There’s no question that the television industry is competitive, and it can be hard for a small prodco to break through the noise and find its niche. In ‘Small Companies, Big Ideas’, realscreen chats with some indie prodcos who’ve innovated and thrived, showing the unscripted world that sometimes the best things come in small packages.
This edition features Los Angeles-based Joke Productions. Founded by wife and husband team Joke Fincioen (pictured, right) and Biagio Messina (left), the indie has produced a wealth of unscripted content, ranging from CNN/HLN’s recent Unmasking a Killer (focused on the Golden State Killer) and Oxygen’s Three Days to Live, to lighter fare such as VH1′s Scream Queens. They served as co-EPs and show runners on Beauty and the Geek for The CW, and also worked on documentary fare with R.J. Cutler, director of The War Room and The September Issue. Here, Joke and Biagio discuss the advantages and challenges inherent in being a small company with big ideas.
Joke Productions has been in business for 10 years and counting. Tell us about the origins of the company.
Biagio: We met the third day of school as undergrads at UCLA. In that first conversation, Joke said, ‘I’m convinced the only way to make it in this business is to produce your own projects.’ I immediately fell in love with her, and envisioned us working together one day. Joke took a little more convincing. But now we’ve been married for 17 years, running Joke Productions together for many of those, so I guess my instinct was right.
Joke: While still at UCLA, we made our first feature together, a 16mm film based on a play Biagio wrote. We weren’t dating yet and I suggested we officially start a company. Alas, he turned me down to pursue a venture with his childhood friends. That never took off, and by the time we were an item I had already incorporated. Biagio officially joined Joke Productions and we became a third party network approved production company in 2007.
Biagio: What can I say? You do strange things when you’re in your twenties. I’m thrilled (and lucky) things worked out this way, and that Joke bet on the two of us.
You remain independent and, I would assume, try to operate a “lean and mean” operation. What are the challenges in being a small company at a time when many production companies are being acquired by larger, multi-national operations?
Joke: Hiring is the hardest part of the job. That probably doesn’t change as you grow, but as a smaller company we rely on freelancers, so our favorites aren’t always available. That said, we can also focus each hire on getting the best person for the job, rather than who’s available from the in-house pool. We’ve been very lucky to meet some terrific producers, watch them grow on other shows and then bring their talents back to us.
Biagio: With a deep roster of people we trust, we can staff a show at any time, even if some of our regulars book other jobs. Also, as a smaller company, you can’t always offer the amenities of one of the mega-companies. One thing we can provide is a pleasant place to make TV and film, by hiring talented and friendly people and doing our best to treat them right. We try to have a strict “no jerk” policy when we staff up.
Conversely, what are the advantages/opportunities?
Joke: We get the creative fulfillment of only making shows we’re passionate about. Our development strategy has always been to develop what excites us, and let the cards fall where they may. It’s a great way to produce television you’re proud to show, but not necessarily the best strategy for selling mass amounts of series.
Biagio: Another benefit is that the two of us get to hand-craft our shows. We really love the process of making TV and film, not just developing it. Buyers know when they commission a show from us they’re actually getting the two of us. We don’t “launch and leave.” The networks seem to really appreciate that. Finally, we love to experiment with filmmaking technology. That’s not always the most cost-effective thing to do, but it’s far more creatively satisfying. It’s nice not explaining why we want to use a specific camera or post-workflow to a board of directors.
Over the course of the company’s history, you’ve produced content in myriad genres: competition, comedic formats and now true crime. Was that part of the strategy from the onset, or is that versatility something that was deemed essential over the years, in order to mirror programming trends?
Biagio: From early on, our hope was to work in all the genres we loved watching on TV. Because we pitched ourselves as storytellers first, we were able to book a wide range of gigs. At one end of the spectrum, we were show-running a documentary for R.J. Cutler. At the other, [we were] running Beauty and the Geek for 3 Ball Entertainment. Right there you have the two extremes of unscripted television, and those jobs gave us the skills to work in a wide variety of genres. That said, we’re extremely grateful to the networks that first trusted Joke Productions in each genre: Jim Ackerman at VH1 in competition reality, Dave Sirulnick at MTV Docs in doc series, and Rod Aissa at Oxygen in true crime. Their belief in us became a launch pad, allowing us to make a variety of series at other networks as well.
From a survival standpoint, it’s crucial to have the ability to execute a range of genres, so that you don’t disappear when those genres fall out of favor. So you can never rest on your laurels — as genres change and evolve, you continue to watch, study, learn and experiment. Hopefully you add something worthwhile to that evolution.
Joke: It all comes back to what we’re passionate about. We know we can hire a great team to help execute any new genre. If we get excited about a show, we feel someone else might too, so it’s worth exploring and diving in.
You’ve worked with a wide assortment of cable networks as well. Now, with more buyers arriving on the scene in the form of SVODs and emerging platforms, are you finding more opportunities there? Is it challenging to be a smaller company when pitching to these new buyers, or are they more open to creative risk-taking?
Biagio: The digital platforms have been pretty welcoming, and our series Unmasking a Killer almost went to one of them. When it aired, that series was also well-received by execs at several of those platforms. That helped open the door to pitch to them regularly. You can feel their excitement about taking creative risks and pushing the envelope, which is great. It seems inevitable that Joke Productions will work with one of them soon, and it’s always a good thing to have more places to pitch.
Speaking of Unmasking a Killer for CNN, it was accompanied by a podcast featuring the both of you. Is that something you want to do more of, and is it something that can help a project cut through the clutter? Also, what’s the status of the follow-up program?
Biagio: For Unmasking a Killer, the podcast was as much a creative choice as it was a marketing move. We had so much great material that either wouldn’t fit in the episodes, or needed time to breathe. The podcast was an ideal outlet for that additional storytelling. We’re grateful to CNN for supporting us and letting us really dig in to the material. We were told the podcast had millions of downloads, which is far more than we’ve ever had on our other podcast outings. Much of the press for the TV show mentioned the podcast as well, so it seems to have helped awareness of the series. We’re excited to create companion podcasts for future shows, provided they add new content or dig deeper. We don’t want to simply rehash the TV series.
Joke: As for the Unmasking a Killer follow-up, we’re producing that right now. We’re excited CNN is giving us the opportunity to continue the story, both on TV and in the podcast. Stay tuned for more details. The story keeps getting more and more fascinating and we can’t wait to share what we’ve learned.
You also offer ‘tutorials’ to up-and-coming producers via your website, podcasts, social media, etc. Why is this important to you?
Joke: Starting out in this business is hard. You can’t get an agent without contacts. You can’t get into any companies without an agent. When we were trying to break in, everything felt very closed to us. We ended up taking UCLA extension classes to meet people. One of those was taught by Arnold Shapiro. At one point he brought in a panel with production company owners including Rasha Drachkovitch of 44 Blue. Rasha is the one who opened the door for us. He met with us, saw some of the pitch reels we had put together and gave us a chance editing some sizzles for him. That’s how we ended up getting our foot in the door. It’s always been important to us that we pay that favor forward.
Biagio: When we started the blog and podcast Producing Unscripted, we wanted to open the door for the next group in unscripted TV, as well as stop filmmakers and new producers from making serious mistakes. As Producing Unscripted evolved over the last five years, we’ve covered every aspect of creating, pitching, selling and making unscripted television. Both new and experienced producers have reached out, saying they’ve gotten something out of the podcast, and that’s very fulfilling to hear. We’d like to leave the business a little more open than we found it, and hope Producing Unscripted helps with that. We’re also on Twitter as @JokeAndBiagio, where we try to answer questions whenever we can, and share articles and tips we think aspiring producers should see.
Lastly, what are you working on now?
Joke: We are excited to be in business with Investigation Discovery on a new, yet-to-be-announced series. It’s always great to work with new buyers and they have a terrific group of people over there. And as we’ve talked about, we’re working on the Unmasking a Killer follow-up.
Biagio: We’re also delivering two pilots at two more networks, both of which came from our teaming up with new producers. It’s exciting to see them earning their first TV credits. And as always, we are developing a handful of series that excite us and are getting great response from buyers. We hope you’ll be seeing those soon.