by Laura Frustaci
Jonathan E. Steinberg AB '97 is currently the co-creator, executive producer, and showrunner of the new adaptation of the renowned book series PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS for Disney+. Steinberg is also in production on the second season of the critically-acclaimed series THE OLD MAN starring Jeff Bridges and John Lithgow for FX. Steinberg serves as the co-creator, executive producer, and showrunner of THE OLD MAN, which is the most-watched series in the history of the network. Both series are produced by 20th Television/Walt Disney Co. where Steinberg and his producing partner Dan Shotz have housed their production company, Quaker Moving Pictures, since 2019. Prior to that, Steinberg co-created and executive-produced BLACK SAILS for its 4 season run on STARZ, which won 3 primetime Emmy Awards. Steinberg was also the executive producer of SEE for Apple TV+ and was the creator and executive producer of HUMAN TARGET for FOX, which he developed along with DC Comics. The first series Steinberg co-created was cult-favorite JERICHO for CBS.
Percy Jackson is the much-beloved hero of Rick Riordan’s 2005-2009 YA fantasy series; just ask anyone who came of age in the past fifteen or so years. There’s an incredibly dedicated fan base of “demigods” surrounding Riordan’s novels, known collectively as PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS. Co-creator and executive producer of the new television series also titled PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS Jonathan E. Steinberg (AB ’97) was very aware of that fact when he took on the adaptation project.
After years of work, the show is finally premiering on December 20, 2023 on Disney+, so we sat down to talk with Jonathan about what the creative process was like. Jonathan explains that the fan base was actually part of what pulled him towards the project. “With Percy Jackson, before I even really met Rick [Riordan], I knew that it came with a fan base that you really had to be respectful of what they wanted to see. Part of the attraction of it was being able to realize something that so many people had been so eager for so long to see.”
Going into the creative process, Jonathan describes the crucial roles that both trust and communication played in moving forward with the project in a way that was respectful of the franchise. “It was important to Rick and to his wife, Becky, that they had the ability to make sure it was done in a way that they felt was faithful to the source material.” Jonathan explains. “Even before I met Rick and Becky, I felt that I didn't want to try to barge into someone's home, which is really what this story is to them, and start telling them where to put things.” And everyone found this respectful approach made collaboration easy for the three of them.
Approaching such revered source material couldn’t have been easy, and Jonathan confirms. “Over 100 million people read a book, and there are 100 million different visions and 100 million different heads [imagining] what it is,” Jonathan points out. “To pick one of them and spend a lot of money on it and commit to it becoming the adaptation takes a lot of work. Trying to make sure you're getting the right one. At every step, knowing that Rick and Becky felt like it was the right one, made me feel safer.”
Jonathan’s long history and background in television and adaptation also served as a helping hand as they created the new series. He grew up as a movie-lover (cinephile, for those of you who love Greek) but says that he never knew exactly how to get a job in film. “I went to college, and then I went to law school. At some point in law school, I just started writing,” Jonathan remembers. “I had never written anything before. I sent that to whoever I could think of, and that started a couple of conversations that made Los Angeles seem a little bit closer to me.”
After practicing law for a year, Jonathan began to feel like he couldn’t avoid the magnetic pull of LA any longer. So, he packed up his car and went there. “My first job was driving for a comedy manager from New York who didn't drive,” Jon laughs. “I was just writing and really trying to get into features. I had no interest in television. But at one point I had an idea for a television show that I ended up writing a treatment for. I sent it around, and I got it into a friend's hands, and my second job was co-creating JERICHO.” That’s Hollywood magic in action, people!
“From there, I sold pilots and went to work on whatever I could.” This led Jonathan to develop TV series including HUMAN TARGET, BLACK SAILS, and THE OLD MAN, all the way through to this new adaptation of PERCY JACKSON alongside author Rick Riordan himself.
One element of the show that Jonathan is proud of is the very early decision to cast children. “That instantly comes with a whole raft of complications in terms of what it takes to produce it. But it was important to Rick and Becky, and it was important to me.” He elaborates, “I don't know that you can tell a story that kids are meant to identify with if they can’t look at that character and see themselves. So, the challenge was really how to put three kids in the middle of it, but still write and produce it in a way where it felt like an adult who had never read the book [and has] no kids could find things in it and feel like it's for them also.”
Jonathan believes that the team has been successful, having kept that line of thinking at the forefront of their minds throughout the entire process. “When you're making a show like this, the question of ‘Who is this for?’ comes up a lot. And every time it was asked, the answer was ‘For everyone’.” In fact, that’s another piece of what drew Jonathan to the project in the first place. “Part of what I responded to in the books, even before coming to this and continuing to fall deeper in love the more time we spent with the story, is that it's the most universal kind of story about what it is like to not fit, which I think is one of a handful of truly universal experiences.”
It’s true; Percy is a misfit both in the human world and in the demi-God world. “In Percy's case, that is part of what makes the story so compelling…” Jonathan explains. “He has the feeling of being a little bit out of place no matter where he is. It’s about the challenge of trying to understand yourself well enough to be okay with that. And to find friends in that environment. And to find confidence in that environment.”
And that kind of message is sure to hit home with audiences of every age, which was very important to Jonathan as a father who watches television with his kids. “There isn't a lot out there that I want to watch with my kids, that I would be okay with them watching alone, that they would want to watch alone, and that I would watch without them,” he notes. “The desire to enter into that space and contribute something to it was a big part of it.”
This sentiment translates well into Jonathan’s overarching advice for aspiring creatives. “The best thing you can do on TV is just something no one else is doing…. learning to zig when everyone else zags,” Jonathan says, and this is true about his own journey through the industry as well. “There's sort of a natural gravity for people to want to replicate things that are working. But things that are working are rarely a function of replicating something else.” Young writers and creators need to strive to “find the open space on the board,” Jonathan encourages, and “carve out a story that feels different, that feels like it has something to say.” That principle has been “a compass point” for Jonathan in his own work.
And clearly, that’s evident in Jonathan’s process for approaching PERCY JACKSON. He knew the source material would resonate, and he knew that working in tandem with Rick, they could create an exciting piece of media that captures the magic of the series and is truly for all ages.
“The way Rick built it, it's so apparent how compelling it is. It's attached to so many people's childhoods and so many people who feel as though they started reading because of these books, which is a big deal.” Jonathan concludes that it’s a powerful story because “Percy is a kid who finds out that he is part god. And that is not the end of his journey. It's the beginning. It’s about discovering that it's really his humanity that makes him powerful. And that felt like a story that was worth spending the time to tell.”