GRB Entertainment got off the ground 25 years ago after Gary R. Benz and Michael Branton turned a personal tragedy into programming triumph.
Benz, GRB’s president and CEO, and Branton, the company’s exec VP of creative affairs, only had GRB up and running for about a year when their friend and acclaimed stuntman, Dar Robinson, died in November 1986. Benz and Branton, who had been working in the entertainment industry for a few years, paid tribute to Robinson by developing a television special called “The Ultimate Stuntman: A Tribute to Dar Robinson.”
ABC was interested but wanted all of the day’s action stars to appear, so Benz and Branton rounded up Mel Gibson, Burt Reynolds and Arnold Schwarzenegger. ABC bought it, and the special “did giant ratings,” Benz says. “So we did a second big stunt special for them.”
At the time, Fox also was just starting out, so Benz pitched a similar idea to that network.
“I wanted to take all of these James Bond stunt guys, go to exotic locations and have them do things like drive a mountain bike off of the world’s tallest waterfall and then parachute to safety,” Benz recalls. “Fox bought a two-hour special, and it broke records at Fox. The morning after, (Fox exec) Peter Chernin called to tell us it was the highest-rated original special in the history of the network. We did another six or eight of those. We grew everything from there.”
GRB partnered with two syndication companies, All American and Blair Entertainment, to take the stunt specials to the global marketplace, beginning the company’s presence abroad. Today, there’s not a show that GRB produces without an eye toward international distribution.
From there, GRB focused its attentions on action programming, creating such series as “Ultimate Stuntman,” “Hollywood’s Greatest Stunts,” “Stuntmasters” and “Stuntwoman’s World Tour.” Even now that the company has branched out, action programming remains close to GRB’s heart: In 2004, the company produced the 10-episode reality series “Next Action Star,” which aired on NBC and GSN.
In 1990, GRB produced its first original series for basic cable, “Movie Magic,” which also happened to be the first of many deals the company did with Discovery. “Movie Magic” showcased special effects and ran for 70 episodes over four years. Around that time, the company also produced another f/x show, “Masters of Illusion,” for NBC.
The craft of special effects involves a lot of science, so GRB started producing other science-based docu-reality shows on “pop science, weather and stuff like that,” Branton says. “There was a big market for those types of shows at Discovery and the Learning Channel,” now TLC.
GRB took advantage of the burgeoning cable market. “We often adjusted to the marketplace,” Benz says. “We looked for things that would interest and excite the networks, and we would pitch those ideas to them. We knew that they were going to keep growing and eventually cover a lot of the TV landscape.”
The company created a strong business for itself domestically and internationally by producing male-oriented programming, and when they wanted to expand, Benz and Branton went after women.
“We were putting along like this for a number of years, and then we realized that we should start making shows that were more female-driven because more women than men generally watch TV, except for sports,” Branton says.
The company began producing programs with female appeal, such as TLC’s “Second Chance,” about rediscovering lost love, or Discovery Health’s “Reconcilable Differences,” which followed people as they tried to renew relationships with estranged friends and family members.
“From there, we really just started to get a lot more into docu-soaps,” Benz says. “That led to ‘Growing Up Gotti,’?” which premiered on A&E in August 2004 and ran through December 2005.
“Intervention” came along around the same time, with A&E bringing the idea to GRB. “Intervention,” which documents families’ efforts to intervene with loved ones who are addicts, was GRB’s first major Emmy winner, taking home the prize for outstanding reality show in 2009.
“?’Intervention’ created a new genre: therapy-based reality shows,” Branton says.
After 25 years in the business, GRB is admired for knowing its craft.
“If we have to give a production company notes on how to make television, then we shouldn’t be working with them. If they come to us with an idea, we partner up with them and say, ‘Together, let’s make it a great show for History,’?” says David McKillop, senior vice president of development and programming of History, for which GRB produced “True Caribbean Pirates” and other programs. “? ‘True Caribbean Pirates’ was a very successful show for us, and GRB had that reputation of being able to pull something like that off. Gary and Michael are very collaborative, and that’s how we like to work.”
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