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  Features
     
   

Producing Success

With her hit film, Ray, winning acclaim and awards, Karen Baldwin ’85 is poised to make more movie magic.

By Rebecca Smith ’99

Karen '85 and Howard BaldwinFrom the beginning, Karen Baldwin ’85 loved stories. As soon as she could read, she devoured books. She spent summer vacations immersed in the fictional worlds created by authors as diverse as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Ray Bradbury. Then came the day in 1974 when her grandmother brought her to a Hartford movie theater to see the film, Mame. She recalls with fondness getting dressed up and feeling “very grown up” at the theater. And as she watched Lucille Ball singing “We Need a Little Christmas” on the big screen, Baldwin promptly fell in love with the movies.

“I remember being totally mesmerized by the singing and dancing and thinking how magical it was,” she reflects.

Soon after, Baldwin ’s parents took her and her sister to see another film, Mary Poppins, at New York ’s Radio City Music Hall . Although she was quickly enamored of the cinema, at the time Baldwin had no idea that she would end up one day making movie magic of her own.

“I always loved a good story,” she recalls, “but it was never something I thought would turn into a career.”

However, with the 2004 Oscar-winning film, Ray, on her list of production credits—and many others in the works, including this spring’s Sahara and A Sound of Thunder—producer Karen Baldwin has proven that you can take a passion, add a little patience and persistence, and end up at the top. Even at the Academy Awards.

Act I: Holy Cross

Born in Boston to a Holy Cross family—her father, James E. Mulvihill, D.M.D., ’62, and uncles, John ’65 and Thomas ’70, are alumni—Baldwin grew up in Massachusetts and, later, Long Island. After high school she entered Wellesley College, during which time her family moved to Connecticut. However, after two years at Wellesley, Baldwin decided to follow in her father’s footsteps and transferred to Holy Cross.

“And I decided to stay,” she says. “Obviously, the education is fantastic at both schools, but I just found a warmth and a family atmosphere at Holy Cross that weren’t quite as prevalent at Wellesley.”

As to her professors, Baldwin characterizes them as inspirational and hard working.

“They all had passion for their particular subject matter,” she says, “and I think that that really came across. I can honestly say that I didn’t have a professor at Holy Cross who wasn’t a genuinely good person. I think that they really care about the student.”

During her two years on Mount St. James, Baldwin did not have as much time to get involved in acting and performing as she had wanted. A psychology major who was premed, she carried a heavy course load and studied hard, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. But she was sure to make time to attend theatrical productions at the College.

“They really had a nice program,” she says. “They put on some wonderful things, and I always liked to attend those events.”

Even now, in her Santa Monica, Calif., office—along with countless movie scripts and aspiring actors’ headshots—she receives Holy Cross theatre department mailings. And she finds the department’s quality level and the strong film component “very impressive.”

Always one step “Ahead of the Game”

Although she was premed, Baldwin was not sure during her final year on the Hill that she wanted to attend medical school.

Instead, she applied her liberal arts degree to the field of marketing: first at an advertising firm, and then with the National Hockey League, heading up the 1986 All-Star event in Hartford, Conn.

Always looking forward to her next challenge, Baldwin drew on her knowledge of hockey and her passion for entertainment to write and co-host her own television sports show on the New England Sports Channel, Ahead of the Game. A breakthrough in the world of sports news, the show was the first of its kind to feature two female hosts.

During her time in Hartford, Baldwin met her husband, Howard, then-owner of the Hartford Whalers hockey team. The couple’s foray into the movie business began when a friend in Los Angeles came to them with a proposition: if he ever came across a movie script or a project that needed the last bit of funding, would they consider contributing to it? The Baldwins responded to the opportunity with great interest.

“Again, I love to read,” she says. “And so, we said that we’d take a look at anything that came along.”

The first project in which the Baldwins invested was Disney’s Flight of the Navigator in 1986, which did quite well in theaters. Encouraged by their initial success, Baldwin and her husband continued to invest in films, and one day, David Kelley, the son of then-Whalers’ Coach Jack Kelley, timidly approached the couple with a script for their perusal.

The project, a legal comedy called From the Hip, was made into a movie immediately. And after writing that script, David Kelley landed a job as a writer for the television series, L.A. Law, which launched his career.

Even after he became a TV wunderkind, Kelley continued collaborating with the Baldwins, based on their shared love of hockey and entertainment. Their film, Mystery, Alaska, is a story he and Howard Baldwin developed, which celebrated hockey and the way that both had learned to play it—out on the pond.

Change of scenery

Eventually, the Baldwins decided to leave the East Coast and move to Los Angeles in order to pursue full-time careers in the film industry. To become better acclimated to the business, Baldwin took writing and acting classes. She studied under many different teachers, all the while getting to know casting directors and her classmates—most notably of whom was an aspiring actor named Johnny Depp.

“I often will turn on the TV or go to a movie and see someone who was in one of my classes; so that’s kind of fun,” she adds.

Baldwin’s own acting credits include the films, Who’s That Girl?, Spellbinder, and two films for which she is also credited as writer: Eyewitness to Murder and Sudden Death.

When writing the screenplay for Sudden Death, Baldwin drew on her knowledge of, and connection to, hockey. Featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme, the action movie was filmed in the ice rink that was home to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team owned by the Baldwins at the time. She calls the film, “Die Hard in our Pittsburgh arena.”

After learning all the different aspects of the business, Baldwin zeroed in on producing, the role she liked best.

“The best thing about producing is that you go from the original concept,” she explains, “and you can take it all the way through to marketing it in the theaters.”

Baldwin especially enjoys the creative side of the business, such as assisting with writing the script and casting the actors. And her acting background is often put to work when reading lines with potential actors.

The Baldwins partnered with their Sudden Death co-producer, Richard M. Cohen, to form their own production company. They began by producing and developing their own projects, and, eventually, other writers started approaching them with story ideas. In addition, the Baldwins began to option books and obtain the rights to individuals’ life stories.

After the death of their producing partner, the Baldwins formed a partnership with Philip Anschutz, and Crusader Entertainment was created. Named by Baldwin after the Holy Cross mascot, the company produced quality family films, including, Children On Their Birthdays, Joshua and Danny Deckchair.

However, the Baldwins missed being their own bosses and, in early 2004, amicably parted ways with Anschutz to form Baldwin Entertainment Group, of which Karen is currently partner and senior executive vice president of creative affairs.

“The hardest thing with leaving Crusader Entertainment,” she says, “was knowing that we wouldn’t be able to take that name with us!”

Ray

Having worked alongside some of Hollywood’s biggest names—from Robert Redford to Russell Crowe— Baldwin cites recent Oscar and Golden Globe-winner Jamie Foxx, star of the hit movie Ray, as the most talented and versatile actor with whom she has worked.

“He’s a comedian, he’s a classically trained pianist, he sings, he dances, he acts,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of fun getting to know him through the Ray process. I think of everybody that I’ve worked with, Jamie—by far—is able to do just so much so well, that I find him really inspiring.”

But she is quick to point out that Foxx has not been an overnight success; he has worked hard and has dedicated himself to acting. In fact, in order to play Ray Charles, he performed the role as if he were really blind, wearing prosthetics over his eyes.

The first time Foxx actually saw the film was with Baldwin at the premiere.

“It was really wild,” she recalls. “He was saying, ‘Oh my God, that’s what that scene looked like!’ and ‘That’s what she had on!’ because he had not seen it until then.”

With two Oscars, a Golden Globe, two Critics’ Choice Awards and two National Board of Review Awards, Ray’s success is being celebrated throughout the film community. And Baldwin is enjoying every minute of it, including some walks down that famous red carpet.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” she says, and adds, “I’ve had to buy some new clothes!”

Coming attractions

Switching gears from the true-life drama of Ray, Baldwin’s next film is an action-adventure called Sahara. Based on Clive Cussler’s popular book series, the film features Matthew McConaughey as Dirk Pitt, Steve Zahn as his sidekick Al Giordino, and Penelope Cruz as U.N. scientist Eve Rojas.

Also due out this year from Baldwin Entertainment Group is the much-anticipated film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s famous short story A Sound of Thunder, in which time travelers inadvertently change the future by going back in time to hunt dinosaurs.

Although the movie features the star power of Edward Burns, Catherine McCormack and Ben Kingsley, Baldwin was most impressed with getting to know the man behind the story—science fiction author Ray Bradbury.

“He’s in his 80s, and he has such a fantastic mind,” she says. “And he’s a wonderful person.”

Another project that Baldwin has optioned is the true-life story of Julia Butterfly Hill, the environmentalist who sat in a redwood tree for two years to save it from destruction.

Baldwin Entertainment will make history with the movie, Luna. It will be the first film shot on an “all-green” set: almost everything on the set will be recyclable; and no Styrofoam will be used.

“We wanted to put our money where our mouth was,” she says.

Although it will take some extra work on Baldwin’s part, she and her husband hope to start a trend in Hollywood, making films in which both the message and the production itself are environmentally responsible.

“It’s really what the whole movie is about,” she explains, “how each person can make a difference, even if it’s just in a small way.”

Other upcoming projects that Baldwin has in the works include a film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s best-selling novel, Atlas Shrugged; Mandrake, based on the famous comic book magician; and the family film, Rat’s Tale, the Cinderella story told from the perspective of the rat that becomes a human coachman for the night.

Closing credits

Baldwin acknowledges that her success has been a long time coming and expresses gratitude for her family’s support over the years.

“Although they really tried to understand just what the heck we were doing,” she says, “I’m not sure they really did. When we finally had a movie on the screen that people could go see, then I think they got it a little more.”

She also credits her husband and business partner, Howard, as integral to her many accomplishments.

As to her time at Holy Cross, Baldwin looks back on it with fond memories.

“Holy Cross really gave me the confidence to do well in business and the social skills to interact with people,” she says.

And she recognizes that the passion she learned from her Holy Cross professors has stuck with her throughout her professional life.

“The key is ‘don't give up,’” she says. “This is an extremely competitive business. You need real tenacity. If you work hard and keep moving forward, sooner or later, the dream comes true.”

 Rebecca Smith ’99 is a freelance writer from Auburn, Mass.

Alumni in Film Spotlights

Sam Gowan '63 >
Kirk D'Amico '77 >
Michael Hogan '88 >

 

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