Jon Eskenas got his foot in the door at a baseball game. He landed an internship on a TV movie from a contact he made there. Since then he has ascended the ranks to Hollywood TV producer and Sr. VP of Development at Orly Adelson Productions. Jon spoke with me about the skills necessary to succeed as a producer, the differences between film and TV productions, and how motivated you have to be to make it in the industry.
CCB: Did you go to Syracuse to study television?
JE: I went there to study film in their art department. They have two different ways you can study film. One is through their Communications school, which is their television, radio, and film department. Then more artistically through the School of Visual and Performing Arts and that’s where I did my concentration. I was in VPA as a film art student because you can take it as film art or as film drama.
CCB: What did you learn in your time there? Was it just theory that you could apply when you got out of school?
JE: There was theory. Really what it was and this isn’t a bad thing, is here is a camera go do something. It wasn’t very structured in that it has to have this and hit all these beats. Some people were doing documentaries, some doing comedies, some more experimental films. It really was each semester here is a camera and now go do what do you. I mean you took writing classes, theory, and history which were all good to let you know about the medium. Essentially it was a creative thing. A time to see where you stood creatively and then working on people’s sets which helped a lot.
CCB: A lot of it was learning on the fly.
JE: It really was. I mean there is no way to teach what an office is going to be like anyway.
CCB: When did you realize you wanted to work in television? Was that after you got out of school?
JE: It wasn’t that I tried or didn’t try to get into television. I just came out here looking for any kind of job. And the first job that I had happened to be in television. Actually I got an internship on a TV movie. I met a guy at a baseball game and he had a film that was going to be shooting in a week. I was out here after the summer of my junior year and he said do you want a position on the film? I said I’d work for free if I could just be on the set. He said absolutely. Happened to be TV so when I came back out here that’s where my contacts were. So when I was sending out resumes a production coordinator from that film saw my resume. She was doing another TV movie and brought me on to that and from there I went with those producers and went on and on, that it sort of lead me into TV.
CCB: So, you came out to LA to work in the entertainment fields?
JE: For film and TV in general, just to work in one of those fields.
CCB: What would you say it is that you enjoy about working in TV?
JE: As opposed to features it has a faster pace in that if your projects get made they get made much quicker. Feature films might take six, seven years to get made. With a television series it’s on within a year. With a TV movie it’s on in maybe two years but a lot of times it’s even on in a year. You get to see things a lot quicker, it moves a lot faster. The other thing I like about it is that you get to do all different sorts of genres. Sometimes with features you get stuck with this is a comedy guy, this is the action guy, this is the serious guy. In TV we’re doing a sports movie, a kid’s movie, a Lifetime movie, a true crime movie. That more than anything is what I like, being able to do all different types of stories.
CCB: How did you go from intern to TV producer?
JE: I did that job and when I got out of college I got on to another film. On that film I was working as the assistant to the director. The executive producers of that film, their assistant was going to be leaving them once the film ended, and they asked me if I wanted to come on board as their assistant. At the time I thought maybe I wanted to get into camera work but new to LA, just out of school, I thought can’t turn down a paying job. I said sure even if I just did it for six months, put away some money, and then started looking for more set work. I went with them, they were executive producers at a company called Citadel, and then their deal went to Sony, Columbia Tri-Star Television. I thought at 22 years old given the chance to work at Sony I had to get on a movie lot and as time went on I found that I really enjoyed producing. I really enjoyed developing. I was with them for a few years and their deal ended and they sort of left the business. So I was looking for another position and I found Orly Adelson who I work for now. She is the best, an incredible producer. Her development person and assistant were leaving at a similar time so I came on and did a little bit of both for her and I’ve been here for about five years. Then I rose up to Manager of Development, Director of Development, and Sr. VP of Development. Now I’m getting co-executive producer credits on the movies as well. I just found that I enjoy working on projects from beginning to middle to end, being able to see it all the way through from conception to completion.
CCB: What is a typical day on the job as a producer? What are your responsibilities or do those differ depending on the project?
JE: It depends because we are a really small company. The company is really Orly, myself, an assistant, and we have a producer who has a term deal with us as well. In terms of this sort of corporation it’s not like we have an in house accountant or we have in house legal. We do have those people but they are a legal firm that we work with, an accounting firm that we work with. The typical day is working on any of the projects, maybe doing notes meetings with a writer, maybe doing research on something we want to pitch. A lot of it is going out and pitching networks, calling networks, meeting with them, and seeing what they want to make. Then trying to find those things and bringing it up to them. But since we are a small office it is also doing the accounting. Earlier today I was walking around watering the plants. (Laughs) The main part of my job is finding what the networks want and then finding material that fits those roles and selling them to the networks. Then day to day whether it’s in the pitch form, whether we’ve sold it and it’s in the script form, or we are shooting it and I’m watching director’s cuts, making sure every step of the way the project is as good as it could possibly be.
CCB: From your experience how is being a TV producer different than a film producer?
JE: As executive producers we aren’t line producers. Obviously line producers on most features are going to be bigger, bigger budget, bigger scope. As an executive producer in TV you are much more involved creatively a lot of the time. TV is very much a producer’s medium where film is often times a director’s medium. It’s not always the case. It depends on who the producer is and what the project is. Also it moves very quickly in TV. And there are only a finite number of spots. Each networks is only going to make a certain amount of TV movies, they are only going to make a certain amount of TV series. So if you don’t sell one of those you aren’t going to do something that year. It’s not like in features where you aren’t fitting a spot or a slot.
CCB: You mentioned the line producer.
JE: The line producer is the person that puts together the budget, hires all the below the line crew like the grips and the lighting people, all the prop people, and the PA’s. We sort of oversee it all. The line producer is like the day to day manager so to speak.
CCB: Do you need to be in Los Angeles to have this career because of all the productions or could you do this in another entertainment hub such as New York City?
JE: If you are starting out you absolutely have to be here. People get into it in New York, Chicago, we just shot a couple of TV movies in New Orleans. If you are trying to give yourself the best opportunity you have to be in Los Angeles because this is still the number one spot for it. Once you are established could you work outside yeah I know some people that live other places. I know a successful producer who lives in Atlanta but he’s in Los Angeles, at least a week every month. He has a home here, he travels back and forth. I mean like I said I got my first job by going to a baseball game and the guy next to me happened to have a film, which is funny but then here that’s not that strange of a thing. Most people you are going to bump into are either going to work in the industry or have some one very close to them that works in the industry. It would be akin to going to Detroit and wanting to get into car building. I imagine that’s probably the case.
CCB: As far as learning what it takes to be a successful producer some of that is being in the physical space in the office, some of it is asking questions, and some is reading?
JE: It has to be all of it. Part of it is knowing all the different writers. The only way to know the writers is to get all the scripts that you can and read them. If I’ve been here for five years I’ve probably literally read ten thousand scripts. The other part is being around people, listening, and learning the way they do business. I suppose if you were with someone you didn’t like you could learn it by doing the opposite. I’ve been lucky enough to be with not only people that I like but respect enormously. Exactly where my office is I’m situated between two terrific producers Orly Adelson and Troy Westergaard. Just by sitting in between them being able to hear them and learn through osmosis is probably the best thing that could of happened to me.
CCB: What skills make a quality TV producer?
JE: Part of it is the management skills, people management, money management, management with time. It’s being able to keep the ship running constantly. The other part of it is the creative part where we are trying to sell. That is really being a salesperson. Being able to read people well, knowing how they like to be talked to, the type of material they like and bringing it to them. It’s befriending people so that they want to buy from you. It comes to a point where it’s no different than being a door to door salesman. They are going to buy vacuums from the people they like the most. And a lot of that is the case here. It’s finding your way in there and getting the stuff that they would want.
CCB: Have any advice for people interested in becoming a TV producer?
JE: A couple of things. Somebody told this to me before and I think its great advice. Never turn down your first job in the industry no matter what it is. Whatever your first paying job is never turn it down. We were looking for assistants at one point. Essentially it was a starting job. There are people who came in and said they were looking for more money or weren’t willing to put in the hours. Your first job in TV or film is going to be a low paying job with long, long, long hours but you have to take it. We got literally seven hundred resumes for this one position we had. That’s the competition you are up against. Whatever you get you have to take it and just work harder than anybody else and then you’ll be successful. I think this industry is no different than anything else if you work hard you are successful. That’s the one thing I know I can do. I know there is going to be somebody smarter than me. I know there is going to be somebody more talented then me, but if I work hard at least I can control that. Nobody will out work me.
CCB: How about actually going about finding the job? Is it blitzing places with resumes?
JE: I think you have to get your resume out to everywhere. There are a few specific things. The Hollywood Creative Directory has a website, hcdonline.com
Also the Hollywood Reporter has a list every Tuesday of all the TV shows and films that are in development, in pre-production, and production.
CCB: Can you talk about the importance of networking?
JE: It is important and there are all these functions where assistants meet. It’s part of being here too because networking can happen sitting next to somebody at the countertop and finding that they work in the industry and they are looking for somebody or at the game as happened with me. Ultimately it happens by yourself. You can only depend on yourself. Networking will only take you so far unless you are the son or daughter of a famous director or producer, then you have an easier shot at it.
CCB: What are your feelings about internships?
JE: I think internships are a smart idea. Everybody should try to get an internship. It helps with experience in learning what to do, to get another job. As an employer when I’m looking at resumes it shows that they were really serious about this if they were willing to come out and take an unpaid position to gain experience and get into the industry that way.
CCB: Are you drawn to sports stories as a few of the productions you were involved in deal with sports? (3: The Dale Earnhardt Story, Hustle (Pete Rose) and Junction Boys)
JE: Our company has been very fortunate to build a strong relationship with ESPN. We’ve been doing a lot of movies with them and just finished one. I do happen to be a big sports fan, but that’s not why. We also did Playmakers and Tilt for them.
CCB: How does your company decide what types of projects it works on?
JE: In television we pitch to the networks and if the network wants to put something into development then that moves forward. So what we do is look into whatever we think might fit into what the network wants. I’ll go and meet with a network exec and they’ll say OK we are looking for whatever it is, we are looking for a movie about cowgirls in space. (Laughs) So we’ll go and look for projects like that. If we find something we’ll pitch it to them… What we are looking for is what the networks are looking for. It’s all stuff that we are pitching and selling to networks.
CCB: Once a network has agreed that it wants to produce a show where does your involvement come in?
JE: Say it’s a TV movie, but we are selling an idea or a book that doesn’t have a writer on it first. It’s not a script. First we hire a writer. We put together a list of writers we think would be good for this project, we go over the list with the network, and mutually agree on a writer. The writer starts to write the script, we give them notes on the drafts in conjunction with the network. At some point you hope you get a pickup which is the network is going to put a project into production. At that point we are hiring a casting agent, overseeing casting, hiring a director, overseeing everything during pre-production. Then during production we are there making sure everything is going well. In post we are looking at the cuts, listening to music until it’s completed.
CCB: When it’s in production you are physically on set?
JE: Correct, either Orly or I.
CCB: What happens then, do you just concentrate on one project or are several things going on at the same time?
JE: It always has to be several because in TV movies at best the odds are that maybe one in three are going to be made. It’s probably more like one out of every four that you sell will be made. You constantly have to have different things. Even once we are in production on something the tough thing is to keep selling at that time because you need something after that. OK you just produced this but what is your next one going to be?
That’s always the tough thing here. There is no big celebration because you’ve just made a project or just sold a project. You celebrate in that moment and then say, what’s the next one? You’ve got to eat next month too.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job? Is it the schedule?
JE: It’s really, really long hours. I’m reading every night and reading a ton of stuff on the weekends, so that’s tough but I wouldn’t call that difficult because that is just what the job is. I think the toughest part is you have to be thick-skinned. If you were going to pitch one hundred projects in a year and sold ten of those, that would be an extraordinary year. It’s like in baseball if you are hitting 300 you are doing really well. That means seven out of ten times you are doing poorly. In fact if you said you were going to pitch one hundred projects and sell five of them we’d take that. So, you are talking about a five percent success rate which would be a terrific year. So you have to be very thick-skinned that those ninety five things you thought were great are going to get passed on.
CCB: What has been the most rewarding thing about the job so far?
JE: Seeing a project that you love get made or get sold. It just happened last week. There was a script that I had for three years that was one of the favorite things I’d ever read and I remember when the writers gave it to me I said OK, if I don’t sell this I’m a bad executive. It took three years and finally last week it sold. You know, you dance a little jig. I was legitimately excited about that. If it gets made then I’ll be really happy. It’s that and then in combination seeing somebody enjoy something you’ve done. That’s why we all get into this to see somebody cry or scream or laugh or whatever.
CCB: People would be surprised to learn what about your job?
JE: I think how boring it is most of the time. (Laughs) Nine out of ten times if you came to the office we are sitting around in very casual clothing working on accounting as opposed to the image of us driving around in convertibles wearing our sunglasses.
CCB: Is that what surprised you the most as well?
JE: I don’t know that there was really a surprise for me per se. I didn’t come in with any preconceived notions. I can’t think of anything that I’d say I didn’t expect it to be that way.
CCB: What do you having come up?
JE: We just finished a movie of the week for ESPN called Codebreakers which will be airing for them later this year.
CCB: What sport is that?
JE: Football. It’s set in West Point. We have other things in development with them that we hope will move forward. We have things in development all over, stuff at Disney Channel, Lifetime, and at USA.
CCB: Your company’s specialty is TV movies?
JE: TV movies and series as well. I would estimate about fifteen projects that were actively sold and a couple of features.
CCB: What are your career aspirations from this point on?
JE: Ultimately be here for a long time and then at some point have my own company, follow in Orly’s footsteps. Hopefully continue to put food on the table because you never know what’s going to happen next year. There’s not a lot of return business, you always have to find the next thing.