Small Town Sensation

NBCUniversal’s Jim Orr beat the odds to become a Hollywood success story. You can too, he tells Eastern students.

Small Town Sensation

NBCUniversal’s Jim Orr beat the odds to become a Hollywood success story. You can too, he tells Eastern students.

By Charles E. Reineke

he tiny towns in the shadow of the Grand Coulee Dam are low-slung, big-sky locales — wide spots in the road where the sage brush often outnumbers the people. Eastern alumnus Jim Orr loved his home turf, and was proud to be a “raider” at Roosevelt Lake High School. But that didn’t mean he never dreamt of other places, places buzzing with 24/7 music, arts and culture. Cities like New York and Los Angeles.

Not that there was ever anything wrong with Grand Coulee and its environs. These are tight-knit, friendly communities. The scenery, though austere, is spectacular. But they’re a long way from L.A. Orr found himself ruminating on that distance earlier this spring as he met with a group of EWU film students. They were chatting in a sunny conference room, its polished table set with fancy finger foods, located just outside Orr’s office in, you got it, Los Angeles.

In both miles and mindset,
Orr emphasized to his visitors, places like Grand Coulee — and Cheney — can seem light years removed from media capitals such as New York and Los Angeles. But you can make it work, he said. It’ll take some effort, but you can do it. 

As the president of theatrical distribution at NBCUniversal, Orr ’83 is living proof that it’s possible. In his executive capacity at Universal, he’s responsible for the strategy and management of the studio’s North American film releases. It’s a straightforward description of a job that’s anything but.

Jim Orr and Tom Cruise
Jim Orr and Tom Cruise

Orr recalls, back in 2020, describing the gig to his newly promoted boss, Peter Levinsohn, NBCUniversal’s vice chairman and chief distribution officer. “I started walking him through what we do — because he had not been exposed to theatrical before — and after a while he said something that was perfect, priceless. He said, ‘On the face of it, your business is as simple as it gets. And, at the same time, it’s the most complicated thing I’ve ever seen.’”

This “complicated thing” is centered around what the film world calls “exhibition:” putting a motion picture in theaters, then working to keep it there, generating licensing revenue, for as long as possible.

“That’s the crux of the job, but it’s a more complex and strategic endeavor than it may seem,” Orr says.  “Film distribution is both an art and a science. It involves selecting the optimal release date, the ideal markets and number of screens, for each film.  It requires assessing the competition from other studios and creating a competitive advantage to ensure that every film reaches, or exceeds, its potential for success.”

Another necessity, Orr adds, is the ability to sell your strategy to filmmakers while setting ambitious but realistic box-office expectations — both for them and the company’s senior executives. “It requires constant vigilance, analysis and interpretation of where audiences’ tastes are trending, anticipating how those trends are likely to evolve over time, and then planning accordingly. Data and statistics are invaluable in that process, but you also have to trust your own instincts.”

“It’s much more corporate than it was when I started in the business back in the late 1980s, but the core of it is still about relationships,” he says. “I still know, and talk with regularly, people I’ve been dealing with for literally decades.”


All of this is further complicated by a film industry that is in a near-constant state of evolution. At the start of Orr’s career, for example, movies were delivered to theaters on actual film. (At Paramount Pictures earlier in his career, he led the transition from analog to digital projection and filmmaking.) 

“This industry is always changing,” Orr says. One thing that hasn’t changed, he adds, is the people part. And that’s something he was keen to share with his Eastern visitors.

 “It’s much more corporate than it was when I started in the business back in the late 1980s, but the core of it is still about relationships,” he says. “I still know, and talk with regularly, people I’ve been dealing with for literally decades.”

“As I told the students, ‘Sure, if you end up selling cars in Orange County, networking will be important. But in Hollywood? It’s absolutely everything,’” Orr says. “I don’t mean that in the cliché way of, ‘It’s not what you know but who you know.’ That’s not it at all. It’s developing relationships, working with people and seeing how you can help them. It’s about who you can help, and how can you do great things together.” 

hat bit of wisdom was just one of the insights offered up by Orr and other industry professionals during the whirlwind two-day, one-night visit. Not surprisingly, the students may have been a little too awestruck — at first anyway — to take it all in, says Drew Ayers, the EWU associate professor who accompanied them. 

And who wouldn’t have been? On Day One they blasted into Burbank on an early flight. Just an hour or so later they found themselves gliding through the fabled gates of Universal Studio’s backlot, the behemoth television and film complex that, since the era of silent film, has been America’s movie-making epicenter. 

The trip was the culmination of a process that began five years ago, when Pete Porter, professor and chair of fine and performing arts at Eastern, connected with Orr about opportunities for EWU students to engage with the film and television industry. 

“Jim really wanted to give back to the university, especially with the film students,” Drew Ayers says. “He wanted to show them that you don’t have to be from a big city like L.A. to have a career in the film industry.” 


EWU’s Drew Ayers, seated, with the group who made the trip to Hollywood.
EWU’s Drew Ayers, seated, with the group who made the trip to Hollywood.


Porter suggested that perhaps Orr could host a handful of undergraduate seniors — along with a couple of EWU senior administrators — at his office at NBCUniversal. Orr could share stories, insights, and help them connect with others in the industry. Orr said yes, and Porter, with Ayers’ help, scheduled an inaugural get-together for the spring of 2020.

That trip fell victim to Covid-19. The show did go on, via Zoom, and Ayers says those sessions were great. (They included visits by Jason Blum of Blumhouse, Margie Cohn of DreamWorks Animation, Luke Ryan of Chaotic Good, and Rebecca Arzoian from George Clooney’s Smokehouse Pictures.) Still, everyone knew a computer screen couldn’t compare to being there. So when Ayers reached out to Orr earlier this year and asked whether the in-person visit might happen in 2023, Orr didn’t hesitate.

“Before we left campus,” Ayers says, “Jim told me: ‘Tell the students to leave all their shyness in Spokane. Don’t bring it with you. Come here, engage, ask questions: that’s why you’re here.’” 

And that, after those initial jitters, is exactly what they did. “The students brought their A Games,” says Ayers. “They were prepared. They had great questions and some had printed out bios of the guest speakers. I was impressed.”

That preparedness and professionalism, on display at the meetings, conversations and tours that filled their itinerary, underscored the point Orr hammered home to his guests repeatedly during their visit: “You can do this.”

“Our student body draws regionally, so it can be hard for these kids to see the next step: ‘How do I go from Cheney to Los Angeles?’” Ayers says. “For a lot of students that just seems impossible. My goal was to show them that possibility. And Jim is such a great spokesperson for possibilities. He is them, 40 years ago.”

“The speakers he lined up were designed to show a bit of everything,” Ayers continues. “It’s not just about you becoming Steven Spielberg — sure, that would be great, we should all strive for that. But Spielberg is one of a handful of big names. Jim showed them how there are lots of ways to make it. He kept saying, ‘if you want a career in this industry, you will have one.’”

rr’s own career got its start with a dream, the kind of thing you see in the movies. 

“Somehow I just had it in my head that I was going to get into the movie business,” Orr says. “I had no right whatsoever to even think like that. I’m from a very blue-collar family. My first jobs were painting houses, construction, even picking fruit when there were no painting jobs. While at Eastern I worked at Sears Northtown as security. I had no exposure at all to Hollywood, to the film business, or to anything like that.” 

On the eve of his EWU graduation, broke but determined to move to California, Orr borrowed his roommate’s suit and drove from Cheney to Seattle to interview for a sales job with fruit and vegetable giant Del Monte. On his application, Orr had indicated that, yes, he would indeed be willing to relocate to the Golden State. “Sure enough, they called and said, ‘We’d like to offer you a job: You said you could move to L.A. Is that still true?’” It was.

Though only at Del Monte for a year or so, Orr availed himself of what he describes as “incredibly good” sales training. Next, he found work with a technology firm, Harris Lanier, where he continued to prosper.

“I realized I was good at sales. I was successful, I was being promoted. In other words,” Orr says with a laugh, “I was good at talking people into doing things they might not otherwise want to do.” 

Still, Orr says, he never lost focus on his ultimate goal: making it in the film industry. 

In the movie business, “sales” translates into theatrical distribution. Orr kept his day job, but mailed dozens of queries to studio heads asking about distribution opportunities. He got plenty of replies, lots of advice, but no offers. Finally, just when he was about to give up, his big break came.

“I told myself, ‘I’m just going to make one more phone call and then I’m done,’” Orr says. “No joke, that very last phone call was to a guy at Paramount who said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got your resume right here, and I was just about to call you. Why don’t you come in and we’ll do an interview.’” 

An offer followed. Saying yes, it turned out, would mean a 50 percent pay cut. Orr said yes. 


On his application, Orr had indicated that, yes, he would indeed be willing to relocate to the Golden State. “Sure enough, they called and said, ‘We’d like to offer you a job: You said you could move to L.A. Is that still true?’” It was.


That first, low-level job soon yielded a promotion and relocation to Boston. While there, Orr, never short on energy, used his limited spare time to pursue a law degree at Suffolk University. After another promotion and transfer, this time to New York, Orr finished his juris doctorate at New York University. He doesn’t practice law today, but his legal education wasn’t time wasted. 

Orr remembers Suffolk’s law school dean conveying a particularly on-target message the very first might of instruction: “If you go through this process,” the dean said, “you give it your all and get to the other end of it — whether you ever practice or not — you will think differently. You will think better, you’ll think further ahead, you’ll analyze things differently.” 

“And he was 100 percent right,” Orr says.

Like a lot of executives in the film industry — a business in which reorganizations, mergers and buyouts are commonplace — Orr’s path from Paramount to NBCUniversal was a winding one. After years of success on the East Coast, Orr, by then a senior vice president at Paramount, was transferred back to Los Angeles in 2004. Two years later Paramount merged with DreamWorks. The DreamWorks crew, Orr learned to his dismay, would be tasked with handling distribution. He was out of a job.

Unemployment lasted exactly a weekend. Orr joined the executive team at MGM, and, for good measure, started a couple of film-related businesses. After another merger deal left him on the outs at MGM, he cashed out his stake in the businesses and joined the leadership team at FilmDistrict, an independent film company. 

“I was the head of distribution at FilmDistrict,” Orr says, “and we all ended up coming over to Focus Features, which is the specialty arm of Universal. From Focus I got moved over to Universal and where I am now.”

Peter Levinsohn says the studio is fortunate to have him. “Jim Orr is an outstanding executive and leader and is the driving force behind our success in theatrical distribution,” Levinsohn said in an email. “Jim’s dedication to his work is matched only by his commitment to helping students without access to traditional entertainment pipelines find opportunities in the industry. This is a testament to the supportive culture he has cultivated within his own team here at Universal, and it is truly inspiring.”

nspiring and supportive: Two attributes anyone would love to own. Orr takes such praise in stride, saying he’s just pleased to be in a good place; a position that allows him to do what he’s good at, what he loves. And to help others, too, such as his work with the Pioneers Assistance Fund of the Will Rogers Foundation — a financial aid and counseling project assisting exhibition and distribution workers who are struggling with an illness, accident or injury — and the Lollipop Theater Network, which brings first-run, only-in-theaters movies to hospitalized kids around the nation.

In Orr’s earnest, staccato account of his career you can hear the wonder of it all: the kid from Grand Coulee made good, the small-town striver leaving his mark on Hollywood. It’s a story he seems powerless to contain, hence his desire to share it with a new generation of talented young people. Especially young people from the Inland Northwest, a place, he says, that he is “ridiculously proud of being from.”

“I had a great time, at Eastern,” he says. “I’m very happy, quite frankly, that I went there.” Orr pauses for a beat, then smiles and adds. “I do wish, wholeheartedly, that I had been a better student, a more serious student, and that I had more fully taken advantage of everything the university had to offer. Woulda, coulda, shoulda: What can I tell you?”

When pressed a bit, Orr describes what actually sounds like an admirably high level of engagement with his studies. At one point during his junior year, in fact, he was recognized by the EWU Alumni Association as one of EWU’s “students of the year.” 

“My major at Eastern was in organizational and mass communications — a Bachelor of Science degree,” Orr says. “The thing that I liked about it very much was that it was, in essence, skill building. I really enjoyed the fact that you were doing things, not just reading and reciting.”

Which bring us back around to today’s aspiring pros, students for whom “doing things” is also a priority. They just need their own shot at success, and the confidence to pursue opportunity when it presents itself. 

On that score, their trip couldn’t have been more encouraging, says Drew Ayers. “The students were surprised by how welcoming everyone was. They were just so super-kind, which was great. That just speaks to the kind of people Jim knows.”

At one point, Ayers recalls, a staffer from Orr’s team offered up an unscheduled tour of the working lot. Soon the students were out on foot, peeking into soundstages where an army of Hollywood creatives were working, each in their own special area of expertise, to make the movie magic happen. 

“The students were just exposed to so much more than any of them were expecting,” Ayers says. “Before the trip they didn’t know what they didn’t know: that there were so many possibilities, so many career pathways open to them.”

That was certainly Orr’s hope. 

“I’m sure some of it was lost on them. But when you get exposed to these things, you can start to see what’s possible,” Orr says. “What I wanted them to understand is that, ‘Yes, it helps to be smart, to be hardworking, to be a good person. But you can do it.’ And I’m pretty sure they got that.”