The reality of producing reality television is that it can be a real grind. Long hours, travel, dark edit bays, and rarely any comforts of home. But like anything else, it can be rewarding in ways other jobs aren’t. Meeting some of the most interesting and impressive people, traveling to exotic and isolated locations, and uncovering subject matter often left unexplored — it all adds up to a unique lifestyle and out-of-the-ordinary experiences.
I had the pleasure of meeting Amy Elkins when we were producers on American Idol — she had previously produced The Real Housewives of Orange County, Miami Ink, Pitbulls and Parolees, and several other reality and documentary TV series. Amy’s energy, talent and creativity have led her to a successful career in all stages of producing reality TV. She’s a member of the DGA and recently worked as the supervising producer on Donnie Loves Jenny and Douglas Family Gold. She recently took the time to chat about how she started in the industry, what successes she’s had along the way, and what kinds of advice she can offer the aspiring novice producer. Here are the 5 best tips that came out of that discussion.
1. Film School Is Not Necessary
“I didn’t study production in college,” says Amy. “I went to school for theater at SDSU and moved to LA to become an actor. When I realized I didn’t want it bad enough, I started exploring other opportunities in the entertainment industry. I was waiting tables in Santa Monica and started day-playing on MTV sets as a production assistant. An EP at Pilgrim Studios and an executive at Keeping Up with the Kardashians gave me my first job and took me under their wings. I was asked to join the team full-time, so I did. I quit the restaurant job and started my career in unscripted TV. After PA’ing for about six months, I was moved up to camera assisting. I was able to sit in on lots of interviews and really saw how these shows were shot and produced. It was about 2001 at this time and the reality world was taking off; I got in at the right time. By 2003, I was producing and have been producing and directing ever since.”
Amy working with Gabby Douglas
2 Be Persistent
Amy branched out and got an AP job at E! in 2002. “I signed on to an AP job paying $625 a week, even though I was making $275 a day as an AC and working six days a week,” she reveals. “I just wanted to produce. I have the gift of gab, and have always been interested in people’s histories and stories — so even as an AC, the directors would tell me I needed to produce.” She was working on a clip show for E! and got a call from Jason Carbone, who now owns Good Clean Fun, then a director on The Bachelor. “Jason called and offered me the AC position for the director of photography, who had asked for me. I had recently worked on a reality-style feature film in Mexico and Jason took note of my work ethic in strenuous situations. I explained to him my desire to produce — which he already knew — and he made me a great offer. He promised me that if I came back and was an AC for one season on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, Next Entertainment would switch me over to the creative side as an AP. So, after the final rose ceremony in Puerto Rico that year, I asked Jason and the execs about producing and the promise they made. And it happened.” Amy goes on to attribute her success to two things: “Persistence was the key for me,” she says. “I was also very lucky that Jason is a good guy and kept his promise. So then I was associate producing under Sallyann Salsano on the next few shows Next Entertainment produced.
Amy directing on the set of America’s Next Top Model
3. Trust Your Team and Talent
“As a producer of reality TV — or, as they call it now, unscripted or alternative programming — I think that an engaging personality is the most important thing to have,” says Amy. “You’ll find the best producers of unscripted TV are not necessarily the most ‘put together,’ but that they have the gift of effective communication and gregarious personalities — lots of ‘alpha’ types. Also, as a producer, the people, the stories, and the everyday mishaps on set can become a lot to think about and stress over, so problem-solving on all fronts and staying cool under pressure is incredibly important, as well.” Amy also insists that, like in any relationship, trust is key. “The importance of gaining the trust of your talent and crew cannot be overstated. If the crew doesn’t trust you, they won’t do their best. The cameraman won’t hold the roll after the shot; the AC might not follow focus as well as he could; the audio mixer won’t fill you in on the juicy story that only he is hearing. And the talent won’t open up and feel comfortable around you, which can make or break an entire show. Getting your talent to trust you is immensely important. You can then ask them to do or say things they might not be inclined to do or say if they didn’t trust you.”
Amy with the camera crew from Douglas Family Gold in Glasgow, Scotland
4. Get on a Show That Makes You Happy
“It’s so important to do what you love, no matter what it is,” says Amy. “I’ve been on great shows, and I’ve worked on total disasters. There’s nothing like the feeling of creating a show that you truly believe in, and having tons of fun along the way. And they don’t always go together. Some shows will have tremendous heart, but the working conditions are dismal. Some shows are really not very good, and you know it while making it — trust me, you know — but the crew and the perks are outstanding. Most shows fall into one of these two categories.” Amy then lights up, recalling the best of times. “But then, from time to time you can get on a show that is outstanding in every way — great content, great talent and crew, great working conditions — it’s the rare trifecta. And those are the shows that you need to stay on. They are truly wonderful experiences that provide lasting memories on camera and behind the scenes. For me, those shows are American Idol, Pitbulls and Parolees, and The Real Housewives of Orange County.
Memories from American Idol with Gene Simmons of KISS and Season 11 winner Phil Phillips
5. Stick to What You’re Best At
“I love directing,” enthuses Amy. “I would love to direct all genres, but unfortunately, as a reality director, you’re still looked down upon and not taken seriously as a director. The reality world has lost most of its stigma, but it still exists in some places.” I ask Amy to nail down her strongest attributes, to which she replies, “I feel that my primary strengths are as a producer. Planning, coordinating, and scheduling, in addition to shooting, interviewing, directing, editing, and delivery of a final cut are all elements of my position as a producer. As a director, you’re limited to just calling the shots. It’s actually less creative than producing, and you lose a lot of the experience. I feel that I could work in production as a manager or line producer, or in post production as a coordinator or supervisor, but what I do best is produce, so that’s what I love, and that’s what I stick to.”