Creating a life for yourself where you’re getting paid to develop TV shows is one thing, but using your experiences and connections to help the next woman to do the same takes things to a whole new level. For Emmy Award-winning producer, Toni L. Bullock, it just simply made sense: being a creator is nothing without also being a connector.
The Brooklyn native who’s now based in Los Angeles is the Director of Development at Vox Media Studios and the founder of a networking group called Callsheets 2 Cocktails. She spoke with Her Agenda about what it’s like being a development executive, the importance of being strategic in your life, and why having a house in Malibu isn’t the only goal on her vision board.
Her Agenda: Please tell us about your current role, what do you do and how different it is from your previous jobs?
Toni L. Bullock: I am the founder of Callsheets 2 Cocktails, a women in entertainment networking group, and I am also the Director of Development at Vox Media Studios located in Los Angeles and New York. Prior to this role, I was a freelance producer working on shows that had already been picked up by production companies.
In my last job, I was a supervising producer on Peace of Mind with Taraji for Facebook Watch. I worked closely with the Co-EP and Showrunner in helping to shape the show. Basically, I was the showrunner’s right hand. I also helped oversee a staff of 12-15 people which included producers, PAs, field producers, celebrity producers, etc.
In my current role at Vox Studios, I work in pre-development and pre-production where we come up with show ideas, specifically in unscripted development. This means you’re always looking for trends, ideas, articles, or just IP out in the world that could be potential show ideas. And everyone thinks they have a show idea, which is correct, but how do you make yours different? How do you make it louder? How do you have a hook that is unique and not just an idea that anyone can come up with and is specifically made for you? So, basically, I come up with show ideas, package them and try to sell them to networks.
Her Agenda: For someone who’s just reading your resume, they’ll see that you’ve worked on shows that impact the culture directly like ‘Black Women Own The Conversation,’ ‘Red Table Talk’, and ‘Peace of Mind with Taraji.’ What do you want people to know about your journey and how you keep hustling to work on all these amazing projects?
Toni L. Bullock: As a woman of color in the industry, there are different challenges to overcome. Some are personal where you ask, ‘Am I good enough?’ Or it can be professional where people judge you and think you didn’t deserve that promotion or position. For instance, when I was working on Speak Sis with Bevy Smith and we were talking about her book ‘Bevelations’ she said, ‘You’re going to have to be strategic about your life. It’s your life so you have to do what you want to do and not be guided or told by other people how it should be. At the end of the day, you have to live with yourself. Are you comfortable and proud of yourself? And if not, what do you have to do to change that?’
So, ever since then I began to focus and silence the inner critic. I also wanted a certain type of life outside of the industry. If you hustle hard, you will continue to get work, but then you end up in the situation of ‘I want to travel to this country or have a family or a business.’ On the flip side, you ask yourself what type of content would I like to create. I was working on a lot of shows that I loved, but when you’re working 12-hour days and digesting content 10x more than the average person, you realize that you’re also living it. That’s when I started shifting things in my personal life and decided I wanted to work in the mental health, fitness and wellness space. I started working on shows that really spoke to that. In the end, I said to myself that if I’m going to work on a show for 12 hours and learn about something, let it be about mental health or fitness and allow me to build these shows in a way that teaches audiences who are watching it.
Her Agenda: Can you talk about the difference between being full-time and freelance? Tell us the pros, and cons, and what do you miss?
Toni L. Bullock: I miss being on set and meeting and seeing different people every day. When I worked on The Amazing Race, I got to travel to different countries and met people from different cultures, and learned things firsthand. What I don’t miss is the grind. You’re working 21 days straight sometimes. So, being a freelancer is a catch-22 of doing what you love and what you don’t love. But sometimes the adrenaline rush pushes you and you love it. It’s a feeling you don’t get on any other job because it is rewarding to say, ‘I helped somebody change their life or I gave them a platform to tell their story.’ Today, I’m blessed that my current job includes eight-hour days, but I can also do what I need to do at different times of the day. For instance, if I have to run to the doctor’s office, I don’t feel guilty. I have more control of my schedule and I’m grateful I have bosses who let me do what I need to do as long as the work is done. I do appreciate the environment I’m in now, but I do miss moving around more. Some days, I need to force myself to take a walk
Her Agenda: Talk to us about Callsheets 2 Cocktails. When did you start it and why? Why did you feel there was a need?
Toni L. Bullock: I started Callsheets 2 Cocktails (C2C) back in 2017. During that time, the industry stalled for a second and I was in between jobs and people were saying ‘We wish we could meet together.’ So, I started creating events. I started one in L.A. and over 300 women attended. That’s when I realized how much women wanted and needed events like this. As I was having more and more of these events, I started doing them in NYC. New York is a different scene, there isn’t as much entertainment, it’s more advertising, tech, and editorial but ideally, we all do the same type of thing but in different forms. We’ve held over 10-15 events and mixers. We also conduct brunches and dinners with keynote speakers that are more educational in nature, especially in the areas of business, finance, and resume-building. Essentially, C2C is a space where women can connect, collaborate, and learn from each other at the same time.
Her Agenda: What has been the most surprising thing to have come from this group?
Toni L. Bullock: Finding a sense of purpose but also how thankful the women are for a space like this. I really love how supportive each woman is with one another. I haven’t left an event without women telling me, ‘Thank you, this was needed.’ Quite frankly, I have never been to an event where there wasn’t a great group of women who weren’t competing with each other. At C2C, there isn’t a guest list or an application process in order for women to attend.
I tell those who are newer to the industry that there’s really no “right” way to move in the industry. It’s all about sharing your experiences so when women see something similar coming up, they know what to do or not. It’s like a ladies club in a way. It can be a lot of work to put on these events, but it’s all worth it because you’re giving back. I also give a lot of credit to my team. They help push me and step in when it’s busy.
Her Agenda: Why is it important to create outside of work? In a previous interview of yours [you shared] that it’s important to create with your friends.
Toni L. Bullock: As an executive, you’re constantly creating. It’s a blessing and a curse. In development, you’re always looking for the next best thing or trend. Things are constantly moving. Yet, whatever I create, I have to be super passionate about. For instance, during COVID, I created a show about couples trying to plan their weddings during [the pandemic]. Will they have one or will they not? You never know where things go. Or, I’ll have a podcast or book idea I’m working on or working on a short film with a friend. As a creator, you want to always have a portfolio of work you’re passionate about.
Her Agenda: You’ve been in the industry for about 10 years. From year one to year 10, how has your definition of success changed?
Toni L. Bullock: When I first started, I didn’t know my definition of success. I just wanted my name in the credits (laughter). And my definition of success changes over time. It used to be about achieving a specific salary to having a house in Malibu house to being in a certain executive role. Now, it’s moved from less materialistic things (although the Malibu house is still on my vision board!) to more about things like Callsheets 2 Cocktails where I want to help someone succeed in their dreams. I also want to have a show of mine on Netflix or Hulu or some type of network where it says ‘Created by’ or ‘Executive produced by Toni L. Bullock.’ That’s a big thing for me. But also I would feel incredibly happy to hear someone say, ‘Oh, I got this job because of Callsheets 2 Cocktails’ or ‘I didn’t want to stop working in the industry because I heard your story of XYZ,’ or ‘Our chat has helped me shape the next steps of my career.’ Mentorship is key in this industry. A mentor isn’t someone who you check in with every week. It could be every few months, but it is someone who helps guide you and helps steer you on the right path when you don’t doubt yourself. And don’t think you need just one mentor, it should be multiple people.
Her Agenda: If given total executive and creative control and not care about advertisers or viewers with unlimited spending dollars, what would you produce and why?
Toni L. Bullock: You see, that’s unfair because I feel like I’m giving you a show idea (laughter). But seriously, I think I would do a documentary that takes a sneak-peek into different women across the world. We’ll find out their different definitions for beauty, success, sexuality, religion, etc. and how are they overcoming these things in critical times of their life whether it be a Gen Zer or a woman who had a life-changing factor in her life.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Headshot photo credit: Matt Ellis]