As media giant NBC Universal and mogul Harvey Weinstein publicly spar in court over Project Runway’s move from Bravo to Lifetime, one of the biggest players behind the drama has gone by virtually unnoticed.
A small, scrappy production company based in Hollywood called Magical Elves is producing some of cable’s biggest reality-TV hits, such as Bravo’s Runway and Top Chef, the signature shows that each got a rash of Emmy nominations earlier this month. Now, the Elves are leaving Runway to take on a bigger role as creators and owners of the content their company has been producing so long for others.
Magical Elves, partners Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, recently struck a first-look production deal with Bravo’s parent NBCU to create reality and scripted show’s for the TV conglomerate’s broadcast and cable networks. And while the Elves won’t be producing Runway when it moves to Lifetime this fall for its sixth season, as part of Weinstein’s controversial $150 million deal, they are otherwise playing a hot hand in cable TV production with a dizzying array of projects in the works, including two spinoffs of their top-rated Top Chef — Top Chef Junior and Top Chef: Masters — for Bravo. They can also claim Step It Up & Dance and Top Design for Bravo, as well as Dance on Sunset for Nickelodeon.
In addition, the Elves are co-producing American Artist with Sarah Jessica Parker for Bravo, which hopes to do for the art world what Runway did for fashion. The Elves also have a show in development at Sci Fi Channel, Escape, in which three contestants locked in a room must endure physical challenges and break codes in order to get out.
And in a project that predates their NBCU deal, Magical Elves is now casting what could be its most controversial show, Arranged Marriage, for Lifetime. In the potential series, people will be matched, and then marry, mates picked by their families and friends. If the women’s network approves the reality show, Arranged Marriage will then follow the matched married couples for a year.
“We never wanted to be particularly just the people who do reality TV, although we love doing it and we love the shows that we do,” Cutforth said. “Jane and I are quite easily bored, and we like a lot of different challenges and different things going on.”
The Elves team has succeeded by tapping into the latest wave of reality programming: feel-good shows where contestants with actual talent are rewarded for their ingenuity and skills — not for backstabbing and deviousness, the hallmark of fare like Survivor.
“That’s kind of the direction that reality is going, to be kinder and gentler and based on ability,” said TV historian Tim Brooks. “The Magical Elves were early in on that … They’re riding that wave.”
That formula has produced pop-culture broadcast breakouts such as American Idol, but Cutforth and Lipsitz put their own cerebral twist on it for cable. Elves shows such as Runway, where designers compete in tough challenges to create a variety of clothes, put a spotlight on the creative process. And the prizes are potentially life-changing — another hook for viewers.
“What I hear from people all the time is they love watching the creative process,” said Tim Gunn, who mentors the competing designers on Runway. “They love the whole notion that anything can happen and that the designs will evolve to a place that no one can really predict.”
The creative energy behind the reality producer is the unlikely duo of Lipsitz, a New Yorker who worked at International Creative Management, managing a rock band called Gimme the Gun in her spare time, and Cutforth, a former BBC researcher and producer who grew up on a farm near Stonehenge, England.
Lipsitz later worked for Polygram Entertainment, and then joined VH1 in 1995 as a freelance producer, taking over West Coast development for the network in 1999. Cutforth had moved to New York in 1994, and in 1999, pitched some show ideas for VH1.
“I definitely had heard the ideas that he pitched already,” Lipsitz said. “He says this is my favorite part of the story — that I shot him down in the first meeting — but there was just something in the room. I really, really liked him. I thought he was really funny and charming.”
She wanted to work with Cutforth, and he eventually came back with an idea she liked, a reality show about four bands competing against each other. As it turned out, Lipsitz’s bosses at VH1 then, who she now considers her mentors — Jeff Gaspin and Lauren Zalaznick — also liked the idea and approved the show. Bands on the Run was born.
The Emmy-nominated Bands wasn’t a hit in terms of ratings, but it impressed Gaspin, who later left VH1 to do alternative programming at NBC and is now president of NBCU’s Universal Television Group. Zalaznick is now president of NBCU’s Women and Lifestyle Networks.
“I would argue it was a little ahead of its time,” Gaspin said. “It was a competitive reality show, before American Idol, that was about music. It was just very well done, and you really got the sense of their burgeoning expertise on casting, because what worked so well for the show was the cast of characters from the bands they had selected.”
The company has a core staff of about 20 people, but with “permalancers,” the company can have from 80 to 200 people working on shows, according to Cutforth.
The Elves have earned their chops, according Cutforth’s friend and colleague, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire executive producer Michael Davies. “In a reality television business, where everything doesn’t feel very real, they’ve managed to keep it all really real,” Davies said. “The quality of what they do is pretty much unmatched. As a fan of really good alternative television, there is no one who does it better than them. They’re cleverer, and they have better taste.”
Casting is central to the Elves’ success. According to Gaspin, “more than 50% of the success of a reality series” hinges on casting, choosing contestants who will interact and add drama to a show, like Runway’s “fierce” young prodigy Christian Siriano last season.
“The casts on these shows have been extraordinary, not to mention the editing,” said Robert Thompson, founding director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for TV and Popular Culture, who said that reality TV is a caster’s medium.
The Elves’ skillfully honed reality-TV strategy also entails chronicling competitions that spotlight the creative process and offering dramatic arcs, with a final goal, within each episode. Finally, their shows offer a payoff, however vicariously, by awarding an ultimate prize that could be life-changing to the winner.
In the case of Runway, the winner gets a spread in Elle magazine and $100,000 to start a fashion line. “As with American Idol, the idea is you’re actually watching someone be created here that, when they win, they actually may have a career afterward,” Thompson said, adding that the Elves’ shows are well-executed.
The Elves got started in 2001, when Cutforth said that Davies approached him and Lipsitz about doing a reality show, The Runner, for ABC. It was aborted around the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Nonetheless, the duo had incorporated a company, with the moniker Magical Elves, based on an old joke about once being understaffed and hoping for supernatural help.
The Elves produced the second season of HBO’s Project Greenlight, the reality competition show involving amateur filmmakers for Weinstein’s Miramax Films and Ben Affleck’s and Matt Damon’s LivePlanet, and also went with the show when it moved to Bravo for its third season.
Aided by that Hollywood contact, Cutforth and Lipsitz struck a deal to executive produce Runway, with Miramax and The Weinstein Co. co-producing the show.
Veteran indie movie producer Weinstein first brought the idea for Runway to NBCU CEO Jeff Zucker, who told Gaspin about it. Gaspin listened to the pitch from Weinstein, and greenlit the series. Both Cutforth and Lipsitz said that the initial concept for Runway as a fashion-competition show was sketchy. “They say that success has many fathers and failure is an orphan,” Cutforth said. “And this show definitely has many fathers, and truthfully, it really actually did. It is a bit of a soap opera like that: Who is the true father of Runway? Everyone has their version of it.”
Cutforth and Lipsitz admit they were skeptical that audiences would even be interested in a reality show that depicted contestants sewing up garb. But they got enthused about Runway’s prospects when they went to New York and met with some designers at Parsons, the New School for Design, along with Gunn, who was then chair of the department of fashion design.
“We were like, 'Mmm, are people really going to sit around watching people sew?’ ” Lipsitz said. “We were pretty skeptical.” Initially Gunn, whose “make it work” line is a trademark of Runway, said he was only supposed to be a consultant on the show. For example, Gunn told the Elves it was important that designers have to sew up their own designs, now a key component of the show.
“I said to them, unless the audience sees these designers getting real and metaphorical blood all over their hands, no one’s going to believe this,” Gunn said.
He soon learned that the Elves wanted him present in the Runway work room as a mentor, to spark lively discussion with the designers. “We were thinking he has to be part of the show,” Lipsitz said. “Initially, it was a bit of a hard sell at Bravo. They really weren’t convinced that he was a TV personality.”
Project Runway debuted on Bravo in December 2004. The first challenge for the designers was to create an outfit out of materials they found in a grocery store. But the show performed poorly, drawing only 354,000 viewers. However, during the Christmas holiday, Bravo slated a Runway marathon, allowing viewers to sample the show. Suddenly, the series found an audience.
“It didn’t launch well at all,” Gaspin said. “But because it was well-produced, because it was so compelling, eventually, the consumer caught on. That is a testament to Jane and Dan’s abilities.”
This season Runway, which won a Peabody Award earlier this year, debuted with 2.9 million total viewers July 16, Bravo’s highest-rated season premiere ever.
“I would call Magical Elves reality shows reality shows for thinking people,” Thompson said. “A lot of people on university campuses will actually admit to watching Top Chef and Project Runway in a way they would not admit to watching Big Brother or The Bachelor.”
Bravo and the Elves collaborate on casting Runway and on devising the weekly challenges for the designers, according to Zalaznick.
Last summer the Elves produced a reality show for TV Guide Network, America’s Next Producer, where 10 contestants competed to get a first-look production deal with the channel and $100,000 in cash. The Elves “take a great deal of pride in discovering fresh, raw, untapped talent and giving them a showcase to prove themselves,” said TV Guide TV critic Matt Roush, a judge on the show.
Cutforth is a tenacious field producer. Last summer, while shooting the Top Chef finale on a mountaintop in Aspen, Colo., he insisted that the judges make their decision that night, even though they were lightheaded from the altitude, it was cold, and the lift operators had only agreed to stay on duty until 3 a.m., which meant everyone could be stranded overnight, according to Zalaznick.
The lift operator stayed on past his shift, production wrapped up at 5:30 a.m., and “it was one of our best episodes ever,” Zalaznick said.
This spring, NBCU filed suit against The Weinstein Co., which owns the rights to Runway, for breach of contract for moving the series’ sixth season to Lifetime in a five-year deal without giving Bravo parent NBCU a right of first refusal. (Magical Elves were not named in the suit.)
Three weeks later, NBCU announced it had struck its first-look deal with the Elves. That meant that Cutforth and Lipsitz wouldn’t be producing Runway’s sixth season over at Lifetime.
Barbera Schneeweiss, a Weinstein Co producer who oversees Runway, wished the Elves well. “We’ve been working together on something that’s been a passion project for all of us for five years,” she said. “It’s like leaving your friends behind. It was a good run with them.”
Both Elves said that with Runway moving from Bravo to another network, it was a natural break and opportunity to leave the show on a high note to concentrate on producing their own ideas.
Lipsitz called leaving Runway a “difficult” and “heartbreaking” decision. But the NBCU deal will give her and Cutforth the opportunity to produce and retain rights to their own shows rather than work-for-hire, being able to potentially reap revenue from sources such as syndication. The Elves have no ownership in Runway, although Weinstein and even host Heidi Klum reportedly do.
The Elves also believe that their storytelling skills, and the topics they explore in their reality shows, make them well-equipped to produce scripted series. “We feel there’s a fresh potential to bring something to scripted,” Lipsitz said.