Recently, I interviewed Nick Maher on the Story Riot Podcast, who is one of the hosts and executive producers of Unplanned America, a new travel show airing on Netflix. Although it required some significant sacrifices, what they did and how they did it was surprisingly simple. The journey they went on to turn this lofty idea into a reality is filled with good lessons for anyone trying to create anything.
Ever since having an eye opening experience with LSD as a young man, Nick was determined to carve his own path in life. After gaining some exposure to audio and video equipment during one of his first jobs at Best Buy, he continued to practice and develop his skills shooting music videos for bands around his hometown. His portfolio of work grew throughout his early 20's, and he created a nice career for himself in the TV business, landing a Production Assistant position at MTV in Australia and steadily working his way up to a producer role.
It paid the bills and he worked with great people, but by his early 30’s, he was getting burnt out and realized he didn't enjoy the majority of the work he was doing. He had been making music his whole life on the side, loved it, and felt like it was time to give it a shot and try something new in his life.
“There was lots of stuff within TV I didn’t enjoy doing. There were things I did enjoy; I like writing, I like editing, and I love interviewing people... But I didn’t like producing very much… and that was my job there. And also, working on projects that you don’t believe in. It’s pointless, you know? It’s basically pointless. Especially when you’re getting paid at the level I was getting paid. Which is fuck all… I thought, I never want to work in TV again. I just want to make music, and be a musician now. So I moved to Berlin to be a musician… it was a bit of a noble pursuit, rather than just making content to make money.”
After spending two years in Berlin making music, Nick’s former MTV coworkers and friends, Gonzo and Parvo, reached out and said they were going to travel the U.S. for 6 months, film it, and try to create their own show. Like Nick, Gonzo and Parvo were tired of working in the TV industry for someone else, and on projects they didn't particularly care about. They didn’t have any specific plan in mind (hence the name, Unplanned America), and very little money and equipment. However, they figured those elements could only add to their story and ultimately create a better show. With not much to lose, and his music career not gaining the momentum he had hoped for, Nick decided to join his friends, roll the dice again, and see what they could achieve.
For the next 6 months, they traveled across the U.S. in a run down '99 Camry, seeking out any taboo, underground, weird and random subcultures they could find. They let their own curiosity and interests guide them, and wanted tell the story of today's America, from an authentic and outside perspective. From south-side Chicago, to the set of a porn film, to Slab City in the California desert - they drove over 20,000 miles across 35 states filming everything they could. Six months later and completely out of money, they headed back to Australia to figure out how to get this show made and sold.
“We just shot as much as we could get. We gathered an overwhelming amount of footage. Then we got back, and we still didn’t know what the show was going to be and how it was going to come together.”
While sleeping on couches, working odd jobs, and collecting unemployment income, they bootstrapped the entire postproduction process. Using an old MacBook in the corner of a friend’s office, and recording the voiceovers in a storage closet, they pieced the pilot episode together after combing through endless amounts of footage, and found the story they wanted to tell.
“It took like a year. And during that time, I basically slept on a coach. It was like 8 or 9 months. I think I got back on unemployment and did some jobs I hated. I suppose we always had faith that it was gong to get released, but we didn’t know how it was going to happen. And it took a fucking long time.”
They spent the next year pitching the show to any network in Australia that would sit down with them, hoping they could at least sell it and get enough money to finish editing the first season. Sure enough, a year later, the first network they pitched - SBS - which had originally turned them down, needed a new travel show and wanted to buy it.
“Basically all we sold was the pilot episode. We’d take it to people and go here’s the pilot, we’ve run out of money, and if you want the rest of the series, you’ve got pay us to edit it. That’s basically the deal we made with them, and that’s exactly what they did. They bought it in advance. They looked at the pilot, they met us, they’re like, ‘ok we trust you guys to make the other 5 episodes.’ Then they gave us the money to edit the material. So, it was just another 6-month editing process after that.”
SBS broadcasted it in Australia and came on board as their sales agent. They represented their show in the international arena and eventually struck a deal with Netflix.
Although the deal didn't put much money in their pocket, getting their show aired on a national TV station and Netflix has given them a platform, an audience, and enough money to work on something they love. The network ended up ordering two more seasons, which they’ve just recently finished, due to be aired on Netflix and SBS2 later this year.
In reality, what these guys did was not a very original or innovative idea. I’m certain many people have thought about starting their own travel show, or have toyed with the concept. But I would guess most people talk themselves out of it. In fact, that would probably be the logical thing to do.
There are plenty of travel shows on TV and online, and new ones being pitched every year by well-established production companies with huge budgets, teams, experience, and celebrities attached – most of which still get turned down. How could a group of guys, lacking all of those factors, have any chance at succeeding?
Yet, they did it anyway. They followed through on it, they didn’t give up, and they were patient. They took the bold action, and used money out of their own pocket - something that probably scares most people away.
“Nothing happens fast. When we finished the first series, I was like to the other guys, we have to make money out of this. This is my opportunity to make money, finally… and they were more realistic and were like, “it’s not going to happen dude.” And they were right. It’s a long game. It’s a really long game. And I do realize that now.”
Lastly, they took what most people would consider to be a great weakness — no budget, no plan, no celebrity status, no team, no recognition — and turned it into a unique strength. They used it as an element to their story, to stand out from other travel shows, and appeal to a younger demographic that could relate to them, which is exactly what SBS ended up needing.