Career Conversations: Entertainment and Media

A panel of alumni experts share advice and predictions.

Monday, May 10, 2021

By Susan Ahlborn

Two days after the Oscars, more than 100 College alumni and students joined in a Careers Conversations: Industry Perseverance event focusing on entertainment and media with four alumni experts. Amanda Lewis, C’99, a veteran of multiple studios and producer of films including the Fast and Furious series, moderated a discussion that stretched from career paths to the impact of the pandemic to the importance of being nice.

(Clockwise from top left) Denise Bailey-Castro, C’09; Amanda Lewis, C’99; Zuri Rice, C’04; Matt Reilly, C’00

“Conversations about movies in the Quad led to my career,” said Matt Reilly, C’00, now Executive Vice President of Production Development at Universal Pictures. “You go to college and you have interests, but I had no idea about the industry. Thankfully I met so many great people and through osmosis I got laser-focused. I began reaching out to alumni and finding my people.”

Denise Bailey-Castro, C’09, Vice President, Head of Finance at BET Networks, started her career in banking, then moved to nonprofits before refocusing on film. She recommended asking for what you want—something that didn’t come naturally to her: “I didn’t want to rock the boat, especially as a young Black woman.” As she grew in her career, though, she began requesting new projects and new clients. “Know what’s reasonable in the context of the organization and your personality,” she advised, “but have the courage to take ownership of your career.”

New York-based Zuri Rice, C’04, decided she should expand her expertise if she didn’t want to move to Los Angeles. She adapted her experience in long-form production development to short-form, which increased the types of companies she could work for. She’s now Senior Vice President, Head of Development and Video Content Strategy at Hearst Magazines. “A lot of traditional networks and studios have been consolidating,” she said. “So there can be fewer jobs in certain opportunities, but there are other places and other people who are really expanding in the video sphere.”

All agreed that the industry’s revolutions are far from complete, as services vie for subscribers and the way we access and watch content continues to change. Rice, who previously worked at Nickelodeon, pointed out that her son has no concept of content that’s not available on demand. “Kids are the earliest adopters and the first place you experience disruption,” she said. Content providers are moving into that space, creating multiplatform content that can be digested when and how you want it.

The pandemic has accelerated the changes. BET launched its streaming service six months before the pandemic and had to adapt its approach on the fly, said Bailey-Castro. The surge of demand after the lockdowns led them to lean more heavily into acquisitions to build up their library, and to work with Tyler Perry, whose studio was the first to get up and running. The explosion of demand and options is also making space for more voices and an opening for lower-priced content.

The hybrid movie releases will also continue until subscriber growth levels off, said Reilly. “They are servicing what audiences want, which is choice: ‘Do I want to go to the theater or do I want to watch it on my couch?’ And I think that’s a good thing.”

Asked for a final bit of advice, Bailey-Castro said, “Don’t give up. When I was trying to break in, I was coming from New York—I didn’t even have a drivers’ license. I got a ton of nos, Just keep trying; find different venues to reach out to people at different companies. The door will eventually open, and when the door does it’s going to lead to an amazing opportunity.”

The Career Conversations event series was created by the Penn Arts & Sciences Ambassador Council, an alumni advisory board that partners with the School’s advancement team to enrich student and alumni experiences through volunteer involvement, intellectual engagement, and philanthropy. The events provide an opportunity to hear and ask questions of industry experts.

Watch the full program: