Had Debra Chase '81 stayed in corporate practice, she would no doubt be a partner in a major law firm by now, but instead her business partner is diva and film star Whitney Houston. In 1995 the two teamed up on Sunset Boulevard to start BrownHouse Productions, of which Houston is president and Chase is executive vice president in charge of production.
Every day Chase pores over books, scripts, magazine articles, and plays, hoping to spot a potential film or TV movie. When something strikes her, she floats the idea with Disney, which has a first-look deal with BrownHouse. After securing financing, through Disney or another studio, Chase looks for a writer, and then a director. Next, she turns her attention to casting, and hiring a crew. Finally, there's marketing and publicity.
The process can be protracted, Chase says, recalling that the 1995 film The Preacher's Wife, starring Denzel Washington, was four years in the making. Chase came up with the idea to make the movie when she headed Washington's production company, Mundy Lane Entertainment, from 1992 to 1995.
Describing four new BrownHouse projects, Chase pauses thoughtfully over Dorothy Dandridge, a film about the first black woman to be nominated for best actress, in 1954, for her role in Carmen Jones, in which Dandridge starred with Harry Belafonte. The film is the black version of the original Carmen. "For Whitney and me, this is a fascinating story. On the one hand, it's about a woman who decides that against all odds she's going to fulfill her dream," says Chase. "On the other hand, it's about the tragedy of racism: by sheer force of will and talent this woman became the first black female movie star, but then society said, 'We're not ready for a black leading lady,' and there was no more work for her." Chase, and Houston, who may play Dandridge, are developing the script, based on the 1997 biography of Dandridge by Donald Bogle, an authority on the history of black Hollywood.
Also underway are How to Marry a Black Man, a romantic comedy; The Subway Scholar, the true story of a homeless New York City high school student who graduates first in his class; and Get Christie Love, starring Houston and based on the 1970s TV show about a black woman police detective. "There has never been an African American female detective film," says Chase, "so we're pushing the envelope with this one." Chase's first project with Houston, the TV Rogers & Hammerstein movie-musical Cinderella, with Houston playing the fairy godmother, attracted over 60 million viewers and gave ABC its best Sunday night ratings in over a decade when it aired last November. Chase sometimes marvels that any of her projects make it to the screen intact. "There are so many points along the way where things can go wrong. It's a wonder anything ever gets made at all, much less anything good," says Chase, who holds sacred "the integrity" of each project. "My name is on it. I have to be able to hold my head up. In this business I think we have a tremendous responsibility, because people derive a lot of their values from movies and television."
Of her completed projects, Chase is proudest of "Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream," the 1995 television documentary about the black baseball player who broke Babe Ruth's home run record. The documentary was nominated for both an Oscar and an Emmy. "It was the first film I ever produced and a real labor of love."
Chase moved to Los Angeles in 1989 intending to become a producer, after working since her HLS graduation at several law firms and Fortune 500 corporations in Houston and Manhattan. She landed a job in the legal department at Columbia Pictures and got her big break a year later, after a chance encounter with Columbia Pictures' then-chairman, Frank Price, whom she impressed with her creative savvy. Price hired her as his executive assistant. A year later she joined Columbia's creative staff, soon moving on to Mundy Lane Entertainment and then to BrownHouse.
If Chase finds filmmaking far more alluring than lawyering, her law background nonetheless comes in handy every day, she says, noting that "the bottom line of everything is the deal." Adds Chase, "I often don't tell people I'm a Harvard Law School graduate, because it can be threatening. But then again, there are times when I want to be threatening." - Nancy Waring