I think if you pause for a moment on set (or in life, for that matter), and see that everyone around you is white, or male, or the same religion, etc. — then you clearly need to work harder to promote diversity on your team.
I had the pleasure to interview Margelit Hoffman. Margelit runs the Hoffman Film Agency — a commercial and documentary film production firm — with her husband Shmuel, based in NYC and Philly. They have five kids and have produced close to 500 films and commercials for clients from nonprofits, schools and camps, to best-selling books and automakers.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Shmuel studied viola for 24 years in Berlin, until he started to get interested in Judaism. Once he began keeping the Sabbath, of course he couldn’t perform or practice on Friday nights and Saturdays, and that basically ended his career. He studied photography for a year, and began making art films that were shown in Berlin.
I studied painting and creative writing at Bennington, but after college I went into business. When Shmuel and I got married, I saw how his filmmaking could be a business, so we began our production company.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Aside from getting to meet some interesting and/or famous people, the most fun part of our work is getting to travel around the world and delve into new ways of life. Shmuel filmed in India last year. After witnessing extreme poverty in India, he came back and was much more thankful for amenities we have, like not all sharing the same bedroom, or running water, or a private toilet. Seeing other ways of life helps you appreciate what you have.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Shmuel taught himself English. On one of his first shoots here in the US, the talent had some sweat on his forehead, and Shmuel asked makeup to remove the shine from his foreskin. Of course it’s extra funny when a religious Jew says it. The crew had a good laugh.
Can you describe how you are helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?
Although filmmaking is full of Jewish people, most of them are not religious. The film industry is rife with examples of people who tried to hide or play down their Jewishness in order to “make it.” For us, that’s not an option. America is not a place where you go to “melt in the melting pot” and become like everybody else. We stay true to who we are, while fully and proudly participating as Americans. Keeping Jewish customs doesn’t jive with the current way things are in the film industry. The main issue has been keeping the Sabbath — not working own Friday night and Saturday.
Once, we were just about hired for a filming expedition to Chile, when we realized it would be over the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, so we had to decline the offer. Well, we figured, if no one else is running a show where we can take off Friday nights and Saturdays, we’ll just have to run the show then. What we strive to do is give people time for afternoon prayers, and off once a week — these things are unheard of in the film industry, which always runs on a tight schedule due to budgetary and timing constraints. We also provide kosher food on set.
Wow! Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?
We’ve had quite a few crew members who kind of “discover” that they’re Jewish through exposure to us, or who have subsequently come to us for a holiday or Shabbos meal.
Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important to have diversity represented in film and television and its potential effects on our culture?
Early on in our career, on the set of one of our films, we had some port-o-potties, and on the third day, I discovered that there was a swastika scrawled on the wall in one of them. I immediately kind of freaked out because I thought maybe one of our crew members had done it. This made me feel very unsafe and like we weren’t a unified team. I mentioned it to our producer and she said she noticed it the first day, meaning we had rented the toilet with the swastika already on it. I wondered, why wasn’t this brought up? Why was this allowed to stand there? I really didn’t know what to do, so I also vandalized the port-o-john and covered it up, but I wish it wouldn’t have taken the Jew to stand up to it, but that a non-Jew would have done so immediately when they noticed it.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?
1. It may not seem like it’s advantageous to production companies to allow for extra religious breaks or kosher food, but if a company is playing the long game, they’ll want to improve conditions for all crew members. We have learned along the way that the more we can do for our staff, the harder they’ll work, and the more creative they’ll be.
2. An extra call specifying accommodations for diversity would increase it; many in positions like ours won’t even try for “normal” industry jobs, since we assume they won’t accomodate our needs.
3. I think if you pause for a moment on set (or in life, for that matter), and see that everyone around you is white, or male, or the same religion, etc. — then you clearly need to work harder to promote diversity on your team.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
A leader is anyone who takes up a cause or initiative, and is the primary person stepping up and running the show. A leader sets the tone in any situation. If there’s a problem, they need to look at themselves first, and see how their actions or inaction have created a ripple effect.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. I wish someone told me to charge more from the start. The undercutting of prices is the primary way people in the film industry cut each other down — by racing to the bottom.
2. I wish someone had told me to make more connections in college. I really lost that opportunity to create a network; there are other opportunities, of course, but I went to a school with a lot of artists, and it’s a network I could have tapped into.
Other than that, I’m pretty glad people didn’t tell me things, because once we believe certain things, they can be harder to overcome. If you start with a blank slate, in many cases I think you can accomplish much more, because you get to let your expectations be higher than they would have otherwise.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Shmuel and I are really passionate about helping people stay married. We have had to learn how to do it the hard way, since not only do we work together under pressure like deadlines and budgets and personalities… both of us come from parents who’ve divorced multiple times. We had to learn marriage from scratch. We’re both passionate about helping people work things out and bringing peace into the home, and that extends to peace between people on set as well.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have a few mottos. My kids quote them (while rolling their eyes of course). One is from Churchill: “Never, ever, ever give up.” The other is from FDR: “Radiate optimism at all costs.” These too are especially important when you work in film.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Ivanka Trump. She’s a woman, and a religious Jew, and I’d like to know how she balances all of her commitments.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Instagram: @shmuelhoffmanlive and @margelithoffman
On Facebook: Shmuel Hoffman Advertising & Cinematography
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!
About the Author:
Edward Sylvan is the CEO and Founder of Sycamore Entertainment Group Inc., a publicly traded film and television marketing and distribution company with offices in United States Canada and Asia. Edward is focused on helping independent films find their audience while at the same time assisting high net worth individuals and private equity funds access to alternative risk mitigated film investments. As the owner and operator of Lawndale 10 multiplex cinema in Chicago, Sycamore Entertainment is uniquely positioned in the independent film distribution space by providing films unencumbered theatrical screenings which leads to broader awareness and enhanced digital pick up. Edward is often quoted and featured in the television and news media such as the New York Times, CBS News, and Fox Business Television. Edward is also a keynote speaker on the Alternative Investment conference circuit. Prior to founding Sycamore Entertainment, Edward worked as an investment advisor and trader for leading investment houses Scotia McLeod Inc. and TD Waterhouse.