Class of ’95 | On January 6, 2010, The Proposal won a People’s Choice Award for Favorite Comedy Movie.
After Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock thanked director Anne Fletcher and co-star Betty White from the stage of the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles, Reynolds shouted out to the two people standing quietly behind them—producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman C’95 (second from right in the photo).
For Lieberman, the award is the latest success in a career that has been longer in the making than you might think.
“At a very young age, I knew that I somehow wanted to be involved with television and movies,” he explains. “I didn’t know if that was acting, directing … I probably didn’t even know what producing was.” What he did know was that he belonged in Hollywood.
Lieberman got his first break as an undergraduate, when producer and Penn alumnus Scott Anderson W’85 helped him land an internship with a production company. That summer in LA sealed his determination to enter the industry.
“So right after graduation I just packed my stuff up and moved to LA, not really knowing where I was going or what I was doing,” Lieberman recalls. “Five hundred bucks in my pocket and a 1986 Camry with all my junk packed in it.”
When he arrived, he started bartending and selling cologne as he sought a job in film. He quickly ruled out acting—“I was really bad at it”—and found a job in film production.
Lieberman has since figured out exactly what a producer does.
“It’s a mixture between the architect and the general contractor,” he explains. “Overseeing the whole process, making sure that things are running smoothly on a physical level, and making sure the creative vision of the director is being supported and on track with the creative vision of the producer. Being the liaison with whoever is financing the movie and making sure we’re making the same movie they want to be making. Putting out fires every five seconds.”
While he is very involved in every aspect of the filmmaking, a big part of Lieberman’s success can be credited to his ability to spot a good script quickly.
“I can tell within the first few pages if I like a screenplay,” he explains. “I know it when I see it.” For him, a strong script is built upon the characters. “If there are great characters and great emotion and great relationships, regardless of genre, it’ll be interesting to me.”
Back when he was working for Summit Entertainment, Lieberman came across the script for Memento. He pushed to get the film made, and by the time it was released in 2000 it had launched the career of writer and director Chris Nolan.
“I ended up leaving before that movie went into production, but it was exciting to be at essentially the very, very ground floor of someone who is now the greatest director of our generation, and that movie, which remains a classic.”
Lieberman understands that much of his career has been built upon small twists of fate.
“One movie can change the course of your professional trajectory,” he says. “One little move, one little thing can have such a ripple effect on the course of what happens next.”
Such was the case with The Proposal, which he read and immediately responded to.
“It just so happened that the next day I was having lunch with the president of Disney production at the time [Nina Jacobson],” he recalls. “It just so happened that they had very, very little money left, but enough to buy one screenplay. And I pitched my heart out and sold the screenplay to her and that was the last thing they bought that year. Had I not had that lunch, had they not had that kind of money left, this movie wouldn’t have happened. Little things like that just determine so much.”
He also makes it his business to learn from people who are more experienced than he. Over a decade ago, he joined forces with David Hoberman, who has been in the industry for more than three decades.
“He’s got a wealth of experience that I draft from,” says Lieberman. “Every day is like going to a really awesome class. It’s not unlike having a professor that you love at school. Every day, you’re soaking in as much information as you can.”
While he is grateful for the opportunities and mentorship he has had, Lieberman is also frank about how hard he works.
“It’s difficult because if you let it, this job can be 100 percent time-consuming,” he says. “I have to make a concerted effort to not work all the time. At the same time, the fact that I enjoy my job compels me to want to work all the time.”
A father to two children—his wife is Heather Zeegen Lieberman C’94—Lieberman is constantly seeking a work-life balance. Nonetheless, it’s pretty clear that he is so successful because he loves what he does.
Up next is a new Muppet Movie, a project about which he is particularly excited. He also hopes to do more projects with the team from The Proposal, not just because it was a successful film but because the whole process was so enjoyable.
“From shooting the movie, to the actors in the movie, to the director, to the studio involvement, to the amount of fun we had, to the laughs we had, to editing, to the great box office, to the People’s Choice—the whole experience has been nothing but great,” he says. While the success of that movie and the People’s Choice Award are gratifying, Lieberman is busy thinking about future projects.
“Every year my goal is to just continue to grow as a producer and learn more and more about the business,” he says. “I just hope I continue to get better and better at what I do, and that the movies I make or the television shows that I do entertain and continue to make people happy.”—Emily Rosenbaum C’95 GEd’96