Thursday, April 17, 2014

Lisa Renee Jones Interviews a Hollywood D-Girl

by Lisa Renee Jones)

(Photo: Gallery Books)

The Starz Network has optioned Lisa Renee Jones' Inside Out Trilogy for a series to be produced by Team Todd, one of the most respected production companies in the business. Lisa got to have an in-depth conversation with Creative Executive Julianna Hays, who works with Suzanne Todd, head of Team Todd. (If you stick around until the end of the interview, you'll find a video of Lisa talking about the casting of the TV show.)

Lisa: As an author with a project in development for television, it's been fun and extremely interesting to see even a tiny bit of how Hollywood works, a place where the glitz and glamour are exciting, but there's a lot of hard work to make it shine! Having Team Todd working on a series based on my books is like a dream come true. At the helm is Suzanne Todd, who is known as the quintessential professional, so it didn't surprise me to find someone as inspiring as Julianna Hays working for her. Julianna's taken the unconventional path from small-town farm girl to aspiring zoologist to being an integral part of Team Todd's development team for almost eight years, which is an amazing feat in an industry known for its revolving door.

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Julianna about everything from how her journey began, to what it takes to find a project and see it to the big or small screen. Part one of my interview with Julianna focused on how she came to be where she is today with Team Todd.

Lisa: Did you always want to work in Hollywood?

Julianna: No. I grew up on a dairy and tobacco farm in a small town in Kentucky called Tompkinsville. I was actually the first person ever in my family to attend college and if you get good grades there, it's expected you'll become a doctor, lawyer or teacher. Boy, how I've disappointed my family!

Growing up I didn't even realize there were careers in Hollywood besides being an actor. I just knew that I loved to go to the movies with my friends and to watch television, sometimes up to six hours a day. Since my parents were older, we didn't go out a lot, but we did watch a lot of TV together.

Because I had straight A's and high test scores, I received a full scholarship to the University of Louisville, the big city! For me, anyways. I'd always loved animals and I've wanted to live in California since I was 12 years old, so naturally I thought I'd aspire to work as a zoologist at the San Diego Zoo, so I pursued biology as my major. While in college, I discovered the National Student Exchange Program, which is this awesome program that lets you attend college in any state in the country for a year while technically enrolled at your home university. Thankfully I was accepted, and this took me to Cal State University-Northridge. I liken it to living in California with training wheels. I lived in the dorm, had my car, and it was easy to make friends because of school. While I was in LA, I ventured down to the zoo and realized the job was a lot more scooping poop than excitement. That, in combination that I was working part time as a veterinarian technician and on a daily basis terrified I was going to accidentally kill someone's pet, made me realize that zoology was not for me.

At that point, I kept coming back to my passion for movies and television and saw an advertisement for interns at a small production company. I applied and was one of several interns hired. The internship wasn't great, but I read movie scripts for the first time ever and became hooked. That's how my career began for me.

Lisa: What happened next?

Julianna: I went back to Kentucky to finish school, then I moved to New York City where I got an amazing second internship at Tribeca Productions (Meet the Parents). I love love love Robert De Niro, and Meet the Parents is one of my favorite movies, so it was exciting to work there. Out of the interns, I was selected to work closely with Tribeca's development executive at the time, Rachel Cohen, and I was also able to volunteer at the Tribeca Film Festival that year. It was the most fun experience ever.

Lisa: What do you think made you stand out, especially since your education wasn't geared toward that industry?

Julianna: Well, I was the only intern out of six or seven who didn't attend an Ivy League university. That was eye-opening. Up until that point, I personally had never met anyone who had been to Harvard, Yale, etc. But I think I stood out because I have a really strong work ethic. That comes from years of working on a farm. At Tribeca I was always first to arrive and the last to leave. I listened, worked hard, and was available but not overbearing. I really wanted to learn, but it's important not to overwhelm the people you're working with as well.

Lisa: So you left there, and then what?

Julianna: When my internship ended, I decided it was time to make the real move to Los Angeles, so I packed up my car and drove across the country. I applied at Abrams Artists Agency and landed a job as first assistant to top children's talent agent Wendi Green (now an agent at Paradigm). My time with Wendi was invaluable because I learned to see the business and financial side of the industry, which is a critical part of what makes it function. I was exposed to high-profile talent and even negotiated some smaller deals. Having those experiences, along with learning insider lingo and the unspoken rules of the industry, gave me a foundation that was critical.

Lisa: How long were you at Abrams and how did you go about leaving?

Julianna: Being at Abrams solidified my desire to work on the development side, and I wanted to do it at a place that resonated with projects I felt passionate about. I really admired Suzanne and Jennifer Todd as fearless female producers in the business, and they had produced two of my favorite films, Austin Powers and Now and Then. When I saw that Suzanne was looking for an assistant, I quickly applied. We connected in the interview, and now, almost eight years later, I've never looked back.

Lisa: Before we move on to talk about the work you do with Team Todd, what advice would you give to people trying to break into producing and even other areas of the industry?

Julianna: I have lots of advice! Absolutely work at a top talent agency. That is where I learned the industry and saw the big picture. Don't undervalue the importance of knowing the lingo and the way things operate. Also, network network network! That means many breakfasts, lunches and dinners to establish industry contacts. This business is a lot like high school. Assistants are freshmen, junior execs are sophomores, etc. Network within your level because you'll all grow up together, and it's important to establish those contacts early since this is a business where who you know counts for a lot. Most important, you need to love film and television and watch as much as possible. If you don't love them, you're in the wrong career. It's a lot of hard work and long hours. No scooping poop, though. Well, if you're lucky. Just kidding!

Lisa: How does a project at Team Todd come to life? Do you find it and then take it to a studio, or does the studio find it and you then work on it from there?

Julianna: It can happen in a variety of ways. Sometimes a writer comes to us with a pitch or spec script (a script they wrote on speculation with hopes of selling it) then we shop that to buyers such as film studios/financiers and television networks. For example, The Walt Disney Co. bought Alice in Wonderland as a pitch from writer Linda Woolverton with producers Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd and Joe Roth. Sometimes we have an original idea or article or book, then try to find a writer to adapt it, then take out the pitch. Sometimes, in the case of books that are best sellers like yours or have the potential to be best sellers, we take it straight to the buyers who option it, then we work together to find the right writer. And then sometimes buyers approach us about a general area they are interested in then we try to find a project that fits within those parameters. Recently I read over 50 potential projects to find one we knew the network would want.

Lisa: What does that entail? Do you bring in the writer and prepare a script? And do you try to attach a big-name actor to give it more leverage?

Julianna: It varies from project to project and depends on a number of factors such as the genre and characters, the experience of the writer, and whether it's for film or TV. We will always work with the writer to get the project into great shape first as either a pitch or a script, then sometimes we will try to "package" it. Packaging is a fancy word for attaching a director, actor or showrunner (TV only) to the project before we shop it to buyers. If it's a director-driven film, we will try to attach a director before we take it out. If it has an amazing starring role, then we'll reach out to whatever actor we think would be perfect for it. In one instance, we worked with a talented, up-and-coming writer on a television series idea who wrote the script on spec, but because she didn't have any credits yet, we attached a television showrunner before taking out the project. There are so many factors involved.

Lisa: How often do you buy a project and develop it and you just can't find a studio or a network to make it happen?

Julianna: Unfortunately, it happens, and it's heartbreaking. You spend so much time working on a project that you really believe in, then for one reason or another it doesn't find a home. This happens a lot in movies where a film can be internally in development for many years, then finally things come together and you're able to move forward with it.

Lisa: How often do you have a studio or network involved from the beginning?

Julianna: At Team Todd we do a lot of internal development. Most of the time, we develop our projects with writers first then set it up at a studio or network.

Lisa: What is the value of having a book you develop into a TV project or a movie versus a script? And what are the challenges?

Julianna: I love books! It's great to start with a book because that means you already have an audience and fans of the story. The challenge is adapting it in a way that it works in the different medium and satisfies the existing fans while also bringing in new fans. I personally prefer books because I find it really exciting to have a hand in the development of the story from book to script. Writers are my favorite type of people and I love working with them!

Lisa: How many books, and even scripts, do you think you read for every project you find you want to work develop?

Julianna: Probably dozens. I'm very picky. I only want to work on projects that I think are based in cool and different worlds with unique yet relatable characters that inspire or make you think. Tall order, I know! That's what drew me to the Inside Out series. It's a beautiful, erotic story about a woman finding herself that also has mystery and is set in the art world, which is a world we have yet to see explored in television. I'm also really excited about a TV series we're currently shopping to networks for that can basically be summed up as Teenage Homeland set in the Peace Corps. I've always wanted to join the Peace Corps, but never had the guts to do it, so I'd love to explore that world in television. Luckily, Suzanne has similar sensibilities, which is why I find working for her so much fun and rewarding.

Lisa: How do you find those projects? Is it usually through agents?

Julianna: I'd say about one-third of the time it's through agents, one-third through our own research, and one-third through writers we already have relationships with.

Lisa: What about casting? Who is responsible for that?

Julianna: The producers, the director and the studio/network all have a say in the casting choices.

Lisa: So as the production company, once a project gets rolling, what is the role Team Todd plays?

Julianna: The producer is the person who is usually the first and last one on a project. As the producer, Suzanne is very involved with the script, casting, crew hires, production, post-production and marketing. She works closely with the director, talent and crew to make sure everything comes together and happens on schedule and within the budget, all while keeping the integrity of the film. As the creative executive, I assist Suzanne with script notes, crew and talent outreach, and anything else she needs in order to keep the ball rolling.

Lisa: How does it work when more than one project goes into production at the same time?

Julianna: The great thing about producers is that they work on a non-exclusive basis, and because of that, can be producing multiple projects at once. Once a film or television series is up and running, it's the director or showrunner who is the main person involved in the day-to-day, while the producer is always available to help out where needed. That's why it's so important that the producer and studio have the right person in those jobs.

Lisa: Without naming names, have you had the experience of difficult talent and how did you handle it?

Julianna: I've been fortunate that all the actors and writers I've worked with have been absolute professionals. My only negative experience was with a producing/directing team who literally stole a project right from under us for which we had a verbal but not written agreement. That was the first project I brought into Team Todd and we worked on it for over six months, so it was especially heartbreaking. Now, three years later, it's still never come to life. It was sad to see something we were so passionate about, and would have made happen, end up on the shelf.

Lisa: How does working with regular network and cable TV differ?

Julianna: We mainly focus on cable because we're interested in serialized shows that can push boundaries.

Lisa: What's the funniest thing you've ever had happen since you landed in Hollywood?

Julianna: I haven't had anything too funny happen. When I was interning at Tribeca, I had to greet Sharon Stone and take her to the conference room. I was really nervous because I'm a big fan and Casino is one of my favorite films. It was also the first time I had ever met a celebrity in real life. I was trying to play it cool and was almost successful, but then I got tongue-tied leaving the conference room. I asked her if I should shut or close the door, then she just laughed and I realized I said the same thing twice. Embarrassed, I said I'd just pull it to and quickly ran off.

Lisa: What about the most surreal?

Julianna: We consulted on a DLC (downloadable content) for the video game Call of Duty, called Call of the Dead, where George Romero's character is carted off by zombies, then Sarah Michelle Gellar, Danny Trejo, Robert Englund and Michael Rooker must destroy him. I was the talent liaison on set, and I was especially ecstatic to work with Sarah because I grew up watching her in Buffy with my friends in high school. In person, she was so sweet, professional and an absolute joy to work with — that was pretty surreal. I also got a photo with Robert (Freddy Krueger), Danny (Machete) and Michael (The Walking Dead) where Robert is pretending to bite my head off so it looks like I'm about to be killed by Freddy Krueger. Now talk about cool! I have that photo and a poster for the game hanging on the wall by my desk right now.

Lisa: Thank you Julianna for such a great, insightful look into Hollywood, and it's an absolute honor to have Team Todd at the helm of the development of The Inside Out Series!

Lisa Renee Jones is the USA TODAY and New York Times best-selling author of the highly acclaimed Inside Out Trilogy. Find out more about her and her books at

And, hey, while you're here, you might want to check out Lisa's video about casting the Inside Out show: Inside Out Casting vs Fifty Shades Casting.

Lisa Renee Jones, author of the Inside Out Trilogy.(Photo: Lisa Renee Jones)