Realscreen Live ’21: The promise and pitfalls of A-list talent in unscripted series

As scripted series production, sports and live music have slowed in the past year from the COVID-19 pandemic, major stars are more often now attaching themselves to unscripted projects. At Realscreen Live ...
June 11, 2021

As scripted series production, sports and live music have slowed in the past year from the COVID-19 pandemic, major stars are more often now attaching themselves to unscripted projects.

At Realscreen Live on Thursday (June 10), a panel of experts within the industry gathered to discuss how more A-list talent is getting involved in unscripted series, and how to ensure the talent being found for these unscripted series are a good fit.

Jacqui Pitman, CEO of Pitman Casting and Partypit Productions, moderated the discussion which featured Caroline Baumgard, CEO of A. Smith & Co. Productions; Sahara Bushue, SVP and head of unscripted TV at Westbrook Studios; Joni Day, SVP of alternative development at Fremantle; and Marc Kamler, partner and head of unscripted content, alternative programming, digital media, licensing and branding at A3 Artists Agency.

Kamler said he expects to continue to see more artist involvement in unscripted spaces, because of how much opportunity there is for these stars to pursue passion projects there, and turn it into premium content. Bushue agreed, noticing this trend started before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think three years ago, talent started realizing the power of entering someone’s home. The connection you make by being on someone’s screen and being your authentic self,” Bushue said.

The panelists agreed that the most important part of finding star talent for unscripted programming is to ensure they have a connection and a passion for the project, otherwise their work won’t translate. Bushue said an authentic relationship between talent and a series is what viewers are interested in.

“If you attach the wrong talent to a situation … and they don’t care about what they’re watching or doing, it’s very blatant to the viewers. The audience is smarter now than they used to be,” Bushue said.

Some strong examples Bushue cited include Jennifer Lopez working as an executive producer and judge on World of Dance, which was a great fit because her career started when she was discovered as a dancer. Day also mentioned comedian Leslie Jones as a good example of this, as she approached Fremantle to host Supermarket Sweep with a “once-in-a-lifetime pitch” about how she’d auditioned for the series years earlier.

Another strategy that can work, Bushue said, is for audiences to watch a celebrity grow and learn, like Netflix used with Will Smith starring in the docuseries Amend: The Fight for America. In the series, Smith was educated about fights for equal rights in the United States, centered around the U.S. Constitution’s 14th amendment.

In some cases, a star’s involvement on an unscripted series may only be as an executive producer without much input. But Kamler said networks are becoming more savvy about this, and preferring to find talent with passion and a point of view. Other panelists agreed that they don’t just want a name brand, they want to ensure the talent is creatively fulfilled as well to ensure the show’s longevity.

“We’re not just looking for a face for the show, we’re looking for someone who will give it their all, because a huge plus to having an A-list talent attached is they’ll promote the show,” Baumgard said.

“They’ll be all over social media, they’ll get the show out there. And if they’re not happy with the product, if they’re not happy with the process, they’re not going to do that.”

The panelists agreed it’s important in a pitch to know the brand of the buyer you’re pursuing with your talent, and to make sure the attached on-camera talent fits with that buyer. A network you’re pursuing might have a star comedian that would be a great fit for your series, which would be preferable instead of using talent that promotes a competitor.

Another change that Baumgard noted is more often star talent want to know about what a project is before they sign on, as opposed to being in a holding deal with a production company.

Additionally, more online personalities and social media influencers are working in unscripted spaces, whereas previously they could make more money working on their videos from home than in a full season of unscripted work. But now, Kamler said more of these influencers are seeing the value of working on unscripted TV, to find an audience they wouldn’t otherwise.

“Influencers have realized that if they’re looking for longevity in some ways or they want to have brands or they want to have products, they need to  be appealing to an older audience,” Kamler said.

But, for Day, just because social media influencers with large audiences are interested doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily make a good host for an unscripted series.

“You need to be very thorough in the vetting of the talent to make sure the translation is going to work,” Day said.

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