For producer John Cohen,’80, his path to Hollywood began with a flipbook and a Brookside teacher who put the power of film in the hands of his youngest students. That encouragement is something that Cohen, whose films include the blockbusters Angry Birds and Despicable Me, has never forgotten.
“I always loved to draw as a kid, and when I was in first grade, (Brookside visual arts teacher) Doug Cooper showed me how to make a flipbook using a little pad of paper,” says Cohen. “He showed me that you could make your own story.”
Cooper was soon encouraging Cohen to film short animations using the school’s eight millimeter camera. “I loved doing these short films and getting my friends to do the voices and using Orff instruments to do the score,” Cohen says.
Those short films soon led to entries in the Michigan Student Film Festival, which Cohen won several times. Before long, he became known as “the film kid” and whenever a question arose about a movie – old or new – people turned to Cohen for the answers.
Beyond the early encouragement of Doug Cooper, Cohen says that Cranbrook and its teachers played a major role in his pursuit of film as a career. “People like Jeffrey Welch, Peter Charney, Joan Snead and Barbara Dinning had a huge impact on my life. Without their support and encouragement, I know I would not be doing what I am today. Their belief in my far-fetched dreams meant the world to me and still does.”
After graduating from Cranbrook, Cohen initially headed east to the Tisch School of Film at New York University. “I started to work as a production assistant,” he says. “I did internships and anything I could to get exposure to the film industry.”
While still a student at NYU, Cohen was offered a full-time job as the assistant of producer Scott Rudin, whose credits include No Country for Old Men, Zoolander and School of Rock among dozens of other hits.
“It was a crash course in everything that I wanted to know and hoped to learn about film,” says Cohen. “Truly, those two and a half years were like graduate school.”
During his tenure with Rudin’s firm, Cohen spent time on the set of films such as The Truman Show, Sleepy Hollow, the South Park movie and Wonderboys. “I was able to experience and learn about the development of films from scripts through to marketing,” he says.
When Cohen made the inevitable journey to Los Angeles, he landed at 20th Century Fox Animation where he served as a producer on films such as Ice Age, Robots, Alvin & the Chipmunks and Horton Hears a Who, which was the first Seuss film produced with digital animation.
Cohen took a special interest in characters that had captured his imagination as a child, such as Alvin & the Chipmunks. “I was a huge fan as a kid and I approached the creators to develop that first movie,” he says. It was that same enthusiasm that led to his working with the family of cartoonist Charles Schulz to create a CGI short film featuring Snoopy and Woodstock, which eventually led to the 2015 Peanuts movie.
As a producer, it is Cohen’s job to guide the film from inception to completion and then, hopefully, on to the sequel. With Angry Birds, he was involved from the earliest stages of the story’s development and then assembled the entire creative and production team for the movie.
That included building entire studios in Los Angeles and Vancouver to house the film’s directors, editorial staff, storyboard artists, operational staff and the hundreds of other individuals it takes to put together a modern animated film.
“My role continued from there into casting, production and all the way through marketing and distribution of the film,” Cohen says.
The highlight for Cohen was to see the movie for the first time with a real audience. “You work on a movie for so long in a vacuum and every day we’d sit in editorial and we’d be laughing, but you’re in small groups and you’re hoping that other people will like it,” he says. In the final months, you begin to show the film to real audiences and you get to see it with real people watching it for the first time. To hear those people laughing in all the places you laughed is far and away the best feeling.”
Today, Cohen is at work on Angry Birds II and is developing the new version of Garfield, another character he loved as a child.
Looking back on his lifelong love of film, Cohen says, “So much of what you get to do in life is based on luck but that’s especially true in the entertainment industry. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t pinch myself. I feel so, so truly lucky to be able to do what I do for a living.”