In 1981, after graduating from Harvard Law School, Debra Martin Chase found herself in an entry-level position at a Houston-area law firm. Though the position aligned with her academic credentials, it was quickly clear to her that this was not the future she wanted. But the future she did want was in an industry she didn’t know anything about.
Growing up, Chase was movie-obsessed, spending every Saturday at the cinema. Later in life she dreamed of making the movies she loved as a kid. She spent a year learning everything she could about the industry: reading books, attending seminars and subscribing to industry publications. Then she quit her law job and moved to Los Angeles.
Not only did Chase have no connections within the film industry, but she quickly noticed that there were few women and people of color in the executive ranks. Undeterred, she requested meetings with anyone who was willing to call her back. Soon, she had two high-powered mentors, Frank Price, chairman of Columbia Pictures, and Nina Jacobson, a film executive at Disney. Their willingness to take her under their wing is why, today, Chase is deeply committed to mentoring youngsters — especially women of color — who are just entering the industry.
In her 30-plus years in Hollywood, Chase has passed her childhood love of movies on to young moviegoers through a chain of blockbuster hits. In 1996, Chase became the first Black woman to produce a film that grossed over $100 million, when “Courage Under Fire” became a box office smash hit. In 2001, she produced the film “The Princess Diaries,” a film made to make every girl and woman feel as though they, too, might wake up one day and find out they’re royalty. In 2005, she produced “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” a now-classic film that shows close female friendships at their best. Chase also served as the executive producer for both Denzel Washington’s studio, Mundy Lane Entertainment, and Whitney Houston’s Brown House Productions.
In 2000, Chase started her own production company, Martin Chase Productions. Originally, Martin Chase Productions was affiliated with Disney, making Chase the first African American female producer to have a deal with a major studio. Over the past 20 years, Chase has purposely looked for projects with positive messaging. Her 2019 biopic, “Harriet,” centered the life and work of abolitionist Harriet Tubman. To Chase, the film embodied the idea that one person can make a huge difference.
After making her way into the film industry thanks to two generous mentors, Chase remains committed to offering her hand to others entering the field. She currently serves as a producing mentor for the University of Southern California. Chase has also served on the Board of Trustees for Mount Holyoke.
Class year: 1977
Major: Political science