REMEMBER, WE’RE NOT HERE update


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My pal Daniel Franzese  (MEAN GIRLS, LOOKING, CONVICTION) in interview this week, covering everything from how he thinks I should feel about my work to RuPaul’s upcoming Walk of Fame star ceremony.  Follow Danny at @whatsupdanny.

The little documentary project I couldn’t get out of my head has already conducted half a dozen interviews this month and continues to move forward after a multi-year lull in production, and I couldn’t be happier.

REMEMBER, WE’RE NOT HERE is a tongue-in-cheek exploration of how reality professionals feel about their place in the entertainment universe and as the unseen faces behind the most maligned form of television entertainment around.

More to come as things progress.

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Pro Tip: What’s Your Take?


If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you know that the notes process is generally one of my least favorite things about working in television.

Why?

a) Because some execs enjoy creatively thumbprinting the clay rather than just correcting / clarifying / asking for alterations that satisfy network quality standards, marketing, and the interests they are overseeing the show for, making superficial changes that are different, but not better, and often have massive repercussions when it comes to story in the works on anything with a season arc.

b) Because some EPs and Supervising Producers routinely dismiss fantastic notes from the really great executives in some sort of “how dare they” creative pissing match.  I’ll say it for the record, I’ve had my ass saved on more than one occasion by a great idea at the network level.

c) Because both sides of the equation often feel absolutely right about their takes on the notes process and empowered to enforce the execution of their requests, you, the story producers and editing teams, are sometime stuck in the unpleasant middle, trying to satisfy one master while basically digging your own grave with the other.

In the interest of self-preservation, might I suggest actually having an opinion and making real choices in your early cuts?  A take on the material?  A genuine giving-a-f*ck-about-what-you’re-making investing of your creative energy?  Sure, there’s a tone and a spirit for every show that you need to follow, but if you don’t feel anything for it, how can you expect it to go over well?

Early on in a career, it’s easy to make basic, rote decisions that essentially compress time and accomplish little else.  Imagine how I feel whenever someone on staff shows me a 27-minute stringout of a single act that should be maybe 8-11 minutes.  Everything of interest that happened over a certain time period is in there, but if you hand it over to an editor in that condition, the editor’s going to have to make a lot of story choices to make it fit.

Now, some editors are great with story.  Others aren’t.  I favor something tighter… a stringout that’s maybe twenty-five to fifty percent longer than it needs to be, maximum, accompanied by a discussion or written directive of how the scene is supposed to fit into the bigger picture of the episode instead of just peeking into the bay and telling the editor where the new scene lives in the system.

Stringing too tightly can yield other results, as most editors will agree with me that their first reaction to a too-lean stringout is to match in and start reviewing material.  Now everyone’s back to that weird place where the intent of the scene is diluted again because something noisier or flashier or not necessarily on-point finds its way back into the edit, the story team sometimes admonished by the editor with a “you sure missed a lot of gold in there.”

Sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they’re not.  But everyone could save a lot of time if the outline for the show is shared with the editor and the intent of the entire episode is clear even when working on one-twelfth of it at a time.  This sets up that, that leads to the other, and by the end of the show, the payoff or cliffhanger is the other thing.  You’re not stringing twelve to fifteen vignettes, you’re putting together parts of a clock.

I suppose that what I’m rattling on about is that your EPs and execs really want to see a show that makes sense.  And you can’t give them one if everyone’s metaphorically pounding on different instruments without sheet music.  If the show doesn’t make sense, people who generally don’t deal with or understand story mechanics are going to lose their minds and just start firing arrows in the dark while they try to figure out what’s not working… which makes everyone miserable.

Have an opinion about the work and the direction you’re taking it in.  Work together with the editors to make sure it makes sense.  NEVER pass anything on until it makes sense to you, because your team is probably more familiar with the story than anyone else… and if the insider’s view doesn’t make sense, what hope does anyone else have of deciphering and actually enjoying your content?

In closing:

  • Update your outlines and be sure the editors are as aware of what must be accomplished as you are.  Don’t just dump loose scenes on them.
  • Make sure that your take on the material jives with that of your EPs and network.  Don’t “wing” the feel of the show.
  • Make sure that the progression of action and evolution of cast is consistent.
  • If you don’t feel good about a story in progress, speak to your EP sooner than later.  And ALWAYS have an alternate plan/take ready when you do.
  • Never allow yourself to just compress time.  It’s the difference between finger painting and creating great work.

 

 

 

 

September? Already?


Holy Earth, Wind and Fire… it’s already September?  I can’t believe I haven’t posted since July.  How’s everything with you?

On August 17, YouTube Red launched FIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: EXPERIMENT 88, an original series I served on as Supervising Producer earlier in the year.

Just last week, I started work on a new show for reality powerhouse ITV / Leftfield that I’ll discuss just as soon as it gels into a thing and they announce it.

Beyond that, I’ve also been making strides on biographical feature film you’ll hear more about as it moves forward.   I absolutely love the subject of the film, and she’s been incredibly cooperative in helping me to tell the most realistic version of her story possible.

Finally, thanks to the folks at MWP and the University Film and Video Association for such a great time last month in Las Vegas.  I’m grateful that so many educators are getting behind the book and that the new material in the second edition has proven helpful.

New posts in the works.  See you again soon!

 

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Critics


I’m a basically happy guy, and only a couple of things ever really get to me in a way that messes with my default mood.

Dealing with the occasional insecurities of other people who need to tear others down to fulfill their own power fantasies is one of those, but what are you gonna do? It’s Los Angeles.

The other? The never-ending critical war on reality television.

I’ve been working on getting past both of these things, and I think it might finally be time to let it go. You can’t make anyone think differently than they do about shows they won’t even watch any more than you’ll ever be able to convince your mother to try sushi, another craft that takes years to perfect.

How do you know you won’t like what you don’t try?

I can share the findings of studies that show that girls who view reality television more readily see themselves as leaders and role models among their peers.

I can tell you that you haven’t seen anything until you see what goes on behind the scenes of artfully directed and choreographed live reality-competition broadcasts like Dancing With the Stars.

I can tell you that one of my favorite media scholars (one of the world’s most respected, in fact) has stated time and again that it’s about the audience use of the characters and that virtually no one is looking at the villains of any work on television and saying things like “I want to be just like that.”

But none of it is going to alter the opinions of people whose chief aim in life is to hate everything.

Thus, I withdraw from the battlefield and back to the business of just trying to figure out how to make the shows I’m on better than they might deserve to be. I’m going to keep my head down and apply my hard-won story knowledge to making sure that you can follow a story, cheer for your heroes and boo your villains. I’m not going to resort to making the good guy always right or the bad guy always wrong to appease people in media who insist that reality shows have “too much conflict.” I might, however, point out your hypocrisy in supporting scripted shows chock full of violence, sex and language while you’re creating a big hullabaloo over someone throwing a glass of water or getting crafty to undermine someone they’re competing with.

I’ll close with this fun fact: No one who has ever used the Kardashians as a show emblematic of bad TV at one of my lectures has ever subsequently admitted to watching even one episode of any of their shows. Their full opinion on the family is reliant on TMZ and tabloid gossip.

Wait, did I say I’m letting all of this go? Maybe I’m not quite there yet. But I’m trying.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go for a barefoot walk in the grass and work on my breathing.

Consulting: What It Is, What It’s Not


mail-2When I first moved to California, long before reality television seemed like a real career, I was hell-bent on writing for sitcoms and films.  I shelled out what I could afford (and what I couldn’t afford) on pitchfests, consultants, and anything that I thought would help me get a leg up in the entertainment universe.

It didn’t do much to move the success needle in the short term.  I mean, I made some great friends and watched them bloom into amazing professionals, but that was usually incidental and a result of just being in rooms with like-minded people.

It’s also one of the reasons I was so slow to ever consider consulting, which I’ve only done sporadically, and only when I feel like I can genuinely offer useful input to the client.  More than half of the calls and meetups, unfortunately, end up being a waste of time and gas for both of us. If I think someone’s grip on the reality of the business is tenuous at best, I’ll politely end our session and refund their money. I don’t want to become anyone’s party story as the cruddy consultant (oh, how they love to blame a consultant) who couldn’t deliver them a rose-petaled path to the top of the mountain and a jetliner view in the Hollywood Hills… something few consultants ever even manifest for themselves.

Let’s talk about what consulting is and isn’t, so you’ll know how to get the most out of it if you ever decide to seek someone out for screenplays, reality pitches, or pretty much anything.

CONSULTING IS NOT ACCESS

Except on extremely rare occasion where I know that a client’s project is exactly what someone’s looking for, I’m not going to introduce a client to development execs at production companies or network friends.  I don’t approach those people all that often with my own work, and I’m sure our relationship would suffer if I just started shoveling people into their offices. If access is what someone is after in hiring a consultant, they should really be seeking out representation and learning how to network properly.

CONSULTING IS PREPARING YOU TO MAKE THE MOST OF THE INROADS YOU MAKE

My job, when I do consult, is to help someone get their material into the best shape before they start taking meetings.  What a consultant should be doing is helping their clients understand what’s going on in the industry, aid them in becoming fluent in the language of the business, and assist them in formatting materials in a manner that helps them to look like a professional.  A consultant may advise their client on places that may take an interest in the concept, but they shouldn’t be expected to walk the project in.

CONSULTANTS ARE NOT IN THE MAGIC BULLET BUSINESS

No consultant that promises you that your project will sell deserves your business.  I don’t care how many awards they’ve racked up or how long their list of credits may be, this is a promise that should never be made.  Does the consultant take credit for the success of their clients?  Do you know how much of their clients’ success is owed to sweat, drive and talent versus hiring a consultant to give them notes?

CONSULTANTS ARE IN THE BUSINESS OF HELPING YOU REFINE YOUR EXECUTION

A rough diamond isn’t worth as much as one that’s been brilliantly cut, and that’s the service you should be paying for. A good consultant will be giving you advice on industry standards, pacing, character development and the elements of a solid presentation, not telling you that you can fudge your final draft settings and font sizes to make a script seem shorter or longer. You don’t need workarounds, you need that brilliant-cut diamond.

CONSULTANTS ARE NOT FOREVER

Most good consultants I know offer packages with certain goals to be achieved over a specific number of passes/calls/sessions.  I don’t, but most of the clients I’ve worked with over the years have their questions answered in a couple of calls and some email volleys.  The idea of someone’s script or concept limping along through countless revisions at an hourly rate with no clear end in sight doesn’t make sense to me.  If a client can’t get it together in a couple of calls (and the odd followup email question here or there), I might suggest that our work together isn’t yielding the results it should and terminate the arrangement.  An ethical consultant isn’t going to lead you on forever just to keep you shelling out loot.

A GOOD CONSULTANT EVENTUALLY RENDERS THEMSELVES PRACTICALLY OBSOLETE

The ultimate goal in working with a consultant is to eventually “get it.”  I once heard that all good teachers are essentially out to replicate themselves, and a great consultant should be doing the same.  Once a client is proficient in the ways of the business and creating industry-standard content, that’s the end.  There are exceptions, of course, as many people value an outside opinion on works in progress and a trusted consultant may be revisited again and again over time to provide fresh eyes and a take on subsequent projects… but the goal is for the client to become self-sufficient.

Hope that’s helpful.

Addition, 11/8

I hope this doesn’t sound too curmudgeonly, but I feel like it needs to be said.

I don’t do much consulting, as I’m usually putting in long hours on shows and/or developing my own stuff, all while handling the simple life details like going to the DMV, cleaning the cat box or running laundry. If you’re a regular reader of this blog or have read the part of my book that invites you to contact me, you know that I’m usually happy to answer simple questions not covered in the book for free by email (using the “contact me” form on this blog or the email address provided in the book) as time permits.  

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had a lot of invitations to coffee or lunch or dinner to share advice, and regret that due to my schedule and a few unfortunate incidents, I’ve had to discontinue those kind of friendly meetups in which I usually find myself spending two hours, parking fees and gas to answer five minutes worth of questions already covered in my book in exchange for an eight dollar sandwich.  Most people are super-awesome, but three or four of those a week have worn me down a little, so email’s the way to go.  For more detailed conversations, I’m available by Skype on a very limited basis at a non-negotiable rate of $200/hr. 

Please remember that I spent a year writing a very niche book on the reality television story and creative process that you can find online, new or used (under $2 in some places I just looked up), and I strongly encourage you to check it out before asking things already answered there.

My cat, Zoe, also thanks you.

Dumbth


Just posted my interview with fellow reality producer Jon Collins today and wanted to make special mention of the podcast in that it deals with a situation Jon and I have found to be a sticky one over the years: the nagging presumption that reality television viewers are somehow dumber than people who watch regular scripted programming.

You’re constantly being reminded of things through flashback and repetition that you don’t normally encounter when watching procedurals and other scripted drama, and neither one of us can quite figure out why some people don’t trust the audience to remember things.  Sure, you might get up and go stir the chili at some point, but in the age of the DVR, you can just press “pause.”  Ever stood up in a movie and yelled, “I can’t be expected to remember what happened eleven minutes ago” to anyone?  No?  Shouldn’t happen with TV, either.

Anyway, check it out.  Jon was a great guest.  You can go to the archives and hear the past interviews with Shelly Goldstein (Biography, Behind the Music), Carl Hansen (Shark Tank), Andrew Hoagland (Basketball Wives and the upcoming Hollywood Divas) or Joey Ortega (of Howie Mandel’s Alevy Productions), too.

CLICK HERE for the podcast archives!

REMEMBER, WE’RE NOT HERE podcast preview episode launches today at 12N PST


RWNH

It’s my pleasure to announce the very first REMEMBER, WE’RE NOT HERE podcast launching today at 12 noon PST.  My inaugural guest is the funny and charming Joey Ortega, Manager of Development at Howie Mandel’s Alevy Productions, the folks behind content like MOBBED and DEAL WITH IT, currently airing on TBS Wednesdays at 10:30/9:30C.  Joey’s an expert on reality competition and game shows, and we had a great time.

The podcast launches in earnest on May 18 (with new episodes each Sunday at noon) and will feature various reality and game pro guests each week.  The title comes from the frequent on-set reminder to reality casts, “Remember, We’re Not Here.”

On Flexibility


When I was young, I wanted to be a cartoonist more than anything.  I went to college, put out a couple of books that only did so-so in the marketplace, and came home one Christmas break to find an offer from an old friend to write a few commercials for Woody Woodpecker’s 50th Anniversary merchandise.  It wasn’t the same as my dream of working in comics, but I thought it might be fun.  It turned out to be quite an adventure and led to writing some regional television.

I was flexible, and it paid off as I discovered a talent for writing in a different medium.

I continued down the path as a writer, found myself an agent, and tried my hand at writing feature screenplays.  A few were well-received, so after I went to film school, I eventually moved to Los Angeles to chase that dream.

Halfway across the country, while watching television in a Texas hotel room, I saw the name of one of the only people I knew in Los Angeles scroll by in the end credits of a show.  By the time I got to California, I had an interesting lead on a job working with him in reality television, where I could be part of something that paid the bills until I managed to sell a screenplay.

Again, I was flexible.  I had no idea where it would lead me, but it sounded like fun.

I found myself enjoying reality television and the stability of the work.  I had the chance to work on a lot of interesting shows at a time when reality was still figuring out its most modern incarnation.  Survivor had made its debut that year, and reality was booming.  I put the traditionally-scripted dream away for a while and chased reality television hard enough to make a name for myself in it.

Guess what?   I had a great time.  A decade and a half later, I’m still having a great time.  I can count myself among the creative teams behind a respectable number of milestone shows in reality television.  I was nominated for an Emmy® in 2009.  I’ve written what some call the definitive text on producing for reality and traveled the world showing people how to tell stories more effectively in a corner of the business often derided for its fast, cheap and noisy approach to entertainment.  Yet, there’s sometimes a “gee whiz, you sold out and abandoned your dream” tone to the way a lot of students and young filmmakers talk to me that continues to drive me nuts.

I have a lot of respect for my friends who write, produce and direct films.  I’ve had the pleasure of working with Guardians of the Galaxy and Super writer/director James Gunn on some of his shorts (as a 1st and 2nd AD), written a short that featured Jenna Fischer and ran on the front page of NBC.com, and had meetings galore on different feature specs of my own.  Its fun, but it’s not my bread and butter… reality is.

I’ve had many years of working 50 weeks strong on reality shows.  For a period recently, I was handling two and three shows at a time during the height of Basketball Wives, Basketball Wives L.A. and the less popular Baseball Wives on VH1.  I should feel bad because my idealized fantasy screenwriting career didn’t take off?  I don’t think so.  With hundreds of hours of finished product all over the marketplace and a number of ratings triumphs to boot, I’ve enjoyed this unexpected twist more than you can imagine.  I’ve worked on shows featuring everyone from Ozzy Osbourne to George Hamilton to Gabrielle Carteris.  I’ve made good friends and worked with a great many of the folks on The Hollywood Reporter’s latest “25 Most Powerful People in Reality Television” list.

I get it.  Movies are cool.  They just are.  It would be fun to say I wrote Iron Man at parties. I have no regrets, though — wonderful things happen when you’re flexible in your career choices and surf new opportunities as they arise.

Heck, some of the best stuff I’ve seen in ages is on the web.  Few things make me laugh as hard as a good Glove and Boots video from Bento Box on YouTube, and surprise — that’s not feature writing, either.  Have a look:

 

All I’m saying is — look around you.  Realize that you can have a lot of fun with the many variations on your “ideal” career.  I’m glad I’ve had an opportunity to make my living as a storyteller… which I might not have if I’d turned up my nose at reality almost fifteen years ago.  I sometimes oversimplify my position by saying that the important thing is that your checks clear… not every project is your dream project, but every time you get paid for lending your creativity to something, it pours a little more water on that seed in your heart that working at a bank or a pallet yard might not.

The important thing is to make stuff and have fun.  Be flexible and enjoy the opportunities as they roll in.

 

Pep Talks with Eddie Pepitone #15: Troy DeVolld


A one-hour podcast with my pal, comedian Eddie Pepitone (late of Conan, Arsenio and the Steven Feinartz documentary THE BITTER BUDDHA) and his wife, Karen Simmons, one of my frequently recurring reality television coworkers.

Topics include reality television, pop surrealists, Allee Willis, Jennifer Pozner, tea at Harrods with my mother, and more.

 

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