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UCLA Producers Program Faculty Member Transforms Television With New Series

Tonight, a new comedy premieres on CW that demonstrates the changing nature of the business of television. Leading the charge is Maggie Murphy, head of the US division of the Canadian production company Shaftesbury, and one of the UCLA Producers Program’s own faculty members. Backpackers follows two twenty-something best friends, Ryan and Brandon, as they race across Europe in search of Ryan’s fiancé, while trying to figure out who they are and what they want to become of their lives.

The idea for Backpackers came from Jay Bennet, Vice President Digital/Creative Director of Smokebomb Entertainment, the digital arm of Shaftesbury. Murphy came on board to help develop the idea internally and planned a new strategy to pitch the show. “Visual sales tools are becoming more and more important in the industry,” says Murphy. “Before they move forward, buyers really want to know what the show will look and feel like.” So for Backpackers, she and her team hired a writer, a small cast and a skeleton crew. They all hopped in a van and drove around Europe for a few days and shot about ten minutes that effectively conveyed what the show was about, as well as the humor of the show.

”We didn’t even pitch it, which is unusual,” recalls Maggie. Instead, they shopped their presentation around to a few networks and immediately received interest from CW. Maggie and her team sold it to CW for their digital-only network, CW Seed, and they got funding from the CW to go into production. Additional financing came from pre-selling the concept to the Canadian network CTV, as well as Canadian tax incentives. Backpackers lived online among several other digital-only comedy series from CW and, to date, is the first and only digital series to be picked up by the network for broadcast.

It’s not surprising that Shaftesbury is bringing a new strategy to TV in the US—the Canadian company is used to a very different modus operandi. “In Canada, they go straight to series, they don’t shoot a pilot. And the same in the international world,” says Murphy. This trend has of course made its way to the states with places like HBO and Netflix giving straight-to-series orders, but even broadcast nets like Fox are giving this model a shot as well. Murphy has seen more and more traditional networks foregoing the traditional pilot order. “I have a series that just had five more scripts ordered, but no pick-up,” says Murphy. She believes it makes good economic sense: “Instead of shooting that pilot that is seven to ten million dollars, and then seeing it’s not good, why not pay half a million for scripts and see what you’ve got.”

Murphy and Shaftesbury are so eager to see up-and-coming creators adopt innovative practices such as these that they recently announced a multi-year gift to benefit the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Producers Program, a highly selective, two-year MFA degree. The gift will allow Shaftesbury production executives to help producing students create and develop television and digital projects, and then provide the necessary resources to complete them. The partnership will also create opportunities for Producers Program students to network with Shaftesbury’s network of top-tier industry experts.

Denise Mann, head of the Producers Program and co-head of Transforming Hollywood, is “thrilled [by the] generous donation.” “With the help of Ms. Murphy and our other key television creators, executives, producers and cutting-edge media scholars teaching in the UCLA TFT Producers Program, the department has been able to be responsive to the renaissance taking place in the television industry,” says Mann.

Murphy intends for the gift to help students create important products that are essential to selling TV series today. “People have less money and they want to have as much insurance as possible,” Murphy explains. “It’s important to be able to go to potential buyers with a clear idea of what the series is and where it goes, and we’ll be able to get these students in a position where they’re ready to be a part of the transformations taking place in Hollywood today.”