Will “Mobbed” rule at Fox?

LA-based Angel City Factory teamed up with Howie Mandel (pictured) to create a special that hinges on pulling off a gigantic flash mob with over 1,000 amateur dancers. Ahead of its premiere tonight on Fox, ACF's Chris Cowan tells realscreen about the challenges in producing such flashy fare.
March 31, 2011

Perhaps a few of us have found ourselves in a shopping mall or subway station when all of a sudden, a tune pipes up from the P.A. and an orchestrated dance routine pops up out of nowhere. If we haven’t experienced it live, we’ve probably been forwarded a YouTube link or two featuring a flash mob.

Howie Mandel’s production company, Alevy Productions, and LA-based Angel City Factory have grabbed a hold of this piece of pop culture and transformed the concept into a reality special, Mobbed, premiering on Fox in the U.S. this evening (March 31).

In the program, a young man is looking for a special way to propose to his fiancée, and a candlelit dinner won’t suffice. The proposal winds up involving 1,000 amateur dancers trained by NappyTabs (the hip-hop choreographers from So You Think You Can Dance?) and a 16-camera crew stationed in a massive mall in Glendale, California.

Chris Cowan, EP at the Banijay Entertainment-owned Angel City Factory, says that his past experience producing Fox reality fare such as Joe Millionaire and Temptation Island made his prodco a frontrunner once the concept – brought to Fox’s president of alternative programming Mike Darnell by Mandel – was greenlit.

“Mike fell in love with it and thought we were the company that could pull it off,” says Cowan. “We’re known for doing big, radical concepts. When they looked at this concept they thought we were perfect for it.”

Cowan says the shoot, conducted last fall, was preceded by an eight-week casting period, in which people were cast for assorted concepts, two of which were shot. Pre-production lasted six weeks. Still, flash mobs are all about spontaneity, and that had to be an integral element of the process. Mandel himself provided a range of on-the-fly ideas that kept the production team on its toes.

“He’s one of those guys who has an idea a minute and has no problem throwing it out there,” says Cowan. “His brainstorming, a lot of times, becomes action statements.”

Cowan says the producers also didn’t want to leave the gathering of the mob entirely up to chance. Various internet strategies were employed to rustle up interested mobbers, from Craigslist to dedicated flash mob sites. The fan bases for Mandel and NappyTabs were also tapped.

“We were hitting the internet hard trying to get as many people into our flash mob as possible,” says Cowan. “But you never know how many people are going to show up on the day.”

As it turned out, plenty did – more than 1,000. Sixteen cameras, helmed by sports camera operators, were stationed throughout the mob site to capture the action as it unfolded.

“Once the musical number started, we began with three dancers, and that grew to 20 synchronized, then that reached 50, and then by the time we reached the end we were at over 1,000,” explains Cowan. “Cameras that were in the position in the lobby had to jump out and reposition to catch the mark and the dancers as they were moving to the next spot. That coordination was really hard to develop in one day.”

Numerous songs were picked and re-recorded for the dance routines. Given that the whole event was based on a marriage proposal, different routines had to be coordinated for a ‘yes’ response or – heaven forbid – a ‘no.’

“That’s one of the eventualities you have to deal with – what happens if this all goes terribly wrong,” says Cowan.

The premiere follows an episode of American Idol, and Cowan thinks it’s a quite appropriate pairing. With two episodes in the can, the numbers will tell the tale as to whether the mob will return, and when. But Cowan says the show is practically tailor-made to pair with numerous stars of Fox’s slate.

“The show is really sales-friendly,” he says. “It can pair with Glee, So You Think You Can Dance, X-Factor or Idol. We have our fingers crossed.”

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