A Time Reporter Retrained Herself and Got an NBCUniversal Deal

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen wrote her way from journalism into a TV career

Lisa Cullen
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen worked at several publications, most significantly at Time magazine, before switching to screenwriting. Matt Dine
Headshot of Eva Kis

Reporter-turned-TV writer Lisa Takeuchi Cullen has been writing professionally since college. Getting there was about seizing opportunities—but it began with a twist of fate. 

“I took a wrong turn one day while I was at school at Rutgers, into the offices of our college newspaper The Daily Targum,” she recalls, “and they asked if I wanted to work there.”

Journalism taught her about the wider world—being a reporter at a large state university opened her eyes to issues of race, religion and sexual orientation—not to mention that “journalism, I think, feels more accessible to more minorities,” says Takeuchi Cullen, “because it’s something we can see and experience in our everyday lives. Every family no matter how rich or poor—back in the day, anyway—got a newspaper or saw the news on television.”

TV writing and screenwriting, however, “feel far more inaccessible and lofty.” But the need to shift career gears arrived in 2010, when the sale of Newsweek for $1 shook Takeuchi Cullen’s confidence in the journalism industry. “Those of us at Time magazine looked around and wondered, ‘Oh my god, could that happen here?’” 

So after 12 years with the magazine, she took a buyout that included a retraining allowance, which she used to attend every class, workshop and seminar she could find about screenwriting. “I knew nothing, just nothing, about screenwriting,” so she read hundreds of scripts and wrote some “very bad” ones and then, “eventually, I wrote a decent one and off of that, I got my first deal.”

It was a lucky break: a blind script deal at Warner Bros., where Christopher Mack, then svp of the studio’s television workshop, taught her how to develop pilots, which eventually led her to the writing staff of Law & Order: SVU as part of an overall deal with NBCUniversal.

“That turned out to be the only viable career that I could have made for myself, living in New Jersey and trying to break into Hollywood,” she said, as moving was not in the cards. “I didn’t have to be in L.A. to work full time in a writers room. I could sit at home and come up with ideas for television shows, pitch those ideas and sell them to networks.”

Cullen describes the current writers room of SVU—one of the rare shows produced and shot in the same city where it’s written—as the most diverse in the series’ history, and key to continuing to tell new and relevant stories. 

“Every writer’s room should reflect our society,” she says. “That’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do because when your writers look like the world, they’ll bring you voices and stories that will keep your audience engaged. And I think that that’s changing; more and more, Hollywood is recognizing that.”

And as a member of the Writers Guild of America East, Takeuchi Cullen has been part of why the television and screenwriting part of the entertainment industry is becoming more accessible. She’s been with the organization for six years, beginning with a 2014 road trip with the WGAE to Albany, N.Y., to lobby for a diversity tax credit (the Television Diversity Tax Credit was eventually passed in late 2019.)

In that time, she’s risen to become an elected council member of the WGAE, advocating for inclusion and equity along the way by founding first its Women’s Salon, then co-founding the Asian-American Salon. She also currently co-chairs the Committee for Inclusion and Equity. Her efforts were recognized earlier this year with the Richard B. Jablow Award for service to the guild.

“Year after year, the [diversity] numbers don’t change, and countless people have tried and thrown a lot of money and resources at trying to make that change, and it hasn’t worked,” she says. “So, what do you do? You can throw up your hands and say, ‘I can’t change anything, so why try?’ Or, you can roll up your sleeves and try to make what little difference you can.”

Big Mistake: “My big mistakes have been rooted in insecurity and fear of doing the wrong thing. Women, and certainly Asian women, don’t say enough when we’re good at something.”

Lesson Learned: “Anytime I feel fear, I’ve learned to act with kindness, to think about how my actions will affect somebody else.”

How She Got the Gig: “My book agent introduced me to my first TV agent, who introduced me to my first producer, and that project crashed and burned in a horrible, typical Hollywood way, which should have scared me away for good. I don’t know if it’s confidence, vanity or stupidity. Any smart person would have chosen another path.”

Pro Tip: “The most important thing for any writer, really, is to read. And once you’ve read enough, you get a sense of the kind of writer that you want to be.”

This story first appeared in the May 4, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@thisiskis eva.kis@adweek.com Eva Kis is the online editor at Adweek.