Most movie and television executives are hunting for the next blockbuster. Carole Tomko is aiming for something bigger.
As general manager and creative director of Vulcan Productions, Tomko oversees films, shows and videos with the goal of achieving social change across a variety of areas, complementing Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s initiatives in technology and philanthropy.
“Film studios and networks run on models driven by box office, ratings and advertising,” Tomko explains. “Our return on investment is impact and change.”
For example, Vulcan’s recent projects include the documentary Body Team 12, about a Red Cross crew responsible for recovering bodies in Liberia at the height of the Ebola crisis; Racing Extinction, about the impact of humans on the ocean’s endangered species; and We The Economy, a series of short films produced in partnership with Morgan Spurlock’s Cinelan.
Tomko, who joined Vulcan Productions in 2013, has been developing and producing content for more than 30 years. Her career includes a long tenure at Discovery Communications, where she was the president and general manager of several Discovery Studios networks, and worked on hit franchises for Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, TLC, Discovery Health, and Discovery Kids.
Meet our new Geek of the Week, and continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.
What role does Vulcan Productions play in the broader world of filmmaking and television? How is it different? “Vulcan Productions combines cinematic storytelling with philanthropy and technology to ignite change. We believe great stories can generate empathy for the most challenging issues of our time and our mission is to take those stories and use them to drive curiosity and change the world for the better. Film studios and networks run on models driven by box office, ratings and advertising. Our return on investment is impact and change. This is just one of the things that sets Vulcan Productions apart from other media and production companies. We invest in multiple projects, styles and platforms to tackle big issues.
Take climate and species conservation, for example. Racing Extinction shows the effects of carbon consumption on our oceans and species, while Pandora’s Promise examines a more sustainable energy future. Together, these films compose the beginnings of a cinematic arsenal for fighting climate change and protecting the environment and our species. With We The Economy, we wanted to demystify the economy by producing entertaining content that gives people information that’s relevant to their lives, easy to understand and useful in their daily decisions. Whether it’s educating girls with Girl Rising or driving awareness around elephant poaching and wildlife trafficking, our goal is always to drive change.”
What are your biggest challenges and goals as general manager and creative director? “Creating content that ignites an emotional connection for the viewer and ultimately drives them to action. Since we also develop against difficult impact topics like climate, oceans, wildlife conservation and Ebola, the hardest challenge is to tackle these subjects in a way that make them relevant, accessible and entertaining for the audience. With the short film Body Team 12 we want to raise awareness and support for the ongoing Ebola relief effort, while also breaking the stigma and misconception surrounding the disease, and inspiring others to volunteer. The story is told on the ground in Monrovia, Liberia through the eyes of the only female member of the body collection team, Garmai Sumo, who reveals the heartbreaking, lifesaving work of removing bodies from loved ones in order to halt transmission of the disease. She is the heroine of the story, and humanizes it for us with her very personal experience and point of view.”
What are the secrets to finding and developing great projects? “If I told you my secrets I’d have to…! Over the years I’ve learned to watch what’s happening in culture before things become trends. For instance, with selfies it was just a matter of time before Go-Pro created a selfie-stick. With Go-Pros becoming affordable and camera phones being of such high quality, it sparked a new kind of storytelling. I also always watch what teenagers are doing and using because they give great clues as to where the technology and platforms are headed. The pendulum always swings on genres and topics and I’m thrilled right now to be ahead of the swing back to high quality, rigorously artistic and journalistic feature docs.”
How are mobile viewing, multi-platform audiences and new technologies changing your approach? “When developing digital content, we always develop for the smallest screen first. The user experience has to be stellar on the phone. In addition to mobile, we always develop our concepts with a 360 approach, optimizing search dynamics around our content. It used to be you produced a “program” for TV and let the network promote it. Now, we are always thinking through where and how the content will be consumed completely before we complete production. For instance, with We the Economy, we wanted the broadest audience so we partnered with over 65 platforms to distribute the series, but we also created an app with the full experience, and a full educational curriculum download.”
What’s it like to work for Paul Allen? “Pretty wonderful. It’s one of the best jobs I’ve had, and it’s the first job in 30 years where I’m not ruled by television ratings. Working with Paul is like working with the best and hardest professor. He challenges us to drive optimal impact on all our initiatives and is an amazing thought partner. If I’m stuck on something, he has that laser-focused vision and ability to see the problem through another lens. He has a huge appetite for content and consumes and synthesizes an extraordinary amount of information. So, when we develop our ideas, he’s always way ahead of us in his thinking and stays in the visionary role when we execute. Paul has created an organization that is willing, motivated and resourced to tackle the tough topics and challenges the world faces.”
Where do you find your inspiration? “Outdoors and on the trail. I do my best thinking when I’m out walking (used to run) and biking. Nature is a huge inspiration for creating great content. Any beach walk creates a moment of inspiration for me.”
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “That’s easy, my iPhone. It has everything I need at all times, my schedule, my contacts, my photos, my email — it’s like a personal tracker so everyone can find me, or not. I also love the camera, the photos look great.”
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “I use my white boards all the time — to brainstorm, to serve as reminders, to work out projects. My double screens allow me to watch and edit on different screens as well as research and write. I’m usually doing at least two things at once. When I have to focus on one thing, I sit at my side table, away from the phone to hyper focus on a presentation or writing.”
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “Lists, lists, and more lists and then a lot of flexibility. I’m particularly good at multi-tasking at work and in my personal life. Prioritize and don’t procrastinate. Delegate and hire great teams. I always trick myself by getting at least three to six easy things done first thing in the morning so I don’t feel like I’m behind already at 9 am. Before I get into the office, I’ve usually tackled a few key assignments. It’s imperative you actually schedule the time to get the projects done that you need, book it on your calendar, set reminders and then just get it done. You can’t lose time on emails or things that aren’t as important. I also firmly believe in healthy eating, exercise and fresh air to keep your brain in top shape. And, go to your kid’s games—you won’t regret it and can always get back on the computer after. But don’t be that parent that is on the phone pacing the field the whole time — no one likes those people.”
Mac, Windows or Linux? “I love my Macs but work with Windows of course.”
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Old Kirk — Classic!”
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Even though I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, I’d have to choose Transporter because I hate to fly. And, I’m assuming I could transport myself back in time, so I could use my transporter abilities as a time machine as well.”
I once waited in line for … “An hour for a lobster roll at a football game!”
Your role models: “Jane Goodall. She is a complete inspiration in dedicating her life to chimps. I met Jane when I was Head of Development and Production for Animal Planet. We worked on a variety of specials and I was supposed to travel to spend time with her at Gombe but last minute I wasn’t able to go on the trip! We were able to work together on Racing Extinction and now on other initiatives within Vulcan.”
Greatest Game In History: “Monopoly of course!”
Best Gadget Ever: “iPod transformed exercise! And I’m looking at some new Bose noise cancellation earbuds.”
First Computer: IBM Jr.
Current Phone: iPhone
Favorite Show: “Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, House of Cards and of course Grey’s Anatomy.”
Favorite App: “Google Maps — I’m still finding my way around Seattle.”
Favorite Cause: “We work with so many great NGO’s. It’s hard to choose but Donor’s Choose is an amazing organization. Anything that helps teachers and education is an awesome cause.”
Most Important Technology of 2015: “3D imaging enabling all the amazing work being done in the medical field.”
Most Important Technology of 2017: “Virtual reality! We believe it is one of the most exciting technologies out there right now.”
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Do what you love and love what you do and you’ll be happy at work! Don’t ever let someone tell you it’s a bad idea — there are lots of ‘bad ideas’ that spark brilliant innovation.”
LinkedIn: Carole Tomko