Reality TV exec, Brandon Killion, reveals his greatest lessons from behind the camera.
Picture barreling down ice roads and over frozen lakes in remote and snow-covered territory — gripping the steering wheel tightly and anxious to make it to your destination on time and safe. We’ve all been there during a whiteout winter storm, but what if it was your job to do this day in and out?
This is Ice Road Truckers, featuring Manitoba locations, some of the riskiest seasonal roadways and the truck drivers that brave them. Documentary TV series can give an exciting window into the real world of high-risk, dangerous jobs that is all in a day’s work.
Making those TV shows is pretty risky too. After all, whatever dangers the characters face, the TV crew faces, too. The key, according to experienced TV director and producer Brandon Killion, is managing that risk and deciding if the payoff is worth it.
Killion knows what he’s talking about, having spent more than his fair share of time in dangerous situations on Ice Road Truckers as well as shows like Wild Justice and American Hoggers. Risk-taking has helped Killion rise through the ranks of the TV business, taking him from unpaid intern to go-to director, then on to the executive ranks of major production companies before landing at his latest endeavor as the Executive Vice President of a growing media start-up.
Shooting in remote Northern locations has means cold conditions, but beautiful memories.
Along the way, Killion has ventured across the frozen Arctic Ocean, had a film shoot shut down by a volcanic eruption, rode out thirty-five-foot seas sword-fishing the North Atlantic’s Grand Banks, and had guns pulled on him while raiding cartel-backed illegal marijuana grow-ops in the California mountains.
What is worth all these dangerous situations?
Ditch the safe route: Going from lawyer to TV producer
It all starts with taking the leap.
Killion took a big risk in 2005 when he abandoned a safe career as a newly-minted lawyer in Massachusetts and moved to Los Angeles to try and become a TV producer.
“It kind of dawned on me that I had really chosen the safest route and that the time for adventure – the time for risk, really, was now. So, I decided to make a change,” says Killion. “I’ve always had a tendency for sharp change. I like the immediate uncertainty of it and the ‘figure it out or fail’ nature of those days and weeks that come immediately thereafter. Growing up, my brother and I had always talked about being in the entertainment business and he was still a senior in college at the time, so I thought I’d get a jump on it and headed west to LA to get things set up for us.”
Taking risks at the right times would lead Killion to unbelievable experiences while producing reality TV shows, including flying to distant offsite locations and spending time on ocean ships.
He didn’t know it then, but life was about to become a series of adventures into the unknown. Killion landed a job in the legal department of a production company making sci-fi movies of the week, then parlayed that into a contract as an assistant at Original Productions, the company started by reality TV legend Thom Beers, known then for shows like Monster Garage and Deadliest Catch.
“It was a very, very cool place to be. Very merit based. The kind of place where if you wanted to try something new, people backed you up on it,” Killion explains. “After my year as an assistant was over, I got the chance to shoot my first sizzle reel, which believe it or not, sold and eventually became a show on NatGeo called America’s Port.”
Pitching TV shows to the networks and creating sizzle reels is a hard, stressful process. Adding to the challenge was the fact that Killion was working on it for free to prove himself.
“I was not being paid and this reel was very much my one opportunity to prove myself,” Killion reflects on the moment his sizzle reel got the green light. “And that moment, honestly, was the moment I felt I could succeed in the television business. From there, it’s really been kind of a blur.”
Since then Killion worked his way up doing just about every job imaginable.
“I worked for a while in a development capacity, traveling around casting and shooting a handful of projects that would eventually become shows like Axmen and Ice Road Truckers. Then I moved on to Swords: Life on the Line where I worked as a field and story producer, and after that I moved up to Supervising Producer and Showrunner on shows like Wild Justice and American Hoggers.”
Working on these kinds of shows, which focused on blue-collar people doing dangerous jobs to feed their families, helped hone Killion’s respect for risk-taking.
Why you have to calculate ‘risk versus reward’
“One of the major tenets of the blue-collar working shows we were doing at Original Productions was always risk versus reward,” he explains. “It’s inherently present in everything that ultimately has a payoff – the two are intertwined. The higher the reward the more risk one is willing to stomach, and the reverse is true as well. Lower the potential reward and suddenly the risk seems like it’s not worth taking. That said, you never know all the facts.”
Killion realized this applied not just to the people he was filming, but himself too.
“A huge part is the educated guess element. You’ve got to assess the potential risk – and potential reward or opportunity – based on previous experience and the setting within which you’re working. Knowing that the mitigating factors or outside influences are often what tips the balance is a big part of being a good educated guesser.”
Is the risk worth it?
Behind the scenes on location.
“You only know if a risk was worth it when you are coming down the home stretch and can see the finish line. You can guess — and the likelihood of whether or not something was worth it tends to become clearer and clearer as you crest and head toward the finish of a project. But you really don’t know until the end is in sight and you can reflect upon how you managed resources, and whether that tended to help or hurt your result.”
In 2012, Killion took another big career risk, leaving Original Productions to become a Vice President of Production and Co-Executive Producer at Gurney Productions, makers of the runaway hit Duck Dynasty. From there he moved on to be Executive Vice President of Programming and Development at Cineflix, the company behind American Pickers and Property Brothers.
Over the years, Killion had one risk-management mantra he always kept repeating to himself: you always want to hedge your bets.
New media & the art of hedging your bets
The industry has led Killion to locations rarely experienced.
“It’s really the old adage, ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’”, he says. “I think working as a litigator started my understanding of this, where you often have a primary and then multiple secondary arguments to convince a judge or jury to do what you want them to do.”
“That thinking also applies to shooting and producing television, and I think that’s where it solidified for me,” Killion continues. “You always want to leave yourself some wiggle room so the story can be molded in the edit bay.
“If you shoot one thing, one way, you only have that one thing to work with. Hedging your bets is really about giving yourself options and to help mitigate risk. If you’re mitigating some specific elements of your risk, you can actually be a bit riskier on the whole, which allows for a higher potential reward or opportunistic result.”
“I’ve always been pretty good at foreseeing the most likely outcomes of a given situation and have hedged my bets accordingly, mostly with success.”
Killion on location with fellow crew members.
The television industry is undergoing a massive shift brought about by the rise of streaming services by digital distributors who are upending the traditional cable TV business. That’s left a lot of industry veterans scrambling.
This has given Killion an opportunity to head in a new direction with his career.
“Now I’m the Studio EVP at a media start-up,” Killion explains. “With trends in the media landscape shifting, I saw this as an opportunity to expand my experience in new media as well as put a toe in a new investor-rich space. Career-wise, it’s a bit of a risk, but with new media moving more toward the mainstream, it’s a calculated risk I think with a large potential upside.”
That upside is the chance to be in on this venture from the ground up.
“I’ve had a chance to witness and be a part of a start-up corporation from the inside, which has been invaluable, not to mention working on the front lines of an evolving industry. As a hedge, beyond the huge opportunity for success with palatable risk, all the skills I’m sharpening and new things I’m learning have their own individual applications. I can bring them to the law or to television production and be better at those things going forward. To me, that’s the right balance.”
Featured image from opening sequence of Ice Road Truckers on History.
Up next: Get another dose of TV-related business insights and behind-the-scenes of pitching on Dragons’ Den.