This story first appeared in the Sept. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Craig Piligian's North Hollywood office could double as a prop house. There are several dozen mechanical banks lining his bookshelves, a suit of armor propped up in the hallway and, for dramatic effect, a Gatling gun pointed toward the door. Look closer and you'll find a few antique cameras, a model airplane and a couple of paintings he's almost certain are authentic Jackson Pollocks. The mix is as eclectic as the producer's Pilgrim Studios portfolio, which spans 40 unscripted shows on 22 networks, including Nat Geo's Wicked Tuna, Discovery's Fast N' Loud and Syfy's Ghost Hunters, which was just renewed for a 10th season.
Though Piligian, 57, caught his big break more than a decade ago as one of the original executive producers on CBS' Survivor, cable reality shows are the bread and butter of his 700-employee company. And he's made enough money off of them — earlier entries include American Chopper and Dirty Jobs — to have multiple homes and a private jet to transport him between them. In recent years, the married Detroit native with two grown kids and a penchant for profanity has been dabbling in scripted, too, with a handful of Lifetime movies (Amanda Knox, Abducted: The Carlina White Story) and an ABC Family pilot, Recovery Road.
In an era of consolidation that's seen behemoths like ITV scoop up rivals, including Leftfield (Pawn Stars) and Gurney (Duck Dynasty), for eight to nine figures, Pilgrim is one of the few remaining companies of its size to still be independent — and Piligian argues it's proved a major advantage. With one of his signature series, The Ultimate Fighter, now airing on Fox Sports 1 and set to launch its 20th cycle Sept. 10, the onetime news editor speaks candidly about scripted vs. unscripted, the company's cancellation ritual and recent docuseries subject Lindsay Lohan.
A model of his Hawker jet, which he purchased seven years ago, sits beside two antique cameras.
With the huge prices being paid for companies, what's the advantage of remaining untethered?
Speed. We can make a decision a lot faster than the bigger companies that have consolidated. If I were a network looking at some of those big companies, there are a lot of layers and a lot of decision-making that has to go through places that you may not want them to go through. Today, I talked to a network president, told her exactly what I thought a certain show was and she ordered eight episodes. In three minutes. They know that the guy they're talking to is the guy making the decisions.
How has the trend impacted your business?
We've seen a spike. When they see costs from us or budgets from us, they know what's going on the screen and what isn't. It's a very transparent business deal, so I think we get called first.
Presumably you've been approached. What will it take to sell?
A couple of times. It has to be a fit that we feel comfortable in. We don't just go out there and say, "Hey, buy us and we'll work with you." The people we want to be in business with have to be people we want to wake up to and talk to every day, and the price has got to be right.
Though they haven't been authenticated, he's confident two paintings hanging in his office are Pollocks. He bought both from a 92-year-old lady whose husband was Pollock's friend.
One of the concerns is that many of these reality companies that are being acquired don't own their series. So what are the behemoths buying?
We have a mixed bag of library and cash flow, but a couple of the companies that were just purchased were just cash flow, and that's really dangerous. It's all based on faith in a person or a company. I don't understand it, but if someone steps up with a big check, let them have it. I applaud anybody who sells and feels good about it. Why not? This is America!
What's been the biggest learning curve in scripted?
It takes more time. In unscripted, you can go out on a Monday, shoot a tape on a Tuesday, edit it by the following week, sell it the next day and be in production in a week. And we've done it! You can't do that in scripted. Scripted is such a long, long process. I kind of knew it, but once you're in it, it's like, How do people make any f—ing money? You can't make any money in scripted. Nothing! Unless you have a giant hit.
So why try?
It's fun, and I think we're going to get a giant hit. It's funny, though, because the scripted guys can't go into unscripted, but unscripted guys can go into scripted.
Piligian has a collection of Survivor idols, which serve as mementos from his time on the series.
Why is that?
Because it's too hard, and scripted guys play too nice. They're very politically correct. They don't want to piss anybody off because they can't get that many times at the plate with scripted. Unscripted, you're at the plate 25 times a week, so you piss everybody off. As long as you have a great product, you're going to sell a show. You've got to get dirty and play rough.
These big broadcast competition shows keep getting pricier. How about on cable?
The [cable networks] really want budgets to get lower and lower. You hear these numbers on scripted, $3 million an episode? Give me that money. I want that f—ing money! I'd say $375,000 to $475,000 is the average price for a cable unscripted hour, whereas broadcast unscripted is anywhere between $750,000 and $1.4 million, unless it's The Voice.
The reality space has struggled to produce hits in recent years. Why?
For a while there, everything was derivative and repetitive, and it worked for a bit. It's incumbent on us as producers and developers to go out there and find the niche that hasn't been explored. I have a team of people over here that that's all they do. We go shoot stuff, we Skype-cast, we try to figure out occupations. You look online and say, "Could this stupid YouTube thing be a television show?"
How do you learn from your flops?
I did a show called The Fighters on Discovery. My partners were the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship], and we promoted the crap out of it &hellip and then we tanked. How are you gonna analyze that? We f—ing failed. We say we failed out loud, and then we get over it and move on. Oh, and we drink. (Laughs.)
What does success look like at Pilgrim?
Oh, we drink in success, too. Especially ones like Bring It!, which was a little foreign to us because it was urban dancing. We held on to that property for over a year and a half trying to sell it, and we finally got it on Lifetime and it became a big show for them. Or Fast N' Loud, which we had on the shelf for three years and no one would buy it. Discovery passed on it three times, and then finally a new guy at Discovery came in and bought it, and now it's the highest-rated show on their air.
Piligian has about 250 rare mechanical banks built between 1865 and 1905. He keeps most at his Las Vegas home.
What's the key to a successful Pilgrim pitch?
We don't pitch anything we don't believe in, so our pitches are passionate. And we blow all our deadlines because we don't send cuts in until we believe they can go on the air. Now, we take the notes that the network gives, we do what's necessary and we send it back and then arguments ensue and eventually our version gets on the air. (Laughs.) But that's OK; if I were a network executive and a producer rolled over every time I gave them notes, why hire that production company? I don't want them to do my job for me. I always tell them, "You're paying me to work, so let me f—ing work."
How did you get Sarah Palin to do a reality show, Amazing America, for the Sportsman Channel?
Sportsman came to us and said, "We need to do something loud." We were sitting around and I said to the guys, "Why don't we see if they want to do Sarah Palin because she'd be loud and she's Sportsman's audience." I'd never met her, but I thought she'd be a great host. I called her attorney [Bob Barnett], who happens to be one of the biggest attorneys in D.C. I pitched him the idea and he said he'd get back to me. He did and said, "She liked it. So here's the deal, and there are going to be no changes in this deal." We all got it and the deal got done pretty damn quickly. She's been just perfect to work with.
"I liked it and so I said, 'Let's get it, put it in the office and point it toward the door,' " he jokes of winning the Gatling gun from the History series Top Shop.
Would you say the same of Lindsay Lohan, with whom you did an OWN docuseries this spring?
Oh, it's a whole different approach to a Lindsay. Sarah ran a state. You can talk directly to her, and she gives you a direct answer. She's not pampered in any way. With Lindsay, sometimes you had to be a father figure and be stern; other times, you give a little and let her get her way a little bit. Look, you hope it all goes well for her because she's an incredibly talented actress, and I think she'll eventually get through all of this.
With hindsight, would you have done anything differently? Perhaps compress the shooting schedule the way Lifetime did with True Tori?
No. She had just gotten out of rehab, and we wanted a lot of time to elapse. We shot over seven months because if we would have shot it over 40 days, her life wouldn't have evolved enough. OWN pitched it to us, and I said yes right away because she's a great subject. We only wanted one season and we didn't know how many episodes we'd get. The bet was between two and eight, and we got all eight.