Small Companies, Big Ideas: Texas Crew Productions chief on being a good partner

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, ...
March 25, 2021

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.

Austin-based Texas Crew Productions opened its doors more than 25 years ago as a two-man crewing company working for the likes of 60 Minutes, the Olympics on NBC, MTV, and the NFL Network.

“Texas Crew Productions actually began as Texas Crew, and it was literally a couple of guys — Jim Bowen and Terry Stewart — who owned a camera between them and would get hired out by networks to go shoot news stories in dangerous places — places like Afghanistan during the Russian withdrawal, Beirut during the war with Israel, El Salvador, Tiananmen Square,” CEO David Karabinas (pictured) tells Realscreen. “We actually had a framed letter hanging in the office for years which was from their life insurance company cancelling their policies because of all the ‘hot zones’ they kept traveling to. One of the network news assignment desk editors always referred to them as ‘that Texas Crew’ and the name stuck.”

When Karabinas joined in the late 1990s, the company was still, for the most part, a two-person operation.

“Together we ended up transforming the company from a couple of guys with a camera to a full-service production services company that was providing crews and equipment to network broadcasters for everything from the Olympic Games and the Super Bowl to the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina,” Karabinas explains. “Fast forward to the mid-2000′s and the boom in unscripted content. For the first time we started getting calls from smaller independent production companies who were getting commissions to shoot their own reality shows. After a few years of this, we thought, why not create content ourselves?”

In 2012, Texas Crew spun off a new shingle, Texas Crew Productions (TCP), to create and produce original content, with an initial focus on sports-related programming including the Ironman Triathlon series for NBC, Brian and the Boz and Phi Slama Jama for ESPN’s ’30 for 30′ strand, and its first docuseries, Friday Night Tykes for Esquire.

TCP has since picked up some 20 Emmys. From documentary to reality, live TV, long-form series and specials, branded content and music videos, Texas Crew Productions’ credits include History’s The 44th President: In His Own Words and Alcatraz: Search For The Truth; VH1′s ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game; Oxygen’s The Disappearance of Maura Murray, as well as Who Killed My Son, which premiered on Discovery+ March 23.

“2021 kicked off with bang for us,” Karabinas says. “We had two of our series renewed at the top of the year – Sell This House for FYI and Music’s Greatest Mysteries on AXS, and our series Killer Motive is in its second season on Oxygen. We also have several productions in the works that haven’t quite been announced yet including series for Discovery +, Facebook Watch, Fox, and Magnolia Network, as well as projects in development at Oxygen, Lifetime, Peacock, and Warner Bros,”

Below, the chief executive discusses TCP’s multi-genre slate, and the ins and outs of remaining independent and navigating a pandemic.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How have your past experiences informed your current efforts with Texas Crew? 

David Karabinas: When you’re a production services company that relies exclusively on incoming business, you have to be client focused. If you’re not, the phone will stop ringing and you’re done. It’s not all that different when you’re creating commissioned content. Our clients expect us to give them a great show with our creative stamp on it. But in the end, if their vision is different from ours, we have to work with them to make a show they are happy with. As a production company, our number one goal is to be a good partner to our clients. Be on time, be on budget, be collaborative, and be a company that clients want to work with. That’s really what’s most important.

Over the course of the company’s history, you’ve produced content in myriad genres, from sports and live TV to true crime and reality. Was that part of Texas Crew’s strategy from the onset, or is that versatility something that’s been used to mirror programming trends? 

DK: It was always our long-term goal to be a company that could work across genres. Let’s face it, producing vastly different content is good for our creative soul. But in this business, it’s really easy to get pigeon-holed as a company that can only do one thing and not another. No one thought we could do live television until we did it. No one thought we could make a crime series until we made one. The key is that when you get that opportunity to take on something new, when you find that client willing to give you a shot, you have to perform. If you don’t, you may not get another chance. Brad Bernstein, our chief creative officer, leads a great creative team and we’ve been fortunate that no matter what kind of show we throw at them, they exceed expectations.

The company has unwaveringly remained independent despite having won more than 20 Emmy awards. What are the benefits to remaining a small, independent company?  

DK: Remaining independent has allowed us to have close relationships with our clients at every level. Whether it’s myself, or some of my partners, like Chip Rives, who is president of the company but still directs and runs productions, or Rick Cikowski, who continues to edit and design graphics for our shows, we are all still very hands on with each project. TCP isn’t the kind of company where one person sells you a show and you never see them again. No matter how big or small the budget or scope of the project, the client gets our full attention.

Conversely, what are some of the challenges of having remained independent over the course of nearly three decades? 

DK: We’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to remain independent and produce award-winning content for this long in this business. It’s a tough industry, but I think being an independent production company forces us to think more creatively in our approach to business while making us more nimble and more efficient. It’s also really important that we’re not only great partners to buyers, but we’re also great partners to other production companies and independent producers so we can compete with some of the larger production mega-companies. We’ve had some really successful partnerships with companies like Pocket Square Productions, Ripley Entertainment, and Soledad O’Brien Productions that I think were only helped by our independence and willingness to think creatively. Ultimately, it’s about having the freedom to try new things to expand and grow our business.

How has the enduring COVID-19 pandemic affected the long-term outlook for your business? 

Truth be told, we have been pretty fortunate thus far. While the pandemic has brought production challenges, we have still been able to sell projects and keep productions moving in a safe manner.

Our long-term outlook hasn’t changed too much other than needing to reexamine future business operations. For example, what will our production offices look like once it is safe to return to an office setting? How much space will we need? Where will our editors work? What teams can stay remote? We’ve made a lot of changes over the last year to deal with the pandemic – the question for the future is which ones do we stick with, and which ones do we get rid of.

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

I hate to keep saying the same thing, but it really is about being good partners and collaborators. There are a lot of people out there with good ideas for a television show, but not everyone can actually execute them and not everyone makes the experience, if not enjoyable, relatively painless. That’s what we strive to do and that’s how we try to separate ourselves in the marketplace.

With files from Jillian Morgan

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.