Minha Kim in Pachinko
Steve Carell and Jennifer Aniston in The Morning Show
The former head of drama at HBO never planned to work in television. "I was a film snob and thought a TV career would be a disaster," recalls Michael Ellenberg. Now CEO of Media Res — the studio behind HBO's Scenes from a Marriage and Apple TV+'s The Morning Show and Pachinko — Ellenberg has gone all in on television.
Born in Manhattan, he attended "film school" on the family couch, watching classics with his mom. At Dartmouth, he studied political theory and ran the film society. At graduation, his path still uncertain, he headed to NYU for law school, but had his a-ha moment while interning at a production company.
"I was getting my J.D., delivering scripts by subway and emptying the trash. They let me read scripts, and that was my entry in."
Ellenberg never took the bar exam. He moved to Los Angeles in 2000 and climbed the ranks, first at Robert Newmyer and Jeffrey Silver's Outlaw Productions, then at Scott Rudin Productions. His "big break," as he calls it, came in 2007 when he moved to Scott Free Productions as senior vice-president. "Ridley Scott transformed my understanding of how to make and deliver things — how to navigate the industry and overcome setbacks."
Determined to start his own company, Ellenberg figured he'd need "to know something about TV," so he joined HBO in 2011 as head of drama. Over the next five years, he developed hits like Game of Thrones, Big Little Lies and The Leftovers. "I was fortunate to be at HBO when the industry transformed," he says. "The risks you could take in TV series just exploded."
In 2017, Ellenberg founded Media Res, he says, to create the kinds of shows he was looking for at the cable giant. The Morning Show — now heading toward season three — earned eight Emmy nominations for its first season, and a win for supporting actor Billy Crudup. Meanwhile, Pachinko — a Korean family saga based on the bestseller of the same name — incited a bidding war. Media Res optioned the book rights in 2018; in April the series was picked up for season two.
Coming up next for Apple TV+, Ellenberg has Extrapolations, a Scott Z. Burns anthology series about climate change, and for Prime Video, I'm a Virgo, an absurdist comedy series from Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You).
"For better or worse, I'm drawn to the hard thing and the unique thing," he says. "But when I call network execs and say, 'I have a show that's in Japanese, Korean, a little bit of English,' they'll move their schedules around to see me."
Guess that TV career has worked out, after all.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #6, 2022, under the title, "Never Better."