The first thing you'll notice about Darla K. Anderson is her great smile, and her mane of beautiful blond hair. Next you'll see the twinkle in her eye, and feel her joyous, welcoming personality.
What you won't guess, unless you already know, is that Darla is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the highest average movie gross for a producer: $221 million per movie. She's got credit on 'A Bug's Life,' 'Monsters Inc.,' 'Toy Story 3,' and even has a character in 'Finding Nemo' named after her.
She is certainly one of the most down to earth millionaires I've ever interviewed. I was surprised to learn of Darla's humble beginnings and glad to hear that the path to success hasn't been repaved: It's still just listening to your inner voice and following your dreams. Here's how Darla did it:
Q. What was your first job?
A. My very first job, where they took out taxes, was working at Tiffany's bakery at the Glendale Galleria. I am from beautiful downtown Glendale. And I was 16. Right after that I got a job waitressing, which everybody couldn't understand why I wanted that so badly. All my friends are like, "Are you kidding me?" But I really loved it. It's backbreaking work, but it is also getting to multitask and manage 10 things at once [not unlike film producing]. Every moment changes and you are interacting with people all the time.
I think those traits are pretty well suited to producing. I think that in some ways a producer should have to have worked in some kind of service business, before.
Q. Not many kids with Hollywood dreams say, "I want to be a producer!" Most are drawn to acting or directing. So how'd you find your niche?
A. Well, I met this guy when I was in college at San Diego State. He was young [but very successful]. He seemed really [accomplished] so I said," What do you do for a living?" He said "Well, I'm a producer." I asked, "Well, what does a producer do?" I didn't even know.
He said it was about being of an entrepreneurial spirit. And you need to hire all of these teams and make it happen -- make a movie happen. I thought, "This is so cool." I majored in art, but I always had an entrepreneurial spirit. And when I heard the job description of a producer, because it kind of combined all of those things -- artistry with business -- and I thought, "That job description is me."
So I drove myself to a production company and said, "Hey I'm a producer." I was 25 at the time. 'I'm a producer; just give me a chance. I know I can do the job." And they said, "Oh OK, little girl." [laughs] It wasn't really that demeaning, but I said, "No I'm a producer, really. I know can do it."
They said, "Well, you can be a PA [production assistant] -- go make some coffee." And I did that. It's a good thing. In our industry, I think it's really, really helpful to start from the bottom, because you just absorb everything. If you are thrown out there too fast, you're set up to fail.
So I was a PA, and then everything. I worked 24/7 and absorbed everything I could. After that, I saw animation at a conference and I fell in love with it.
Q. Why animation, specifically?
A. What is really interesting is that the hardest thing to do is to make a good story no matter if you are in live action or animation. And so that is always a challenge. I mean, I thought that after I finished my first movie that maybe the next one would get a little easier... and it really doesn't. If you're serious about being true to the story and trying to wrestle a good story to the ground and get it on the screen, it takes time to do that.
Q. Do you have any career advice for people who may want something that's kind of huge and sort of ambiguous, like being a producer? What would you say is the first sort of trait that a person needs to start to achieve their goal, no matter how seemingly unrealistic?
A. You know, the producer is there to help. It's about being the directors' partner and getting the film up. You deal with the CEO of a company, say a multinational company with these big movies; the producer kind of holds the movie and takes care of it, drives the film, and makes things happen. A great producer is changing every minute, and you're solving problems, multitasking. There's a great art to it.
So I would say first of all, don't let anybody tell you "No" -- about anything. Just go for your dreams.
Second, do a lot of research. What I tell young people is, if you're sparking toward something, whatever it is, just have the spark toward it. If you can't stop thinking about it, well then, start pursuing it. Start doing the research. Try to understand why you're attracted to it. Because when you think back to what I was attracted to, I didn't always know why I was attracted to it.
I didn't know why I loved animated movies so much. But at the time nobody liked it and everybody told me not to get into it. And they were all very afraid of it because everybody thought it was limiting, they were too expensive, or whatever it was... but I just really loved it I loved the art of it. I love the pioneering efforts. I loved the idea. I love everything to do with it.
So if you love something and you're sparking toward that, you don't have to intellectually understand it. Just keep pursuing it, keep going for it. Just follow your heart.