Hollywood is a tricky sea to navigate. Trends and technologies ebb and flow, there are strong currents (and opinions), and you most certainly don’t want to get caught in the undertow. It takes moxie to make it in Tinseltown, and Matt Watkins has been putting his moxie to use by crafting raw video footage into network television content for years. His television credits include American Idol, Biggest Loser, Extreme Weight Loss, Cajun Justice, Edge of Alaska, and many more. We sat down with Matt to discuss what a story producer does, and how to achieve success in the rough waters of television post-production.
He started from the bottom now he’s here
“I graduated with an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman University and went to Los Angeles to write, and I got a Story Editor job, which is the lowest position within the story department. I would pull interview bytes and make very rough ‘stringouts’, which is a very rough cut of what the story should be and that ends up going to the editor and they edit from that rough stringout. As a Story Editor, I learned how to use Avid in a quick and efficient way because speed is a factor in being a good Story Editor or Story Producer. There were 3 or 4 Story Editors and 8 or 9 Story Producers, so each Story Editor worked with multiple producers.”
Matt goes on to explain how he made his next jump, from Story Editor to Story Producer. “I worked as a Story Editor for 3 or 4 shows and luckily, a friend of mine knew an Executive Producer who was starting up a docu-series show for A&E called Cajun Justice. He took a chance on me; he was looking for someone transitioning from Story Editor to Story Producer, so he gave me my first Story Producer credit. Sometimes there’s more opportunities with those smaller shows because they’re looking for someone with less experience who will work for less pay. Ever since Cajun Justice, I’ve been working as a Story Producer.”
Matt’s view from his desk while producing Edge of Alaska
“One of the challenges of being a Story Producer is consuming a large amount of footage in a small amount of time in order to condense it down into a watchable, cohesive story.” It sounds like the tight schedule is one of the few constants in reality tv post-production, and organization is key. “Typically I’ll start on a show and I’ll have anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks to prepare the story before the editor starts. Every Story Producer has their own way of organizing footage. If I’m working on a docu-series, which can have a number of storylines in each episode, I will have bins dedicated to each story line. Within those bins, I have sub-bins that contain scenes within that story line. Then, I’ll narrow hours and hours of footage down to 40 minutes and then duplicate that sequence and cut it down to 30 minutes and then duplicate that sequence and cut it to 10 minutes and I’ll keep whittling down until I have a concise and coherent story. It’s important to work off of copies of longer cuts so that I can always go back if I get a note asking if there is more footage on a particular storyline.” Matt explains that notes are a constant reality and you always want to have the option of “opening up” a storyline, despite typically cutting down the footage.
“Sometimes I have 6 full days worth of footage and I’m producing a 1 hour episode, which is actually only 42 minutes because of commercial breaks. I have to take that 6 days of footage during which the crew is shooting an average of 10 hours a day and I have to condense that footage down into 42 minutes. You have to have a real eye for what is worthy of going on television and what is not. As a Story Producer, you must also be a good communicator, because you are communicating the story to the editor and also giving the editor notes on how to improve the cut. You’re really only as good as your editor.”
Matt recaps his primary job function thusly: “You have to know what good footage is, what bad footage is, and what’s the most compelling and concise way to tell the story.”
Typical editors’ point of view
Know your audience
“In today’s content landscape, the ways people are consuming television are multiplying. There used to be the big 4 networks and people would watch one of those 4 networks and they would talk about those shows the next day. Now, because there are so many networks and cable has expanded so dramatically, each network is becoming more niche and they are looking for very specific content to support the brand that they’re selling. A&E would never buy a big competition show like American Idol. That’s just not the type of shows that they are selling. Discovery would never produce a show like the one I worked on for ABC called Extreme Weight Loss.” It’s obvious that each network has a very specific type of show that they produce and a very specific audience. “As a Story Producer, it’s always good to be thinking about who your audience is and what the network wants to present to their audience.”
“Another one of my jobs as a Story Producer is getting notes from the network and addressing those notes. Often I deliver a rough cut, then a fine cut and a locked cut. Some networks who want to see variations of those cuts, so sometimes it will be rough cut 1, rough cut 2, fine cut 1, fine cut 2 and between each of those cuts there’s a set of notes trying to make the show more coherent and poignant. With so many choices, viewers could be halfway through a show and they could flip to another show that they want to watch if your story isn’t compelling.”
Another late night in the edit bay
The Story Producer’s Endgame
Finally, I asked Matt where he goes from here. “The next position that I’ll hopefully move into at some point is Supervising Story Producer, which is a producer who oversees all of the Story Producers and receives multiple episodes at once rather than focusing on one particular episode like I do now. From there, the next step would be Co-Executive Producer. Then one day, I would love to sell my own show.”
“Often when I tell people I’m a Story Producer, they don’t really know what my job is, and it always takes a lot of explaining and there’s a lot of questions. A lot of people go to LA thinking they’re going to do one thing and end up doing another, and that’s very much the case with me. I feel very fortunate that I’ve landed in a job which is 90 percent creative, which is kind of a tricky thing to do in Hollywood.”
Have your own experience editing or producing reality television? Share it with us in the comments below!