UCF Film Alumnus Hits It Big at Today Show

UCF alumnus Aaron Brownlee joined the NBC News team as a producer for the “Today” show

By Jenna Marina

ORLANDO, Fla. (Aug. 29, 2017) – UCF film alumnus Aaron Brownlee ’06 has stood on the New York City stage where the Broadway hit “Hamilton” performs every night. He has interviewed Academy Award winner Robert De Niro, taken flight with the United States Air Force Thunderbirds and has brought joy to pediatric cancer patients by delivering beanies to them in their hospital rooms.

Brownlee’s role as a producer over the last year for NBC’s the “Today” show has already given him a lifetime’s worth of unforgettable experiences, but what really makes him pinch himself is his trek to Rockefeller Center’s commissary every day for lunch.

When he reaches the ninth floor, he steps off the elevator and turns right instead of left toward the food.

A fan of “Saturday Night Live” since he was a child, he never misses a chance to go peek at the stage and silently reflect on this moment in his life.

“I look at this holy grail of comedy and I think to myself, ‘You’re here. Even if it’s a bad day, you’re staring at Lorne Michaels’ dreamland right here,’” Brownlee said. “Take it in, always appreciate every day.”

Aaron Brownlee (right) interviewed Lin Manuel Miranda (left) for a segment about the Broadway hit “Hamilton”

Brownlee has been a storyteller for as long as he can remember. Growing up in Georgia, he put on plays with his brother in their basement and says he shot an original hour-and-a-half James Bond film before he could drive a car.

He came to UCF because he liked that the university allowed its film students to own the work they created while in school.

“I would run to class because every day I was learning something I was so passionate about. It was a joy to go to class,” he said. “Being around a lot of creative people with a lot of different point of views helped changed the way I wanted to tell stories.”

After graduation, he headed to California thanks to an internship connection that UCF had with UCLA. He got his start as an assistant for a producer who was making horror films.

He spent the next decade filling up his resume with experiences as a production assistant on “NCIS,” various full-time jobs and a freelance producer, working on a variety of projects from advertisements to music videos to print with companies like Target, Best Buy and People magazine.

In 2016, a mentor asked him about his interest in applying for a job at the “Today” show. The opportunity to work for the nation’s longest running morning show, which is currently celebrating its 65th year on NBC, intrigued him.

He went through a series of interviews and still remembers the day he got the phone call asking if he was ready to move to New York.

“I never have doubted myself, but for the very first time, just knowing that it’s such an institution and it’s one of a kind, I had this whole bout of unwavering self-doubt. I was just like, ‘Did you talk yourself into this? What did you just do? Are they going to figure out you’re a phony within the first 10 minutes?’” he said. “Looking back on that moment, that’s when I knew that I really, really wanted it, and wanted to work for them.”

On the set of the “Today” show

Since joining the production team, he estimates that he has created at least three hours of television. His segments range from 3-4 minutes on average, and he typically works on four projects at any given time.

His real passion lies in telling people’s stories and creating an emotional connection between audience and subject. He said when people are trusting the “Today” show to tell their stories, he feels a responsibility to “get it right.”

“Being able to tell stories about real people that matter, who are doing great things in life and trying to help people; being able to put that on a national platform and get letters and emails and cards that say, ‘You’ve changed my life’ or ‘We’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars because of your piece,’ that’s what is most rewarding,” Brownlee said. “I can see the fruits of the labor of my work.”

With the surge of television access on platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon in addition to traditional media, Brownlee, like most, believes society is experiencing the golden age of television.

He is happy to be contributing to it and hopes to continue to expand the depths of his storytelling.

“One day, if I have a drama or a dramedy on television or streaming on Netflix and people are loving it and it has a part of myself inside of it,” he said, “that would be the ultimate dream.”

Aaron Brownlee with his parents behind the scenes at Rockefeller Center

Five Things Alumni Need to Know this Week—April 3

1. UCF Celebrates the Arts, an annual showcase featuring an interactive exhibition of student artwork, starts Friday at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. To get your ready for your days at the theatre, read this alumni spotlight on Desmond Newson, who scored a role in the national tour of “Hamilton,” which began in San Francisco in March.

Also, check out the complete UCF Celebrates The Arts schedule.

2. The Board of Governors approved the UCF Lake Nona Medical Center late last week. Construction is pending a final state agency approval but could begin as early as 2020. This will mark a new era for our community, our students, our faculty and our researchers. Read more here.

3. The next time you settle in for a night of Netflix-ing, consider watching “The Discovery.” The new release featuring Robert Redford, Jason Segel and Rooney Mara was written by film alumnus Justin Lader ’06.

4. Do you know someone in need of some financial help for college? UCF Alumni awards more than $50,000 in scholarships every year. The deadline for scholarship applications is April 5. Learn more about how to apply, criteria, etc. at ucfalumni.com.

5. Baseball won its conference-opening series against No. 11 Houston over the weekend. The Knights are back in action at home on Wednesday against Stetson at 6:30 p.m before heading to Tampa this weekend for the War On I4 against USF.

Speaking of the War On I4, UCF added to its commanding lead, 36-15, thanks to the No. 39 men’s tennis team’s 4-2 win over No. 26 USF on Saturday’s Senior Day. USF is the fourth top-30 opponent that the Black and Gold has knocked off this season.

Five Things Alumni Need to Know this Week—March 6

1. UCF Athletics basically won everything last week. Here’s a rundown of what happened from Feb. 27 (when we last posted Five Things) to today:
• Feb 28: Baseball trounced the No. 2 Florida Gators, 11-2, in front of the third-largest crowd (3,852) to see a game at the UCF Baseball Complex
• March 1: Softball picked up a road win at Florida Gulf Coast.
• March 2: Men’s basketball wrapped up the fourth seed and a first-round bye in the American Athletic Conference Championship thanks to the Knights’ win at USF in the regular season finale. The Knights now lead the Bulls in the War On I4 rivalry series, 30-15.
• March 3-5: Baseball swept Stony Brook over the weekend with three-straight wins to improve their season record to 11-1. The team currently ranks among the top five in the nation for win-loss percentage (.917).
• March 3-5: Softball kept momentum rolling with three wins over the weekend against Providence and Florida Gulf Coast – two of which came off walk-off homers.
• March 5: Rowing collected five first-place finishes in six events to open the spring season and clinch its seventh-straight Robin Yeuell Trophy at the 37th annual Metro Cup in Winter Park.
• March 4: Women’s basketball won its first American Athletic Conference Tournament game in program history to advance to the semifinals.
• March 5: Men’s tennis topped Davidson, 6-1, at the USTA National Campus.
• Both the men’s and women’s basketball teams earned their 20th victories of the season. More than 90 percent of Division I schools can’t claim the same feat in 2016-17.

2. Three alumni were inducted into the College of Business Hall of Fame recently: Sonya Dixon ’96 ’98MBA, chief financial officer and senior vice president at Holiday Inn Club Vacations; Antonio “Tony” Moreno Jr. ’91, managing partner/financial consultant, MPC Wealth Management; and Michael O’Donnell ’09, executive/entrepreneur for the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UCF. The Hall of Fame is the highest honor given by the college to graduates who have been in the industry for at least 20 years and have brought notoriety to the university through their professional achievements.

3. UCF Theatre alumnus Desmond Newson ’05 snagged a coveted spot in the national tour of the Tony-award winning Broadway musical, “Hamilton.” The tour of “Hamilton” will begin in San Francisco in March, followed by a 21-week run in Los Angeles, with more cities follow, including Orlando, for the 2018-2019 season.

4. The UCF Alumni family grew by two last week when John C. Hitt and his wife, Martha, received the Honorary Alumni Award at the celebration of the president’s 25th anniversary on March 1. It’s a fitting recognition — Hitt has conferred more than 80 percent of all degrees since UCF’s founding in 1963.

5. Recent film grad Dana Pellerin ’16 walked around spreading love around campus while creating an eye-catching video. It seems like a good way to start off the week – check it out for yourself!