The Journey from Engineering to Hollywood

Portrait of Ivan Williams

After a fulfilling career as a chemical engineer, one Oregon State University alumnus is now calling the shots as a Hollywood producer.

“I am curious by nature and love to solve problems. Chemical engineering gave me the opportunity to use those skills, as did my time in management in the oil business. Now I’m thrilled to be using those skills in a third career in Hollywood,” said Ivan Williams.

Williams described his circuitous career path from chemical engineer to business executive to movie producer as a journey that began on the campus of Oregon State.

Ivan Williams at a Los Angeles production event.

“Coming to Oregon State meant getting out of my comfort zone, stretching myself, and heading for a new horizon,” Williams said. “Starting college could have been a difficult experience because my family was almost a whole world away in Guam, where my father was stationed. But Oregon State embraced me, and studying chemical engineering not only opened up a career path, but also gave me the opportunity to grow my confidence.”


Williams, who is a frequent guest presenter at Oregon State and other universities, explained that an engineering degree can be the fuel that propels anyone along an exciting and often diverse career path. “At Oregon State, your engineering degree can be a pathway to success in any field. This degree is what gave me the courage, inspiration, and maturity to take on interesting and challenging opportunities as they presented themselves,” he noted.

During Williams’ 20 years at ARCO, he designed and developed advanced refinery process control applications, implemented new strategic sourcing processes, and introduced accurate profit planning and performance forecasts for senior management. After BP acquired ARCO, Williams was tapped to lead a global team to transform BP’s refinery procurement processes and systems. He was then named regional director of all of BP’s U.S. refinery and chemical plant procurement operations, a job from which he took an early retirement opportunity. But he then had a big question to answer.

“My wife asked me what I was going to do at that point, because I didn’t play golf,” Williams said. “I knew there was so much more to accomplish, and I wanted to make a difference in an entirely different way. That way was to make an impact on a global scale through the entertainment industry.”

Ivan Williams with a group at a red carpet event.

Telling stories can effectively amplify a message, and Williams knew there was no better place to get stories told than in Hollywood. He also knew he had the important skills all productions need to be successful: problem-solving and the ability to bring financial structure and resources to a project.

“I figured I had the problem-solving skills, thanks to my experience as a chemical engineer. I had the business management skills necessary to lead people, manage money, and employ assets against a  timeline. I also had the desire to produce important stories that move people and move society,” he said.

With a goal to make powerful, narrative-driven stories come to life, Williams and his wife helped start a studio that produced films and Broadway musicals that major studios overlooked.

“Not every movie needs to be about a superhero or revolve around computer-generated imagery,” Williams said. “We were looking for projects that would entertain and engage a wide range of audiences.”


He and his wife’s success has been almost astonishing, considering they have only been producing for a short time. Their first movie was “Knights of Badassdom,” starring Peter Dinklage of “Game of Thrones” fame. More projects quickly followed, including “Big Stone Gap,” starring Ashley Judd, Patrick Wilson, and Whoopi Goldberg, which tackled family secrets and small-town America; the Broadway musical “First Date”; a hit web series “Be Here Nowish, Season 2,” which followed two young women who move from New York City to Los Angeles to start a new life; “M.F.A.,” a thriller that delved into college sexual assault and an empowered female graduate student who seeks revenge; and “This Changes Everything,” a Geena Davis-involved, award-winning documentary that focused on gender misrepresentation and discrimination in the film and TV industry.

“In eight years, I went from not being in the film industry at all to now being a recognized member of the top professional film and TV producer organization on the planet,” Williams reported, referencing his 2019 nomination and invitation to join the Producers Guild of America. He now has his sights set on earning entry to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“That’s a high bar to reach, and until I do, my wife and I are very satisfied with the impact of our projects and our recognition as founding members of the new Academy Museum in Los Angeles,” Williams said. The museum is expected to be the world’s premier institution dedicated to the arts and science of movies.

Meanwhile, Williams is content to expand storytelling through a greater array of film and episodic content projects. “Sometimes I wonder how I got here,” he said. “But producing a movie is a lot like being a chemical engineer. It’s all about highly skilled people coming together to solve complicated problems that make a project work. I’m just doing what I love to do in an environment that leverages my creativity in the application of people, technology, and capital.”

April 3, 2020