Cover story: Sarah Siegel-Magness

  • Feature article for the magazine of the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado

    Cover story, Portfolio Magazine

11 Questions on Making Movies, Making Money, & Making a Difference

Leeds School of Business at CU-BoulderPublished in Portfolio (magazine of the Leeds School of Business at CU-Boulder)

SARAH SIEGEL-MAGNESS (’95 marketing) just returned from the Sundance Film Festival happy to pay excess baggage fees for her film’s three awards: the grand jury prize, the audience award … read article at ZMags.com

Web Extra: More Questions for Sarah Siegel-Magness

Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire [note: later retitled Precious] has Siegel-Magness in the producer’s chair, her second drama with director Lee Daniels (Monster’s Ball). Portfolio caught up with Siegel-Magness the day before what would turn out to be a very auspicious trip to Sundance.

Portfolio: Do you think that entertainers have a special duty in tough times to lighten the mood, provide an escape, or give people a sense of hope?
Sarah Siegel-Magness: I do. A movie ticket is an inexpensive form of entertainment: for two hours and a $12 ticket, you can escape. But I think it’s also important for filmmakers to tell stories of the things happening right now. This is more important than ever. Our movie can be deep and dark, but ultimately it’s pertinent for our times. For me, this movie really isn’t about the darkness, but about how darkness sets the stage for light. It puts my life–and hopefully others’–in perspective: people who have problems much greater than any of ours can still persevere through adversity.

P: How did you get acquainted with director Lee Daniels?
S: We had some mutual friends and they were looking for funding for our first film together, Tennessee. They were on-site in Albuquerque, it was a week away from production, and an investor fell out. I said: “Okay, we’ll jump on a plane, come down, and see what you’re doing.” I thought the basic story was good but I really wanted to see how organized they were, what his vision was, and where they were going with the story.

P: What does it take to get an independent film like this noticed?
S: I’m secondary to the director: Lee’s had other very successful films at Sundance. While that helped get our film noticed, this movie is very daring for him. There are moments in this movie that depict African Americans in a very dark light. He has set himself up for criticism in a major way, but I think that is what a daring director does.

P: What does financing mean to an independent film like Push?
S: It’s very difficult to be a ‘silent investor’ in a movie like this. In these smaller niche movies, with budgets of $1 million or less, people are forced to creatively utilize absolutely every resource they have.

P: Does that make for more creative films, more daring or challenging subject matter? Does it give you the flexibility to do some things that the big budget studios can’t?
S: Absolutely. I think that studios pass up many great films. [Meanwhile, Siegel-Magness has signed up to produce her third film, this time with a major studio. Based on a popular children’s book series, it will be a far cry from Push, whose heroine was a morbidly obese, illiterate and pregnant teenager]…

P: You seem to have a knack for going after ambitious new ventures. That’s pretty impressive.
S: Yeah, it’s tough at times though, I’ve got to tell you. Emotionally, this year has been incredibly difficult, working on an independent film with subject matter such as Push… On the first movie, we were executive producers. On this movie we are actual producers, working on the financial level. The next movie will be my project completely, so it will be, you know, my baby.

P: Two films completed and a third in the works… does the pursuit ever end?
S: Well this is my second business. I have a multi-million dollar clothing company I started seven years ago, which I do in tandem. So I am crazy, really!

P: Your So-Low styles [see sidebar] were in response to the low-rise pant trend… Do you think the fashion biz–and business in general–is forward-thinking or reactionary?
S: I think people have a wrong view about fashion. Once you’re an insider you’ll understand that it is far more simple than anyone would think. [Low-rise underwear] just happened to be something I needed, something I knew I could make (or figure out how to make). I find inspiration all the time from things that I need; it’s kind of a simplistic view of business, but that’s really the way I think of it. I took one idea, one small idea, and made it happen.

P: How did it go, starting that apparel business at age 25?
S: I always had demand for my products, but in the beginning I didn’t understand how to make money. I went through business school; I had a father who was a very successful entrepreneur; but I couldn’t figure out how to make money. When you are in an industry that is full of excitement and you’ve got a celebrity wearing your clothes on the cover of a magazine, you think, “oh, this is fun!” But then one day you realize you are losing money. I had to change my concept of making money. If I could go back to business school, I would say the number one thing is don’t fall asleep in your 8:00 A.M. finance class!

P: It can seem appealing to aim for business success without formal schooling: “make millions without working hard!” Why go to business school if sometimes it’s about luck?
S: You know, I don’t believe that luck is ever the factor. I do not believe that any entrepreneurs who make a lot of money ever do it easily. To run a business is very difficult. I believe the function of business school is to set a good foundation for your launch into the business world. Business school should be about setting you up for the dilemmas you’re going to face.

P: A new course at Leeds is called “Leadership Challenges: Exercises in Moral Courage.” In a profit- and success-driven world, can morality and courage actually weigh in on business decisions?
S: In the entertainment and fashion industries, there are moral dilemmas every day! In fashion, do you keep your profits by sending work out for teenagers to sew in China? Or do you tack on the extra costs to do it here? I chose to do my manufacturing here. I tried manufacturing in China, and ultimately I didn’t feel good about it. It didn’t work for me.

P: How would you improve business schools around the country?
S: I am building my businesses to the point where eventually I plan on giving back more to our educational systems. There has to be that synergy between corporate America–or local entrepreneurs–and the educational system.

“Money is not my world. It can’t be your world because if it is, then you are not living.”

P: You’ve had involvement in both humanitarian causes and cultural charities—and now you want to support education, too… Is there a common theme to these diverse causes?
S: It is really important to have diversity; but, more importantly, be passionate about where you’re giving your money. And then you need to give your time. For example, I did a movie with Mariah Carey who has a camp for inner-city kids that teaches them real-life skills. I taught a class on fashion and then I hosted those same inner-city kids on our sets in New York for Push.

P: In a tough economy, many good causes are hurting for money. Are there other ways to support them?
S: There are many philanthropists who just give money and have no idea where it is going. I hope I can inspire people to do more than just give money. This year for one of my projects, I decorated two homeless shelters for Christmas. I found out that people were giving staples: food, clothing, toothbrushes… but you went to the rescue mission and there was not one element of Christmas there to celebrate the season. So I organized 40 volunteers and we decorated the chapel and the homeless shelter, and then a family shelter. It wasn’t about the money; I had everybody work together to donate items they needed. You know, I am lucky enough to be in the position where I have a lot of resources and people to help. It’s about utilizing your strengths and helping the cause. You can be a strong philanthropist without popping out your checkbook all the time.

P: Your own multi-million dollar clothing company, a third film in the works, philanthropy galore: sometimes don’t you wish you could slow down?
S: Being an entrepreneur is like a never-ending story. I think, “Why don’t I just retire?” but it’s never ending. You just want to keep achieving. I think a true entrepreneur is never finished.

P: It’s refreshing to hear somebody who is part of a famous family, often listed among Forbes billionaires, who says: “I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
S: Again, that’s why I like to do philanthropy and all those other things, because it grounds me. Money is not my world. It can’t be your world because if it is, then you are not living.

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