Los Angeles-based Pie Town Productions’ co-founders and EPs Jennifer Davidson, Tara Sandler, Scott Templeton and VP of development Kris Curry had a chat with realscreen about their low-budget beginnings, the five years they all wore beepers for their breakout TLC hit A Baby Story and what’s next for the quietly successful prodco.
How did Pie Town come together?
Davidson: The four of us all worked together at a competing production company about 15 years ago, all doing different things at the company. Ultimately Tara, Scott and I spawned out on our own in 1996 and with a very low-budgeted travel show called Great Country Inns for TLC. It turned out to be a very good thing that we had done all the middling jobs on a production because it was basically the three of us working on a show. A lot of our early work was with TLC, travel shows that we did on a dime. Then those expanded into a sort of relatively new subset of reality TV, A Baby Story and A Dating Story and they were sort of the first family-oriented takes on reality TV as opposed to the Real World and Copsand all that reality fare, so that’s when we really started to sink our teeth into a new brand of television.
What was the strategy from the beginning?
Davidson: It’s funny to talk about the beginning because it really was about getting through a very challenging production on a very slim budget and delivering 45 episodes within about eight months.
Sandler: I think that’s something we always had to fight in the beginning. As cable has grown up, so have we.
Davidson: For example, a show like A Baby Story presented a very specific challenge in its birth, which was convincing women to go on television to let us document their births without ever really having seen a pilot or knowing how we would treat the subject in a tasteful way. We’d committed to TLC to do 50 episodes of A Baby Story without really knowing if we could cast it. We looked for pregnant families in any way you could possibly imagine – this was before the days of widespread internet usage – so we were chasing women through Jamba Juice. We were looking for pregnant women anywhere we could find them. That show had an enormous challenge, in addition to casting; how do you get to the birth before the doctor does?
Templeton: It was a 24/7 operation. If they were going into labor, we had to get a crew there.
Davidson: Everybody on the staff carried a pager for five years during the production of that particular show. We produced 250 episodes. I think all told, missed two births out of the 250. As we got through those extremely challenging shows, I think we did develop some strategy. We’re sort of branded as the tellers of more emotional side of lifestyle programming.
What have you learned from working with all the different networks?
Sandler: I’m become a real student of the network that we’re working for before we go in to pitch. I try and watch everything they have on the air and I really think about what I can do to make their job easier. It’s corny but it’s true, it’s helpful if you put yourself into their shoes before you walk into the room.
How do you manage such a huge slate?
Sandler: We have a fantastic infrastructure. We have department heads and show runners that we really trust and that we nurtured who all treat this like it’s their company.
Templeton: We’ve tried to set up an operation that allows us to manage people at remote locations. We have people who work from home, workers in our Chicago office and two offices in Los Angeles. It allows people to access the same resources and take advantage of the new technologies that come along. Our people who are definitely the backbone of Pie Town do the job that they need to do with the minimum amount of hassles. They don’t have to spend much time driving between locations anymore.
What sort of challenges do you still see?
Davidson: Budgets are never going to be exactly what you hope them to be and the pervading theme in any production is how we give the most amount of production value to any network that we work with, even if the dollars don’t completely add up. We will go over and above to make sure that our shows look a certain way. It’s keeping our creative producers and story editors and editors motivated. That’s a constant challenge for us is working with 300 employees and keeping them confident creatively to take risks within what we’re trying to do.
What’s coming up for Pie Town?
Davidson: We have three very significant projects in the works. One is for Lifetime Television, an untitled weight loss show.
Curry: We’re doing a five episode pilot. It’s a group of five friends, who find themselves 30 or 40 pounds overweight. We’re going to follow their progress through a 90 day diet and makeover, while they still living at home and going to their jobs. It’s a docu-soap.
Sandler: It’ll air Monday through Friday on Lifetime.
Davidsonis called Showdown for HGTV and that’s a series of eight hour long episodes that take place in a studio. It pits HGTV talent, their carpenters and designers, up against each other to makeover the same space. We’re always looking for new projects to take on and we’re excited to be diversifying our portfolio.