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 latest edition of Realscreen‘s Small Companies, Big Ideas series spotlights the Redondo Beach, California’s Jeff Jenkins Productions, which is led by veteran television producer Jeff Jenkins (pictured) as CEO and 3BMG CEO Ross Weintraub.
Founded in 2018, the full-service content company serves as a joint venture between Jenkins and 3BMG, which is listed as coproducer on all JJP projects. The studio focuses on noisy unscripted docuseries, formats and specials with high-profile talent from music and sports, as well as projects centered around previously unknown faces and families, meant for linear and digital platforms.
With a “bespoke, handcrafted approach” to its storytelling, Jeff Jenkins Productions earlier this summer debuted Facebook Watch’s new Paris Jackson docuseries, Unfiltered: Paris Jackson & Gabriel Glenn. It’s currently at work on projects for Netflix and Lifetime, among others.
With more than 20 years of media industry experience, Jenkins most recently served as co-president of Bunim/Murray Productions and has been part of the team behind such hit reality series as Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which recently announced it will end after 20 seasons; I Am Cait; Total Divas; Mariah’s World; and The Simple Life.
Jenkins had also developed, sold and executive produced all the Kardashian spin-offs.
Here, Jenkins discusses the benefits and disadvantages of running his own boutique production house.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Jeff Jenkins Productions has been in business for about two years now. Can you tell us about the origins of the company?
I started working closely with Michael Kagan at ICM (who leads the agency’s unscripted department), and when the idea to start my own shingle arose, the two of us began laying out the roadmap of what the company could be, what it could become, what my goals were and the type of content we’d be looking to bring to buyers.
From there, Jeff Jenkins Productions really was built around three main pillars: fresh talent, the highest quality of storytelling, and – perhaps, most importantly – excellent customer service. We’re always aiming to serve buyers’ needs and make their lives as easy as possible.
You run the company alongside 3BMG’s CEO Ross Weintraub and 3BMG serve as co-producers stemming from the joint venture. What brought about the decision to launch JJP in partnership with 3BMG?
Once the overall strategy was defined, I went through this exciting period in which I met with a wide range of potential partners and industry leaders to discuss JJP and what I hoped to accomplish. After meeting with Ross and Reinout at 3BMG, my instincts said, ‘This is it.’ They were immediately supportive and understood what I was hoping to achieve, and they had built this incredible environment at 3BMG where they’ve set producers up to flourish. I’m able to focus on creative – generating new ideas, developing concepts and formats, working with talent – knowing that I have the full support of the 3BMG infrastructure, including editing bays, legal, HR, a top-class production team and other full-time staff.
Building a new company from scratch can be a daunting endeavor, so this partnership has really helped JJP blow past a lot of the would-be challenges and obstacles to set us up for success. It’s been one of the most supportive and wonderful experiences I’ve encountered in this business.
With that in mind, what are the obstacles you’ve faced along the way in terms of being a smaller company trying to make your mark in a competitive industry?
At the moment, we’re fortunate enough to be in a position where we’re growing – our slate’s expanding, and we have more projects in the works with more buyers – so there are the natural growing pains that come with that. The two main departments we’re looking to build right now are our development and current teams, and of course, you’re always looking to balance that internal growth with sales.
Jeff Jenkins Productions is focused on docuseries and formats, as well as celebrity-driven unscripted programs. Do you have a checklist in mind when you’re approaching a project to make it fit the JJP mold?
Our business is 50-75% focused on big name talent who have never before shared their lives in the documentary television space.
Overall, anything we take out should fall within the realm of pop culture, whether that’s music, athletics, crime, film or TV. I like to think we do the “fun” stuff – content that can blend glamour, excitement, comedy and romance – everything we touch exists in this very bubbly and fresh pop culture universe. And that takes many shapes; we plan to share these stories through many different lenses, genres and formats.
We’re also thinking globally. Right now, we’re in business with talent in the U.S., India, Hong Kong and Dubai, among other countries.
What’s your strategy when it comes to breaking through the clutter and succeeding in a competitive market?
It was a different landscape 14 years ago when we developed Keeping Up with the Kardashians, but our excitement in creating that series was knowing the show had that special recipe needed to cut through the clutter.
For JJP, it’s about two things – bringing buyers opportunities to work with some of the biggest names in pop culture who are also new to unscripted; and spotlighting vibrant new worlds that haven’t previously been explored through reality TV. We have multiple upcoming projects that do just that, including a Netflix series featuring an ensemble that adds an extremely fresh perspective to the unscripted space.
What else is in the pipeline now at Jeff Jenkins Productions?
We have our docuseries Unfiltered: Paris Jackson and Gabriel Glenn available now on Facebook Watch, and in the pipeline we have: two ensemble docuseries at Netflix, another ensemble docuseries piloting at Lifetime, as well as new formats in the works with Lifetime and TLC – among other projects in various stages of production and development.
You have more than 20 years of unscripted industry experience and have formerly served as co-president at Bunim/Murray. How has your past employment, and your work on the Kardashians franchise and The Simple Life, informed your work now as a business owner?
I look back at my time at Bunim/Murray, and in terms of the freedom, encouragement and support I was offered by Jon and the team, it’s very similar to my current setup at JJP.
I was able to cultivate the celebrity/pop culture brand within their shingle, and, essentially, hone my specialty in the reality TV landscape. I was very lucky to have their mentorship at such an early stage in my career, and I learned a lot during my time at Bunim/Murray, including how to manage a creative team.
There are so many experiences and takeaways from my time there that carry over into the way I operate today. For example, when cracking the creative for a new show, my first stop is always, ‘Are we doing something different and how will this serve buyers’ needs?’ And I’m always keeping potential spin-offs and franchise expansions top of mind, knowing that it has to be organic. A spin-off needs to be compelling enough on its own, without taking anything away from the mothership series.
If you look at the Kardashians franchise, each spin-off shifted focus and tone, and brought viewers something new. You can’t simply repeat your flagship in a new location.
What protocols are you following in returning to work in the production sector amid the current pandemic?
Different projects require different considerations, but for all, we’re following the recommendations of medical professionals and governance in terms of PPE, social distancing and regular testing (and re-testing).
Also, a major topic of discussion now is shooting location, as we’re of course always seeking the safest and most controllable environments.
How do you think these disruptions will impact small and independent production houses in the long-term?
I’m a person that typically loves to be in the room for a meeting or pitch. I enjoy that human interaction, and it’s certainly been missed over these past months. However, I don’t think I’m going to break any news to anyone by saying that video conferencing is here to stay – and that’s of course not specific to indie producers. It’s just more efficient in so many ways, not the least of which is the time it saves everyone – no one is driving across town, sitting in traffic, etc.
Overall, the path forward at JJP would certainly seem more overwhelming if we weren’t partnered with 3BMG. We’re able to lean on their team for support in implementing new protocols and strategizing each new project, while I know I’d be facing more intense pressures if I were completely out on my own.
That’s why I’d highly recommend that approach for other indies. Find a partner that believes in what you’re doing, will allow you the freedom to execute and can support your efforts at every turn.