Currently an Executive Vice President at Wolf Films, Danielle Gelber is no stranger to career success, but it hasn’t come without an extensive amount of hard work, sprinkled with more than just a bit of intuition.
Gelber began her career in the entertainment industry working for uber-producer Aaron Spelling at the height of his career. After that, she pulled stints at Fox and Showtime and has had a hand in creating a slate of shows that have become mega-hits. These include the original “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “Ally McBeal,” “Party of Five,” “Weeds,” “The L Word,” and the “The Big C.”
When Gelber arrived at Wolf Films in 2011 she was charged with reinventing the brand. “In the past when people have thought of the Dick Wolf brand, the one hour procedural is always what comes to mind,” explains Gelber. “The goal that we set up for me was to reinvent the brand by taking the company’s amazing global identity and fusing it with my storytelling sensibility and do something completely new. Right from the get-go, I knew that to do that in this company was something that really excited me.”
This edict led Gelber to really consider the next drama that she wanted to develop. “At the time, I really felt that it was time for heroism and hope in this country,” reveals Gelber. “That’s when I thought of firefighters. First responders seemed very identifiable with the Wolf brand and the kind of work they do sets the stage for more of what I’m known for, which is character development with continuing storylines that are emotional and romantic and the like. Then I added the fact that it seemed like people were really ready to embrace a sort of a blue collar city that wasn’t one of the two biggies on the coast. Fusing all of that together into resulted in the creation of ‘Chicago Fire.’
When Gelber first thought of the idea, she realized that there might be some trepidation given this wasn’t really anything revolutionary. “This idea is pretty unhip and certainly not very cool or edgy in any way. In fact, it’s the exact opposite,” says Gelber, “but I also knew that it was eminently relatable and a franchise engine with great character drama, which I thought could really take us places.”
Bringing the idea to Wolf, Gelber was extremely pleased when he exclaimed, “Hell yes. Do it.”
Given that “Chicago Fire” just got picked up for a third season and its spin-off “Chicago PD” also secured a nod for a second season, Gelber believes, “This is a great start to ‘Wolf Films 2.0.'”
Gelber openly admits that the procedural part of anything is not her strong suit. She feels that her contribution is much more about the characters and the storytelling, expressing, “I’m very much about literature and the novelistic storytelling. I love the kind of literature that was serialized in their day – Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Dickens – which left you on the edge of your seat with every chapter so that you’d be induced to come back. I wanted to tell stories like chapters in a novel. So that’s really where I was coming from which I think is ideal for a continuing story that is told in episodes on television.”
While Gelber currently has two hits shows on the air, she’s quick to explain that the development process is not one for the faint of heart as the steps to actual production are both numerous and treacherous. “The thing you have to think about when you think of development is that it’s a series of stops and starts all while trying to keep the momentum of the project moving in a forward direction. In basic terms, somehow you glom on to an idea; whether it’s pitched to you from an outside entity or you come up with it yourself. Once you embrace it, you try to get your colleagues onboard and get everyone excited about it. If everyone signs off that this is the project you’re going to devote your time to then you hire a writer to take it to the next step. You send the writer off to hopefully execute the vision that you’ve all discussed and hashed out. When the writer returns with an actual script you look at that first draft and really study the characters. At that point, you start to think about the long range direction you want the series to go and how you would sustain that for a number of years. Now the adjustments begin as everyone rolls up their sleeves and really collaborates to shape that script into something that’s worthy of being shot and presented. When it’s finally in production, the development phase is over and a completely new phase of the project is underway.”
Clearly, Gelber has had much success at guiding many projects through this process as evidenced by the numerous shows she’s gotten not only through the development portion but all the way to the on-air phase. She believes that what makes her good at this part of her job is her relationship with the writers she works with. “I think I’ve always been very much a friend to writers. I came from a culture of really respecting them as artists and understanding that writing is a process; it’s not something that you snap your fingers and order up. It has to be nurtured and I think I’m good at supporting writers and giving them truly constructive criticism, not tearing them down. I work very hard to help them see possible new directions that they could take something and then I let them run with it. This is empowering for everyone involved and working this way really seems to produce the best results.”
Gelber has learned that there’s no real direct route to finding material to develop. “Well, ‘Chicago Fire’ was literally an idea that I cooked up and that worked out, but unfortunately I find that a lot of the ideas that walk in the door are just not exciting. You have to be a good picker. You have to rifle through lots of junk and realize that there could be a nugget in there. The ideas that I respond to most are the ones where the creator has a clear long range vision.”
Using examples from her previous shows, Gelber calls to mind series creators whose vision was oblivious from the start. “Chris Carter knew from day one how he could spin stories for years on ‘The X Files.’ The same thing was true with David Kelley and ‘Ally McBeal’ and Jenji Kohan who created ‘Weeds.’ Ilene Chaiken told her life story in fiction for six years on ‘The L Word’ and it could have stayed on for another ten. There’s a reason why those people are sought after creators.”
Working with writers and producers isn’t the only area of Gelber’s career that has provided her with some interesting memories. Reminiscing a bit, she recalls a few instances that provided some unforgettable moments. “When we developed ‘Ally McBeal,’ it was really hard to find someone who embodied everything that we wanted in that character. We were really close to going with someone who was really, really good and who was quite known in television but we were these scrappy executives at Fox and we had nothing to lose, we weren’t complacent and we really subscribed to the philosophy that television makes its own stars. So, at the last minute our great casting department brought in Calista Flockhart whose name we couldn’t even pronounce at that point and she just came in and owned that. That was really exciting and unexpected.”
Continuing with casting surprises, Gelber says, “We had a similar story with ‘The X Files.’ We’d cast David Duchovny and we could just not find our Scully. Gillian [Anderson] came from the theater and we didn’t know her at all. She wasn’t what we typically looked for at that time, but she was riveting and skyrocketed the show.”
While Gelber has several casting stories, one of her most interesting interactions came when she worked on a show that she eventually lost out on but that went on to make history for many reasons.
“I developed the first version of ‘The Sopranos’ with David Chase,” explains Gelber.”The first thing that he told me was that he had to wait for his mother to die in order to pitch this show and you see why later in his storytelling. We loved it, he wrote it, it was phenomenal, but ultimately the president of the [FOX] network didn’t pick it up. That was just devastating to me because I personally thought it was great. It ultimately found its rightful home on HBO and what’s important to remember here is that that show certainly would not have been the same show had it ending up being a FOX show. It’s always fascinating that even if you lose out on something, if it ends up living up to its potential then it needed to go where it needed go and I thought that was really a moment in my career that I value as a learning experience.”
Her incredible amount of experience in television has taught Gelber many things, but one that she is acutely aware of recently is that long held standard production model is changing with new entities like Netflix and Amazon creating their own content.
“My philosophy is always to embrace it all and be open to it because change is going to come with or without you. Any new financial model is worth considering and looking into more deeply and embracing. I think the whole ratings aggregation of ‘live plus three’ and ‘live plus seven’ as well incorporating Twitter and Facebook as marketing tools is invaluable. You really can’t, and definitely shouldn’t, ignore any of it because all of it is here to stay. In fact, you have to not only incorporate what’s happening right now, but you should always be looking for what’s next at the same time.”
Developing compelling series given the current changing face of the entertainment industry might seem like a logical thing now for Gelber, but there was a time when she didn’t feel as those she was in the right position to excel in the industry.
“I started as a temp at Spelling Entertainment with Aaron Spelling and was supposed to be there for just three weeks. Aaron knew that I wasn’t just a phone answerer because I had a Masters in Journalism. He decided pretty early on that he wanted me to stay on a more long-term basis, but it took him three years to promote me and every time I got offered another job after that he wouldn’t let me go. He was generous and would give me more money and a higher title, but I was there for seven years and the part that was hard. There were days when I would go home crying thinking, all of my friends are getting to that next level in their job, and they’re buying houses and taking great trips and things like that and I’m just answering Aaron Spelling’s phone. It was really, really hard when people my own age came into the office as agents or to pitch things. I kept thinking, ‘When is it going to be my turn.'”
Then things took a turn for Gelber when FOX called with an offer. “Aaron told me that I should take that job. So he was always in my corner but he didn’t just want me to leave until the right offer came along. He was really wise that way. That taught me that slow and steady can win the race.”
Even in her position now things aren’t always rosy for Gelber. She’s quick to say that there are still are a few things that are difficult to navigate. “The first thing that’s hard is that I have to turn people down. There’s only so much you can produce and there are some really amazing writers out there, but you just can’t promote everything you want to.”
Continuing in that vein, she adds, “The other thing that people need to realize is that once you make it through everything and get a show on the air you can’t be complacent in any way. It’s very intense and you can’t think for a second think you’re won that race because the second you take your eye off it, it can just degrade really quickly.”
With three series currently on the air, Gelber admits that while she’s proud of that volume the thing that she’s most happy about is that “Chicago Fire” started with her. “It started with me as an idea and while I can never take full credit for what it’s become, it didn’t exist before I said, ‘Hey what about if we do this’ and got people excited about what it could be and then worked to move it through the system. Now I’ve been a part of a really special group of people making this happen, it’s really been the most fulfilling thing of my career.”
As a result of her work on “Chicago Fire,” Gelber has a prominent Executive Producer credit that appears on-screen at the head of every episode. “There are so many people that don’t understand what ‘developing’ a show really means, so it’s really nice to see my credit roll after all these years,” reveals Gelber.
What’s the next thing that Gelber would like to accomplish? “Well, my first goal is to keep ‘Chicago Fire’ on for ten years, but I’m always open to new adventures and I really think I’d like to produce a half-hour single camera comedy successfully for this company. Making that happen would really thrill me.”
Discussing the secret to her success, Gelber insists that it might be in part due to others perception of her, which she believes is a bit inaccurate and may lead some to underestimate her. “I may come off as sweet or nice or quiet. I’m certainly not the ‘Queen of Mean’ and I may not be one of those loud executives, but make no mistake about it, I do not give up. I just keep my head down and keep at it. That’s what has sustained me in this business.”
Gelber insists that her longevity in the business is due to an ideal that anyone can practice, but many might not consider that important. “You have to stick to something. You can’t just say, ‘this is horrible. I don’t make enough money, I work too long, I’m so sick of this, I can’t stand this person’; you can’t buy into any of those thoughts. You can think it all you want, but just get up the next morning and the morning after that and just do it and keep doing it. I really believe that the difference between so many people who have succeeded and the ones who haven’t is largely because they just keep at it.”
While Gelber believes that good old fashion persistence is certainly a key to reach any goal, she also cautions that knowing what you want is vital to making that perserverance pay off. “You really have to believe in your vision, and stick to the path of making that vision a reality, because a lot of times people will try to take it from you, tear it down and muck it. If you think of it like Play Dough, the more Play Dough is pulled apart and smashed back together and manipulated, the more it becomes hard and crumbly and just too difficult to work with. You can’t mold it into anything anymore and you have to just scrap it. This is why you absolutely must stay true to your creative vision.”
Clearly, Gelber practices what she preaches; taking the shapeless block of clay that she was handed all those years ago, envisioning what it could be and manipulating it just enough to create a career that, while far from complete, has yielded several success creative ventures that have been embraced by the public, a feat that is no easy task, not that Gelber ever thought any of it would be, but that never stopped her from making any of it happen.