Sam Haskell is an Emmy nominated producer and serves as the president of Magnolia Hill Productions. Partnering with country music star Dolly Parton, Mr. Haskell is responsible for having produced the very popular and heartwarming NBC television movies, ‘Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors’ and it’s sequel ‘Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors – Circle of Love.’ In addition to their ratings successes, the films also garnered much critical praise, the latter of which ‘Christmas of Many Colors,’ was nominated for Best Television Movie at the 2017 Primetime Emmy Awards. More recently, Sam has been producing multiple projects for Netflix including ‘Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings,’ an anthology series of eight movies based on the songs and life stories of Dolly and an original Dolly Netflix musical that will air this holiday season.
Hailing from Amory, Mississippi, Mr. Haskell is an alumnus of the University of Mississippi. Soon after graduating in 1978, he moved to Los Angeles and began working in the film and television industry. Starting in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency, Sam’s meteoric career took him to Executive Vice President and Worldwide Head of Television by the age of 40. At William Morris, Haskell oversaw the “packaging” of all agency represented network projects, including such mega-hits as ” Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “Sisters,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Lost,” “Murphy Brown,” and “Live with Regis & Kathie Lee,” among many others.
Sam Haskell is a great example for young people who are looking to work in the entertainment field. With his thoughtful approach to business backed by his character and personal faith, he’s enjoyed tremendous success in both his professional and personal worlds.
What was your best/favorite subject in school?
I enjoyed all of my classes, but I was particularly passionate about English and History. I loved reading classic works of literature and ever since I was a young boy, I’ve been fascinated with American and European history and the English monarchs. Different time periods have always held my interest and I continue to be a history buff and Anglophile to this day.
Where and how did you first get into the industry you currently work in?
My family wanted me to go into medicine, but I wanted to be in California, in the entertainment business, from the time I knew there was an entertainment business. I moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 1978 after graduating from Ole Miss to go to law school. I thought it might be a way to get into the entertainment business. To help my plan, I tried to get in touch with Ruth Englehart, head of business affairs at William Morris. After many weeks of calling, I finally got through to her and she met me that day. After 3 hours of chatting she told me I’d need to start in the mailroom, and she set me up for a final interview with William Morris COO, Walter Zifkin. In my meeting with Walt, he asked how a tall Southern boy with good Christian values could fit into the crazy world of entertainment. I responded by sharing a personal story about my mother, faith, and equality, and he hired me on the spot. On October 23, 1978 I started in the William Morris mailroom earning just $125 a week.
How did that job prepare you for what you do now?
I have always been strong-willed and tenacious. Even in the mailroom, I dedicated myself to being the first to volunteer for the most menial of chores, from being best pencil sharpener to best Xeroxer. Other mailroom guys would actually sit on their butts and watch me do this. Fine with me. I knew hard work would be noticed. I was an Eagle Scout. I’d played football. I knew what it was like to be part of a team. Instead of following examples, I set the example. Working in the mailroom taught me to leverage my strong work ethic into advancing myself. It has supported me throughout my entire career.
Describe the best day of work you’ve ever had.
There are many but I’ll share two recent ones that come to mind. After our first television movie, ‘Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors,’ aired on NBC on December 10, 2015, I was over the moon with how well audiences responded to it. ‘Coat of Many Colors’ eclipsed over 16 million live viewers making it the most viewed original television movie among the Big Four Networks in six years at that time. Moreover, it received overwhelming critical acclaim and won the Movieguide Templeton Foundation Epiphany Prize, The Christopher Award, and the Academy of Country Music Tex Ritter Award.
The second story I want to mention is when the sequel to ‘Coat of Many Colors, ‘Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors – Circle of Love,’ was nominated for Best Television Movie for the 2017 Primetime Emmy Awards on July 13, 2017. I was completely surprised by the announcement and the first thing I did was call Dolly to give her the great news. She was so happy and delighted. Attending the awards as a nominee has been one of the biggest highlights of my career.
How do you keep yourself motivated?
I’ve always been highly motivated but I think it’s a combination of passion for creating art and prayer. For me this business is not about money, it’s about bringing quality entertainment to life.
I’m also a family man and a person of faith. I believe that all things are possible through God and supporting my family and making them proud is paramount for me. I realize that having a strong sense of faith may be unusual for a Hollywood executive, but it gives me strength and fuels my determination.
What kind of business ideas excite you most?
More in terms of projects, I am most excited about stories that inspire and deliver positive messages. At Magnolia Hill we aim to create content that’s uplifting and family friendly. From Dolly and her heartwarming music, to important historical figures, and retelling classic tales, I’m motivated by ideas for shows that educate and encourage good morals and character.
Have you tried any unorthodox techniques to draw attention to your business?
We haven’t tried anything unorthodox, but I will say how impressed I am with today’s new and inventive forms of marketing. Our team at Netflix is first class and they come up with all sorts of amazing and creative ideas to promote our shows. Engaging Dolly’s fans through unique social media campaigns has been both effective and quite fun.
What personal achievements are you most proud of?
I am beyond proud of the family I’ve co-created with my incredible wife and partner Mary. We’re blessed with our two children, Sam IV, and Mary Lane, and we now have three wonderful grandsons, Samuel Bond Haskell V, James Donnelly Haskell, and William Kirkpatrick Haskell, II. Moreover, Mary and I are heavily involved in various philanthropic endeavors which gives us great joy through helping others.
What wisdom would you like to share with yourself when you first started out?
Enjoy the ride! Hard work is the cornerstone of success, but make sure you celebrate the wins when they come. It’s a marathon not a sprint.