Let’s make a show!
— May 21, 2014 @ 12:59pm ET
I read the email 20 times. Checked to confirm the sender — that I was the intended recipient. The sound that erupted from my mouth began as a gasp and morphed into a nervous laugh before becoming an ear-splitting “Yeahhhhh!”
Working in commercial production for the past 15 years has forged me into a guy who is tough enough to stick to meager budgets, persistent enough to meet tight deadlines — and smart enough to find people who can teach me what I don’t know.
As more digital opportunities open up for content creators, it’s an extremely exciting time to be a producer. And after developing and pitching scripted and non-scripted ideas for the past few years, and dreaming about it forever, I wanted one thing: my own show.
So when my pal, director Danny Miller, told me about a genuine American character named Gabe Johnson, I paid attention. He was walking through New York’s SoHo neighborhood a few years ago and ventured into a storefront called Horses Cut Shop, home to eclectic displays of vintage T-shirts on old pickup truck beds, taxidermy and reclaimed furniture.
“We should think about doing a show on this guy,” Danny said.
Made From America is now a new reality series from my firm, The Chapter Media, following Gabe Johnson, a vintage T-shirt designer on the road to find inspiration for his wares, that premiered on GAC last week.
Everyone wants a show. Only a few get the chance to make one. I can’t believe I’m one of the few. I know much more about the business now, but everything is changing fast. Here are five lessons I learned from the start.
Lesson 1: Find the right partner.
Our small production company, not far from midtown Manhattan, has no agent or manager. I’ve got friends I trust in the business on the network side who have been extremely generous with their time, advice and sage wisdom.
My plan was to get aligned with people who have done this before with a great degree of success and who had no problem debating ideas with me. Good things come out of conversations, but great things often come from disagreements.
I hired an industry veteran to serve as our show runner. I met him through my neighbor — an actor from The Sopranos, now on Banshee — who said I should meet his pal Michae Winter. As luck would have it, he was a known talent in the reality space. And indeed, he was great at developing and packaging shows.
The big plus for me as a newbie: He previously worked on the network side and was quite comfortable navigating through it. He was worth his weight in gold.
Lesson 2: Stick to the plan — but be willing to adjust.
We put together a schedule and we’re off and running. Our plan calls for us to produce and shoot 18 separate segments over the next three months filming all across America.
We got super-lucky in that an Emmyaward winning team of editors had an opening in their schedule to cut our show — but only in an exact window of time. We would make our respective schedules work for each other, but planning shoots based on editor availability was a fresh new concept to us!
I’m a producer, so naturally I’ll serve as the show’s line producer, right? Why didn’t anyone warn me about that? Of course, I still have to run the business, find more business, develop more ideas to pitch, etc.
Somewhere along the line, we deviated from the plan of creating full episodes in one location, and started shooting segments in various parts of the country and constructing episodes by theme.
We’re thrilled with what we got on the screen, though we made it a lot more labor-intensive than we needed to.
Lesson 3: Communicate clearly.
Define the roles of your team immediately. Each production is different and with a small crew it’s important to communicate, because tiny things can become big problems fast.
We expected our field producer to get general releases from anyone appearing on camera, but because of miscommunication between us, we spent weeks after the fact tracking down people by only location and first name.
Delegate. Hire the right people for the right jobs — based on ability and their track record. You are undertaking a heavy lift and don’t need anyone who will drag you down. Find the people who possess the skills and right energy to get through all obstacles (because there will be many) without alienating anyone. It’s for the good of the show you finally got — and will help get the next one.
Lawyers don’t get “creatives.” Creatives don’t get executives. “Talent” chooses not to get anyone. Communicate clearly with them all, in their own language, to turn conflict into consensus. At various points in the project, somebody will call somebody else “insane.” Often, they are right.
Finally, when the network delivers bad news — a withering critique or a funding holdup — deal with it, calmly but confidently, and figure it out. They will respect you for it and the project will remain on track.
Lesson 4: Keep an eye on talent.
The talent makes the show, and we found a great character in Gabe. People gravitate to him. He’s smart, handsome in a rebel/country gentleman way and has just the right amount of mischief in his eyes. But the talent can also break the show (they’e not trained actors), so you have to make sure they really understand what they’ve signed up for and are being paid for — early in the process.
It can unravel with lightning speed on the road. Drive home the idea that you’re halting everything in your orbit to make the talent and the show a success, and be ready for curve balls. Gabe, for example, doesn’t answer his phone! Ever. Perhaps it’s a Seattle thing, or maybe the technology doesn’t appeal to his personal sense of space. A great thing for us was how open he was to discussing his on camera duties and ways to keep improving upon them.
Lesson 5: Listen to your gut.
It’s OK to say no. We’d get calls from the team on the road asking for equipment (no!) or vehicles (no!) or money (no!) that we didn’t need to spend.
Along the way, I realized that everyone has great ideas — and that great ideas aren’t always the best ideas. We pitched, listened, pitched, listened — and heard nothing.
I’m not always right and don’t need to be, but I do know one thing: The minute you don’t listen to your instincts is the minute you’ve got trouble. It sounds cliché, but …
The No. 1 thing: Trust your instincts. Everyone has a way of doing things, and your way generally works best for you. Know what you don’t know — talk to people you trust and have them weigh in.
I am so very proud of Made From America (Thursdays at 9 p.m./8 p.m. Central on GAC!) and all of the hard work that was put into it by each and every one on the team. Sure, we are praying to the ratings gods for a season-two order so until then, I’ve got another 20 ideas that I’d better get back to work on now.
Tyler Pappas is CEO of New York-based production company The Chapter Media.
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