As the publisher & editor of my own publication for the past 38 years, of all the documentaries showing at this year’s 12th Annual Hell’s Half Mile Film Festival, 44 PAGES is one that instantly grabbed my attention.
Remember Highlights, that children’s magazine that would populate the waiting room in every doctor’s office across the country to distract your attention from the reason you were at the doctor’s office in the first place? Well, it’s still going, still a family business, and still based in a stately mansion in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.
Producer Rebecca Green, who lives in Michigan, and director Tony Shaff’s new documentary gives us a ringside seat for the production of the magazine’s 70th anniversary issue, introducing us to the editorial staff members committed to keeping Highlights relevant and fun in a changing world.
From the first editorial meeting to its arrival in homes, this film tracks the people who passionately produce this monthly publication for “the world’s most important people,” …children. Along the way, a rich and tragic history is revealed, the state of childhood, technology, and education is explored, and the future of print media is honestly questioned.
Family owned since its inception in 1946 and never containing a single advertisement, Highlights stands alone in the magazine publishing world. From the baby boom generation to the tech savvy kids of today, Highlights has been a staple in American society, with over a billion issues delivered to children around the world.
Rebecca Green was co-producer of the indie horror sensation It Follows, which premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and went on to screen at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and 2015 Sundance Film Festival. It grossed $15 million at the U.S. box office and received 2016 Film Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing. Green also co-produced I’ll See You in My Dreams, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival where it was acquired by Bleecker Street. The film grossed $7.5 million at the U.S. box office and was nominated for a 2015 Gotham Award for Best Actress. Rebecca was also named on Variety’s 2015 “10 Producers to Watch" list and nominated for the Piaget Producer's Award at the 2016 Film Independent Spirit Awards.
Review: As a publisher & editor that started my own magazine 38 years ago, I find the concept behind this documentary about 'Highlights' immensely intriguing. How did you get involved as producer of this film and what was it about the concept for developing it that intrigued you the most?
Green: I’ve been friends with the director Tony Shaff for 20 years. We met in college at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in 1997 though we hadn’t worked together since then. In the spring of 2015 while on the festival circuit with another film I produced, I’ll See You in My Dreams, I got a text from Tony asking me if I remember Highlights magazine, which I responded ‘of course.’
He then asked if I thought a documentary about the 70th anniversary of the magazine would be interesting, which I did, and the next thing I knew, Tony had called Highlights and persuaded them to let us make a film about the magazine. So, for me I guess you could say friendship was the catalyst and after that, I think for all of us involved, it was the curiosity of how the magazine was still in business after all these years that intrigued us most. Having now looked behind the scenes, we can better answer that; but at the beginning, our nostalgic love for the magazine was a big pull.
Review: While digital media has seriously impacted the publishing world of print, music, and film, Highlights is definitely a niche publication that unlike other niche publications such as Playboy, Sports Illustrated, and Rolling Stone, has endured for seven decades pretty much intact in terms of its original vision. What do you feel are the qualities that it possesses that has allowed it to endure for so long relatively unchanged?
Green: For 70 years, the magazine has stuck to its core mission of helping children become their best selves. However, while the mission has remained intact for 70 years, the magazine’s content has adapted over the decades as the world we live in has changed.
I personally feel that the magazine has been able to sustain itself for so long by remaining a family company for 70 years and without any advertising, which has allowed them to keep their mission pure and without conflict of interest.
I find in my own work, I’m always trying to make so many different people happy, from the director to investors to distributors, all who have varying interests, that it is easy to lose sight of the whole reason you’re making a film in the first place. When everyone comes together and makes decisions that are in the best of the film, that is when great films are made.
I think we can all learn a thing or two about business from studying the leadership at Highlights and what it means to do mission driven work in a very competitive and unstable market.
Review: What was the most challenging component involved with bringing this documentary to fruition?
Green: I think the editing process was most challenging. Needing to distill 70 years of a company’s evolution into 90 minutes and all the many people who not only work for the magazine now, but over the decades. In the film, you only see a select number of people, mostly on the creative team, but that was because you can only have so many characters in a story.
Review: Are there any lessons or insights that you gained from producing this documentary that you feel can be applied and translated to other businesses and artistic endeavors?
Green: In exploring what it means to be a mission driven company as Highlights is, I’ve begun to think more seriously about my mission as a producer. Not just the mission or message of one film, but my overall mission as a storyteller and the kind of work I want to put out in the world.
It is so hard to get a film made right now on any level, whether it be independent, studio or television, and it is very easy to get caught up in the efforts and time it takes to get a story up on the screen and forget why you took on a project in the first place.
It is important to me that I stay tuned into what I want to say with my work and what I want audiences to take away from the experience of watching one of my films.