October 2001
Let’s Get Ready To Rumble : An Interview with Erika Conner of Naa’Ila Entertainment

Interviewed by Midas

Let’s Get Ready To Rumble : An Interview with Erika Conner of Naa’Ila Entertainment

Erika Conner
VP Hype Entertainment
Los Angeles Office

Entering the office of Naa’Ila Entertainment, the film component of Hype Williams’ creative musings, it is no coincidence that the office assistant is dressed in fatigues. The truth is Naa’Ila is waging a war against Hollywood. This is a fight and Hype’s vice president is in it to win it. Erika Conner is looking for K.O.s and T.K.O.s and the suits that get in her way will get bloodied. Positioned behind a cherry wood desk stacked with papers and with pictures of Muhammad Ali affixed to the walls, Conner recognizes her responsibility to herself, Hype Williams, Naa’Ila Entertainment, and the movie-going community. To date, she has had a wonderful journey and has plans to make her mark even greater before it is all over. She has interacted with major players who could only lift her higher. Her interactions with Spike Lee, John Singleton, Keith Clinkscales, and Quincy Jones have prepared her for the daily 12 round bout necessary to bring new and innovative films to audiences craving urban films and characters with depth. She is an amalgamation of toughness, compassion, sensitivity, confidence, and insight. In this interview, Erika Conner takes us on a journey through her early industry experiences and the fortuitive circumstances that have blessed her to date. She also comments on Hollywood, Hype Williams, and the business challenges facing Naa’Ila. They say behind every man there is a strong woman, make no mistake Erika Conner is not behind, but on the front lines in the midst of the fray.

M: What was it like working with John Singleton?

EC: It was an interesting 2 years with John. One thing that John taught me was that you cannot be part of the machinery here in LA, you have to be your own entity. Otherwise, you lose who you are and you become part of the machine. That is a lesson that I carry with me today. John is a genius and I compare him to Spike Lee. In the way that Spike Lee characterizes New York themes, John characterizes South Central. He speaks from passion and a black man’s passion, but after 2 years, I felt I was outgrowing that company. My dream was to expand outside of that South Central box and do films on a bigger level. I am a romantic comedy type of girl, I am an action-thriller type of girl, and I am independent film type of girl. I think the independent films do the best work. For actors like a Denzel Washington, Pam Howard, Mekhi Phifer, and Regina King they will do big commercial films, but if you bring them an independent project that allows them to peel away their layers and show you their depth they want to participate. I like to be behind the scenes on things like that.

M: How did you meet Hype Williams and eventually become Vice President?

EC: Having outgrown John, I had known Hype Williams since 1992. I thought that I wanted to do video. He was like you don’t want do video. It’s dirty. I will come back for you later. I was like why are you trying to shield me from this job? I realized later it was because they are millionaires now. So I am doing “Shaft” with John and I run into Hype and he is like, I hear you’re a big dog now, running with John and stuff. He says, I am about to get this film deal with New Line Cinema and I would like you to come over. At this time, Hype had just done “Belly.” I thought visually this looks great and imagine if this story was developed a little bit more how fantastic this movie would be. Actually, it is a good movie, especially when you see the director’s cut. This was important to me because I learned how Hollywood thinks and about how it is going to market materials and why several core pieces were cut out of the film. I watched “Belly” and I watched his work ethic and I realized this is the person that I want to work with. What I see in Hype is someone who is humble, someone who is cutting edge, a revolutionary, and someone who thinks ten steps ahead. He sets the standard and he takes risks. He is someone who is very urban and I thought this was a perfect marriage. Hype was coming from video into film and I had worked with a great mentor in John. I got the best executive training with Keith and Quincy Jones and package that with Hype we can create our own Dreamworks and our own revolutions and our own type of company where Hollywood comes to us. Because urban, black, and trend setting, that is appealing to Hollywood. We’re the crème of that and that is why I decided to work with Hype in November 1999. I love working with Hype because he is very strategic in his planning. His name Hype, does not match with who he is. He is humble, laid back, and a great listener.

M: What are the challenges your company faces? Competitive challenges? Creative Challenges? Business challenges?

EC: I have learned that Hollywood is a cannibal and they will eat you up. If you are hot then they will feed you. If not they will eat you up and kick you out for the next person. In that case, you don’t get an opportunity to show your own work. I’ve found that Hype isn’t affected by that. He’s like, I will give them something when I am ready. The challenges for the company, I see it as business challenges. Well, from a creative challenge and competitive challenge, Hollywood looks at Hype as a brand name, so they ask him what the future holds and he is allowed to create and consult on that future. So I do not see those challenges because Hollywood now recognizes that there is something to these urban themes. For instance the “Boyz N the Hoods” and “The Fast and the Furious,” so they have relaxed. But they don’t know how to do it so they come to people like Naa’Ila. Because when you see fifty trailers for the shoot ‘em up, it’s too late to jump on. At that point, don’t do it. Why they are jumping on the bandwagon, we’re creating new things. Business challenges are there because we are operating at our pace. It becomes time is running out, we have to have this film by you, we need this script by you, oh! Financially that’s a million dollar project, we don’t know how to market it.

M: What have been the personal challenges that you have faced?

EC: The personal challenges and I know this may sound feminist, but I am a woman. You have to understand that when I walk into a room I am in a room with a bunch of alligators. They are testing me to see how tough I am and how thick my skin is. I think that is a personal challenge of being young, attractive, and knowledgeable. But I try to use it to my advantage because in this business they stereotype you as being the assistant to the director. I am not supposed to know my shit.

M: Is it solely from men that you get this response?

EC: No, this is a competitive business. It makes it harder when it is the women because you think that there are common experiences and struggles and you are like God!

M: How about from blacks in general?

EC: Yes, I think that happens. I think it is that whole crab in a bucket mentality. We come from a place where we have not had many opportunities so the one who has some power is reluctant to assist because they might be worried about what these other people are going to say or if I bring someone in and they perform better than me and usurp my power. I don’t think we should think that way. Bob and Joe don’t think that way. They identify their strengths and weaknesses and find people to augment the weaknesses. Kind of a yin and yang because if one gets fired they will turn around and hire that fired person back. That’s what good about Puffy (P Diddy) and Andre Harrell. When your down, I am going to pick you up. I think black people should use that as an example.

M: Talk to me a little bit about your first day as Vice President for Naa’Ila? Were you nervous?

EC: I am not gonna even front. I was like nervous, (laugh). What’s interesting is the thing about being a black woman VP is that it is a special thing because there are not many of us out there. It is like a Tupac thing, “All Eyes On Me.” It is empowering though because it is like a “Pinky and the Brain” thing where I’m going to take over the world, but it is also scary because you are under a microscope. They are only watching me to see if I fail and not interested in my successes. There was a lot of weight because I had to not only worry about Erika, but the whole company. I reflect Hype Williams so I was worried about finding the right projects and making the right deals. I had to let all of that thinking go because if you think like that then you won’t do your job effectively. Because you won’t find the right job or projects and you won’t say the right things.

M: When did you come to terms with this?

EC: It was over a period of time. I recognized that I was not going to be fired tomorrow and if I was I could get another job as a VP somewhere else. I realized that patience was a key and that I had the support of peers, my family and Hype. Hype told me they don’t sign your check, I do. So he told me to relax. I also realized that I am 31 and I have nothing to lose.

M: What is the future of the entertainment industry and how has your company positioned itself for the future?

EC: I think the future depends on the people defining that future and how we work collectively. I can only speak for Naa’Ila Entertainment and our future is to step outside of traditional boxes of expectation. We are looking at a higher level of animation, and a higher level of substance, character development. We want to create characters that you fall in love with as viewers

M: In your estimation, what is the future of black film? What is the responsibility to the black community?

EC: There is definitely a responsibility. The responsibility is to deliver things of higher substance and to educate people. Not education through preaching but education through exposure to a greater wealth of experiences. We want to redefine the genre each time we do something. The challenge of black films and this is nothing against movies like “The “Best Man,” “The Wood,” and “Baby Boy,” but we have to step outside of those markets because there is so much more to the African American and black experience. There are greater stories to tell. Black people are dramatic anyways, but there really has not been a great dramatic film. You watch a film like “Brothers” and it was comedy and everything, but what about the nitty-gritty stuff like what is the psyche of the black man and how you operate. There has not been your black “Traffic” or your black “American Beauty.” I think that we have to come out of that safe box and stop worrying that these are the only films that Hollywood will buy. We have to set that trend. We cannot be enamored with getting that first Benz, but we must be willing to fight for our stories. That’s the thing about Hollywood the people who make the decisions are not artists. They do not always work well with creatives because they are suits. When I say suits, they come from law schools, Harvard Business School, and banks. Half of these people are investment bankers. They understand numbers. They do make it difficult for people like myself, and the Hype’s of the world because we do not think of the marketability. They are thinking about whether the film is going to make a $100 million dollars the first weekend. All they want to know is whether or not they are going to recoup what they put out for the filming. So it does make it hard.

M: What advice would you give to aspiring women and men considering a career in this industry?

EC: Be yourself. It is like that quote from Eve, “I do what they can’t do, I just be me.” That’s the best thing. Know what your purpose is and know what your passion is and follow it.

M: What’s next for Hype Williams and Naa’Ila Entertainment?

EC: Oh, “Speed Racer.” We are going to redo “Speed Racer” for Warner Brothers and that is going to be huge because every guy and every boy has grown up on “Speed Racer.” Just imagine Hype’s video, which are very glossy and bigger than life. Now imagine him applying that to this film.

M: What’s been the biggest struggle from doing videos into feature films?

EC: The patience. I think that “Belly” was the learning curve and you realize how difficult and ugly the film world can be, but I think the lessons from that have strengthened us and have prepared us for the future.