Colony Bay TV

Why Big Studios Would Never Make ‘Courage’

May 5, 2011 James Riley

You can read all of this post if you like, but I can really explain the title with three words: ‘Ice Road Truckers.’

I’m not picking on ‘Ice Road Truckers’ either.  I watch it sometimes.  I’m just saying that sometimes, when you have an idea for a television series, you start out somewhere in 1643, with a drama set in the heart of the English Civil War, and you wind up in 2011, on the Tuktoyaktuk highway in Alaska, pulling the axle off a big rig, making jokes about how fast your spit freezes.

The audience has a way of kinda pushing things around, in other words.

Several months ago, Jonathan Wilson and I  had a meeting with a few screenwriters who had worked on some very big studio projects.  We were trying to determine the best way to get ‘Courage’ to some sort of screen — big, small, desktop, or pocket size.   We were open to the notion that maybe, just maybe, we could pitch our idea for a colonial television series to a big production company and they would let Riley’s Farm, Jim Riley, and his staff of living historians enjoy production control and final cut over a new television series.

That seems a little strange when I put it that way.  But it also speaks to how excited we were about our project: A colonial tavern, just prior to the revolution, on the edge of the wilderness–owned by the justice of the peace, who hears the disputes of the town and renders justice in every episode.

Who  wouldn’t want to watch that show?

Well the two screenwriters were a little cautious.   The language in the script was a little too archaic.

“I know it’s a little baroque,” I said, “but that’s how they spoke.”

“Right, right, but that’s going to be a tough sell.   Just sayin’.”

Then they thought it should all be told from the perspective of a teenage girl.

“I don’t mind lots of different kinds of characters,” I said.  “But it’s a tavern where the militia gather and–”

“Militia?” They asked.

It went downhill from there, not because the writers weren’t sympathetic.  They were history buffs themselves, but they described the process of selling a series, or a movie, in a way that made me think of filling out a 400 page Federal grant application, or bargaining for an audience with the Bashaw of Swakem by passing gifts through the proper intermediaries.  It all seemed so procedural and bloodless and compromised.

But, of course, whenever someone else’s money is being used to rent lighting equipment, pay for sets, art directors, wardrobe and everything else from horse wranglers to line producers, then everyone tends to get cautious, and, in truth, it’s not really about story at all.

It’s about audience.  If you gave the pitch above (“tavern in the wilderness in 1770“), paused, and then said “Charlie Sheen wants to do it” they wouldn’t need to hear anything else.

But if there is no guaranteed audience, and no systematic plan for forecasting the size of the audience, then someone says something like, “heah, what if we did a reality format about a couple of fighting brothers who own competing restaurants.”

And pretty soon you’re making ice road truckers.

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