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‘Project Runway’ Producers Talk Return to the Show, Fate of Magical Elves Banner

The news came like a “bolt from the blue” to veteran reality producers Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth last spring.

Project Runway,” the reality franchise the pair created in 2004 through their Magical Elves banner, had been dropped by Lifetime. The show’s ratings had been on the wane, but the cancellation was fueled by the implosion of the Weinstein Co. following horrifying revelations of alleged sexual crimes by Harvey Weinstein.

Days later, the news broke that “Runway” was returning to Bravo, the series’ original cable home before it was snared in 2009 by Lifetime in a deal orchestrated by Weinstein Co. The departure a decade ago came as a shock to Bravo and Magical Elves. Amid all the tumult, Lipsitz and Cutforth left the show with great frustration at having to hand over their progeny to other producers.

A decade later, the same day the news of “Runway’s” return to Bravo broke, the call came into to Lipsitz and Cutforth asking them to pitch the cabler ideas for reinventing the series.

The prospect of a reunion with “Runway” was exhilarating but not a guarantee. Magical Elves had to pitch Bravo executives in competition with other reality producers for the chance to revive the series, which is set to premiere its 17th season on March 14.

“They didn’t just throw us the keys,” Cutforth told Variety. “We had to show that we were responsible, good drivers.”

The audition process proved helpful in forcing the producers to sharpen their vision for how the fashion competition should evolve.

“It made us really think about what we wanted to do right from the get-go,” Lipsitz told Variety. “We had to think about what we were going to have to let go of and what we should create for the future. It was a great experience.”

At the time, Lipsitz and Cutforth expected that original stars Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum would continue with the show. But Gunn and Klum had been heavily courted to launch a new fashion programming and e-commerce venture with Amazon. In October, model Karlie Kloss and “Runway” season four winner Christian Siriano were set in the roles of host and mentor, respectively.

As much as Gunn and Klum had become synonymous with the show, the chance to bring in new faces was healthy as the show was already in transition. Lipsitz and Cutforth have learned over their many years of producing unscripted TV, including Bravo’s durable “Top Chef” franchise, to capitalize on unexpected changes.

“Fate throws you the hand,” Lipsitz said. “We’ve learned not to think ‘Oh this is going to be the end of it.’ “

Cutforth sees the series of events surrounding the show during the past nine months as “meant to be.” The fashion world has re-enaged with the show, in part because of its return to Bravo.

“We’ve had extraordinary talent come to the table,” Lipsitz said. “The prize money has more than doubled. A lot of people have told us ‘I never considered being on the show but I’m coming for this season.’ “

The producers that gave life to “Runway” did not keep up with the show after its move to Lifetime.

“I watched the first episode (on Lifetime) by accident. It was really weird. It was like seeing your ex-girlfriend out laughing having a great time on a date,” Cutforth explained. “I never watched it again.”

In addition to revitalizing “Runway,” Cutforth and Lipsitz are in the midst of making a big decision about the future of Magical Elves. In 2014, the two sold a majority stake in the company to the U.K. production group Tinopolis. The pair is coming to the end of their contract with Tinopolis and are in discussions about whether to renew or set up shop with a new venture (although they will stick with “Runway” either way).

“They’ve been great partners for us,” Cutforth said of Tinopolis. “They’re a great company and we’re in the process of talking about all of that at the moment.”

Lipsitz said they’ve never had second thoughts on the decision to sell to Tinopolis.

“It was the right time for us to sell,” she said. “There are a lot of great companies under the Tinopolis umbrella. They’ve all been amazing to work with. We have no regrets about that decision.”

(Pictured: “Project Runway’s” Jane Lipsitz, Karlie Kloss, Christian Siriano, Brandon Maxwell, Elaine Welteroth and Dan Cutforth)

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