New York Film Academy Los Angeles students were treated to a private screening of the season three premiere of the USA Network drama Suits this past Thursday followed by a Q&A with Ellen Rand, the Vice President of Programming at Universal Cable Productions (UCP), moderated by Tova Laiter. Ellen has developed and been point executive on scripted projects for USA Network shows such as Suits, Covert Affairs, Royal Pains and the new comedy Playing House set to premiere in April. She joined the NBCU Family in 2002 as Creative Coordinator at the Syfy Network in LA and then moved to NYC in 2004 to work for the Chairman of NBCU Cable Entertainent Group, Bonnie Hammer. Previously, Rand was at Trilogy Entertainment and worked on the series The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, and the NBC remake of Carrie.
Ellen majored in journalism at the University of Wisconsin. After college she worked in local news, however the light interest pieces they produced did not satisfy her thirst for hard-hitting content. A friend of a friend of a friend of Ellen’s knew about a Production Assistant position on a TV show and she got her an interview. When she showed up wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase the producers were amused by how dressed up she was for a PA position. The entertainment world was foreign to Ellen and she didn’t know the proper attire for the entry-level position. They told her she got the job, but to wear jeans and sneakers the next day. And this is how Ellen Rand’s career in the industry began.
In her position now as VP of UCP, Ellen wears multiple hats and takes on many responsibilities. Her average day will consist of fielding potential new TV shows, giving notes on episodes in development and dailies from shows in production, and working with the Networks she produces for to fulfill their needs. She also oversees the budgets for all the studio’s shows in production. Budgeting a show is an intricate process that involves balancing below and above the line costs, amortization (costs spent on capital that can be reused throughout the show’s season or run), and special costs for each episode like salaries for guest starts. The budget for any particular episode is never finished until after the show’s season is wrapped. Her job also involves devising marketing strategies for the TV shows she oversees. In this day and age, an audience has so much content to pick from that if they are not constantly bombarded with advertising from outlets like social media, they will forget about your show.
Ellen hires and works with many writers on her shows. Whereas the old rule of thumb for aspiring writers was to write spec episodes for existing shows, Ellen recommends writing original material when attempting to be hired as a TV show staff writer. She believes original material helps her better detect a writer’s voice and discern their strengths—whether it is character, dialogue, story structure, etc.
The best tip Ellen gave students was to “follow your passion”—to find out what inspires you and what the voices and scenarios you love telling are. If you love what you do, you’ll do your best work and it won’t feel like work. Ellen clearly loves her job as indicated by the high level of enthusiasm with which she speaks about it. Well… with such an interesting spectrum of creative responsibilities, who wouldn’t love their job? Ellen Rand is a good example to all of us of what working hard and following your dreams can do for you.