Greg Yaitanes is possibly the most tech-savvy individual in Hollywood you’ve never heard of. On top of directing what was the most watched television show on the planet, House, he’s also been an early investor in Silicon Valley’s breakout startups, Twitter, Foursquare, Square, and Pinterest. Yaitanes is on a mission to show Hollywood how the tricks of Silicon Valley’s most innovative tech can make television production efficient enough to make high-quality content affordable. “I’m going to use tech to get more out of every dollar that I’m given to enhance the user experience,” says Yaitanes.
Now, Yaitanes is executive-producing (with Alan Ball, among others) a new HBO/Cinemax series called Banshee, set to air in 2013. And with production underway on the relatively low-budget police drama, his approach has already begun to pay off. The first episode, which is traditionally a boondoggle rife with overspending, was produced under budget (by about 7%). “He definitely has the ability to recognize interesting technologies pretty quickly, but what impressed me the most is how deep his goes on them,” gushes Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey.
Yaitanes’ principles for how to save television from a cultural wasteland of cheap reality shows and laugh-track sitcoms are simple: Use inexpensive tech tools to shave costs everywhere, always be on the hunt for new technology, and be a collaborative manager.
“I’m always looking for the tools I would need to do something better,” says Yaitanes, who personally investigates how to apply the new technology to his directing arsenal. Yaitanes made headlines for shooting the entire season finale of House on a cheap semi-professional Canon handheld camera. Canon “had put in a sensor that was bigger than any other camera that was out there,” he recalls; “the properties of the lensing and the focus was so beautiful.” Since then, Red has produced a professional compact camera, Scarlet.
Waiting for technology companies to make entertainment-friendly versions of a product isn’t always an option, which is why Yaitanes works with scrappy startups in their infancy to build out the features he needs. A sample 2010 tweet: “Yo! freaking OUT over @ajiapps iPad PDF reader iAnnotate. it could be secret to going paperless with my scripts at [H]ouse next season.” He followed up the tweet with an email to the founder on what features he needed in the next version.
Effortlessly swapping iAnnotate PDF files with his team in the dual locations of Los Angeles and North Carolina (where Banshee is shooting) has helped him replace cumbersome script binders and the painstaking process of hauling them among staff.
Indeed, this constant experimentation with cutting-edge digital solutions has helped him become an “iPad producer,” capable of instantly surveying opportunities, talent, and content from around the world without the drag of physical travel. Instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars in travel and time to fly his team to scout a potential shoot location, Yaitanes simply scans Google Maps Street View, and decides whether the location has the requisite room for equipment and artistic vibe. If it fits, he’ll shoot the scene after physically arriving for the first time (a risk that is almost unheard of in directing).
The casting process, too, is all digital: Eager actors and actresses submit videos though cloud service Cast It. In addition to saving costs on travel and setup time, Yaitanes credits the online system with finding his lead male actor. Yaitanes was on his way to interview the person he thought would get the part when he saw Antony Starr’s video upload. Cast It helped Yaitanes find the right person, who might have gone overlooked due to the overseas shipping time of his DVDs. “Fuck DVDs,” Yaitanes concludes.
Yaitanes seems cognizant of the time it takes to explore emerging technology. But, “our world’s very similar and we will be collaborating very soon,” he says of Silicon Valley and Hollywood.
“As long as there are no rats in it, I’m good,” he told HBO, when he was looking for an economically priced post-production studio. I actually got lost on my way to visit Yaitanes in Los Angeles, as I naively assumed that one of the world’s most successful TV directors wouldn’t be working in the one building on the street that looked like an abandoned New Jersey loading dock. The buildings’ flickering lights, hanging wires, and Dixie cups belie the sophisticated editing suite housed in an unmarked door at the end of narrow hallway.
“To give everything the best shot possible it’s important to be have to be mindful of the bottom line,” he says.
Even the middle-of-nowhere North Carolina location for Banshee was chosen as much for financial reasons, as artistic. Without frills or studio luxuries, he didn’t have to worry about stealth divas applying for the team. “Everything about the show weeded out anyone looking for a gig,” he says. “People there really want to be there.” Additionally, North Carolina’s “aggressive” tax rebates and lower union rates helped divert more resources to hiring top talent.
With the money saved, “you would be giving your expensive show a better shot” says Yaitanes, to would-be producers eying an expensive production.
“I want to be building up people’s ideas, not just people building up mine,” he argues. Yaitanes credits House’s extraordinary success, in part, to the unusual empowerment of freelance directors who intermittently lead non-essential episodes. Instead of ushering freelance out the door as soon as an episode is finished, they’re invited into the whole process, including the coveted post-production process to help polish the show they just finished directing. “Making everyone their own CEO,” he says, “wrings out more of the creativity that authoritarian directors would make freelancers check at the studio gates.”
This philosophy leads Yaitanes to look for talent in unusual places. During his House days, he reached out to a diehard fan, Mélanie D’Anna, who had produced what he considered an astonishingly good concept reel. Reasonably, D’Anna was in disbelief after he called her, so he verified his intentions to fly her out to L.A. to work on the set via his (well-followed) Twitter account. Though Fox studios nixed the idea of putting an amateur anywhere near their prize show, she is now working with Banshee remotely from France.
Now with more creative control, he’s taken inspiration from the cubicle-less workplaces of Twitter and, literally, broken down walls in his HQ so that departments can commingle. He would “semi-randomly” cherry-pick people from different departments to join meetings. “It wasn’t just simply a meeting with a cinematographer, it was a meeting with the art director, so the cinematographer knew the color of bed sheets that would be on the hospital bed in relation to the skin color to the actor in relation to the lighting.” Concluding, “I start getting people out of the habit that their department is the most important department, and really understanding that we are the sum of the parts.”