Next we delve into the reality/lifestyle shows Al's been involved with over the years - his assessment of this form of television and where it could be going is pretty sweet...
Will: Designer Guys was a huge international hit and one of the first real personality-driven lifestyle shows, certainly from/in Canada at least. Did you find Chris and Steve to fit the show concept or was it created around them, and how were you subsequently able to so successfully re-invent them into two more series?
Al: Designer Guys was built around what Steven and Chris could and could not do on television. We followed their professional decorating process and got them on camera and tried to do something fresh where character and personality were as much a part of the story as the presentation of information and the makeover. We found Steven as a columnist on another series and when we had lunch with him he brought Chris and the two of them together were hilarious.
Shaping additional series around them (e.g. Design Rivals) was a challenge because the audience loved them as the Designer Guys. Change was difficult and not instantly embraced. But what Chris and Steven have that can work in any format is a genuine love for people. They really care and want to help people make their dreams come true and that comes thru in everything they do.
They’re beautiful human beings and it shows on camera.
Will: Yeah well, they always struck me as having waaay too much fun, but that's just me. Now, you've been involved with a significant number of food-related lifestyle programs. Are you a foodie yourself? What do you see as the new face of food lifestyle?
Al: I am a bit of a foodie. My partner Melanie is possibly the best cook in the universe. Seriously. I get unbelievable meals several times a week. Then I eat fish sticks and chicken fingers with the kids when its my turn to cook. I’ve been lucky that with association with the Food Network I’ve been treated to a lot of incredible meals. Who is the new face of food lifestyle? I never get tired of Nigella’s face, and Ms. Delaurentis of Everyday Italian just might be the most beautiful face on television. Canada does need a new face for Food Network though they are doing great work in new forms of documentary and reality shows that transcend the need for a face. They’ll do something surprisingly innovative very soon.
Will: Love By Design was an interesting show, and perhaps your first foray into the hybrid lifestyle series? Do you think it may have been a show ahead of its time?
Al: I’d love to think it was a show ahead of its time but maybe it was just as show that didn’t have a time. It was a huge pain to produce and got all tied up in weird US deals and became a bit of a nightmare. The actual format was a lot of fun and working with Richard Yearwood was a step toward working with actors in a lifestyle context. It was my second attempt to blend character with lifestyle and to tell a personal story as well as a process story. It all seems a bit cliché now but when we were making those shows there were no models to draw on and we took a lot of heat for what we were trying to do.
Will: The landscape of lifestyle programming has changed significantly in the last five to ten years. What are some of your observations? How have you managed to stay on or even ahead of the curve? Where do you see the opportunities being, especially for new writers and producers?
Al: Lifestyle is at a real turning point right now. In Canada our celebrities are from the lifestyle world. I’ve been mobbed out in public when in the company of my hosts, and have walked in malls with some of our biggest drama stars and not been noticed. The challenge right now is the cookie cutter models that we’re forced into. Almost every lifestyle show tells the same story beat for beat and the broadcasters seem reluctant to try new models. Instead they add gimmicks that get repetitive quickly.
Right now we have makeover shows, expert intervention shows, skills elimination/competition shows, walk-in-my-shoes shows, and those get spiced up with varying degrees of ambush and gimmick. But these formats all have a bankable narrative structure around an easy to follow process that delivers a satisfying result. It was decorating, then construction and now it’s real estate that is super hot and we see that the property shows are rating very very high.
Documentary is interbreeding with lifestyle to create some fun new formats. I like shows like Family Restaurant and must admit to watching the Superstar Challenge shows. I don’t know anyone who watches the paranormal shows. I’ve got some ideas built around music, and fresh talent, and what I really want to do is re-invent the old school magazine show. My attention span is only getting shorter and as I watch more and more You Tube I’d rather watch a magazine show with five or six short stories than one long story in a predictable format with a predictable ending.
If I’ve stayed ahead of the curve it’s by designing shows around unique talent.
Even Fixing Dinner which on one level was a fairly conventional show, was designed around the unique talents of Sandi Richard who had a real sense of mission around saving family’s dinner hours. You can’t make that stuff up. There are opportunities for emerging writers and producers but the mistake they make is they underestimate how hard it is to make these shows. By episode six the talent become divas, and stay divas until the third season, and you have to generate all of your content without the aid of a room full of screenwriters. The budgets are tight and getting tighter and there is so much choice out there it’s a challenge to build a good brand and keep it on air. I’ve been lucky. And I’ve worked with some excellent production executives at the channels. But I’m always looking for the next big thing.
Will: Speaking of the next big thing, you've gotten a lot of press about Smart Woman Survival Guide and how it is a new kind of drama/lifestyle hybrid series. Tell us how the project evolved. Is it true W Network was reportedly so happy with season one they greenlit season two and three before one went to air?
Al: First – yes, W was so happy with the season one series that they greenlit the second season at our wrap party, before we had gone to air. It was a very brave and bold move by our broadcaster and I’ll forever be in the debt of Joanna Webb and Maria Armstrong and Vibika Bianchi for creating such an unparalleled opportunity. The quick turnaround showed real faith and support and allowed us to keep our cast and crew and facilities and maintain a very very very low budget for the second and third season. It was a major moment – Maria Armstrong our production executive went to the stage to toast the cast and crew and said, “oh by the way, we’re ordering 26 more episodes so get back to work.” There was about five seconds of silence then a hundred people went absolutely apeshit. It was very cinematic. That kind of faith creates a crushing pressure that we’re trying to live up to. Fingers crossed!
The project evolved out a coffee meeting with Maria Armstrong and Vibika Bianchi of W. We had them to a “meet the team” meeting at our office where they asked for a “survival guide” for women. I pitched three or four ideas and they went for the behind-the-scenes idea. They liked the idea of a show within a show and having characters that could search out answers, as well as present information. It was a bit of a bear to develop and I worked with Ramona Barkert a young writer that my agent Glenn Cockburn had been pushing, and my producer Morgan Drmaj, then we brought in Claire Ross Dunn as a senior writer and got a green light. It changed about four times in the writing process to settle on what it became in season one.
After season one aired we got so much conflicting feedback on what worked and what didn’t work that our heads were spinning, and truthfully remain somewhat spun. For season two we removed a lot of the on screen graphics and simplified what remained. We lost all the sound effects and direct to camera demonstrations. We did a great deal of work on the characters and worked with Scott Sedita a Hollywood acting coach who wrote a brilliant book called The Eight Characters of Character. With Scott we revised the design of four of our seven characters and that has made a big difference. We also fixed up our sets and brought in some new directors so we didn’t kill our main director Stephen Hall who did the hard work of setting up the look of the series.
Will: Ah yes, the most awesome Stephen Hall. So how do you finance your shows? Do you have to muck through the Telefilm/CTF and/or Tax Credit forms like the rest of us, or have you as über producer found a simpler way of getting the money?
Al: I muck it out like everybody else. I’ve yet to find the magic bullet for financing. I use license fees, tax credits, distribution advances, and every government fund available. I’m looking for answers to the financing questions. We never get the paperwork from the broadcasters in time to have the cash to shoot so I run a huge personal line of credit on my house and teeter on the edge of bankruptcy all the time.
Will: Unfortunately, that sounds just like a typical Canadian producer...he's human!
TO BE CONTINUED...
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Me And Al(ly) Magee...(Part III)
Yes, there's more Magee...lots more Magee.