Paramount TV Chief Talks Maintaining "Creative Integrity" Amid COVID-19

ONE TIME USE ONLY -THR_Nicole_Clemens_Photographed by Damon Casarez - H 2020
Damon Casarez

Nicole Clemens also discusses buying virtual pitches and plotting a return to production β€” all from her kitchen.

Paramount Television Studios president Nicole Clemens was in escrow on a new home when the pandemic hit, prompting her husband to convince her they needed to pull out at the eleventh hour. "I was like, 'Are you kidding me? This [pandemic's] just going to be a couple of weeks,' " she recounts over Zoom, acknowledging just how wrong she was about the virus that brought Hollywood — and the world at large — to a screeching halt. Holed up at her recently sold Malibu home, along with her writer-producer husband, Vaun Wilmott, and their two boys, 13 and 10 years old, Clemens has been running Paramount's TV arm out of her kitchen (all the while checking Zillow for new listings).

Her work during quarantine has been dominated by conversations about when and how to get the ViacomCBS-owned studio's eight shows back up and running safely, as well as launching new series, including Apple TV+'s Defending Jacob and Home Before Dark. On a late-May afternoon (with a follow-up on the heels of recent protests), Clemens — formerly an ICM agent, FX executive and Anonymous Content manager — opens up about her new normal.

How's working from home going?

In the first month, it was like everyone [at home] really respected me. Now, it's devolving into people encroaching on my space. They'll be making smoothies and digging through the ice maker, and it's like, "We don't care what you're doing, Mom." But if I had a home office — like, with walls — and if I actually was treated like somebody who was running a studio, then I'd be completely fine. (Laughs.) My husband is in the home office, which is technically in the laundry room, guest room and basement. He gets the good chair and the closed doors because he's running a virtual writers room [for Jack Ryan].

What's been the easiest part?

It's actually shocking how quickly the entire industry adapted to Zoom. Before all of this, if I didn't want to drive to Burbank on a Tuesday at 5 p.m. because I live in Malibu and I'd said, "Let's do a video conference," people would've been like, "What the hell is wrong with you?" Now it's become so normalized, I'm not sure I'll ever drive to Burbank on a Tuesday at 5 p.m. again.

Will you not?

I was actually saying to [my boss] Jim Gianopulos today, the downside is I can't stay behind to close the deal, but I could just pick up the phone after and call. It might not be as effective as in person, but it definitely might be worth a trade.

What do you miss most about pre-quarantine life?

The bummer is I really miss seeing my people. I miss the hallway conversations and the meeting after the meeting. The regular business, you're able to get all the business done — but it's just those little unpredictable moments.

What are the pros and cons of virtual pitches?

Well, you can knock a lot of them out in one fell swoop. But it took us a bit to figure out why we'd have a raging headache and were so much more tired, and then a New York Times article came out that talked about the amount of eye contact that's required in Zoom. When you're all in a room, you're looking around and there are different nonverbal cues happening. In a Zoom, you're all right there, up at each other's face. And then you also have this slight millisecond delay that’s imperceptible to us but our brains are working overtime to mimic each other and read, like, “What was that?” It's not like being in person, even though it seems like it.

How else do you think the life of an executive will change post-pandemic?

I do think it will evolve. I don't know exactly what it's going to look like, but I do think if an employee came to you before and said, “I want a little more flex time,” you might be like, “Oh my god, what does that mean?” But now we've all lived it. So now you're like, “Yeah, no worries. Be on all those meetings and do what you need to do.”

When do you think you'll be able to safely start filming again?

If I had that answer, I would literally be the hero of Hollywood. But it's the government, the territories that you're in, then the unions, then the insurance companies, and then the production needs. And then it's people, right? Certain people might feel comfortable, other people might not.

What will you say if an actor says to you, “I'm not comfortable going back?”

It’s going to be a case-by-case situation. It's going to depend on, how much have you shot already? Have you shot anything? Have you not? But it's a real possible conversation. It's all very tricky.

Are you talking to writers about having to rework scripts to avoid hard-to-shoot scenes?

We are definitely talking about how to maintain the creative integrity, but recognize that either we're going to have to budget for the effects around that big crowd scene or come up with a creative way around it. I have a show with intimacy, and the showrunner has thought about how to direct it in a way where the actors aren't there at the same time. But there's not a blanket "Hey, no kissing in our shows now." There are also the conversations about what if there's a resurgence of the virus. Do you wait to shoot a show that's going to have a long production in multiple locations after a potential second wave passes? Honestly, it's like trying to hold back the ocean. At a certain point, someone's got to jump in the water and start figuring it out along the way.

You've worn a lot of different hats throughout your career being an agent, a manager, creative executive. Why was this job the right fit for you now?

It was completely unexpected because I was headed off down the producing lane. But the reason why it's my absolute favorite job is because it's taken all of the skill sets from being an executive to being a buyer to being a producer to being an agent and rolled it all up into one. I'd been a seller for 16 years as an agent and prior to that in development, and you kind of always think, “Oh, the buyer's life is so great.” And don't get me wrong, FX was an amazing job. But after about five years, it was sort of like the dirty little secret is as much as I didn’t want to be responsible for selling, there's something about the adrenaline rush and the feeling of accomplishment that you get from finding something, building it, selling it and seeing it happen that I missed.

What were your goals coming into the Paramount role? And then, how have they changed as you've been in it over the past two years?

The goal was to scale, to diversify the portfolio, and to increase opportunities for margin. Streaming is a huge foundation of how we built the studio and will continue to be where the business is going. There's no downside, but it's a capped upside, so the opportunity was to sell as many shows as you could that had the opportunity to hit a home run. I feel like we've really done it, and now it's continuing that path. The thing that's frustrating is, we had just massively hit our stride. Everything was firing on all cylinders, and then it was like eeerk, record scratch. So, I'm dying to get back to work.

How does Paramount TV fit in with ViacomCBS’s larger strategy?

We have a close relationship with Showtime, CBS All Access and CBS Now, so it’s much easier to sell to our sister companies. But we’re also still able to sell elsewhere. We have a lot of material, and they can’t take everything.

Bob Bakish has said that CBS All Access is just going to be rebranded to feature more content from across the company. How will you factor into that strategy?

I'm sure that we will. [CBS All Access programming head] Julie McNamara and I have already been talking about different shows that are going to fit their mandate. It’s nice to have that sister relationship because we've known each other for a long time, so it's a very easy conversation. There's all those kinds of opportunities for synergy.

How do you see your studio and CBS TV Studios coexisting?

The bulk of what we do are really big shows for streaming, premium and high-end basic cable, and the bulk of what they do is network. And there's some overlap — we're doing [Michael Chabon adaptation] Kavalier & Clay together for Showtime. If they have a piece of talent that we want to be in business with and we have a title, or vice versa, we can marry and go out together.

In the wake of George Floyd's death, how will you support the Black Lives Matter movement as a leader of a major content studio?

How could anyone not be completely outraged by the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor as the most recent horrific examples of pervasive systemic racism? We are going to double down and ask ourselves if we are doing everything we can in front of and behind the camera — as well as amongst our employees — to make sure that inclusivity is a verb and not just a noun.

You husband is the new showrunner on Jack Ryan, which you produce. What's your working relationship?

For it to work, we have to have good boundaries. So, he reports to Cheryl Bosnak, who runs current [programming], and I don't look at material until they would normally show it to me. That's why we put him in the basement. (Laughs.) I'll be upstairs on the Zoom with the network and producers and he'll be down there on the Zoom and they'll make fun of us that we're not in the same room, but we do the church-and-state thing because otherwise it's too much.

A few Paramount creators, like 13 Reasons Why's Brian Yorkey, have been scooped up by Netflix with their own lucrative overall deals. Does this practice concern you?

I don't know if Netflix will keep doing those giant deals. There could be an economic reset in the same way that there was after the 2008 writers strike. But I had long conversations with Yorkey. I was like, "We love you, but I can't [pay what they will] because I'm not in the non-recoupable deal business. Netflix has a different model, and I'd never want to stand between you and that kind of money." You can't blame somebody for doing that. I probably took it a little less personally because [I inherited these creators.] But for my business, I can't put all my eggs in one basket. I'd rather continue to play moneyball than bet the farm. Statistically, how many Greg Berlantis and Ryan Murphys are there?

How do Netflix, Amazon, Apple and now Quibi differ in what they reveal to you about how your shows are performing?

They might not hand over the data, but I will say at Apple we have Defending Jacob and Home Before Dark that have both premiered. We've had multiple calls from Apple where they've said, “Your shows are doing incredibly well.” You can read between the lines, right? When they're using words like, “It's a big hit for us,” and when they're having multiple calls to tell you how well it's doing …

You don't feel like you need to see numbers?

I mean, I would love it — but I feel I know from the way that they're acting that it is a bona fide hit for them.

Having been on that other side of the table, do you feel that you have a leg up in these negotiations?

You'd have to ask my business affairs people, but I'll be like, "Who's the lawyer? Oh, he's a grinder, so let's do this." I think they appreciate it because I'm empathetic to what they're going through, but they also might say, "Could you please get out of my sandbox?" I guarantee you not every boss is like, "Well, how much did they offer?" I totally trust and defer to them, but I'm like a junkie. I just love it.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.