Our first conference was in Santa Monica. We had done our homework and knew who we wanted to meet and pitch to. We targeted various companies and networks. But as soon as we walked in the door, I felt as if I’d landed on Mars. I actually lost my breath. I was sure I’d throw up. Not only was I universes outside my comfort zone, I was clearly out of my league with these Los Angeles TV-types.
Jim, on the other hand, in his Versace shirt, strutted in as if he owned the place. He was in his element. “I am with my people,” he said. Then he said, “I am going to make more money than you are, because I have more titles.” A Hollywood tycoon was evolving before my eyes.
Again, I tried to channel Julia for support, and then some dude from the Kardashian clan walked past me, and I had to sit down. I mulled over my options. I could throw up, smack Jim on the head, cry, and go home. Or I could rally.
I rallied. People need art; it was my duty to move forward. For two days, we pitched to anyone and everyone. We attended every talk, cocktail hour, and informational meeting. We met executives at top networks, production-company owners, agents, and interns. Jim stalked an Oprah person in the men’s room. We worked every angle. The feedback we got was tremendous. Great show, wonderful idea, great story, best pitch ever! It was a love fest, and although we had no offers, we felt giddy and proud.
One of the lessons of the business is that a “no” is better than a “maybe.” In Hollywood, “taking a pass” means a no. We had very few no’s and many “re-directs” — we repeatedly heard “It’s made for PBS,” “Go talk to Bravo,” “Have you hit Discovery?”
We followed through on everything.
We also had our share of people trying to redefine our show. A woman from Style Network told us that their most popular show was Ruby. She explained that Ruby is an obese woman and “If Ruby eats, Ruby will die!” The Style woman eagerly looked at me. “What are you going to do? Where is your life-and-death drama?”
When I said that I wasn’t prepared to chop off my ear, Jim jumped in. “The airplanes fly very low across her studio. It’s just a matter of time before one crashes on her head.”
Style Network took a pass.
From the beginning, Jim and I differed in thoughts about where the show should be marketed. I was keen on selling it locally, especially trying for KPBS, while Jim wanted to hit it out of the park and get a national network. After that first day of filming, I didn’t feel ready to deliver a show on a national level; I wanted to get more — or any — experience and build from there. “This is our first painting,” I said. “We can’t expect it to go straight into the MOMA. First, we need to get into a local group show.”
Jim didn’t see where he fit in on the local level. But after attending our second conference, we still had no buyers, so Jim took a closer look at PBS. They were offering a national competition for a new TV show under something called the Diversity and Innovation Fund. I am an educated white woman. I play tennis and summer in Maine. There is nothing diverse about me. But as hard as I tried, I couldn’t talk Jim out of this one.
Jim’s neighbor in Dallas, a lesbian, had produced a show or two on PBS, and he got her on board for the project, awarding her several titles. So now our “diversity” consisted of two educated, white, straight people and an educated white lesbian (from Texas!) and a show about art. Jim put everything on hold to wait for the results. When the rejection came, he was devastated. I was shocked he was shocked. He wanted to try to continue to work with his neighbor, but she stopped returning his calls.
Three conferences later, we were all the wiser, a bit beaten up…and still not on the air. The sad lesson we learned was that the arts are a tough sell, not a priority for television. If I could gain, lose, and again gain 300 pounds while painting, well, that is a show that might sell. Or maybe I could participate in a death-defying stunt while in a museum. Apparently, my life needed to be in danger.
The mother of all meetings, which Jim worked hard to get, was with the Discovery Channel. Jim had visions of Painting with Prudence airing right before Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. The Discovery Channel said that they would not touch art or a female host. One network executive told us: “Look, art is a gamble. We’re all praying to keep hold of our jobs. Right now no one is thinking outside the box.” Jim lost a bit of steam. He headed back to Dallas. I headed back to my apartment under the flight path.
Deterred, stymied, discouraged, but not beaten, we hold our heads high. Jim had to get a paying job and was unable to put more time, effort, or money into the project. I needed to focus on painting, on selling some paintings so I could pay my rent on time and stop relying on friends to feed me. When I met up with Walid, Prince of Wine, he gave me a sympathetic look: he understood the toll of putting yourself out there and trying to succeed in a crazy TV world.
I am still under the flight path, still loving my life as an artist. As for Painting with Prudence, once in a while I throw it out on a local push. Just the other day, I sent our package to the Oceanside channel, KOTC. PWP could start there. Who knows?
Check out our handiwork (paintingwithprudence.com) and make sure to click on the sizzle reel. Maybe one day the TV world will tire of the Housewives of New Jersey and be ready to celebrate the arts — with or without me as host. My mom is standing ready to update the web page.