|The Ali Paradigm|
The Ali Paradigm
by Chase Adams
Ali LeRoi, television producer and writer, is probably best known now as the co-creator and executive producer of the comedy Everybody Hates Chris, but before he’s finished, he just may be known as one of the men who changed the paradigm by which television shows are created and released. Exhibit A: his latest project, the sitcom Are We There Yet? starring Ice Cube and breakout actor Terry Crews. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of 'Produced By' magazine.
When we caught up with him in his downtown office, the experiment with his partners — Joe Roth of Revolution and Ice Cube of Cube Vision, whose movie Are We There Yet? serves as the inspiration for the TV show — was in full swing.
"The television world has adopted a lot of what has happened in the film world,” says LeRoi, "most notably, how TV has started to put such an emphasis on how a show opens. It’s just like what you saw happen in film, where suddenly,people who live in Missouri know what a film’s opening numbers are. And films live and die by that opening weekend. We’re seeing that now in TV, where a show has to connect immediately to survive.
”While the emphasis on those opening numbers may be an easy way for networks to gauge how a show is doing and garner some free marketing to boot ("The No. 1 New Show Thursdays at 8!”), LeRoi points to several television classics that took time to build an audience.
"Seinfeld, Cheers, Everybody Loves Raymond, those shows opened low and built on word of mouth. People told other people, ‘This is a good show.’ There’s a reason Chuck Lorre’s shows stay on TV, it’s because people watch once and recommend it to other people.
"Keep in mind that studios and networks are in two different businesses,” LeRoi continues. "Studios are in the distribution business; they want to build a library of content that they can sell today, tomorrow, for the next thousand years. Networks, on the other hand, are in the business of selling advertising. And advertising is something that you’re either selling — or not selling — in the here and now, which puts increased emphasis on those opening numbers. At a certain point, networks are asking, ‘Are we selling advertising on this?’ If the answer is no, well…” LeRoi trails off, leaving that dire fate to the imagination.
"So what you get is what you see on the TV today: a lot of reality programming and fewer traditional multi-camera sitcoms. And reality programs are a good business for the networks to be in; they’re cheap and they deliver eyeballs to sell advertising. But it’s a terrible business for studios to be in, because no one wants to watch reruns of The Biggest Loser in Las Vegas or whatever.”
Within this tightening spiral, where does the studio that’s looking to produce content go? Presently, they are literally taking million-dollar shots on shows that get 22 minutes to connect or be put out to pasture — it’s an expensive gamble.
Here’s where LeRoi and his partners have attempted to change the manner in which new shows are brought to market.
"After the success of House of Payne by Tyler Perry,” he explains, "Debmar-Mercury [the distributors] were looking to replicate that model. Together, we came up with a different way of doing things, a way that I think is better in terms of letting a show develop and giving the studio greater odds that their investment won’t be gone after just one show. It works like this: We brought the financing in to film 10 episodes. We’ll do an on-air test, meaning that they’ll air 10 episodes of Are We There Yet? If it meets a certain predetermined rating, it triggers an automatic pickup of 90 episodes.” For the network, it’s a smart play because they’ll get 10 episodes at a very friendly cost. The financiers will break even with their license fee — and if the show is a go, they’ll get to sell 100 episodes to syndication at a profit. For the executive producer, like LeRoi, the main difference is not receiving fees up front, meaning that he holds a true partnership back-end position.
"We’re not reinventing the wheel with regards to the content of multi-camera sitcoms; we’re reinventing how they’re made.” He summarizes, "Boiling this down to its purest essence: We’re betting on ourselves here.”
Obviously, the rewards are high, but so are the risks — if the show doesn’t catch on after 10 episodes, LeRoi gains only the experience. But in his opinion, the potential is worth it.
"The multi-camera sitcom is part of the lifeblood of American television. And they’re gold mines for their syndicators. A hundred years from now, people are still going to be watching Seinfeld. If you look at the environment today,there’s not a lot of them to choose from — it’s all reality this and reality that. So there’s a real space to fill.
"On top of that,” he observes, "you’ve got a generation coming up that's been living in the multi-camera-sitcom world their whole lives— I’m talking about the kids who’ve been weaned,literally, on iCarly, That’s So Raven, The Suite Life,etc. — and so while the idea [of multi-camera sitcoms] might seem retro to us, to them, it’s the world they know and love.”
Changing the business model has changed the creative process as well. LeRoi feels for the better."TBS has been fantastic. They gave us some very easy-to-hit and broad ‘musts,’ and from there on out, for us, it’s really been live by the sword or die by the sword. But which ever way it turns out, it’ll be truly the best sword that we, the creative team, could have produced.”
LeRoi, who also directed all 10 initial episodes, feels that as a true partner in the business of the show, he was given more freedom creatively. "With a network in a typical situation, they give you notes for certain things because they’ve seen those certain things work before.That tends to drown out the singular voice that anything good needs to rise above the mediocre. But if you watch this, you’ll see that we’re not copying what Tyler Perry did. I think my voice really comes through; I think Ice Cube’s voice really comes through. I think these important voices come through on Are We There Yet? because we’ve set things up this way. It’s funny, when we were doing Everybody Hates Chris, Chris Rock used to joke with me that you always get notes from an executive about the character that the executive relates to the most! We didn’t have to deal with things like that on this show.
"Even the way we shot it was different than anything I’ve ever done. One of the prime concerns was shooting the initial 10 episodes as cheaply as possible — but doing it well. Toward that end, we shot in Connecticut to take advantage of the tax credits that they’re offering. A lot of states are offering these, but you can get out there and find that there’s not an established field of talent or crew to put the show together. But when you’re shooting in Connecticut, you’re just a train ride from New York City, which means we had access to all the crew we needed and were able to get really great actors who happened to have some time to swing by between Broadway shows.
"On Everybody Hates Chris,” he notes, "we were doing eight scenes in 22 minutes; using these mini-areas, we’re at about 16 per show. I think it creates a nice flow.”
All of LeRoi’s preparation has paid off. The show itself does not at all come across as "done on a budget”; the production values are comparable to any other sitcom out there. Terry Crews’ family on Are We There Yet? is African-American, but they feel like any family in America trying to deal with stepchildren, money concerns and relationship issues.
"Like I said,” LeRoi states,"we’re not copying what Tyler Perry has achieved. And back in the late ’90s, there was a big issue about subdividing audiences into white and black. But the problem with subdividing is that eventually you’re carving some pretty thin slices of the pie. If you’re saying someone has this niche of the black audience and we’re going for that niche of the black audience … well, I’d rather make shows about and that appeal to people out there trying to make their mortgage, trying to make their marriage work, trying to raise kids. That’s what’s interesting to me. That’s what I want Are We There Yet? to be about.”
Obviously, when watching a multi-camera show about an African-American family whose problems are more family based than race-based, a comparison to The Cosby Show is inevitable.
"Some people have said that, after watching a little of Are We There Yet?” he confesses. "But for me, even to compare anything to that is almost a sacrilege. Bill Cosby is the greatest family comedian America has ever produced. I think for people to see this and say, ‘Hey, they’re operating in that field,’ that’s fine by me, but you know, when people say that after seeing this show, I’m honored, but like I said, to me, that’s a little too much.”
Are We There Yet? is currently airing on TBS, where it will enjoy a 10-episode run. Initial reviews have been very positive and Terry Crews indeed seems to be an actor on the edge of breaking out. If the show catches on, it seems only logical that more potential series would replicate this model rather than betting everything on a single pilot episode. Here’s wishing Ali LeRoi and his partners the best.