Thursday, May 12, 2022

CREATIVITY AND COLLABORATION - INTERVIEW WITH PRODUCER JIM JANICEK


Jim Janicek is the creative/collaborative force behind multiple media brands. This includes being the creator of one of the most famous brands in television history - the ABC TGIF brand. He also has been at the forefront of launching three major television networks. 

Jim founded and leads Janicek Media (JMC) an entrepreneurial production company that develops branded entertainment programming and innovative 360 media messaging campaigns. 

He recently completed three family films; Adeline, The Engagement Plot and The Happy Camper. The latter two films were produced with Brian Bird (Creator and Executive Producer) of the Hallmark Channel's number one franchise, When Calls the Heart

Jim also produces content with The Walt Disney Company. He recently completed a project with two time Academy Award winning actor, Tom Hanks. The project was for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum.   

Over his long career Jim has worked on projects for The Muppets, Baby Einstein, Winnie the Pooh and multiple ABC and NBC specials. 

I had the pleasure and privilege to interview Jim Janicek recently.

Judith: Jim, you have had a long and storied career in media, but you only recently started producing films. How did The Engagement Plot come about for you and your production company?  

Jim: I had actually just completed a film partnering with fellow producer Myrrha Satow and close friend Becky Daugherty (former Executive Vice President at Disney/ABC) in Ohio called Adeline about a miracle equine therapy horse.  I met Brian Bird, who is the Executive Producer of Hallmark’s When Calls The Heart through a friend who felt we should meet and possibly collaborate.  He was encouraging and he also happens to call Colorado his home. I recently moved back to my home state of Colorado, so this was a common bond for us.  Funny story; Brian was a writer on one of the ABC TGIF shows called Step By Step during the time I was at ABC. We instantly had a connection and a number of mutual friends.  I appreciate Brian’s talents and we both share the same goal of producing family entertainment without fear of including a few faith based messages.  We also believe in building a production business model that gives all an opportunity to thrive.  There’s room in this genre for lots of new faces. We discussed our mutual vision of working more in our home state.  I have done a lot of my productions and post in Colorado, so I was confident we could mount a film production team that was capable of working on multiple projects.  I have a longstanding relationship with the Colorado Governor’s Office Of Film and approached them for support.  We were granted a 20% film incentive if we brought the productions to Colorado.  It was an easy decision as Colorado has great locations, support crew, creative and post already in place.  


Judith: Wow. What a great backstory to the working relationship with Brian Bird. I love the business plan of working in Colorado as well as finding and developing new talent. Do you have plans for another film?

Jim: I am in discussions on a few projects.  I’m always open to what crosses my path.  If an opportunity is financed, I’ve learned to say yes if it’s a good fit in my schedule and it’s a good message. 

Judith: You created the ABC Television Network's TGIF campaign which ultimately became one of the most famous of all on-air television promotional campaigns. Can you share how this campaign was created? 

Jim: It’s a fun story.  Back in 1987, I was a Writer/Producer for the ABC Television Network's On Air Promotions department.  We were sometimes invited to the ABC Executive Towers to participate in creative think groups with the top executives.  I’ll never forget sitting around this massive conference table with the likes of several Capital Cities/ABC Television Network legends (this was before The Walt Disney Company buyout of Capital Cities/ABC).  We were discussing the impact cable TV was having on our audiences and I spoke up suggesting we consider “narrow casting to a specific demo on specific nights.”  One of the executives (whom shall remain nameless) looked at me with anger and said, “Young man, we are the American BROADCASTING company.  We will never do that!”    Needless to say, I didn’t get invited back to one of those meetings for some time! 

Later, Bob Iger was just coming on board as President of ABC Entertainment and my supervisors Mark Zakarin and Stu Brower gave me the job of promoting Friday nights during the summer.  Back then, Friday night was considered the death slot for most shows as everyone thought families were out on the town.  I didn’t feel the same way and wanted to try and create a fond experience from my childhood.  Every Sunday night my family would gather and watch Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and The Disney Sunday Movie.  It was always a great night of dinner with family and some TV time, complete with Walt Disney himself hosting.  This was the genesis of the plan for Friday Night.  I learned early in the business that it’s not that people know what they like, they like what they know.   I wanted to create something I knew other families shared and had fond memories about. 

I started promoting Friday nights using stock footage, claiming all kinds of odd comedic stories about Friday night having profound effects on people when they watch.  “Bob shaved 32 strokes off his golf game!"  Mark Zakarin who was the Executive Vice President for Marketing and On-Air Promotions  called me saying, “I don’t know what kind of crazy you’re on, but because it’s summer, keep it up, they are funny and different!”  When it came time for fall TV premieres, I was given a budget to do more and that’s when the second part of my plan went into play.  I wanted to create our own Walt Disney style hosts for the night.  I hired a music team I’d worked with for years to generate a main title, and we approached each of the show runners for the new season of comedies with the idea that each Friday, I’d come to the set and we’d record host segments with their cast after taping their shows.  The idea was that each show would support the other and together we’d generate America’s first case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).  The whole was greater than the sum of its parts.  No one had done anything like that before, but thankfully the Warner Bros. and Disney studio teams involved were willing to give it a try.  Being one of the youngest producers at ABC at the time, I didn’t know better.  All I knew was this was going to be a great way to be on set each week with our shows.  There was another major snag we faced; the network was only allowed a limited amount of time for promo every hour.  The FCC would step in if we violated that rule.  My boss Stu Brower and I put our heads together and came up with a wild plan to ask each show to cut their original program down by 20 seconds so we could take that as “entertainment programming time” for the host segments.  A few friendly phone calls with producers Bob Boyett and Tom Miller and we had a deal. The other producers followed suit.  The name TGIF came together with Stu Brower, myself and Bob Iger.  We had generated a long list of candidates with everything from Friday Fun Club to Friday Night Funnies.

Writing and filming the hosted segments each week was no easy ordeal.  It took a huge amount of coordination with programming, each show, and our own teams.  It literally was a balancing act every week, but some amazing dedicated cohorts helped make it happen every week for nearly 10 years, even during summer hiatus.  It was an amazing experience that launched multiple new opportunities for me with ABC Kids, NBC, Fox, The Muppets and Disney.  We didn’t really know we had a hit until about 12 months in. This is where I owe a debt a gratitude to Bob Iger.  There was a meeting in Century City with the research department and they were discussing “Q” ratings (cast recognizability) with the executive team.  Research was alarmed because when they’d show pictures of Friday night’s cast like Ashley & Mary Kate to focus groups, they’d hear “Oh those are the girls from TGIF.”   Research wanted to kill the TGIF name so people would recognize the show name.  Thankfully, Bob Iger saw this very differently.  He was thrilled that we had clearly created a brand that was working.  Our budget and horsepower was increased! Warner Bros. studios joined forces, assigning a gifted producer, Karen K. Miller to help us coordinate with each cast. ABC advertising eventually capitalized on the idea of selling ad time at higher rates across the entire night vs. a particular time slot.  At nearly the same time, I found out my mom was suffering from Parkinson's disease and the prognosis was not good.  I made a difficult decision to possibly move back to Colorado to help care for her. Mark Zakarin put me in a meeting with Bob Iger to suggest that I continue my work and commute.  Bob welcomed the idea and even picked up an idea for a primetime special I wanted to do. ABC helped me set up Janicek Entertainment in 1990 and was my first major contract outside of the network.   I continue to work with ABC/Disney to this day on select projects.  They are a fond part of my work family. 

Judith: Great and memorable stories from that period of your career. I know all of these people from the old ABC team, so it was great to hear their names again in conjunction with your memories.  Jumping to 2022... The Engagement Plot takes place in Colorado. You are from Colorado and now you are back in your home state. What was behind the move?  

Jim: I work a lot in Colorado and sometimes film in California. With technology today, it’s possible to work from almost anywhere.  We do all our post production at my company offices.  I feel very blessed and could never have planned this ideal life.  I think networks and studios are more open to working in alternate locations as it certainly helps with budgets and a variety of locations. There are so many ways to generate creative content and the film incentive in Colorado certainly helps.


Judith: What moment in life got you interested in working in the entertainment industry?

Jim: When I was in 8th grade I had a science teacher who got me interested in Ham Radio.  He helped me get my license as a radio operator.  It was exciting to speak with people all over the world. There was a national Saturday Morning TV show called Kids World that came to film a classmate and I about our radio experiences.  When they showed up with a crew, I was hooked.  Then to see it on air, I was amazed at the idea I could speak to people all over the world via broadcast television. 

Judith: What's the wildest/wackiest/craziest story that happened to you during your career? One that you can share here?  

Jim: It's tough to remember all of them. I spent a night with my crew in the Tower Of Terror at Disneyworld!  I’ve been comedically insulted by Ms. Piggy and the Baby on Dinosaurs who didn’t take direction well “NOT THE MAMA!”   Ernie Anderson, the famous The Love Boat voice liked to rip up my scripts.  We did a Home Improvement special that went like clockwork and my producer even said, “Hey, we not only hit our budget, we got great stuff and are out right on time!”  Then our prop truck promptly tore the entire roof off the guard gate house of the mansion we were filming at.  We were filming a spooky Halloween special for Fox at a Van Nuys mansion and our black cat escaped and ran under the house.  We had to crawl through 100 years of spider webs underneath the house to rescue him. I got to sit in the cockpit of the Space Shuttle Atlantis before it was being prepped for its next mission. Danielle Fishel (Topanga on Boy Meets World) and I had to wing an entire night of TGIF LIVE from the stands of a U2 POP Tour Concert in Las Vegas. Bono and The Edge were going to join us, but canceled at the last minute.  Ryan Reynolds tried to get me fired one time when he claimed I was a difficult director.  In fact nothing bad ever happened on set.  It turned out he was mad that the network program executive hadn’t come to the taping so he was making waves. Thankfully, I wasn’t fired! While working with Jamie Foxx, I did steal a presidential fax paper cover sheet from the set of White House Down so I could send spoof faxes to a few of my friends.  

Judith: I've got some memorable moments, but you definitely win the war of the wackier side of things.  What is your most memorable moment from your years in the entertainment industry?

Jim: I’ve enjoyed so many amazing things. 3500 hours of TV makes it very hard to choose.  I do really take heart to the idea of making audiences enjoy a laugh together, or take pause for a moment.  I didn’t really know TGIF made such a huge impact on people’s lives until much later.  It’s a nice feeling when fans tell me how much it was a part of their family.  Mission accomplished.  

I find myself continually amazed at my life path.  I’m very entrepreneurial and love to spot trends and opportunities for creative ways to build a business or audience, but can never predict what’s next.  I had a chance meeting with a Disney executive one time that years later led to me taking over production on Baby Einstein right after my wife and I had twins. How odd is that. The brand grew to over 100 million dollars after we did 12 titles.  I would have never even understood the brand until we had twins! I had a chance meeting with an executive at Comcast in 2012 and pitched him an idea for a new network dedicated to helping the Latino audiences engage with their entertainment offerings.  We launched and operated Xfinity Latino to 22 million homes for 8 years. I always believe “The Best Is Yet To Come.”  This is a saying I barrowed from my friend John Sie.  

Years ago I helped launch and brand Starz network. I did a special for the president John Sie on his life story that revealed much of his rough childhood and even a few business failures.  He was against it at first, but I convinced him that he needed to share the flaws. It gives young people hope that they too can achieve great things.  John didn’t get to be where he was without incredible life challenges.  The story was used for a huge network event.  He was so touched by it and we became friends. His entire industry had a new perspective and respect for him.   

Judith: Jim, if you weren't doing what you do, what would you be doing?

Jim: I love cars, entrepreneurial business, and home designs. So probably designing new technology or working on design and builds. So many opportunities… so little time!  I also love to travel and with our kids now mid college, my wife and I want to spend more time together exploring.  We actually bought a cool van so we could take driving trips with our dogs and easily transport them between Denver and San Clemente! We have a little beach getaway we simply love.  I want to partner on a few more projects with some of my favorite cohorts.  Becky Daugherty (another long-time former ABC Executive) and I occasionally do projects together.  I also hope to do some guest teaching at Chapman Dodge College of Film & TV in Orange, California. 

Judith: How do overcome the dreaded creative blocks?

Jim: Wine!  Ha ha. No, I’ve learned that I will always be my own worst critic.  I don’t think there’s one thing I’ve done that I feel isn’t flawed in some way.  I think it's important to step away when blocked.  I often go work on a car or in the garden doing something with my hands or something that requires me to create with my hands.  For some reason that unlocks new perspectives. 

Judith: Which artists have inspired your work? Who has influenced your work the most?

Jim: As I think about it, probably some of the bigger names are: Walt Disney, Jim Henson, Tom Hanks, Kenneth Branagh, Jamie Foxx…. The list is long.  I think the world of Carol Burnett,  Ron Howard, Mark Lynn Baker….. That’s just top of mind… and there’s so many new talents coming to light right now.

I recently worked with Tom Hanks on a special for the new Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Museum in Los Angeles.  He is genuine, funny and not affected at all. He drove himself to the filming and stayed way past his call time.  Helpful and fun two work with.  I think I’m constantly struck by great work that influences my thinking.   

I’m impressed when artists can tell a story with impact, without the crutch of cuss words, and edgy adult situations just to be current or hip.  To me, that’s playing to the lowest common denominator just to create hype in hopes an audience will watch.  That doesn’t take talent. It also deteriorates our industry to something lacking in responsibility to the viewing audience. 

Judith: Do you have one big ultimate dream project you would love to get produced?

Jim: I do hope to help find financing and build out a large LED Studio at Chapman Dodge College that becomes a working operation within the industry.  It’s going to take 5-7million to complete. My vision is to form an alliance with a distribution partner.  Together with several highly experienced cohorts from the industry we’d create content there which includes using film students as Production Assistants or in other entry level positions.  The business model works:  The production company team is making short and long form content made for a client to use on their platform. The production costs are lower.  We are using the newest technology at the only film school in the country with such a stage, and each student enters the work place from college already having real world credits with significant mentors.  The fellow mentors are continuing to make the kind of content they are known for at a pro level, while also feeling like their helping guide the next generation of filmmakers. 

Judith: We all have them! Who are your favorite actors, writers, directors from the last fifty years?

Jim: I tend to find myself being a fan of many different talents on any given day depending on what I’ve recently seen. While I’ve met and worked with many, I think the one person I’d simply fall on the floor with respect for is Carol Burnett. She had a huge impact on my childhood and desire to be in comedy.  Tim Conway, Harvey Korman and Carol would have us laughing until it hurt. What I wouldn’t give to be a part of a variety show that had the world laughing like that.  What fun that would be to create again. 

Judith: What keeps you up at night?

Jim: I’m excited and worry that our industry and the current technology that’s at hand gives a great deal of power to anyone who desires to put something out into the world on media. Perhaps I’m being naive about the past. Today, it seems the moral obligation of being truthful or balanced in news has all gone away and been replaced by spectacle. Young filmmakers need to respect the incredible power they have to create perception and good in the world, and with that comes responsibility.  

Judith: So after a life in the entertainment industry are your children following in your footsteps?

Jim: Like it or not,  yes, they are.  Our daughter is at Chapman Dodge College in Orange studying screenwriting. She’s better than I ever will be. She continually blows me away with her clever scripts and dialogue.  Our son is at Gonzaga studying Broadcast and Business. He loves creating brands and production.  He just won the Gonzaga 2022 Best Film for his documentary, Family through Fire.  It’s a touching story about the recent fires in Boulder, Colorado that wiped out nearly a thousand homes. Needless to say, we’re a bit proud of them.  We hope they will always bring light to the world.  


COPYRIGHT THE FLAMING NOSE 2022


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