This past week, Brent Montgomery, executive producer of Pawn Star, spoke to UT students at the Belo Media Center. Brent and I met up a few hours before his talk to dig deeper into his career, experiences, and advice.
You studied journalism as an undergrad at Texas A&M. What about journalism made reality TV appealing?
The stuff that works best is the stuff that’s the most authentic. You’ve seen shows that when the audience sees that it’s too cooked, they often reject it. If it’s a comedy show that’s duck dynasty, people allow for more leeway. There is definitely reality that is scripted and over scripted, and that usually doesn’t work out well.
What do you think are your core journalism skills that helped you in reality TV?
Being able to identify a story. When you are on the set of a reality show, the story unfolds in front of your eyes. The skills of being a journalist and saying this is a core story or this is what the audience will gravitate to. I always say the editors are the storytellers. They get handed hundreds of hours worth of tape, and you get to craft that story. I like to be involved in that part of the process even though running a business I can’t be involved in everything, but I like to be involved in the end.
You own Leftfield Pictures. Do you miss being lower on the totem pole?
Brent told me a story of how his CPA wanted to own an ice cream shop to get the satisfaction of scooping ice cream for a child, handing it to them, and the child looking up graciously saying thank you. In the end his friend had only scooped about three ice cream cones because he was so busy.As you run a business, you’re much more out of the creative than you used to be. So I would say to people who want to stay in the creative, you want to be a producer or a show runner. You won’t make as much money, but you’ll get to tell a story every day.
Why do you think Pawn Stars was such a big success?
We found really smart scripters to feed the characters organic information. The timing was really good. The economy was in the crapper, and the show was about selling things to get out of the crapper. I think people love stuff; the items are the stars (don’t tell the stars that). People really remember when you bring in a coke machine from the 60s and what it felt like to go to a coke machine and the great stories behind the stuff that you don’t hear on other shows.
Did you ever tell the guys to pay more or less for an item to keep the show interesting?If you ever met those guys, I couldn’t convince them to pay more for anything. But I did tell them initially to try and buy the stuff even if they didn’t want it. If we had a show where they never bought anything, it wouldn’t work well. Off camera we have to make sure that these people will actually sell the stuff at a reasonable price, otherwise they’re just trying to be on TV. We figured that out fairly quickly.
Are you able to tell when a show will be a success?
I walked out of the pawn shop and said “I never want to go there again." These guys smoked. They were saying the same jokes over and over. I was actually the fourth producer to work with them. And so I certainly didn’t think that was going to be a hit show. The History Channel had a better feeling about it than we did.
We had a show called Bridal Bootcamp. It sounds good on paper: Bridezilla meets Biggest Loser. The women were out of control. Most of the women came out with better self esteem, but nobody watched it. The show was on a network that wasn’t doing well at the time (VH1). Seven or eight of ten don’t work. But at the end of the day I say, let’s make the best show we can.
Do you like working on Pawn Stars?
I became quite close with the cast which doesn’t always happen. The cast is really smart, and they work really hard. A lot of these people, fame gets to their head and they don’t show up to work. And we’re profiling these guys working. As ridiculous as it sounds, it's important they show up to work everyday.
Do you watch reality TV?
No, mostly scripted and sports. My wife works for the company and goes home and watches those shows. I don’t know how she does it.
How do you feel about the genre of reality TV?
A lot of the shows like Real Housewives fill the gap of soap operas. I’ll watch them but at a safe distance. I would rather watch from my couch than on set.
Do you think there will be scripted?
I think there will always be scripted. For a while scripted was getting pretty bad, and that’s where unscripted came in. There was a strike, and I think scripted has come back stronger than ever. It used to be film took the chances, but now the best writers, directors and actors are working in television as opposed to film.
Do you have any advice for communication majors?
It’s a pretty good time to get into the entertainment industry. I think our industry is a growth industry. People come in knowing it's going to be a lot of hard work. You don’t get that close to making the creative decisions right out of the gate. You need to understand that and know that creative comes later on in your career. Understand how to take your social network tools and apply it to business.
As an Aggie did you ever think you would be asked to speak at UT?
I grew up always wanting to go to UT. I was accepted to the summer provisional program, which was a well-known way to weed out kids. A bunch of my friends went to A&M, so I transferred there. I still cheer for the longhorn football team…that will keep me out of College Station (I assured Brent that it’s a local paper). I’m excited to be here. I always wanted to go here, so this will satisfy some of that.
Side note: Brent also filled me in that Pawn Stars is currently making its way to the land down under for Australia’s version of Pawn Stars.