by Ryan Haggerty
David T. Friendly (J78) wasn’t sure what to expect when Little Miss Sunshine debuted in January 2006 at the Sundance Film Festival. After all, the major Hollywood studios had passed on the script for six years, and Friendly and his fellow producers had finally backed the independent film themselves, not because it was a sure hit but because of a shared gut feeling that the dark comedy could be surprisingly successful.
However, beginning with that initial screening at the Utah film festival — the audience burst into applause six times and showered the film with a five-minute standing ovation once it was over — it became apparent that Friendly was right to trust his intuition.
Little Miss Sunshine, the story of a wildly dysfunctional family that bonds while stuffed into a Volkswagen minibus on a two-day road trip to their 7-year-old daughter’s beauty pageant, took Sundance by storm and quickly became a mainstream hit. Produced for about $7.5 million, the movie was sold at Sundance to Fox Searchlight Pictures for a festival-record $10.5 million and grossed nearly $60 million in the United States by February 2007. It took Oscars for best original screenplay and best supporting actor and earned a nomination for best picture — “the Holy Grail for producers,” Friendly says — not to mention winning a slew of other filmmaking awards.
“When you read a script that really hits you in the gut, it’s a rare feeling,” says Friendly, who estimates that he reads 10 scripts a week, with only about 1 percent ever making it past his desk. “On the very first read, it struck me as original, surprising and relatable, and those are the three things I look for in a script. Everybody can see a little bit of their own family in at least one or two of the characters.
“But it will test your mettle as a producer to work on something for six years,” says Friendly, who was repeatedly told by studio executives that the movie would be too difficult to market. “The lesson from this movie is that you have to stick with your instincts. That’s ultimately the producer’s best asset.”
Friendly’s instincts have been remarkably accurate, judging by the path he’s followed since graduating from Northwestern.
Friendly seemed poised for a journalism career even before he arrived at the Medill School of Journalism in 1974. In addition to editing his high school’s newspaper, Friendly is the son of Fred Friendly, a former president of CBS News who teamed with Edward R. Murrow to produce the network’s influential reports on Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy. The reports, which examined McCarthy’s investigations into supposed communist infiltration of the U.S. government and helped prompt the senator’s fall from power, were the focus of the 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck, in which George Clooney portrays Fred Friendly, a role based partly on input provided by the Friendly family.
Although his father set a high-profile example for a budding journalist, Friendly says he was not pushed into the profession. Instead, his father told him to follow his passion.
“I came to Northwestern because I was interested in a career in journalism, and I’d always been a writer,” he says. “I decided to go to the best journalism school in the country. I was told Medill was it, and I still believe it is.”
Friendly’s passion for journalism was matched by his newfound talent for producing soon after he arrived on campus. A lifelong fan of music and movies, Friendly devoted almost all his spare time to promoting concerts for A&O Productions, including performances by artists such as B.B. King, Jethro Tull and the Jerry Garcia Band.
“I spent four years producing concerts and getting an education, in that order,” he says with a laugh. “I often tell people that this was the best job I ever had, and I never made a penny from it. I definitely had a producer’s ego back then — I made sure that I could introduce every band when they went onstage.”
Friendly learned the ins and outs of the business through his work at A&O. He enlisted friends to design posters and promote the concerts, cook meals for the band members and even pick them up at the airport. And when bands demanded that specific requests be met — such as the Beach Boys’ insistence that they receive fresh avocado and banana sandwiches on whole-wheat bread before their midwinter concert at Northwestern — Friendly and his team had no choice but to deliver.
“It was great,” says Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Dan Rubin (WCAS78, GJ80), Friendly’s four-year Northwestern roommate who helped put the shows together. “We were playing with someone else’s money. It was a real intro to the sleazy world of the music business, and David stayed whole.”
Friendly also learned to make decisions on his feet. He found out just a few minutes before another Beach Boys concert that lead singer Mike Love had missed his flight to Chicago. The band offered to go on with the show that night or come back for two shows at a later date. Friendly took the stage inside a sold-out Welsh-Ryan Arena and told the crowd that the show was off. “It was a tense situation, let’s put it that way,” Friendly says. “But it was all college students in the crowd, so they understood, and we wound up getting two concerts for the price of one.”
Long before Friendly decided to turn his newly discovered producing skills into a career, he put his journalism degree to work. Friendly spent six years as a staff writer at Newsweek and then moved to the Los Angeles Times in 1985, where he covered the entertainment industry and later wrote a weekly column exploring Hollywood’s business side. It didn’t take long for the producing bug to bite him again.
Friendly left the Times in 1987 to join Brian Grazer and Ron Howard at Imagine Entertainment. Seven years later he became president of Davis Entertainment and eventually opened his own independent production business while producing films including Doctor Dolittle and Courage Under Fire. In 2000 he teamed with financier Marc Turtletaub to form Deep River Productions, the company that produced Little Miss Sunshine.
Even though it’s been almost 30 years since his A&O days, Friendly’s producing style — he sees himself as “an initiator and an overseer” — hasn’t changed much. “I’m very hands-on. I like to get involved in the movie,” says Friendly, who teams with his partners to buy scripts, hire directors and oversee the casting, editing and marketing of the movie.
In fact Friendly is relatively hands-off only during filming. “A good producer lets the people directing the movie do their jobs and use their creativity,” he says. “When it comes time to shoot the movie, you have to step back.”
Still, Friendly’s conviction that Little Miss Sunshine could be successful helped the entire production team survive the six years of limbo, says Jonathan Dayton, who directed the movie along with his wife, Valerie Faris.
“David was great at just sticking with it and keeping the film alive,” Dayton says. “Most producers would have given up and moved on, but he stuck with it. At the end of the day, you have to go with what you feel. Not every story turns out like this, but sometimes sticking to your guns is the best thing to do.”
Despite leaving a successful journalism career, Friendly says he has no regrets about shifting to producing.
“I believe the only chance you have to succeed is if you have 100 percent passion for your work,” he says. “I love journalism, but I think I had a stronger passion and a greater drive for producing. I felt I could do it 24 hours a day, seven days a week and not get tired of it. It just took a little while to find what was right for me.”
And now that he’s found the profession that’s right for him, Friendly knows what he wants to do next.
“What I’m trying to do,” he says, “is find my next Little Miss Sunshine.”
Ryan Haggerty is a Medill School of Journalism senior from Buffalo. He is headed for a summer internship at the Boston Globe after graduation.
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