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VALLEY BUSINESS

Pair's Success a Blanket Statement on Versatility

Television: Independent production partners' ability to compromise, and to do many tasks--from writing to directing and producing--makes the difference.

February 20, 2001|KATHLEEN O'STEEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Susan Winston and Dan Funk were looking to get into business together, they did something that would cause most business-advice professionals to shudder. They both brought their toddlers along to that first meeting.

But the production company that was born out of that encounter, Blanki & Bodi Productions (named for the baby blankets that each toddler carried), has become a mainstay on the independent television production front for 13 years.

When many of the town's independent producers have either been acquired by a studio or gone out of business, Blanki & Bodi, located near Universal Studios, has managed to stay in business by keeping the overhead low and the gear-switching ability on high. "We've become specialists at doing things quickly," said Funk, 47. "Sometimes it's like--add water and poof--instant company."

Which is a little like the way they got started. The two met several years ago while working on ABC's "Good Morning America," he as an associate producer and director and she as the show's executive producer. In 1988, Winston decided to go out on her own after she sold two network specials in one week.

So she called Funk, who had since left "GMA" and was working as a freelance director and field producer.

"I had spent my career working for large companies and I was used to having a huge infrastructure in place, so that if I needed a camera crew, I just called for one," said Winston, 49. "Then, when I sold these two shows I suddenly realized that while I knew a lot about production, I didn't know a lot about how to get a crew, insurance, all of that."

Thus the meeting with the two toddlers. (Winston, who is married, has three children, ages 5 to 13; Funk, divorced, has two children, ages 8 and 15.)

Twelve weeks later, Winston and Funk finished the two specials, "Best Catches" (a Valentine's Day special) and "The Valvoline Driving Test." The impetus wasn't to necessarily start a company together, but rather to just get through the two specials. "Then it came time to put a logo on the shows and that's where the Blanki & Bodi came in," Winston said. "So we actually had a logo before we had a company."

The driving test show was considered a success and CBS was already looking for them to produce another special. So the two began producing shows on things such as an environmental safety test and the Red Cross safety test.

"Suddenly, we were the 'test' producers," Winston said. With those assignments a production company came into being, albeit one that started with no out-of-hand financial investment. "Our motto has always been, use other people's money," Winston said with a laugh. "They paid us to do this and then we just decided to keep the offices going."

The partnership works due to several factors, not the least of which is that they both can handle numerous job duties, including writing, directing and producing. And even though each partner is strong-willed, over the last 13 years--and with numerous fights behind them--they've learned to compromise. "We both came from situations where each one of us had a lot of control," Winston said. "What we've had to learn is to see each other's point. It's really about abandoning ego because when we go in to meet with the networks, we have to go in as a united front.'

In the years since, the pair's productions include three Miss Universe pageant shows, a 16-episode series titled "World Gone Wild" for the Fox Family Channel, a late-night rock 'n' roll bowling show called "Rockin' Bowl" for cable channel TNN and an auction show for Fox called "The Ultimate Auction." Due to the wide variety of topics, there are also a wide variety of budgets, ranging from under $100,000 for an hourlong show to more than $5 million.

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Undoubtedly times have gotten tougher for independent TV producers, given that the networks now can own part or all of the programming they air. This relaxing of restrictions has hit the independents especially hard because it has cut profits and often taken away ownership of properties for future use.

Winston and Funk, while acknowledging the austere conditions, say they've survived by running a fairly tiny production house. They generally have five full-time employees, but that number can jump up to 50 or 60 depending on the production. They've also developed a reputation for being able to handle extremely difficult reality or nonfiction-style programming.

Zig Gauthier, Fox TV Studios' director of creative affairs, recalls when the studio had decided to do the auction special. "Not only did it entail producing a show, but it also meant that we would have to conduct an auction, obtain the items, authenticate them, get an auctioneer. It was the single most difficult production I've ever done and I knew they could handle it."

The hourlong special has since spawned a weekly cable TV show.

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