Susan Kouguell Interviews Russell Rothberg, Executive VP Drama Department Universal Television
I had the pleasure to speak with Russell Rothberg, Executive Vice President Drama Department at Universal Television about a wide range of topics, including breaking into television, pitching dos and don’ts,networking, and what his company is seeking. Rothberg shared his unique perspective; he has worked on both sides of the television aisle as a writer and an executive. His sensitivity towards the plight of writers was particularly insightful and generous.
Rothberg has developed Bates Motel for A&E, Chicago Fire, State of Affairs, Allegiance, Odyssey, and The Slap for NBC. Rothberg’s previous position was Senior Vice President, Drama Programming, NBC and Universal Media Studios (formerly Universal Television). He joined NBC and Universal Media Studios in June 2009 and previously served as Vice President of Current Programming for Fox Broadcasting Company. At Fox from 2003-08, Rothberg oversaw such series as House, Bones, American Dad and The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
Kouguell: Tell me about your career trajectory. You mentioned that you moved from New York City to Los Angeles 18 years ago because someone gave you the “practical advice that there were more writing jobs” there, and that you and your wife arrived with “no money, no connections or anything.” How did you break into the television world?
Rothberg: After working various jobs, I finally got a position as a writer’s assistant on the show Legacy. I wrote a script for them and got paid, which kind of saved my life, because not long after that the show got cancelled and I couldn’t get arrested. I then temped for USA Network in scripted series. One day an executive was on a phone call to writers, giving them notes and that’s when I realized these are the people who are on the other side of the phone and I thought I could do this job. I decided to assist in a place where there was room for growth and that was at Lifetime. I thought I’m going to bust my ass and make a name for myself and get a good reputation. And I did and I got promoted. Getting promoted was key because I could talk to a lot of agents. I really became an executive to get an agent and that kind of worked.
I’m of the opinion that you don’t have to be one thing your whole life. I’ve jumped back and forth from the executive side, to the writing side, to the executive side. One day I might go back to writing and producing. I think the world is your oyster and there are options. You have to be open to everything.
Kouguell: What types of projects is your company looking for?
Rothberg: We’re open to everything. We want projects with vision, writers that have a passion and a vision. We’re not a place that turns an apple into an orange. We don’t want to say, ‘That place is looking for this so if you could change this maybe we could sell it there.’
Kouguell: What projects are you currently working on?
Rothberg: We have our new show, The Path, on Hulu and a new show, Gypsy, that got picked up by Netflix for 10 episodes that will start shooting this summer. We have Jennifer Lopez’s series, Shades of Blue, and we’re producingEmerald City— it’s a passion project, which is kind of like Game of Thrones in the world of Oz– it’s really big and beautiful and ambitious.
We have development just about everywhere at all the cable places and streaming. Our sister network is NBC, but we sell to all the other broadcast networks.
Kouguell: How does a project come to you and then once you like a project, what are some of the steps that follow?
Rothberg: There are two ways a script will come to me; either as an idea pitched or as a spec. If it comes as a pitch, usually we will engage in the room right after the pitch whether or not we’ll buy it. We’d rather have the creative conversation right there in the room than just play our cards close to our vest. It’s really beneficial for the writer even if the project ends up not coming to us because we feel like it’s good Karma and good creatively; things will come back to you or they won’t. Whatever it is, you should just leave your best creative self on the table.
If we like it, we usually put some kind of deal in place or we’ll buy it outright. We will work on the pitch to make sure that the pitch is the best it can be, and we’ll help bring out the vision of what it’s going to be as a series and not just as a pilot script.
We’ll then figure out what the best network is to take it to. There are a lot of projects that have crossover. Some places are well defined by what they do and who they are, but some are not and they are just open to a lot of things. It also depends on who’s writing it and what the hook and the character is. We’ll then take it out, and we’ll sell it hopefully, and hopefully to more than one place; if we sell it to more than one place we can just get into a little bit of a bidding war, but we don’t always go with just the most money; we go for what the best home for it is.
Then the writer will have to come up with a story document. We tell people to make it one or two pages but they usually give us three to five. The less pages are better because then it doesn’t get steered into any particular direction other than your vision until you can really get it into an outline form. The network will then give notes and we’ll do an outlineand the same process. Then, depending on the time of year we lobby to try to get it made.
Kouguell: Do you accept unsolicited manuscripts? Must projects come to you from an agent or manager?
Rothberg: An agent or manager is best. If I know someone in particular, and they ask if I will read something because there’s a connection, I’ll do it, but we have to jump through a bunch of hoops legally. If it’s not coming through an agent, manager or another writer who’s going to supervise or produce it that has an agent or manager, it has a very small shot of going the distance.
I do love spec scripts. People think we don’t want to read scripts because we have too many, but we love to read because then you’re getting the writer’s vision and you know what it’s going to be so the whole process I just described already exists.
Kouguell: What specifically do you look for in a script and what are some common missteps you have found?
Rothberg: Grabbing the interest of the reader in the first couple of pages is really important. That doesn’t mean there should be a car explosion or special effects or things like that. I don’t care about that. In the first couple of pages if you introduce someone in an interesting way, and it reveals something about that character, it’s going to mean more to me than a cold open where somebody dies. I want to go on this journey with your characters, and I want to keep watching them because there’s something unique, relatable or surprising about them.
For character description it’s about brevity. If you can say the same thing in six words rather than a paragraph, that’s great. The paragraph might be flowery and beautiful, and some people just write that way and it is beautiful and great, but getting your point across quickly is better.
Kouguell: What are some dos and don’ts for pitching?
Rothberg: Keep it short. A long pitch is just a don’t. Talk about what your whole idea is in about 20-25 minutes. Try to connect personally to your pitch. For example, if you are saying, ‘My grandmother was a suffragette who had to deal with all these problems, and I was always fascinated by her story, and that’s why I’m pitching you a suffragette project’ I get it. If you start trying to connect personally to something that feels like you’re trying too hard, we’ll know it. Talk about the passion of why you really want to write this project.
Plot seems to be what people will pitch a lot, but it’s not the thing that’s going to carry the show. Everyone who is buying it, especially the cable outlets know that. Having a good hook or good twist is always good, but if you don’t have the characters, you don’t have anything.
Writers who have notes in front of them and don’t use them because they think people are expecting them to have the whole pitch memorized are making a mistake. If you’re a really good writer and you’re not a good pitcher, then write your pitch and read it in an engaging way. No one expects everyone to be an actor. You have to be able to write a good pitch. I know people who are brilliant writers and can’t pitch to save their lives.
Kouguell: What do aspiring writers need to know when trying to get their work noticed and their careers off the ground?
Rothberg: The obvious one is write every day. I suggest taking an acting class and a directing class because you’re just going to write words differently after you hear them said out loud and in a setting. It’s a good experience for everyone.
As long as you keep writing and getting your work out there as much as possible sooner or later someone will take notice. A lot of writers are not the most gregarious people who can get out there or can introduce themselves to everyone. I’m not saying be a shameless self-promoter because I don’t believe that; I think people can see through that and it gets really obnoxious really fast but you do have to network. Writing a great script and having it on the shelf and thinking somebody’s going to discover you, is never going to happen.
There are networks and companies that have screenwriting contests. You should enter everything and try to apply to programs like NBC’s program: Writers on the Verge. I know people who got into that program and then ended up getting staffed on shows. Those programs are really worthwhile. ABC and Fox also have these types of programs, as do other networks.
Put your work out there. If you meet somebody, follow up. If you meet somebody who’s an assistant to an agent get to know that person and see if that person will read your work but don’t push too hard and become a pain.
Read a room is the best advice I can give. If you see someone is really willing to help you or read your work, that’s good. If an assistant reads your work and likes you, they’ll give it to their boss. If my assistant reads something that he likes, that person will get a meeting and will get considered.
Kouguell: What was the best writing advice you ever received?
Rothberg: Someone once told me, ‘Don’t be precious.’ Sometimes you’re going to have to cut things you love but it’s for the greater good of the project. Don’t get so attached that everything is precious. Even though you should have a vision and be strong about your vision, this is a collaborative business and there are certain parameters. Just get ready to collaborate.
Kouguell: Final words of wisdom?
Rothberg: There are so many places to sell right now. It is sort of a Golden Age of Television. There are so many good shows. There are over 400 scripted shows on right now and they’re more in international format. There are all kind of stories being told. My advice is, whatever you’re really passionate about, write it because there’s probably a place for it, and there’s probably nothing that’s going to come across quite as true and engaging as something that you are super passionate about. Don’t aim at something thinking that company is looking for that, I’m going to do that. Write what you’re passionate about.