Featured Filmmaker: Lisa Cortes


Lisa Cortés has had a rich and varied career in entertainment, working with such groundbreaking companies as Def Jam Records, Rush Artist Management and Lee Daniels Entertainment. Her passion and strength lies in identifying, and then giving light to expressive voices not often heard, and stories not often told.

Lisa’s most recent producer credit is Precious (based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire), which won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance (2009) and competed in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival. Heralded as “a disturbing masterwork of human survival” by the Hollywood Reporter, the film was also praised by Variety, The New York Times and others. “I learned a lot from the experience, says Cortés. Precious was perhaps one of the most challenging and complex projects of my career. It’s a deeply textured period film with
intricate visual effects and musical content.”


A veteran of both the film and music industries, Lisa Cortés has proven herself a maverick in the entertainment field. From her early days working at premier hip-hop label Def Jam Records to Producer/SVP, Production at Lee Daniels Entertainment Lisa has become known for finding innovative solutions to various production challenges.

“Throughout my career I’ve been fortunate to have positions that are as exciting as they are engaging,” Cortés says. “I really enjoy the dynamic of working with artists and business people.”

With production credits that include such respected films as The Woodsman (2004) and Shadowboxer (2006), Cortés began her journey with Lee Daniels Entertainment shortly before the firm’s debut film Monster’s Ball (the movie that won Halle Berry an Academy Award in (2002) went into production. “Post music business I met Lee Daniels after I graduated from film school
at SVA (The School of Visual Arts) and New York Film Academy,” Lisa remembers. “I had only produced student films, electronic press kits and music videos, but Lee took a chance on me.”

During the making of Monster’s Ball, Lisa assisted Daniels and director Marc Forster on location in New Orleans. The three-month experience turned out to be a crash course in the fine art of filmmaking, and an excellent training ground for the budding producer. “It all came together for me after an exhaustive night shoot when I realized the similarity of working with musicians and filmmakers to bring to life their voices, and the intense joy it
gave me to be a part of that process.”

A native of Milford, Connecticut, Lisa also spent a fair amount of her childhood with family in Harlem. A graduate of Yale University, where she majored in American Studies, Cortés broke into the music industry during the 1980’s golden age of hip-hop music. Working under label chiefs Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin and Lyor Cohen to launch the Def Jam brand, she worked with a roster that included rap pioneers Run DMC, Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys and LL Cool J.
“These days hearing rap records on the radio or on television is taken for granted,” Lisa says. “But, in those early years we were breaking new ground.” The production and groundbreaking collaborations engineered by Cortés laid the foundation that introduced hip hop music, as well as hip hop culture to an international audience.

“At Def Jam and Rush, it didn’t matter what your title was, it was just about getting the job done. In the morning I worked with our European partners on behalf of Rush Artist Management and in the afternoon with Columbia on behalf of Def Jam artists. I learned the art of handling difficult problems and the day-to-day troubleshooting skills needed to complete various projects on time.” Wearing many hats, Cortés also represented music producers
as CEO of Rush Producers Management, the company she founded with Russell Simmons. Leaving Def Jam in 1990, Cortés went on to become Vice President of Artists and Repertoire at Mercury/PolyGram Records. After spearheading a number of projects that included Vanessa Williams, Black Sheep and the soundtrack for the Tony award-winning Jelly’s Last Jam, Lisa was soon awarded her own label, Loose Cannon, a subsidiary of  Polygram/Island Records.
Following her tenure at Loose Cannon, Lisa took time off to travel extensively throughout India, Africa and the Caribbean. “After working over a decade in such a frenzied environment, I needed to re-evaluate what I really wanted to do,” she says. “In addition to gaining a new perspective, travel allowed me to see the power of film as a universal visual language that transcends linguistic limitations.”

Surprisingly, the transition from music to film was seamless for Cortés.” “For me, the process was the same,” she explains. “It is about finding and creating projects, having the relationships to develop and produce them, and then delivering them on time and on budget.”

In addition to collecting folk art from around the globe, Lisa has also lectured at various universities including New York University and Yale on cinema, hip-hop culture and aesthetics. She also serves on the board of two not-for-profit organizations, Yaddo and Trajal Harrell Dance Style.

Def Jam Records/Rush Artists Artist/Label Management

1988-1990 Rush Producers Management CEO/Co-Founder

1990-1994 Mercury/Polygram Records VP, Artists and Repertoire

1994-1997 Loose Cannon/Polygram Records President

1997-2000 Magic Lantern Productions President

Sangam (2001) Producer

2000-2009 Lee Daniels Entertainment SVP, Production

Monster’s Ball (2001) Assistant to Marc Forster and Lee Daniels

The Woodsman (2004) Co-Producer

Shadowboxer (2005) Producer

Tennessee (2008) Executive Producer

Precious (2009) Executive Producer


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3 responses to “Featured Filmmaker: Lisa Cortes

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