Robert Greenblatt had two callings when he was growing up in Rockford, Ill. He was drawn to working in theater, and he dreamed of one day running a movie studio.
While other kids idolized athletes and rock stars, the future chairman of NBC Entertainment imagined himself as the next Louis B. Mayer.
Greenblatt’s early fascination with the inner workings of Hollywood proved prescient for his ultimate career path. But it was his training in theater that honed the leadership skills that allowed him to climb the executive ladder at Fox, Showtime and, since 2011, NBC. Greenblatt’s rise to the top echelon of television executives has earned him Variety’s Creative Leadership Award. He’ll receive the kudo as part of the Oct. 18 New Leaders event.
As a teenager working on high school stage productions and community theater, Greenblatt was quick to look for mentors and situations where he could make creative contributions to the larger cause.
“Being a part of a theater troupe is the same as being part of a sports team,” Greenblatt says. “It teaches you what it means to be part of a little society and to discover what your function is in that society. If you figure it out you can rise to leadership position as a young person. I was always very conscious of taking the opportunities that came my way and about latching myself on to people I respected.”
Today, Greenblatt looks for those qualities in staffers who are starting their careers at NBC, where he heads the entertainment division as well as the Universal Television studio arm. He also keeps his hand in the theater realm as an investor in high-profile productions including the reigning Tony champ “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Greenblatt’s best advice for those who aspire to the C-suite: Find a way to articulate what you have to offer on any given project or problem. “People have got to speak up and make their voices heard,” he says. “Whether they’re good ideas or bad ideas, having a point of view is important. Don’t just throw out ideas to hear your voice but listen to the room, learn quickly, and then contribute quickly.”
Whether they’re good ideas or bad ideas, having a point of view is important.
Greenblatt says that process came naturally to him from the time he was 14 and began working with adults on the management of community theater productions.
“As a young person I took a lot of responsibility on myself. When I was doing community theater, I didn’t like the way our ads looked in the newspaper. I would go to people who were much more senior to me and say, ‘What if we did this?’ If you say it in the right way, people will say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a good idea,’” Greenblatt says. “The way I did things as a teenager is pretty much the way I do it now.”
From the start, Greenblatt gravitated to the stage management end of the legit business and that proved an ideal training ground for his professional destiny of steering large creative organizations. Greenblatt reflected on his path to the top and his youthful fascination with Hollywood’s studio system during an interview in his Universal City office, where he enjoys a panoramic view of the activity on the Universal lot.
“Managing is so important to what you do in theater,” Greenblatt says. “As stage manager, you’re not the key creative person, you’re not the director making all the decisions. But you’re managing every aspect of the production. People look to you to pull everything together.”
As a teenager in the Midwest, Greenblatt also fell in love with a romanticized notion of the Hollywood studio system, epitomized by the stories of Mayer and Irving Thalberg turning out stars and classic movies at MGM. Greenblatt envisioned Hollywood studios operating as their own nation-states, and he wanted to move in.
“I was enamored with something that I didn’t realize was an era that had already passed,” Greenblatt says, with a laugh.
After earning an undergraduate degree in stage management from the U. of Illinois, Greenblatt headed to film school at USC, where he landed in the Peter Stark Producing Program.
As part of the Stark program, Greenblatt was assigned to an eight-week internship at 20th Century Fox. Since the day in 1986 when he passed through the studio gates, he has never stopped working in the industry. His internship stretched into a yearlong gig as an assistant in the film production department that was then headed by Scott Rudin, who became a mentor.
One of the underlings Greenblatt worked with at Fox was Bert Salke, who now runs Fox 21 Television Studios. Salke pointed Greenblatt in the direction of the job that would turbo-charge his career, suggesting that Greenblatt try to join the new film division being put together at Lorimar by a rising-star executive named Peter Chernin. Greenblatt got the job, which called for him to supervise the company’s script readers. But the bigger win was the chance to work closely with the executive who remains his ultimate industry role model.
“Peter has a unique combination that you rarely find in one person,” Greenblatt says. “He is equally adept at being able to give notes on a script or presenting a big strategic business plan. … When I talk to young people about how to make it in this business, I always say, ‘Find a person you respect and want to emulate.’ Peter is still the most elegant executive I’ve ever seen.”
Chernin was impressed by Greenblatt’s intelligence and work ethic. But it was the young exec’s creative instincts that gave him “something extra,” in Chernin’s view.
“Bob was a complete Midwestern boy — steady, earnest, trustworthy, decent, kind, and dependable, but he also had a real edge. There was something cool even unique about his sensibilities,” Chernin says. “As I got to know him, it was this unique combination of Midwestern steadiness and decency, combined with that cool, edgy taste that I found to be extraordinarily interesting as a potential world-class creative executive.”
Lorimar’s film division folded after two years and 10 movies, most of them forgettable, Greenblatt admits. Chernin headed off in 1989 to replace Garth Ancier as head of programming for the still-fledgling Fox Broadcasting Co. Greenblatt still had his sights set on the movie business, but he wasn’t about to turn down Chernin’s offer to join him at Fox.
Greenblatt landed in the drama development department, and it wasn’t long before he was running the division. Under Chernin’s direction, Fox developed buzzy hits in “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Melrose Place,” and after that came such distinctive shows as “The X-Files,” “Party of Five” and “Ally McBeal.” It was in this period when Greenblatt first found himself tasked with managing people and creative processes at a high level. He learned early on to set clear priorities and goals for his team, and strike a careful balance in decision-making.
“I was never afraid to take charge. People are always craving someone to make a decision. At times you can be too autocratic or too democratic but somewhere in there is the right mix.”
After a long run at Fox, Greenblatt decided in 1997 to partner in a production venture with his friend, David Janollari, who made a name for himself by championing “Friends” as Warner Bros. TV’s head of comedy. Chernin, who by then headed all of Fox’s entertainment operations, helped bankroll the Greenblatt Janollari Studio with a development pact.
The company’s most notable production during its five-year existence was HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” The experience of being a program seller rather than buyer was humbling. It taught Greenblatt a great deal about how to keep business-related headaches from getting in the way of the creative process.
“Producing is the hardest thing you can possibly do because you are at the behest of the owner and the financier and the distributor of your show,” he says. “You don’t have any say in the process except to the degree to which they trust you and let you do what you want.”
Greenblatt returned to the programming side in 2003 when he was enlisted by CBS’ Leslie Moonves to take the reins of Showtime. On Greenblatt’s watch, Showtime went from a perennial also-ran to a contender with original series such as “Dexter,” “Weeds,” “Nurse Jackie” and “Californication.”
In 2010, Chernin was tapped as an adviser to Comcast on its acquisition of NBCUniversal from General Electric. High on Chernin’s list of recommendations was for NBCU CEO Steve Burke and Comcast chairman-CEO Brian Roberts to recruit Greenblatt to rebuild the NBC broadcast network.
Good fortune smiled on Greenblatt as “The Voice” became a franchise hit just three months after he walked in the door. On the scripted side, it was a slow start with plenty of frustrating misses. But Team Greenblatt of late has enjoyed the fruits of its labor with the success of Dick Wolf’s “Chicago” franchise, critical praise for comedy “The Good Place,” and, finally, a bona fide smash with the drama “This Is Us.”
“It used to be you won if you could figure out how to make a hit show. Now you have to make a hit show and, and, and, and,” Greenblatt says. “You’ve got to have so much else to go with it.”
These days Greenblatt’s focus is less on the nitty-gritty of programming decisions and more on the big-picture of managing NBC’s content strategy. The revved-up Universal Television studio is producing shows for outlets all over town, which adds to the complexity of the management challenge. It requires a form of creative thinking about business models and risk-reward ratios that are invigorating to Greenblatt at this stage of his career.
“I’m really good now at delegating [day-to-day matters], because we have bar-none the best people in the business in every department,” he says.
Greenblatt cites the leadership of NBCU CEO Burke as a big part of the reason that NBC has blossomed — and a big factor in his decision earlier this year to renew his contract with the Peacock.
“Steve Burke gives us a lot of rope to do our jobs,” Greenblatt says. “To get the best out of people you have to get rid of the politics and pointing fingers. It’s a part of the culture that Steve and Brian Roberts have set here. If it weren’t that way, I wouldn’t be here.”
What: Variety Creative Leadership Award
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 18
Where: The Jeremy Hotel rooftop