After producing dozens of reality TV shows, Laura Palumbo-Johnson and Matt Ostrom, cofounders of the New York City-based entertainment agency Magilla Entertainment, know how to spot promising reality talent when they see it. They have broken down what they’re looking for to a science.
“What we look for is a big personality and a unique skill. Those two things — when they marry together — is a really good place to begin,” Ostrom told TheWrap for this week’s Office With a View.
Palumbo-Johnson added that talent who catch their eye are often “at the top of their game, but they have something else that also makes them stand out from the group.”
Palumbo-Johnson and Ostrom quickly identified these traits in established reality TV personality Theresa Caputo, who they recently partnered with for Lifetime’s “Theresa Caputo: Raising Spirits,” which premiered Thursday.
“She’s the best at what she can do in a way that no one else can match — she’s the best in a very unexpected way,” Palumbo-Johnson said. “She’s got this big, crazy personality, and there are people who she’s connecting with and they’re sobbing, but she could make them laugh.”
Reflecting on how they’ve worked with Caputo for almost 13 years across different networks for TLC’s “Long Island Medium” and Discovery+’s “Long Island Medium: There in Spirit,” the agency cofounders said they aim for longevity in their reality TV talent to build an authentic and honest partnership.
“The goal for us is to build series that are not one and done,” Ostrom said. “When you pull off those kinds of crazy antics, you might get a quick drama hit, but those people will never work with you again … If they’re good personalities, there’s always going to be something cooking.”
Below, Palumbo-Johnson and Ostrom detail how they identified promising talent in the first show they sold, titled “Jersey Couture,” how they lean into natural drama in their series and how they successfully navigate the everyday issues that arise in reality TV production.
What is the first project where your ability to identify talent led to an engaging reality series?
Matt Ostrom: The first series that we sold was about a New Jersey dress shop — not a world that I thought I would really know a lot about. But I learned a lot about event dresses and the people — it was a family that ran this dress shop — and they were just fun and interesting and big personalities. You find yourself in these worlds that you may not appear to be that interesting to you, but then you get into it and you learn about it and all of a sudden it becomes fascinating.
Laura Palumbo-Johnson: Our “Jersey Couture” family was wild and crazy, but they had the biggest shop in Jersey and everyone came from all around because they were the experts … It has to have that extra magic.
How do you keep a series grounded in real life while also enabling viewers to feel immersed in a new world?
M.O.: Something that’s really in all of our shows is an authenticity to who these people are. We really pride ourselves as a company on work[ing] with people that are experts at what they do, and [follow] them trying to accomplish tasks.
We did a series for Discovery called “Diesel Brothers,” where they would build these crazy trucks. We didn’t have fights and people throwing wrenches at each other in the garage because here was so much drama in watching these people try to accomplish these tasks that we didn’t have to fabricate it. We’re always making shows about people, and we want to show them being the best that they can be. And we want to see them fail at times and be vulnerable — we want to see you when you’re not succeeding, because then when you do succeed, the audience is invested in your ability to accomplish something.
L.P.: The “Diesel Brothers” in particular were really goofy guys. So the drama was coming from their builds. It was authentic to them, so it lent itself to that. We made the most of it everywhere we could, whether it was with graphics, or the pranks [they play] on each other. They looked kind of funny — they had big beards and cut off-jeans shorts. Everything about them was a little bit larger than life.
How do you balance putting out fires everyday while continuing to look to the future?
L.P.: You have to love what you’re doing. You have to have a large appetite for risk because of all the problems. You just have to work hard. You have to know that’s what it is. It’s fun for a minute, but it’s mostly a lot of hard work, and then you get another minute of fun. And then it’s more hard work.
M.O.: We have a high tolerance for risk. We tend to say, “Let’s go for it. This may not work or that may not work, but that’s a great idea — let’s just go for it.” We’re constantly surprising ourselves. We keep coming up on the other side. Sometimes it doesn’t go so great, but the majority of the time we’re at the craps table, and we’re doing great.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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