February 06, 2020
Friartown to Tinseltown: Tara McLaughlin ’13 brings a creative eye to Focus Features
By Stasia Walmsley
From the seventh-floor offices of Focus Features in Los Angeles, Calif., Tara McLaughlin ’13 looks out over a sea of soundstages on the Universal Studios lot. “That’s where Will and Grace is shot,” she says, pointing to a low, gray building.
A table nearby is stacked with recent issues of the Hollywood Reporter. A large display in the lobby advertises the film Downton Abbey.
“I’m eyeballs deep in Emma right now,” McLaughlin shares, referring to an adaption of the Jane Austen novel. “My favorite Focus film when I started here was Pride & Prejudice, so working on Emma is so exciting. And this movie is gorgeous, so pretty — and funny!”
As a manager of creative advertising, McLaughlin is part of the team responsible for the film’s promotional materials, including the official movie poster and trailers.
It’s been nearly seven years since McLaughlin graduated from Providence College, and she’s still surprised that she’s built a life and career in Hollywood. “I’m such an East Coast, New England kid. It didn’t even occur to me that this was a path I could take,” she says. “It seemed totally out of the realm of possibility.”
A passion for storytelling
McLaughlin grew up in a small town outside of Manchester, N.H. As an English and creative writing major at PC, her aspirations were to live in Boston and work at a publishing house. “I’m an avid reader. I’ve always loved storytelling, and I wanted that to be my life. I thought that meant books, books, books,” she says.
After a spontaneous decision to join PCTV during her first year, her love of storytelling evolved into a curiosity about filmmaking. McLaughlin started using professional video editing software, such as Avid and Final Cut Pro. “I had never worked with a camera. The experience totally opened me up to the production side,” she says. “I began to realize, maybe this is something I want to do.”
After adding a film studies minor, taking a screenwriting class with Rev. Kenneth R. Gumbert, O.P., professor of film studies in theatre, and landing a summer internship in Hollywood, McLaughlin decided, “I want to work in film.”
During her senior year, McLaughlin also signed on to PC in Hollywood. The annual five-day, winter-break program takes students to L.A. to meet with alumni working in the film industry.
On the first day, students started their alumni visits by sharing that they wanted to go into something expected, like accounting or marketing, she says.
“But by the end of the trip, it had become a safe space to actually admit the thing you really want to do. All of a sudden, people were saying, ‘I want to be a writer,’ or ‘I want to be an actor.’ It was so great to open up and believe in reaching for those dreams.”
After graduation, McLaughlin started networking with PC in Hollywood contacts and any connection that would help her to break into the elusive entertainment industry. “I reached out to my mom’s college roommate’s husband’s uncle,” she laughs. “I had a lot of phone calls that went nowhere.”
A foothold in film
Eventually, McLaughlin heard from Focus Features about an opening at its reception desk.
“I jumped at it, and I’ve been here ever since. It’s amazing,” she says. She was quickly promoted to publicity assistant and then transitioned to the marketing side of the business where she now manages creative advertising for the company’s films. Among her credits are Darkest Hour, BlacKkKlansman, and Tully, which earned a silver Clio Advertising Award for its poster.
“My version of success has always been to find a way to make a creative outlet into a job. When I first got into film, I thought I wanted to be on the development side, which is where you read script after script and work with writers to develop projects. Then you package it with talent, actors, and directors,” she explains. “But that changed when I moved into marketing; I found my creative outlet.”
She splits her time between working on print projects (posters, billboards, newspaper ads) and audio-visual (trailers, and radio and tv spots). “It’s fun to balance both worlds and see the two sides come together into one cohesive campaign,” McLaughlin says.
Capitalizing on a liberal arts education
These days, when the PC in Hollywood students come to L.A., McLaughlin joins the likes of famed director and producer John Bowab ’55 & ’89Hon. and Oscar-winning director Peter Farrelly ’79 as a participant. She advises students to take advantage of PC’s co-curricular programs and to break out of the common routine of going to class and hanging out with roommates. It’s how McLaughlin discovered PCTV, a passion for film, and a career she loves. “There’s a lot offered that you might not see if you just put your blinders on.”
In addition to her own how-I-got-into-Hollywood story, McLaughlin shares what it takes once someone gets a foot in the door. “In an entry-level position, it makes such a difference to be the first one in and the last one out,” she says. “The hard work and long hours really pay off in the long run.”
“I GOT EXACTLY WHAT I WAS HOPING FOR FROM MY ENGLISH MAJOR…. IT’S LIKE HAVING A MAJOR IN CRITICAL THINKING.”
Creative problem solving is also indispensable, McLaughlin says, and is a skill she attributes to her PC liberal arts education.
“I got exactly what I was hoping for from my English major. Not only did I totally love it — because we had great classes and great discourse — but I have found it incredibly helpful in the creative process and the way I contribute to discussions. It’s like having a major in critical thinking.”