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 indies that are innovating and thriving, showing the unscripted world that sometimes the best things come in small packages
The pair exited their positions as VPs of programming and development at History to launch Railsplitter in 2017 with a first-look deal with A&E Networks. Since its inception, the budding studio has managed to earn a reputation for its “bespoke approach” to creating unscripted content.
Within its first three years of existence, Railsplitter has launched Expedition Bigfoot, which served as a top five series for Travel Channel in 2019 in terms of total viewers; Netflix’s Being Dad; and History’s The Butcher and Secrets Of The White House.
Most recently, the company launched History’s hit three-part miniseries event Washington, which premiered on Presidents’ Day weekend in February as a three-night event and “became cable’s No. 1 non-fiction premiere since 2014,” according to the network.
Here, Ginsburg and Healy discuss the advantages and challenges inherent in being a small company with big ideas.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Railsplitter has been in business for about three years now. Can you tell us about the origins of the company?
Matthew Ginsburg: The seeds for Railsplitter were planted back in 2010, when we first met. I had a small production company and Tim had an overall deal at MTV. We developed an idea, pitched it around, and then a few months later I ended up taking a VP job at History. A year later, Tim joined as a VP. We had complimentary skills and enough of a shared sensibility that we ended up teaming up on a lot of projects.
Tim Healy: In situations where we weren’t EP’ing a project together at History, we would bounce ideas off each other and share cuts for feedback. So, when the time came to figure out the next chapters of our respective careers, we made the decision to set out on our own and form Railsplitter Pictures.
Are there any stigmas that Railsplitter has to overcome as a small company?
TH: It’s more of a perception than a stigma, but some buyers think bigger companies are better equipped/suited to produce than smaller companies. As a rule, it’s a misconception. We used to hear it all the time when we were on the network side, and we would both push back when it came up as a topic of discussion in the room. That’s not to say that as executives we didn’t want to work with big companies, we did, but we also found a lot of value in working with smaller, independent companies whose principals had both the creative talent to really produce and fire and passion to prove themselves.
What are some of the challenges of being a small company?
MG: Having to navigate the effects of deficit financing at certain stages of a production can be especially challenging. As a smaller company, we obviously have to make bigger personal sacrifices than our counterparts at more well-financed companies to float productions.
Conversely, what are some of the advantages or benefits of remaining independent?
TH: While we obviously need and want to be profitable, there’s a certain creative freedom and flexibility that we’re afforded as an indie. We keep it lean and mean at Railsplitter by design because it’s hard enough to sell and make quality shows as is without having the added pressure of a lot of overhead. Being smaller gives us the luxury of being a little more picky with our development slate.
Railsplitter has enjoyed a number of successful launches in your three short years, from Washington and The Secret History of The White House to America’s Top Dog, The Butcher and Expedition Bigfoot. Has there been any consideration on your part to consolidate the company under the wing of a larger business?
MG: We’ve had conversations with a couple of interested companies, and it’s flattering to have a bigger business recognize the value in what we’re building. At some point, consolidating could definitely be the right move for us. But for now, we’re singularly focused on creating and producing the kind of quality content that inspired us to start Railsplitter in the first place. We have a solid foundation, now we’re ready to build the rest of the house.
How have your past experiences as cinematographers, independent producers, development execs, and directors informed your current efforts with Railsplitter?
MG: Whether or not we’re aware of it in the moment, every decision we make, big and small, is influenced by a personal experience we’ve had in our respective careers. This experience also translates into an especially deep respect for the people we hire to work on our productions. We know firsthand what each person on our team is dealing with when they step into a production because we’ve been there ourselves. We know what they’re up against and we want to give them the space, the freedom and the support they need to do their very best.
TH: On the business side, our experience as network executives means that we also have a genuine understanding of the situation our colleagues on the network side face. We’ve sat in those chairs, been in those development meetings and we know the challenges they face on a daily basis. We also have the ability to look at our projects from both sides of the ball. We interrogate things from both a producer’s perspective and an executive’s.
What’s your strategy when it comes to breaking through the clutter and succeeding in such a competitive market?
MG: We place a ton of emphasis on producing quality work. At the end of the day, our reputation is only as good as what we put on the screen. No matter what the budget is, we focus every bit of our collective creative energy and muscle into the production. It starts on day one of development and it continues right up through delivery. We set a super high bar for not only ourselves but for the teams we recruit for each project. We like to believe that the consistent quality of our productions will help us be distinct and cut through the clutter.
What’s in the pipeline now at Railsplitter?
TH: We have a range of projects in development set up at distributors including a comedic game format, a clip show, and investigative docuseries. We’re also focusing on polishing up our next big docu-drama series on the heels of Washington, and we’re optioning IP and packaging with A-level auspices in order to get those pitches ready for market.
Generally speaking, how are the disruptions of the coronavirus outbreak impacting Railsplitter, and how are you adjusting to the fallout as a small company?
MG: Like most companies, we have had to hit pause on shows that were heading into production. In addition to having to rework some of that creative, we’ve had to scramble some backup location options in the event that the travel restrictions prevent us from filming outside the country.
TH: While we work with our production teams on the projects that have been impacted, we’re doubling down on what was already slated to be a period of planned intense development. The key for us is to remain disciplined and efficient as we navigate this challenging time.
And, more specifically, how is Railsplitter working with broadcasters during this uncertain period?
TH: We have been in close contact with a lot of the broadcasters that we have strong relationships with to see how we can best service their needs. It was very chaotic at the beginning because everyone was desperately trying to adjust to the massive stop down in production and everyone was looking for “virus proof” content like clip shows and smaller, more controllable productions. But it’s since settled down and programmers seem to be focusing more on what they want post-COVID-19, which feels like a positive sign, at least on the development front.