As a teenager growing up in New Jersey, Pamela Abdy danced competitively five to six days a week. Her dream of making it a career was shattered, along with her foot, during her sophomore year at Boston’s Emerson College, but a professor made a compelling connection by comparing cinema to choreography. Abdy had found her new calling: producing movies.
Many years later, as the pandemic shut down Hollywood in spring 2020, MGM chief Michael De Luca convinced Abdy to come on board as president of the studio’s motion picture group. Within weeks of her arrival there, where Abdy now oversees eight creative executives, she and De Luca closed deals to pick up Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza (out Nov. 26) and Joe Wright’s musical Cyrano (Dec. 17, qualifying run), while beating out Netflix and another streamer for Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci (Nov. 24). All three films, each shot during the pandemic, will open in cinemas during the heart of awards season.
MGM has hardly been Abdy’s first brush with prestige. Before taking on the studio — and its crown jewel, the James Bond franchise, which finally saw the release of No Time to Die — she got her start at Danny DeVito’s Jersey Films (Garden State, Man on the Moon) and went on to a tenure at Paramount Pictures, New Regency and Makeready, working on such esteemed titles as Babel, Birdman, The Big Short and The Revenant. Abdy sat down with THR on a recent Friday afternoon, hours after arriving back in Los Angeles — where she resides with her husband and 9-year-old daughter — from a tour that included a Rocky anniversary event in Philadelphia and House of Gucci‘s London premiere. She opened up about her early days with DeVito, House of Gucci‘s box office prospects and, pending regulatory approval of Amazon’s $8.5 billion purchase of MGM, her studio’s future once it’s part of a tech behemoth.
I might as well get this out of the way. Who is going to be the next 007 now that Daniel Craig is done?
It’s wide open. We’ve had very early preliminary conversations with Barbara [Broccoli] and Michael [Wilson], but we wanted Daniel to have his last hurrah.
What was De Luca’s pitch when he asked you to take this job?
I’ve known Mike for years and years. He called me on a Sunday and said, “I want to do this together. We can be filmmaker-driven. We can chase after all the directors that you and I both love.” I said, “Slow down.”
Other studios passed on making Licorice Pizza, Cyrano and House of Gucci. Why take the risk?
We’re trying to take original swings. If you look at our slate, the one thing in common is that the movies are filmmaker-driven. There are singular voices telling these stories — Channing Tatum and Reid Carolin, Ron Howard, George Miller, Zach Braff, Michael B. Jordan and more.
Some box office pundits say the adult drama is a dying genre on the big screen. Can House of Gucci prove them wrong?
Lady Gaga is one of the most remarkable superstars out there. She has older fans and younger fans. And it isn’t just an adult drama. There’s so much deliciousness in the film for everyone. I think more movies like that have to get made.
Jared Leto is almost unrecognizable as Paolo Gucci.
Jared would send Mike and I images of him in the makeup chair in Italy and tell us how long it took to get ready every day. It was like three and a half hours. We’ve all been friends for 15 years or so and grew up in the business together.
What is your stance on guns on set in the wake of the Rust tragedy?
I don’t think there should ever be live ammunition on a set, and we also understand creatively the need to not censor a story where a gun is part of the scene. That said, we take on-set safety seriously on every production and aim to utilize visual effects and enhance sound effects wherever possible.
How did you get the job at Jersey Films?
I saw an advertisement for an internship. That was in 1995. I had seen the Jersey Films logo on Reality Bites and Pulp Fiction. I loved both.
Tell me a good Danny DeVito story.
When I first started, we would geek out about being both from Jersey and both being Italian. I’m actually half-Italian and half-Syrian. I’d probably been at the company for six months when Danny fired his assistant on the last day of the Matilda shoot. He’s like, “I’ll take the kid at the front desk. I like her accent.” He gave me this huge book — we called it “The Bible” — and it had numbers of everybody in town.
Who did you call that you were most intimidated by?
Probably Jack Nicholson. I also ended up driving Danny everywhere, so we would call people in the car. I was a horrible driver. We got in two accidents. One of them I was trying to find a number, and I swiped a garbage can and knocked the side-view mirror off. Another time, I was driving him home from set — he was sleeping in the front seat, resting because it had been an early call — and I literally had a minor head-on collision with his neighbor. Danny woke up and was like, “What’s going on?”
Are you hopeful that MGM will remain a stand-alone studio once the acquisition goes through?
What they’re building at Amazon Studios is awesome. It’s really awesome what we’re building. I think there is a way for all of us to continue to build great cinema and be innovative in this space. But we haven’t even had any of those conversations because we [still] have to operate as separate companies. We’re mining our library and excited about everything coming next year.
MGM just revealed that Leonardo DiCaprio is attached to star in a film about infamous cult leader Jim Jones. How do you convince top talent and directors to work with the studio when it is on the brink of a sale to Amazon?
Of course, they ask. There is always going to be a theatrical component to our releases. Mike and I offer filmmakers a real partnership. We do everything to give them the room and the space to have a creative experience [and] get their films out to the world.
What can you tell me about Legally Blonde 3?
It’s really happening. Mindy Kaling and Dan [Goor] are writing it now for Reese [Witherspoon] to star. Reese and Lauren Neustadter are producing with Marc Platt. We’re all developing it together. What does Elle Woods look like at 40? Elle is a mom with a thriving career. We’re looking forward to seeing the script come in sometime in the first quarter.
Is Luke Wilson returning?
It’s definitely our hope that he will return when we are ready to make it.
What was your coping mechanism while working from home?
Cooking. I made a different thing every single night. I would start cooking at 5 p.m. every day if I didn’t have a Zoom. I would roll calls and have the phone in my back pocket. If there were internal meetings, I’d be breading chicken cutlets and making sweet peppers. It was great.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.