Nellie Andreeva

EXCLUSIVE: Russell Simmons is quickly building up his newly launched Def Pictures and RSTV. NBC drama executive-turned-producer Chris Conti has been tapped as president of the two companies. Simmons, who bought a home in Los Angeles at the beginning of the year, has been focusing his money, time and energy on his new production shingles and recently signed a first-look deal with HBO. He met with a number of executives before settling on Conti as president. “Chris is such a good drama guy, and he is such a good ‘melody’ guy with great instincts for story,” Simmons said. Conti was recommended to Simmons by Brett Ratner, for whom Conti most recently worked as president of his production company Rat TV. Simmons said he already has “a broad plate” of projects, including one based on an idea brought in by Conti, a Norman Lear-esque comedy about a progressive guy and a conservative girl whose relationship is put to the test as the politically divided country heads to an election.“Politics more than race, more than anything else is what keeps people apart,” Simmons said. Diversity and integration will be cornerstones of Def Pictures and RSTV, he said. “My full-time job is building bridges,” Simmons said, noting how Hollywood has fallen far behind the music and other industries in diversity. He lamented the lack of black comedy stars to emerge over the past few years, with Kevin Hart and J.B. Smoove as notable exceptions. He compared that to decade or so ago, when there was a steady stream of breakout Black comedians, some of them getting their start on Simmons’ HBO series Def Comedy Jam. “There is a big white space that is underserved,” Simmons said. Following a 15-year stint at NBC, rising from a page to head of drama development, Conti segued into producing in 2005 with a deal at the network’s sister studio. He joined Rat TV in 2011.

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