It’s been said that in order to launch a creative pursuit, one needs to be more than a bit of a daredevil in order to withstand the twists and turns of the journey. Thus, it only made sense for a young Gary Benz, a man with both a penchant for television production and a taste for adventure, to take the plunge and launch his own production company.
Benz’ earliest experiences in television production were in the stunts business. A partner of top Hollywood stuntman Dar Robinson, Benz would act as a second unit producer with him on the odd feature film and series of the time such as The Fall Guy. He’d also branch out and do some stunts of his own, “mostly for fun,” he says now. “But mainly I wanted to be behind the camera producing.”
Through hard work and the fortuitous creation of another partnership – this one with former San Francisco Bay area freelance journalist Michael Branton – Benz would get his wish, and then some. As partners in LA-based prodco and distribution company GRB Entertainment, they’ve produced over 2,000 hours of mostly primetime entertainment for broadcast networks and cable nets around the world. And with one of its more recent successful series, A&E’s gritty Intervention, now at over 150 episodes, it appears that GRB Entertainment’s story is a quarter-century testament to the art of negotiating risks to reach the rewards.
Having cut his teeth on TV production with Robinson, Benz took a gig with LA-based production and syndication company Access Entertainment Group. It was with Access, while working as supervising producer on a music video program, ABC Rocks, that he first met his future production partner.
Branton arrived at production via print journalism, as a freelancer for such publications as Rolling Stone, New West and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. With music and pop culture as his primary beats, Branton moved into television through a company, Video West, that produced programming for MTV, Showtime and USA Network. Branton eventually made contact with Benz and Access, and made the move from San Fran to LA, which Branton says “was like moving from Venus to Mars.”
After a few years at Access, Benz decided to strike out on his own, with Branton joining the new endeavor. As fate would have it, the company’s first major project would be a tribute to the daredevil stuntman who Benz had befriended years before, Dar Robinson, who died in a fluke accident in late 1986.
“He was loved by many people in Hollywood and fans across the country, so I pitched the idea of a tribute to ABC,” recalls Benz. “They said if we could get Burt Reynolds and Mel Gibson and all the big stars, and also if we could get all the clips and the footage of Dar, we could have a one-hour special. So right away I brought Michael in and that was the first show GRB produced in 1986.” Hosted by tough guy Chuck Norris, The Ultimate Stuntman: A Tribute to Dar Robinson aired in 1987 and drew “huge numbers” for the broadcaster, recalls Benz.
Naturally, ABC came calling for a follow-up and GRB came back with The World’s Greatest Stunts: A Tribute to Hollywood Stuntmen, hosted by Christopher Reeve. Another solid ratings performance followed, and shortly afterward a new network on the American broadcast landscape, Fox, expressed interest in working with the fledgling GRB.
“I suggested a live stunt show, where we’d take the James Bond guys, go to exotic locations around the world, and produce a world premiere stunt,” says Benz. Fox went for it, and Live! The World’s Greatest Stunts became the highest-rated special to air on the new network up to that point. GRB’s reputation as both a hit-maker and risk-taker was firmly established.
“Anybody can film somebody jumping off a building into an airbag, but we prided ourselves on figuring out what the human story was in that act of bravery,”‘ says Branton.
They were also, uniquely for the time, selling the hours internationally. Benz says he was attending international markets early on in GRB’s history, armed with the knowledge that action programming would travel well, and with a bit of a distrust towards distributors when it came to selling action-oriented content.
“I’d been in the business for about five years and knew enough about distribution to think that others wouldn’t handle the show as well as I would want it to be handled,” he says. “So I decided to take it to market myself.” That eye towards international sales would also extend towards international coproduction, especially with the growth of a nascent American cable television industry, and burgeoning cable nets such as Discovery Channel looking for top-flight programming, but with tighter budgets.
“When we started there were only three broadcast networks,” says Benz. “Now with cable growing, the pie of television and advertising was being cut into smaller pieces. There’d be a need for more programming, but at a very cost-effective rate. So how do you take a show you’d do for $600,000 and do it for half the price?
“One way was to look at international coproduction,” he continues. ‘We were able to get Germany, France and Australia and other big markets to pre-buy or come in as coproduction partners and were then able to offset the deficits we’d be facing in the U.S.”
GRB had sold its ABC and Fox specials to Discovery and then collaborated with the network on an idea for an original series. 1993′s Movie Magic for Discovery ushered in a new phase of programming for the prodco, with shows that peeled back the curtain to reveal the nuts and bolts behind special effects in film. Similar programming followed – Masters of Illusion: The Wizards of Special Effects for ABC and Cinema Secrets for AMC.
A second series for Discovery, World of Wonder, would last for 52 episodes on Discovery and air around the world with local hosts. GRB’s experience with the burgeoning cable landscape would reveal that not only were there more players carving up the television pie, there were also more niches to scope out and represent with targeted programming.
“AN AUSPICIOUS LUNCH MEETING”
By the turn of the millennium, GRB had established an international sales arm that, by 2006, would begin representing third-party content and had produced scores of hours ranging from “weather porn” (Storm Warning for Discovery) to “trauma drama” (Untold Stories of the ER for TLC). But by 2003, the prodco had still never landed a show on the A&E Network.
That changed after a lunch meeting between GRB and A&E’s then-director of non-fiction Rob Sharenow during which Branton off-handedly mentioned a show he was about to pitch to MTV – a show that Sharenow saw as too good an idea to pass on.
GRB had been working on a show for FX featuring New York private investigator Bill Stanton, who had, in turn, mentioned that he knew Victoria Gotti, daughter of convicted mob boss John Gotti. Stanton thought Gotti and her sons would make for great TV. The prodco then negotiated a talent deal with Ms. Gotti, and were about to pitch the concept – Growing Up Gotti – to the more irreverent MTV.
“At the time, A&E was a very different network, so during that meeting they pitched me what they thought was the ‘A&E-type’ of stuff,” recalls Sharenow. “Michael was literally on his way out the door, and I asked him, ‘Where are you going?’ He said he was heading to MTV, and I asked, ‘What are you pitching them?’ He told me it was a show called Growing Up Gotti, and I told him to sit back down to talk about it. It obviously turned out to be an auspicious lunch meeting.”
Sharenow calls that point of the meeting an “a-ha moment” that not only provided a new show but also helped point A&E towards a new, louder and younger-skewing direction. For GRB, “it was a terrific opportunity for us to get on a network we’d never been on before, and to have it hit big,” says Benz.
But another A&E project would hit even bigger, even if it would require much more forethought.
THE INTERVENTION DIMENSION
Sharenow brought GRB to the table as prodco for Intervention, a new series brought to A&E by creator/EP Sam Mettler, that would document the challenges and trials faced by addicts, as well as the moment their families and friends intervene to put them on the right track.
Benz admits that he had doubts early on about how such a show could be produced. “I personally had a degree in psychology in university so I was familiar with the process and knew the subject matter would be incredibly challenging,” he says. “We worked hard to crack it, by sticking with the truth and making sure we didn’t do anything that would ever jeopardize the participants… We knew there would be a point where they’d have to do this in front of their whole families – they weren’t doing this for television, we were just there to document it.”
Premiering in 2004, the show has gone on to win the Emmy award for outstanding reality series in 2009, and is now at 150+ episodes. Although they may’ve “cracked” the format, it’s still an incredibly demanding show for all involved, says Sharenow, who calls it a “labor of love.” Its success has spawned outreach programs in the U.S., including Intervention Town Halls co-hosted by A&E, and a spin-off due for early next year, Relapse, which will document the efforts of people who fall back into their addictions, and the super-coaches who try to shepherd them into rehabilitation.
Its impact has also spawned a new sub-genre of reality TV, which Branton calls “therapy programming.” GRB is also producing Confessions: Animal Hoarding for Animal Planet – the series is in its second season. The company is also working on a series about eating disorders with Tracey Gold for Lifetime.
“We had the idea internally to focus a series on [animal hoarding] and looked to GRB and their past experience in telling intimate stories of emotional complexity,” says Marc Etkind, VP of development for Animal Planet. “They had a history of doing it and doing it well, so they were a natural choice for us.”
The series was a top 10 title for the net last season, and led to the creation of a protocol for humane societies, psychologists and health care professionals to use in helping hoarders.
“Among mainstream journalists, the first reaction was, ‘Should so-called reality television even deal with serious topics?’” says Branton. “I think we proved that it can.”
‘You have a lot of shops that are known for competition, shops that are known for hard-hitting docs,” sums up Sharenow. “But GRB have proven their ability to do a little bit of everything and do it incredibly well. And I do think they’ve been critical in the transformation of A&E over the last few years into the network it is today.”
New programs on the slate for GRB include Most Lethal for Spike, which serves as a sort of return to the company’s action roots, as it’ll pit former military personnel against each other in search of what Benz calls “the real Jason Bourne.” Branton says there are other shows in the therapy realm on the way as well.
Still, diversification continues to be a chief priority for the company as it enters its 26th year as an indie. “We’ve constantly looked to expand the kinds of shows we do,” says Benz. “There are comedic types of shows that networks are looking for that I think we can deliver, and there are even some hybrid types of shows that have scripted elements as well as unscripted that networks are also willing to take chances on. We’re not boxed into a corner, having to produce one type of programming.”
The company, with a staff of about 25 at its core, operates as a “lean and mean” entity, says Benz, but also beefs up to between 150-250 people depending on productions. It actively partners with smaller indies and producers to bring shows to networks, with Benz saying, “We like the collaborative process of working on shows with other talented individuals.” But just as a yen for risk-taking helped launch GRB, it’ll be smart, focused risks that will help take it into its next 25 years.
“We have to have a concerted R&D effort going on all year, so we have an active development department of people with different tastes and perspectives,” says Branton. “We have a robust slate of projects in various stages of development because there’s much more competition now than when we started.”
“You’re really as good as your last show and you have to be constantly creating new shows that networks want to buy,” offers Benz. “Even if they do want to buy it the process is long.”
But in the end, when it clicks and you hit one out of the park, the adrenaline rush may well be similar to jumping out of the window of a 10-storey building, into an airbag that lies a seeming eternity below.
“I think we’re enjoying now, as much as ever and maybe more than ever, our independence,” maintains Benz.