Julie Pifher, B.A. Production '07, is an award-winning filmmaker, specializing in both documentary and scripted content. She’s premiered three short documentaries at the Cannes International Film Festival, one of which won Best in Short Documentary. She oversees the entire production process, from development and story consulting to logistical production, international distribution to marketing. Her latest project is TLC's hit show "My Giant Life," which premiered July 14 and airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m.
A little bit about Julie:
I’m originally from Milwaukee and I graduated from the USC production track in 2007. Through my own production company, I’ve directed a feature doc, Burning Man & The Meaning of Life, which is streaming on Hulu, iTunes and Amazon. I am an eternal optimist and that has come in handy in an industry that can knock you down sometimes. You just have to get back up and stay positive.
When did you know that you wanted to be in the film & television business?
When I was in high school, I went on a field trip to the local public access station and I was inspired to make my own public access show with a friend. We highlighted some cool events and I learned that life is better with a press pass! We got noticed and the local Fox News station did a segment about us. It was my first taste of success, haha!
Tell us about the beginning of your career.
For the first few years after graduation, I produced music videos and did story consulting, which consists of doing coverage, offering story ideas, doing rewrites and edits. After a few repeat clients, I got paid to write original feature scripts. But the economy kind of took a dive and none of those indie scripts were getting made (one I worked on in 2009 just got funded and is finally going into production this fall!). So in 2009, I got an opportunity in TV development and I’ve worked for several production companies since.
Promotional still from TLC's My Giant Life
What do you do now?
I am the Director of Development at Workaholic Productions. I come up with new show ideas, create materials to sell the show (treatments, reels, production plans) and then pitch them to all the networks. When a concept sells, I oversee the overall production.
How did you become the EP of My Giant Life?
I created the show idea, found the cast, put together the sales materials and then sold the show. I negotiated Executive Producer credit for all my original ideas that sell. The EP credit was something I had to ask for and negotiate. Ladies, you’ve got to ask for that stuff and hold your ground or else you won’t get it! At previous jobs, I only got Associate Producer credit for my shows and I realized that credits are worth fighting for.
Describe the show for someone who hasn't seen it yet.
My Giant Life is a documentary series on TLC that follow the lives of four women who are 6’6” and taller. We follow one girl who is 16 and is already 6’9”! We followed her journey to prom. One woman married a man much shorter than her, one found her estranged father and one was navigating the dating scene as an extremely tall woman.
Julie on set with Haleigh, one of the women featured on TLC's My Giant Life.
What is the job of an Executive Producer?
There are a few categories/descriptions for EPs. I received the credit for creating the show, but I also oversaw production to help ensure that the stories I sold to the network were delivered properly. The showrunner gets EP credit and they deal with the daily nitty gritty of it all. The president of the production company gets EP credit and they oversee the whole shebang. We all work together on many levels, but most importantly to ensure the network and talent is happy at every turn. There are also EPs on the network side.
What makes a good EP?
One really important element, especially in documentary TV, is to protect your talent. They are opening up their lives for the cameras and it can be a scary and nerve-wracking thing for them. If they don’t feel safe, they won’t feel open to share and the story will feel stilted. Making sure talent is happy is worth going the extra mile.
What are some of the challenges of your job?
It can be frustrating when a good concept doesn’t sell or doesn’t go to series. Last year I sold/produced four pilots that didn’t get picked up, so no one will ever see all that hard work.
What important lessons have you learned in the business?
The art of negotiation is something that should be taught more in school! You can’t take things personally. And the more passion you have about a project, the easier it is to stick with it for the long haul.
How has your USC education played a role in your career?
In the first few years, I got most of my jobs through people I met in school. It’s really great to have those connections and work with people you like. What I liked about the production track was how varied the classes were. I learned how to write a script and tell a good story, I learned how to budget and how to work with actors. I use all of that in my job every day.
Julie wrote, directed and produced the 2012 documentary Burning Man and the Meaning of Life
What career achievement/s have you been most proud of?
I’m probably most proud of the experiences I’ve had rather than any one project. I’ve been to France over a dozen times, for both the Cannes Film Festival and the MIP TV market. I’ve even walked the red carpet at Cannes! I lived in India for two months writing a Bollywood “cross-over” script.
What advice would you give to any aspiring reality/documentary producers and directors out there?
Find new worlds and perspectives that no one has seen (or hasn’t seen in a while haha) and get access that no one else has.
What can be done to increase the representation of women in key creative roles -- and as protagonists in reality and fiction projects?
Groups like WCA are so vital because it gives us a platform to help each other out. I love that I can reach out to a smart group of women to get advice and support. When we support each other, we gain power. Women have to be confident to know their worth and speak up for themselves.
What projects are next for you?
I have a bunch of new TV shows in development (I’m usually pitching out about 20 projects at any given time) but I have a personal project on the side that I’m really excited about – I’m writing a science fiction fantasy novel! I’ve been really enjoying the new challenge of writing the book and learning all the jargon/rules of the publishing world.
Find more on Julie and her work here: