(photo: Rahoul Ghose)
The oft contentious area of new producers partnering with seasoned veterans to get their first shows off the ground came under the microscope at Realscreen West in Santa Monica, with the consensus among a panel of leading producers, broadcasters and agents being that – when hooking up – honesty is the best policy.
The ‘Hooking Up’ session, chaired by Studio Lambert USA president Eli Holzman and featuring execs from WME, Oxygen, Gurney Productions, One Three Media and Puddle Monkey Productions, saw a number of producers reflecting on the first time they partnered with a bigger, more experienced indie to make a show.
For Gurney Productions owner Deirdre Gurney, the experience was an invaluable one. Gurney reflected that she has been overly cocky about her abilities to get a show made, and that partnering with a bigger firm had opened her eyes to just how much work is needed on the business side, rather than the creative side.
“I thought I knew what I was doing, but I learned a tremendous amount from the company I was hooked up with,” she told delegates at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel. “We didn’t have a production company; we didn’t know about the insurance and the accounting and deal with the networks – that’s the business, that’s not the fun part.”
She added that although new producers may not get a great deal on their first few projects, the most important thing was to get the experience of making a show, and learn the skills to make your next productions independently. “You want to be in meetings, you want to be on the network calls,” she said.
On the network side, Oxygen’s senior VP of development Cori Abraham said that while a great idea from any source is always welcome, “it’s about a comfort level for us.”
“Smaller production companies a lot of the time… don’t have the ability to absorb a lot of risk,” she explained. “A hit idea is fantastic, but it’s better if it comes in with [companies like] the Gurneys and the Magical Elves, because I know that they can make it.”
WME agent Josh Pyatt added that the key factor was the experience, pointing out that “Even [Law & Order creator] Dick Wolf partnered with Mark Burnett” for his first reality project, since although he was a big name and had many years experience working in the TV industry on scripted crime dramas, that did not necessarily translate into the skills needed to make non-fiction.
“If a young producer comes to pitch to me, I have no problem setting you up on a few dates with bigger production companies,” he added.
While the consensus across the panel was that hooking up for newcomers was usually a good thing, the recommendation did come with a few caveats. Firstly, while green producers should be realistic about the fact that they are probably not going to get a good deal on their first show (or first few shows), they should push hard to ensure they gain good experience and can be involved in the show-making process.
In addition, One Three Media’s senior VP of development and current programming David Eilenberg pointed out that there are times when it is important to be quick-moving with an idea, in which case partnering can sometimes be a hindrance.
“A thing to certainly think about if you have a hot idea is you should know if it’s ephemeral, because if you add a bigger company, you’re adding process,” Eilenberg said.
And for Christopher Poole, exec producer at Puddle Monkey Productions, the key thing a new producer should note is the importance of honesty and transparency.
“You have to be true and honest,” he said. “The thing that will turn people off faster than anything is if you start making things up.” Both he and Gurney agreed that if a smaller company is meeting up with a number of different, larger prodcos, it was important to be clear about the fact that you were meeting with other potential suitors.
Finally, the panel agreed that the main fear many new producers have is that they will get muscled out of a project they have brought in, with the unique talent they have discovered being taken over by the bigger indie.
While this tended not to happen as often as you might think, according to Pyatt and Abraham, it still paid to be prudent.
Poole recalled that with reality show Sister Wives, his indie ensured they had an exclusivity contract worked out with the show’s stars, the Browns, by a proper lawyer before they began shopping the concept to channels.
“We spent $5,000 with a lawyer before we even took it to a network,” he said. “It was a great decision for us – but only because the show sold.
“What that contract most needs to say is that that talent will only work with you for a period of usually one year,” he added. “That’s really the most important thing that the contract needs to say.”