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April 13, 2012

SCA Family Stories: Joshua Dinner

Reality TV Producer/Alum sits down with SCA

Film students aren’t strangers to tackling tricky subjects. Religion has always been a topic of both interest and conflict. It can certainly be a tough topic to discuss, and Critical Studies alum Joshua Dinner ‘05 knows all about the trials and tribulations of making a reality-television series with the center being religion.

Josh Dinner '05

Dinner recently sat down to discuss the difficulties of making a religious-based reality-television show and the experiences he has had with its creation.

What’s your name and graduation year? My name is Joshua Dinner; I graduated with my class in May ’06 but actually finished a semester early in December of ’05. I have a Bachelor's Degree in Cinema-Television Critical Studies.

Tell me a little bit about this project. This is a very unusual and special project because it marks the first time in television history that the American Hutterite culture was documented. The Hutterites are very private people with strict rules against photography. But times are changing. Our show is presented through the eyes of the young adults growing up in a world full of temptation from the outside world.

We ask the question: Is it really possible to maintain 19th century traditions and practices in the age of the Internet? There are some really deep ideas presented on the show. I think it will appeal to all demographics. You will laugh, cry, and be amazed by a truly hidden world here in America.

Who are the Hutterites? The Hutterites are North America’s oldest communal faith-based society. Today, there are more than 400 colonies in North America. Each colony has about 15 families and 60 people, and everyone of age contributes to the daily routine in a specific way. The women cook, clean, and tend to the garden while the men maintain the livestock and farmland. It is fascinating and I have never met such hard-workers. Some other fundamentals are that they believe in non-violence, sharing all possessions, adult baptism and simple living. Although they share common roots with the Amish, the Hutterites embrace electricity and certain kinds of technology like GPS navigation that can enhance productivity. Many of them even have cell phones.

The Hutterites that we’re focusing on for the show are a liberal denomination living in Lewistown, Montana.

How did you decide to do the reality-television angle on it? The representing production company on this show is Collins Avenue (Dance Moms, American Stuffers). I have worked for them off and on for the past several years as an editor of casting packages. They've had some solid success lately. It's really amazing to witness a small boutique production company go from occupying a one room office to having three floors in the building entirely for themselves. The company President Jeff Collins became, in some ways, a mentor to me and my partner. He said if we ever had any show ideas we could come in and pitch them to his development staff.

So we basically put together a small pitch, you know, a variety of random stuff. We went in one day - and I remember sitting on the floor in Jeff's new office (because the furniture hadn't been delivered) with his Vice President and Director of Development . It was really casual and kind of hilarious. The meeting was okay but we could tell that nothing really stuck, and at the very end of the meeting, I said to my partner, “Trever, why don’t you tell Jeff about what we were talking about the other night?” We didn’t have a formal pitch planned or even a treatment, so we started just basically telling them about this really small society of people who live in Montana near where Trever grew up. Trever visited the colony frequently in his childhood because his dad is friends with the Field Boss. He explained how they are very religious and work so hard day-to-day but can kick back and have a good time, drink and hunt and stuff like that. The duality is very interesting. So Jeff kept asking questions about their culture and I could tell he was really interested. Production companies like Collins Avenue are always looking for big, loud personalities and hidden worlds. This basically fit the bill perfectly.

Trever James, Luke Rold, and Josh Dinner in Montana

So your title is Reality Producer. Are you comfortable with the term Producer? Well, I’m very fortunate to be 27-years-old and a Co-Creator and Co-Executive Producer of a major documentary series for the National Geographic Channel. It is very rare that a TV network will order a full season of a show just off the sizzle reel so I feel really proud of the initial work we did in Montana to get the interviews and footage for Collins Avenue to cut together and shop around. We were also told that it was one of the fastest selling TV shows in 30 years. Jeff is a good businessman; he was able to sell the show on our behalf and his company produces it. I think the nebulous nature of what a producer’s role is… is a bit confusing. There was a lot of age discrimination toward us for being three young guys who had just sold a show. But the industry loves the idea of a hierarchy and I’m not sure that will ever change. No one in Silicon Valley would tell a young entrepreneur he isn't qualified to make a website or new service. That would be totally absurd. Hollywood is disillusioned about the capabilities of young creative producers. I hope that changes.

You seem to prefer the term “documentary series.” Does “reality” television seem like a negative term from your point of view? This show is a documentary series that will consist of 10 hour-long episodes. There is no such thing as a reality show. That term is an oxymoron and perhaps docu-series is sometimes used as a euphemism, but one thing about our show is certain: it will be unprecedented television. America will find it controversial, intense, and emotional. There is no category for what we have done. Of course there are considerations to be made about storytelling and format but the subject matter truly is uncharted territory. We had originally planned to focus on ten prominent traditions in their culture until the situation happened.

What sort of situation? Less than a week before we were supposed to start filming in Montana, we got a phone call from one of our contacts on the colony. He basically said that the Council of Elders in Canada came down and shunned two members of our cast - his mother and the Head Cook for the colony. The Council of Elders is responsible for unifying their faith by controlling cultural practices and enforcing colony rules. Being shunned is the worst thing that can happen to a devout Hutterite. The production itself wasn’t responsible for the colony being shunned, but once they were shunned, they came out and told the elders, ‘Hey, we’re in production with National Geographic,’ and they said, ‘No, you’re not.’ Basically it was like a Wild West shootout without the guns. Lawyers got involved, it was really messy.

By the time we could start filming, everything was still so fresh, people were still very hurt, and the two women were still essentially shunned. For us, there were some really big philosophical and theological story points at play now. Man's Law vs. God's Law and people on the colony were picking sides. Very, very powerful stuff. That put a lot of the senior producers in overdrive to capture these raw emotions, plan out and design new episodes, and stay on schedule even though everything essentially changed since pre-production . We wanted to find a way to approach the shunning on camera, but it was very awkward at first. But the show found its way and it is going to be incredible television.

Hutterite Child

How does one go from earning a degree in Critical Studies to working in unscripted TV? What was your journey to get there? I went to USC at a very turbulent time in America. The country was still processing 9/11, we entered a global war on terrorism, and I was very fearful of what the future had in store for a young man like myself. I lived each day in shock. I was mad at my government. Reality was not a comfortable place and I am thankful that I could escape into the world of cinema. I received a war-time education at USC and it has made me the filmmaker I am today. For a few years in school I worked under Director Randal Kleiser. He is my mentor. After graduation I worked full time as Lead Post-Production P.A. for ABC's "Ugly Betty" and averaged a 13-hour work day for the first two seasons. It is the hardest job I've ever had and I am proud to have contributed to its initial success. That was a wild show behind-the-scenes. I think it has a crazy reputation in Hollywood now.

The writers strike eventually shut everything down and I went to work independently as a multi-platform Producer & Video Editor. I went on to develop a cooking variety show that blends electronic music, interviews, and pop culture and even won a big international competition aimed at funding fresh formats for the Internet. It was a really big deal but then the economy collapsed and the company pulled out (after announcing the winners). I was really upset with the world all over again because my generation has been beaten hard this past decade. A lot of people were barely hanging on. Most gave up and moved back home or decided to pursue another profession. I kept working small gigs, but it was really bad. We were all on the end of our ropes. I eventually decided to pursue my real passion with feature films. I optioned a New York Time's bestselling book about the true story of a female scientist and her work with an animal test subject.

About a year into the writing process, we pitched our Hutterites show idea to Collin's Avenue. I re-focused all my energy on the Hutterites project and suspended development on the film. Now that the show is locked, I'm going back to my feature film projects and another very special company pursuit that has been brewing for several years.

What are some pitfalls that you may have experienced or avoided after you began working in production that students should be aware of? First and foremost: Expect the unexpected. Second: It is difficult for creative producers to get meetings to discuss their ideas. I remember calling the office of two producers who I heard speak at a film seminar. After being strung along for several weeks, their secretary said that they wouldn't take a meeting with me because, "They didn't know who I was."

There are a lot of people in this business who have such closed minds to the concept of being friendly. Third: You won't always get a good reason why someone didn't hire you or your project flopped or you were fired. You have to try to accept the mystery and not take it too personally. And fourth: You will always need to put agreements into writing. USC has an incredible staff that can help review contracts and provide legal advice.

If you were talking to a newly accepted Critical Studies student, what advice would you give them that you wish you had while at SCA? Always remember that cinema is magic. You will never understand how this industry works and neither will your parents. Be brave with your work. Define yourself creatively but always be unpredictable. Be prepared to fail often, especially when you think you are very close to success. It will take decades for your career to be where you want it to be. Try to develop a common theme in your work even if it is subtle. Never forget where you came from and what you value. USC is always by your side and forever your family.

Where can students go to get more information about what you’re doing? I run a small production company called Earthrise Pictures with my best friend from film school Chris Godwin ('06).  We are launching a new HTML-5 website soon that will showcase or active portfolio of projects. In the meantime, feel free to drop me a line on Facebook!