West Chester's Steve Robillard Corners the Reality TV Show Market
The Original Productions producer's newest hit in the making is Money Barn, which follows up previous hits Storage Wars and the Emmy-winning Deadliest Catch.
A few hay bales, one wagon wheel and a wooden-slat backdrop later, and you’ve got the interview set for the new reality-TV show, Money Barn. Turns out, it’s really a hotel suite at the Crowne Plaza Valley Forge. “If we were to drag them off and interview them [on-site], we’d screw with their heads,” says Steven Robillard. “When they’re in the moment, we want them to be themselves. It’s how we get the authenticity.”
Robillard is Money Barn’s “runner”—industry-speak for co-executive producer—and he knows better than anyone that you can’t bullshit people. After all, this ain’t Hollywood. As an integral part of Original Productions, he’s had a hand in some of television’s biggest renegade hits. Whether it’s the hard-living Alaskan fishermen of Deadliest Catch, the freewheeling junk pirates of Storage Wars or the bountiful barn auctions of Money Barn, there are always an economy and a culture. “We have to cater to that,” says Robillard. “But we also need to let the horses run, or else we’d never capture anything real.”
Born and raised in West Chester, Robillard spent six months on the road this past year—at least two of them near where he grew up. Crews have shot six Money Barn auctions thus far, all in Pennsylvania. A majority of the field personnel is also local, which has created jobs. Robillard says there are smart people around here looking for work in the entertainment industry—and he’s living proof. “Growing up, friends of mine had great, beautiful barns,” he says. “I have such great resources here.”
OK, so he’s a homer. But his new show, which should start airing within the next few months, is still a question mark. “If we have interest, we’ll keep running them,” Robillard says. “Six [initial] episodes are typical.”
Money Barn is a collaboration between Original Productions and Animal Planet. “There are some great people in the auction world—and it’s a crazy world,” says Robillard.
One of the biggest challenges is finding the right talent. There’s the perception that certain personalities are TV worthy—that they have “the look.” But that’s not what the Burbank, Calif.-based Original Productions is looking for.
“The trick for us is that our characters don’t play to the camera, that they don’t even realize it’s there,” says Robillard, whose family still lives near West Chester University. “We want them to be themselves, and they shouldn’t give a crap if the camera is there. Usually, the trick is to tone down the talent, to make sure it’s comfortable operating in our world. We want to observe their world; we don’t want to create or dictate it.”
At 27, Steven Robillard is already an Emmy winner, thanks to Deadliest Catch. He graduated in 2003 from Unionville High School, where, at his father’s urging, he gave up on an early interest in drama to wrestle. He majored in biology at the University of Virginia, though his favorite courses in high school were English and public speaking. He was pre-med, but by his third year, his real passion re-emerged. He was smart enough to fill in his UVA schedule with elective courses in film and television.
Robillard dropped a bomb on his parents, telling them he planned to move to California after he graduated. Initially, Regina and Mark Robillard were against it. But during his freshman year at UVA, Mark had given his son John Irving’s wrestling memoir, The Imaginary Girlfriend, which united Steven’s interest in athletics with storytelling. After that, his father encouraged him to write, paving the way for his eventual “transition.”
As captain of the wrestling team his junior and senior years, Robillard honed his leadership skills and ability to motivate others. His sense of humor has kept everything—success, included—in perspective. “I tell all my students that when they become famous to remember the little guys in their life,” says Paul Wolf, who taught Robillard in 11th grade and was also his assistant wrestling coach. “Steven got the famous part. He was a pretty solid student, but I don’t think I had any idea that he’d go on to have as much success as he’s had.”
Wolf recalls a moment when Robillard partnered with a classmate for a project. “We were studying World War II, and I was talking about the German Luftwaffe,” Wolf recalls. “One of them hands me a note that says ‘Leggo my Luftwaffe.’ The two of them are cracking up, which made me laugh, as well.”
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At UVA, Robillard turned to the film club as stress relief from his numerous science courses. There, his influences included Hugh Wilson, a retired writer-director with a credit list that includes WKRP in Cincinnati, Police Academy and The First Wives Club, and Kevin Everson, a Sundance filmmaker who pushed his charges to create film after film on absolutely no budget. “I made about 30 films for him, all for less than $10,” Robillard says. “That experience, more than any other, equates to my current work in reality TV, where we’re also so bare-bones. We need to turn out content with such minimal resources.”
Robillard used an internship as an animal interpreter at the Philadelphia Zoo to expand his skills. He’d stand outside an animal enclosure—usually the reptile tanks—and tell visitors what the animals were doing. “It was a show,” Robillard says. “I was performing.”
The summer before his senior year, he headed to Los Angeles, where he worked for Wes Craven, the horror guru responsible for A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream and other hits. “One weekend there, and I knew it’s what I wanted to do,” says Robillard.
After graduation, Robillard hitched a ride west with a friend who was moving to Las Vegas with his mother. When their car broke down in Colorado, he chipped in all but $20 of the $300 he had to his name. Since $20 wasn’t going to get him to LA, he lived briefly with his friend, whose mom taught Robillard how to play cards. “They play blackjack at church in Las Vegas,” he quips.
He won $500 at blackjack, rented a car, and drove to LA, where he lived on another friend’s couch. At age 22, he landed a job as a production assistant on Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch. In 2011, the show won an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program. By then, Robillard was senior producer.
It was an opportunity he seized as a senior at UVA that helped pave the way for that unlikely scenario. A woman visited the film department’s editing labs with a plea for someone to develop a slide show to help raise awareness (and funds) for her church’s sister place of worship in Haiti. Robillard said he’d do it—if he could make a documentary. He played hooky for a week and traveled to Haiti. The resulting film made the rounds on the West Coast, eventually landing in the hands of Original Productions owner Thom Beers.
In his young career, there have also been Discovery’s Iditarod (covering the annual long-distance dogsled race in Alaska), A&E’s Storage Wars, and now Storage Wars: Texas. Aboard the Alaskan crabbing boats of Deadliest Catch, he was constantly seasick. “It reminded me of my wrestling days, when I was dropping weight classes,” says Robillard. “You had to go full throttle when you weren’t at full throttle. Those boats are no cruise liners.”
As for his speedy promotion within Original’s ranks, Robillard says, “I think there was an appreciation that I’d suffered through.”
riting for reality TV is like assembling a script with refrigerator magnets, or so says Robillard. Its components are there. It’s just a matter of arranging them—though never the reality. On Deadliest Catch, Captain Phil Harris literally died. “It was sad,” says Robillard. “Crabbing is one of the most dangerous jobs because you’re on the ocean. But what makes it the deadliest job is the lifestyle."
Robillard says Storage Wars came to Thom Beers in a dream, though competition for such units had existed for a long time. “The rivalries are real,” Robillard says. “We just had to add others to the fold (after initial characters Jarrod Schulz, Darrell Sheets and Barry Weiss). Those associated slowly started to understand that we weren’t throwing anyone under the bus, and then they latched on. Now, it’s one of the fastest growing industries because of the show.”
Initially, for every 100 storage areas Original Productions would find its way into, one was worthy of storytelling. Then, the crew began to realize the likely hot spots: nicer areas where less units would actually come up for auction because clients typically paid their bills.
Now, the show is in its fourth season. Storage Wars: Texas has its own following, and a New York version has just started airing. “It’s pretty neat to have all these shows with specific fans,” he says. “It’s a testament to our format, which can fit any cool character because it’s just good storytelling.”
For Robillard, it’s all about making reality “rich with old stuff.” “Money Barn is like Storage Wars in that it’s about people who’ve stockpiled goods,” he adds.
But only Money Barn is about “what’s been collected for 200 years—the Godzilla of storage units,” he says. “On one level, it might be simple tools, but then on a deeper level, it’s pitchforks, apple peelers and corn knives—tools that were used especially in Pennsylvania. It’s about the people looking for such collectibles, but also those who are still using the stuff, like the Amish.”
Veteran Chester County auctioneer Ken Reed’s South Coventry Township barn hosted the first Money Barn auction. Reed had responded to a Craigslist posting in search of auctioneers and items to sell in barns. “We fit both categories,” says Reed, who was initially part of the show’s talent.
Filming began in January 2012. Then, after a lull, the process accelerated in June, when Robillard and crew filmed for a week straight, shooting the auction 10 days later. The prime showpiece: an apothecary backbar. “The sale worked well for us,” Reed says.
Robillard hired Reed as a consultant to help scout potential sales. Of late, though, he has bowed out to focus on his own clients. Though semiretired, he still takes on sales.
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Other episodes have been shot in Quakertown, Geigertown, Manheim and elsewhere, making as much as $45,000-$60,000 for families who have agreed to have their stored barn goods sold at absolute auction. The highlight of a sale in Boyertown was a 1906 painting by popular Berks County artist Ben Austrian.
Robillard estimates that he could produce episodes from 70 percent of the barns his crew has investigated, a process that begins at moneybarnshow.com. But he also understands that it’s difficult for people to part with a lifetime collection or longtime family possessions. “It’s like losing an organ, a kidney,” he says. “It’s something that you’ve had for your whole life, so you love it, and you’ll miss it. But in the end, our families have been happy that they did [the sale]. It’s like having an operation.”
In all, Money Barn employs 35 crew members in the field and another 40 in post-production in Burbank. Robillard does it all, whatever each day requires, from finding the characters to outlining the format to overseeing the entire product.
Robillard still dreams, though not necessarily about movie-making anymore. He has a preference for television. And why not? He’s already won an Emmy. “It’s all storytelling,” he says. “And if you don’t have storytelling, you don’t have anything.”
With new media and access to technology, there’s an appealing language that already exists for the public—and reality TV is embracing it. There’s the feeling that TV is more real and profound to people, which inspires more of an investment and engagement.
“No offense to any of those we film, but they’re not all that handsome,” Robillard says. “They’re everyman, and the reaction they inspire from viewers is this: ‘I could do that. If I could be in that situation, I could make that kind of money with that skill set.’ At the very least, they want to participate in that world.”
The biggest challenge, and the one that consumes the most time, remains ironing out a format—and finding characters who don’t mind “telling us something’s ridiculous or that the camera is too close to their face,” says Robillard.
Locally, Robillard has found a barn in Kennett Square, and there will be filming days in West Chester, Chadds Ford and other Chester County locales. “Our society has embraced this reality stuff,” Reed says. “Obviously, Steve’s good at what he does. He’s found a niche and jumped right in. There’s definitely public interest, and Steve knows it. This part of the country is a hotbed for auctions and for finding old merchandise.”
Any push-back is what you might expect—the assumption that “it’s Hollywood” and that Hollywood can’t be trusted. “Then, they see I have a 610 area code,” Robillard says. “It’s been a nice asset. They realize we’re just people doing a job, that we’re not Hollywood. But it takes a bit of convincing.”
Just like it took some arm-twisting to get to the bottom of his interest in storytelling. As a kid, Robillard used his action figures to devise 10,000 or more stories. He also re-enacted World Wrestling Federation drama. “A soap opera for guys and kids in such a successful, short fashion,” he says of the WWF.
“Whether fictional or reality, it’s the same DNA,” says Robillard. “I always had this compulsion to dramatize the lives of different people. It’s still what drives me.”
To learn more, visit origprod.com.