JEFF BRUSTROM ’94
Jeff Brustrom ’94 is an independent media consultant and 17-year veteran of the Walt Disney Company where he oversaw live-action series for Disney Channel. He developed the wildly successful Hannah Montana (which went on to become a multi-billion dollar franchise), Wizards of Waverly Place (starring Selena Gomez), Good Luck Charlie, Jessie, The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, The Suite Life on Deck, and That’s So Raven. He also oversaw creative aspects of KC Undercover (starring Zendaya), Stuck in the Middle, Bunk’d, Austin & Ally, Girl Meets World, and Liv & Maddie.
Prior to joining Disney, Mr. Brustrom worked at Fox Broadcasting Company and was on the executive team that developed That 70s Show and Malcolm in the Middle. He started his career at ICM working in the TV literary, packaging, and talent departments. He graduated Summa Cum Laude from UCLA with a B.A. in Communication Studies.
Interviewed by Monique Beals • July 25, 2018
Please describe your career path from UCLA to your current role.
When I was a senior, I checked out the internship opportunities offered through the Communication Studies department and landed a job as an unpaid intern at International Creative Management (ICM) in the TV literary and packaging department. I worked for a tough boss who had a hard time keeping an assistant because it was such a challenging job. The clients started relying on me to follow through on things for them because they knew if they asked the assistant for something, it might not happen since there might be a brand new assistant the next week. My boss kind of gathered that and hired me right out of school. I was an assistant for a couple of years and then I got promoted into TV Talent which is the department where they represent actors. I soon discovered that wasn’t for me, so I jumped when I heard about an opportunity at Fox Broadcasting Company in the Comedy Development Department. I was an assistant there for a year, and then a new department head came in. She really liked me, so she promoted me to Manager not long after she took over. The first year I was an executive we did the pilot for That 70’s Show and the following year we did the pilot for Malcolm in the Middle.
Then it was 1999 and that was the first big dot-com boom. People were leaving great jobs to join startups, and I was one of them. I figured if there was any time to take a big risk, that was it. I was still in my twenties, so I figured if it was a success, fantastic — and if not, then I still had time to land on my feet. It was a small startup called Fizzi.com, which was a site with a combination of kids’ entertainment and e-commerce. We raised $1 million in seed money and made a lot of cool content, but we ran out of money a year later and I needed to get a new job. I ran into a friend at the gym whom I had worked with at ICM, and he said a friend of a friend was looking to hire a development executive at Disney Channel. I went in for that interview, got the job, and stayed at Disney Channel for 17 years. It was an incredible, fun ride. When I started in 2001, Disney Channel was very under the radar and not a big priority for The Walt Disney Company. I got to see it go from a relatively low-rated channel to the #1 kids’ network, knocking Nickelodeon (which was the long-running champion) off its perch. I developed a lot of shows that I’m very proud of like Hannah Montana, Wizards of Waverly Place, That’s So Raven, Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Suite Life on Deck, Good Luck Charlie, Jessie, and a dozen others.
I left Disney about a year ago to start my own consulting business. I’ve been working mainly for overseas animation companies that need American expertise. That’s been really interesting and cool and opened doors I didn’t even know existed. I’ve been traveling a lot, to places like Hong Kong, France, and Jamaica. The job in Jamaica was really fun — the Jamaican Film Commission and the World Bank Group have made a big investment to start an animation industry there. Most recently I worked for Northern Ireland Screen — the film and TV commission that handles Game of Thrones, etc.
What inspired you to choose this career path?
I always knew that I wanted to work in entertainment. Like a lot of other aspiring creatives, I was the guy in high school toting around a camcorder and making fun videos and sketches with my friends. Not long ago, I ran into a family friend who knew me as a kid, whom I hadn’t seen for about 3 decades. She said that when I was in junior high I had told her that I wanted to go to UCLA and work in the entertainment business. I didn’t remember that at all, and I was floored that at such a young age I already knew what I wanted to do — and then I made it happen!
At the beginning of my time at ICM, I thought maybe I wanted to be an agent. I soon realized that I wanted to do something more creative, and that’s what got me to Fox where I very much enjoyed doing television comedy development. The dotcom startup was an exciting opportunity and I learned a lot from it. It hadn’t been a goal of mine to go into kids’ television but I took the opportunity because it seemed interesting. I wasn’t sure if I’d like it, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that I loved it. I still remember the shows I loved as a kid, like Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch and Family Ties. Those shows stay with me to this day, and I love knowing that the kids who loved Hannah Montana will carry that with them for the rest of their lives.
How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?
It was really all about that ICM internship. If I hadn’t done that internship, I wouldn’t have a career in entertainment. A lot of the classes I took were very relevant as well.
In what ways have you utilized the UCLA alumni network?
The guy who told me about the Disney Channel job was a UCLA alum. I’m so grateful for that. That opened the door to the world of kids’ TV and my ability to be part of something that was such a massive success. When I was hiring assistants and executives, if someone had UCLA on their resume, I moved them to the top of the pile because I always knew I’d be getting a quality person. I also went to a lunch organized by Partnership UCLA where I met some really interesting alumni who actually worked at Disney as well, and that was great.
What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?
I’m in the middle of the greatest challenge, so I’m working on that. Being a consultant is exciting, but risky. To leave such an amazing place like Disney to branch out on my own is daunting. At Disney there was a clear organizational structure and everyone knew what they were expected to do. There are established processes, support systems, and infrastructure that are really helpful. Now I have to make things up as I go along. I certainly never thought I’d end up in Jamaica telling government officials how to develop kids’ shows. Every time I go to a big convention or event, I meet a bunch of new interesting people and it opens lots of new doors. So ask me in a year how I overcame the challenge and hopefully I’ll have an answer for you!
What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in your industry?
Do as many internships as you can. That’s where you will make many of the contacts that will help you throughout the rest of your career. I’ve given a few different talks at UCLA about sitcom development and internships. I tell all the students that there are 2 things they must do when they are in an internship — do great work and make lots of friends. Making friends is crucial, because those are relationships you’ll be able to depend on in the future. Those people will know you and love you and everyone will rise through the ranks together. You’ll have a network of friends who will help you make that next step and find that next job. Some people make the mistake of focusing solely on great work. That’s important, but it’s only half of the equation. Great work is expected, but relationships are crucial.
At one of my UCLA talks I was asked what I’d tell my 20-year-old self, and I said go to more parties. I got a big laugh, but I had to clarify that it’s not about drinking and things like that, it’s about meeting people and starting friendships. Every time you meet someone new it can open a new opportunity. Many people I was friendly with early in my career are in high positions now. The current Co-Presidents of NBC were assistants at the same time I was. It’s fun and cool to have known these people when we were all young, hungry assistants.
How do you participate in and support the UCLA community now?
My presentations were set up through Partnership UCLA, and I also brought a group of students to a taping of a Disney Channel show. I did a presentation for them in a conference room and then we walked over to the set. During the breaks I got the Executive Producer, the Director and other crew members to come over, explain what they do, and give advice. It was incredibly fun for me and I got a lot of feedback that the students really enjoyed it.
I’ve also been a part of the UCLA Alumni Mentorship Program for a couple years. I still keep in touch with my mentee from last year — Nathan Glovinsky. He’s a great guy and he’s going to go really far. I meet with him periodically, answer his questions and give him advice. Internships are really hard to come by, and since I met him he’s done 3 and is about to start another. He also helped me out with a huge project for my consulting business. I’m really proud of him. This year I took on two mentees. One is Lisa Ranran Hu — she’s an aspiring director and was written up in Teen Vogue for one of her short films. The other is Alliyah Hill, who has been interning at NBC and now Universal Pictures. They’re both very bright and ambitious, and I can’t wait to see what they accomplish next. I love helping out Bruins!
What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?
I love the fact that I went to a world-class institution that is admired globally. Everyone knows what UCLA is and the caliber of people who go there is second to none. I loved my time there as an undergrad. It motivates me to help more Bruins, and I have tremendous affection for the campus and community. I get excited every time I go back. The accomplishments of the alumni are spectacular, and it’s amazing to be part of a place like that.
And finally, what’s next?
To be determined. I’m going to see where these new adventures take me. Consulting has been a blast with all the international travel and independence. It’s fun to be an entrepreneur, but I could also see myself re-joining the executive ranks. We’ll see.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Monique Beals is a Communications major and UCLA College Honors student from Memphis, Tennessee. She has previously interned at the Office of Senator Lamar Alexander, the Orange County Register, and Tegna Inc. She has also worked as an Urban Fellow for the City of Memphis. At UCLA, Monique has been involved as Marketing Director of the Community Service Commission in addition to working as a Student Recruiting Assistant for UCLA Athletics. After graduating from UCLA, Monique intends to pursue a career in journalism or law.
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