Coolfire Media Brings Reality TV Close to Home
Photography by Kevin A. Roberts
Have you ever done an interview on a bed, with two beautiful women?” Kate Frisina-White asks me. The fortysomething mother of two works at a grocery store and lives on a quiet residential street in Creve Coeur. Quiet, that is, except for Frisina-White.
We are lying on her bed, along with Judi Diamond, a DJ for local country-music station 92.3 WIL-FM. “This is where we do our best work!” Frisina-White howls, more or less setting the tone for the day.
“Watch TV and come up with ideas,” Diamond clarifies.
Frisina-White ignores that comment entirely. “Once a month, if Jack’s a nice boy,” she quips, referring to how often her husband gets lucky.
We’re in bed together because, for today, this isn’t a bedroom at all. It’s a dressing room. Out in the kitchen, which is presently serving as the set, a film crew sets up cameras, sound equipment, and lights. Production manager J. Gibson arranges some discount Thanksgiving decorations.
Diamond, a petite, blue-eyed redhead, and Frisina-White, a tall, brown-eyed brunette with blonde highlights, knew of one another before they actually met. They both moved to Missouri after working as actors in Los Angeles, both drove white minivans, both had two kids. As Diamond puts it, people kept telling them “that we would just…” “…love each other,” Frisina-White chimes in. They tend to finish each other’s sentences, in a way that manages to be both cute and a bit creepy.
When they finally met, the women became fast friends, eventually starting a vlog (that’s video blog, for you Luddites) called Lipstick n’ Laundry. With help from Coolfire Originals, a TV development-and-production company based in St. Louis, they’ve spun that website into a reality show, MFF: Mom Friends Forever, airing as part of the new NickMom block of late-night programming on Nick Jr. (It’s a bit like Adult Swim on Cartoon Network; the slogan is “motherfunny.”)
Tim Breitbach, Coolfire’s vice president of original programming, serves as the show’s executive producer. He comes into the bedroom just as the ladies are wrapping up their back story. Today, they’ll be shooting a special Thanksgiving video for the NickMom website, rather than a full-blown episode. Breitbach runs through the game plan, listing off the topics that he thinks the women should cover.
Once they’re ready, the ladies make their way into the kitchen, taking their customary seats on stools behind the breakfast bar. To seem taller, Diamond sits on a phone book. A member of the crew claps his hands and says, “Mark, wave two.” Cameras roll.
After a bit of profane small talk, just to clear their throats, the women launch into a rollicking 20-minute conversation (which will eventually be edited down to a couple of minutes) about what they’re thankful for (mostly each other), canned cranberry sauce (Diamond prefers it), and the tryptophan in turkey (as a vegetarian, Diamond avoids its alleged soporific powers).
They exaggerate the emotion in their voices, laugh way too hard at their own jokes, and make theatrical hand gestures to accent their mostly ordinary stories. But it just works. As Breitbach says, “They have the thing together. There’s an alchemy that happens between Judi and Kate.”
He shouts “cut” occasionally to nudge the banter back on track, and the ladies use the lulls between takes to make suggestive jokes about the shapes of the plastic gourds sitting on the bar. Eventually, the conversation turns to pot brownies. When Diamond was a kid, one of her cousins brought some to Thanksgiving dinner, giving them to the adults as a prank. But while she and Frisina-White have no problem using countless sexual double-entendres, they awkwardly avoid the word “marijuana,” calling them “California brownies” instead.
“About two hours later, my mom was eating everything in sight. She was giggling like crazy,” Diamond says, giggling herself.
When they’ve finished, Breitbach gives them some feedback, and they start the entire conversation again, from the top.
Spend five minutes at Coolfire Media’s downtown offices, and you’ll be ready to submit an application. It’s like the hippest of Washington Avenue lofts, with concrete pillars and exposed brick bordering an expansive open space filled with couches. Employees lounge with their laptops. Across the room from a pool table, a trophy case holds dozens of regional Emmy and Telly awards. Along the walls are offices and editing suites full of high-tech equipment.
The coolest office of all belongs to president and CEO Jeff Keane. A warm man with spiked salt-and-pepper hair and a bit of scruff, Keane works from a large easy chair, a set of poker chips and a few decanters of liquor nearby. He founded Coolfire Media in 2002 as a commercial-production company, making videos, TV commercials, and websites. In 2009, he added two ventures: Coolfire Solutions, which specializes in mobile apps, and Coolfire Originals, which makes TV shows.
Coolfire shepherds those shows from beginning to end, developing the ideas, selling them to networks, and producing the episodes. “We’ve had pretty good success over the last couple years doing that,” Keane says modestly.
It’s a major understatement.
As of this fall, Coolfire had three shows on-air: Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s, Oprah Winfrey Network’s popular series about St. Louisan Robbie Montgomery and her family’s soul-food restaurants; Fast N’ Loud, Discovery Channel’s program about a couple of Texans who turn old cars into hot rods; and MFF. With three more shows currently in production, the company will have at least six on-air this year, with five featuring St. Louis. “We’re shining a really positive and interesting spotlight on the city of St. Louis,” says Keane, who grew up here. “It’s something that we take a lot of pride in.”
When you consider that Coolfire Originals is still a young company and is far removed from the entertainment capitals of L.A. and New York, its rate of ascent is truly remarkable. In essence, it’s building a new industry in St. Louis.
How did Keane pull it off?
It started with a pair of blue-chip recruits: Breitbach and vice president of development Steve Luebbert, Midwest natives who worked in film and TV on the West Coast before moving back home. Early on, they signed with prominent Hollywood talent agency William Morris Endeavor and enlisted Pilgrim Studios—the company behind such reality hits as Survivor, Dirty Jobs, and American Chopper—as co-producers of their first couple of shows. They also collaborated with NoCoast Originals, a fellow St. Louis company, on show ideas.
The Coolfire guys see their Midwest location as an advantage. After all, many of the people who watch cable TV live in the so-called flyover states, and they don’t just want to watch shows about crazies from the coasts. “Being in the middle of the country, we can find characters and stories that really resonate with the people who are watching those networks,” Keane says.
Shows with Midwestern stars can infuse a badly needed dose of reality into an industry that seems to continually veer further toward the absurd. “It’s not farcical,” Luebbert says. “We’re telling real stories about real people.”
Another advantage: Coolfire’s pitch tapes. Long before filming a pilot, companies have to sell a network on an idea with what’s called a sizzle reel. “The thing is, we’re really good at those,” Breitbach says. When Coolfire started sending its sizzle reels to networks, “They were like, ‘Holy shit, what a tape!’” The secret is Coolfire’s background in video production for advertising, in knowing how to sell concisely. “We’re starting to do half hours well and hours well,” Breitbach says, “but we really know how to deliver a hot five or six minutes.”
Those sizzle reels helped make up for Coolfire’s initial lack of TV credits and made the company a hot commodity among cable executives. “L.A. is a very bright, shiny object,” says Luebbert, who used to work for ABC in comedy development. “If we’re the bright, shiny object right now, then terrific.”
Reality TV ain’t easy. “There is a huge gap between an idea for a TV show and a TV show,” Luebbert says. “We are the gap.”
You don’t just show up at somebody’s house and turn on a camera. To use the mom friends as an example, it took more than two years from the time the Coolfire guys met Frisina-White and Diamond until the first episode aired.
That process started with a lot of talking. Coolfire needed to figure out what was going on in the women’s lives and how to create story-lines from those events. This is the specialty of Breitbach, who co-wrote Dopamine, an indie film that won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003. “I’m a story guy,” he says. He wants to learn his characters so well that he can predict how they’ll react in a certain situation and how others will respond. In that sense, mapping out an episode of reality TV is like screenwriting—only the actors don’t have to listen to you.
Filming presents an entirely new set of challenges. The biggest is what insiders call “managing the talent.” It takes a lot of shooting, sometimes a full week of eight-hour days, to produce a half-hour episode. Even for people who volunteered, the intrusion can grow tiresome. “You also have to respect the fact that they have no idea what they signed up for,” Breitbach says. “Until you’ve done it, you have no idea, and it’s not easy.”
It’s a situation that requires empathy, patience, and quite a bit of gentle prodding. This is where it’s fair to question just how much reality is involved in reality TV. The guys at Coolfire think of their shows as falling toward the real end of the reality spectrum, but that doesn’t mean they don’t play an active role in shaping how things play out on screen.
For instance, in MFF, Frisina-White was having trouble relating to her son Max, who was shutting her out. But a kid and his mom stewing at opposite ends of a house doesn’t make for great TV. So Breitbach encouraged them to talk it out. For him, the difference between reality TV (he prefers the terms “nonscripted” and “docuseries” because of the genre’s less-appealing associations) and less-than-reality TV comes down to “authenticity.” He doesn’t ask his characters to do anything they wouldn’t normally do, per se. He just puts them in situations where they can be themselves, amplified.
These lines are especially blurry with the mom friends. They’re former actors who decided to turn their vlog into a reality show. If it seems like they’re acting phony on camera, well, that’s fairly natural for them. And in the end, who cares? If the show entertains a few moms winding down after a long day, does it really matter whether the crew asked one of the kids to put on the same shirt he was wearing yesterday to refilm a conversation?
For MFF’s Thanksgiving video, Frisina-White heckles Diamond about celebrating the holiday with tofurkey. In response, Diamond challenges Frisina-White to an impromptu blind taste test. (Given the fact that the producers already had turkey and tofurkey in the oven, I have my doubts about the challenge’s spontaneity.) They decide to use the scene as an alternate ending.
One of the show’s running gags is that its leading ladies, especially Diamond, are not particularly gifted cooks. As it turns out, neither is Gibson, the production manager; her turkey and tofurkey are inedible. But the women improvise, turning this misfortune into comedic gold. After making a few bondage jokes while blindfolding her partner, Diamond feeds Frisina-White a piece of the turkey.
“I can already tell that’s that tofurkey,” Frisina-White exclaims. She refuses to swallow. “Get it out of my mouth. I mean it. I refuse to eat that, Judi. I don’t know how you think that’s food. That is not food, Judi. I don’t even need to taste the other one.”
Then Diamond gives her a bite of the actual tofurkey. “What is that, bark?” Frisina-White yells.
“We’ve established something,” Diamond responds. “We’ve established that A. I can’t cook turkey, and B. I can’t cook tofurkey.”
Breitbach calls “cut,” then they all take a few laugh-filled moments to reflect on the horrible food. “I’ve never been around as many women that don’t know how to cook as you guys,” Breitbach says. He checks with the crew to make sure they got enough close-ups of the repulsive cuisine. Then he says every actor’s three favorite words: “That’s a wrap.”