The world of advertising serves as a reliable backdrop for great story in a fictional television drama like "Mad Men" but can AMC strike gold twice by putting a vérité eye on the real life ad world, as they do in the new unscripted series, "The Pitch?" In each episode of the series, cameras follow two competing advertising agencies as the vie for a big account with a recognizable brand such as Subway, which is featured in tonight's premiere episode. In talking to Executive Producer Eli Holzman and AMC Head Of Original Programming, Joel Stillerman, our Jim Halterman found out that it's not all business in the series as the creative process as well as business and personal stakes are examined to create some compelling unscripted drama.
Jim Halterman: Joel, just a general question first, AMC has become this brand known for dramas like 'Breaking Bad' and 'Walking Dead' and 'Mad Men.' Can you talk about moving into the unscripted world?
Joel Stillerman: Sure. This is actually not our first foray into unscripted, but certainly, among the first. It's actually we launched a show called 'Comic Book Men' in February. But this show completely fits into sort of the macro brand filter here, which is about great character-based storytelling, characters that are genuine and authentic and grounded even if they're in a high concept environment like 'Breaking Bad.' Generally, we always aspire to have things that we do look great for what they are. So, the pitch is very different from our scripted shows. But I will tell you, while Eli is on the phone, that I think Eli and his team have actually literally raised the bar in terms of what people expect from a nonfiction series like this. It is shot and cut and scored and generally produced in a way that I think people are going to be legitimately blown away by. On top of the really good storytelling and all the inherent drama that you mentioned.
JH: Eli, first tell me just the genesis of the idea. Does somebody in your camp have a foothold in advertising, outside of 'Mad Men.' of course, that made you think this could be a great reality show?
Eli Holzman: It's a world that I've been fascinated by, frankly, since growing up. My father did architectural woodwork so at eight years old [I was] lugging in pieces of furniture. I would see copies of Ad Age and see this cool industry that existed. I remember the Jackie Gleason/Tom Hanks movie 'Nothing in Common' was another introduction to that business. It made it look so cool. I really loved it. I've done a lot of work kind of by accident that involves businesses. The very first nonfiction show I ever made was a show called 'Project Greenlight,' which was a documentary inside Miramax where I worked many years about the making of film, because I found that process so interesting.
'Undercover Boss is another one. We find ourselves sort of working with inside the workplace. Very little is done authentically in that work environment in nonfiction television, even though most of us spend so much of our lives there. There's a tremendous amount that focuses on the domestic and what's going on in people's homes and their homes lives. But very little is devoted to what goes on at work, even though so much of who we are comes from that. So, it's a space I love. Advertising... I think it was probably because of the success of 'Mad Men,' which is obviously a groundbreaking, amazing show that I've seen every episode of. People started calling up. I wasn't so much inspired by 'Mad Men' so much as the TV business tends to look for whatever is new and hot and interesting that might herald the trend. So, tons of ad agencies started reaching out to us three or four years ago saying we should be a TV show.
JH: So how did you come to find the companies? We see Subway and Waste Management in the first two episodes.
EH: It wasn't until we sort of realized that if we had brands looking for business... so, it's a brand that isn't going to be offended that their prospective advertising work is going to be examined on a series. The agency doesn't have to worry about that piece. They're not offending any existing client. Then the incentive in the form of winning real business that would maybe help some of them get motivated to say that's so good I'm willing to let you in bed with me and see how we go about doing this and we're not afraid.
I'll be honest, this company, Studio Lambert, [Steven Lambert's] father was a big commercial producer and director in the '60s and '50s in London. The company name is his original commercial production company. So, our roots are in advertising. Steven ran the BBC Documentary division; he's got a very illustrious career. He told me this show was un-makeable. He was like, 'You will never be able to convince agencies to do it.' I'm stupid and obstinate so we decided we would try anyway. There was a lot of people out there in this space hoping to figure it out in search of the right sort of way in. Once we found it we got really, really excited about being able to make something honest about an aspect of this business.
JH: You mentioned 'Undercover Boss,' which crossed my mind a couple of times while I was watching the two episodes. I'm wondering if the success of that show, Joel, help you guys realize this is a world you could explore? Did that come into play at all?
JS: Well, it does. What Eli did that I think is truly unique and carries over into 'The Pitch' is sort of take a bit of a pure-doc sensibility into the workplace and prove that not everything has to be about, with all due respect to some other shows, reality that is kind of a little more ginned up. I think that show has a great baseline of vérité storytelling. I think the beneath the surface expertise that I'm not even sure I fully appreciated when we started, but I certainly do now, that Eli and his team bring to dealing with brands and the agencies. And the incredible kind of balancing act that it takes to execute on great storytelling but also be respectful to their businesses and respectful to the sensitivities that they have, is really I think where a lot of the brilliance of both of those shows lies. It is not easy to get to a point where these places let you into their lives and allow you to film with the access that Eli has and still have them come out feeling good about the experience.
JH: Were you both confident that you would get the drama that you clearly did get?
EH: My answer to that question is no. I didn't know that. The thing that Joel and the team and AMC gave us was a really, really cool mandate that I'm sad to say you don't generally get. They said, 'We don't want a reality show. We don't want anything like what's on television. We want something exceptional and great and different and new. If it's always done a certain way, that is reason enough for us that we don't want you to do it that way. Do it better. Invent something new, experiment. By the way, you're allowed to fail. We're okay with that. We know that you won't get it right every time, but that's the only way that you'll be great.'
With that mandate, this is an experiment, this show. I had no idea. This show is a little bit different than the show that we pitched in certain ways. It's improved, it changed along the way. If you've done this for a long time there are certain fundamentals that you can cling to, to help get you through. It's funny, I had the same experience with 'Project Runway.' I created that show and put it all together. It wasn't until the first designs came down the runway that I was convinced. I went like 'oh my God, they're so talented. Wow. That changes my whole perception of who these people are.' I had no idea. It was just a happy accident. I think a lot of times, some of the best moments in filmmaking are by accident.
So in the case of this show, the one thing that I didn't count on was the emotional power. We knew from the beginning that we couldn't just make a show about a business process, that that would feel cold. And we knew we were going to need to get to know the people and understand what was at stake for them and convey that so that we would care about what happened to them. Because you may or may not care about advertising or what commercial is going to come out for which brand. But you will care deeply about a person that you've grown to have an affinity for, whether they're going to be better off or worse off at the end of a period of time.
JS: I would just layer on, look, anytime you set out to do something that is partially or fully rooted in a kind of vérité style, there's an element of risk in that. I could point to ten great documentaries but the fact is we never see the documentaries where somebody shot for a year and ended up with little or nothing to show for it. So, I don't think it was a sure thing. But I will say that what Eli and his team did two things very, very wisely in the approach to the show. I think Eli touched on one, which is I don't think you get to those emotional personal stories unless you go looking for them. I mean we all know that you get what you're looking for. There was a version of this show that would have gotten so wrapped up in the competition or some of the process-oriented stuff that they wouldn't have found that. So, Eli, I think you should take credit for understanding that that was going to be critical to the success of the show.
The other thing I would say is that what, to me, is most interesting about the show on a sort of story level is that these guys have crafted it around the creative process and how difficult that is and getting ready for the pitch. The pitch and the decision are just kind of the frosting on the cake. I think if it was all based on the pitch and who wins and loses it would not be nearly as interesting.
JH: In the Waste Management episode, I noticed how just around the time where I was kind of wanting to know more about our subjects, all of a sudden you gave us some insight into their backgrounds. You know, the gay couple. Then you get to see some more interaction at the home and stuff. Talk to me a little bit about finding that balance.
EH: Okay. Sure. We film for about 300 hours across any given episode. Then it's an enormous task for the team in post to sort through that. in making the first episode, and what you see as Waste Management was actually the first one that we made. That's where we were sort of creating a little bit of our template. I wish I could say there was a secret formula. We experimented a tremendous amount. We also wanted the show's individuals episodes to kind of feel like each one was their own movie and not be beholden stylistically one way or another, musically or aesthetically.
In terms of the point at which you need to know who people are it changes. It just is an episode that we just turned in where it's quite different. So, each movie is different. Sometimes, if you know something deeply personal about somebody right out of the gate that changes your whole experience. In the case of the Waste Management episode, we peeled the onion. Some of that was because of the way we learned the information. We didn't know a lot of what we came to discover about Paul Cappelli until deep into the show. So, we were sort of gripped as storytellers as we heard and observed the story. So, that's how we sort of decided to tell it. We knew we needed to give great personal insight and to make you root for the characters and to care and understand them.
JH: What are some of the other companies coming up?
JS: I think I can actually run them down from memory. So you know about Subway and Waste Management. The other brands are Pop Chips, one of the SKYY spirit brands Frangelico. Everybody felt very strongly, led by Eli, that we do a nonprofit episode. So, there's an episode that feature the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. I love the fact that we have a retail client in the mix somewhere. A small startup retail women's clothing chain called C Wonder... I think we're missing one in there.
EH: The Autograph Collection for Marriott.
"The Pitch" airs Mondays at 10:00/9:00c on AMC.