Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz are the principle partners in Magical Elves Productions, and are arguably the most in-demand producers that the television world has seen in quite some time. Though Dan and Jane have extensive experience in all genres of television, it is the style, quality and overall addictiveness of their unscripted fare that has gained a tremendous resonance both in Hollywood and beyond. Their shows “Top Chef,” “Project Runway,” “Project Greenlight” and “Bands on the Run” have all been nominated for Emmy awards and have become fan favorites with the highly sought after 18-49 year old demographic that also registers as wealthy, upscale and well-educated. This success has led to producing deals with NBC Universal, Bravo, CBS and MTV and now Dan and Jane are building a branded entertainment division out of both their downtown and Hollywood offices that will service the corporate and commercial world.
LAX: When did you guys first get together?
Dan Cutforth: I first met Jane in 1998 when I came to VH1 to pitch her some ideas. She didn’t buy any of them, but we hit it off and stayed in touch. I came over to VH1 to produce a late night talk show pilot, and during that time I pitched the idea for “Bands on the Run”, and we developed it together, shot a pilot and it got picked up to series. That was when we really started working together in earnest, and we’ve been working together ever since.
LAX: Entertainment Weekly just listed the “Best Reality Shows Ever” and you guys are responsible for 4 of the Top 12, better than Mark Burnett and Endemol combined. That’s beating some pretty good company.
Dan Cutforth: That was a nice surprise.
LAX: Speaking of Burnett, Dan were you not also involved in the development of “Survivor”?
Dan Cutforth: In the development of the format only. I worked for Charlie Parsons (he’s still on the credits of the show) and in 1996 I was part of a big team of producers who developed the format out of the basic idea of 12 people on a desert island, and they get together every week to vote someone off the island. It was actually very hard work to come up with a format, because nothing like that had ever been done before. We would sit around asking ourselves questions like, “why are they on this island, playing games and voting against each other?” My favorite solution was that there was a mad evil millionaire who was making them jump through hoops and was willing to pay one million dollars to the winner. I honestly never thought anyone would make the show — it seemed completely unlike anything that would ever be on television.
LAX: Jane, I imagine your previous role as the Senior Vice President for VH1 must still be paying off dividends for the development process at Magical Elves Productions.
Jane Lipsitz: Having been on the network side in development definitely has helped inform our approach to development on the production side. I know how difficult it is to get a successful show on the air and mobilize all the different departments at a network, so we always consider how well rounded an idea is and we also never throw an idea out if it doesn’t fit the Magical Elves’s brand.
LAX: Your shows have become renowned for being smart, sexy and extremely addictive for both a very sophisticated and finicky audience. Is the emphasis more on the planning or the execution?
Dan Cutforth: I think you need both for it to work, but anyone who’s worked with us will tell you we’re not the greatest at planning. The name of our company came about because when we were on the road doing “Bands on the Run”, we used to get everything done at the last possible moment. Somehow it always miraculously came together (like the shoemaker who woke up every morning to find that elves had made him a beautiful new pair of shoes while he slept). In fairness, the show was only officially greenlit two weeks before we started shooting.
Jane Lipsitz: All of our shows require a lot of planning and we spend a lot of time on casting and coming up with really creative challenges, but at the end of the day, any great idea can go astray without the proper execution — so I think we’re really proud of our execution particularly under heavy time and budgetary constraints.
LAX: Talk about your alignment with Bravo and how together you guys have managed to corner the most sought after demographic on television.
Dan Cutforth: Jane’s old bosses at VH1 were Jeff Gaspin and Lauren Zalaznick. Jeff went to NBC and ended up bringing in Lauren to revitalize Bravo. Their big shows at the time were “Queer Eye” and “Inside the Actors’ Studio”. “Project Runway” was a surprise hit and it opened up a seam of high end shows that took a look inside the creative process.
“Top Chef” hit at a time when there started to be a wider focus on high end restaurants and cooking. Bravo has built their brand very successfully, and it appeals to high income trendsetting individuals. In terms of our shows, we’ve always tried to make them smart and sophisticated but also accessible. When they work, they usually get a pretty high end affluent viewer.
LAX: Describe the reasons for success for the following shows: “Bands on the Run” Dan Cutforth: I don’t consider it successful Commercially because it didn’t get picked up for a second season, but it did get us our first Emmy nomination and great press. The cast was incredibly entertaining and the competition was life changing for the people taking part. It was a true labor of love for us.
It tapped into the natural competition that exists between bands.
“Top Chef” Dan Cutforth: Chefs are very creative and a breed apart. There have been a million cooking shows, but this show was about creating food. And chefs are competitive with each other.
“Project Runway” Dan Cutforth: It showed people a world that very few people had seen — how clothes are made. Again, the designers are fascinating characters, but not many people think about how much thought, care and love goes into creating anything and everything they wear.
And designers are competitive with each other.
“Project Greenlight” Dan Cutforth: Making a film is really difficult and people had rarely seen the unvarnished truth about what goes into making a movie.
LAX: As you guys were responsible for the huge success of “Project Runway,” I can only imagine how hard it must have been to walk away from that project once it left NBC Universal?
Dan Cutforth: Yes, it was hard. The conventional wisdom is that you don’t walk away from a successful show. But we felt good about the reasons we were leaving the show, and we still do.
LAX: Working in unscripted TV certainly has its challenges. What are some of the obstacles you guys have had to overcome in your productions?
Dan Cutforth: The biggest obstacle is usually not having enough money, which means that you don’t have enough staff or enough time to do the show the way you want to do it. “Treasure Hunters” was probably the toughest series we ever did, but we started Magical Elves to do a show called “The Runner” for ABC in 2001. For the pilot we shot 18 hours a day for a whole week then had three days to edit into a one hour show that had to play out live for the ABC execs.
We just barely pulled it off — there was even a last minute dash through the building with a tape to slot into a machine just as the tape op had to push the button to play it on cue.
It was just like Broadcast news. This was at the end of ten days of no sleep and editors and producers weeping on our shoulders or walking out.
LAX: How has your company, Magical Elves, changed over the last several years?
Dan Cutforth: It’s grown a lot. In 2001 we were working out of Jane’s guest house, and friends’ offices. Now we have a pretty big staff of people and we have two floors in downtown L.A. and half a floor in Hollywood.
I never expected any of this, but it’s been a lot of fun. The thing that hasn’t changed is that we made a very early decision that we wanted to work with creative, hardworking people that were fun to be around. We have had a ton of fun making our shows, and we work with great people.
LAX: Have you ever thought of transitioning your skill set towards the corporate world… Advertising, commercials, webisodes, promotional videos, etc.?
Dan Cutforth: We are investing in our digital business, and seeking more opportunities.
We produced a web series for Panasonic with another production company we’ve worked with a lot, called Swift River Productions.
It’s hard to make money making content for the internet, but we feel it’s important to be in that business. We have never been in the advertising business, but we do a lot of integration in our shows, and we are constantly exploring opportunities in branded entertainment (content for TV or internet directly funded by brands).
LAX: What can we look forward to next from the Magical Elves?
Dan Cutforth: “Top Chef Masters” is currently airing on Bravo, “Top Chef” will be back on Bravo later in the year. We have a new series about Fashion PR maven Kelly Cutrone, and a competition show about the Art world that we’re co-producing with Sarah Jessica Parker. Both of those will be on air early next year. We also have a big secret project we’re working on with CBS. We have a lot of other stuff in the works.
– KEVIN MORRA