Small companies, big ideas: Back Roads Entertainment

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, ...
October 24, 2018

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.

The latest edition of Realscreen‘s recurring Small Companies, Big Ideas series features New York-based TV prodco Back Roads Entertainment. Founded by Emmy-nominated executive producer Colby Gaines in 2011, who previously co-founded Leftfield Pictures with Brent Montgomery, the indie specializes in creating and developing unscripted comedy and lifestyle programming, as seen in such titles as BET’s variety/talk show 50 Central, Cooking Channel’s Big Bad BBQ Brawl, MTV’s Joking Off, DIY Network’s Lake Life and Yahoo’s Culinary Beats, among others.

In the past year, Back Roads has produced nearly 10 series, specials and pilots for seven broadcast partners, with unannounced projects forthcoming for Travel Channel, Discovery, VH1, Netflix, Complex, A&E and TBS in the works.

Here, Gaines discusses the advantages and challenges inherent in being a small company with big ideas. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the origins of Back Roads?

I wanted the next chapter of my career to be about telling stories that tied back to my true love: comedy. In high school and college – way before YouTube was a thing – I was performing, writing and directing comedy with friends. It’s taken a minute to turn Back Roads Entertainment into a comedy brand but after seven years, I can say we’re finally getting there in both unscripted and scripted.

How have your past experiences informed your current efforts with Back Roads?

The unscripted side of the entertainment business is all about household names now. There’s very little patience for developing unknown talent or pitching a format without a famous face. So, I’m packaging every project with an A-lister.

What are the core values that drive your company at its heart?

We try not to get caught up in the swipe-right, swipe-left transactional culture that the entertainment business can feel like at times. It takes time to find the diamonds, creatively speaking. So we invest in the people in front of the camera and behind and take the time to develop unique projects. That care is the formula.

What are the challenges in being a small company at a time when many production companies are being acquired by larger, multi-national operations?

Five years ago, I had 50 concepts on my development slate at any given time. But in this environment, where every project has to be pitched with a big name attachment, I can only develop about seven to 10 shows at a time. There’s simply more pressure to deliver a sale and hopefully a success that gets us to a season two.

Conversely, what are some of the advantages that come along with being an indie?

Being independent means I have the freedom to pick and choose projects I like. Also, anyone who works with us is getting me on speed-dial and I’m a quick decision-maker. We don’t have meetings to set more meetings. We make a decision and go.

Do you see yourself as a small company, and are there any stereotypes you find yourself trying to fight that come along with that?

I tell every person who works for me that my door is always open. I think that’s probably part of my Southern upbringing and nature: to put more time into every relationship. Now that I’ve worked in New York for over 20 years, that process has been expedited somewhat. But I still try to treat everyone like family. When your company gets to be so big that it’s about the bottom line versus the creativity – you lose the ability to do that.

What’s your strategy when it comes to breaking through the clutter and succeeding in a competitive marketplace?

Comedy is what we do well, so we’re super-serving the market with formats and scripted projects in that space. We’re also packaging the ideas with A-list talent and giving buyers a reason to buy right now.

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?

I’ve turned down jobs in the last few years with SVODs because of the potential precedent of lowering standards in the industry, including my own. The bulk of our business is still done with the cable and broadcast buyers. If and until budgets increase on these other platforms, we won’t be producing much in that space.

Lastly, what are you working on now?

We’re working with household names on comedy formats, events [in] music and fashion, and content-driven businesses. We’re also producing some food and home shows. Lifestyle will continue to be a part of my business. Back Roads is a comfort brand: laughs, food and fun.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for HMV.com. As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.