Realscreen Summit: Mark Burnett’s life lessons

Mark Burnett turned humorous tales from his pitch session with business tycoon Donald Trump and brief stint as a Beverly Hills nanny into life lessons for producers during his opening keynote talk at the 2011 Realscreen Summit.
February 1, 2011

(Photo: Rahoul Ghose)

Mark Burnett turned humorous tales from his initial pitch session with business tycoon Donald Trump and a brief stint as a Beverly Hills nanny into life lessons for producers during his opening keynote talk at the 2011 Realscreen Summit. Sounding like a sagely life coach, the Survivor creator attributed his success to storytelling principles and core values – plus a few production tricks - rather than “reality.”

“I hate the word ‘reality”” he said. “What is ‘reality’ anyway? They’re not really marooned on the island in Survivor, but the feeling is real. They’re not really applying for a job with Donald Trump. Who would?”

During the hour-long lecture the 50-year-old touched on his biggest factual entertainment hits, including Survivor and The Apprentice, his early forays into adventure competition with Raid de Galouises and Eco-Challenge and his forthcoming comedic web series with AOL, CliffsNotes.

In recounting the time he pitched Survivor to CBS Television President Les Moonves – after the idea had rejected the idea once - Burnett explained that he never takes more than 20 minutes so as not to appear insecure or overconfident. Such anecdotes frequently became an opportunity to espouse quotable lines of advice. “People who want to be 100% sure of what they’re doing don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “Things go wrong all the time.”

Survivor has lasted 23 seasons, he said, because he stood firm on certain productions values, many of which have since become a template for other programs in the adventure competition and reality genres. He called the series the first “documentary” to feature sweeping Wescam shots, for example. The cutaways to close-ups of water droplets on leaves and other tranquil scenes were also something he pushed for. “People said, ‘It looks like a movie,’” he said. “The scale was important to me.”

He scrapped bright, Hollywood lighting in favor of more natural-looking under-lighting during the climactic Tribal Council vote, a move he said was anathema to standard television lighting procedure at the time. “I care about how the survivors are going to feel when they’re basically going to go through an execution,” he said, slyly.

The Apprentice was born out of his desire to spend more time with his family and less time tiptoeing over sleeping alligators during trips to the loo on far flung Survivor locales. His desire to film closer to home was compounded when his now-17-year-old son James told him, “Daddy, I forgot what you look like.”

The story of his pitch meeting with Donald Trump elicited frequent laughs from the audience and reinforced the speech’s overarching mantra, derived from author and lecturer Joseph Campbell, that one’s path in life is never laid out clearly. When he called up Trump to set up a meeting, he was taken aback when the outspoken real estate magnate answered the phone directly, told him to show up at his office in 10 minutes and then hung up the phone. “I wasn’t ready, but I dealt with the cards I was given,” Burnett said.

Trump loved the idea immediately, agreed to a 50/50 deal and told the producer to finalize it with his agent. Incredulous, Burnett called the agent who promptly claimed the deal was off. When he returned to Trump’s swish Manhattan office to report what had happened, the tycoon summoned his assistant to take a tersely-worded letter to the agent, which simply read, “You’re fired.”

The recently-announced AOL CliffsNotes series came from his realization that kids aged 14 to 24 need to pass their exams and rely on abbreviated notes to study. By making the five-minute animated clips funny and irreverent, he hopes the lessons will stick.

He also shared a few tidbits about his approach to producing: he always hires staff who are more talented than he is, always casts A-type personalities, not “villains,” he hates micromanagers and whenever he can help it, never lets a producer sit over an editor’s shoulders.

Burnett rounded out the talk with an anecdoate about the time he applied for a nanny position in Beverly Hills at age 22. Fresh out of the English parachute regimen, he applied for the job with a friend’s encouragement and to his surprise landed it. “I had never sold anything in my life,” he said. “But I was about learn that I could sell me.”

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