Chris Cilluffo makes sure Hollywood’s hits stay on budget

Chris Cilluffo 95

Cilluffo and colleagues with the leg lamp from “A Christmas Story.”

HE MAY NOT BE A HOUSEHOLD NAME, but Chris Cilluffo has a resume that many in Hollywood can only dream of. Of the nearly 100 movies or TV shows he’s worked on, there are Emmy winners such as “This is Us,” “American Horror Story” and “Parenthood,” as well as productions starring Matthew Perry, John Travolta, Glenn Close and many other entertainment icons.

But while Mandy Moore, Sterling K. Brown and Milo Ventimiglia are walking the red carpets, Cilluffo—a 1995 Auburn University graduate who is on the board of the Auburn Alumni Association—is working with their producers on keeping their finances in line.

“I’m essentially in charge when someone says, ‘Hey, we’ve got a project we think is going to go,’ and we need to figure out how much it’s going to cost,” says Cilluffo, head of production finance for 20th Television. “From a financial standpoint, I oversee all the shows that we produce at 20th Television. We’re the largest producer of television within the Walt Disney Studios. ”That means network series like “This is Us,” “Big Sky” and “LoneStar,” as well as streaming hits like “Mysterious Benedict Society,” “The Dropout” and “Just Beyond.”


Cilluffo’s trek to Hollywood was about as circuitous as his journey to Auburn. He grew up in Newbury Port, Mass., though the New Englander had his sights set on Auburn after growing up watching Heisman winner Bo Jackson do his thing at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

“I really started liking Auburn when I was watching Bo, but for some reason, I went to Syracuse for my freshman year,” Cilluffo recalls. “I came home at Christmas and said, ‘I think I made a mistake.’”

By the summer of 1991, that mistake was rectified, and Cilluffo was happily ensconced on the Plains, earning a mathematics degree while playing lacrosse. He also took two English classes that would eventually contribute to changing his career path. “Those two teachers both encouraged me,” he says. “They said, ‘You don’t have to do mathematics, Chris. Your perspective is different and fresh.’ That got me to where I knew I could be a bit more creative in my career choices than just crunching numbers.”

That outlook came in handy sooner rather than later, as Cilluffo, who thought he would go into aerospace, was derailed by a massive defunding of NASA right around the time of his graduation in 1995.

“There really weren’t opportunities,” Cilluffo says. “So I thought, why don’t I try something in entertainment? It seems like they spend a lot of money out there. I’ll go get my MBA, and at least I’ll be on the West Coast. I did grow up loving the movies and loving television, so it was a little bit of an idea already. That idea turned into a master plan in a very roundabout way.”


It was while pursuing his MBA at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas that Hollywood came calling. Cilluffo was focusing on marketing at UNLV, and he had been involved in a project marketing a movie, so when a unit publicist on the movie “Fools Rush In,” starring Matthew Perry and Salma Hayek and filming in Las Vegas, needed an assistant, a professor recommended him for the job.

“I wasn’t making much money, but I decided to give it a go,” Cilluffo says. “And then a lot of people on that movie knew the people at Jerry Bruckheimer films. There was a big action movie coming to Vegas that Jerry Bruckheimer was producing called “Con Air,” so they convinced them to hire me in the production office.”

At the end of that job, Cilluffo got a call on a Saturday asking if he could be on the set of a Patrick Swayze movie in Los Angeles that Monday. Without a place to live, he was on the set of “Letters From a Killer” in two days.

“I lived in my car for a week,” Cilluffo says. “I joined the 24 Hour Fitness closest to the office, so I knew I had a place to shower. This was 1997, pre-internet, so I was going to UCLA and Cal State Northridge getting lists off bulletin boards for people who needed roommates. I found some people who needed somebody to move in with them, and it just kept going from there.”


Early on, Cilluffo was a production coordinator, but in 1999, he started putting his math degree to work in productions’ accounting offices. He went corporate about eight years ago, taking a job at Universal, and six years ago he moved over to what was then 20th Century Fox Television.

“When a project comes up, either me or someone in my department will figure out how much it’s going to cost,” Cilluffo says. “If we do it in Vancouver, it’s going to cost this. If we do it in Los Angeles, it’s going to cost this. If we do it in Atlanta, it’s going to cost this. If we do it in Budapest, it’s going to cost this.”

Location—depending on incentives offered to productions—is often the big-ticket item that makes the difference, but Cilluffo and his team look at everything involved in a production, including the actors involved in it. They won’t suggest killing off a character (“Although we’ve joked about that,” he says), but they might find other ways to meet a budget.

“We might say, if it’s an 18-episode season, ‘This guy’s contract has a guarantee of 15 episodes, and you guys only wrote him into seven, so we paid him for eight episodes he didn’t work in,’” Cilluffo says. “Those are the types of things we might look at. I meet with producers all the time talking budgets. There are times when we do say there’s no way to do this show without cutting back on some of the creative. I don’t say yes or no; I just say, ‘This is what it’s going to cost. If you want a different number, we need a different script.’”

“This is what it’s going to cost. If you want a different number, we need a different script.”

Movie real with small squares


Like the entertainment landscape itself, what determines a “successful” show or movie has changed dramatically since Cilluffo began working in a business with a handful of TV networks and no inkling of streaming.

“Up until about 10 years ago, the traditional way it worked was you’re production company X and you make a show for NBC,” he says. “It costs you $4 million an episode, and NBC is only going to pay you $2 million an episode, so you’re losing $2 million an episode. But you own the worldwide rights, and you can syndicate it.

“That was the hope of everyone, which, to me, didn’t make any sense,” Cilluffo continues. “Why was this a good idea? It’s like Ford saying they’re selling a Mustang for $10,000, but they’re going to make the money up on parts later on.”

Now, it’s a completely “different ordeal,” he says.

“Everything’s streaming, right? It’s not even how much a show is making. It’s whether the show is making sure people keep spending the money and have a subscription going on…. In some ways, we have more money now for shows, but it’s hard to say, since everything is looked at so differently… A ‘Stranger Things’ is on Netflix, a giant hit, but it’s on Netflix worldwide, so there’s no secondary market to sell it to. There’s no selling it somewhere else. It’s just, does it bring in the subscription base?”


Cilluffo says he’s still the TV and movie fan he was growing up in Massachusetts, but admits it’s a bit different now that he’s worked behind the scenes.

“I can be a fan, but it’s just different,” he says. “I do look at every scene of a show and [wonder] how much it costs. Like, they have so many extras. Did they need that many extras? Things are still fun to watch, but you do look at them in a different vein, for sure,” Cilluffo adds. “It’s like Bill Belichick watching an Auburn or an Alabama game. He might still enjoy it, but you know he’s breaking it down because that’s what he does. And this is what I do.”

One of the things Cilluffo does is oversee the finances of “This is Us,” one of the most popular dramas on network television. And because he’s such a fan, there are times when he won’t read a script all the way through.

“That’s probably the closest to the water-cooler shows from the old days that you get,” he says. “I don’t want to ruin it because my wife and I like watching it together. ‘This is Us’ is the show I’m most proud of that I’ve worked on as an executive, which has been six years.”


Because of his involvement with the Auburn Alumni Association—including as president of the Los Angeles club—Cilluffo’s wife, Jodi, although not an Auburn grad, is a member of the Auburn Alumni Association. They have 7-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, so college decisions are a ways off, but Cilluffo wouldn’t give up his Auburn experience for the world.

“My experience at Auburn gave me the confidence to branch out and do more,” he says. “I moved to another city, and I made my way. By having that experience going from Auburn to Las Vegas, I wasn’t afraid to move to Los Angeles, this giant city, and carve my way here as well.

“I think I’ve got the fearless and true part of Auburn ingrained in me,” he adds. “I was fearless in what I could pursue as long as I was true to myself.”

By Alec Harvey ’84

“My experience at Auburn gave me the confidence to branch out and do more,” he says. “I moved to another city, and I made my way. By having that experience going from Auburn to Las Vegas, I wasn’t afraid to move to Los Angeles, this giant city, and carve my way here as well.

movie strip with clips from TV shows

A sampling of Chris Cilluffo’s Hollywood projects, past and present (L to R): “Bloodline,” “This is Us,” “9-1-1,” “Bones,”
“Filthy Rich,” “Law & Order SVU,” “Scream Queens” and “Friday Night Lights.”