“When I was in Crimson Key, I used to tell people that there is a closed book in the original Harvard coat of arms to encourage you to explore outside of the classroom,” Michael S. Roiff ’01 said to a packed crowd at the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center on Sept. 11. Despite concentrating in economics, Roiff was heavily involved in theater at Harvard—an extracurricular activity that eventually inspired him to become a film producer. As the musical adaptation of his 2007 movie “Waitress” began its run at the A.R.T., Roiff returned to Cambridge to share his experience.
At the talk, Roiff described his beginnings in film: After moving to Los Angeles, he founded Night & Day Pictures and started looking for scripts with potential. When he read Adrienne Shelly’s screenplay for “Waitress,” he immediately realized it could be the opportunity he was looking for. Despite lacking both resources and prior experience in filmmaking, Roiff went to great lengths with Shelly to turn the story into a film; in one instance, he waited six months for lead actress Keri Russell to finish another film. “For these six months I just talked to Adrienne about nothing for a long time every day, because we both had nothing else to do,” Roiff said. However, it was a time that would ultimately prove crucial to “Waitress”—as Roiff and Shelly chatted about the details of the project in the intervening period, they came up with numerous new possibilities for their film.
Until “Waitress” was accepted to show at Sundance, Roiff said that he and his collaborators felt unsure about the future of the film. Immediately after its debut, though, “Waitress” received great reviews at the festival and offers from the likes of MGM Studios and Fox Searchlight Pictures. “At that time we didn’t have an office, and we had to go to an ice cream shop to make the call…. We were kicked out because it was midnight and the shop was closing,” Roiff recalled.
The distribution rights of “Waitress” were eventually sold to Fox Searchlight, and based on this success, Roiff went on to produce Neil Abramson’s “American Son,” Cheryl Hines’s “Serious Moonlight,” and many other independent films. Now well known for his independent movies, Roiff has branched out to adapt “Waitress” into a musical alongside director Diane Paulus. The show premiered at the A.R.T. on Aug. 2 and is scheduled to run through Sept. 27, after which it will move to Broadway.
Given his success in the industry, when asked in an interview what he would tell aspiring filmmakers, Roiff had some words of advice to offer. “When you first come to Hollywood, you feel everyone has the same last name and everyone is connected,” Roiff says. “It is like a party where everyone knows each other and you are left alone…but every day there are new people who join this party.” Roiff attests that while the film industry is very competitive, it is also very open; talented and hardworking people will always have a shot, he says.
It was not only budding producers who found value in Roiff’s talk. Claire Frederiksen, a first-year student at the A.R.T. Institute, felt that Roiff’s talk was informative for undergraduate students who may be artistically inclined but not necessarily familiar with the entertainment industry, since Roiff is more an entrepreneur than an artist himself. “I’m not so much interested in going the producing side, but I think it’s very interesting to hear from somebody who’s involved. It’s very helpful for any career,” she says.
—Staff writer Tianxing V. Lan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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