Published by the American Bar Association
The Dealmaker's Ten Commandments provides a practical, no-nonsense
Meet Forest Whitaker’s producing partner Nina Yang Bongiovi, a potent force in the indie scene—and one of the engines behind Fruitvale Station, Dope, and Roxanne Roxanne.
In 2008, Nina Yang Bongiovi was just Nina Yang, a 35-year-old struggling producer desperate to get her fictional film about an inter-racial couple’s struggle to adopt a baby from China into production. It was a tough time for Yang: she was suffering from severe depression after losing both her mother and sister to respiratory issues. She had also ended her engagement to her boyfriend of three years. Despite all that, her ambition continued unabated—and she brazenly approached Forest Whitaker to play the role of the husband in her nascent film.
Whitaker, fresh off his Academy Award win for his portrayal of Idi Amin in Last King of Scotland, was intrigued by the story, but thought the script needed more work. Yang told Whitaker she was headed back to Shanghai soon to conduct more research. (It was really a trip to visit her brothers and father, but she wanted to appear professional.) Much to Yang’s surprise, Whitaker asked if he could tag along. Soon, the unlikely duo was touring around Shanghai Studios, eating dinner in her father’s home, and meeting Yang’s childhood friends.
“It was really embarrassing,” said Yang Bongiovi over breakfast recently. “My brother tried to sell him Herbalife during dinner. My father brought him five pirated D.V.D.s of his movies for him to sign. I was sure he wouldn’t want to work with me anymore.”
Whitaker remembers the trip differently. He recalls scouting Shanghai for possible locations, learning about the complications of inter-racial adoption, and getting to know Chinese culture through Yang’s family. He ate dinner at her brother’s restaurant, and discovered that his tour guide was a force who shared his ethos for highlighting new, multicultural voices.
“It was really exciting,” said Whitaker from New York, where he is filming the new Epix/ABC Signature Studios television show Godfather of Harlem. “Her openness, her passion, her ability to go into a situation and see the difficulties, but also see the possibilities. I thought she had the capacity to do more if she was supported. And I thought if we could support each other, we could do amazing things.”
That moment of happenstance has evolved into a production partnership that’s spawned some of the most acclaimed, most unlikely successes to emanate from Hollywood in recent years. Whitaker and Yang Bongiovi’s Significant Productions has birthed such films as Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, Chloé Zhao’s debut feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, the Sundance hit Roxanne Roxanne, and this summer’s indie breakout Sorry to Bother You. Five films from five directors of color—most of them first-time filmmakers—with diverse casts, a rarity in Hollywood. Whitaker is the face of the company, but his secret weapon is Yang Bongiovi, who’s changing the rules about which movies can and should get made.
“Fruitvale Station set the mission for our company,” said Yang Bongiovi, a petite brunette with a hearty laugh and self-deprecating demeanor. “We went against the grain. People said, ‘Don’t work with a first-time director.’ If you do, make sure your budget is $2. Even prominent African-Americans in Hollywood said, ‘You’re gonna make a story about a young man who got shot by the cops? We don’t want to watch that. That’s depressing.’”
Fruitvale Station made over $17 million worldwide, setting Coogler up for Black Panther and solidifying Michael B. Jordan (who would play the memorable villain in Black Panther) as a Hollywood star. It gave Yang Bongiovi and Whitaker the confidence to keep supporting voices of color with unique, passionate stories. And it convinced their investors, the Hong Kong and Shanghai-based MNM Creative—headed up by Yang Bongiovi’s childhood friends Michael Chow and Michael Shen—that backing Yang Bongiovi and Whitaker was good business. They have since financed at least 50 percent of each film on the Significant slate.
That includes this summer’s breakout indie, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, an audacious, ambitious satire that was considered unproducible in 2014, when Riley’s screenplay was published by McSweeney’s. It has since made nearly $15 million. When Yang Bongiovi came to the script, it had a litany of producers attached with complicated deal structures. Riley had been peddling it for years.
“I was a little heartbroken because of what he was going through,” said Yang Bongiovi. “I always want to talk to new filmmakers early, to tell them, ‘Before you do anything, talk to an attorney. If you can’t afford an attorney, call me and let me help you.’”
“Nina was the linchpin,” said Riley in a phone interview from his home in Oakland. “People really respect her. When she started being involved, actually when she started showing interest in it, other people took it seriously. All of a sudden, it was a real thing.”
Riley is confident Sorry to Bother You wouldn’t have been made without her. Not only did she clear up the complicated producer situation, but she also figured out the financing, which included both MNM Creative and Charles King’s Macro Ventures. She also made sure Riley was protected as a filmmaker.
“You run into people who have to do with filmmaking all the time, and rarely are they making principled decisions like Nina,” he added. “There are risks she will take, stances she will take that have to do with what is right, as opposed to what will make more money. I’ve seen her walk away from deals because she felt like due to racism, people weren’t valuing the product enough. That’s not something people often do in Hollywood.”
Riley laughed when he told me that after production wrapped, he learned that Yang Bongiovi had boldly told MNM Creative not to read the script for Sorry to Bother You, which stars Lakeith Stanfield as a code-switching telemarketer who starts succeeding when he turns on his “white” voice, before investing in the project. “It isn’t like anything else. It’s not a black version of the same movie that got made last year and made money,” he added. “She’s what a producer should be. She has some idea of the world and what will work in the marketplace, and she goes for it instead of reading trade magazines and seeing what they say the audience will want.”
Yang Bongiovi said that her track record gives her a leg up with her investors. They trust her. “Fortunately, it’s my fifth movie with them, and I made them money on Fruitvale, Dope, Songs, and Roxanne,” said Yang Bongiovi. “So now I’m going, ‘Listen, we’re going to be O.K. You have to trust me. Don’t read the script.’”
Sorry to Bother You cost close to $5 million, and has lured in a wide swath of the moviegoing public—audiences of all colors and ages. Yang Bongiovi predicted this, and encouraged Riley and the financiers to choose a distributor who would understand it as well, rather than the bigger players courting the filmmakers, after the movie debuted to raucous reviews at Sundance 2018.
“Nina was the voice of reason,” said Riley. “She was steadfastly saying that she could tell that the bigger studios just saw this as a black film, and didn’t understand the place in cinema history that it could have. That was part of the reason to go with Annapurna.”
The producer, who changed her last name in 2012 when she married Jon Bon Jovi’s younger brother Anthony Bongiovi (who uses the traditional spelling of their family name), has a history of making bets on people and subject matters Hollywood normally wouldn’t touch.
“Nina’s willingness to give her knowledge over to anyone who is trying to develop movies, either with us or on their own—that’s a superpower, because it opens up more avenues for the things we are doing,” said Whitaker. “She’s happy to look past the current system and raise the funds necessary to move a project forward, and she has the aptitude to develop these projects and stand by these individuals who may have never done something of this scope before.”
Yang Bongiovi knows what it’s like to be an outsider, moving from Taiwan to East Los Angeles when she was five years old with her siblings and mother. Her father stayed in Taiwan to run a sweater manufacturing business, sending money home, hoping his children could have a better education than he did.
The second of four kids, she majored in journalism and political science at Cal State Fullerton, before heading to USC’s Annenberg School for Communication for a degree in entertainment management. In grad school, she started working as an analyst in the marketing department of Warner Bros., but quit after graduation to work as an assistant on her friend’s martial-art action films in Hong Kong. “My mom was like, ‘You’re crazy. Why are you leaving this really nice job at Warner Bros. to become an assistant on kung-fu movies?’” said Yang Bongiovi.
Despite her mother's resistance, Yang Bongiovi stayed for four years, learning everyone’s job on the set before venturing out on her own. She then raised $15 million from the Taiwanese government and began her career as an independent producer. What she hadn’t learned on her own, she gleaned from advisers likeJoseph Cohen, a film-finance professor at U.S.C. Meanwhile, she made two low-budget features: Mail Order Wife and Confessions of an Action Star, the latter of which she classifies as slightly embarrassing. Then came tragedy: her mother and sister died a year apart from each other, both from different forms of respiratory disease. She ended her engagement. The money from Taiwan dried up.
Her eventual partnership with Whitaker solidified her path, and gave her the courage to invest in filmmakers with new voices for a marketplace that is interested in statement pieces about race and culture in America. “I’m also hyper-aware that I can find an audience and a market for it, because I still have to answer to our investors,” she said. “I believe in what Forest and I are doing and building. I believe that if you put your heart and attention into making the best movie, the financing will come.”
She is constantly meeting new filmmakers through her relationships with Annenberg, where she discovered Coogler, Cinereach, San Francisco Film Society, and Sundance. She mentors filmmakers each semester at U.S.C., and recently started a nonprofit with Pharrell Williams’s producing partner, Mimi Valdés,called Metta Collective, which aims to educate filmmakers of color through workshops, dinners, and other events. “One of my goals, being an Asian-American woman in this town, is to create solidarity [among filmmakers of color] and not be divided,” she said. “Most of these filmmakers don’t have the money to hire an attorney to guide them on deals. I say, ‘Call us. We’ll guide you on the deal, and we’ll tell you how much you are worth—and remind you how much you’re worth.’”
Riley can attest to that. After the success of Sorry to Bother You, he did the rounds of Hollywood before signing a script deal with Michael Ellenberg’s studio, Media Res. He also has a film project in the works. Yang Bongiovi advised him on the deals.
Said Riley, “Nina may or may not be involved in these projects, but she said to me, ‘You need to go out and do these bigger deals. You need this in your life.’”
Significant Productions is now at a crossroads. Its two-person operation is looking to scale larger, to invest more in television like Godfather of Harlem and to make two to three movies a year. The company is currently producing two documentaries, one on the R&B singer D’Angelo, and another on former N.B.A. star Stephon Marbury’s unlikely resurgence in China. It’s also in the early stages of development on an Angela Davis biopic that Significant is producing with Lionsgate.
Yang Bongiovi worries that getting bigger could jeopardize what’s made her and Whitaker so successful for so long: their hands-on involvement.
“We have to protect the integrity and creativity of the company,” she said. “We’re about believing in a storyteller’s vision, and believing in it so wholeheartedly that we’re going with or without you. Imagine having a structure where that doesn’t work.”