Universal Studio Group Chief Pearlena Igbokwe on Cops, COVID and the Upside of Hollywood's Executive Musical Chairs

Creative Space Pearlena Igbokwe
Photographed by Yuri Hasegawa

Pearlena Igbokwe was photographed Dec. 4 in her Universal Studios office.

The division's newly promoted chairman opens up about her Nigerian upbringing, what Dick Wolf does right and how recent personnel shuffles have led to more diversity in the industry's top ranks.

For as far back as Pearlena Igbokwe can remember, she's had a single wall, in every home and office that she's occupied, painted a golden hue. "The color of sunshine," she says, revealing her love for the kind of shock of color that can immediately warm up a room and put those within it at ease. So, in recent weeks, as the newly promoted chairman of the Universal Studio Group has readied her new space on the Universal lot, she commissioned yet another wall to be painted gold.

When it is that Igbokwe, 56, and her roughly 450 full-time employees will actually return to a physical office is anybody's guess, but the married mother of two teens insists her business hasn't slowed at all. In fact, although COVID-19 continues to ravage the country, USG — which houses Universal Television, Universal Content Productions, Universal Television Alternative and International Studios — has produced nearly 700 episodes of TV this year, with 112 productions set up around the world. And the Yale and Columbia business school grad, who rose through the ranks at Showtime before decamping to NBCUniversal in 2012, intends to grow that portfolio, which already includes hits both critical (Apple's Little America, Netflix's Never Have I Ever) and commercial (Netflix's Umbrella Academy, Dick Wolf's NBC empire).

Appearing virtually from her Los Angeles home, Igbokwe, who now reports to CEO Jeff Shell, opened up about her Nigerian upbringing, the recent demographic shifts in Hollywood's executive ranks and why she thinks powerhouse creator Wolf doesn't get enough credit for his portrayals of police.

Your pitch to producers has been that Universal Studio Group will happily sell shows around town. Do you see that continuing now that NBCU's streamer, Peacock, is the company's priority?

Right now, there's no sense that we're not going to have that flexibility. I have conversations with Jeff Shell, and he's all about a studio's job being to create a library of great shows. We just have to find the place that wants to distribute those shows. If there's a show that doesn't work for our internal platforms, why shouldn't we take it out somewhere? Should we just kill it because we don’t want someone else to have it? That doesn’t make any sense.

Many buyers have done considerably less actual buying of late. Do you expect the pace to pick up after the pandemic?

We've still been out there selling shows, but, yes, there is now a backlog of production because it's just been hard to get things going. There's a little bit of "let's try to pace ourselves." And once you do go into production, look, it's much slower and much more expensive to do all this stuff. We're in production on 60 or more shows, but it's not easy and it comes at a cost. But I do think when we go back to whatever normal looks like, and I use that term loosely, we’ll be back into our old rhythms because the streaming platforms will need new material to generate new subscribers.

Do you find the content, what people are looking for, has changed?

There’s a bit of people wanting something with some sense of hope and optimism to it. I’m not saying they want a bright, shiny musical, but I do think that despair and nihilism, things that speak to the worst in the human spirit or the human condition, are [less appealing now]. Look at the way people are reacting to Ted Lasso or Saved by the Bell. It just makes me feel good — and people want to feel good. It's also why people are running out early to buy their holiday decorations ­­— they want something that's uplifting.

I’m hearing a lot recently about how safe and efficient sets have become, but very little about the creative in the face of all of these protocols. What’s been the impact there?

It’s kind of amazing in that it hasn’t impacted the creative. 

Does that surprise you?

I didn’t know what to expect, but the episodes coming in are still great. People are still funny in the comedies and giving [strong] performances in the dramas. And I’ve been by a couple of the sets, masked and shielded and tested and the whole thing, because I do want them to know they’re not alone. We’re here, we’re watching, and the episodes have been just as powerful.

There were lots of conversations being had about the hero-cop narrative that's often seen on TV after the killing of George Floyd and all that followed. What kinds of discussions did you have with folks like Dick Wolf about their portrayals of police?

We even had that conversation with Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is a cop show comedy and it's all sensitive. With a lot of the Dick Wolf shows, I don't know that people are really giving him enough credit. He's already been dealing with that topic [of policing and, in particular, a Black cop's struggle] prior to the events of this May. And New York Undercover, a show about Black and Latino cops policing their own community, was a title that we’d been talking to Dick about for a very long time. Again, this is like two years ago, we were trying to reboot it at ABC, saying this is the time to really be talking about that. So it wasn't suddenly like, "Hey, we should do something." We were doing it, and if you look at the Chicago P.D. episodes that have already premiered this year, it's so much what that show is about. There was not one showrunner [here] who wanted to back away and not deal with it. Instead, we had producers who were so engaged and were like, "We have to deal with it in the show." And they didn't have answers because, by the way, our society doesn't have the answers.

What did those next steps and conversations entail?

All different shows had different kinds of consultants. We have a woman named Connie Rice, an activist who's done so much work regarding policing, and we have had organizations like Color of Change. We really said to the shows, "What do you need? Do you want to talk to more police, more activists, more people from Black Lives Matter?"

Saved by the Bell landed in hot water recently with a couple of Selena Gomez kidney jokes. I'll admit, I was surprised by how quickly they were pulled from the episode. What were those offline conversations like, and do you worry about precedent?

Is something that was meant to be a funny joke worth falling on your sword for when there's a group of people it offends? No. The show is meant to be fun and funny and to speak to some social issues. If it was going to distract from that, it's not worth it. If they had said, "Lose the episode," that would be different. But this is a topic that’s come up about content and how you handle it ­­— and by the way, it's often for these shows that aired years ago and, at the time, critics watched them and no one had an issue. Of course, now we’re all looking at things through a lens of 2020 and we have to reevaluate and figure out how to handle it. I do think we have to be careful and react proportionately.

Elliot Page, who stars in The Umbrella Academy, came out as transgender recently. What kinds of creative conversations happen after something like this? Do you alter the character in any way?

It will start with a conversation with Elliot. Elliot has to be very much involved in, what does Elliot want, and I think that will be what we do.

Shifting gears, there's been a seismic shift in the business, and it's brought so much change in the executive suites. What do you make of it all?

Changes were inevitable, and, like everything else that has happened in our society, this pandemic sped it up and supercharged it. You're forced to make the decisions maybe a bit quicker than you might otherwise have.

The job titles and fiefdoms are changing and, in many cases, the age, gender and race of those now occupying the top positions are, too. What's driving those shifts?

So much happened this summer, and we were all home to view it without distraction. Unarmed people of color were being shot literally every day. And it was actually on video for all to see, so people could not deny it or dismiss it. There's been conversations in our industry about the lack of diversity for a long time, and people were suddenly shocked into, "OK, is our house in order?" They looked at their C-suites, their top-level executives, and went, "Oh wow, we're not doing anything to help the cause of social equality."

Right.

I think people did say, “OK, there are a lot of executives of color [out there]” — and if you last in the business this long, you're here because you’re capable. But, historically, they might have been overlooked because that’s just the way it was. You pick the person who looked like the last guy. I think there was a pause, and people were like, “Why don’t we make a different decision? There are other people who are capable in these jobs.” So, yeah, people who looked different got jobs because the business was making purposeful, intentional decisions as opposed to just the rote, "Let’s just do the same thing we have always done before."

It will be interesting to see the impact of having different people and perspectives in these top jobs.

What I hope it yields is that other women, people of color, immigrants, what have you, will feel like, “Oh, I can come to this studio and there’s someone who might understand me or the story that I want to tell there.” The other thing I really hope happens is, in my case, that there’s some 20-year-old Black woman somewhere who sees me in this job, who sees Channing Dungey in her job [at Warner Bros. TV], who sees Tara Duncan in her job [at Freeform], and she goes, “Oh, I can do that.” Because when I was coming up, there wasn’t all these black women running companies in the entertainment business.

I remember when I got to L.A., one of the few people I saw was Debra Martin Chase, she was a big-time producer — a Harvard-trained lawyer who’d worked with Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington, and I’d see her at events back then and I was too scared to even go up to her. But now? Now, I’m in a position where one of the early things I did was make a deal with Debra Martin Chase because she was one of the role models I saw — a woman who looked like me, doing what I wanted to do. And now we’re producing The Equalizer with Queen Latifah as the new face, and it’s going to be the show behind the Super Bowl. How about that? (Laughs.)

You've said that you weren't always comfortable revealing the details of your early upbringing in Nigeria. What got you there?

The first time I ever revealed the fact that I grew up during a civil war in Nigeria was maybe three years ago at a company retreat that Bob Greenblatt had in Santa Barbara. Every senior executive had to get up and tell some story about themselves. And I said, "OK, I guess I'll go tell this story 'cause this is the thing that no one knew." I don't tell it to people because most people can't relate to it. I was a kid in the middle of a war. Bombs were dropping. We were running for our lives. But people seemed so impacted by it. I thought, "Well, if it helps other people, I should start telling it." As for what it does for me, I am grateful every day. I am alive and in this business doing what I love.

If we asked the 7-year-old you what you want to do when you grow up, what would you have said?

I thought I was going to become a lawyer. As my friend Yvonne Orji says, if you're a child of Nigerian parents, there are three things you can be: a doctor, a lawyer or a disappointment. (Laughs.)

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.