involved with organizations, such as Women In Film, The Independent Feature Project, and the San Francisco Film Society. Finding organizations interested in filmmakers and finding ways to become a part of that community, coming in as a PA, continuing your studies. You can’t say you just want to do it because you need to understand the framework of how it’s done. I think it should be a combination of study, of hands-on experience, of interning. All of those things should come into play in developing your perspective as a producer. A producer is a part of a community of great storytellers and technicians who help to realize a vision.
Also On HelloBeautiful:
100 Reasons Why I Can't Stop Looking At Blue Ivy
1. Mommy & Me
2. Blue. #May10 #NYC
3. Blue Ivy & Jay Z Sip Tea
Blue is surely the apple of Daddy's eye.
4. Blue Ivy & Beyonce Smell The Roses
Beyonce seems like the coolest mom.
5. Blue Ivy & Beyonce Soar The Big Skies
6. Blue Ivy & Mommy
7. Daddy & Me
Blue Ivy walks across mommy's at-home photoshoot, but it's the most adorable photobomb ever!
9. One Big Happy Family
The royal family, Bey, Jay & Blue are all out shopping and we're sure they spent our entire life's savings in 30 minutes or less.
10. Beyoncé, Jay Z & Blue in Beverly Hills — Nov. 11
Beyonce in these heels though?!
11. Beyoncé & Blue in NYC — Nov. 4
Look at Blue in her adorable little bow!
12. Beyoncé & Blue spotted in NYC — Nov. 4
Blue holding on to mommy for dear life.
13. Beyoncé & Blue spotted in NYC — Nov. 4
Momma Bey looking fierce with her mini me in tow.
14. Blue dressed as Michael Jackson.
15. Blue & Ivy
Just look at that face. Seriously, Jay could never deny this child! She knows how to make all his mean mugs!
16. Beyoncé, Jay Z & Blue in Beverly Hills — Nov. 11
Look at that cutie!
17. Beyoncé, Jay Z & Blue in Beverly Hills — Nov. 11
OMG Blue in a top knot? Yasss!
Blue has grown up to be an adorable toddler! We're swooning over this photo of her playing on the beach.
Looks like Blue is taking a walk in mom's shoes...literally.
20. Beyoncé & Blue
There's nothing like being cuddled up in mom's arms.
Blue is looking all kinds of adorable! Look at that left hand go! LOL.
22. Blue On The Big Screen
Bey & Jay look at Blue during a video played at an "On The Run" tour stop. How precious!
23. Pardon Blue's Back
She's growing up so fast! We're loving the top knot. Take that Blue Ivy hair critics!
24. Jump Around
Bey & Blue share an adorable moment on the trampoline. Hello summer!
25. Rocking Some Cute Ponytails
Blue Ivy was spotted with a new 'do! Bey & Jay's mini-me was holding on to her father during a little day stroll.
26. Strolling With Mom & Dad
Blue, Jay and Bey all spotted in East Hampton.
27. Blue Has A Manicure Day With Mama Bey
"Me and my Blue, and my Blue Blue, riding🐝"
28. Hanging Out With Mom
Baby Blue is walking to the door, and it looks like Bey is trying to keep up!
29. Trying On Some Heels
Will Blue be slaying a performance in the near future?
30. Holding On To Mom
Blue looks like she has something to say to Bey.
31. Playing A Game Of Tennis
Blue walks on the tennis court.
32. Cuddling With Mom
Blue & Beyonce have some much-needed cuddle time.
33. Blue Ivy
"The blueprint 🐝"
34. Bey & Blue Take A Stroll
Doesn't Blue look adorable with her colorful dress and cute hair ribbon?
35. The Carter Lounge Together
The family was seen out and about.
36. Jay Z Carries Blue While Bey Looks On
Jay carries Blue in his arms.
37. Leading The Way
Blue Ivy looks too cute with her bowler hat and Mama Bey watching from behind. She's really growing up!
38. Out On The Town
Blue Ivy & Momma Bey enjoy some much deserved time off in Spain.
39. Traveling With Mom and Dad
Blue is used to traveling with Mama Bey and Poppa Jay, but she also looked a little flustered at some moments. It's ok, baby Blue!
40. A Day At The Park
Poppa Jay Z lets Blue Ivy have her way with the bouncy horse.
41. It's A Family Affair
Beyonce, Jay and Blue jetsetting in Dublin.
Blue dressed up like a hipster and plays a quick game of peekaboo! How adorable!
43. OMG It's Blue's Beautiful Face!
FINALLY! We get to see how beautiful Blue is! Look at the adorable headband! "Blue 💙"
44. Blue Ivy
Life's a beach!
45. Brooklyn Stand Up!
"Beyonce & Blue"
46. Blue Ivy's Got Her Own iPhone
"Momma, what's your password?"
47. Beyonce's Lazy Day With Blue
"Momma, I asked you for your password!"
48. When Blue Ivy Takes Your Phone, Beyonce Be Like...
"Fine, I'll go ask Daddy!"
49. Blue Ivy On Tour
"Bey & Blue"
50. It's Playtime
Beyonce & Blue take some time out to play.
51. A Chilly Day In NYC
"Beyoncé, Jay Z and Blue Ivy in NYC - Jan. 19"
52. All Bundled Up
The royal family makes their way to their fancy car.
53. Kisses From Dad
Blue's all bundled up, getting love from Daddy.
54. Blue At The White House
Blue Ivy's taking after mommy and writing a letter.
55. Blue Loves Bo
The White House pup, Bo is showing Blue Ivy some love.
56. The Carters At The White House
Check out the royal family checking out the scene at the White House.
57. It's Christmas Time Again
Blue and Bey checking out the White House Christmas tree.
58. Blue Lovin' Bo
Blue Ivy, dressed like a Princess, showing Bo some love.
59. Like Father, Like Daughter
Blue playing dress up with Daddy's hat.
60. Fun Times With Mommy
Blue Ivy spends some QT with mommy.
61. Mommy & Me
Blue and Bey take a break for some snacks.
62. Silvery Blue
Beyonce carries Blue, while the adorable toddler rocks a metallic jacket that we want and need.
63. The Holy Grail
Blue, Bey & Jay
64. One Big Happy Family
"#miami #newyear #2014"
"Beyoncé & Blue 💙"
66. Blue & Daddy In A Blue Jacket
"Jay and Blue 💙 #NewYear #2014 #Miami"
67. Hold On To Me
"Happy New Year Mommy!"
68. Dora Dora Dora The Explorer
"Beyoncé, Blue and Dora the Explorer"
69. Daddy & Bey
"Look over there Blue, you own that too."
70. Blue's Big B-Day
"Mommy make sure they can only see the back of my head."
71. Painted Faces For Blue's Bday
"Let me get down Mommy, I wanna play!"
72. Kisses From Mommy
Beyonce and Blue prepping for Momma Tina's Masquerade Ball
73. Talk To The Hand!
Beyonce, Jay Z and Blue Ivy were spotted leaving Joey's restaurant in Miami, on January 8th, and Blue had a message for the paps! Talk to the hand!
74. Me & My Daddy
While Beyonce's arm rested, Jay carried Blue from Joey's restaurant, in Miami on January 8th.
75. Blue's First Words
"I'm ready to slay right along with you, Ma!"
76. Imagine The Sound Of This Lullaby
A newborn Blue Ivy gets serenaded by her superstar mother.
77. Don't Mess With Blue!
Every now and again, Blue Ivy reminds you...she is her father's child!
78. All Gold Everything
Blue Ivy takes after her dad's swag. The inseparable duo were spotted in South Beach, Miami illuminating the streets outside their hotel with their yellow luster!
79. All Of The Lights!
"Mommy! All the pretty colors are so blinding! I'm...just..so..overwhelmed! When's my shot coming?! When's my shot coming?!" Blue plays on set with Bey at her 'Blow' video shoot.
80. Hey Blue!
"I can be happy sometimes, see?"
81. Blue Ivy With Daddy
"Why are we clapping, again? I'm not in the shot."
82. Jay Z Tries To Get Blue To Listen To "Magna Carta Holy Grail"
"Daddy, I'm more of a Nas fan."
83. Stepping With Mom
"Wait, Ma. I want the camera to see all angles of this sick dress!"
84. Splashin' & Playin'
"Mom, this water is clean, right? Because I'm not trying to splash in water I can't trust."
85. Beyonce Discusses Important Matters
"Mommy, I completely get it. Yes, I promise to watch the throne."
86. Mommy's Hugs
"Ok, Ma. I love you to pieces, but I like oxygen too." Bey may be the Queen, but this scene from her video "Blue" makes it look as if she can't get enough of being Mom.
87. Blue Ivy Twirls
"Aaaahh, I'm having so much fun not thinking about anything...wiippeee...oh, wait...getting a little sick."
88. Just So You Know...
"I run things. Don't get it twisted."
89. Mommy & Me Loungin'
"Oh, Mommy, I'm so tired of seeing the wigs you snatched last night all on our floor. It's so exhausting. Like, when're they getting picked up? Not now? Oh. Ok."
90. A Kiss For Blue
"Mommy, let me sleep, dang!"
91. Slurpin' On That Milk...Slurpin' Slurpin' On That Milk
"Mommy, gimme that bottle!"
We could watch this adorable GIF of Blue Ivy nonstop forever!
93. Jay Sneaks In Kisses
"Dadddd! Get..Away!..I don't want...No, ugh..No kisses!"
94. Blue Stares Back...
"Hey! Who's that?!"
95. Blue Still Doesn't Get Why Anyone's Here
"No, really, who are you? You're getting to close."
96. Blue and Bey Out For Lunch
"I'm over this now. People just won't let us be. Mom, why can't we just be?!"
97. Blue Is One Tough Cookie
"Ma, please let me just kick them in the face. Like, please, I can't see through all these lights."
98. Blue Jetsets With Jay
"Dad, do we own this boat? I just figured we owned everything, so..."
99. Beyonce Keeps Blue Covered
"Mommy, I think you forgot my feet. I'm cold right now. Are we inside?"
100. Beyonce LOVES Her Blue
Look at that face, how could you not kiss it?!