Banff: Magical Elves’ Cutforth on “Top Chef,” “Fashion Star”

Delivering the non-fiction keynote at the Banff World Media Festival, Magical Elves co-founder Dan Cutforth explained how the Bravo series Top Chef (pictured) has led to perks in restaurants (among other things), and then told realscreen what's on the prodco's plate.
June 14, 2011

Delivering the non-fiction keynote at the Banff World Media Festival, Magical Elves co-founder Dan Cutforth explained how its Bravo series Top Chef (pictured) has led to perks in restaurants (among other things), and also told realscreen what’s on the prodco’s plate.

Describing the origins of the Top Chef franchise to Banff delegates, Cutforth recalled that Bravo executives had approached Cutforth and company co-founder Jane Lipsitz (who was unable to attend Banff) after the success of Project Runway with the request for a competition show with chefs.

He and the rest of the team had lunch with a sous chef, head chef and private chef to pick their brains and find out what they loved about their jobs. Besides discovering that they were “a weird pirate crew that works by night,” Curforth said they also learned about the creativity and competition that is part of a chef’s job, and incorporated those elements into what became Top Chef.

The series debuted in March of 2006 to great ratings, and although some seasons performed better than others, Cutforth felt confident early on thanks to the buzz around the series.

“You know you’re something when Saturday Night Live makes fun of you,” he said.

The series is about to go into its ninth season on Bravo, and Cutforth admitted the success of the show has come with some serious perks.

“It’s not bad to have a relationship with top restaurants. I’m embarrassed to say that sometimes we’d call ahead at restaurants and say the executives of Top Chef are coming in,” he said before adding, “It’s not like we’re traveling the country looking for free food.”

Cutforth also delved into the split from Project Runway once it moved to Lifetime from Bravo (the series is now produced by Bunim/Murray Productions).

He stated that the company had nothing against Lifetime, but that he and Lipsitz felt it was an opportunity for them to cut ties and focus on other shows. “We’d gone from being producers for hire and were now selling our own shows,” Cutforth said.

The prodco is turning its eye to fashion yet again, this time on a network stage, with NBC’s Fashion Star. Cutforth said the new show will be “more Idol than Runway.” The series, premiering next year, will include the retail side of business with designers challenged to make clothing that has the opportunity to be sold in three major retailers’ shops. Fashion Star was conceived and sold by Electus.

Cutforth told realscreen after the keynote interview that the series will focus more on the manufacturing and business side of the fashion industry, rather than weekly fashion challenges.

In addition, the prodco has a number of series returning, including season two of Work of Art for Bravo. Cutforth reported that the company has just finished shooting the main part of the season.

“It’s a real labor of love for us,” he said. “It’s going to be an interesting season this year, with really interesting characters. Like you always do in season two, you always try to make it bigger and better.”

The format of the series will be streamlined slightly. “We use more time lapse for people creating so you get to see [their work] unfold,” he said.

In addition, Showtime’s The Real L Word, Bravo’s Top Chef: Just Desserts and WE tv’s Braxton Family Values are all returning for their second seasons. The company also entered the features market with a bang by producing  the concert film Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. According to Box Office Mojo, the film has grossed just over US$73 million to date.

With September’s Emmy Awards on the horizon, Cutforth said he’s not necessarily counting on breaking The Amazing Race‘s Emmy streak for another year, following Top Chef‘s win in the Outstanding Reality-Competition Program last year.

“No pressure, we’ve done it once,” he said. “It’s good enough for me if that’s all we ever do.”

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