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making the sausage

Polone: What I’m Thinking When One of My New Shows Debuts

Jane By Design's Erica Dasher with Nick Roux

On Tuesday, January 3, my new show Jane by Design premiered on ABC Family, and it is the eleventh scripted series on which I have been an executive producer (I’ve also had that title on four reality shows). I have a particularly close relationship with the creator, April Blair — a first-time showrunner — and the star, newcomer Erica Dasher; making an ambitious series on a tight schedule and budget was stressful and grueling, but we ended the first production order as close friends. We were all invested in the show being a success, but I found it interesting just how differently each of us approached the potential success or failure of our hard work and what that success or failure may mean for us respectively.

Earlier in my career, when a show of mine launched I could think of little else. During the weeks leading up to a series premiere I would be lost in a thought cycle revolving around the financial impact a successful show would have on my net worth. I would endlessly estimate what that show would yield in syndication per episode, guess the number of episodes the show would run, and then calculate my probable profits: I'd first figure what would likely be due me contractually, then subtract the amount that the studio would try to scam from me with their consistently phony accounting as well as the legal costs of my suing them, and then add how much I'd get back from the resulting settlement.   

Now, after eleven series, I never think about my possible reward for a hit show. It's not because I don’t need the money (I don’t) or because most of what I have produced has not made it beyond the initial order (they haven’t). Those concerns are obsolete, because the secondary markets for television shows and the way profits are defined in my more recent contracts now suck balls compared to the way things once were; it isn’t worth fantasizing about a payout that likely won't come even in success. Instead of financial success, I find my reward for producing a TV show in two other ways: (1) the enjoyable process of making the show; and (2) when the show succeeds enough to be counted as a bigger “win” than what has been produced by my peers. I’m competitive. I want to do better than others who do what I do and I want them to fail. Obviously, admitting this is unusual … but feeling it is not.

April Blair is better adjusted as a person than I am and nowhere near as ego-driven. She is a successful feature-film writer with whom I had previously developed a pilot script that hadn’t gone forward at HBO. I immediately felt a strong connection to her during the development of that project, and as soon as HBO passed on it, I began looking for our next project together, knowing that if we got something made our complementary personalities would make us a great team in production. On Jane, that proved to be true. And when the show was done and the marketing campaign was well under way, I could tell April was anxious. In an attempt to quell her anxiety, I reminded her that if the show didn’t go forward she would certainly make more money and have more free time writing features than she would working fourteen-hour days on a second season of Jane by Design. April responded, “In the feature world, I hand in a script and, if I'm lucky, someone invites me to a screening nine or ten months later. Creating, writing, and running a television show is completely different; I'm able to execute my vision from start to finish and that's been an empowering growth experience for me as a writer.”

Erica was the fourth of probably 70 girls that we auditioned to play Jane, a smart but unpopular high-school student who is living a double life: secretly pretending to be an adult and working in a top fashion design company. After she finished her reading and had left the room, I said to April and the casting directors, “Okay, we’re done,” knowing that nobody would beat her for the part. She worked hard and her charm and talent is a large part of why the pilot was ordered to series and why the series works. She has also been tireless in promoting the show, which is a component of the job. On the night of the premiere, April had the cast over to her house to see it. I arrived toward the end and found everyone watching the show, while Erica sat alone on a couch in another room. I asked her how she was handling everything; I figured that she, like April, would be anxious, given that this was her first real acting job. And, if successful, the show would change her life far more than mine or April’s. Her answer surprised me: “I tried my best to separate myself from the dull and constant ache of anxiety prior to the premiere. This is no easy task, considering my face is inescapable for 38 minutes of the 40-minute episode. I wanted people to like it! We all worked incredibly hard on the series and I’m very proud of what we created. I didn’t want my face to kill it for everyone else.” Being so out front of an endeavor that represents the work of many committed people is difficult, but it is even harder to have how you look judged relentlessly by executives, reviewers, and, ultimately, the audience — even for a young woman who is indisputably pretty. It is unfortunate that American TV is consistent in its objectification of actresses. Every medical, crime, or legal show has multiple hotties playing impossibly attractive doctors, lawyers, or cops: I always laugh out loud watching a show when a woman who looks like she just stepped off a fashion show runway in Milan arrives at a crime scene, flashes a detective badge, and starts telling all of the subordinate cops what to do (e.g., Lauren German on Hawaii Five-0). The end result is a high bar of hotness set for what a lead on a TV show is supposed to look like. Too much time is spent on questions of beauty, rather than acting, and it's sad that the end result is actresses having to disproportionately worry about how they will be perceived physically.

Jane’s ratings were good for its first episode, though I’ve learned not to make too much of one week’s numbers. I’ve had shows premiere strong and slowly lose their audience, premiere weak and build an audience, be canceled after the first episode, and never air at all. And while I've had a couple of moderate successes, I've never had that elusive big hit, whether a show that grew into one or began that way. I think that is one reason I stay in the game: to satisfy my desire to knock one out of the park. But working with people I care about is a greater reward than ratings. Even though I have the least to gain from Jane, I think I want it to succeed just as much as April or Erica do. Yes, to put up a “win” for myself, but more because I want April to continue to feel empowered as a writer and because I want Erica to see that we didn’t fail in spite of her face but because of it.

Gavin Polone is an agent turned manager turned producer. His production company, Pariah, has brought you such movies and TV shows as Panic Room, Zombieland, Gilmore Girls, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Follow him on Twitter: @gavinpolone.

Photo: Eric McCandless – © 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc.