Rishi Rajani, CEO, and President of Film/TV Productions at Hillman Grad Productions - A man with integrity - AmNews Curtain Raiser


Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Rishi Rajani, CEO, and President of Film/TV Productions at Hillman Grad Productions - A man with integrity


Rishi Rajani, CEO, and President of Film/TV Productions at Hillman Grad Productions, Getty Image. 

Here's what I discovered at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival — Rishi Rajani, CEO and President of Film/TV Productions at Hillman Grad Productions, is a good dude. This is the first time I've ever met him. I've seen his pictures on social media, rarely with a smile, so in my mind, I thought he was tough — like a lion tamer or a cop. But he's not. He’s warm.

"Hey, I like your glasses," were his first words to me, an icebreaker for sure (my glasses are new, and I like them too), and a line that kept running through my mind comes from the film "Goodfellas" — "You'll like this guy. He's all right. He's a goodfella, one of us."

As we left the crowded and loud red carpet for 'Rising Voices' Season Three at the Tribeca Film Festival, he continued talking, tucking me (like a big brother) into the moving entourage of VIPs that included Lena Waithe, actor, producer, and Emmy-winning writer who founded Hillman Grad Productions.

Conversation on the move is the very definition of fluidity, but strangely, once inside a moving elevator, everything and everyone goes silent — like it's a church or something.

Once we arrived at our destination, Rajani and Lena were swiftly escorted to the back of the stage. However, he made it a point to inform the imposing security personnel, "She's with us." No matter, the security adamantly refused to let me pass. Not even the reassurance from their amazing publicist could change their minds. But here's the heartwarming part: Rajani made it a point in the first place, and that’s what they have been doing since they started Hillman Grad Productions. "She's with us" made me feel seen, wanted, and protected, and the quote from the film "Goodfellas" kept echoing in my mind: "You'll like this guy. He's all right. He's a goodfella, one of us.”

So his warm, inclusive, and inviting nature fits with what I’ve been told (officially and unofficially) about Lena Waithe and how the company is run. What can we say about Hillman Grad Productions? Their work speaks for itself, and they keep their word, an anomaly in Hollywood where bullshit is tossed and promises are broken every single day. At the Dias for the third installment of Rising Voices' Season Three at the Tribeca Film Festival, Waithe told the crowd that "we are forever tethered" — and she was right. Each opportunity given to a marginalized person helps them and those around them because we are all tethered.

Let's push in. Hillman Grad is a multi-platform entertainment company started in 2015, which was created to focus on amplifying and celebrating the stories of diverse, historically marginalized communities and developing a new generation of underrepresented creatives.

On the film side, Hillman Grad Productions, the development and production arm, is home to the producers behind award-winning films such as Radha Blank’s "The Forty-Year-Old Version," Melina Matsoukas’ "Queen & Slim," and A.V. Rockwell’s feature debut "A Thousand And One". Hillman Grad has upcoming projects set at the top networks and studios, including Netflix, BET, Disney/Disney+, Amazon, Universal, Showtime, HBO/HBO Max, and Focus Features. For television, they signed a multi-year exclusive overall deal with Warner Bros. Television Group. Prior to the WBTVG deal, they executive produced “The Chi” for Showtime, BET’s hit series “Twenties,” and “Twenties the After Show,” hosted by B. Scott, for BET+.

On the music side, Hillman Grad Records, in partnership with Def Jam Recordings, aims to identify, develop, and bolster the next generation of underrepresented artists. The first three emerging artists to sign include GRAMMY®, ASCAP Award-winning R&B artist Davion Farris, singer-songwriter & actress Jai’Len Josey, and female rapper & actress Siya.

On the podcast side, launched in 2022, it debuted with the series KYM, streaming exclusively on Audible, and Hillman Grad currently has projects in development at Audible, Spotify, and Realm. And to keep opening those formerly closed doors, there’s The Hillman Grad Foundation, a 501(c)(3) and nonprofit arm of the company that educates and supports creatives from underrepresented communities by developing their artistic craft and infusing new perspectives in front of and behind the camera.

Rishi Rajani, President of Film/TV Productions, joined the company in 2018 as president of film and television and played a key role in shouldering Hillman Grad’s mission to "create art that redefines the status quo by amplifying and celebrating the stories and voices of diverse, historically marginalized communities across all industries.”

Born in London, Rajani was raised in upstate New York and Portland, Ore., and graduated from NYC before rising through the ranks as a film and television development executive at 20th Century Fox, UTA, Paradigm, and Studio 8.

Here is what Rishi Rajani, President of Film/TV Production of Hillman Grad Productions, had to share with me about his journey so far. 


Rishi [Rajani], I love what Lena [Waithe] said: “We are all forever. We are forever tethered” That’s true in a micro and macro sense. What I love about your production company is that you keep your word. Hillman has integrity, that’s rare. 


Especially not in this business.


Integrity separates the adults from the kids. 


I think that was really important to us. I think that's one of the things too that when we really first started Hiller grad, she [Lena] said, I'm always about the follow-up. 


That’s how creative people grow. 


I'm always the person who asks for updates and checks in on us. It's so easy for people to make promises like, 'Yeah, I'll definitely get back to you on that script' or 'Yeah, I'll definitely read/watch that.' But Lena is the person who ensures that those promises are kept. It starts with Lena, then me, and Naomi [Naomi Funabashi], our head of television, Justin [Justin Riley] who manages her business operations, and Marquis [Marquis Phifér] who heads our cultural marketing division. We prioritize follow-up and holding everyone accountable. That's why it's tempting for people to ignore us, but we won't let that happen. 


The fact that Hollywood is a business, and it's a well-established truth that engaging with BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities yields significant financial gains, makes it all the more evident that turning away from our stories and storytellers is outright racism. The data tells the truth. 


Absolutely. Yeah, the whole notion of our narratives being considered niche or our storytellers lacking the necessary credentials to advance in the industry is a tired excuse that has persisted for probably a good century within Hollywood.




Easily. And for us, it's about eliminating all the excuses. If the concern is about box office performance, we ensure that the budget remains within a reasonable range. Worried about personal experience? Excellent. We bring on a producing director to provide comprehensive support and assemble experienced department heads. We guide you through every step, from storyboards to the vision to the pitch. Our approach is all about adapting and strategizing, leaving no room for anyone to challenge us without a strong counterargument.


I find the topic truly intriguing, particularly when it comes to the South Asian perspective. Let me share why it resonates with me personally. You see, for a significant period of five years, my last name was Bhagchandani, which holds a special significance. Additionally, my screenwriting partner is from India, a country known for its complexity and diversity, not to mention the rich cultural landscapes of Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Considering the vastness of these regions, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the most effective way for South Asian stories to establish a presence within the contemporary Hollywood industry."


I absolutely appreciate that question. Thank you. Personally, I've encountered significant challenges in finding a South Asian community, and that's why I hold tremendous admiration for three individuals: Fashioner, Vinny, Trevor, and Nick Dani. They initiated an organization called The Salon, and they approached me to lead the mentorship aspect of it. The Salon serves as a platform for South Asians in the realm of Hollywood. One crucial realization we've collectively reached is that South Asians have often been conditioned to compete rather than collaborate with one another.


Collaboration is the key. Why can’t Black and Brown understand it? 


Yeah, absolutely. Well, it's disheartening to acknowledge that it's deeply ingrained within the system, and it involves numerous individuals. Breaking through and reaching the top can be an incredibly daunting challenge. That's why I believe it's crucial to recognize this significant aspect. By actively collaborating and supporting one another, we can strengthen our community, enhance our representation, empower our filmmakers, and genuinely champion our content. I've noticed an encouraging shift with the emergence of the next generation of South Asians, particularly through the remarkable accomplishments of those individuals involved with The Salon. It fills me with immense pride to be a part of such an organization.


Conquering your dreams one step at a time. I am in. 


Thank you, Lapacazo.


Thank you, Rishi Rajani. You and Lena, y’all good people!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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