There is no shortage of producers in the reality game, but Magical Elves, the Hollywood-based prodco founded by Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz in 2001, stand apart thanks to their skillful casting, flair for storytelling and an unrelenting focus on quality across their series.
“They don’t compromise very much,” says Shari Levine, SVP of production for Bravo, home to numerous Elves-produced series including five seasons of the game-changing fashion competition Project Runway and the Top Chef franchise. “You typically have to make a show that the network wants but, more than most, they manage to get the show that they want to make made. They really manage to stay true to whatever their vision is in a way that others don’t. They’re different.”
Different, yet very much the same as each other, say the principals. Indeed, with the two engaged in shoots and only able to be interviewed via email, they talk to realscreen as a team, only occasionally attributing answers to one or the other.
“We were always in sync creatively and personally from the beginning,” they say. “We had to find a way to share equal creative weight with no clear line of authority. We still find we’re very much in sync. We often finish each other’s sentences in development meetings, which tends to freak out our team.”
The producers met in the late Nineties when Cutforth was a freelance producer trying to sell his first show. Lipsitz, then a development executive at VH1, didn’t like his show ideas, but asked him to produce a pilot for a late night talk show. The pilot didn’t take off but during production they came up with the idea for Bands on the Run, a 2001 reality show about unsigned bands competing for a cash prize. When the eight-week shoot ended they realized they had chemistry and formed Magical Elves.
“That cemented our relationship and when Bands on the Run was over we realized that we really liked working together and decided to start a company,” recalls Cutforth. “Of course we had no clue what starting a production company would actually entail.”
Their first project was an adventure series for ABC called The Runner, an elaborate game show about contestants chasing the titular fugitive character. Aside from the legal and logistical nightmares that threatened to derail the shoot, production coincided with the 9/11 terror attacks. Suddenly a show about safe houses and fugitive takedowns didn’t seem like such a hot idea.
On the upside, The Runner was sold to ABC by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s production company Live Planet, which asked the Elves to produce its filmmaker competition series, Project Greenlight, for HBO and later, Bravo.
By that point, the Elves had developed a style, even if they’re reluctant to admit it. “It’s hard to say what our signature style is, but there are elements that most of our shows share which perhaps [creates] a signature,” they say. “In some ways we developed our style on Bands on the Run – it was about artists pursuing their dreams and we used a lot of backstory in the episodes. We’ve always liked to show our characters in the context of their life stories and life experiences because it’s just interesting to us, and that continues across all of our shows.
“We also like well-rounded characters and that came through in Bands on the Run as well,” they add. “There were heroes and villains but the heroes were sometimes villainous and the villains were sometimes heroic.”
Fans of the Elves’ output single out the team’s attention to casting as integral to their success. Many of their show ideas require highly-skilled cast members competing for a high stakes prize.
“It’s reality television about people that are actually really good at something,” says John Miller, SVP of programming at WE tv.
In the beginning they shared responsibilities equally, but as the company has grown to an average of 100 staffers, they divide up the work and take different levels of responsibility depending on the show. As for what makes a person a potential “Elf,” Lipsitz and Cutforth say the company culture requires a specific kind of employee.
“Elves are very hard working and creatively driven (sometimes to a fault),” they say. “A sense of humor is required and Elves are usually very kind. We can always tell immediately whether or not someone is an elf and it has nothing to do with their height.”
HITTING THE RUNWAY
When Bravo greenlit Project Runway in 2004, the fashion competition genre was in its nascent form. Four years earlier the network had shifted its focus from performing arts to reality programming. Early on it scored a hit with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a show that would begin to shape the new brand.
After the Tyra Banks-hosted America’s Next Top Model, which premiered the summer before, became a ratings hit for The CW, Miramax decided to produce a show about fashion designers that also incorporated models and planned to pitch it to Bravo. It approached Cutforth and Lipsitz.
“We weren’t at all sure it would be a hit – quite the opposite,” say the Elves. “But we weren’t in a position to turn down work.”
The producers visited Parson’s School of Design in New York and met with faculty member Tim Gunn and students enrolled in the fashion program. Inspired by the energy of the aspiring designers and their instructor, Cutforth and Lipsitz decided to focus the show around the designers’ creative process.
Bravo picked up the show and Magical Elves worked with Miramax and later The Weinstein Company to define the format, tweaking it through the month-long shoot until it became Project Runway.
“You had challenges, but no blueprint,” says Bravo’s Levine of the series’ early days. “Jane was on set for the shooting phase. I think she was sleeping in one of the production rooms most nights.
“It was all hands on deck and everybody holding on tight as they went through the ride,” she recalls. “A hundred different things happened and she was there guiding everyone through it. I think she was violently ill by the end.”
Project Runway became a brand-defining show for Bravo, set a new standard for fashion competitions and earned the Hollywood-based shop a reputation as a top producer in reality TV. The show is now in its 11th season, albeit on a different network (Lifetime) and with a different production team, Bunim/Murray Productions, working with The Weinstein Company and Miramax.
The Elves were not part of that decision, which prompted a legal battle between the two networks, but they used the change to take more control over their shows. After five seasons of Runway, they decided to cut the cord. NBCUniversal, Bravo’s parent, offered them a better deal structure through a first-look deal with more financial protection.
“It has worked out very well for us,” they say. “We will always be proud of Project Runway, but it forced us to really focus our energies on building a business.”
Next year the Elves will return to the fashion world with Fashion Star, a new retail-focused designer competition for NBC hosted by Elle Macpherson and featuring celeb mentors Jessica Simpson, Nicole Richie and John Varvatos. This time, contestants must compete to impress a judging panel of buyers from Saks Fifth Avenue, H&M and Macy’s.
“The clothes that are designed on the show and are bought by the stores will be available in those stores the next day, so that is a completely new development in fashion television,” say the Elves. “The structure of the show is also completely different than most of our formats. It’s more stage-based with a lot of spectacle.”
COOKING UP HITS
While they walked away from Runway, another series from the Elves has also proven to be an extremely durable franchise for Bravo. Top Chef, now shooting its ninth season, has spawned spin-offs (Top Chef Masters, Top Chef: Just Desserts) and is must-see viewing for foodies and reality lovers alike. But as with Runway, it took time to get the dish just right.
“The biggest challenge [was] that you can’t taste the food [as a viewer],” say the Elves about the show’s first season. “However, we found that with the right amount of explanation from the chefs and reaction from the judges, you could get a feel for it.
“For the most part it wasn’t that hard,” they add, regarding the process of finding an audience and a groove for the show. “Chefs are compelling characters, people love food and you eat with the eyes first, so as long as the visuals were appetizing and there was real drama in the competition, it worked.”
Magical Elves branched out further into the observational documentary genre earlier this year with Braxton Family Values for WE tv, a show about R&B singer Toni Braxton and her sisters. Most networks had passed on the show when the Elves brought it to WE tv last year, having heard Miller was looking for programming about dynamic families. This fall the series will go to its second season with 19 more episodes.
“The show has shown their versatility and skill at storytelling and casting,” says Miller. “There’s a balance of getting us a three-dimensional portrait of each of their characters, but also making sure there’s enough relationship between the cast in the context of what’s going in the macro story to keep things interesting. Putting together a good reality show is every bit as difficult as putting together a scripted show.”
The Elves came full circle this year, returning to the world of the touring musician they covered in Bands on the Run with Never Say Never, a US$13 million-budgeted feature concert doc about Justin Bieber that grossed $73 million domestically.
A fan of Bands on the Run, Paramount Pictures president Adam Goodman approached Cutforth and Lipsitz to produce the film in only a few weeks.
“There was no pre-production time, we just had to go,” say the Elves about the whirlwind schedule. “The Paramount people kept remarking on the crunch, saying, ‘Movies are never made this fast.’ We kept reminding them that television is not made that fast either.”
The company has since created a feature doc division. And while the team does point out that the Bieber film is the third-highest grossing documentary of all time, it’s also quick to joke that its earlier doc, 2006′s Air Guitar Nation, might indeed be “the 300th highest grossing doc of all time.” The move into features is just one area of expansion they’re focusing on for the future.
“We had planned to do this before the Bieber movie happened because we have always tried to expand our horizons,” they say. “We have some scripted shows we’re working on, several digital projects, and we have a couple of documentaries in the works. We don’t have a particular filter, we just want to tell.”