Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina are two of the busiest producers in reality TV. They have several shows on the air (including Caged, Commercial Kings) and not only are they sharing their experience in this interview to help up-and-coming reality TV producers, they are actively seeking partners for new reality TV projects. If you have an idea for a reality TV project that you think might be right for Joke and Biagio, check out their blog at Producing Unscripted…. after you read this interview. Otherwise you won’t know the magic words to use when pitching them.
Here are the questions I asked Joke and Biagio and their answers.
How did you break into in the business?
We actually broke in the exact same way we advise people to do it. We created, developed, and produced pitch tapes for potential reality TV shows and documentary series, and then set out to team up with established production companies.
At first, no one would meet with us. We eventually “fibbed” our way into meetings with those production companies. When they saw our work, they immediately teamed up with us–not only on some of our own projects, but asked us to come aboard their projects, too.
One of these was for a show called Caesars 24/7 on A&E. The production company had shot about 20 hours of footage, but trusted us to take all the dailies and create a 20 minute tape for A&E. When that show went to series, we were invited on as producers/directors.
Today, we are a full-fledged production company (we have 7000 square feet next to Universal Studios) and repped by CAA. However, instead of forcing talented people with great pitches to “fib” their way through our door, we’ve taken the step of welcoming pitches from people willing to sign submission agreements.
We explain why submission agreements are necessary in episode 2 of our podcast. People who listen to that episode and understand it will likely have no fear of signing one. We signed plenty of these over the years, and made ours a one-page easy-to-understand document.
What was the hardest thing for you to learn when you were starting out?
How to properly pitch ourselves.
The problem was this: from our tiny one-bedroom apartment, we had actually produced two professional-looking 22 minute pilots (in addition to a bunch of pitch tapes.) They looked like real TV shows. People were impressed when they saw them.
But industry pros would freak out when they realized we’d done everything ourselves. See, the two of us shot, edited, made the graphics, sound mixed…you name it. We did it all, just a crew of two.
When industry people saw our pilots, they assumed we’d had a six-figure budget and we’d say, “No, we made the whole thing for $500!” This scared them. They wondered if we could translate what we did in a one-bedroom apartment to a professional production.
Since networks will NEVER buy a show directly from an unknown company, that wasn’t really an avenue we could pursue (though we tried).
Production companies, on the other hand, couldn’t figure out how to use us. Should they make us editors? Field producers? Shooters? It was hard for people to wrap their heads around what it was we did, since we did everything.
Finally, after Caesars 24/7, we just started pitching ourselves as “hands-on producers” and explained that we could save production companies and networks money. That was easier for them to understand than, “Hey, we do everything!”
You two are funny and I can imagine you’ve thought about writing something scripted like a sit-com or a movie. Why do you prefer unscripted reality TV?
Way back when we met at UCLA, our goal was scripted. We even shot a 16mm feature film the summer between Junior and Senior year at UCLA, and sold a scripted show several years ago with our friend Chad Gervich. But surprisingly, it was trying to improve our screenwriting skills that made us fall in love with unscripted television.
When we were at UCLA (awhile ago) everyone was writing about the same stuff. Every script had a scene in a coffee shop. Kevin Smith rip-offs were all over the place. The truth is that in your 20s you probably just don’t have enough life experience to be writing great work consistently (most of us, anyway.)
It seemed to us that by exploring documentary, we could meet more “real people” outside of Hollywood who would inspire our scripted projects.
So we bought our first camera and editing system (largely with Joke’s check working for Hollywood Producer Gale Anne Hurd, and money Biagio made by both acting on Nickelodeon’s Kenan & Kel and simultaneously delivering Pizzas for Pizza Hut).
We made a documentary with some friends of ours. It had a small theatrical distribution, and we really enjoyed the process.
This was right around the time Survivor hit.
It dawned on us that while it was nearly impossible (then) to shoot a scripted feature film with off-the-shelf gear, we had everything we needed to make unscripted television. And turning around a video pitch for a show could be done in a week or two, sometimes even a weekend (the tape that sold Ghost Inside My Child was edited by Biagio in about 6 hours.)
Try writing a script that fast. Impossible.
Plus, we loved the process! We were meeting real people with great stories, going to interesting places, and getting out of the “Hollywood” bubble that can be an anchor to creativity.
So while we’d never say “never” about working in scripted, over the years the ability to develop many ideas very quickly, get paid to tell stories for a living, travel the world, and meet one larger-than-life character after another has put us firmly in the unscripted camp.
If we do decide to write something now, however, unlike those days back at UCLA, we have plenty of inspiration to draw from.
You’ve said that there are five ways that a new reality TV writer/producer can be valuable. They are 1) finding a great real life character, 2) providing access to a unique world, 3) having the rights to an exciting property, 4) amazing filmmaking skill, and 5) great personality.
Let’s talk about #2 for a moment. What makes a world unique that’s distinct from the characters? What evidence should there be that the world is worth developing a concept around?
This is actually the topic of a future podcast, but we’re happy to break it down here.
First, let us remind people…like we said in the original podcast episode, producers should bring more than one. The more they bring, the more they add value and make the concept an attractive package.
To answer your question, great characters are ALWAYS important, but sometimes they just don’t have enough going on to be their own show.
Jeff Lewis on Flipping Out would probably be a TV star no matter what “world” he called home. He’s a center of gravity who creates story wherever he goes. However, sometimes the world itself is really the star of the show.
An example of this might be Hillbilly Handfishin’. The characters who specialize in this sport are interesting, but do they really have enough going on in their personal lives to carry a show? However, add a format element to it — people get trained to “hillbilly hand fish” and then playfully compete against each other — and you’ve got a winner for Animal Planet.
The world of Hillbilly Handfishin’ makes that show work. The unique locale and physical action it entails allows for the additional format element and really makes the show work. Skipper and Trent are great guys, but if they weren’t in that world, you probably wouldn’t have a show.
Deadliest Catch could fall into this category, at least the early seasons. Before the captains became superstars in their own right, a big part of what made that show work was the “perceived competition” between those captains, all set in the “world” of the most deadly fishing expeditions on the face of the planet. Early on, you showed up to see deadly fishing on dangerous seas, not the boat captains themselves (even though they were strong characters.) Even today, the biggest character on Deadliest Catch is the Bering Sea.
As for what makes a great world, it’s a lot of the same criteria screenwriters would go by to choose a great locale for a scene. Is it visual? Do things about the world provide for different kinds of drama? Is it unqie enough that I, as a viewer, want to escape into it for 22 or 44 minutes?
A typical accounting office is probably not going to make for any of that.
I know that you are actively soliciting ideas and you’re doing a great job of explaining the world of reality TV and how to pitch a reality TV idea. My question is… and forgive me for being direct… but why are you doing this?
Why not just keep developing your own ideas? Is it because it’s really hard to come up with a great idea (which it is)? Are you guys better at executing others’ ideas rather than your own? Tell me more…
The majority of our shows are still developed internally. We have a large series going to air this fall which is something that was all ours, as are the handful of pilots we’re making right now. However, there are several reasons for diving head-first into this outreach:
1. We can’t be everywhere.
There are incredible characters, worlds, and properties that are outside of Los Angeles. In fact, for what may be the first time in modern memory, people who live outside of Los Angeles and New York have a real advantage. They live in places that aren’t on TV yet. The next Duck Dynasty or Pawn Stars could be in their neighborhood. By doing this outreach and making ourselves available, people who have access to great characters and worlds have an avenue to bring those assets to the TV screen. And a lot of people who live in Los Angeles are transplants…they should be looking to their hometowns to see if there’s a character, world, or property to build a show around.
2. We find great people to hire.
On more than one occasion we’ve been pitched show concepts that didn’t do it for us, but the people pitching them were very talented, so we hired them on other shows. We gravitate toward motivated self-starters who can get things done. It’s not easy to pull together all the elements needed to pitch an unscripted TV show. When we meet someone who has real talent, we hold on to them, even if their show is not for us.
3. It helps us grow as a company.
We’re very fortunate to have as many shows on the air as we do right now, but as production companies go, we’re still pretty young. Reaching out like this not only helps us find a greater number of high-quality shows to pitch, but it allows us to discover great producers and filmmakers we can build our company around. That’s how we would like to take Joke Productions, Inc. to the next level.
4. Biagio can be pretty cheesy and always wanted a podcast.
Okay, now it’s time for the magic words. You’ve said that there are five magic words necessary to explain a reality TV idea: self-contained, arced, format, docu, and hybrid. You’ve explained this really well on your podcast–here’s a link to that. But for the benefit of people reading about you for the first time, could you give a summary of these magic words and list some shows that epitomize each category?
Self-contained: You can watch a single episode of a show and it stands on its own. Self-contained shows include Undercover Boss, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and our own show Ghost Inside My Child (which was pitched to us by someone in Ohio). You can watch these shows out of order and it won’t change a thing, because they are complete stories in an of themselves. In the scripted world, think of the Law and Order franchise or most procedurals. We’d call those “self-contained.”
Arced (ark’d): Episodes are connected by their story lines, and the order you watch them in is very important. Survivor, The Amazing Race, and shows we’ve done like Scream Queens or Beauty and the Geek are all Arced. You can’t watch them out of order. Stories span multiple episodes, and the viewer has to commit to the entire season to fully appreciate the entire story. In the scripted world, this would be Game of Thrones or Homeland, but also think broadcast network shows like Lost.
Format: Every episode of the show has repeatable, tent-pole moments that don’t change. On Survivor, each week you’ve got the reward challenge, the immunity challenge, and tribal council. Undercover Boss: Each week a boss goes to work at a low level position at his own company and learns something. Dirty Jobs: Each week the host partakes in a different dirty job. On all of these, you can swap out the cast and the show wouldn’t change. There are different casts each season on The Amazing Race, different contestants each episode on Fear Factor, and even though the show might suffer, you could do Dirty Jobs with a replacement Mike Rowe. Can be self-contained or arced.
Docu: Short for documentary, and thus very cast dependent. Duck Dynasty would not be Duck Dynasty without the Robertson Family. You can’t have Keeping Up with The Kardashians without the Kardashians. Stories are very organic, and there are no set “tent-pole”moments every week (though classic story-telling structure usually still applies.) Can be self-contained or arced.
Hybrid: Adding some format elements to a docu-style show. For instance, on our own show Caged, the show depends on the cast. Their situation was very specific to their life in small-town Louisiana, the local mixed-martial-arts scene, and unique struggles to each cast member. However, every episode did build up to an MMA match at the end. Viewers could expect a fight at the same point every episode. This is what made it a hybrid. Hybrids can be self-contained or arced.
As you know, there’s been plenty of backlash in the industry about how reality TV is displacing scripted TV and putting actors and writers out of work, and also backlash from other groups, about how reality TV is lowering storytelling standards, appealing to the baser aspects of our nature, etc. How do you respond to these kinds of criticisms?
It does make us mad when people lump all Unscripted TV into the same category. Documentary and doc series have been around for years, and for the longest time, the entire cable landscape was almost exclusively made up of unscripted programming of one kind or another (for original programming.)
Also, people forget that, just as in film and scripted television, there are good unscripted TV shows and bad unscripted TV shows.
You can’t really compare Plan 9 From Outer Space with Citizen Kane (and no one tries) but people tend to forget that for every lowest-common-denominator unscripted TV show out there you can also find a First 48, Boston Medical, or the amazing Amazing Race. And by the way, Duck Dynasty is a very well made reality sitcom, that’s why it’s pulling numbers that are often beating all of the broadcast networks.
Unscripted TV is also more likely to provide the ever-more-rare show that works for the whole family, like Wipe Out. And it is often far more inspiring with real life stories of triumph, whether that’s Biggest Loser motivating people to lose weight or literally making dreams come true on American Idol. Kelly Clarkson may still feel a grudge about her contractual obligation to act in From Justin to Kelly, but there is no denying that her participation in the show catapulted her to a platform where she could become the star she is today.
We are aware that many feel unscripted TV has taken away opportunity from the scripted world. But that door (thankfully) is starting to swing both ways.
Do you really think A&E would be able to take a chance on an edgy, scripted show like Bates Motel if they didn’t have the deep pocketbooks provided by years of shows like Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels? We believe the relatively low-cost and high return of unscripted TV will allow more cablers to try bringing additional scripted experiments to their air in the future.
Unscripted is also a great launching pad for those trying to break into the industry. Our last two lead assistant editors now work at Bad Robot and had on-screen credits in the new Star Trek movie. Our friend Scott who started as a reality TV editor was named to direct the next Police Academy film. Our field producer on Commercial Kings is now directing real commercials. Fact of the matter is that unscripted television is hard, hard work. It’s training a new generation of filmmakers to think on their feet, get creative with tiny budgets, and hit tough deadlines.
Finally, as for our standards, we won’t put something on the air we’re not proud of, and can’t defend to our daughter one day (she just turned 9 months old).
You have so many ongoing projects, you must be incredibly busy. How do you keep track of your priorities and manage your time?
There’s no such thing as a “set schedule.” You have to be completely fluid and ready to change plans at a moment’s notice. Every day is a delicate ballet of pre-production, production, post-production, development, and finding the occasional moment to just shut it all out and be husband and wife.
Wish we could tell you the how, but it’s really just about the when — everything needs to get done NOW. So we make it happen.
Why hasn’t the Blind Date Bubble on-screen graphic come back in some other show?
We have an evolution of “the bubble” in a pilot we’re doing right now. Stay tuned.
If you could only give one piece of advice to a writer contemplating pitching a Reality TV series, what would that be?
Check to see if you’re already sitting on unscripted TV gold. Great writers do tons of research, meet amazing people, and have a contact list made up of intriguing, real-life characters and fantastic worlds they’ve drawn inspiration from. Take a moment to consider if those who’ve inspired your screenplays or teleplays would make a great unscripted TV show and sign them up. Then listen to our podcast, team up with us, and let’s get the show on air.
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