By Zach Koepp
A cloud of dust could barely keep up with the rear tires of a blue Camaro.
In the driver’s seat was a teenaged girl, her knuckles white and her eyes fiercely focused on the road ahead. In the backseat was an orphaned, injured calf that she had just saved from being butchered.
Today that big-hearted renegade is recognized as powerhouse Hollywood Producer, Cindy Cowan.
As I stood outside of the gate of Cowan’s Beverly Hills estate, I peered through the palm trees and vibrant plants engulfing the gate and saw an entrance into an energetic force field of an environment.The gate opened and Cowan greeted me. She was wearing a dress and her presence was calm but focused on the day ahead, answering emails and silencing calls from her phone as we got situated.
We sat near an old piano that was a personal gift to her father from Frank Sinatra in the early seventies, overlooking a paradisiacal backyard that looked more like a Tropical Island than anywhere in Los Angeles. In the middle of a virtual forest was a long pool with a glass-like surface; the only ripples followed a single leaf that fell on this brisk day.
“Coming from Florida I’m used to everything being green. When I designed the backyard I wanted myself and others to feel like they’ve been transported.” There is a wonderful ambiance to her home. The design is the epitome of feng shui, which she had professionally done when she moved in.There is also everything from a huge Buddha, which looks down on us from her backyard, a mezuzah on every door, a salt lamp to dispel negative energy, crystals, and even a jade dragon at her entrance. She laughs when we discuss the wide range of items.
For those of you who are not familiar with Cindy Cowan, she launched Initial Entertainment Group (IEG) in 1995, which became a leading film production and foreign sales company that garnered Emmy, Golden Globe, and People’s Choice nominations. But the most noteworthy honor was an Oscar nomination for the groundbreaking and revolutionary film “Traffic.” IEG also won the United Nation Award with the movie “Savior,” starring Dennis Quaid, which was produced alongside Oliver Stone during the middle of the war in Serbia.
With a movie based on such risky and true subject matter, it took courageous producers, such as Cowan and Stone to bring the testament to the big screen, and it paid off.
“What was a movie you made in the past that you often reflect on?” I asked.
Without hesitation, Cowan replied, “Definitely ‘Very Bad Things,’ starring Cameron Diaz, Christian Slater, Jon Favreau, Jeremy Piven, and Jeanne Tripplehorn. It was also Peter Berg’s directorial debut. It was a script nobody wanted, but I championed for. No one had seen a movie like that, especially with a first time director, but it struck a nerve with me and I showed up on the Fox lot, met with Peter Berg, convinced him to give it to me, and luckily I had a company that could finance it at the time.” With a chuckle she added, “My partner thought it might bankrupt us, needless to say it didn’t. That film became the basis of many movies to come, such as ‘The Hangover’ and others.”
BEFORE HOLLYWOOD, CA:
Cowan’s parents, Irving and Marge, who was commonly referred to as the “Queen of Florida,” for her exuberant, magnetizing energy and unparalleled ability to throw a party, owned one of the largest hotels in Hollywood, Florida, called, The Diplomat, and attracted a plethora of A-list celebrities who eventually became family friends. Marge and Irv collected Picasso and Chagall’s, bred racehorses, and co-produced a Broadway musical. In memory of her own mother, Marge established the Hattie Friedland School for the Deaf in Israel for youngsters ages 6 to 21 years old. The Jerusalem-based school admits both Jewish and Arab students — some of whom have developmental disabilities — and is considered an educational model in the Middle East. Cowan identifies her mother as her role model for the values, morals, and ability to live life to the fullest. Sadly, Marge passed away in 2009.
When Cowan was a child, it was very important for Irving and Marge to not let her get too caught up in the fast-paced life of the hotel business and to make a name for herself. So they sent her and her sister to Kentucky where she learned to ride horses. It was there that Cindy went on to become one of the youngest world champion horse back riders in American Saddlebred competition, winning her first world champion title at the young age of 10. It was at this young age that people began to see her determination and drive.
“I know you love horses, did you grow up liking all animals?”
Cowan’s face lights up with memories as she shakes her head with a smile.
Then there is the notorious story, told by a close friend of hers, of Cindy fighting to save the life of a baby calf once she realized where it was headed. She convinced the man to sell it to her. Without thinking, she put it into the back of her car and drove it to safety, where it eventually led a full life at her barn. When asked if this was true, Cowan’s intense eyes momentarily grew round. “Nothing was getting in the way of me saving that animal from getting killed.”
This sat in the air for a moment.
I saw the girl she was and the woman she is today: still fierce, fair and loving.
After graduating from Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, Cowan went back to Florida and got a job at CBS where she started as an intern and worked her way up to assistant producing for a late night CBS news affiliate. A friend of hers, who was a disco diva at the time, asked if she could put lyrics to her songs because she had an album that was about to close. Originally, Cowan declined because she didn’t have formal training. Her friend insisted, noting that she could write copy so quickly at CBS.
Cowan decided to give it a try. As the process began, Cowan was amazed at her natural ability. “For some reason, I had perfect song structure, I knew where the bridge went, where the chorus went, where the melody lines would go, but I never thought anything would happen with those songs.”
Eventually, they were sent to a man she befriended when studying abroad her junior year in London. He worked at Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI). She received a call three weeks later on behalf of a producer who worked with artists such as Rick Astley, Bananarama, Jason Donovan and other top talent in the UK. He asked Cowan if they could take those songs and put them on an album for a singer named, Sinitta, who was currently working with an unknown producer named Simon Cowell. That album went on to be in the Top 10 charts for quite some time.
After her initial success in the music industry, Cowan decided to make the move to Los Angeles to further pursue songwriting. She wrote a song for Howard Hewett, from the American sensation R&B and soul music group, Shalamar. Hewet took a song of Cowan’s called, “This Love’s Forever,” which eventually climbed up to number three on the R&B charts where it remained for nearly a year.
“How did it feel to hear a hit song you wrote on the radio for the first time?” I asked.
For as much as Cindy Cowan has seen and done in her life, there was an unavoidable smile that snuck across her face. She took a breath and replied, “I have to admit, the first time that song came on the radio, I was like a little kid, screaming. I also lost it when I saw a huge billboard on Sunset Boulevard outside of a record store called Tower Records showing Howard Hewett’s album featuring “This loves Forever,” my song! As a little girl from Florida whose song just made it, that was a feeling I’ll never forget.”
The next gig Cowan took was penning a song for an AIDS campaign, which also entailed a music video. Her work on the video came as naturally as the songwriting itself and an executive from Premier Entertainment offered her a job so she transitioned into the world of film. “The film business, as you can imagine, was even more a man’s world back then. But I knew there could be room for a lot of women too, so I stood strong in my positions and when a door opened for me, I was able to stay in the room. I knew my stuff, came prepared, and believed in what I was doing. I put in the long hours and it laid the foundation to who and where I am today,” she said.
The truth of her comment beamed through her eyes and it was evident the accomplishments she achieved were earned and that has made her as powerful as she is respected.
“How did you learn to produce films?” I asked.
“I got put on a set on a movie called ‘Power of Attorney’ in Canada. I had never been on set prior to this and before I knew it, I was the executive on that film. I quickly learned what every crew member did, sat with the director and the line producer, learned how to keep the actors happy and learned everything that I could about the financing and how to make our days. It was important that I was honest with everyone and emphasized communication, but in all honesty, I shouldn’t have been there at that time. Trial and error is the best way to learn – so I began to crave the idea of being thrown into the fire, and I’m forever grateful for that opportunity.”
After years of learning the industry, Cowan and her business partner, Graham King, opened Initial Entertainment Group (IEG). As mentioned above, the company was successful, to say the least. She ran the company for a number of years before deciding to sell her company for a substantial amount and take a break from the entertainment business.
“I did it to become a girl again. I was raised Southern with very Southern beliefs and the business seemed to take me off my course. I felt that my personal life had fallen by the wayside. I had produced or financed twenty-five movies in a five-year span and I missed the girl from Florida that I used to be. I took six years off to reset my values and regain my femininity. It was the best decision I ever made. But I can say that IEG showed me I could do it. Graham and I started that company with a couple hundred thousand dollars and everyone telling us that we couldn’t do it, but we knew we wouldn’t fail – and the takeaway from that is with proper determination, if your heart and mind are in the right place, you can accomplish anything.”
The temporary hiatus paid off, personally and professionally. Cowan came back six years later, and launched Cindy Cowan Entertainment (CCE). She came back poised, maintaining her fierce but fair, determined, hard-working persona.
Since launching CCE, Cowan has produced “Scorched,” starring Woody Harrelson and Alicia Silverstone, executive produced “Fifty Dead Men Walking,” starring Sir Ben Kingsley and Jim Sturgess, she has produced “Red Lights,” which was the opening night premier at Sundance and the highest selling film at the festival, starring Robert De Niro, Sigourney Weaver, Cilliam Murphy, and Elizabeth Olsen.
She also produced, “Miracle on 42nd Street,” a documentary featuring Alicia Keys, Terrence Howard and Sam Jackson, to name a few, which premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.
Cowan also took a pioneering crack with a low-budget horror film aimed at the digital marketplace, titled “Smiley.” The trailer for the film was a viral sensation upon release, earning over 34 million views. “Smiley was interesting because it was my first time delving into the world of YouTube stars, which was what most people didn’t do yet. To this day, it has about thirty-six million downloads, which still may be the most downloaded movie of its kind. The reason it was more of a learning experience was because since we were the first to do a movie of this kind, we didn’t know how many YouTube enthusiasts would go see it in theaters. We released on three hundred and fifty screens but it did not perform. It taught me that financially it wasn’t a model I wanted to continue. Not because people didn’t watch it, but because there is so much piracy out there. I can’t say, out of the millions who watched it, who actually paid for it,” she concluded. It is worth noting that “Smiley” became the most downloaded film in 2014, It beat “The Avengers” in its trailer views by ten million.
CCE recently wrapped a film called “Arkansas,” staring Liam Hemsworth, Vive Vaughn and John Malkovich.
When asked what projects CCE currently is working on, she was a bit reluctant. Not to answer the question, but deciding what she could share. If you haven’t already noticed, she is not one to move slowly. “I’m excited to announce we have our first faith-based movie coming next year, written by Peter Iliff, the writer of the original “Point Break.” We’ve got an action movie at Millenium films, we will be shooting a political thriller in India this year, directed by Gary Fleder. We’ve got a low budget movie going at Sony Crackle with a fabulous friend and director named Jeff Thomas. We are developing a musical with Lance Bass , from N Sync and Karen McCoulough from “Legally Blonde.” We’ve got our first TV show going, about Ellis Island.
“Immigration is really important to me especially because both of my Grandparents came through Ellis Island. We’re also venturing into our first animated series with an animation house called, Tit-Mouse. I’m also happy to announce we’re making our first horror movie under a Sony deal with Rich DiVidio, who recently wrote “The Call.”
Cowan was also presented with the 2018 Woman of the Year award by Women’s Image Network. Upon receiving this award, unbeknownst to her, was a very long testimonial with statements to her from celebrities ranging from Boy George, Diane Warren, Frances Fisher, Esai Morales and more professing their adoration for her. “I have to say it was like sitting through my own eulogy. You always wonder what it would be like to hear what people would say about you after you pass. Watching the video was beyond warming and touching. It’s also something I feel we should all do for others while we’re still alive.”
While the fire burned during the interview, boxes of leftovers were being taken out of the door by her staff, remnants from a big party she hosted the night before. “What do you plan to do with those?” I asked.
Without blinking an eye, Cowan said, “I will be taking the leftovers down to the homeless tonight. Even if it isn’t a party I throw personally, I’ll often take leftovers from other parties and do the same.” With the first hint of sadness that I saw on her face, she shook her head and said, “We can’t continue to walk by them like they don’t exist. Homelessness is at an all-time high and a real crisis right here under our noses. I for one can’t go eat at a nice restaurant knowing there is a tent city a few streets away and not try to do something about it.”
The way Cowan spoke about her charitable contributions was from a place of empathetic humbleness that couldn’t be faked. This isn’t someone who does kind things to tell others she did it. Despite her quiet contributions, Cowan does use her platform for many charities. For instance, We Care Solar is a charitable company that sends solar suitcases to third world countries, so that operating rooms can finally have light.
“People in these countries don’t realize that darkness means death and without light, they will not be able to operate at all.” When Cowan met the doctor that formed WCS, Cowan told her she would open her home to this charity so that she could convince her friends to buy a suitcase and sponsor a hospital. Within a few months she did just that.
Cowan was also the West Coast Chair of Little Kids Rock, another one of her favorites. This charity gives underprivileged kids musical instruments, taking them off the streets and teaches these children who would not normally have access to the arts, how to play drums, key boards and guitars. “Learning how to play music not only teaches right and left brain thinking, but it increases social skills, gives a sense of self worth and studies show that more students who have the ability to study the arts go on to college and graduate.”
Children Mending Hearts, Grassroots Soccer and Music For Relief are a few other charities that Cowan supports.
A PERSONAL SIDE:
When Cindy Cowan takes time to herself, she is more than a fashion and beauty enthusiast, she’s an expert. “Fashion goes way back when I was voted Best Dressed in my High School. I’ve always loved taking risks and trying to wear items that remain classy and different.” She added, “I’m also very into colors and cognizant that when winter comes we all go into black, so I try to wear a lot of colors once winter is over.”
Beauty is another one of Cowan’s personal passions. Her bathroom is overfilled with beauty products and is usually the one her friends go to with questions about products. “Beauty products are fun for me, I try every single thing out there and plan to launch my own beauty company next year.”
If you look up Cindy on Twitter or Instagram you’ll see a fan engagement that is unlike anyone of her status. It is filled with only encouraging posts and responses to many people. “Social Media is an interesting thing to me, I tend to have a lot of people say I’m a role model or inspiration to them, and I think that’s because I tend to keep my accounts incredibly positive. I try and answer every person, which seems to be rare these days, but my feelings are, if they can the take time to write something to me, I can take the time to write something back.”
When asked what makes her happy in her quietest moments, Cowan released a serene exhale and replied, “Reflection. I think sitting down and reflecting on my life makes me smile. I never thought in my wildest dreams that my life would be as good as it is. People always ask ‘Who would I want to be if I could be anyone at all?’ My answer is always the same. I love being myself. I’m one of those people that goes to bed every night smiling. My life has been very blessed, there is honestly no one else I would rather be than me.”
“Outside of your mother being your role model, who do you admire the most?” I asked.
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice. I love everything she stands for. From being a strong woman who paved the way for so many, to being a happily married woman with a loving husband who stood by her side. The fact that she is now 85 years young and still holding court should be an inspiration to everyone!”
CONCLUDING WITH COWAN:
There are certain people who inspire hope in others and believe in the reciprocating goodness of the world. To date, there has not been anyone I’ve come across that exemplifies traits to these extremes as much as Cowan. In passing, Cowan might come across as a shark on a mission, her piercing blue eyes are usually focused on what’s ahead, and after getting the opportunity to spend an extensive amount of time with her, I’ve found an incredible stillness beneath her waters. She’s still that girl in the driver’s seat of the Camaro, saving an orphaned calf from being butchered.
Her heart bleeds for the world and she has been able to become a powerhouse in Hollywood by being firm, but fair, while still helping countless people and advocating for the general good.
She sums her life up quite simply.
“I’d like to be remembered by leaving a mark on this world. I always think that if you live everyday as if you want to make a difference in at least one person’s life, then you will. And I would love, well after I’m gone, for someone to smile knowing I made a difference in theirs.”
To hear more, from Cindy Cowan herself, check back to hear our podcast, Hollywood Blvd Magazine Take Two. Cindy sits down with Anissa Claiborne and covers a whole lot more about her life and career.