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.
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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.”