Kind of a Big Deal(maker)

Portrait of Camille Rustia

Ted Lasso. Stranger Things. Narcos. These immensely successful TV series might seem very different thematically, but one common thread unites them: They are blessed with top creative talent. And it’s Camille Rustia’s job to make sure the directors, showrunners, and actors behind these shows were signed, sealed, and delivered.

As a business affairs executive and entertainment lawyer for Netflix and, now, Apple TV+, the Emory alumna negotiates these talent contracts, secures intellectual property rights, and works behind the scenes to help these productions run smoothly. Originally a journalist who got her start in TV as a student intern for CNN’s InsidePolitics—and went on to become part of a Peabody Award–winning team at the news network—Rustia pivoted her career to the legal side of show business and couldn’t be happier. She talked to Emory Magazine about her work at these content-streaming giants that are upending where and how we watch TV.

lawyer for Apple TV+?

RUSTIA: I negotiate talent agreements, from soup to nuts, from obtaining the rights to the underlying intellectual property to signing deals with the writers and directors and actors. Say, for example, we want to make a television show based on a compelling graphic novel or a book. I’d start by negotiating to get the audiovisual rights from whomever owns the intellectual property—sometimes it’s the author, sometimes the publisher. Then we’ll line up the showrunner and the writers. Often the project will be packaged with high-level directors or producers attached and all of these folks who bring the series to life creatively need their compensation and perks negotiated. Finally, after all the talent is secured and production begins, my role shifts to helping make sure the entire project stays on budget. Much of my day consists of tackling problems that arise, such as talent relations or guild issues.

EM: What are some of the biggest challenges in doing this type of work?

RUSTIA: There really never seems to be enough hours in the day to get everything done. We shoot dozens of shows across multiple timezones and continents, so we are constantly on the move and need to be familiar with how production and labor laws work in different states and countries. Over the past two years we’ve faced the same COVID-related challenges as other industries, including how to navigate shutdowns in the middle of a television season. This is always tricky. For example, if a child actor has a major growth spurt during a COVID shutdown, there could be continuity issues that need to be solved on set when production resumes or in post-production. No matter the challenge, one key to being effective in this industry is putting the right people together to tackle each issue. Another thing to keep in mind is that this is also a creative process, so making sure everything is running smoothly on set is essential to facilitating the type of environment where actors, directors, and producers are in a good headspace, and they feel like they can be creative and focused.

EM: What excites you about work on major TV series like these?

Rustia: I just love seeing the finished product. It is gratifying when a show finally launches and it brings audiences and critics joy or at least causes them to think differently. Ted Lasso was something extra special because the show provided some needed levity and positivity during a time when the news was horrific and doom scrolling was part of my daily routine. Playing a part in creating these shows is wildly different from the type of law I used to practice. In litigation, someone is always unhappy—when you work in the world of television there is always the potential to create something fun or funny or impactful—something that coworkers or families can bond over.

EM: What would surprise audiences the most about how these productions come to life?

Rustia: I think people don’t realize just how much research goes into all aspects of creating a TV show. A lot of time is spent on the smallest details. On the creative side, it might be something like how the costumes are designed for a period piece or all the intricacies of building a fictional world—or recreating a historical one. That same attention to detail happens on the business and legal side, too.

EM: What’s been your favorite project to work on and why?

Rustia: That’s a tough one because I’ve had memorable experiences at nearly every step of my career. On my first day as a journalist at CNN, the levees in New Orleans broke and Hurricane Katrina coverage became a twenty-four-hour endeavor. In the aftermath of this terrible natural disaster, our crews investigated everything from the infrastructure problems that exacerbated socioeconomic issues to how the city would rebuild. We won a Peabody Award for our work. When we weren’t working in the newsroom, we were staffing a hotline to help reunite family members with their loved ones. The control room staff adopted abandoned animals from New Orleans. We were embedded there for months. On the entertainment side, I really enjoyed working on Narcos. The show’s success proved that media companies could film a series that wasn’t solely based in English and that diverse stories about different parts of the world could be commercial and successful. I think it pushed networks to take a chance on shows like Netflix’s Squid Games and proved that hit shows don’t have to originate from familiar IP.

EM: How did studying political science and sociology at Emory help shape your career?

Rustia: It really opened up my world view and triggered a greater curiosity about how people interact with one another. I had some fantastic professors who introduced me to concepts that are still fascinating and relevant, like globalization. I think about it every time I hear that a supply chain issue has caused delays in my everyday life. It was also incredible to study the history of Southern politics and see lessons I’ve learned continue to play out during each national election. Sociology and political science focus so much on how individuals operate in society. It seemed natural to transition into journalism where I could continue to explore these concepts in a nonacademic forum.

EM: What advice would you have for students and young alumni for their careers?

Rustia: I would say pick a ladder and climb it. And if somewhere along the way you find a better ladder, it’s OK to jump off and start over. But when you’re on that ladder, you have to commit yourself to the climb. Stay focused and fight for what you are passionate about and it will never feel like work (or at least almost never). Show business is a difficult industry to break into, and it’s not necessarily a meritocracy, which makes it ever harder. So much of it is relationship driven—and building relationships is a critical skill and talent unto itself. If you want a career in entertainment, you have to get to know the creatives, agents, and executives because it takes all of these people to turn an idea into an actual feature or series. When I see truly successful people in entertainment—these amazingly creative people that build fictional worlds from their minds—they are always people who can’t imagine themselves doing anything different. They pursue it as though there is nothing that they would rather do.

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