Last summer, local media outlets could hardly contain themselves with excitement over the good news: a North Carolina production company called Kearns Entertainment had decided to set up shop at the new Summerville-based ITS Studios for a brand-new hip teen drama in the mold of One Tree Hill, Dawson's Creek, and The OC. Starring, among others, Tim Woodward Jr., a Georgetown native and Trident Technical College grad, the show, Palmetto Pointe, was not only to be filmed here but set here as well — in the fictional beach town of Palmetto Pointe, S.C. The producers had ordered 17 60-minute prime time Sunday night slots (or 39 including spots for reruns) from the new "i" Independent TV Network (formerly Pax TV), and the show was set to premiere at 8 p.m. on August 28. It seemed that the efforts of so many who had worked so hard to make our state a destination for TV and film production — the S.C. Film Office, the Carolina Film Alliance, state legislators who'd passed big tax incentives to tempt production offices to film here — had finally paid off. The announcement inspired back-slapping and attaboys all around. "It is the end of everything right and the beginning of everything real. That's what Palmetto Pointe is all about," Tim Woodward gushed in a hyperbolic press release from the show's L.A. promotion machine.
And then people saw the first episode, which had a red-carpet premiere at the American Theater on King Street, with all the show's youthful stars in attendance. And it suddenly seemed that "the end of everything right" was a pitch-perfect description of the show.
Palmetto Pointe went on to complete filming on just five of its 17 promised episodes. From the beginning, the show's producers hobbled themselves with disastrous missteps — a lack of real funding, untrained actors, terrible sound design, laughable writing, crippling penny-pinching, largely unskilled and non-unionized crew members, and, worst of all, an elephantine sense of hubris about the entire project.
When ITS Studios literally locked the doors and shuttered the windows on the project on November 6 last year — just two months after they'd begun production — it marked the official end of what most observers had long since realized was a disaster of epic proportions. To date, scores of crew members, extras, and other production workers remain unpaid for their work, and the show's very public failure may well have soured investors and producers on the Lowcountry indefinitely.
If there's any possible good that might come from the lessons of Palmetto Pointe, it's that it may serve as an instructive tool in exactly how not to film a prime-time teen drama. What follows are 15 simple steps to creating a television production disaster, courtesy of the makers of Palmetto Pointe.
1. Pick a title that's both bad and grammatically offensive.
Make sure the name of your show sounds like a low-end condominium development, but add a superfluous "e" at the end to give it the ring of genuine class.
In 2003, Kearns Entertainment owner John C. Kearns' first TV pilot, Life-N-General, somehow failed to get network bosses begging for more. The self-styled executive producer therefore tried to improve the show's chances by pulling out all the stops and implementing a name change. The newly titled Life In General followed the growing pains of nine teenagers living in coastal North Carolina, taking a wholesome look at their friendship, faith, and values. The plot centered around ex-high school football star Paul, his chaste friend Casey, and the lascivious Amy. Incredibly, the characters' love pangs and the show's new name still didn't help the show to find a TV slot.
Two years later, Kearns revamped his concept and set his creative sights even lower. Palmetto Pointe followed the growing pains of six teenagers living on the coast of South Carolina, promising to take a wholesome look at date rape, child abuse, teen pregnancy, and baseball. The plot centered around ex-high school baseball star Tristan, who was returning to his hometown with his summer-league team. New, hornier characters were transplanted from North Carolina to a Charleston setting, and Christian themes were abandoned for violent outbursts and angst-ridden whining.
2. Don't bother to get any real funding in place.
Whatever you do, don't get funding from a veteran network backer. Instead, find a regional investor with little knowledge of TV budgets or the details of TV production. That way you can cut corners, save a few pennies, and keep your benefactor happy while still reassuring him that you know what you're doing.
To help finance his prime-time baby, Kearns went to Georgetown real estate developer Tim Casey. But TV production may not have been Casey's main concern. By the time the first episode of Palmetto Pointe screened last August, co-executive producer Casey's Harmony Township development was facing foreclosure. According to The Georgetown Times, Casey and his companies were in debt for $429,621 — the kind of press that no self-respecting new TV show wants.
Although the foreclosure notice was dismissed within a month, the Times later reported that "other foreclosure actions have been filed or are pending against Casey and [Harmony co-developer] Brad Jenkins." Ongoing health problems didn't help to ease Casey's cashflow either — according to Kearns, Casey was hospitalized with heart failure in late 2005.
In the first of several e-mails to Palmetto Pointe cast and crew members late last November, Kearns addressed the issue of unresolved payment:
"Subject: Message From John Kearns To Cast & Crew
Dear Cast & Crew:
I thought I would write and update you all on the situation with your paychecks. We understand each of you all are owed money, which the investor has promised on several occasions.
I have been told that the investor is quickly working on freeing up the money to pay for all the debt that the show has occurred [sic].
Please bare [sic] with us as [we] work to resolve this problem as soon as possible."
That was in November. To date, there are scores of cast and crew members who still haven't been paid what they're owed.
3. Let your executive producers cast themselves as leads.
If you're lucky enough to have actors who're also producers of your project, make sure they can't act their way out of a wet paper bag.
Timothy Woodward Jr. achieved an actor's dream by both executive producing and starring in Palmetto Pointe — his first professional acting gig. As lead character Tristan Sutton, not only could he enjoy some of the creative control that every artist craves, but he could get the best lines and all the glory, too.
Woodward's Sky Entertainment Group partner was Brent Lovell, another PP production partner. Lovell snapped up the role of Logan Jones, "the all-American heartthrob with a fractured home life." The two male leads are nicknamed in promotional materials the "Matt Damon and Ben Affleck of the Carolinas." The origin of the nickname? Casting director David Schifter.
4. Big up your show like it's the best thing since the dawn of TV
There's a fine line between advertising your show with hopped-up hype and boasting that the series is better than it can possibly be. Make sure you cross that line.
Hyperbole's all part of the Hollywood machine, but touting a show as extraordinary before it's even been shot is asking for trouble, especially when it's revealed to be nothing but. "Move over One Tree Hill!" said L.A.-based Mayo Communications, retained to promote PP. Comparing it to hit dramas Beverly Hills 90210 and Dawson's Creek, the media placement experts used a N.C. vs. S.C. angle as part of their initial marketing push. "The big battle is over production dollars," stated Mayo. "At more than $1 million to produce a show, both North Carolina and South Carolina are trying to keep productions in their territory."
Mayo was right about one thing; there was a big difference between Palmetto Pointe and One Tree Hill, but it had nothing to do with where they were shot.
5. Buy airtime on a channel with a 50-year-old demographic.
Target your viewers carefully — then put your show on a cable channel that caters to a completely different age group.
Last summer, Pax must have seemed like the perfect place for a teen show. It was changing its name to "i," the Independent Network, switching from homely shows like Bonanza and Animal Tails to "edgier" stuff (Xtreme Fakeovers).
Pax may have switched its name, but beneath the surface lurked the usual slew of elderly detective shows and Bowflex infomercials. Ads aimed at aging viewers broke up the hot teen action every five minutes or so.
6. Make sure you patronize your target audience.
If commercials for catheters and funeral services aren't enough of a turn-off, try recycling broad plot devices and character stereotypes from other successful shows.
PP's hodgepodge plot featured an abusive dad (played by Dawson's Creek's John Wesley Shipp), a supportive older brother (USA High's Josh Holland), a headstrong, mysterious newcomer (One Tree Hill's Sarah Edwards), and a kind-hearted bar owner (Nina Repeta, from Dawson's Creek).
One Tree Hill did have cause to worry after all — PP was treading on its storytelling territory. Troubled teens: check. Problem parents: check. An extremely limited number of spartan sets: double check.
"We were too shackled by our budget to be able to do much of anything as far as production value," says production designer Geoff Cormier. "It got to the point where I just showed up to improvise with whatever set dressing and props existed at any particular location. Palmetto Pointe was unoriginal and an amalgam of television shows."
7. Include plenty of jerky camerawork.
Shake it like a Polaroid picture held by a gibbering maniac.
All would-be media moguls know that the teen market is shallow and image-obsessed. So throw in some flashy cars and busty babes in tight dresses if you must, but make sure the camera's moving too much to show off your assets. Your audience should feel nauseous after each scene.
In the hands of a seasoned professional, shaky camerawork can add realism and tension to a show. In the hands of anyone else, it just looks sloppy and impatient. PP also suffered from the opposite problem — long, lingering, soap opera-style shots that led to awkward, melodramatic pauses.
8. Throw in loads of bad pop music, and make sure it's so loud it overwhelms any spoken dialogue.
Hey, it's a teen show and teens like music, right? Give 'em lots of it. The more the better.
John Poppo, a 20-year veteran producer and sound engineer who had worked with *NSYNC, Mariah Carey, Madonna, and Michael Jackson, was hired as PP's music producer and supervisor. "I simply got swept up by the excitement, passion, and momentum of the show and its producers," said Poppo in an early Mayo press release. "I've been in the music business for a long time, and I can't remember the last time I was around this much positive and creative energy."
So swept up was Mr. Poppo that he provided a veritable sonic boom of ever-present MOR rock nonsense. In a Media Life review, Steve Rosen referred to the "treacly, hyperemotional rock songs constantly bursting out while characters are talking. Often the dialogue is buried by the bad music, leaving one to wonder what's being said. In the way it uses music, the teen drama comes across as a poor man's OC."
9. Ignore sound quality at all costs.
Don't hire a union-sanctioned crew that knows what it's doing. Remember that there are a lot of people out there who would give their left nut to work on a prime time TV show. So pick up a few non-union "crewmembers" who will work for next to nothing, and who consequently know as little about genuine production values as you do.
"The producers hired inexperienced people for $200-$300 a week," says PP lead editor Justin Nathanson, a filmmaker with a decade of professional experience. "For the first episode, they had a sound mixer on set who was incredibly inexperienced — he acted as though he'd never held a boom before. Forty percent of the sound in a scene was unusable. So instead of creating something beautiful, the edit became a turd polish. We had to turn the thing into a music video because the production audio wasn't up to standard."
In Episode One, the same images were recycled in a flashback frenzy — a direct result of just such problems. This, combined with the inaudible dialogue, rendered the installment all but unwatchable.
10. Be proud of your bad reviews.
There's no such thing as bad press — unless it's really bad.
There were viewers who liked PP's first episode, but their voices were drowned out by a swath of negative reviews. Shrewd TV.com critic TV Jesus wrote, "This show is bound to get better. But trust me, no one wants that. Then it will become mindless drivel without any sort of charm or character ... I think Palmetto Pointe should be proud of what it is — a poorly polished turd."
Steve Rosen noted that the debut episode's poor production values had plenty of room for improvement. "But can the boring, facile, and poorly set-up story be salvaged? Probably not ... This is definitely minor-league television."
The most vociferous comments of all came from a Blogcritics site devoted to the show, occasionally used by pseudonymous cast and crewmembers to vent their spleens. "Denise" described the show as, "about the worst acted and filmed thing I have EVER seen." Woodward received more than his fare share of brickbats: "The main character Tristan has clearly never acted before," wrote "George," "and never should again." "Chester Rogers" gave PP "two thumbs down, and I wish I had more hands."
11. Don't tell your crew anything.
What's a good youth-oriented soap without gossip? Help it spread by avoiding all communication with your employees, allowing their fevered, creative brains to cook up plenty of ugly rumors.
The purveyors of PP described the show as "one of the most talked-about new teen TV dramas," and truer words were never spoken — it's just that all the chatter was shit-talking among the cast and crew. Before the first episode had even aired, a vast rumor mill began to grind, with scuttlebutt flying across the internet and among the cast and crew.
"It's unbelievable," says Nathanson, "there are a ridiculous amount of rumors out there."
Rumors abounded concerning the show's financial backing, who was getting paid what, and even the star's hair. The crew's qualifications were also a major topic of discussion.
"From what I understand," says Larry Nesmith, a grip on the show, "there were just too many people in positions not qualified to handle them."
By the time the show had reached its fifth episode, the rumors were flying faster than a plummeting Nielsen rating. Worse, the grapevine chatter could only have an adverse effect on PP's future and other job opportunities in the area.
"A lot of productions were set to come here and film," Nathanson believes. "They heard about this show, all the rumors and incorrect information, and that put them off."
12. When things go completely south, simply shut down production without any warning.
Once your show's done to a turn, don't tell anyone you're going to eighty-six it.
In October 2005, a small group of unpaid, underfed PP extras filed a grievance with their union, AFTRA (the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists). At about the same time, disgruntled crewmembers downed their tools, and union heavies from IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) waded in.
"We were shooting in Ridgeville one day," says Nesmith, "when we went on strike. We just stood in the local grocery store for half a day. The union came in and got the producers to sign a contract, just to make sure we got better food and paid us what we were due if they were late for lunches." Nesmith and his colleagues didn't get a raise. "The union didn't try to shut 'em down or cost them more money. They didn't want us losing any more money either, so they came in and did as little as possible."
With just four hours of episodic TV under his belt, Nesmith was made a full member of IATSE. "I haven't got my union card yet," he smiles, "I guess they're waiting for my dues."
Nathanson turned up to work soon afterward, in late October, to find the post-production facility at ITS studios in Summerville completely locked. "There was a padlock on the door," he recalls. "Everybody was just standing around with their mouths dropped open, wondering what was happening."
Nesmith had a similar experience. "A couple of weeks after the union stepped in, we went to a shoot on Friday night, but no one showed up. Some of the people got paid; a lot didn't." Four months later, Nesmith is still waiting patiently for the $1,000 he's owed, relying on IATSE to keep him informed of developments. Meanwhile, John Kearns has been in sporadic touch via e-mail with his unpaid employees, promising to pay them as soon as financier Tim Casey provides some more dough, which is looking less and less likely.
"People still don't know what's going on," says Nathanson. "With no information from the executive producers, we're left to think there's some shady business deal involved. They tore through this town." One thing's certain: Casey abruptly stopped funding the show, leaving scenes half-shot and vendors unpaid. Kearns Entertainment was left to foot the bill.
"Kearns had us continue for a couple of weeks with the promise that the money was coming," says Cormier, "and we were merely in a financial hiccup." But the cash never appeared, and now former PP production designer Cormier has resorted to small claims court, "to try and recover what I can."
13. Once the show is clearly and indisputably deader than dirt, insist that it's merely "on hiatus" and will recommence shooting soon.
Keep the audience's hopes up — and the creditors away from the door — with the false promise of a sizzling new batch of episodes.
As recently as early January, rumors still abounded that PP would somehow recommence production, with cast members holed up in Myrtle Beach, waiting for their close-ups. "I know people hear that we might be starting back up again once this debt is paid," Kearns wrote in an e-mail to his crew. "I will say that is Mr. Casey's wishes."
"I know that some of the actors have a small salary in a hotel funded by Tim Casey," says Nathanson. "I hear that they're going to start up the show again, although that might be a rumor to pacify the people who are owed tens of thousands of dollars."
With airtime already purchased from i, the producers either have to make more shows or pay back the network's money. As Nathanson explains: "Tim Casey told me that he bought a season's worth of slots from Pax. That's 17 shows, and Casey still owes money for slots that he hasn't filled."
"We all know that Casey can't start production until all debts are paid back," said Kearns in another placatory e-mail, "and it would be suicide if he did so ... I do know that most of the cast have left the area and are back home. They, like many of you and myself, will not work another inch on this show until we are all paid."
"It would take a lot for me and a lot of others to work on that show again," says Nathanson. "We all worked 25 hours a day, we all busted our asses helping these young kids and their dreams work. A lot of people moved from out of state, moved their families in and made investments here on the basis of work on the show. As soon as we weren't worth anything to them, the producers dropped us like a bad habit. We feel kind of swindled."
"What was most disheartening," the editor says, "is that by the last episode, 60 percent of the crew had been swapped out and Jason Priestley was executive producing. We were proud of episode five. Then Tim Casey pulled his money out."
Nevertheless, Nathanson believes that local filmmakers shouldn't be disheartened by one bad experience. "There are a lot of talented people in town, and Jeff Monks at the S.C. Film Office is doing excellent work encouraging companies to film here. This is fertile ground for the future."
14. Leave everyone involved with a bad taste in their mouth.
Don't mess with the laws of nature — TV producers are expected to be inconsiderate and uncommunicative.
"I was surprised at the popularity of Dawson's Creek when I did the first season," says Geoff Cormier, referring to the teen super soap, which had a truly terrible pilot. "So I wouldn't have been surprised if PP became popular, knowing the poor level of TV programming these days. The show was unoriginal and directed by sophomoric amateurs. There were a few 'stars' to cameo on the show, but they projected the same desperation for acting jobs as the rest of the cast."
"[Palmetto Pointe] created a possibility for some other productions to come here," says Nathanson, but he generally feels that PP had a bad effect on the local industry.
"It was so bad," Cormier groans, "I'm still convinced it was all a clever scheme for a soon-to-be-released candid camera reality show, and someone is going to show up at my house with a camera crew and yell 'surprise!' — we got totally punk'd.
"I've always wanted an episodic job in my hometown and an art department to run. I got it, then I got the rug pulled out from under me. I was not surprised, just disappointed."
15. Point the finger at someone else.
Do your best to be the one riding the white horse.
In a lengthy e-mail to Palmetto Pointe cast and crew members late last November, producer John Kearns addressed some of the issues that had plagued the show in its final days, and which continued to hound it. He finished with an optimistic pep talk.
"I wish to apologize for the delay and major inconvenience this has put you and the rest of the cast and crew of Palmetto Pointe in," he wrote. "Although it is solely the responsibility of Kearns Entertainment Inc. to make these payments, I completely rely on our investor's scheduled payments to us for Palmetto Pointe expenses. With him late on payments, we had to shut down and obviously not continue shooting until debt is paid in full and the remainder of funds needed to finish show is placed in an account up front.
"Kearns Entertainment Inc. does not have the money without the help of its investor, so we would ask you to temporarily postpone further legal action to allow us time to get the funds. To be safe I would think at the absolute latest it would be the last week in January for all debt to be paid off. Cast and crew are first on the list and should be paid much sooner if all goes well. I understand if you have to take further action legally, but hopefully we can get you and the rest of the crew and cast paid before then.
"Thank you for your time."