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Alumni Success Stories

Tim Johnson, B.S. '88
Tavel/Johnson Television

What kind of business did the entrepreneur start?

Tim Johnson is currently a partner at Tavel/ Johnson Television in Beverly Hills, California. In 1997, he teamed up with Connie Tavel, a successful talent manager, to form this new production company which, drawing from Tavel's pool of talent and Johnson's experience in the television industry, is currently producing a modern-day Miami Vice called The Coast for ABC. Johnson believes that the company will soon be producing at least five television shows.

The partnership has two major functions. One primary company objective is to procure and maintain a strong talent base and produce television shows. Connie Tavel has been a mainstay in the entertainment industry for many years and is a talent manager for many of Hollywood's hottest stars. She is responsible for providing the production company with the best talent available. Notable talent affiliated with Tavel/ Johnson Television includes Helen Hunt and Craig T. Nelson. Unlike talent agencies, talent management companies are also involved in the actual production of films and television shows.

Tim Johnson has recently taken over as the head of television production at Tavel/ Johnson and is in charge of the entire production process. Television producers must pitch projects to the networks, oversee production schedules, oversee payroll, ensure that necessary equipment is on the set, ensure that the networks are happy . . . a producer’s list of responsibilities goes on and on. Tim’s current responsibilities as head of production are beyond that of a producer of one television show, as he must oversee the production of many shows at the same time. Tim likens his work to that of a general contractor and is the main organizational force of the company. He must select viable television concepts, skillfully organize their creation, and furnish the networks with a finished product.

Tim feels that his affiliation with Connie has enhanced his ability to excel in his job in that he believes that access to talent is the key to success, and Connie’s clients provide Tim with an exemplary talent base. Tim is confident that the new partnership will be instrumental in his effort to produce successful television shows.

What is the background of the entrepreneur?

Tim Johnson grew up in a large family in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Always fascinated with the entertainment industry, Tim came to USC in 1988 as a twenty-year-old transfer student. He had already produced a film back in Minnesota, but he was not interested in attending the USC School of Cinema. Rather, he entered the entrepreneur program with the belief that these studies would better prepare him for the management end of the entertainment industry. Tim wrote a detailed business plan and feasibility study during his senior year at USC which laid out the framework for the production of a feature-length film entitled Real Combat.

After graduating in May of 1989, Tim decided not to carry out his business plan because, at this time, Tim realized that his future would lie in the television industry. Tim developed a rather low opinion of the film industry. Expressing his displeasure with the film industry, Tim noted that "TV was an industry rather than a playground"; the mere thought of working on independent films made him nauseous.

Intent on working in television, Tim tried to contact Barney Rozenzweig (Class of ‘56), an established television producer with Weintraub Entertainment. Although Tim had no connection and had never met Rozenzweig, he knew that Barney was a USC graduate and a die-hard supporter of the University. He thought that this would help him get his foot in the door. After receiving numerous letters and countless telephone messages, Rozenzweig finally contacted Tim one year later in 1990. They had a brief conversation, but Tim did not hear back from Rozenzweig thereby leading him to practically writte off his hope and desire to work with Rozenzweig.

Yet another year passed before Rozenzweig contacted Tim and brought him into Weintraub Entertainment as his assistant. Although Tim had always been intent on running his own production company, he felt that working for Rozenzweig would provide him with better experience than he could have gained on his own. Tim’s initial career strategy was to enter an established company as high up as possible and learn for free on his boss’ time. Tim gained invaluable experience, such as learning how to mount a show and pitch it to the networks, while working as Rosenzweig’s assistant. He helped Rozenzweig pitch The Trials of Rosie O’Neil to CBS. In 1992, having worked for Rozenzweig for one year, he decided it was time to venture out on his own.

Tim "thinks that his business is more about acts of god. You just have to show up for it." While Tim worked as an assistant on Rosie O’Neil, a writer named Beth Sullivan was hired to work on the show. The two collaborated on many occasions and they developed a strong relationship. After Tim left Rozenzweig in 1992, he and Beth combined forces to form a television production company called The Sullivan Company. Tim and Beth began to pitch television shows to the networks, and Tim was able to draw on the experience he gained while helping Rozenzweig pitch Rosie O’Neil. Although Tim was the front runner for The Sullivan Company and essentially oversaw all of the operations of the company, his affiliation with Sullivan was necessary because he could not have approached the networks without her. Network executives only accept pitches from established producers, and Sullivan already had strong connections at the networks.

Tim feels that he "lucked out" in meeting Sullivan. Their show, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, was picked up by CBS (the title character was named after Tim’s grandmother.) Once again, Tim relied on his past experience when he was called to oversee the production of Dr. Quinn. The television show remained on the air for 5 full seasons, and Tim learned a great deal about television production. In 1997, Tim left to start Tim Johnson Productions. He produced a pilot, but he quickly learned that he needed more star power to ensure the success of his company.

Toward the end of 1997, Tim went boating with an agent friend. The two discussed the current status of Tim’s career, and the agent informed Tim that he had a manager friend who happened to be interested in teaming up with a producer. One week later, Tim met Connie Tavel and the two formed Tavel/ Johnson Television.

How did the entrepreneur get the idea for starting this business?

Although Tim's venture with Tim Johnson Productions was short lived, Tim learned a valuable lesson about the television industry. Accessing top talent had become his major obstacle and he needed more leverage with the top talent in Hollywood. Tim needed a partner that could supply him with the star power that is required of a strong production company. Since the networks give him money to produce the shows, his need for capital was minimal. Tim explained that talent is as crucial to survival in the entertainment industry as cash is to survival in entrepreneurial ventures. When Tavel's previous partner left, Tim was brought in to head up the television division. He currently has access to the best available talent, and has been successful in pitching projects to the networks.

What did the entrepreneur do to start this business?

Although Tavel/ Johnson Television has been in existence for less than one year, Tim Johnson has essentially been working up to this position since graduating from USC. Tim believes that his prior experiences have been critical to his current success. He explained that "you need to learn how to crawl before you learn to walk before you learn to run before you learn to sprint." Over the past several years, Tim has had several valuable learning experiences:

Crawl: When working for Rozenzweig, Tim learned how to mount a television show. Through observation, he learned how to approach the networks with a project and make a successful pitch.

Walk: While working with Beth Sullivan, Tim gained first hand experience in pitching shows to the networks.

Run: Tim's experience in producing Dr. Quinn was invaluable. He learned how to prepare production schedules, obtain talent, meet deadlines, oversee post-production, procure equipment, maintain a budget, obtain insurance . . . he attempted to apply this knowledge to Tim Johnson Productions.

Sprint: Tim now has access to the networks and can apply the knowledge gained through producing Dr. Quinn to his current position at Tavel/ Johnson. He now is capable of setting up and building the infrastructure of a full-fledged television production company.

Tim's functional role within the new organization is more complex than his role at The Sullivan Company in that he must now oversee television production from a higher level. Rather than getting his hands dirty with day to day production, Tim spends much of his time developing new projects. His short-term goal is to successfully pitch five or more television shows to the networks. In order to reach that goal, Tim must select a viable concept, refine the idea, and then pitch it to the networks. If the networks accept the pitch, the company will produce a pilot episode. If the networks approve the pilot, Tim will spearhead the production process.

When did the entrepreneur do these activities?

Tim graduated from the Entrepreneur Program at USC in 1989. He spent the next two years trying to land a job in the television industry. His persistence paid off in 1991, when he began to work with Barney Rozenzweig at Weintraub Entertainment. He left Weintrab in 1992 to start The Sullivan Company with Beth Sullivan. He was the producer of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman for five years. He started Tim Johnson Productions in 1997 and produced one pilot, but realized that he needed a partner with connection to top talent. He and Connie Tavel teamed up in late 1997, and they have begun to produce their first show, The Coast.

What major problems did the entrepreneur encounter during the startup of this business?

Tim's long term goal is to one day be a studio head and everything he has accomplished thus far has kept him on track to achieve this goal. Along the way, he has encountered several hurdles. When Tim first graduated from USC, he had no connections in the television industry. He could not have started a television production company at this time, because his lack of experience in the industry would basically guarantee failure.

Once he had obtained quality experience at Weintraub Entertainment, Tim encountered his next obstacle. Although he had previously been involved in pitching shows, Tim was unable to get in the door at the networks and clearly needed an ally who would provide the clout necessary to be heard by the networks.

After five years with The Sullivan Company, Tim felt that he was able to venture out on his own. He learned very quickly, however, that he could not operate without a pool of talented actors and actresses. He needed a partner that could provide him with quality talent, the most crucial of Hollywood assets.

How were those problems solved?

Tim’s immediate goal after graduation was to work at an established production company at the highest level possible. He went straight to the top of Weintraub Entertainment and worked as Barney Rozenzweig's assistant. This did not happen overnight, however. Tim displayed an extraordinary amount of persistence in his quest to obtain this job. Phone call after phone call, letter after letter, Tim's perseverance and tenacity eventually paid off. Landing the position as Rozenzweig's assistant sparked Tim's career; he gained valuable experience that paid off down the road.

Success in the entertainment industry is heavily dependent on a person's ability to develop key relationships with the right people. Throughout his career, Tim has forged and cultivated key relationships that have been critical to the continued growth and success of his career. Tim's position at Weintraub put him in direct contact with Beth Sullivan, a colleague that would eventually provide him with a ticket into the networks. It was his relationship with Beth that made it possible for him to get in the door and pitch the networks. Likewise, Tim's friendships within the television industry provided him with the connection to Connie Tavel. She was able to provide Tim with the talent he desperately needed. Tim's vast network of friends and colleagues has provided him with the strength and resources he has needed to overcome the obstacles he has faced thus far.

Who did the entrepreneur use for help and guidance during the startup of this business?

During the early portion of his career, Tim relied on the support and advice of a family friend. The mentor, formerly with the talent agency CAA, was someone that Tim could always count on to tell him the truth. The agent was not afraid to tell Tim when he was "full of shit." In this industry, that type of advice is offered relatively infrequently.

The mentor also helped Tim learn how to negotiate. He taught Tim that the key to successful negotiation is to think one step ahead of the person with whom you are dealing. In order to do so, he was advised to go into every situation "convinced that everyone else is a mental midget." Looking at Tim's track record, this advice appears to be rather sound.

What advice would the entrepreneur give to someone thinking about starting a business?

Tim believes that tenacity, desire, and faith are a successful person's most valuable assets. He feels that too many people give up too early. Tim is a true believer that "there's always a storm before the calm" and that only a person with tenacity, desire, and faith will reap the benefits of riding out the storm. Tim once tried to pitch a project, but he was completely unsuccessful. He believes that his efforts were doomed from the start, because he didn’t believe in the project. All along, he knew that the idea was way ahead of its time. He suggested that all young entrepreneurs read Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, a book that describes the importance of tenacity and faith.

Why was this entrepreneur successful at getting into business?

David N. Perkins and Robert J. Weber's Effable Invention delves into the creative process of invention. In their essay, Perkins and Weber discuss three aspects of the inventive process. The authors investigate the search for invention, the psychological traits of the inventor, and the social setting in which the invention is created.

The Search: The search metaphor relates to the steps that the inventor takes in crafting his invention. The inventor may not always be headed in the right direction, but there are certain qualities that keep the inventor on track. "How does the searcher go about finding a workable idea among the many possible ideas? Obviously not by considering them all." Tim Johnson’s success can be attributed to his knack for putting himself on the right track. In 1989 Tim made a key decision regarding his career and, after graduation, decided that experience would be necessary before he could start his own production company. Surprisingly, he did not jump at the first available opportunity. He desired a position that would put him up at the top of a company, where he could meet key people and see important decisions being made. Tim waited two years before he started to work for Rozenzweig. This decision put Tim on the fast track; at Weintraub, Tim put himself in the position to learn how to run a production company.

Psychological: Perkins and Weber discuss psychological characteristics that contribute to an inventor's success and note that inventors share similar psychological attributes. Inventors do not achieve their goals overnight; therefore, they are steadfastly persistent in their search. Tim Johnson demonstrated an extraordinary degree of persistence in his attempt to break into the television industry. After graduation, Tim spent the vast majority of two years trying to land a job as Barney Rozenzweig's assistant. Had he abandoned his quest, it is unlikely that Tim would have received such an extraordinary opportunity to learn from one of the industry's best. Tim's persistence is admirable and marks his undying tenacity and desire.

Tim's optimistic attitude underscores his reaction to the problems that he has faced throughout his career. Tim stresses the importance of forward momentum in everything he does. He said that getting beaten down is inevitable and what is important is how you keep the forward momentum and get back up to speed. Tim needs to maintain forward momentum while running the production company. It is inevitable that he will pursue projects that will not become hit television series. Tim feels, however, that he should continue to work on these projects just to keep the forward momentum going. Tim's philosophy is to "make more right decisions than wrong decisions. Don't question it, just fucking do it."

Social: Tim works in an industry that often mixes business and pleasure. Meeting the right people and developing relationships is extremely important to individuals in the entertainment industry. As the head of television production, Tim must constantly interact with agents, employees, and network executives. Tim believes that developing relationships within the industry has been key to his success. Without these relationships, Tim would have been unable to overcome the obstacles he has faced over the past nine years.

- Steve Levin