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September 11, 2019

The Hard Easy

Dawn Olmstead makes it look easy — greenlighting the likes of Bravo’s Dirty John and Hulu’s The Act. But this studio head looks for the heavy lift. “Once you crack something that’s really hard,” she says, “it stands out from the crowd.”

Graham Flashner
  • Yuri Hasegawa
  • Yuri Hasegawa

The first thing you notice about Dawn Olmstead's corner office at Universal Content Productions — aside from the spectacular view from the 35th floor, overlooking Universal City — is that there's no desk.

Nor is there a computer or TV. This is no accident. As a longtime producer, Olmstead became adept at conducting business from her Blackberry, and she wants writers to feel her office is a creative sanctuary, free from distractions.

"This space is about the story and the artist," she says. "Not about me or some display of other work that needs to get done beyond the show."

Olmstead was a prolific show producer until 2014, when she joined UCP as executive vice-president of development. Last October, she was named president of UCP and Wilshire Studios, thus becoming the first female head of a traditional media studio overseeing both scripted and unscripted. Yet she's quick to downplay the cultural significance of that statement.

"I'm not sure if it was a gender thing, or just the fact that there's not a ton of studios that combine both scripted and unscripted," she says.

Under Olmstead's guidance, UCP's scripted division has nearly doubled its output since 2014, becoming a thriving home for high-end content. With her left-of-center tastes and support for elevated, art-house-style TV shows, she's cultivated an indie film aesthetic within the corporate confines of NBCUniversal.

"Bonnie Hammer [the former chair of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment] always encouraged us to create a studio that was attractive to the creative community," Olmstead says. "Our executives are nontraditional in that a lot of them come from producing backgrounds, so we foster a more intimate, producer-like relationship with our creators."

At UCP, Olmstead has shepherded adventurous series such as The Sinner and Mr. Robot (both for USA Network), The Umbrella Academy (Netflix), The Act (Hulu) and two acclaimed shows adapted from high-profile podcasts, Homecoming (Amazon Prime Video) and Dirty John (Bravo).

She is also repositioning Wilshire Studios as an unscripted premium companion to UCP, partnering with top documentary filmmakers, Blumhouse Television and Oscar nominees Joe Berlinger and Amy Ziering, among others.

Olmstead, who began her producing career with the unscripted MTV show Fear, says her initial vision was that UCP would be viewed as "a place where there could be no barriers, where a writer or producer can look at the other side of the business they may not be involved in."

Showrunner Nick Antosca (Channel Zero, The Act), who's worked with Olmstead for the past 10 years, says, "Everything I've taken out [to pitch] with UCP has felt like a really cool idea I'd like to see on TV that probably no one will buy, but is the kind of thing we want to do.

"Dawn has always been supportive in terms of taking risks, and I feel that comes from her experience of being a producer and someone from the creative side."

Writer-producer-director Sam Esmail, the creator and showrunner of Mr. Robot and an executive producer of Homecoming, says, "Dawn has very eclectic tastes. I bring her projects I'm sure she's going to pass on, because they're really out there. But she always surprises me by embracing these off-the-wall ideas, to at least give them their day in the sun.

"Tonally, she has a surreal, quirky vibe that's in line with what I like to do."

Back in 2015, Esmail was a novice screenwriter in the NBCUniversal system, trying to sell an edgy spec pilot about a brilliant but antisocial "hacktivist." USA bought Mr. Robot, and both the network and UCP showed unprecedented trust by agreeing to let Esmail run the show and also direct.

"Dawn was integral in not only getting the pilot greenlit, but shepherding it to a series order," Esmail recalls. "It was a tricky script — nothing quite like it had been done before, where we were going to take the subculture of hackers extremely seriously and be very clear-eyed about it. They felt it was not only fresh and risk-taking, but worthy of the risk."

"We have a saying here: the harder, the better," Olmstead says. "Once you crack something that's really hard to crack, it usually stands out from the crowd. If something's too easy, we get a little suspect."

She was unfamiliar with Rami Malek when the actor — then a virtual unknown — came in to audition for the role of cyber-hacker Elliot. (Christian Slater plays the title role.)

"When Rami read the opening scene, you knew he was incredibly captivating," Olmstead says. "He broke your heart. It felt like he was damaged in the right way, like Elliot was, but there was a deep intelligence and a little bit of an anarchist there."

Mr. Robot transformed both Malek's and Esmail's careers. Malek won an Emmy in 2016, then rocketed to international stardom last year as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, for which he won an Oscar in February.

Esmail, who recently renewed an exclusive four-year overall deal with UCP, followed up Mr. Robot with the military-industrial thriller Homecoming, starring Julia Roberts and based on the Gimlet Media podcast by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg. (Season two will star Janelle Monáe of Moonlight and Hidden Figures.)

"A lot of people were vying for that podcast, and Sam was responsible for us winning it," Olmstead says. "We knew Julia was interested in doing the show, but mostly, she was interested in working with Sam."

Esmail was slated to direct only the pilot of Homecoming. But during a Skype chat, the mega-star of Notting Hill and Pretty Woman let Esmail know that she would come aboard only if he directed the full season, and so he did.

Olmstead calls Roberts's casting "a pivotal moment for UCP — where you realize that your whole career was spent saying, 'Okay, who's the TV version of a Julia Roberts or a Jennifer Aniston?' and then suddenly, the Julia Roberts character was being played by Julia Roberts."

Like millions of listeners, Olmstead discovered the riveting nature of serialized podcasts in 2014, when the crime story Serial turned into a cultural phenomenon. "It became as addictive and binge-worthy as any TV show I was watching," she remembers.

UCP still had to prove it could successfully adapt podcasts to television when it first won the rights to both Homecoming and Dirty John. The latter, a true story of a con man who seduces and terrorizes a successful-but-lonely businesswoman, was turned into a limited series starring Eric Bana and Connie Britton. (For season two, the series will move from Bravo to USA.)

"We had to earn it in the beginning," Olmstead says . "There was nothing to prove we could do it well and do it fast." Any doubts were dispelled when Dirty John launched in November 2018 as the most-watched scripted program in Bravo's history, earning a Golden Globe nomination for Britton as well.

Now, Olmstead says, producers are coming to her. Wondery, the podcaster behind Dirty John, gave UCP first crack at buying another chilling true tale before the podcast had even been released. Dr. Death tells the story of Texas neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch, who, according to Olmstead, "is either an extremely deadly narcissist or a serial killer."

UCP is shopping the project with Jamie Dornan (A Private War) attached to star as Duntsch; Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater will play the Woodward and Bernstein–style surgeons who set out to stop him.

Podcast adaptations have enabled Olmstead to shine a light on one of her favorite genres: true crime. Last year, UCP produced the 10-episode scripted series Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G.; Olmstead says viewers can expect more in this category.

"They are fascinating stories that are stranger than fiction," she says. "The twists and turns of real crime hit home in a deeper, more effective way because you know they happened. It gives you a deeper glimpse into what society is creating. True-crime adaptations will forever have a lane here."

If there's one arena where Olmstead wants to expand, it's elevated nonfiction stories along the lines of When They See Us ( Netflix) and Chernobyl ( HBO). "They are real stories that feel like they have a purpose — to make us better people, to look back at what's happened in our past, and see where we got it wrong and how can we get it right," she says.

UCP is moving forward on prestige projects in that vein, Olmstead says, but she's not at liberty to discuss them. She is also looking forward to exploring the giant Universal library and taking a deep dive into "a hundred years of IP [intellectual property] that Universal has. Now that TV is so premium, there's a real opportunity to do that content justice."

Born Dawn Parouse, she grew up in Brooklyn and earned a dual degree in fine arts and film at Hofstra University on Long Island. Her first industry job was as an art PA on an indie film, earning $100 a week. Walking into the production office, she felt an immediate shock of recognition. "I thought, 'these are my people.'"

While applying for film school, Olmstead landed an internship at Saturday Night Live, which led to a fulltime gig as an entry-level producer in the film unit, working on the series' famed commercial parodies. Her colleagues included rising young comedians like Chris Rock, Adam Sandler and Chris Farley. She never made it to film school.

After SNL, Olmstead took a job as a segment producer at The Jon Stewart Show. When she'd had enough of TV production in New York, it was the mid-'90s, and Olmstead yearned to go west. "I said to myself, 'I will go out to L.A. for two years, and then I'll come back.' That was 21 years ago."

Instead, Olmstead sold the paranormal reality series Fear to MTV in 2000, as that format was starting to take flight. Fear led to an overall producing deal at Fox where, as she fondly remembers, she was dependably last in the pecking order for network pilot pickups.

"The advantage of going last is that everyone has just been watching and reading more traditional stuff," she says. "We were the change of pace, the palate cleanser." During this period, Olmstead executive-produced series like True Calling, Point Pleasant and Prison Break.

"Everything I did then was preparing me for the state of TV right now. I leaned in to those shows that are harder to get bought, harder to get made, harder to get on the air."

Prison Break came with an unexpected benefit: future husband Matt Olmstead, who was the showrunner. "I wholly recommend meeting under the stressful conditions of launching a show that all eyes are on," she says, laughing. The Olmsteads are now a blended family with five children, living in L.A.'s Hancock Park.

In 2013, two of Olmstead's young daughters inspired her — along with fellow moms Karey Burke, president of ABC Entertainment, and Jenn Worley — to channel her producing skills into a side business, dubbed Face Haus.

"Karey and I said, 'Let's build it like a pilot that can go straight to series,'" Olmstead recalls. The company offers facials at seven locations in L.A., New York and Dallas; more stores are planned, as well as a product line.

On the day of this interview, Olmstead has just returned from checking on two series in production overseas. In London, she looked in on the UCP adaptation of the Aldous Huxley book Brave New World, starring Alden Ehrenreich, Jessica Brown Findlay, Harry Lloyd and Demi Moore.

Olmstead calls it "a big swing — it's set 250 years from now in New London and the savage lands. We're trying to do the book justice, but make it feel like something that could've been written today."

Her second stop was Budapest, where the Jason Bourne series Treadstone is shooting for USA and Amazon. "Being able to pull off something from the Bourne world in TV, that's something we want to get right," she says.

On the unscripted side, Olmstead is looking forward to the Blumhouse Television–Wilshire Studios production of A Wilderness of Error for FX, based on the 2012 book by Errol Morris. It reexamines the case of Jeffrey MacDonald, the Green Beret physician who was sentenced to life in prison for killing his wife and two daughters in 1970.

(The story has been told before, most notably in Joe McGinniss's 1983 true-crime novel Fatal Vision and the 1984 NBC miniseries of the same name.)

UCP has also optioned the rights to a 2017 Esquire article, "The Girl from Plainville," about Michelle Carter, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend to commit suicide; the case may be reviewed by the Supreme Court.

Erin Lee Carr, who directed HBO's documentary about the case, I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter, will serve as a consulting producer along with the author of the Esquire piece, Jesse Barron.

Meanwhile, Olmstead appears to have made a seamless adjustment from the hustle of producing to the more settled life of a studio exec.

Early on, she admits, she wondered if she'd made the right decision. "I worried if, as an executive, I would feel the pride and ownership, the connection to the material when I see it going out to the world the way I did when I was a producer. That was my main fear — but it didn't happen.

"I realized there are so many other parts of being a studio exec I could never have predicted that I'd really enjoy: the strategy, the looking at the business from a different lens… these were things I think I was craving after producing for so long. This job now sates that part of my brain."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2019

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