As part of the Leadership Initiative provided by UCR’s Women’s Resource Center, Sony Animation Picture’s President of Production Michelle Raimo Kouyate dropped by campus on Wednesday, Nov. 7th for a talk in HUB 302. Kouyate, who was friendly and outgoing, started off by saying, “Let’s keep it casual,” and brought a few clips to show in addition to her lecture.
Instantly, the titles to some of her biggest projects were recognized by the avid audience. Her latest film, “Hotel Transylvania,” is currently in theaters. Her first animated movie, “Puss in Boots,” was a hit among all families and ages. The first book she found and developed into a film, “Chocolat,” starring Johnny Depp, is an internationally recognized romance classic. Judging by the passion, control and the precision she has now, anyone might assume that Kouyate has been set on the entertainment path from the beginning. However, life before the movie business tells otherwise.
Kouyate was born in Brooklyn, New York, into an immigrant family. She was a very avid reader when she was younger but, nevertheless, pursued pharmaceutical research at St. John’s University. Although she had not been exposed to much TV or media, she somehow felt a strong instinct to completely switch directions and pursue that business instead.
“I didn’t really have a good handle on why I was drawn to it or what I was really doing,” says Kouyate. “But something was telling me, follow your gut; follow your heart.”
After landing a producing program at USC, she developed a keen interest in film and storytelling. “I wasn’t so lucky at first,” explains Kouyate. Despite her education and a great internship at MGM, it took her many months to find her first job. Her first opportunity at Miramax was a temp job for head of production around the year 1994 when “Pulp Fiction” came out. She stayed at Miramax for 10 years, when the company was still early in its development and creating original material. When her boss said, “I’m moving to New York, do you want to come with me?” Kouyate immediately thought, “My little Italian mother’s going to kill me if I don’t take this opportunity.” She promptly moved back home where she read the original script for “Good Will Hunting” and stayed up three nights in a row writing story notes. “One of the big ways to get yourself promoted in the movie business is to read scripts, give your opinion and write story notes,” Kouyate advises.
Her incredible work on the original “Good Will Hunting” script was the reason for her promotion to director of development. Her next milestone was finding the book “Chocolat” and being trusted to find a writer, script and director on her own. Once the project was given permission to be developed into a film, she was told, “Well, we’re going to shoot in France. Go to France and oversee your first movie.”
There are two separate, more broad realms of production: the logistics and the creativity. Then, there is the more concentrated independent producer, which Kouyate still wasn’t sure she wanted to do. She made her transition into animation when she moved back to Los Angeles and worked briefly at Paramount pictures. Kouyate also had a baby at the time, and her interest and passion was turned to Nickelodeon and other family movies. DreamWorks Animation’s “Puss in Boots,” which took four years, was the first animated movie she produced. “I really fell in love with the people and the business,” she says. In contrast, she mentions, “In live-action there are a lot of high stakes involved. In animation people are more laid-back, family oriented, and focused on story, story, story.” Kouyate also expressed the inspiration of looking at every unique scene of a film in its development: hand-drawn and created from scratch by multiple illustrators. “When I was at Paramount, I felt a little too removed from the story process,” she says. Sony Animation allowed her to take the skills she already had and apply it to a hybrid.
Her latest film from Sony Animation Pictures, “Hotel Transylvania,” entertains while also committing to story, which is what matters most to Kouyate. She interrupted her lecture to show an animated short film called, “Goodnight Mr. Foot,” which was an endearing piece about a witch service maid tending to her guest, Bigfoot, in a hotel for monsters. The audience chuckled and enjoyed the warm atmosphere of “Goodnight Mr. Foot,” which was adorable, funny, simple, a little bit old school and very heartfelt. The short clip was reminiscent of old Bugs Bunny cartoons, with simple conflicts, simple plots and very big personalities. People could witness how the same themes and personalities of such a brief clip could translate into a bigger budget film, just because the story is there.
Kouyate also found the book, “Silver Linings Playbook” and worked on the script alone for two years. The trailer for the film is out now, starring Bradley Cooper from “The Hangover” and Jennifer Lawrence from “The Hunger Games,” and the movie will come out in two weeks. “Take a pitch, an idea, or a book and develop it,” she advises all audience members interested in film and entertainment.
When it came time for Q&A, one audience member asked Kouyate if she had ever had doubts or reservations about any of her projects.
“Yeah, you wonder every step of the way,” she said. “But you have to keep following your gut on it.” She continues, “You wonder if people are going to see what you see,” and concludes, “I wish there was a magic formula for the movie business, but there’s not.”
There are few female executives and producers in the movie business, and even fewer directors. When asked what it was like being a woman in the movie business, Kouyate says that there are definitely a lot of hours and a lot of traveling. In conjunction with the demanding hours, she admits that having a child forced her to make many decisions she wouldn’t have normally made. “I had close to a hundred projects when I had a baby,” says Kouyate. However, she stressed that no matter how passionate she was about what she was doing, she realized that family comes first. In an atmosphere like Sony Animation Pictures, Kouyate can continue to inspire others who are interested in the business as well as doing what she loves.