Be Involved. Get Involved.: Video Transcript

Antonia 'Toni' Ellis (Mass Communication major, Miami, 1985) [television and film producer]: I was growing up in Ohio; I knew of Miami and they had a great reputation and I had applied here in the music department for classical piano and I got a scholarship. So I originally came here to study piano and then switched my major to 'Mass COM' [Mass Communication] — TV, radio. I knew I wanted to come for music because of the scholarship. However, after the first year I switched majors. I got involved in Concert Board and that got me intrigued in to TV/radio production.

The person who had the most impact on me — the professor — is Dr. Howard Kleiman in 'Mass COM' and we still are in touch today. When I was a DreamWorks executive, we needed footage for Aaron Sorkin's TV show and I called him to get footage from Miami from the department for hockey to put on TV as playback for a show called Sports Night. And we stayed in touch throughout when I was on Sex and the City; I had called him as well for some footage and have come back, several times, to speak…and luckily it was one of those occasions…and Dr. [Robert Allen] Vogel also.

I'm in entertainment and Miami was the first exposure I had to the entertainment business, having been on Concert Board. And there was a subdivision of Concert Board called Tech Board whereby we would bring in artists who performed. For example, we had Bob Hope when I was here…Talking Heads and several other big bands…and it was the most extraordinary experience for me.

So, on the weekends I had also worked with these concert promoters that I had met through Miami and I actually was able to get paid jobs. And I would do part-time work as a production assistant and from there it launched my career in entertainment. And the blending of music and film and television was my entrée.

The most rewarding and exciting aspect of my work is seeing a project from its inception to the actual screen ... and the collaboration within that, that takes hundreds of people to get from start to finish. And I think I learned a lot of that from Miami, having to work with students, and working on projects here when I was an undergrad.

The best advice I would give students coming to Miami is to be involved, get involved. And this is the reason I'm in the entertainment business is because of what Miami had to offer on Concert Board, for me. And also to collaborate with your students and work on as many projects as possible. And also try to find internships for that passion that one would have.

I had an internship prior to getting into my career through Miami of Ohio, in Cincinnati at a place called Instant Replay that Dr. Kleiman had actually introduced me to. And it was very instrumental in learning about the business; we did car commercials. So between that and also being involved at the university level on Concert Board with the music production, I think it prepared me very well for what I was in store for, even though I didn't know what was going to happen to my career.

In ten years, I would hope to be writing and producing my own projects — for TV and film.

Being a producer for Sex and the City was truly extraordinary looking back on it. At the time one takes a project…you know, I packed my bags for 6 months to move to New York City from Los Angeles…and it's just like any other project. You hope it goes well; you don't know much about it. I mean it had been on already for one season; I came on second season. And, lo and behold, 5 years later. You pack your bags for 6 months; I was there for 5 years…in New York. It was truly wonderful.

The city itself was one of the characters of the show — Sex and the City — so there are 4 girls and the city. And we filmed all over Manhattan. It was very exciting at the time. It was one of the first television shows in Manhattan. Then the tax rebates started and a lot more TV shows started coming into the city.

The most rewarding part of working on Sex and the City was the collaboration. It takes a lot of producers, a lot of writers, a lot of directors…you know, people doing craft service on the set. I mean it just takes an extraordinary amount of teamwork and I love that.

The life skills I learned at Miami absolutely helped me later in life — both professionally and personally — with teamwork, collaboration, having to work together.

The best words of advice I have received: Always to be honest; maintain an extraordinary work ethic and I've always tried hard to do that.

In ten years, I'd like to see myself writing and producing projects that I've actually created myself. I've worked on tons of different projects that people…other people, other producers have created. But things that are socially important to me and that would give impact to the world…I know it sounds idealistic but it's something that would mean a lot to me, even if it's just to make someone smile. So that's one thing.

Additionally, I had taught last year; I was a full-time professor and producer in residence at the University of Arizona and it was my first teaching job and it was a full-time job…while I was also producing. I would love to see myself in a college setting again as a full-time professor or teach classes along the way. I love giving back to students and imparting any stories that I had. If it helps one person, that would be very rewarding for me.

An example of a project that I would love to get made, and it's going to be my goal this year and next year, is a screenplay that I wrote — and I started in 1995 actually — called My Clara. It's the story about Clara Schumann who was one of the world's greatest pianists in the 19th century in Germany. She was basically like the Madonna of her day. I was very close to getting it made and financing it myself. I had taken a year off; I sold a house in Santa Monica to finance it. So a $100,000 later and many trips to Germany on location scouts and I, at one point, had some big name actors attached who fell through and then my financing fell through. So I put it in a drawer; I was so depressed.

This was right after Sex and the City; I had taken that year off to get this made, my passion project. I'm going to take it out of the drawer again. I had gotten my masters at Harvard in 2008 — later in life — so I appreciated that education. And I had also taken the screenplay out of the drawer to rewrite it as my thesis project. So it is something that I'm very passionate about; it has great messages and I'd like to see that happen…within 10 years, for sure.

The best advice I can give a student who wants to pursue the entertainment business is again…The best advice I can give any student who wants to pursue a career in the entertainment business is to network — look at the people around you who may have contacts to the entertainment industry — as well as intern. And I can't stress interning enough. I do believe if one wants to work in the entertainment business…interning locally, to start with, that's fantastic. But, really, to be in Los Angeles or New York or London or Vancouver — one of the big cities where you're exposed to that on a daily basis is very important because you just don't know the happenstance, the people you're going to meet. And it's really about the people in your circle that help propel a person in this business and the loyalty and the teamwork that it takes.

I think one of the reasons I want to give back to students and teach and mentor and help place students in internships is because I was lucky enough to have found a mentor. And by saying 'found', I think they always say that, "The teacher finds you; you don't seek the teacher." Barry Jossen was working at Lucasfilm; he's one of a very dear friend and mentor to me. Joe Roth also was a mentor; I moved to Los Angeles to work as his assistant when he became chairman of Fox Film Corporation in 1989. Then, a few years later, Barry Jossen — as I said, at Lucasfilm — hired me and he's the one who recommended me to CBS for one of my first producing jobs. And I had taken time off to write a screenplay about Clara Schumann…about 6 months and I was running out of money and he called me up and said, "There's a new studio called DreamWorks; would you like to work at DreamWorks as an executive?" And he hired me as a head of post-production and I also was a production executive and also produced one of our pilots for ABC.

Barry now is in a very high position at ABC and I respect him tremendously; I learned a lot from him. But there have been a lot of people along the way that I've stayed in contact with. Michael Roush is one with the show we're on 'Royal Pains' where I'm a producer now. So I find that I don't think I've ever gotten a job by applying, you know, to an ad. It's all about the people you know and your circle. And being a freelance producer — when I wasn't an executive after DreamWorks — being a freelance producer, it's fantastic to work with the same people again and again because, you know, their pattern of working. There's something really great to grow with the same people and being loyal is a fantastic quality.

It was so great. DreamWorks — it was 1995 — and, at the time DreamWorks was starting their studio. There were no titles. I say what I did but we had business cards without titles and that was for a reason, from Katzenberg, Spielberg. And I'd be at meetings with Jeffrey Katzenberg on Monday morning at 8 o'clock with his Diet Coke and Spielberg would come in sometimes…I was 30, 31 and, looking back it was such an extraordinary place to be. You know, at the time, you kind of take it for granted, but implementing studio policy, doing TV shows — Sex and the City was being launched in New York — and it was just truly wonderful; I learned so much.

[April 2013]