January 18, 2019

Boomer reboot

The panoramic view from Cheryl Hiltzik’s home studio, high in the Burbank hills, is spectacular. It’s no wonder it’s a big source of daily inspiration for her. 

Earlier in life, though, she found inspiration elsewhere, spending years interviewing A-list Hollywood celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, Johnny Depp, Ridley Scott and hundreds more as an entertainment journalist. 

That all changed eight years ago, when she shifted gears and became the chief creative officer for a company she owns with two cousins, TriCuzz Productions, which produces videos for nonprofit organizations. 

“I went from focusing on movie stars and that fantasy life, that I didn’t have, to living in amazing gratitude for the abundance of my life,” said Hiltzik, whose client base now features mental health organizations, animal welfare shelters and doctors who volunteer to help victims of domestic violence.

Despite her success, Hiltzik, 59, knows what it’s like to weather adversity. The Denver native’s parents divorced when she was 3, leading to years of struggle and moving around the country with her 23-year-old mother, Reba Merrill, and older sister. After her mother remarried, the family relocated  from Bethesda, Md., to London when she was 13. 

“My parents put me in a very working-class neighborhood school,” she said. “I became a punching bag for the Pakistanis, who would beat me up because ‘I was the dirty Jew that started the war.’ And I didn’t know that until I got there. I had never experienced that kind of prejudice before.” 

Her parents pulled both sisters out of the school and enrolled them at the all-girls Francis Holland School, which was attended by Princess Margaret’s daughter, Sarah Armstrong-Jones. Hiltzik was still a minority, one of three Jews in the school, but this was a much more tolerant environment.

“My uniform changed — nothing changed inside of me — and yet the world totally changed their attitude toward me. It was a very eye-opening experience for a future storyteller,” she said. 

Hiltzik went to the University of Arizona to become a doctor because “that is what I thought was expected of me. I got good grades and I was smart but my heart wasn’t in it so, I dropped out and became a fantastically successful cocktail waitress and bartender,” she said.

Years later, in need of support during a personal cancer scare, she came to California to visit her mother, an international entertainment journalist, Emmy Award-winning producer and author of “Nearly Famous: Tales From the Hollywood Trenches.”

“I worked with my mom and my first job was at Jack Lemmon’s house” when she was interviewing him about the movie “Mass Appeal” in 1984, Hiltzik said. “My job was to carry my mom’s stuff and look cute and wear short skirts. I did all three excellently and Jack wrote a letter saying it was a terrific interview, and he even mentioned me!” 

She hung around for the next 20 years learning the tricks of the trade from her mother, producing three- to 23-minute interview segments with celebrities to publicize their films. The videos were distributed to television stations in 60 countries. 

“Two of the most important things that I learned were: research, so that you know what the story is before going in for the interview; and secondly, know how to disarm and create an instant bond.”   

Photo by Cyndi Bemel

In 2007, Hiltzik took over her mother’s business, which involved taking on more interview responsibilities as well as the writing and editing of the final pieces. During that time, Hiltzik developed a pilot show for TV that highlighted celebrities’ philanthropic involvement called “Giving Celebrity Style.”  

“Parts of it didn’t work … but what I learned from it was phenomenal,” Hiltzik said.  “And it was the beginning of my ‘pearl collection,’ as I like to call it. Because it’s pearls of wisdom gained from each person that I sit down and speak with.” 

While assisting her cousin, Nancy Alterman, in searching for nonprofit organizations to lend financial support to, Hiltzik met Trish Steele, founder and CEO of Safe Passage, an organization in the San Fernando Valley that helps domestically abused women and children. This led to Hiltzik’s first nonprofit video, documenting the transformation of a woman with only six teeth through oral reconstructive surgery and then her transition into becoming a life coach for others. When this video was shown at a fundraising banquet, Hiltzik for the first time saw the impact of her work and the compassion it could evoke. It hooked her on doing more nonprofit work and led to the creation of TriCuzz Productions.  

One issue that she’s returned to multiple times with various organizations is mental illness, something she said many members of her family have struggled with. “Everybody keeps quiet about recovery and illness,” she said. “So anytime that I can help someone open up and show that it’s difficult but that there is hope and possibility, it makes me vibrate.” 

TriCuzz Productions videos often are initially used at live events, marketing for fundraising, and included in grant applications. Hiltzik then repurposes the footage into bite-size stories that can be used on a nonprofit’s website and a myriad of other social media and marketing applications. 

“People remember things when they hear it from more than one medium — hear and see it,” said Judy Ames, former executive director of the Mary Magdalene Project, currently known as Journey Out, an organization that fights sexual trafficking and prostitution. “One of the things that is difficult for us is to convince people that prostitution is an issue that needs to be addressed. So many people think that this is a victimless crime and what does it matter. Cheryl was able to really grasp the mission of our organization in a meaningful and succinct way. She got the point, expressed it really well and the video really hit a chord.”

Hiltzik has won five Telly Awards (which honor film and video production), a Davey Award (which honors web, design, video and advertising from small agencies) and received recognition from the city of Los Angles for her work on raising awareness about domestic violence and sex trafficking. 

Currently, Hiltzik, who is married with two sons, is working with Education Equals Opportunity Too (E=O2), a nonprofit that targets academically disengaged middle schoolers. “You can see the fire in her eyes and the way that she looks at her task,” said Walter Larkins, E=O2 executive director, who has worked with her in the past. “She seems to thrive on it and knows how to maximize the time that the client has and create something that is impactful and unique.”

Hiltzik’s goals for her life’s second act include moving into longer-form documentaries to further investigate some of the areas she’s already touched on. 

“I want to know what makes relationships and people do whatever they do,” Hiltzik said. “I remember when I did the first domestic violence video, my original question was, ‘The first time that you got hit, why didn’t you leave?’ 

“So understanding the emotional syntax of that relationship and how it happens breathes empathy and develops such a greater understanding of the human condition. Doing socially relevant [programming], I cry, I get goose bumps, I get invested.”