“I can’t remember who suggested it to who, but the other person said, ‘Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that too,’?” Cutforth recalled as he and Lipsitz sat for a joint interview recently in their Hollywood-based Magical Elves shingle.
The company, officially launched 10 years ago, has been behind some of reality TV’s most popular skeins, including “Top Chef” as well as “Work of Art,” “The Real L Word” and “Braxton Family Values.” On the theatrical side, Magical Elves reached out to the teenage girl crowd with “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.”
Since they joined forces on VH1’s “Bands on the Run,” Cutforth and Lipsitz have developed and produced shows for an array of broadcast (“Last Comic Standing” and the upcoming “Fashion Star”) and cable nets (“Project Greenlight,” “Top Design” and “Dance Your Ass Off”).
“I never could have gotten through these last 10 years without having Dan as my partner,” Lipsitz says of Cutforth, whom she met while she was an exec at VH1 overseeing and producing such shows as “Pop Up Video” and “The List.”
The partners finish each other’s sentences so often that they originally considered calling the company Twin Talk. They agree that their partnership is similar to a longterm relationship.
“In a marriage you produce children and here we produce television,” Lipsitz says. “Our productions are our children. There’s a lot of conversations about how do you manage the kids, how do you make the television shows better.”
When they launched Magical Elves, the partners worked side by side and tried to do everything in tandem, but as they started to produce more shows, they were forced to split primary responsibility with certain series. Cutforth is now more directly involved in the day-to-day of Bravo’s “Top Chef” franchise while Lipsitz is focused on Showtime’s “The Real L Word,” launching “Fashion Star” for NBC and taking the lead in development.
“It’s definitely like a male-female thing,” Lipsitz says. “Dan is very good at organization, structure and seeing how formats come together as part of a big picture. I spend a little more time on developing the emotional side of storytelling. We can definitely see the yin-yang working. We balance each other out.”
Lauren Zalaznick, chairman of NBC Universal Entertainment & Digital Networks and Integrated Media, first worked with Lipsitz back in 1996 when both were at VH1. By the time Zalaznick came to Bravo in 2004, Magical Elves had begun its stellar run and the executive has watched as Lipsitz and Cutforth continue to display extraordinary teamwork.
“They have truly a perfect team with a near-perfect relationship,” she says. “Like a perfect emotional relationship or marriage or business partnership, they understand each other’s brand and essence and passion and drive and craziness.”
With a full roster of reality shows that have many unpredictable elements, the Elves team often find itself reacting to a logistics problem, a budget situation or creative issue — sometimes all at once.
“We have all these different hats we have to wear in the space of a day, and multitasking on that many levels is really hard,” Cutforth says. “You’re trying to drive five cars at the same time. You drive one car for a little bit and then you stop, get out and run back to where the other cars are. Then you drive another one for a little bit, stop, get out of that and maybe drive the first one for a bit more. I feel like we do a decent job of driving all those cars.”
Having a sense of humor has helped.
“What has characterized our relationship from day one is that in times of great crisis, we usually find a way to make it funny,” says Cutforth. “We literally end up laughing about it and then we figure it out. First we freak out, then we laugh about the fact that we freaked out. Then we fix it.”
NBC reality topper Paul Teledgy says there are good reasons why Magical Elves productions are in demand, whether they have created a show themselves or are asked by a network to produce it.
“Dan and Jane really know what they are doing and they care deeply,” he says. “We know what we are buying when we buy a Magical Elves show. Because they are 100% owners of the company, they march to the beat of their own drum creatively and from a business point of view.”
Producer David Nevins, who worked with Lipsitz and Cutforth on “Treasure Hunters” on NBC in 2006 and more recently on Showtime’s “The Real L Word,” says the Magical Elves team brings something very rare to the reality show table: “They have the instincts of real documentarians and real sophistication in how they approach their subjects.”
Nevins hopes they remain a unit for at least another 10 years.
“They have relentless creative minds and they work really well together — pushing each other,” he says. “Reality television is a medium that changes really fast and there’s a constant hunger for the next thing. They are smart enough that they will stay on the cutting edge as long as they want to.”
Lipsitz remembers that when she and Cutforth started talking seriously about forming their own company at that birthday party more than a decade ago, they looked to Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey’s World of Wonder shingle as a model.
“People accuse us of sort of chasing the shiny butterfly in the field, but for us that’s not a bad thing,” she says. “We are mindful of running a successful business, but at the same time we are guided by our creative principles.”
Magical Elves remains a top producer | Magical moments | ‘Top Chef,’ top franchise | On the slate