How Abrego Sold ‘The Surreal Life’

Book excerpt: No one believed the producer and his partner Mark Cronin could get so many celebs on board

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The biggest career break for Endemol Shine’s Cris Abrego was the breakout of The Surreal Life, which became a hit for The WB and VH1. In his memoir, Make It Reality: Create Your Opportunity, Own Your Success, Abrego tells the story of how the show came to be:

“To this day, the pitch for Surreal Life is still one of the best I’ve ever taken out. It was so fresh, so different, so damn fun. We dispensed with the usual sizzle reel.…[T]his was such a forward and new idea that there was no way to present a sizzle reel without casting, which we couldn’t do without a deal. We had to figure out how to pitch what no one had ever seen or conceived of before—iconic celebrities living in a Hollywood mansion somewhere and fixing their own breakfast, brushing their teeth, even making their own beds—without showing the famous individuals themselves.

The solution? We went into meetings and put on a live comedy show, acting out all the different possible scenarios we could imagine. [Abrego’s business partner] Mark [Cronin] was a spot-on mimic, and I could hold my own, so we’d set up a hypothetical cast and then play the different parts. We hadn’t even called any of these celebrities about the show, but we portrayed them in our live sketches, posing questions like, say, what would happen if you had an early-morning conversation between rocker Bret Michaels and Gary Coleman?

We’d have executives literally falling out of their chairs. We went to VH1, where we knew they needed programming, and we brought the room of execs to tears. They were absolutely crying from how funny our pitch was. But as soon as they wiped their eyes and caught their breath after all that laughter, they looked at one another and at us and said, ‘We can’t buy this. It’s a skit.’ Someone else in the room said, ‘How would you even book it? Who would actually do it?’

Not surprisingly our agents followed up to say, ‘They passed.’

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Undaunted, we went out to all the networks, trying to work our magic in the room. We went to MTV, where I knew lots of the executives. We owned the room. The agents’ report? ‘They loved you guys. But they don’t see how it’s a show. Pass.’

Instead of going back to the drawing board on how we were selling the show, we went bigger and bolder, pitching it not just as a soft-format docuseries, but really, as the first reality sitcom. We went to CBS, NBC, ABC. The pitch killed. They applauded. They stood up and cheered. But the verdict was the same. They loved us, but they would never do it. They would either say that there was no such thing as a reality sitcom or that it wasn’t their area.

One by one we exhausted all of our options. Everyone came to the same decision: ‘Pass.’ The irony of ironies was that this was one of the best pitches that anyone had ever witnessed, yet it just couldn’t sell.

Finally, we go to The WB network for our last pitch. We meet with this executive named Keith Cox, who’s in scripted television. He’s not even in reality TV. But, knowing this is our last shot, we go in like tour de force performers on their last night of the show and bring the house down. By that, I mean Keith Cox loves us! He can barely stop laughing, and when he does, he gets it. He sees it. He wants it!

But wait. Nothing is ever that easy. The next day, our agents put us on the phone with Keith Cox, and he reiterates, ‘I love this idea. I absolutely see it.’

We can hear the ‘but’ before it’s out of Keith’s mouth. And indeed it follows next, as he explains that the problem is that Jordan Levin, his boss, doesn’t get it. Normally, this is where you hear the apology and the wishing you the best of luck with your show anyway. Instead, Keith tells us that he has gotten his boss to agree to a compromise option. He goes, ‘Look, I’m putting myself on the line to do this show. The deal is, if you guys can confirm that you have a cast of actual names booked for the show, then I can order it.’

In that one moment, I knew that Surreal Life was going to become a reality.”