When I reach Jason Michael Berman by phone, the Pikesville-resident-turned-LA-movie-producer is in a capacious swimming pool perched in one of those floaty lounge chairs. He has a heap of film scripts in his lap, a cocktail in one hand and Jennifer Lawrence on hold on his other line.
Okay, I kid. When I describe this playful scenario to Berman before we begin our cross-country chat, he simply chuckles. “No, I’m just in my office,” he says.
But while Berman might work in the same four-walled environs as the rest of us, there’s little question that his 9-to-5 is a tad more exciting. The 34-year-old is executive vice president of Mandalay Pictures, essentially responsible for greenlighting all of their films. Combined with his previous industry gigs, including stints at MGM and as independent producer, the plucky Baltimorean has produced or co-produced more than 20 feature-length films and five for Netflix alone in the past 12 months, including the sci-fi drama IO (starring Margaret Qualley, Danny Huston, and Anthony Mackie) and the comedy Little Evil (with Evangeline Lilly and Adam Scott).
Perhaps his biggest producing splash to date is The Birth of a Nation, writer/director/actor Nate Parker’s 2016 slave rebellion drama that won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize and was subsequently snatched up by Fox Searchlight Pictures for a cool $17.5 million.
This is the La-la land good life. And to think Berman owes it all to a learning difference.
“I think that my being dyslexic is why I loved watching movies as a kid—it’s such a great way to learn and experience things,” he says, of his days munching popcorn at the old Loews Theater on Reisterstown Road. “I was immersed in watching movies from the time I was six or seven years old. I was making my own movies by 13.”
Indeed, if you were classmates with him at Owings Mills’s Jemicy School or later at Friends School of Baltimore (Class of 2002), you can be forgiven if you can’t quite picture his face. Berman’s mug was usually in a darkened theater, behind a camera, or parked in front of a computer writing scripts or working with movie editing software. His cinematic passion was all consuming—and what sent him packing westward to the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, where he graduated in 2006 (and where he is now an adjunct professor). He learned a lot at USC, including a lesson that’s guided his career ever since.
“Early on in my freshman year I learned that producing matched my skill set and it was what I was really good at,” Berman says. “I realized everything that I had been doing in middle school and high school in actually putting film projects together was more producing than it was directing.”
Berman acknowledges that to the layman producing is the less understood and perhaps less sexy aspect of movie making. He describes it as finding enticing projects to develop, corralling the talent needed and—importantly—getting it all paid for, either by bringing a studio onboard or arranging independent financing. “You read a lot of scripts and you’re constantly looking for original projects,” he says. “And then it’s kind of about building the movie. In a way, you’re kind of a party planner. An organizer.”
His first professional project was co-producing The Dry Land, a gritty damaged-soldier-returns-home indie starring Ryan O’Nan and America Ferrera, which garnered a Grand Jury Prize nomination at Sundance in 2010. While he says he enjoys a host of genres–thrillers, comedy, drama, sci-fi (ok, maybe not horror so much), The Dry Land set the pattern for the type of “socially and culturally relevant stories” he says he’s particularly drawn to. Perhaps that’s why he’s currently “building” City on Fire, about the infamous 1985 Philadelphia police stand-off with the radical African American group, MOVE. Ultimately, police drop a bomb on the group’s rowhouse, killing 11 people—including five children—and starting a conflagration that destroyed more than 60 homes.
“It’s an incredible story that has not been told to us as a film yet and we’re in the process of putting that together right now,” he says.
And his advice for cinema-mad youngsters aspiring to, if not the stereotypical movie mogul pool chair, at least a chance to work amidst the movers and shakers in Hollywood? Berman says keep busy—writing, acting, making short films, putting stuff on the Internet.
“Find your individual voice, what makes you unique, and just create stuff within that brand,” he adds. “If you put a lot of hard work into it and define and perfect your craft, you will be successful.”
And he should know.