People/Biz

Reinventing: Reality vet Jeff Collins talks building Catalina Content

In this series, Realscreen spotlights producers who are reinventing their approaches to their craft — through revamping their business models, exploring new genres of unscripted and non-fiction content, moving into ...
July 9, 2021

In this series, Realscreen spotlights producers who are reinventing their approaches to their craft — through revamping their business models, exploring new genres of unscripted and non-fiction content, moving into multi-platform territory, or all of the above. Here, we talk to Jeff Collins, president of Catalina Content, about starting fresh and creating talent-led lifestyle programming. 

Jeff Collins is no stranger to reinvention.

In early January of last year, the producer exited the company he co-founded in 2009, Collins Avenue Entertainment, as its then-parent company, the now collapsed Kew Media, was entering a strategic review of its assets. Later that month, the Dance Moms producer would be acquired by The Content Group, and Collins would take up the role of president at LA-based Catalina Content, a then-fledgling outfit backed by Comcast-owned Sky.

It’s the reality veteran’s fourth time building a production company.

“I started a little one way back in the early 2000s and I called it Kinfolk. It was an abject failure. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was told no for five years in a row and I think I sold one music doc under it,” Collins says.

“You have to be told no 99 times before somebody says yes once.”

Collins began his career producing Entertainment Tonight at Paramount, before moving up the ranks to VP of Leeza Gibbons Entertainment, part of Paramount Domestic Television.

After working as a freelance showrunner and director on a variety of series including Lifetime’s How Clean is Your House? and The Pregnant Man for Discovery, among many others, Collins went on to run the American division of British-based September Films, where he produced hit unscripted series including We TV’s Bridezillas and A&E’s Billy the Exterminator.

That experience set him up to start his own company, Collins Avenue (now Story Street Entertainment following its acquisition by The Content Group). In his 11-year run at the helm, the prodco produced more than 20 series, including Lifetime’s Dance Moms, currently in its eight season. The hit format is distributed in nearly 20 territories globally and has spawned spin-offs such as Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition, Raising Asia and Dance Moms Miami — all for Lifetime — and Sisters In Law for We TV.

When the opportunity came along to run Catalina, he jumped at the chance to start fresh once again.

“Starting from scratch was really exciting to me because it was a way to just re-examine the way that I’ve done things in the past — what did I learn? What did I want to do differently?

“I also love remodeling and building houses. I’ve done about nine in my lifetime, and a company is a lot like that. There was a really good opportunity for me to reflect on the past and a really exciting opportunity to be part of a big company, because you see how the business has changed, even in the last year, exponentially. It’s like the ground is moving underneath our feet.”

A major part of that disruption has been the explosion of new buyers, and Collins says his team is always developing with an eye towards streaming.

“It’s much more exciting… because when you’re developing broad, you can go to a lot of different buyers. The way we were developing in the past is, using Bravo as an example, it’s just a very specific brand. You would develop for Bravo and there’s very little chance that the type of show you spent months and months putting together to pitch to Bravo would have an opportunity anywhere else. That’s not the case anymore. And that’s what’s exciting.”

Being owned by Sky offered an opportunity for Collins to “play in a different field.”

“The independent production company [route] is just so incredibly difficult these days, the economics of it, to be able to scale those things up. So I really wanted to play in the big corporate sandbox,” he adds.

The deal also opened doors to form international partnerships, and Catalina is already working with the likes of Michael Sugar’s Sugar23, Mira Sorvino and Transformation Ranch and Laurieann Gibson.

“A lot of times, the way we get things on the air now is through different strategic partnerships… It’s just a very different way of doing business than the old way, which was always, you go pitch to a buyer and they would right out of the gate say, ‘We have to own everything. We want to own 100% of the IP.’ Now, many of them are more open to putting together deals where they take part of it and somebody else takes the other part of it.”

Leaning on his roots, Collins is focused on buzzy lifestyle programming. Since its launch in January 2020, Catalina Content has delivered 60 hours of programming, including four premium true crime titles under HLN’s Notorious Crimes banner and Mighty Underdogs for Discovery+.

“What I was charged with was really pushing the boundaries of developing a brand that would be lifestyle, pop culture focused,” he says. “I’m focused on talent, because my philosophy is that people become stars, formats don’t. The only way that we’re going to see series orders that come back year after year after year is if the people or the person who’s at the front of that format becomes a big star.

“There’s less and less of an opportunity to do series that renew season after season because of the business model of the streamers,” he adds. “They do two or three seasons of something and then they’re done, they’re ready to move on to something else. But again, I think the only way that you have an opportunity to create a big franchise that can run for many seasons, is if you somehow create stars in that process.”

Hiring a head of talent was key for Collins as he built his team. After Catalina launched, he was able to bring Peter Huntley — most recently the development casting director for Bravo’s Mexican Dynasties and HBO Max’s The Ho’s — on board.

“I always say that part of Peter’s job is just to mine for gold. Sometimes we don’t really know what he’s looking for. It’s just being out there and sorting through Instagram and social media.”

Mighty Underdogs, for instance, about the world of Junior Dog Shows in which teen handlers compete among thousands for one of the limited spots at the Westminster Dog Show, was a world Huntley stumbled into by accident, Collins says.

“Casting is something that I believe in. It’s a big part of how I develop. We find somebody that we feel is strong enough to be the lead or part of the lead for a show, and sometimes we just begin to build around that person to see if there’s a world out there.”

The company also set up as yet unannounced series at Oxygen, A&E and Peacock — all through the pandemic. Collins had established his development team in March 2020, just before the global health crisis forced the crew to work remotely.  “I got a chance to work with them in person for all of two weeks.”

“We meet with the development team every single day. I didn’t used to do that when I was at Collins Avenue. It was because of COVID — we just wanted to check in with each other,” he says. “We discovered something quite by accident, and that is, when we start the meeting, we don’t necessarily have an agenda in mind… We always talk about, ‘What’s happening in your world? You tell me what you’re focused on.’ We go around the horn with that, and we have people from all different walks of life, all different ages, and it’s absolutely inspiring sometimes to hear just what someone read or what they did last night. But because of COVID and the fact that we were doing that every single day, it made a big difference in our development slate.”

Those meetings aren’t the only evolution in how Collins has decided to run his latest venture.

“I think the biggest lesson that I learned, personally, is that I do the best when I am focused on the creative,” he says.

“I’ve gone back and forth. I’ve had creative teams that wanted to develop on their own and then come and present to me and have me say yes or no or ask questions and then, in this particular situation because it is a startup, I’m very, very hands on with the creative team, even from the inception… I find that that’s where I thrive, and that’s what is exciting for me because a lot of times when a company scales up and you have four or five shows, you can easily, as the person who’s running the company, get very bogged down in the business of running a company and allow the creative to be pushed down the scale.

“So, what I’ve done differently this time is, no matter what it is that’s going on for me, being creative is a top priority, not just for the company but for me personally, because it’s what makes me tick. It’s what makes me happy.”

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.

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