August 19, 2020
Media Play News asked the 12 “captains” in our third annual Women in Home Entertainment issue to participate in a detailed Q&A about their careers and the challenges of COVID-19, which truly has made 2020 a year like no other. We also asked some fun questions to liven, and lighten, things up. An abridged Q&A appears in the August 2020 print and digital edition of Media Play News. The full Q&A has been broken down into three sections, running here on consecutive days. This is the first part, on their career paths and highlights.
THE CAPTAINS OF HOME ENTERTAINMENT: WHAT THEY HAVE TO SAY, PART ONE
Tell us about your career path.
Sarah Aubrey, Head of Original Content, HBO Max: I began my career as an entertainment lawyer, later transitioning to production starting with Bad Santa and then joining forces with Peter Berg at our production company Film 44. During this time, I produced series and features such as “Friday Night Lights” and Lone Survivor. I then joined Kevin Reilly, who I had worked with on “Friday Night Lights,” at TNT as EVP of original programming for the network. We created programming that evolved the network into a place for premium tentpole dramas with series such as “Claws,” “Animal Kingdom” and the Emmy Award-winning drama “The Alienist.” I worked hard in this position to champion diversity and inclusion both in front of and behind the camera. During this time we were able to more than double the number of women holding jobs at the highest levels on the average TNT scripted project, and TNT jumped an impressive 320% on the annual GLAAD TV report rankings for LGBTQ representation. Kevin then presented me with a once-in-a-career opportunity, to be on the ground floor of HBO Max, a brand-new platform that brings together an incredibly special portfolio and group of creators in one place. [Reilly recently left WarnerMedia in a management shakeup.] In this role, I oversee our Originals slate from drama, comedy, unscripted, documentary, animation, and feature films, with something for everyone in the household. My team and I are empowered to go after unique, distinctive stories from creative voices that make a cultural impact, stories that we feel passionate about and that deserve to be seen by a wide audience. We are proud to have launched with the 2020 Sundance Documentary feature On the Record as well as the fan-favorites “Love Life” and “Legendary,” and to continue bringing incredible stories to our platform such as “Expecting Amy,” “On the Trail,” the “Friends” reunion special, and, of course in 2021, the long-awaited Snyder Cut (director Zack Snyder’s cut of the 2017 superhero film Justice League).
Andrea Downing, Co-President, PBS Distribution: I started my career in manufacturing after I graduated from college in the Midwest, in a picture frame factory. I have always said yes when asked to take on new projects or tasks, and the more that I successfully managed, the more senior my position became. At some point, I realized that I wanted to be in a region where there were more of my peers, and I moved to Washington, D.C. Clearly there’s not a lot of manufacturing on the East Coast, so I started over in an entry-level position, but soon moved into a management position. A friend recommended me to someone at the Discovery Channel, a startup at the time, and while it meant taking what looked like a step backwards in terms of my role, I wanted to be in a larger, more entrepreneurial organization. I started taking on what needed to be done, and quickly became the go-to person. The decision to join Discovery led me to where I am today.
Kathleen Gallagher, EVP and Managing Director — North America, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment: I have been with Universal for almost 20 years. I have been so fortunate to have found amazing mentors and advocates in this organization who have given me opportunity and exposure. I started in this industry as a sales analyst for Kmart and Walmart. I have held many different roles in the sales and trade marketing functions that taught me the importance of being customer- and consumer-centric in everything we do. That sensibility has been incredibly helpful to me in this role as I strive to find the right balance between sales, operations and finance.
Hilary Hoffman, EVP, Global Marketing, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment: I appreciate this question, as it comes at a critical moment in time when we all should be reflecting on our own career journeys as well as those of our team members and colleagues across the industry. I believe that my path has been greatly influenced and supported by my mentors and leaders. Going forward, my goal is to heighten my focus on others in our organization, particularly those from diverse backgrounds, to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to grow, thrive and always feel supported professionally.
Cindy Holland, VP, Original Content, Netflix: I grew up in Nebraska, where the nearest arthouse cinema was about 30 miles away. I loved what I saw, though, and couldn’t wait to work in film. I moved to L.A. and worked at the Mutual Film Company and Baltimore-Spring Creek Productions, where I had a wonderful mentor in Paula Weinstein. Before Netflix, I worked at an e-commerce startup you may remember called Kozmo.com. Through that, I met Ted Sarandos, and then I joined Netflix in 2002 when we were a DVD-by-mail subscription service. From the very beginning we had the ambition to be a global entertainment company, and it’s been incredible to see that now realized all around the world.
Lexine Wong, Senior EVP, Worldwide Marketing, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment: My entire career in entertainment has been at Sony, so I’ve basically grown along with the industry from disc to digital. Prior to entertainment I had a short stint in advertising in New York. That fast-paced account management position gave me a taste of marketing brands and led me to the ever-changing world of home entertainment. I’ve enjoyed every minute of the journey — from rolling out new formats and platforms around the world, to reimagining marketing tactics, to developing and leading a team of smart, driven, creative and enthusiastic individuals. In my 20-plus years at Sony I have been continually confronted with new and different business challenges and am constantly learning. For example, when I was given the opportunity to begin supporting the television distribution business last year, I found that it was primarily a B2B marketing model. By taking a chapter from our home entertainment consumer-first marketing approach and using audience data and insights from our strategy team, we have been able to more effectively drive awareness and ratings and support our commercial teams and distribution partners.
If you had to pick one career highlight, what would it be?
Aubrey: The launch of HBO Max and the opportunity to build a streaming platform from scratch within a company that has a tremendous legacy.
Kelly Campbell, President, Hulu: Joining the team at Hulu — and now Disney — has been the biggest highlight of my career. Having the opportunity to work with so many brilliant, creative people who are genuinely passionate about having a positive impact on our viewers and communities has been life-changing, and I’m incredibly grateful for that. I firmly believe that this is the most exciting place to be in this industry right now.
Agnes Chu, SVP, Content, Disney+: In my 13 years at Disney, I’ve been incredibly blessed to have had two epic professional adventures with teams that have transformed our company in significant ways. During my time as [former CEO] Bob Iger’s chief of staff, the company was building Shanghai Disney Resort. My grandparents are from Shanghai, so it was especially meaningful to be part of planning its grand opening. It was such a gift to have watched Imagineers transform farm land into a truly fantastical and breathtaking park with thousands of fans lining up on opening day. And, of course, the launch of Disney+. This team really knows no bounds in terms of their creativity, inventiveness and tirelessness. So many talented people from across the Walt Disney Company collaborated to make the launch a success. It’s awe-inspiring and gratifying to wake up every day and get to work with some of the most gifted storytellers in the world.
Downing: Being recruited and hired to work at PBS as a vice president, particularly when I did not have a lot of experience in what I was being tasked to do. But the woman who recruited me had been my boss at Discovery and knew my track record. The trust that she placed in me to get the job done set me on the path to my current role at PBSd.
Holland: Sharing “Orange Is the New Black” with the world over its seven seasons was an unforgettable experience.
Dametra Johnson-Marletti, GM, Digital Store Category Management, Microsoft Corp.: I consider myself to have been extremely blessed in my career. I have had many great experiences over the years. As I look back over my entire career, I have to say landing at the company where I have spent two-thirds of my career to date, has not only been a huge highlight, but being at Microsoft has positioned me to realize many great benefits, highlights and unique experiences several times over. Whether landing in my current role focused on digital entertainment and content, or working with our partners across the industry or traveling the different parts of the world to help drive impact for the company, the decision to come to Microsoft has been the foundational highlight that has led to so many others.
Amy Jo Smith, President and CEO, DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group: My most memorable career stop was my brief tenure at the White House. One of my duties was to take VIP guests of the Oval Office around the White House. I had the great opportunity to meet the children and grandchildren of Presidents Eisenhower, Ford and Carter. One of my most interesting walks around the White House was with Ambassador Shirley Temple Black, who had many fantastic stories to share during both her stints as ambassador.
What was the toughest decision you’ve ever made?
Aubrey: To leave the security of being a practicing attorney to start my career as a producer.
Chu: This job is full of tough decisions. My advice on this is to confront them with heart and strength of conviction, and be open-minded and fair.
Downing: The first time I was faced with the challenge of having to let go of team members, some of whom were more senior than me. It was the right decision for the business, and a learning curve in terms of making the decision and implementing the plan. It is never easy to do, but I think the first time is by far the hardest.
Johnson-Marletti: I think issues and decisions related to people are by far some of the most difficult decisions that leaders must contend with at work. Decisions that have involved removing people from their positions are always challenging. As a leader you balance being a steward of the company, a coach for your team, and an attractor and developer of talent — yet for any number of reasons, sometimes a change is required. As a leader you own that, implement it with empathy and grace, with the understanding that you are dealing with a person’s life and livelihood. All of these factors make such decisions extremely challenging.