Producers shoot sitcoms back to back for savings

Pilot season is usually a marathon for producers, but this year it’s a sprint for Mindy Schultheis and Michael Hanel.

The veteran producers are at the halfway point of shepherding two comedy pilots for TV Land, as part of its aggressive push into the original sitcom biz. The Viacom-owned outlet’s game plan for lensing three pilots this month is a prime example of cable finding creative solutions to stretch development dollars.

Schultheis and Hanel’s projects are shooting back to back on the same stage at CBS Radford. Although one is a workplace ensemble and one revolves around three divorced guys living in the same apartment building, the pilots are using the same sets — with a whole lot of redressing — and much of the same crew.

“When you leave the walls standing and just repaint and redress, and you use the same wardrober, the same hair and makeup people, there’s a cost savings,” said Schultheis. “It’s not a huge cost savings, but in the world of producing shows for cable, it’s enough to make a dent.”

The five-day production sked for the pilots is also shorter than a typical network shoot of seven to eight days. One way they make the most of their time is starting production on a Thursday, which allows for any script issues that may crop up to be addressed during the weekend downtime.

TV Land is also shooting a third pilot at CBS Radford this month, the Fran Drescher starrer “Happily Divorced.” For all three shows, TV Land is handling the pilot production in-house, as it does for its two existing laffers, “Hot in Cleveland” and “Retired at 35.” To help manage that volume without the benefit of a studio infrastructure, Keith Cox, TV Land’s exec veep of development and original programming, is leaning heavily on the skills of Schultheis and Hanel, who are also exec producers on “Retired.”

The two were already prepping the workplace pilot from scribe Terri Minsky, tentatively titled “Rip City,” last year when Cox asked them to also exec produce the untitled divorced-guys project, penned by “Retired” scribe Mark Reisman. Schultheis and Hanel are happy to work within a lean structure that contrasts with the multiple layers of studio and network management found at larger nets. Cox knew that he would surely need the help of producers with deep experience in development and production. Schultheis and Hanel worked together at Columbia Pictures TV and 20th Century Fox TV before striking out on their own as producers in 2000.

“They’re my studio,” Cox said of the duo. “They know how to do pilots through the (studio) machine, and now we have to do it without the machine. When you’re the network and the studio, it’s really invaluable having some pros who are another set of eyes on the shows. My shows have to look like network shows but I can’t pay a network price.”

Schultheis and Hanel were early adopters in the growing market for scripted cable comedies as shepherds of “Rita Rocks,” the Nicole Sullivan starrer that ran on Lifetime in 2008-2009. The pair’s resume of comedy productions ranges from the WB Network’s heartland hit “Reba” to Fox’s critical fave “The War at Home.”

For the moment, however, they are making a conscious effort to tap into the demand in cable for scripted comedies, particularly the multicamera format that has until recently been out of favor at the broadcast nets. TV Land has become a welcoming place for seasoned scribes like Minsky (“Less Than Perfect,” “Cashmere Mafia”) on the heels of its success with the buzzy “Hot in Cleveland.”

“Rip City” stars Christine Taylor as an Ivy League-educated exec who shakes up an tradition-bound beverage manufacturer when she’s brought in as the boss. Reisman’s untitled project stars Wayne Knight, Donald Faison and David Alan Basche as divorcees who live in an apartment building run by a divorce attorney, played by Kristen Johnston.

“We love developing for (major) networks but you have much better odds of getting on the air with cable. Keith told us he’d be shooting two pilots and picking up one or two of them. I like those odds,” Schultheis said.

Hanel added that the niche focus of basic cable allows for a much more strategic approach in development and production, as they’ve learned from aiming for the forty-something demo of the TV Land aud to the young adult-orientation of ABC Family, where they produced the laffer “Roommates” in 2009.

“With viewers as dispersed as they are, it’s great for everybody when the network really knows its audience,” Hanel said. “You never know what’s going to cut through the white noise, but it helps to have a focus. Whether it’s ‘The Game’ for BET or ‘Hot in Cleveland’ for TV Land, all it takes is that one hit to define the network.”

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