Between 12 years at 20th Century Fox and her current position as the executive vice president of drama development at NBC, Lisa Katz, Trinity ‘95, has overseen the development of numerous hit TV shows, including “Bones,” “Empire” and “This Is Us.” Ahead of her keynote appearance Friday at DEMAN Arts & Media Weekend, Recess got on the phone with Katz to talk about her career and breaking into the entertainment world. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Chronicle: I wanted to begin by talking about your time at Duke as an undergrad. What was your involvement in arts and media while you were an undergrad?
Lisa Katz: Very little. [Laughs] … All of the extracurricular activities that I did — I did a work-study at sports information in the athletics department, I did some writing for the basketball guys and things like that, I did some community service — but I was not involved in any arts or entertainment at Duke.
TC: So what was the path that led you to get into that career?
LK: It’s not super glamorous. I’m from Los Angeles originally, so when I graduated from Duke and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next, I moved home because — you know, I needed a place to live — and started looking for some entry-level jobs in the entertainment business because I thought if you’re going to do something entry-level, that would be more interesting than maybe working in retail or something while I figured out what I ultimately wanted to do. I should also mention I was an English major, so I loved to read and I loved stories, but I didn’t really come back with a plan to work in entertainment, and I got an entry-level job at a talent and literary agency, and eventually made my way to a television agent’s desk — they represented writers and directors for television. And so I just got in there and worked my way up. So once I got in there, I’m like, “Oh, I kind of like this!” You get to read material, and you get to submit people for projects and it felt like something I would be interested in. So I fell into it a bit, and once I realized it was something I was interested in, then I pursued it.
TC: Now we have these resources like DEMAN Weekend for people who are interested in arts or entertainment, but when you were a student did you feel like there was a lot of institutional support when it came to arts or creative careers?
LK: You know, I didn’t really seek it out, so it feels like it wouldn’t be fair to say yes or no. I wasn’t really looking for it. I think, had there been a DEMAN Weekend, I would have checked it out and been like, “Oh, what’s that about?” And maybe that would have shown me some different opportunities and sparked some interest. But I wasn’t really looking for it, so I don’t know if I missed it. I feel like if it had been there perhaps it would’ve sparked something, but since it wasn’t I didn’t really notice it wasn’t there.
TC: You’ve worked on a number of series, including “The Sopranos” early on in your career, “Empire” and, most recently, “This Is Us.” Is there a particular project that you’ve enjoyed the most?
LK: I think “This Is Us” has been the most satisfying for a couple reasons. Sometimes you work on shows that aren’t necessarily your sensibility, but there’s things you believe in and you think there’s an audience for, but “This Is Us” is the kind of show I would watch if I didn’t work on it. Also, I worked on “This Is Us” when I worked at 20th Century Fox, where I worked for 12 years prior to coming to NBC. So I worked on it on the studio side, we shot the pilot, it was ordered to series, and shortly thereafter I came to NBC, and I got to work on it from the network side. So being able to work on it from both sides was really interesting and really satisfying.
TC: What would be your advice to a Duke student who might be considering going into the arts, media or entertainment world?
LK: My advice would be to just expose yourself to as many opportunities as possible and get a sense of the different jobs that are out there. I didn’t know my job was a job when I was in college. I don’t know how I thought TV got made, but it never occurred to me that there was, like, people whose sole job was to buy and develop projects that ultimately become the shows. I don’t really think I gave it any thought. … For me, I just loved reading, so when I started and I took that entry-level job, there was the talent side, which was working with actors and actresses, and then there was the literary side, which was working with writers and directors, and so I knew enough to go into that side. So I think learning as much as you can about what’s out there, and figuring out [that] what you don’t want to do is just as important as what you do want to do, and just getting your foot in the door in one of those opportunities and working as hard as you can. Because I feel like there’s no grad school for what we do — I mean, people do go to film school — but for my job I don’t feel like anything other than on-the-job experience was necessary. And just by working really hard and being really persistent and making the most of all the opportunities is how I got here. In some ways I feel like anybody can do it, you just have to find the right situation and work really, really hard.
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