Access plays an integral role in unscripted. How do you gain your talent’s trust? Tom Farrell, CEO and executive producer for The WorkShop, shares his insight.
There’s no gray area when it comes to access — you either have it or you don’t.
Access to talent has become the holy grail of the unscripted content industry. There are numerous ways to lose it, but only one way to secure it: trust.
Throughout the last 20 years, I’ve worked with A-list celebrities and world-class athletes, many of whom are still active in their sport. My goal has remained the same with them all: to produce entertaining programming that receives green lights from networks, tune in from viewers and ad spend by marketers. There’s no mystery to that part of the formula, but the key to success means gaining and maintaining access to talent, which requires a completely different approach.
The name of the game is trust.
My first taste of unscripted content creation was an eye opener, working on my first episodes of Trading Spaces in 2003. It was a baptism by fire to be an executive producer for 17 on-air talents who were fast becoming celebrities. The crop of talent included a combination of actors and craftsman, including folks like Paige Davis, Ty Pennington, Doug Wilson, Verne Yip and Genevieve Gorder. We took the passion the talent possessed for building and designing and brought it to life.
I probably didn’t realize it at the time, but I was smack in the middle of helping shape what was to become the granddaddy of home improvement shows. I discovered early on that having proprietary talent attached to a program made for a good business model. The other component needed for the show to succeed was that the talent needed to be relatable.
Today, Ty Pennington is a major star, having used Trading Spaces as a springboard for a primetime gig with ABC’s Extreme Home Makeover. There were a lot of moments when we both learned things while shooting. If there was a flaw in the coffee table he built, the perfectionist in him would say “Let’s scrap that and shoot it over.” I told him “No. Own the mistake and we’ll show you fixing the table.”
Doing so made him more human to viewers and more accessible, and because Ty and I had established a mutual trust with each other right from the start, he was willing to follow my advice.
To get NBA icon Charles Barkley interested in being the face of a show, we had to convince him we had the right vehicle for his brand. We promised him we’d celebrate his passion for playing golf, and The Haney Project was born.
Upon reflection, working with Charles reminded me of how important it is to establish trust early on with talent. From the time we started shooting the first episode of The Haney Project, we came to a mutual agreement: When Charles needed the cameras to be turned off, they were off. When there was great footage available, cameras rolled. Charles understood better than anyone I have ever worked with what was needed to make entertaining content.
Similarly, actor Ray Romano is known as the average family guy we all watched on Everybody Loves Raymond. During an early production meeting, I remember talking to him about letting us see the flaws in his golf game. He embraced this approach and went on to have a successful run on Haney Project in 2010. Audiences identified with him — a real guy, who despite his on-screen success, was a hacker with the best of them.
There’s an extremely fine line between getting the perfect shot while trying to avoid “camera fatiguing” talent. You can’t spray and pray — crews need to be selective during the actual shoot. The key is to be very organized and put in extra time during the pre-shoot, carefully planning the program, segment by segment.
It’s a different game working with A-listers today, largely due to the growing influence of social media and digital platforms. At The WorkShop, we’ve come to understand that celebrities – via social media – create their own channels, marketing themselves. To gain access, we need to provide them with unique opportunities that leverage their brands.
In the case of Novak Djokovic, an international tennis superstar, we wanted to go with a platform that has a global reach. An Amazon docuseries was the perfect match to do this. I like to think of Amazon as a big warehouse, offering lots of choices to consumers. Celebrities now realize their brands need such shelf space.
Only a few decades ago, celebrities placed their hands over the camera lens, not allowing you into their world. Now, they’re willing to be in the spotlight, taking full advantage of social media content to promote their brands.
Today’s celebrity also understands that their brands enjoy a short lifespan, making them very open to leveraging media — similar to the way media utilizes them.
In turn, I know that none of this occurs without access.
Tom Farrell is the CEO and executive producer for The WorkShop. He has 26 years of television production experience, having spent the past fourteen years in television executive management. Prior to joining The WorkShop, Tom was COO for Banyan Productions. He has served as an executive producer for cable network programs such as A Makeover Story, Trading Spaces and The Things We Do For Love.