Reality gurus flip feature scripts

Producers increasingly apply skill sets to narrative form

Being voted off the island, out of the house or off the show is usually the end-of-the-career moment for a reality skein contestant.

But the path isn’t quite so clear-cut for show creatives who want to break out of the genre. A move to documentary features seems a likely transition, but increasingly, reality producers are applying their skill sets to the narrative form.

Persistence and a key personal relationship, for example, helped Next Entertainment prexy Mike Fleiss (“The Bachelor”) secure his first feature producing credit.

According to Fleiss, he pursued remake rights to the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” for more than a decade. Although he’d already had success in the TV realm, it was a leap of faith on the part of scribe Kim Henkel and helmer Tobe Hooper to grant him remake rights.

Their gamble paid off as the film grossed $80 million domestically. Fleiss is now in post-production on a “Chainsaw” prequel, skedded for October release, and he has a number of other feature pics in the works.

From Fleiss’ point of view, there’s a common denominator between successful reality TV and low-budget features. Both require that compelling stories be captured within a limited budget.

“It’s the same concept with the same challenges,” Fleiss explains. “You have to really think things through, as well as cast efficiently and use practical locations to make it look good.”

Buyers for both kinds of product want a quick turnaround. Fleiss expects his “Hostel 2” — yet another one of his low-budget horror project — to be in theaters six months from production wrap. Similarly, “The Bachelor: Rome” will air within two months of its end shoot date.

Richard Glatzer, co-helmer and co-scribe on the upcoming Sony Pictures Classics’ release “Quinceanera” and a senior producer on “America’s Top Model,” also alternates deftly between reality and indie feature work.

Part of his efforts in post-production for “America’s Top Model” is delineating character arcs and molding raw footage that is essentially a series of random moments. According to Glatzer, the process helped him in realizing “Quinceanera’s” intimate family drama.

“(Reality TV) gets you to focus on minutia and on smaller conflicts and make them feel large. These moments resonate like they do in real life,” Glatzer says.

No matter the format of the show, reality directors must capture true emotion quickly, often on the fly without the opportunity for a second take.

“You’re making decisions in real time to accurately and visually portray the story,” explains vet reality helmer/producer Craig Borders, who counts MTV’s reality skein “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County” among his credits.

Efficiency and sufficient coverage must co-exist. Borders notes that reality TV directors are an almost untapped pool of talented filmmakers whose visual and storytelling skills could easily translate to the big screen.

Part of “Quinceanera’s” appeal is the way it captures L.A.’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Echo Park. The film was shot in real locations often with extras found on the street, merging elements from both reality TV and documentary, Glatzer notes.

Erik Nelson, VP of feature docs at Lions Gate — and prexy of production outfit Creative Differences — observes that the cross-over between fiction and non-fiction forms is often a natural evolution more than a graduation.

An exec producer on feature docus “Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man” and “Grizzly Man,” Nelson’s foray into features was a direct result of pursuing his interests after more than a decade in reality skein production.

“Grizzly Man” began as a television docu but developed into a feature once helmer Werner Herzog became involved with the material.

“One of the fascinations of ‘Grizzly Man’ was that Timothy Treadwell was shooting what he thought would be a reality TV show,” Nelson explains.

Nelson adds of documentary feature production: “It’s not just a career move, there’s a connection between forms.”

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