How do you make a four-part docuseries for a major cable network in just six months?
Director and executive producer Luke Korem faced this unique and enviable challenge after pitching a new series called ACTION to Showtime, and the cabler asked him and his team to deliver essentially four feature-length films within a few months.
Korem spoke with No Film School via phone ahead of the show's Sunday premiere, chatting about the pitch process, finding the real-life characters he featured in the series, and the impact of networking.
Watch the trailer for ACTION below.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=gS3EDXyynrg
Getting His Start in Film
Korem is based in Texas and works both in Austin and Los Angeles. He did not go to film school but said he fell in love with the process of filmmaking early in his life and is largely self-taught.
At one point he briefly considered transferring to the University of Texas for film school, but by then his skill set as an editor was developed enough that he felt he could continue developing his skills independently. He also focused on networking extensively.
"It's all about putting in the work, at the end of the day," he said.
It was after creating the documentary film Dealt and screening the film at SXSW that Korem met the team from Boardwalk Pictures, the company that produces Chef's Table and Last Chance U. They brought him in for a meeting, and together they brainstormed for about six months to find a series to work on together.
Korem said has an interest in sports and sports betting, but more than anything, he knew that this topic would be timely.
In May 2018, the Supreme Court overturned a longstanding ban on sports betting, setting off a race within the U.S. to establish gambling outlets and get a piece of an industry worth billions of dollars.
"I heard rumblings from industry insiders that the law would be changing," Korem said. "The thing is, when you try and sell a show and get a series made, [executives] always ask you the question, 'Why now?' And this was a huge 'Why now?' This is a $500 billion illegal industry that's becoming legalized."
"You have to not only make something great, but you have to have a network, you have to have the right connections and you have to be in the right place at the right time."
Korem acknowledged that networking also played a fairly part in the show's creation, from his cooperation with Boardwalk to being in the room at the network.
"Relationships are everything in this industry," he said. "And one of the head executives at Showtime for documentaries had seen Dealt at SX and loved it. He and I had a relationship, so there was a connection there, as well."
Korem is a realist when it comes to the importance of connections like these and offered some solid, practical insight based on his experiences.
"I used to think that you just make something, and if you make something great, that everything's going to pan out," he said, "and that's just not the truth. You have to not only make something great, but you have to have a network, you have to have the right connections, and you have to be in the right place at the right time."
Collaborating With a Major Network
Korem described the pitch and greenlight process for ACTION as taking only a few days, an extremely fast turnaround for an industry that tends to drag its feet.
"A week later, I was on a plane to Vegas," he said. "And we were filming."
Rather than the typical year-long shoot time, Showtime gave Korem and his team an aggressive timeline of six months. Korem said this project was possible only because the documentary's characters were so strong, and his crew was supportive and professional.
Overall, Korem said Showtime is known for being "creative-friendly," and the network was generally hands-off with this project. Because he was expected to finish a large project in a compressed timeline, Showtime asked for rough cuts along the way and gave notes, but couldn't be excessively involved at every step.
From the beginning, Showtime and Korem wanted the show to appeal to more than just sports fans or active sports gamblers. The show will premiere in the slot just before Billions, which the network hopes will help draw a broad audience.
With this in mind, Korem set out to find relatable characters and also break down the elements of gambling in a way that the general public will understand. The process of betting and industry jargon is illustrated in the first episode.
The Importance of Characters
Korem said the characters are what attract him to different projects, rather than a premise or situation alone.
"When I do documentaries, I'm less interested in just doing a journalistic style documentary than I am into character-driven stories," he said. "So I'm always looking at different worlds to explore through the eyes of the characters in it."
For the pitch, Korem identified several individuals he wanted to feature in the series, but he didn't have all of them attached. Once he got the green light, he did what he called "speed dating" to touch base with potential characters and gauge their personalities. They were then vetted before being included.
"One of the hardest things is to gain people's trust," he said. "And that's always key to making a great documentary, if it's character-based."
"I'm always looking at different worlds to explore through the eyes of the characters in it."
Advice on Moving From Features to a Series
ACTION will be Korem's first series after making only feature documentaries. When he went into the project, he asked a fellow filmmaker how best to approach it.
"And he was like, 'You know what, Luke? It's the same muscles that you use to make a feature, that you're going to make a series,'" he said. "'Don't think of it as different, because it's not.' That's the truth."
Even when confronted with the task of a tight timeline and huge workload, Korem was able to remain calm.
"No, you're still making the story," he said. "It's just longer."
The show premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on Showtime.