'I Am Cait' Producer on Keeping Franchises Fresh, a Kendall/Kylie Spinoff and Whether Caitlyn Has Final Cut
Four months into his new gig as head of Bunim/Murray ('The Real World,' 'Project Runway'), Gil Goldschein reveals the next big steps for his reality TV company: "I don't believe in one-offs. I believe in building brands."
When Gil Goldschein took over as head of Bunim/Murray Productions in April, he knew he had big shoes to fill. The company's well-liked co-founder, Jonathan Murray, 59 — partner Mary-Ellis Bunim died in 2004 from cancer — had stepped aside after spending nearly three decades as a reality TV pioneer, first by co-creating The Real World in 1992 and later producing Project Runway and Keeping Up With the Kardashians, among dozens of shows. However, just four months into his gig, Goldschein has a headline-making show with E!'s I Am Cait, which debuted July 26 to 2.7 million viewers. In the months leading to the premiere of the eight-part docuseries centered on Caitlyn Jenner following her transition from male to female, all eyes have been on Jenner (see: her Diane Sawyer special, a Vanity Fair cover and an ESPY courage award). Those eyes also have focused on Bunim/Murray after some criticized Jenner's decision to use the company behind the tabloid-staple Kardashian shows to chronicle her journey. But the 100-employee Bunim/Murray, acquired in 2010 by European power Banijay Group, which on July 28 merged with Wife Swap producer Zodiak Group, is no stranger to presenting social issues. Twenty years ago, it put one of the first openly gay men with AIDS (Pedro Zamora) on TV in Real World. Now, Goldschein, 41, a 14-year company veteran (and married Orthodox Jew with three children) who got his start in business and legal affairs after graduating from Brooklyn Law School, hopes to parlay the Jenner buzz into such new territories as culinary TV (Food Network's upcoming Valerie's Home Cooking with Valerie Bertinelli), male-focused programming and the growing Latin market. He invited THR to his office to talk transgender issues, whether Real World ever will return to its seven-strangers-in-a-house roots and reality TV's recent consolidation trend.
What made you confident that Bunim/Murray could best tell the story of I Am Cait?
Obviously, when producing the Kardashian series for 10-plus seasons, I had a very close relationship with the family, and with Bruce specifically. So because of that, there's a trust factor, and that's something that's very important when we work on those type of shows. But the other thing is, if you look at the span of Bunim/Murray and all of the shows, we've been telling diverse stories since the first season of The Real World. We had a transgender castmember on Real World: Brooklyn [in 2009]. We're the perfect company for it.
'I Am Cait' will be broadcast in 24 languages and 153 countries around the world.
But Caitlyn's four older children were vocal about wanting a new company to produce the show because of that involvement with the Kardashians. How do you respond?
This is Caitlyn's show. Caitlyn wanted us as a production partner. So ultimately, that's her decision. We think it's the right decision. The family members are more than welcome to join. There's still an open invitation for them to be a part of the show.
When did you first hear about Caitlyn's transition?
The first discussion was when [BMP executive vp development and programming] Jeff Jenkins came to see me about a year ago and basically said, "Look, there are very few people that know this, but this is what's going on" and described to me what was happening. This was something that Bruce, at the time, was thinking of doing, and, again, I was just there to support it.
How much say does she have in the final edit?
A lot. Again, this is her life, and obviously this is something where she has a lot to say about how she wants her story to be told and exactly how she's going to be living her life, and we're there to document it. You've got your ups, your downs. You've got the serious moments. You have the fun moments, so we're there to document it and play it out as her life plays out.
How do you handle the balance of tone in this series? It's a sensitive subject, but you want to make an entertaining show.
We're going to do everything we can to find that balance. It just depends on what's happening at that moment in that scene. We recognize that there are important educational aspects — but at the same time recognizing that she's human and wants to have a good time.
You're now running this company. How much is Jonathan involved?
He's remaining involved in a lot of the legacy shows like Real World, The Challenge, Project Runway, Bad Girls Club, Project Runway: All Stars, and he continues to develop. We've become big, and there's a lot going on. For Jon, he was at a point in his career where he just wants to be a little bit closer to the product and the creative and not have to worry about all that other stuff that now I get to worry about.
Colorful quotes line the Bunim/Murray walls. This one, from the then-Fox reality chief, references 2013’s 'Stars in Danger.'
Memorabilia from season 18 of 'The Real World,' which took place in Denver. The show’s 1992 launch kicked off the modern reality TV era.
What is your biggest goal for the company?
To expand the brand and get into other areas where people wouldn't necessarily think that Bunim/Murray is in. We're doing some more stuff in the specials area. We also have a Latin division we started a few years ago, which I think is really starting to take shape, and we're getting some traction in some areas. Digital, obviously, that's been a very important area for us.
Consolidation has been a trend in reality TV. As one of the first companies to be bought, what are the upsides and downsides?
If somebody would have told me 10 years ago that the reality business was going to be a multibillion-dollar industry, I would've probably laughed at them. It is important to Bunim/Murray to try to hold on to as many rights, and the way to do that is obviously the scalability and the size [of the parent company]. That's the first point. The second point is, in the event that one of our sister companies is the one to create that next big hit, regardless of where it came from, whether it was from France, Italy, Germany, Scandinavia, we would be the ones in the U.S. producing that.
Is there one network that you'd like to see your series on?
The male space is an area we've been focusing on. I'd love to see our shows on a Discovery or a National Geographic. We've been developing several projects in that space and got pretty close on a couple of them.
You've been pushing to sell shows internationally. What is working overseas?
It's really on a case-by-case basis. Because we're owned by Banijay, we have a very good working relationship with a lot of sister companies. We have a very good, open dialogue and are aware of one another's development. Each of the partners within our overall group knows its market very well, so upon hearing the ideas from other territories, we'll know whether those projects will work in that specific territory. Docuseries don't typically translate — maybe once they've become very successful in an English-speaking country, then they tend to travel. It really is about what is that next big format and finding something that connects with the audience. That's what everybody around the world is trying to find.
Someone asked Goldschein what his inner animal is, and he said a cheetah: “The next day I saw this, so I knew it needed to be in my office.”
How much do you worry about oversaturation in the celebrity reality genre?
It depends on who those characters are. We have our own weeding-out process, if you will, to really make sure that these people are invested for the long term, because I don't believe in one-offs. I believe in building brands. I'm not just thinking about season one.
In Kardashian world, has there been any talk about a Kendall and Kylie spinoff?
We would love the opportunity to do that show. There haven't been any discussions, but if that were of interest to them, certainly I would hope that they would talk to us about that possibility.
What do you think is the key to keeping aging franchises like Kardashians and The Challenge fresh?
At a certain point, you have to add new creative elements. It's funny, because you also have people say, "Look, if it's not broken, why fix it?" But as an example, we really spent a lot of time before we did Real World: Ex-plosion, and it was something where we needed to shake this up. Sometimes, it's just little elements, little changes. Real World was a pretty extreme change.
“I’ve taken something from all of those books,” says Goldschein, pointing out 'Built to Last.'
Do you ever see Real World going back to seven strangers living in a house now that you've done these big twists?
Probably not. At this point, looking at the landscape as it exists, it would be very difficult to go back to that.
How do you envision Kardashians changing?
They get it. They understand and they're accessible and let the viewers in and they're vulnerable. There are good times and there are hard times. That's what the audience recognizes, and that's why it's been so successful. As long as that continues, the show will continue to be relevant and resonate with its audience.