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Locking Up the Reality Market

Television show pitches come to Rasha Drachkovitch from the most unusual places. He’s had meetings with Israeli fighter pilots, nuns, and cross-dressers. One day it can be a comedy troupe coming to the offices of 44 Blue Productions in Studio City, the next day an Iranian rock and roll band. As the creator of non-scripted programming airing on multiple cable channels, Drachkovitch looks for compelling stories and the interesting people telling them. The company he runs with his wife Stephanie has scored hits with the prison franchise “Lock Up,” Split Ends,” now in its sixth season, and the spinoff “Peter Perfect,” now in its second season and nominated for two Emmy Awards. Viewers like interesting people and that is a key to the success of these shows, Drachkovitch said, adding, “If it’s a good cast, people will watch it.” With 40 to 50 shows under development, the staff at 44 Blue keeps extremely busy. For “Lock Up Extended Stay,” a film crew spends up to four months at a single prison. This month filming wrapped up on a new special following the U.S. Navy and its efforts to battle real-life pirates off the coast of Somalia and Ethiopia. Question: How did you start 44 Blue Productions? Answer: Stephanie, my wife, and I started the company in 1984 here in Los Angeles during the Olympics. She was working for a local station and I was working for a local station and we came up for an idea to do a show called “Bob Eucker’s Wacky World of Sports,” which was the first sports bloopers show of its kind. We got someone to fund the show and we needed a name for the company. We came up with 44 Blue because it was a good luck football play that I ran in high school. We thought it would be a one-shot deal but we’ve had a show on the air for 25 straight years. Q: Any particular challenges you faced during those early years? A: We had no idea what we were doing. We knew we needed business cards; we knew we needed a bank account and to hire people to put together the show. We had been trained to different degrees. Steph was more at the corporate level working at (television) stations. I was working for a documentary company. But we were flying blind on how to run a company. We put the show together and it aired and it did extremely well. The question became how can we get more. At that point we realized we really have to do this; it wasn’t just a one hit. We actually had to expand what we started. We financed it through family and friends and were able to get more shows in the can. This became the philosophy that we ran with: we always have to think about diversifying our development slate. We are all across the map. We felt early on that we don’t want to be a sports company or action adventure. We broadened into lifestyle; we broadened into hybrid productions, talk, and comedy. It’s allowed us to stay busy because when one network isn’t buying shows we can go pitch another one. Q: It’s always been unscripted. A: Yeah. We did a movie in the mid 90s, the Mars movie. We’ve dabbled in hybrids, part scripted, part non-scripted. But our forte is telling real stories in a very compelling manner. That’s worked well for us. Q: How do you balance the real life taking place while filming and the “reality” that gets shown in the final program. A: We’re observers. From a personal standpoint we live very close to the subjects we cover. Sometimes too close. In my career I’ve been shot at, mugged, chased, and stoned. You don’t want to become the story but you can’t help be involved in the story because you are there covering it. I think there are certain lines you have to draw. If we are doing where we see there is potential danger. We have pulled back from projects, or shut down cameras or pulled back an entire scene because we thought it was getting into areas we weren’t comfortable with. Generally speaking our projects are by and large, something like “LA Gang Unit,” where we’re observational. We’re there to capture what happens and come back to tell their story not our story. Q: Do you do anything specific to get an audience talking about your shows? A: We really believe in viral campaigns for the shows. We do this in conjunction with the networks. We try to create as much of a community out there to make sure people are aware of our shows and that our shows live on after the show airs. We do Q+As sometimes with the producers in chat rooms, message boards. If you look up “Lock Up” or some of the other shows on YouTube we have hundreds of clips that viewers have commented on. It’s great because it gives us an immediate focus group. We can tell what’s working, what’s not working. In years past you wouldn’t have that ability but now you have a point-and-click response. People can tell you what they think of the show. We use as much Web PR methods as we can to get the shows out there. Q: Does keeping costs down not needing writers and actors give an advantage when trying to sell a show? A: It’s pretty straightforward. We have maybe 30 buyers. If you break that down and take any idea we might be developing, of those 30 you aren’t going to sell a show to ESPN that you might want to sell to a Lifetime; two markets and viewers. So when you break it down we end up having four or five buyers per project. Then it comes down to relationships, who are we pitching, what kind of materials do we have. Sometime we get lucky and create a bidding war and three or four networks want the show at one time; we love that. Other times you’re at the whim of an executive who has 10 things to purchase and we’re one of them and they have to pick ours. Because we have the volume in development and because we aren’t just doing game shows or talk shows it’s actually more exciting this way, having a broader interest level. We can pitch to more people and increase our chances of selling shows. Q: Have you heard from others in the entertainment industry that you are taking work away from actors and writers by making unscripted programs? A: It is almost the opposite. We are represented by WME. They are introducing us to writers, producers, directors from the scripted world who want to get into our non-scripted area; they want to tell true stories not make believe. Recently we were paired up with a producer named Tom DeSanto who produced a move called “Transformers.” He did “X-Men” before that. He is an incredible visionary kind of fantasy comic book guy. He is dealing with such large-scale films but at heart he wanted to do a real compelling non-scripted project and we teamed up. It shows how you can have a synergy going between the big screen and the small screen. We’re doing a series for truTV called “Declassified.” We are basically telling stories of Special Forces who have battled terrorists. Tom is bringing his eye to the TV screen which is really exciting for us. We are learning a lot. I don’t know if we’re taking away as much as we’re trying to collaborate with people like that. Q: Was 2000, the year that “Survivor” started on CBS a watershed year for unscripted and reality programming? A: What Mark Burnett did and the Amazing Race another one we always looked to these are shows that would have been traditional cable shows in the original pitch. He took it to another level and blew it up. It changed the game. It changed how we developed programs. I would say that 2000 was the year that a new model started to be discussed. Conversely look at the ratings over the past 15 years. If you get a 2 rating at the network it’s considered a safety zone. If you had gotten that number in the Nineties they would have picked the next project. The viewing habits have leveled the playing field. That’s why we develop across the board. SNAPSHOT: Rasha Drachkovitch Title: President, 44 Blue Productions Age: 50 Education: Stanford University, ’80 BA Most Admired: My dad Career Turning Point: Launching company in 1984 Personal: Married to Stephanie with three children, Michael (22), Tommy (18) Christopher (16)

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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