How One Producer Went From Actress To “Filmanthropist”

Producer Lilly Hartley shows us what happens between getting a degree you’re not sure you’ll use and pioneering a career no one’s ever heard of.


If Lilly Hartley had followed her family’s plan, she might never have become leading player in the film-with-a-difference industry as the founder of Candescent Films production company.

Lilly Hartley

Before producing such award-winning documentaries as Queen of Versailles, Sons of the Clouds, and Likeness, the 8-minute meditation on eating disorders which featured Elle Fanning, Hartley didn’t have a clear idea of what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“I majored in history and English [in college] and my parents wanted me to go to law school,” she tells Co.Create. Although she graduated summa cum laude–honors that would make any parent proud–“At the time I felt pressured to do something my heart wasn’t in,” Hartley admits.

Following Your Heart

So she decided to try her hand at acting. This wasn’t too big of a stretch considering Hartley’s father is a playwright and graduate of The Yale School of Drama and her godfather, Ken Howard, is president of the Screen Actors Guild. “I grew up in theater,” Hartley explains. Even so, she hit the books again, so to speak, by spending two years studying in the William Esper Studio acting program.

What followed was a series of parts in television series, shorts, and feature films which ultimately led to what Hartley says was her first a-ha career moment at the ripe old age of 27. “I don’t want to audition when I am 30 and do small parts,” she recalls thinking, “It’s not a good use of my brain.” Hartley says she also didn’t want to be a victim of the Hollywood career killer–getting older. “Acting is a very different thing for women,” she observes, “unless you make it by a certain age, it’s harder [to achieve success].”

Between acting gigs, Hartley did try her hand at producing a play. “That was a real highlight, I had so much fun,” she recalls, “So I thought maybe I’ll try that and went to work in indie films.”


Not long after that transition at age 30, Hartley says she had the second, real a-ha moment. “I decided I want to make different movies, films with social messages that could be a way to make an impact,” says Hartley, adding that she was aware the choice was definitely “un-Hollywood.”

Yet Hartley’s family unknowingly played a supporting role in this decision, too. Her grandfather, Benjamin Epstein, worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy during the Civil Rights Movement in his position as president of the Anti-Defamation League, laying the foundation for his granddaughter’s interest in advocacy. Hartley’s mother, a scientist also encouraged discourse, reading, and “a lot of passion,” she says.

Skip the MBA, Get Meisner Instead

But her acting skills came in handy in more ways that Hartley anticipated. In addition to a general fascination of other people’s stories, Hartley’s immersion in the Meisner technique allows her to command meetings around a conference table as easily as she did in front of a camera.

“Behavior is so important in business,” she explains. “I am always aware of how people are reacting to me,” Hartley says, which helps quell any fidgeting. “If you go to business school, you don’t have that type of observational training,” she points out. When speaking at events, “I very much am able to articulate in a calm manner.”

That said, Hartley maintains that while her behavior at business meetings might make her feel like she’s taking on a character, she operates from her heart. “I am never fake, I tend to be overly real sometimes,” she says, laughing. Her family encouraged her to be true to herself, she says, and making an authentic connection with filmmakers, directors, actors, and the like is very important to her work. Just as crucial as connecting with the theme of a film and her desire to tell a good story while illuminating some social or cultural issue.


Getting Schooled on Decision-making

Hartley says that was the motivation for her involvement in The Queen of Versailles, an unvarnished look at the lives of a billionaire couple in south Florida. Though the tale was punctuated with the trappings of excessive wealth, Hartley contends the film is character-driven. “It covered the financial crisis in a much more nuanced way,” she says.

Hartley’s also keen on raising awareness for issues that get ignored by more mainstream media. With so many worthy causes to consider, Hartley admits that she chooses to support some that hit close to home. Art and Craft, for example, is an examination of the life of a prolific art forger that reveals the painter wasn’t just a talented prankster, he struggled with schizophrenia. Hartley’s brother has also been diagnosed with the disease. When she first got involved, she says, she was concerned that her parents would think it was exploitive. But the resulting film was well received by them and wider audiences. More recently, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) screened the film and Hartley says that the organization will use it as a tool to raise awareness.

Other decisions are not so personal, but believing in the filmmaker and the cause is key, she says. Admitting she knew very little about the former Spanish colony in the western Sahara, Hartley nevertheless followed Oscar winner Javier Bardem’s lead in bringing a little known human rights conflict to the screen in Son of the Clouds.

There’s a sense that Hartley’s still very much a student of current events when she describes her initial involvement with Private Violence, a film which will air on HBO on October 20. Hartley confessed she didn’t know how “prevalent and horrific” domestic violence was in America, but when she found out she says, “I got enraged.”

Still from Private Violence

The Filmathropist’s Goal

Hartley understands that its not enough to churn out films in the hopes of raising a viral wave of awareness for the issues she holds dear. “It is very hard to make money in film, much less documentaries,” she says, and Candescent’s profitability is becoming increasingly important so money can be funneled back into making more films. Beyond that, the self-professed “filmanthropist” is also learning that giving back needs to extend beyond the last frame of a film.


In her work consulting with companies, nonprofits and foundations to amplify their social impact, Susan McPherson says, “Documentary films can have provide a powerful positive effect on raising funds for causes, but experience tells us that producers and directors cannot rely on the film alone.” The founder and CEO of McPherson Strategies says social campaigns must accompany a film’s release and in many cases must be launched even before the film is seen. “Additionally, a clear call to action should be obvious to ensure success.”

Candescent Film’s support of Fed Up certainly followed this directive. Hartley says that the next step is building out a staff to analyze what happens after screenings. She points out that there are several organizations such as Active Voice, Harmony Institute, and Participant to measure the impact of a film and its campaign. Says Hartley: “There continues to be an ongoing conversation about the best ways to measure that impact.” 

For now, Hartley says, the producer’s chair at Candescent is the best place for her to be. “We care about making good films that make an impact on society.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.