Sarah Aubrey: Opening The Door So Other Women Can Follow

by Margaret Gardiner August 14, 2017
Executive vice prsident original programming Sarah Aubrey

James White (c) 2014 Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.

“Yes, I am still interrupted in meetings,” notes Executive Vice president of Original programming for TNT, Sarah Aubrey. “That’s a situation that women experience as part of group dynamics and I’m not exempt from them”, says Aubrey, who produced movies like Lone Survivor, Friday Night Lights, Bad Santa and Lars and the Real Girl, prior to joining TNT. Aubrey was previously part of Film 44 with her then producing partner, Peter Berg.

Her comment is a response to a recent research that shows that men talk more often, and for longer periods, and are more likely to interrupt a woman. The flip side is that women tend to talk faster – so they can make their point before being interrupted. Regarding the latter, Aubrey suggests that, given the overall dynamic, women also feel that they have to have everything in place before speaking. “It’s not that women don’t use their voice. These are general stereotypes, but women are more hesitant to offer opinions, or to interject into conversations, without every aspect of the interaction nailed down. You don't want to risk looking wrong or unprepared.” You can almost hear the non-verbal shrug over the phone. “I would encourage everyone to let it loose a little more. It’s okay to be wrong and it's okay to be disagreed with. The biggest lesson I learned from being a lawyer was not to be afraid to argue or to have someone argue with me. It’s not the end of the world for someone to disagree with me. It is being less hesitant about feeling that everything has to be exactly right before they talk. Women have to be bolder about voicing an opinion, because half the time men are wrong too.”


Empowering Women Behind the Camera

This practical advice litters her conversation when we chatted about spearheading a drive to enable more women in positions behind the camera. In particular TNT has begun the Shatterbox Initiative with Refinery 29 to fund ten shorts directed by women. Swim by Kristen Stewart, which was showcased at Cannes this year, is a result of this initiative.” The strategy was to “identify women in the system that were close to being at a level to be approved as episodic television directors, but that needed another boost to extend their profile and circle of contacts. To that end, we are doing 10 short films by 10 female directors. Some are comedies, dramas, documentaries, one’s an action piece and I hope to also have one animated short. Regardless, all can be used as calling cards for the female directors because it’s hard to get into the circle of approved television episodic directors,” she notes.

When looking to hire women directors, Aubrey found that she was burning through the list of women directors who have experience in episodic TV, really fast. “We want to give women the same opportunity that men would get, namely, not only to do television but huge blockbusters. Opportunities men, who have done very little, would get.”

The absence of working women directors on lists of names to be considered for high profile projects suggests that the bar might be set higher for women before given the same chance at bat. Sarah has actively sought women and entrusted them to shoot episodic pilots. This is important as the first episodes set the tone for the series and become a powerful calling card, which paid off handsomely when Charlotte Sieling directed Good Behavior. “We are talking with Ivy Agrean for Refinery 29, who did the visual effects for The Revenant but still needed a calling card to be able to direct a big visual effects show. Doing a short film allows her to prove that she can deliver.”


Sarah Aubrey and stars of TNT series

L-R: Alia Shawkat (Actress, TBS’ Search Party, Nasim Pedrad (TBS’ People of Earth) Megan  Martin (Writer/Co-Executive Producer of TNT’s Animal Kingdom) Sarah Aubrey EVP of TNT Original Programming, Olivia Dejonge (Actress, TNT’s Will), Niecy Nash (Actress, TNT’s Claws), Michelle Dockery (Actress, TNT’s Good Behavior) and Janine Sherman Barrois (Showrunner/Executive Producer, TNT’s Claws).

John Sciulli/GettyImages for Turner


Finding Balance

While male entertainment leaders seldom get quizzed on being a working parent, the Texan native doesn’t get defensive about the title. “Nobody gives an award for working fathers, though there are many. We all figure out being a parent the best way we can. First and foremost, I'm very proud to be a working mom. That basically means my life is a shit show all the time. There is no balance.” She confesses what every working woman knows: “Balance is an illusion.” “I love my work, but I don't love my work quite as much as I love my kids, so I am committed to the insanity. I don't want to paint the picture that I have it all under control, that the system is perfect; you won't ever get to the resting place, where ‘now I have the perfect balance’. As soon as you accept that, you don't have as much pressure on yourself, and that makes life more livable and workable.”

She also credits her work environment. “I love how family-oriented everyone is. If you have to do something with one of your children, everyone not only says, ‘Of course’, but they also pitch in and help cover. That’s the way the world should work for men and women at work – period.” “This is a very hard-working group of people, so I never think to myself, ‘Oh that person is slacking off for any reason.’ When people tell me they need to be at a doctor’s appointment or a play performance, they go. When you're lying on your deathbed you don't look back and go, ‘Oh I missed the marketing meeting.’ You think about being able to attend a play for your kids. We’ve got to be there for each other so we can make those things.”

The mother of three admits, “Jobs come with a lot of pressure and a constant public reckoning with wins and losses. It's important to enjoy the process of what you get to do every day. If you don’t take time to stop and enjoy that, then things get petty and miserable.”

Will things get better any time soon? “I’m optimistic”, she says. “This next generation coming up is incredibly supportive of each other. That old-fashioned notion, that I was still somewhat subject to, that there could only be one successful woman in a room, has really given way to women publicly, vocally, supporting each other. As one of the leaders at TNT and Turner, I love that there are many other female leaders as well as woman from the admin to manager level, that are quite vocal. Right now in my job I feel the happiest in terms of being a woman at work, than I ever have in my career.”