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MOVING IN : Hollywood Jackpot : They Left Everything Behind Them and Came West, Armed Only With an Idea

September 04, 1988|JOHN EISENDRATH | John Eisendrath's last piece for this magazine was "Confessions of a Steroid Smuggler."

KATHRYN PRATT got an idea for a television show while having her nails done in Chicago. "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" was on the TV in the manicurist's shop and, with her free hand, she had just finished leafing through an article on celebrity fitness in the National Enquirer. It was January, 1987, and for months she had studied the world of syndicated television. Her research had shown it to be an incredibly lucrative field--if you could think of a hit show. While her cuticles were being clipped, inspiration struck: If people watched a TV show about how the rich and famous lived, wouldn't they want to watch one about how they stayed in shape?

Soon after, Kathryn called me and excitedly explained her inspiration and the mechanics of syndication. First you need an idea, then money to get it produced, and finally you need a syndicate: a group of television stations--affiliated with networks, independent or both--committed to airing your show.

At the time, Kathryn was a correspondent for CBS-TV in Chicago. She had worked for seven years in local TV news, the last three in Chicago. I was an editor of the Washington Monthly magazine, and I was eager to exchange armchair political punditry for something more hands-on. Right away the opportunities were clear. Starting our own business. Being our own bosses. The obstacles were equally obvious. We had little money and no syndicate. As for the idea, we didn't need statistics to know that the mortality rate of television shows dreamed up in Midwestern manicurist shops is astronomical.

Even among the big Hollywood studios--each of which has a development division filled with wizards concocting the next "Wheel of Fortune"--only a fraction of the proposed ideas winds up on the air.

This year, 181 pilots for syndicated television shows were shown at the annual convention of the National Assn. of Television Programming Executives. Only 17 will debut as daily shows this fall.

But, we decided that the opportunities outweighed the obstacles. Kathryn made a trip to Los Angeles to see whether television executives were interested in a show about how celebrities stay in shape. The people she talked with loved the idea. So, we put together a business plan and gave ourselves four months to implement it. In May we left our jobs and moved to Los Angeles. Girlfriend. Boyfriend. Partners and sole shareholders in Our Own Production Co. At the time, we didn't have a production--much less anything else--we could call our own.

But, in just over 14 months the idea has become the syndicated TV show "Body By Jake," starring Jake Steinfeld, personal trainer to the stars. It has been shaped, reshaped, shopped around and shelved. It evolved from the barest outline into a five-day-a-week show in which the Samuel Goldwyn Co. has invested more than $1 million. How this came to pass is a story of persistence, a lot of coupon-clipping and luck.

WHEN WE FLEW into LAX on May 20 we had no car, no place to live and certainly no $100,000 to produce a pilot of "Healthstyles of the Stars." Within a week we had settled in Westwood, a company had delivered my car from Chicago, and we were headlong into our Hollywood odyssey. We quickly found that the TV executives' enthusiasm that Kathryn had found in March had evaporated. It's easy to love an idea that doesn't cost any money. During the summer of '87 we unsuccessfully pitched our idea to more than 30 agents, producers and development executives.

Nobody said it was a bad idea. That's not how rejection works in Hollywood. No one wants to be remembered for turning down an idea that becomes a hit. Everyone "loved" our idea and cited some other reason for turning us away. There was the producer busy packaging a 50-part series on the animals of Africa. The development executive trying to persuade television stations to air 10 French film noir movies that he had dubbed. The syndicator who told us that as newcomers we ranked below even the most unsuccessful Hollywood veterans. "Producers with terrible track records are like most of the pitchers in the major leagues," he said. "They've got losing records but are kept around because they'll guarantee at least a terrible performance."

Allen Schwartz was the most definite. A vice president of syndicated and daytime development for Fries Entertainment, Schwartz was preoccupied with looking for celebrities to appear on a television special honoring Howdy Doody. "My advice," he told us after listening to our pitch, "is to go into real estate."

A lot of people suggested that we pay for the pilot ourselves. Apparently, the only thing TV executives love more than a free idea is a free pilot. But we were in no position to underwrite our idea. At the time, we were clipping coupons, taking advantage of two-for-one Tuesday specials at Domino's Pizza and trying in every way to pinch pennies.

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