'Omigod, I'm going to have to get angry all over again."
Ruth Vitale was introduced to me only a few minutes ago, and she's already in a state of spiky moral outrage. That's my fault, really: I probably shouldn't have greeted her by mentioning that some members of my extended family make a habit of illegally downloading movies.
"It's infuriating, and it's wrong." she says. "The thing is, [paying for content] supports your living, and they should know that!"
She's swearing now.
She does this a fair bit, it seems, and it's charming: Less abrasive than conspiratorial, a sort of corrective to an enduring girlish quality she has, even in her early 60s. For more than three decades now, Ms. Vitale has cultivated a reputation as a Hollywood executive who says what she's thinking, a creature of the independent film world who blithely wears jeans to meetings on Capitol Hill. In a town of inflatable phonies, she comes off as authentic, grounded.
And so here on a blue-sky Sunday afternoon during the recent Toronto International Film Festival, as the imported air-kissers swirl past the patio of O&B Canteen, the ground-floor restaurant in TIFF's King Street complex, Ms. Vitale wants to talk about a mortal danger.
About 18 months ago, she was recruited by CreativeFuture, a non-profit group funded by the major Hollywood studios and hundreds of other TV and film companies, which is hoping to shift the public's attitude about pirated entertainment content. In her brief time at the helm, the organization has pivoted from complaining about piracy to instead trying to emphasize the cultural importance of creativity and the hard work done by the thousands of people you don't see on screen.
"We're the victim of our own red-carpet celebrity," Ms. Vitale says, as a waiter places a shareable Ploughman's Plate of meat, cheese, pickles, fruit, and toast atop our tiny, high table. She forks into a small cube of cheese – she had a late breakfast, she explains – and sips some blueberry tea. "People think movie-making is magic."
"No one outside of our business understands how hard it is to do what we do. And none of us has bothered to speak up about it," she says. "While Google and Silicon Valley and everyone is saying copyright doesn't matter, we've been saying, 'You know, we're busy making those television shows and films that you're busy stealing. We really don't have time to talk about it.' And my job is to say: 'Time's up. Time to talk about it.'"
CreativeFuture's membership now comprises some of the most well-respected behind-the-scenes workers: the producers Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy), Gale Anne Hurd (The Walking Dead), Dawn Prestwich (The Killing), Marshall Herskovitz (the films Traffic and Love & Other Drugs), and director Spike Lee, many of whom spend their spare time penning op-eds about piracy and spreading the word in other ways.
They want people to understand that those in the industry – the set designers and sound technicians, production managers and prop people, costumers and special effects whizzes – are non-celebrities simply trying to pay their rent or mortgage and put food on the table for their families. Ms. Vitale notes that almost 1,400 people worked on the 2013 film The Wolverine, none of whom, it would seem, was top-of-mind when people streamed the movie from Bit Torrent or other pirate sites.
"Here's the thing," says Ms. Vitale. "I want the 2016 Tesla, but I just can't go into their showroom and steal the plans and have it made. When did we raise a generation of kids that are, like, 'I want it when I [expletive deleted] want it?' I wanna strangle them."
Okay, so it may be that Ms. Vitale hasn't yet fully pivoted to promoting a broader appreciation of creativity: It's not easy, after all, to curb the instinct to fight when you're under siege. But CreativeFuture has a three-pronged plan to change things.
The first is to encourage behind-the-scenes workers to step up. A few days after our meeting at TIFF, Ms. Vitale was in Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress and others as part of an event called "Beyond the Red Carpet." Disney animators who worked on Frozen were there, as well as a special effects makeup artist, a costumer from the TV show Turn, producers, and filmmakers.
CreativeFuture is also behind a new initiative of the U.S. advertising industry to stop Fortune 500 companies from buying ad space on pirate sites. Many of these companies, says Ms. Vitale, might not even be aware of where their ads show up. "If you're BMW and you buy 30,000 impressions online, the Internet purposely hides where your ads go," she says. Her figures suggest about 20-25 per cent of the ads on streaming sites are for brands that likely do not want to be associated with piracy. Stopping that, she says, "will make those sites look not legitimate, because it will be [just] porn ads and Russian bride ads. So the people that don't look intentionally to steal, they will know it's not a site that's appropriate."
The third plank is youth outreach. "If I call it 'youth education,' the other side condemns me for saying I'm trying to brainwash," she explains. "And it really is about conveying respect for creativity." Her organization has struck a partnership with I Keep Safe, a non-profit that instructs children about online safety, to promote a curriculum about creativity, copyright, and fair-use. There are hopes to roll out the curriculum across schools in the United States. "It's a really long-term play," she admits.
The job as executive director of CreativeFuture is an unusual place for Ms. Vitale to be, considering that movies were not part of her upbringing. "I was only allowed to read books," she says. Growing up for a time in Cali, Colombia, where her father, a PhD in biochemistry and a cancer researcher, set up the Department of Nutrition at the University of Valle, "we didn't have a television, because you couldn't get reception." Back in the U.S., she still wasn't allowed to watch TV.
She went to university with the intention of following her father's footsteps into medicine. "Six weeks in, I literally sat in chemistry class and thought: 'I'm never going to make it.' So I changed to literature, and a minor in dance, and my dad didn't speak to me for six months. He was furious."
She followed that degree with a masters in journalism, then was set to go to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy near Boston when a TV station, where she'd done part-time work during college, offered her a job.
Within a few years, she'd made the leap into film, first as programmer at The Movie Channel, where a friend was working. It was just something to do at the time. "I kind of believe this: that your fate is mapped out for you. I know there are people who believe you make your own. But I've never made a whole lot of choices. I've kind of come to a fork in the road and just, like, stuck my finger up in the wind: 'Okay, I'll go that way.' Every job has led to something more interesting, and each prior job has given me additional skill sets that help me on the next path, the next part of my journey, and I know that sounds like a fortune cookie. But it really is true."
The Movie Channel is where she really started watching films. Soon enough, she moved into filmmaking. In 1987, as president of production at Vestron Pictures, she green-lit a little indie film that became a monster hit: A 1960s coming-of-age tale about a young woman whose father, as it happens, is a doctor.
"It's the one thing my father was so proud of," says Ms. Vitale. In his final days, as he was ailing from heart disease, she says, "I'd come in from L.A. and I went to the nursing home and I said, 'My dad, Dr. Vitale is here, he's a patient, which room is he in?' and [a nurse said]: 'Are you his daughter who made Dirty Dancing?' He was on his deathbed, saying, 'My daughter made Dirty Dancing.' And I was like – " and here Ms. Vitale affects a kind of Valley Girl accent, with an uptick – " '… Yea, but you know, I've done a lot of other things since then?' But, for him, anywhere he went in the world, that was the icebreaker: 'My daughter made Dirty Dancing.'"
She didn't actually make it, of course, but she is listed as an executive producer on more than a dozen other films. Screen credits are funny things, though. People frequently receive them when they do no discernible work; just as often, they'll slave away and get no official credit. In 1988, when Ms. Vitale was head of production at United Artists, the studio found itself in a jam when the writers went out on strike while the horror film Child's Play was being made. So she worked weekends with the director to shape the script. (She got no credit.)
Then there was The Legend of 1900, the 1998 drama by the Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore, known for the Oscar-winning Cinema Paradiso.
"I got [the studio] Fine Line to green-light what was essentially a $45-million movie that Tornatore was going to direct in English. That wouldn't have been unusual, except that Giuseppe didn't speak English. But I was assured that he was going to learn English, so I bought the 25-page treatment, or committed to it, in Cannes that year, and a moment later I'm whisked by [former Italian prime minister Silvio] Berlusconi on a private jet to Rome, to meet with Giuseppe. And at lunch we had a translator, because Giuseppe in fact did not speak English." She laughs ruefully at the memory.
"Um, that was a really difficult set for everybody involved. For Giuseppe himself, right? Because there he has a movie with Tim Roth and Pruitt Taylor Vince, and we have translators for everybody." She pauses to let that sink in. "Everybody! Okay? I wanted to shoot myself!"
She bailed before the end of production, to found Paramount Classics. Her official credit was "Thanks."
Ms. Vitale has to run off now to a TIFF panel discussion about the evolving world of film distribution. But there are still a few things to talk about, so a couple of weeks later she and I connect by phone. She's back in L.A., and I'm at home now. As it happens, my extended family is gathered downstairs for a big dinner. She tells me that, at the conclusion of that panel in Toronto, she was approached by a young filmmaker with a depressing and too-familiar tale. "He said, 'I spent two years making a movie, and it was pirated. Two years of my work, saving up money to make a movie, and I've lost everything.' How is that okay?
"Now, I know this isn't life or death. But it is an industry under siege that's contributed most of the cultural references in the last 100 years: music, movies, books, and TV. So, do I think I'm gonna make a difference? I'm sure as hell gonna try."
I explain that I need to go soon, that my family is waiting for me – including the relatives I mentioned when we first met, the ones who steal content.
And she says: "Put them on the phone for me!"
B.A., Literature, Tufts University
M.S., Journalism, Boston University
Select film credits
Love! Valour! Compassion!, executive producer
Twelfth Night (1996), executive producer
Don Juan DeMarco, executive producer
Corrina, Corrina, executive producer
Member, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences
Paramount Classics, founder and co-president (1998-2005)
Fine Line Features, president (1995-97)
New Line Pictures, senior vice-president of acquisitions and co-productions (1992-94)
Ms. Vitale, 62, has never been married – though she has been engaged four times. "I am the runaway bride," she says, laughing. "First was when I was 26, and the last was when I was 40. By the way, the last one? When he realized I wasn't going to marry him, it was so hard for me not to say, 'Weren't the first three a clue?'"
The book by her bedside
Albert Einstein's collection of essays The World As I See It. "I'm going to go out on a limb and say he's the most extraordinary writer in existence. If I ever had to meet anybody for 24 hours, and I could pick anybody dead or alive, it would be Albert Einstein. He wasn't just a physicist. His writing is jaw-droppingly beautiful."
'Desert Island Movies'
"These are the movies that, if you had to go to a desert island and never watch anything else, what would you bring? The problem with choosing five is, I flow over into six and seven."
No. 1: "The first one, I have the poster in my office, one of the originals. It's Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. For me, it was the first time that art and commerce met. It is truly an action film, but [director] George Miller, because of how adept he is at his craft, it's an extraordinary piece of film making."
No. 2: "If you can count two movies as one – The Godfather and The Godfather 2. You can see from my list, I'm all about the film making. Coppola is truly an artist."
No. 3: Blade Runner: "Ridley Scott's cut. Again, Ridley is a consummate artist. I think I love all of these directors because they took what are essentially arthouse topics and made them all commercial. That's why [No. 4 is]: David Fincher's Fight Club."
No. 5: "This one may raise hackles, but it is truly an extraordinary film: Mel Gibson's Apocalypto. Someone said to me, 'Do you have any comedies you like?' If I had to bring two comedies, it would be [No. 6] Babe – interestingly, produced by George Miller – and [No. 7] Parenthood. But see, that's cheating, because it's more than five."