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‘Selling Sunset’: Producer Behind Netflix’s First Docusoap on the State of Reality TV

Netflix crossed another unscripted threshold on Friday with the launch of “Selling Sunset,” an 8-episode series that follows a group of real estate agents on the Sunset Strip. The show is believed to be the streaming service’s first English-language docusoap (following “Made in Mexico,” which debuted last fall), the now-ubiquitous format first popularized in the early 2000s by shows like MTV’s “Laguna Beach” and “The Hills.”

Adam DiVello was an MTV executive who helped develop “Laguna Beach,” and he later left the network to create and executive produce its even more successful spinoff, “The Hills.” His production company, Done and Done Prods., is behind “Selling Sunset,” along with Lionsgate TV.

The show centers on the real estate brokers at the Oppenheim Group, which focuses on multi-million dollar homes for wealthy clients. Twins Jason and Brett Oppenheim (who have previously been seen on “Million Dollar Listing”) run the company, along with their all-female group of agents. The series focuses on what happens when a new agent — Chrishell Hartley, an actress who’s also married to “This Is Us” star Justin Hartley — joins.

Variety spoke with DiVello about working with Netflix, how streaming services have brought new buyers to the reality space, and why the docusoap (the centerpiece of networks like Bravo) has shown such staying power.

How did you recruit the Oppenheim Group to star in “Selling Sunset,” and how did it end up at Netflix?

I’ve always been obsessed with real estate personally. I watch all the real estate shows and spend many a weekend going to open houses myself. Even when I was living in New York I would get Variety and I’d look at your real estate section all the time. I’ve been very interested in this world for a long time. I came across these two brothers, Jason and Brett Oppenheim, and they own the Oppenheim Group up on Sunset. I saw their ads in magazines: It’s the two of them, and then about five or six female employees they have working for them. And I thought, that’s the cast of a show right there. They’re super attractive and they’re the No. 1 Realtors selling in the West Hollywood and Sunset Strip area. They’ve got billboards up and down the strip, and it seemed like a no-brainer.

We reached out to them, they had already been approached by every other network and kept saying no. After we had an initial meeting, they agreed to move forward. I said to them, what sets this show apart for me is I want this show to end up at Netflix. I wasn’t trying to make a ‘Real Housewives.’ Nothing against the ‘Real Housewives,’ but we’re just trying to showcase more of the real estate and glamour of it all. Kind of take what I did with ‘The Hills,’ which is also set in the Hollywood Hills, and show the females’ lives, their work lives, take their relationships and personal lives and use the real estate as a backdrop. We pitched it and Netflix was gracious enough to pick it up and order eight episodes. I think this is the first docusoap for Netflix. It’s going to be fun to see how it does.

Well, you may never know.

I guess we’ll know if they pick it up again.

What does it mean to do a docusoap for a platform like Netflix? Is production that much different?

This is the first time I’ve done a series for a streaming network, so I am used to an episode a week coming out, getting the ratings that morning and seeing how it did, hoping people tune to the next one. It’s interesting to have handed over all eight one-hour episodes on one day. And it will be super interesting to see what happens when it launches. Netflix had great insight, most of them are experienced producers. You have more creative freedom.

How is the storytelling different? Creatively, what are some of the new approaches you took?

You always want to end an episode with them watching the next one, with Netflix especially it comes right up, the next episode, and you want them to watch it [immediately]. So you always want to end it with a cliffhanger. There’s also a way we approached having no commercial breaks. We still kept it within acts as we always do for structure. So you still have an A, B, and C storyline in most episodes

Given how quickly people move on from shows, how do you keep them hooked?

I’m still new at the Netflix regime so we’ll see how it goes. I think the most important thing today is with any show, is social media. Their Instagram and Twitter and Facebook keep the momentum alive.

The other unique aspect of doing a show for Netflix is the immediate international distribution.

I think that also makes Netflix a better home for the show. Los Angeles real estate is something the rest of the world is interested in. LA and Hollywood culture plays well in other countries. Not only are you getting a show shot in Hollywood, the Sunset Strip but you’re seeing these gorgeous $30 million, $40 million mansions that they’re selling that people rarely get to see the inside of. 18-car garages, some of them have two swimming pools and helipads on the roof.

What’s your take on the state of the docuseries?

The idea about it from day one was we how do you do reality TV when you take out the confessional and make it look as pretty as possible. We wanted to deliberately make it look like a series even though it’s fully reality. And it was achievable. I think that’s why it’s still in the zeitgeist because of the way it look and sounded, the music we chose. Attention to detail. I can’t tell you how many hours we would sit in an edit bay just working on one scene. I think most reality shows would have turned it out in a day and we’ll spend a week.

The appetite seems to be unending for this kind of show.

Thankfully, right? For me, at least. I knock on wood. I think it’s always going to be there. I think reality, people are always interested in seeing a little bit of themselves on TV. The reality world makes them feel a little more connected to these characters. Certainly the appetite for good stories and good characters, whether the insane crazy world they want to see or a home makeover show, it’s escapism for most people.

Has the genre finally moved past its long stagnation?

There’s room for everybody. I do think that the audience is a little more savvy these days than they used to be. I don’t think every person can or should have their own reality show. Back in the day there were a lot of them coming out, it seemed like every other week was a new one. Now producers are putting a little more thought into what it is — what’s new about it? Everyone’s looking for something that’s not derivative to something else.

How do you find people to potentially star in a reality show now? Given how many reality producers are out there scouting, it seems like that well should have run dry by now.

I tend to try to find the people who don’t necessarily want to be on TV. It’s a good starting off point. I think if they’re a little more reluctant they’re going to enjoy the process more and it’s going to feel like we’re getting a glimpse into something new. We get a ton of pitches every day from people that want to do a TV show. But it’s like, ugh, do you really need a TV show about your life? It’s difficult to find that exciting world, so I think when you know you have it, you have it.

How tough is it to find talent that doesn’t act a certain way on camera?

We deal with that every day, Every new cast member is savvy now, they’ve seen the other shows, they know where other people’s careers have gone. I say to them all at the very beginning, you just need to be yourself. The more they’re just themselves the more likeable they’ll be and the audience will relate to them. I think when you’re trying to play a part it always reads as fake and people don’t sense that person as well. We try to stay away from those types of people. And the ones we gravitate toward are the ones being themselves. If I feel like someone is being artificial we steer clear of them.

But you have Justin Hartley’s wife on the show, and she does have an acting background.

She’s just a sweetheart to begin with, and she really is a Realtor and has a real estate license selling homes when we met her. She does some work on the soaps, on ‘Days of Our Lives.’ I think we were lucky to get her, I think she adds something that is very unique to Los Angeles, and we’re doing a show about Realtors in Los Angeles. The fact that we have one who’s an actress and happens to be married to an actor who’s on a very successful TV series is a plus. Because it’s not always easy. The grass is always greener, and she says it on the show. Everything’s hard, marriage is hard, living in L.A. is hard. The fact that now she’s selling these gigantic homes and potentially living in one herself as the endgame is an exciting ride.

Does he pop up at all on screen?

You will see some photographs of him. He was shooting his series at the time.

You’re not involved in the reboot of “The Hills,” but what do you make of its return and what it means to reboot culture?

I don’t know much about it, but I think it’s super flattering that there’s still interest in that series, and fans are still devoted enough that MTV brought it back. I think anytime you get to go back and see the people you grew up with or enjoyed watching for so many years, it’s always exciting to see what they’re up to these days. I’m excited to see how they film it.

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