REEL WOMEN: Lisa Masseur, EP/Founder Tessa Films

Reel Women: Lisa Masseur

Editor’s Note: They are leaders. They are inspirational. They are mentors. They are visionaries. They are, quite frankly, badasses. They are our 2021 REEL WOMEN. During Women’s History Month, you will be able to meet these incredible personalities in Advertising, Entertainment, Media and Production. Get ready, they are making “Herstory.”

Production sage with an eye for talent. Lisa Masseur, a 20 year veteran, is widely known as a trusted Executive Producer who provides solutions. As the former EP/Managing Director at One at Optimus and Radar Studios, she led both companies through times of extreme growth. Masseur has helped several directors reach new heights in their careers and is known as an encouraging mentor.

While working her way up the production ladder on features and TV early in her career, Masseur learned the value of pre-production and smart planning. She brought that experience to her commercial work, and as a result, Tessa can easily manage cross platform productions that capture commercial, online, and social content with ease. Masseur’s desire to create a production company known for putting the dollars on the screen and creating breakthrough work, led her to creating Tessa – a key asset that can bring any of your creative projects to life.

What’s your origin story?                                    

I was born in Wheeling, WV, but didn’t stay there long. My Dad worked for JC Penney’s and every time he got a promotion, we moved. Usually to a different state. Maryland, Vermont, New York, Maine. My mother was a nurse and was lucky that she could find work anywhere we went. I was fortunate that through middle and high school my parents stayed put. They chose to not move while my brother, 2 sisters and I were in high school. During those years, we lived only an hour outside of NYC. Greenville where we lived was a very small rural town. It was a ½ hour drive to get to a grocery store or a mall.  

How did you get into the film industry?            

I am one of those lucky few who knew at an early age what I wanted to do. I remember telling my mother when we were watching a movie when I was maybe 12 years old – my name will be up there someday (referring to the opening credits). I attended the Newhouse School at Syracuse University majoring in “Producing for Television Radio and Film” – which was a rare thing to study at the time. My older sister lived in NYC during those years and I moved in with her one summer to try to land an internship. I couldn’t afford an internship via my school that I would have had to pay for. And I needed to make money that summer. I knew no one in this business, so I just pulled out the yellow pages and looked up production companies. I went door to door for days handing out resumes in a business suit borrowed from my sister trying to find a job. A sales rep, Wally Till, who was at R. Greenberg (now RGA) saw me come in one day, took my resume from the receptionist and called me. He was starting a commercial production company and needed help. He told me to show up at his new office the next day and said “This is a casual business. Don’t dress up.”  After graduating from SU, he then hired me on as a production coordinator. When a crew strike hit NY and I was suddenly out of a job – I wasn’t sure what I would do.

Lisa Masseur

A close friend was living in Chicago at the time and she encouraged me to make the move and try to get work on one of the many features that were filming here at the time. So, I packed up and moved and luckily got my first film job in Chicago on the feature Groundhog Day. I spent the next several years working on different films and had a two year stint on the TV show The Untouchables assisting the one producer on set in Chicago, Tim Iacofano. That show was ahead of its time as a period dramatic series and since Tim was the only producer, I ended up taking on more responsibilities than I imagine any assistant would. Tim was incredibly supportive and just threw me in, which really helped propel me into producing.

Who were your mentors?                                    

I have so many folks who inspired me and set me on my path. One of my earliest was Debra Horvath. She was a line producer in NYC when I started at Till Productions and she gave me my start on sets. I aspired to be like her someday. As I mentioned above, Tim Iacofano. And after my Film & TV years when I returned to commercial work, I had quite a few directors who gave me a shot at producing even though I hadn’t come up through the ranks in town. Eventually, Bob Ebel asked me to take on the EP position at Ebel Productions. I credit Bob as being the person who really taught me how to build and run a business. I’m so thankful for my years working for him. 

While there will be others, what do you consider your biggest achievement to date?

Lisa Masseur

I guess starting my production company Tessa Films is it. But in the same year I launched Tessa, we produced the pilot for Work in Progress with Writer/Director Tim Mason and Writer/Performer Abby McEnany. Abby was electric on screen and the writing was so damn good and funny, I never had a doubt that the show would be a success. The fact that our pilot made it into Sundance and sold to Showtime “as is” was truly incredible. Our little pilot that we shot on a dime with the help of so many went to air and the series just picked up from there with the same cast of Chicago talent. That so rarely, if ever, happens. I’m so proud of that. Starting Tessa and getting that pilot going in the same year was truly incredible.

How about your biggest disappointment?        

I had planned and even announced that I was going to start my own production company 8 years back when my kids were littler. There were no women production company owners in town at the time and I was so excited to jump in and build something. Within a month, I knew I couldn’t take on that challenge though. My kids were in middle and elementary school at the time and I realized I would put the pressure on myself to be “on” 24/7 if I was building a business from scratch. I didn’t want to miss the sports games or recitals and I wanted to be sure I could still turn off and enjoy life with my family while my kids were younger. I don’t know of any man who would have made the choice I did which made it even harder to do…. But I did walk away. I’m disappointed I didn’t really even try to get my company going then, but I don’t regret my choice.

If being a woman is your superpower, how has it helped you?

I think it has helped me to help others. Which I like to think is my superpower. I love helping passionate people – whether they want to direct, produce, or write a show – and I try to set them on their path. I truly believe we all rise together.

What’s your Kryptonite?                                     

Fear. Luckily I don’t have it often, but when I do, it can be crippling. The fear of missing out on moments with my family is what led me to walk away from starting a company years back.

How did a combination of pandemic, Black Lives Matter and QAnon affect you?

Honestly it brought fear back into my daily life for a time. Doomscrolling became a thing for me. Black Lives Matter shook me out of it though. Attending protests, donating to causes, and becoming a bit more politically active helped.

What can the industry do better to promote true inclusion?

Do the work. It’s that simple. Look outside your normal bubble of people you know. Our industry has always been known to be incestuous and as someone who made it in without knowing anyone, I am always trying to pay that back. There weren’t that many women in positions of power when I started out. Now that I’m here, I’d like to help everyone understand how much better we will all be when we have many diverse voices helping create our work. 

I was a member of the original IPA board that helped get the IL Film Tax credit passed. I am so thankful that as a part of that bill, it included that our shooting crews needed to be as diverse as the state of Illinois if a project were to qualify for the credit. That simple act literally changed what our sets looked like moving forward. It forced everyone to look outside their immediate bubbles of people they knew. And include others when making hiring decisions. And it worked! It’s rather simple. Your company, your set, the directors you hire over the course of a year, should be comprised of a similarly diverse set of people as the city/state/country you live in. I am optimistic that the Agency world has now started to do the work needed to seek out diverse voices. We have a long way to go and we all need to continue to do the work.

If you’re Batwoman, who’s Robin?

Lisa Masseur

Sydney Thomson. She helps me run Tessa Films as a Producer and Head of Production. In general though, I think of myself as more of the “Robin” to the directors on the Tessa roster. I’m their wingman. Always fighting to help them.

What’s the engine that pulls you?                      

My family. First it was my parents pushing me to pursue my dreams. Now its my husband Mark and my 3 kids. They support me daily which enables me to do the creative work I love.

Climb in a time machine and tell 15-year-old you something.

Don’t worry so much! I think early in my career I was pretty darn serious about always doing my job well. I wish I had slowed down, looked up and enjoyed where I as at the moment more. I still need to heed this advice today actually!

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