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POV Entertainment President Layne Eskridge Explains How Freedom Fuels Innovative Storytelling

POV Entertainment Layne Eskridge (Photo courtesy of Narrative PR/TheWrap)

While attending Laurel School for Girls in Shaker Heights, Ohio, POV Entertainment president Layne Eskridge initially thought her interest in the Hollywood industry would take her down a path similar to Oprah Winfrey’s. But after a senior year film class, and by the time she started her freshman year at Howard University, she realized her passion was instead in supporting the ideas of others.

“There’s great power in picking the stories,” Eskridge told TheWrap. “I knew that my superpower would be collecting ideas, collecting books, collecting IP. So that was the core strategy for POV and our first three series are book adaptations.”

With over 10 years of experience as an executive and producer, Eskridge has overseen a plethora of smash-hit titles, including Netflix’s hit drama series “Ozark” and the Ava DuVernay-directed “When They See Us.” After her years developing projects for both broadcast and cable television at Warner Bros. and Ellen DeGeneres’ Very Good Productions and witnessing powerhouse female studio executives like NBC Universal’s Bonnie Hammer and Disney Entertainment co-chairwoman Dana Walden, Eskridge was ready for her shot at running her own TV and film company.

“I had a decade of being on that side. I have the relationships and I feel like I have the answers to the test,” Eskridge said. “I felt like someone like me needed to have that position.”

Her role became the president of POV Entertainment, a film and TV company that’s focused on telling culturally specific and universally themed stories. After launching in summer 2020, a byproduct of the murder of George Floyd, POV has given way to diverse, woman-led stories, including Monica Beletsky’s Apple TV+ anthology series “Manhunt” and the Natalie Portman-led “Lady in the Lake,” set to premiere on Apple TV+ this year.

Eskridge, who says autonomy and freedom help foster the next generation of innovative leaders, is now laying down the framework for more diverse and inclusive storytelling.

Talk to me about your background and where your interest in the entertainment industry began. Why this path as a network executive?

I think my love for entertainment came from going to the theater with my dad. We went to movies and basketball games, like, every weekend. And I went to a very tony private all-girls school from preschool to 12th grade. It’s called Laurel School for Girls. We didn’t really have electives like bigger schools would, and the second semester of my senior year our English teacher let us take a film class.

My English teacher was very immersive in talking about behind the scenes. So it was the first time we got more information besides writer, director, actor, and I was like, “Oh my God, there are people that come on even before [filming] to set the table for those folks. That is what I want to do.” I wanted to be one of the people who picks the [projects]. So I knew at 18, when I went to Howard University, that I either wanted to own a studio, work in a studio or a network.

You launched POV Entertainment in 2020, during such a monumental and crucial time. We saw a sweep of social unrest following the murder of George Floyd, which ultimately catapulted this wave of Hollywood and businesses committing to diversity, equity and inclusion in a way we hadn’t seen. What was that moment like for you starting a company like POV. Where’d the idea come from?

I really wish I could take credit for that. There are two people that actually had the idea before I had it crystalized. I think I was ready to do this. I was itching to do this. I was being called to do this, especially after George Floyd was murdered, but POV came together in a very non-traditional way.

After George Floyd was murdered, one of my first friends in Hollywood, Ashley Holland was asked by Endeavor Content (Now Fifth Season) how best to respond, and she said that they could make deals with more producers of color and give them infrastructure. I had an existing relationship with Joe Hipps from “Ozark”, so he called me and the ball quickly started rolling from there.

I told him that I wanted to broaden the portrayal of people of color on screen. I wanted to tell tentpole or blockbuster stories like I’d been doing at Netflix and Apple TV+ but instead of “Ozark” with Jason Bateman it would be “Ozark” with Regina Hall or Mahershala Ali or Natalie Portman. He very quickly understood what I was saying. That conversation got POV in motion. It wasn’t traditional. It kind of was born out of a moment. George Floyd’s murder, unfortunately, was the catalyst.

What would you say helped prepare you to become the executive you are today and ultimately build POV’s framework?

Bonnie Hammer, Dana Walden, and Jen Salke were three women who were great examples of savvy leaders that stood out to me when I was coming up.

When I was at Netflix, I had a lot of autonomy and had a long leash. The culture was really excellent. I felt I was able to spread my wings creatively and work on a lot of really, really amazing shows with a lot of really great creators I still work with now. But that culture really started to shape my identity as an executive and as a producer. And I made a vow to myself that even if I leave Netflix, I’m going to kind of take the things that I’ve learned here and apply them everywhere. When I started POV – we’re a small company, but it’s a flat system. Like, if Ryan, my assistant, has an idea, that’s the idea that wins. It’s not this hierarchy. It’s really kind of like all boots on the ground. I want everyone to feel that their opinion matters and that they have their own stake in my company. Netflix was really pivotal in helping me shape what I wanted for POV.

I’m hearing a recurring theme in your responses. It’s this notion that “freedom” brings forth, or is a key in developing that next generation of talent and unique shows. Am I hearing you correctly?

For sure. Gatekeepers are rallying around new voices, different people. Those are the ones that are the most exciting to me, and I think those are the ones that are still winning. If you look and see who dominates the award shows, or the shows that are getting watched the most, it’s the new people. It’s the different people, it’s the freedom. It’s the people that are not formulaic and are thinking out of the box, that are innovating. Those are still the people that are running our culture.

What was POV’s first project or collaboration, and what’s the ideal project for the company?

Our first project is called “Manhunt” and it launches on 3/15 on Apple TV+. It’s about the 12 day chase for John Wilkes Booth and it’s based on the best selling novel of the same title. I would say 80% of our slate is IP-driven. We’re a company that focuses on women and people of color leads. Like “The Plot,” Mahershala Ali is starring in that. In the book, the lead character is a Jewish man with a completely different background than Mahershala Ali. When I got the keys to my kingdom, I was like, “This is the recipe.”

In 2020 we saw an uptick in people pursuing entrepreneurship, a lot of DEI promises from businesses, Hollywood greenlighting more Black and Brown stories, diverse hiring in leadership positions. Hollywood seems to be rolling back some of those commitments. With a platform like POV Entertainment that has a mission to provide a platform for Black and Brown-led stories, woman-centered stories, what are your thoughts around that?

It’s disappointing that promises made in 2020 are being rolled back. I think it’s also super important that the energy around those practices aren’t lost. That means diverse teams, diverse marketing teams, diverse research teams, diverse compensation and HR teams. That means studios are in business with diverse people. Because those values are embedded into people of color. It’s who we are, and I’m very happy that I’m at a studio that gets it and gives me the runway to champion voices of color and diverse voices in front and behind the camera.

What’s advice you’d give others in this field who on their way up?

I would say do it scared! I always loved the concept that pressure make diamonds, and I believe that in life you have to push through discomfort if you have a desire and a plan. I’d also say take every opportunity when you are starting out because there’s something to gain from every experience even if it’s just learning that you want to cross that thing off of your list of possibilities.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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