Valley roots help producer thrive in movie industry

By Guy D’Astolfo

Youngstown gave her the steel spine needed in Hollywood.

YOUNGSTOWN — Paula Wagner’s Hollywood career has taken her around the world, but she keeps coming back to Chestnut Ridge.

That’s the road she grew up on in Hubbard Township. It’s also the name of her latest venture: Chestnut Ridge Productions.

A Hollywood film producer, Wagner perhaps became best known for her 2006-08 partnership with actor Tom Cruise. Cruise-Wagner Productions made more than 120 films and grossed $3 billion.

In a lecture Tuesday night at Youngstown State University, she credited the Youngs-town area for instilling in her the determination and toughness that fueled her impressive career.

“Youngs-town was founded on steel, and we all have a spine of steel,” she said. “It’s a quality you need when you go out [to Hollywood].”

Wagner’s appearance was part of YSU’s Paul J. and Marguerite K. Thomas Colloquium on Free Enterprise, a lecture series that features prominent business people. Before she launched into a lively and informative multimedia presentation on the film industry’s past, present and future, she remembered her roots.

“When I got here last night, I felt like I was home,” Wagner told the audience of close to 200 people. “I spent my most formative years in Youngstown. There is something special about it.”

Wagner’s career took off when she entered the business end of the theater, but she started off as an actress.

Her first role on a stage was at the Youngstown Playhouse, and Wagner made it clear that the local theater was the foundation that set her on the road to success.

“For a teenager in Youngstown, [the Playhouse] was the most extraordinary experience,” she said. “I will forever cherish my memories at the Youngstown Playhouse. All the support we can give this institution, it deserves.”

At age 16, Wagner hopped a bus to New York where summer-stock theater companies were having auditions. She hoped to land a role in some exotic city — or at least Pennsylvania. She did get a part, but it was in Canal Fulton, west of Canton.

She continued acting at various theaters in Ohio and studied drama at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where she graduated summa cum laude. Not long afterward, she moved to California.

“I set out for Hollywood with $500 in my pocket,” she said. “I got a job teaching bras and girdles at a modeling school.”

She did land some acting work. But one day, after a long dry spell, she said she asked her agent, “Will I ever work in this town again?”

“She said, ‘No, but you’d be a terrific agent.’”

Those were prophetic words, and Wagner heeded the advice, becoming the type of agent that she always wanted as an actress. It was just another example of how she followed her instincts even when it meant bucking common wisdom.

“They told me, ‘Don’t be an actress,’ but when you tell me not to do something, then I want to do it,” she said.

The advice that followed included: “Don’t be an agent,” “Don’t join a company that is just starting” and “Don’t marry a colleague, it will never last.” Wagner broke all those rules and proved them wrong.

But the biggest rule she broke was the one that proved to be the best decision: Don’t sign an unknown actor.

“I was always looking for new talent,” she said. “I signed an actor named Tom Cruise and put him in a movie called ‘Risky Business.’ ”

At 62, Wagner still breaks rules whenever they get in her way. She was told not to start an independent production company in this challenging business climate.

Enter Chestnut Ridge Productions, which is targeting film and television projects on a variety of distribution platforms.

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