Jun 26, 2021

By Kelby Clark
Internal partnerships make external partnerships a reality, according to the studio’s team of veteran television executives.

Great TV starts with a great studio.

Under President Nicole Clemens’ leadership, Paramount Television Studios has created some of the most talked-about original series of the last two years. The secret to their success has been a collaborative internal culture, with development, casting, and current programming moving together every step of the way.

“By the time we’re ready to present a project to the town, a lot of different departments have put their specialized knowledge into how we are going to bring a new series to life,” says Jenna Santoianni, EVP of television series and head of development at Paramount Television Studios. “It’s gotten more series orders, rather than a development situation or a pilot order.”

Santoianni, who previously headed up development and production at Sonar Entertainment, started at the studio a little over two years ago, on the same day as colleague Cheryl Bosnak, EVP and head of current programming. Veteran casting executive and the studio’s EVP of casting Deborah Aquila joined in May 2020, rounding out a mostly female senior leadership team.

“When I took over running the studio nearly three years ago, my first priority was making sure we had the right players on the field,” explains Clemens. “From Jenna, Cheryl, Deb, and the rest of our team, everyone’s been committed to developing and supporting our creators and being great partners to our distributors, which is how we’ve reached 23 shows on air, ordered, or in production. It solidified our position as a destination for talent and a trusted supplier of content in this increasingly competitive landscape.”

Breaking Down Silos, Building Team Synergy

A corporate retreat the entire studio team took in January 2020 was the kick-off to their current way of working. Every employee got the opportunity to fully understand what their colleagues’ roles were. Now, the teams copy each other on emails, read the same books and scripts, and watch the same shows to ensure they’re all in agreement about which projects they want to pursue.

“We're not a factory,” explains Santoianni. “We don't just throw anything we can at the wall and see if it's going to stick as a television show. All our series start with an amazing idea that you can't get out of your head. Once we have that, we’re all working to put the pieces together, until everything fits just right.”

Santoianni, Bosnak, Aquila, and their teams strategize with the production, business affairs, and the creative departments, all while working to build and then maintain the studio’s relationships with talent. From the early phases of development to production, the group’s strategic approach involves working closely with creators.

“That’s one of the things that makes us different from a lot of other studios: we really believe in internal development,” says Sanntoianni. “We’re willing to finance the development of a script ahead of time, and just work on it in-house, fostering a creative process where there’s not a lot of cooks in the kitchen.”

"WE’RE CONSTANTLY ASKING OURSELVES HOW WE CAN ELEVATE OUR CONTENT TO CUT THROUGH THE NOISE."

Deborah Aquila

EVP of casting

Currently, the studio is bolstering the slate for ViacomCBS’ newly-launched streaming service, Paramount+, with series such as The Offer, which tells the story of the making of The Godfather. The series, starring Miles Teller, currently has a 10-episode commitment and is about to start production, with Dexter Fletcher directing and serving as executive producer. Also in development are Grease: Rise of the Pink LadiesItalian JobFlashdanceFatal Attraction, and Love Story, a series based on the award-winning film, from Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, the executive producers of Gossip Girl. The studio also sells to ViacomCBS-branded streamers BET+, and Showtime OTT, the latter of which just picked up American Gigolo, with David Hollander adapting the classic film and Jon Bernthal starring.

“As a group, we’re constantly asking ourselves how we can elevate our content to cut through the noise,” says Aquila. “Much of those conversations revolve around the amazing creators and artists with whom we partner.”

Managing long-term relationships with talent is crucial to the studio’s success, Bosnak says, and that’s why working so closely with the other departments matters.
“It’s difficult to work closely on a script or an idea with a creator, to the point where it’s ready to go into series, while also managing a number of ongoing series. “Managing is a full-time job itself,” she explains.

“That’s why it’s smart to split the two. Our development team can really get in there and get the show ready and going. Then, it’s a very gentle handoff to the current programming department.”

Adapting to Stay Competitive

The pandemic changed the way the team worked in the last year, Santoianni says, with writers having more time to write in lockdown, every script that they were waiting for came in. The team was busy reading new material, meeting with talent, and selling shows over Zoom while working remotely.

"We're not a factory. We don't just throw anything we can at the wall and see if it's going to stick as a television show."

Jenna Santoianni

EVP of television series and head of development

“The bar became even higher for the buyers in terms of what they were willing to buy,” says Santoianni. “The scripts and the production plan had to be undeniable, and we had to be able to explain how we were going to keep everyone safe.”

Aquila says herself, and her casting team had to get used to doing casting sessions while not in the same room, which had its pros and cons.

“For me, I love being in a room with an actor because we can work the scene several times, with adjustments,” she says.

“Experiencing body language, feeling their energy in the room—I do miss that. But Zoom sessions are so interesting for a variety of reasons. You’re watching the actors in close-ups, throughout the scene. You can see character nuance in their eyes and facial expressions, their thoughts as they tell that character’s particular story.”

Now that production is up and running again, the studio is focused on pushing out new and current series that were delayed by the pandemic, while looking ahead to 2022.

“When you’re putting together a creative endeavor, problems crop up all the time… a production problem, a casting problem, a pandemic problem” explains Bosnak.

“But we’re used to adapting, so we didn’t really miss a beat. Now we’re just looking forward to all these shows coming our way. We’re so excited to be delivering to Paramount+, and I think 2022 is going to be a huge year.”

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