When Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz first met, The West Wing was still racking up awards, no one had heard of Entourage, and Ashton Kutcher was busy starring on That 70s Show.
Much has happened in the 10 years since the pair got together on Bands on the Run, a short-lived reality series for VH1 with four bands competing to win a chance at a record deal. "That was such a discombobulated production, we were literally coming up with challenges [for the bands] the night before," Lipsitz says.
Bands only lasted one season, but it gave birth to a production company that would take the reality world by storm. A drunken conversation at a friend's birthday party led the duo to form Magical Elves; since then, the pair has churned out reality hits such as Project Runway, The Real L Word and last year's Emmy-stunner, Top Chef.
"We decided to start this all up without really even thinking that much about what it meant to run a production company," Cutforth says. "We really had no idea what we were getting into."
Any initial speed bumps-their first official production, The Runner for ABC, was scrapped by the network before it ever aired-were small and easily overcome, to the point where the duo quickly found a place on production execs' speed dial.
Gary Levine, Showtime's executive VP of original programming, said that after The L Word had ended in 2009, and series creator Ilene Chaiken wanted to make a reality version of the show, Magical Elves was the first company he called. "We all agreed we wanted to go top draw on the reality producers to work alongside [Chaiken]," Levine says. "They are really talented, really smart, and they put together an incredibly great organization of like-minded smart people."
Cutforth knows that in this business, you need a bunch of luck to survive. "The right project has to come to you, and you have to come up with the right ideas," he says, acknowledging that he and his partner were fortunate enough to have room to develop, learn and even fail early on without destroying their careers.
Lipsitz recalls such moments on Bands, citing an instance when she and Cutforth decided they wanted to have the groups go head-to-head in a drinking competition; each member had to finish a pint of beer and place it on their head before the next member of their band could start. "That clearly doesn't happen anymore," she quips.
Cutforth, an executive producer on Bands, had originally pitched the show to Lipsitz while she was still a production executive at VH1. Her boss at the time, Lauren Zalaznick-who is now chairman of NBCU's entertainment & digital networks and integrated media-knew both Cutforth and Lipsitz would be successful. "[Bands] set the template for something that had not really emerged yet," Zalaznick says.
Lipsitz cites the pair's close relationship as a factor in their early and continued success. She says the two are consistently "on the same wavelength," even so much so that during production meetings, "everyone looks around and says, â€˜You guys freak us out.'"
"Sometimes it feels like we have our own language," Cutforth says. They nearly decided to name the company Twin Talk before settling on Magical Elves (based a running joke between the two that whenever they were stuck, "the elves would do the work" for them while they slept).
One of Elves' biggest accolades came last year when their hit Bravo series Top Chef stunned Hollywood, taking the outstanding reality-competition program Emmy, besting multiple winner The Amazing Race. "I had absolutely no expectations we were going to win," Cutforth says. "I really wasn't prepared for [giving a speech]."
With the multitude of shows the Elves produce (along with Top Chef and The Real L Word, the duo have two Top Chef spinoffs, America's Next Great Restaurant and Braxton Family Values), it's a wonder they have time for anything else. Paul Telegdy, president, alternative and late night programming for NBC, lauds the duo's passion and energy. "There's something youthful and inventive about Dan and Jane's spirit," says Telegdy, who is also working with them on their new series, Fashion Star.
Fashion Star represents the duo's return the world of competitive design, their first since they left Project Runway. "We stayed out of that category for a while because Project Runway was so important to us," Lipsitz says. "It never felt like the right moment to tackle that again."
The reality series-which will debut sometime in 2012-will pit wanna-be designers against one another and give each the chance to showcase their talents, with the winner's designs to be sold in several major department stores. "It's high drama and creates amazing emotion," Telegdy says. "People from all walks of life [have] a chance at becoming a household name." The duo is also producing another new cooking competition show for Bravo with the working title Around the World in 80 Plates, which will see up-and-coming chefs travel the globe and attempt to learn the culinary customs of the individual regions. Cutforth describes it as "one of the most ambitious shows we've ever tackled." While their work in reality television keeps them plenty busy, the Magical Elves express a desire to expand their reach. "We want to do more on the feature [film] side," Cutforth says. The company has produced two feature-length documentaries, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and Air Guitar Nation.
"Scripted is something we've been trying to crack for a while," Cutforth says. "We've [also] got some exciting stuff happening on [the digital] front in the next six months or so."
In the 10 years since Cutforth first walked into Lipsitz's VH1 office, the two have left their stamp on the world of reality television.
"It may not always work or it may not resonate with the audience," Cutforth says, "but it always leaves our shop with us feeling like we achieved what we wanted to achieve."
E-mail comments to email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @tim_bays
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