Don’t dismiss Ashley Tisdale. That’s something the industry has been learning more and more over the last few years.
Sure, you might know her as Sharpay from the High School Musical movies but in the decade since the third and final film, which took $252.91 million at the worldwide box office, she’s become a force to be reckoned with.
Blondie Girl Productions, the Los Angeles based production company that she runs with her sister, Jennifer, develops and produces television and digital programming that focuses on telling stories for millennial women and made by millennial women, including the acclaimed Freeform breakout comedy, Young and Hungry.
I caught up with Ashley and Jennifer to talk about their latest project, Daphne and Velma, as well as how she got Hollywood to take her, and her company, seriously as one of the key content players for the millennial market.
Simon Thompson: You started Blondie Girl Productions almost a decade ago. How has that journey been so far?
Ashley Tisdale: I set the company up about eight years ago and we started producing reality television. I had a producing partner at the time because I knew I wanted to produce TV but I was still learning and I finding my voice. Over the years, what has transitioned the most is having my sister join me. Jennifer started working for the company about five or six years ago. It’s always great to work with family but it’s also really nice to have someone who I trust, who knows our voice and what the company stands for. When I started the company it was really hard for people to take me seriously. When I was pitching to networks, because they obviously knew me as an actor and we were a female production company, it was a little difficult at first. I knew that I really wanted to get physically in that room and put female voices in the spotlight.
ST: Has it got any easier?
AT: Over the years it has changed but that’s only because we’ve proved ourselves. We’ve had Young and Hungry, which went for five seasons on Freeform; we’ve produced a lot of content for E! and MTV and we’re developing a lot of new projects right now. It’s been really awesome and I do feel that the company definitely has blossomed. I feel so proud of the company and so proud that we’ve come this far. We’ve shown people that we know what works and that we know what we’re talking about.
ST: Let’s talk about bringing Jennifer into the company. Why did you make the decision to do that at that point?
Jennifer Tisdale: I’d been acting for a long time. I got my degree in screenwriting from California State University, Northridge, and I knew I wanted to produce and develop projects with an emphasis on strong female characters. It was great to be able to take everything I learned from acting and going to school to get my degree and to infuse it into Blondie Girl Productions. What I brought to the table was my insight into this content for the millennial audience because that’s who I was; it’s who I am. Also, being able to work with your sister, someone who you are absolutely on the same page with is a great experience.
ST: Ashley, you mentioned that when you started the company that people saw you as an actress. Now your work speaks for itself but how did you overcome that at the time?
AT: I think for me specifically, people had the idea that, or assumed, that the company just had my name attached to it and I had someone else running it. In reality, from the start, that has never been the case and I’ve always been someone who is 100% involved. I hear every single pitch before we take it somewhere. I think I had to just prove that over time. I think people didn’t expect that I would be sitting in the room with network execs, that it would just be a producing partner sitting there pitching a show. I come from a long line of family members that were pitchers in Hollywood, including my grandfather, so I think that’s where I learned how to pitch my projects. When I’m pitching to a network, I am going to convince that network to buy it. I think that they always expected me to be kind of quiet and that I’d let other people speak for me.
ST: Are there any times where that’s happened that really stick in your mind?
AT: One of the biggest moments for me was sitting down at MTV. It was years ago. All the big executives were there and we were pitching in front of pretty much the entire company. I didn’t know who I was talking to but we were pitching a reality show that was mostly on social media and they were like, ‘Wow! I don’t know how this is going to work.’ I was stunned and told them that social media was going to be the future but they had no idea. So, I stood my ground and I started sticking up for myself and for the project. After the meeting, everyone turned to me and was like, ‘Do you know we’re talking to?’ I had no idea at the time but it was the head of MTV. I’ve just always been confident in that way but I had to learn you know where my voice was. I think that over the years, with people seeing me pitching things that I believe in, they’ve started to realize that it’s not a vanity company, it’s something that is a passion of mine and I do know what I’m doing.
ST: How do you find the balance between creating quality content that people want to watch and that is financially viable? They don’t always go hand in hand, right?
JT: When we’re looking at developing any sort of content really our main thing is that we want fully developed characters. When you look at content that works, whether it be television or film or digital, the base of all great stories are characters that are properly fleshed out and who you want to watch. For us as a company, that’s where everything starts. We’ve also really put a focus on telling stories about females but not in the context of men. I think that’s a really important thing to touch on. For years we see these female characters that are basically just the secretary or the hot best friend, you’re not seeing a fully developed female character as often as you should. I also think that, all of a sudden, people are taking more risks in our content because it has been proven time and time again that females can sell just as well as males. Look at Wonder Woman and how that movie really proved that it doesn’t have to be a male lead in order for people to go out and spend money – it just needs to be a properly developed character and a good story. It’s why we do what we do.
AT: That’s absolutely true. For me personally, as an actor, there have been tons of times that I’ve auditioned for a role that is on a TV series and it’s as the girlfriend or the second lead as a female but she’s just the hot little friend to the male lead. I just started to feel like there’s got to be so much more than that for us as actors and for audiences sitting at home. They’re hungry for it. Like Jen said, people are now taking more risks, financially and with stories, they’re being braver and audiences are responding well to that. We’re now a part of this movement that a couple years ago I didn’t even know would be open to us.
ST: What is your business model for funding? What’s your process for getting things made and how is that structured?
AT: We have a deal with Warner Bros. We are pretty much a pod deal with Warner Horizon but we also collaborate with Warner Brothers as well. It just depends on where we’re pitching. If we’re pitching something for Netflix or Hulu or for a network, we just had a show in development at CBS, then that would be the Warner Bros. If there’s anything that’s more cable-focussed, we go through Warner Horizon. We also have the digital component as well. We’ve always kind of been in an overall deal. We were in a deal with Relativity for four years, which was on the reality side. Then, when Young and Hungry happened and I really felt like I was contributing, I understood how to break down the scripts and casting so that’s when we made the jump into scripted and away from reality.
JT: Warner Bros. is an amazing partner for us. Aside from our television work, Daphne and Velma was developed in association with Warner Bros. Home Entertainment so they’ve really supported us in every area.
ST: On Daphne and Velma, why did you choose that IP to develop? Is it because you see it becoming a franchise or cinematic universe?
JT: When we first joined up with Warner Bros., aside from just saying we wanted to make smart female millennial content, we took meetings with all of the different departments and really looked at all of the IPs they have. It’s such a vast library. We started looking at female characters that we thought were underserved or weren’t previously given the stories we thought they should have been given and Daphne and Velma was one of those. I was a big fan of Scooby Doo growing up and I always felt like they were just sidekicks so it was important for us to give them their own story. Why do they have to be the sidekicks? They can do all the things the boys can do, they’re smart, they’re fun and they’re fashionable. It really was such a great synergistic piece of IP to move forward with. We’ll see what comes next but I really don’t think this will be the end of the franchise.
ST: There has been so much of a shift in the industry in the last five years, for women as well as platform development and many other things. Do you have the next five years planned out or is it an open book?
AT: I don’t think I really plan out things in life too far ahead. I always try to be in the moment. There are a lot more female-led production companies but I think we’re different and stand out as we focus on millennial content. You have companies like Reese Witherspoon’s which is awesome, Kerry Washington is now producing as well, just two examples, but I think for us as a Blondie Girl Productions, our voice is solely targeted at the millennial. I’m very excited that we’re developing a lot of projects on the TV side of the company and we hope to have even more. I think the main goal is to expand, have more shows on network and on streaming services and look at doing movies. We’re just getting started and we’re really excited about the future.
ST: So far your work, including your two feature films, has been for the small screen. Do you have big screen, theatrical aspirations?
AT: It’s something we’re open to.
JT: We’re just now starting to have conversations about what that would look like. I think that more and more people are watching things on Netflix and Amazon so really finding a model that would take advantage of those services, to be able to reach our audience, is something we’re having conversations about and its something we’re excited to dive into.
AT: Being a millennial driven production company we know where our audience watches and I think that that is really what’s important to us. It’s not important just to have something on the big screen. What’s more important is us knowing where our audience watches and doing the content for them there.
Daphne & Velma is available on Digital, Blu-ray & DVD from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Simon Thompson is a freelance producer (TV & Digital), film & entertainment journalist and broadcaster. From the UK, he now lives and works in LA. He’s on Twitter and LinkedIn.