Meet the woman leading the charge for female empowerment on screen at Universal Cable Productions and Wilshire Studios: Dawn Olmstead, Executive Vice President of Development. In an exclusive interview, Dawn Olmstead talked about the cutting-edge effort to develop television shows that will not only engage and appeal to women, but television shows that also exemplify what women are in today’s world and in the future — from MR. ROBOT to 12MONKEYS to FALLING WATER to THE MAGICIANS and more.
Let’s talk about the incredibly diverse and empowered women in MR. ROBOT. How did that all come about?
DAWN: They deserved their own path. The characters and their stories this season really deserved to be given some spotlight because they’re carrying so much of the story in really unique, authentic, empowered ways that I’m so glad that they put it together.
It’s true. It’s nice to put a big spotlight on that because they are the backbone of the show and we don’t even realize it because Eliot (Rami Malek) is all over the place.
DAWN: He’s all over the place and the world has fallen in love with Eliot [Rami Malek] and the world has always been in love with Christian [Slater]. So even just them as actors and beyond the storyline where they fall I think it’s easy to get overshadowed. Although those are hard girls to overshadow. They are all so strong and amazing and I love that clip of Portia [Doubleday].
It’s nice that in Season 2, the show actually stepped that up a notch for them.
DAWN: Totally. And it just gets better.
I noticed that with a lot of the shows — that really, in the last year — they have stepped up the female presence in characters. And frankly that’s wonderful.
DAWN: Absolutely. The storylines are not gender specific, but they have ambitions and refuse to be victimized and try to make the most. And they’re all given such big tasks that are above their age or their place in whatever society or whatever job that they have. And they’re rising to the occasion with like peril on every corner and it’s great to see that with female characters.
They’re underrated and under-estimated.
DAWN: Yeah, they’re not being saved. They are saving themselves.
And they’re actually defining Eliot’s life.
Which is excellent. It’s interesting.
DAWN: Yeah, really.
I’m a fan of science fiction and I like strong dramas. So it’s nice to see that we’re seeing stronger female roles in those areas.
DAWN: Yeah. Like Marvel and what they are doing with Black Widow.
Exactly. They needed to spotlight her. So tell me a little bit about your job. I’m really curious about developing TV shows. How do you choose your products? Are you pitched projects or do they get assigned to you?
DAWN: We mainly choose our projects and we go in development and then sell it everywhere. But we have these amazing networks, like our sister networks. So a lot of the stuff we curate is because we know what they’re looking for. We always have an inside view of what they made, how we can get it in there, how we can get it made. And we always have a lot more control when we do something for our networks, because it’s a team. We’re like sisters and brothers. But we just have our gut and what we think our main line is: it has to be searchable. I’m always saying to the team: if you can’t imagine someone typing it into that little box and then hitting search, then we don’t have a show and we shouldn’t be pursuing it. Because it’s one thing to get shows on the air, but it’s another thing to make shows that have an imprint that change views or change perception.
Is Universal actually trying to emphasize shows with stronger women roles now?
DAWN: Yes. I mean, I have always. I am a woman who deeply watches television and the better the female roles, the more I’m enjoying it. And I think that it’s just a natural process of who we are in business with. Like when we hear a pitch and when they talk and how they’re talking about women — there’s a lot of female execs on my team — I think their hair stands up on the back of their necks if that is missing. So we try to redirect it, and if we can’t redirect, a lot of times we’ll pass or we will just know that it’s not saying the right thing. We love men too. But you don’t have to worry about the point of view of the male characters. Usually, that’s a little bit more buttoned up. But also, by bringing in authentic female voices too — both in front of the camera or behind the camera — we know who we are as people and we want to make sure it’s reflected on the screen too.
As an example, we’ll start with MR. ROBOT. It didn’t come across clearly, initially, that it would have such strong female characters. It developed them, for sure. So when you hear the pitch, how do know whether there will be strong female characters that will be developed later?
DAWN: That was a script that we read and the way that you address female characters is, usually when you really like something, you can really encourage the writer to sort of go more into that — like telling them what I love about women, as a character, or letting them know: “You really don’t realize this person is just being saved all the time and they’re coming in and they’re very passive at the scene” — and you try to help that. So with MR. ROBOT, the first thing was that it was a great script. That really isn’t something that you’re looking for and you know it isn’t something that is going to be easy to champion and get up the ranks, but you just know in your gut that it’s an awesome script. I’d never met [Sam Esmail] before. I’d never heard of him, but we took the meeting at the same time. The studio and network read it at the same time and we’re all sort of like in the hallways going like: “Did you read that script?” That was really it. Like, “you had me at hello.” Then meeting Sam and realizing that this was such a well thought out thing. So we can’t take any credit for the great female characters because he naturally has empathy for all walks of life. I think the more disenfranchised they are, the more he has empathy and an eye on it and women are just in that realm. It made me see what he’s done for like Muslims or African Americans or you name it. There’s a moment for each of them where he is saying, “I want to let you truly be you in this scene” and not cut away and start the scene later. So MR. ROBOT was an easy one when it comes to female characters because Sam naturally loves anybody that feels slightly disenfranchised. He likes to surprise people. I love that he really likes to write about young people who are taking on way bigger causes and problems and structures, because I think that’s a lot of times there is mopey 20-somethings and these characters are bold. They’re worthy. He empowers them.
Like Eliot’s therapist Krista (Gloria Reuben) not wanting to be a victim. You could sense that she didn’t want to be rescued by him.
DAWN: Angela [Portia Doubleday] even says that in that boardroom scene: “Don’t do that.” She’s saying, “I don’t need to be saved” and “I can fall and make mistakes and I will be okay.”
That’s what was so interesting about that world. I also noticed it in Syfy‘s 12 MONKEYS. I noticed that the female characters, who seemed like they needed a little rescuing in the first season, in the next season how the show blew the lid off that idea and let the women take charge. I was really impressed by that. It was like, “Wow. There’s a determined effort to make women be their own heroes.” Another recent show that exhibits that is FALLING WATER. It’s also female-empowering.
DAWN: Totally. Lizzie [Brochere] kicks-ass in this first season.
Yeah. I can see she does not need rescued by anybody.
DAWN: Right. And she’s willing to go against authority, even in those like small scenes where she’s like: “No, I don’t need you. I know who I am and I’m sure in that.” It is sort of haunting that she’s like, “No matter how many times people tell me that what I’m feeling is wrong and crazy,” which is another thing society has always done to women — tell them that they are mentally unstable — and she’s literally being told that as a character and refuses to give up.
It also doesn’t compromise her at all. She still goes out in the world and does her job and she’s great at it. She is not derailed by her trauma and loss.
DAWN: Right. And she’s not apologizing for being great at it.
She’s driven by the loss of her child, but at the same time, she is still very successful in her career.
DAWN: Totally. So many times women/female characters, they’ll be like on the brink of success and get waylaid by personal issues. Neither of these shows does that. You can do both at the same time.
I’m curious. I watched the first episode for the new series INCORPORATED. Is that one of your shows?
DAWN: Yeah. That was a co-production with us.
INCORPORATED struck me on an off-note as it did not seem as female-empowering. What inspired you to want to pick up a show like that?
DAWN: Well, you’ll see. Julia Ormond is very empowered in her role. And you will see that the girl that [the main character] is in search of has made her own choices which will cause him to question everything he thought he knew. So we get there. It’s not like he’s going to come to her rescue. He’s going to have to come to terms with: “Wait, this was not a girl that’s asking to be rescued” and she set some of this up for herself. It’s the twist that you wouldn’t be expecting but it’s coming. When we go more toward the bigger saga, I think that that’s going to be part of it.
In the last year, Syfy’s 12 MONKEYS, KILLJOYS, DARK MATTER, and THE EXPANSE all allowed female characters to stand pretty equally on their own fairly quickly. I was impressed by that and I thought: “Okay, someone’s made a concentrated effort somewhere on management scale to get projects where women are at the forefront in the action and making stronger decisions.” Nobody was coming to their rescue. And that’s actually really encouraging.
DAWN: That’s always one of the things. Sci-fi is going through a big change and I learned that it used to have a rule that sci-fi characters don’t kiss, and I’m like, “What sci-fi have you been reading or watching throughout your lives?” Like it’s humanity. We kick-ass; we do things. We fall in love and we have children and we have brothers and sisters. But it was interesting that there wasn’t a lot of females saying that and, thankfully, that’s all changing. And part of that has been changing in the last couple of years. And the female characters in THE MAGICIANS kick-ass too.
They’re slightly terrifying!
DAWN: Yeah, slightly terrifying — and they don’t take “no” for an answer.
I mean the female characters in THE MAGICIANS really scare me. They are that strong — and everybody stands back and lets them.
DAWN: They have their own goals and it is not about being part of someone else’s plan or being dragged into a plan in a male situation.
Maybe we can talk about some of the development ideas. You must be getting pitched all the time. How do you sense if something’s going to be good fit either one of your television brands?
DAWN: Well, we don’t really look at it just for our brands because, again, as a studio, we can sell anywhere. So we try not to even think about where it might wind up. We just try to say: “In and of itself, is it a very special, authentic thing?” Like we try to give no notes and no direction that would lead it toward a specific network. Because I think once you start meddling – I’m talking about before we even sell it – once you start meddling, and I think in today’s world, the more authentic you can be, the more real it can be tied to a unique point of view or visualization, the more likely it will be able to sort of stand out from the pack. The minute you start saying, “Well, you know, don’t forget: it’s got light stuff, so let’s make sure we put some light stuff in there” or “sci-fi stuff really has to be gack heavy and tech.” And if that wasn’t part of a natural vision, the more it gets watered-down — ultimately, you can fail that way. Like the reaction with MR. ROBOT. It’s not like any hacker stories that have been told before. And it’s not like everybody was out there saying, “I want to do a hacker thing.” In fact, there were some people who were like, “well, what about SCORPION?” And those two worlds couldn’t be more different — the points of view on hacking and who is the audience that they’re going for — the fact is they can exist in the same realm because I don’t watch SCORPION, but I know that MR. ROBOT can stand on its own. It’s not about hacking. It’s about this hacker, who wants to save the world, and hacking is his superpower to do it. It’s because of backstory, and also because of his ability and what he sees going on in the world. He has a sensitivity that can’t be ignored.
You really cannot compare the two shows.
DAWN: No, but at the beginning people did. Not critic-wise but, internally, everybody worries. It’s about the concept view and how do we cut through the rest and how are we presenting the show out in the marketplace. So I think what we always try to do is say: “let it stay pure and try to protect it as much as possible.” We only get attracted to things that don’t feel that they are chasing any sort of phenomenon that’s going on out there, but try to be the vanguard and try to find things that great and not boring. Like, I don’t care if people don’t buy our shows. Just, god forbid, we’re boring. It’s that gut instinct. There’s a specificity in the way that they’re telling their story. The other thing is, hopefully, you’re seeing it in things like FALLING WATER. We are always telling to our team this is a visual medium and we need to care about everything. That this is an art form; otherwise, these writers shouldn’t have written it. We want to play in that space. We want to “wow” people with the full frame and not just being get inside it. Everybody is on guard, so we are very careful with who we allow to do production design or who’s even casting the extras. It’s all important because it’s a visual medium. I think television for a long time — and hopefully I always cared about it — but certainly you could look at a lot of television and they just don’t care about it. They were cranking it out, and compromising their vision. But it’s a visual medium.
That’s true. I mean that’s why I like FALLING WATER so much. It’s visually like a painting and that’s fascinating to watch.
DAWN: Yes. And Universal knows that. Like you could go to “The Revenant.” It’s not the greatest story ever told, but there’s a scale and cinematography and it awes you in a way. That is almost going back to Walt Disney, who knew that with “The Sorcerer Apprentice.” It was just visually a spectacle like that’s about the experience of a lifetime.
That’s interesting because in television you don’t always have the time or the scale of budget to actually allow for incredible visuals like that. But it seems like we are finally seeing it.
DAWN: We’re constantly saying – and thankfully it paid off on 12 MONKEYS and THE EXPANSE — hopefully, it pays off with MR. ROBOT and I think the world is really responding really well to FALLING WATER. Internationally, FALLING WATER is launching well. We know the territories that will buy it and want it, and it is exceeding all of our expectations. Part of it is this premium, visual feast — that they are going to give their individual audiences something special.
When you get into a project and you start to sense that maybe it’s not living up to what you thought it initially would do you scrap it or do you keep trying to rehabilitate it and bring it forward?
DAWN: It depends if it’s worth fighting for. There are some things that we know – I mean there’s a project that we just greenlit that we kept pushing the creator. It’s a period piece, but it’s very specific. It’s called THE TAP and it’s set in 1969 at Yale, but sort of through the CIA and “Skull and Bones.” It’s the first year that Yale let in women. But it’s also about to be the Summer of Love and there’s the Black Panthers. We felt like it’s such great timing with what’s going on in the world with feminism and Black Lives Matter, and activism in general and young people being more active. And this is their story. In some of the stuff we were like: “This was an amazing time for wardrobe and music and people from all walks of the art life, who are getting involved in activism.” So we kept pushing and delaying that pick-up until we got that script right and pushed the creators to sort of like dig deeper and go further and get more intellectual about it. And television used to not say that.
No, they’d say, “Get it to us right away.”
DAWN: Yeah, “make it more consumable.” And so we delayed and now we just picked it up because we finally got it right. We are always fine tuning and saying, “let’s elevate, elevate, elevate” and we’ll wait until we do, if we believe in the project. If we don’t believe that people can get us there, if you have great concept but it’s not going to get there, we don’t want to put on just any show anymore. We’re not always going to get a hit, but we try aiming for it. Someone on the team has to believe it can get there or else why are we picking it up.
Because it does feel like, particularly for USA Network and for Syfy that both have raised the bar. They’re no longer satisfied to say, “we’re just going to put these kinds of shows on the air.” So it’s like, “whoa, you changed your entire brand” and the quality is so much better.
DAWN: Like on THE MAGICIANS. We fought hard to get Mike Cahill to be approved as the director. He’s the coolest thing that’s happening in sci-fi in a non- J.J. Abrams way from ‘Another Earth’ and ‘I Origins.’ He made these amazing concepts with no money and no studio intervention, which is scary for a network to hire a director that’s never worked inside a system before. He’d never worked inside a movie studio system. He’s only worked in his little indie niche. But it paid off for them and that’s why I think Bill [McGoldrick] has been a great partner for me because he’s like, “Alright, let’s take a chance.” But a lot of people wouldn’t have said that and he was like, “Don’t fuck it up.” And because that worked so well, there’s a modernism to that piece — especially that pilot that he directed — so when we picked up CHANNEL ZERO, we gave it two seasons with six episodes each, and we’re doing all six episodes all at once, so it matched the tone. When they gave the presentations, I think they were even like, “You’re really giving me these six episode?!” And again, we did it in the room without even like conferring with each other. Bill would look at me and we’re like, “Let’s do it. Let’s take a chance.”
Was this like a subtle change/shift or did you guys actually have a strategy?
DAWN: I think it was a subtle. I think there was a trust and a reminder like, “You guys want to do this and maybe this is the path to do it.” Like, “Let’s not get those guys that you’re comfortable with that already did four shows with you. We might just get a lot more of the same. Let’s bring in fresh voices who have never done television before.”
You are creating kind of a tapestry of visual and creative art. Like network brands want to actually create something that people want to stick in a museum.
DAWN: Totally. We’re looking at like a library and I think, hopefully one day especially on the studio side, people will look at UCP’s library and be like that was some cool shows. You could tell that there was a curation going on whether it was a sci-fi show or something else.
It’s almost like you put it in a memo that said: “I want these scenes every single one to look like something I’d see in a movie theater. If you’re not giving it to me like that, don’t give it to me.”
DAWN: Exactly. Is it art or is it not? And that’s the way we look when we’re judging when we’re sitting down with directors and evaluating what we are going to give it to them. Juan Carlos [Fresnadillo] on FALLING WATER. We were obsessed: Kate and I, with INACTO. And now we finally have the rights to it. We met him and we joke that we begged him to do FALLING WATER only so that we’d get INACTO. And then he exceeded our expectations and we are getting INACTO.
Maybe you could just talk about where you want to go now. If you are creating a museum or tapestry of art for television, what would be the next piece to add?
DAWN: I don’t know if there’s like a next piece, but we just got another bunch picked up and we’re going to pick up more. I think we want to be in every genre and have it all make sense that it all came from us. I think we really wanted to continue to work with innovative voices and then give them the latitude and to be able yo point everybody in a direction. Like letting Sam direct all episodes of MR. ROBOT. It is breaking rules, but not for the sake of breaking rules. I think, for me, the next thing is to sort of do that same thing for non-scripted shows because we took over Wilshire Studios, which brings in really high calibre of filmmakers. Why does it have to be a movie for Scheel and Evans or only for the Oscar. Like, can you envision a series or a docu-series? I’m really excited about the non-scripted genre too. That’s sort of what I want to do: to do what we did in scripted in non-scripted television.
Sounds like you are really giving Netflix a run for their money.
DAWN: Yes. And if they want, to buy it or not. Usually they wind up bidding on our stuff. I love what they are doing. I mean STRANGER THINGS is awesome.
Netflix raised the bar a bit because they started dabbling in so many different entertainment areas rapidly.
DAWN: And they don’t say: “We are this.” They just say, “We are good.”
They just want something they like.
So it seems like that’s kind of what you are doing too.
DAWN: Yeah, we like all forms. We just want when we do it to be specific and authentic and with something special. We just want to keep charging ahead and not fall.
It’s an exciting, rich time in television.
DAWN: [Laughs] I’ve heard a lot of other people say too — that there’s a lot of good stuff right now.
Empowerment for women and content creators is riding a tremendous wave right now and, for those along for the ride, it is glorious. For viewers, it is an extraordinary time to savor such a remarkable palate of televisions shows — and if Dawn has her way, there will be a lot more to enjoy for years to come. (MR. ROBOT currently airs Wednesday nights at 9:00 p.m. on USA Network and FALLING WATER premieres October 13, 2016 on USA Network. Then this Fall on Syfy, VAN HELSING premieres September 23, 2016, CHANNEL ZERO: CANDLE COVE premieres September 27, 2016 , AFTERMATH premieres September 27, 2016 and INCORPORATED premieres November 30, 2016.)