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You may not know Jacqui Pitman, but chances are, you’re familiar with her work.
The Hollywood casting director and producer has been the creative force behind some of the most popular reality television shows and characters of the past 20 years. Her résumé includes programs like CBS’s “Big Brother,” ABC’s “Extreme Makeover,” MTV’s “Next,” VH1’s “Dating Naked,” and Bravo’s “Who Wants to Be a Supermodel?” and “To Rome for Love.”
How did Pitman get to where she is today? She says it took years of determination, intuition, and more than a few risks to launch successful production and casting businesses, and become a major player in the reality TV space. Her journey is a true Hollywood rags-to-riches story.
Pitman grew up as a foster child in New Jersey. She says her passion for television grew out of a desire to escape her own reality.
“Television was a fantasy world to me that was so much different than the life I was living,” Pitman says. “I knew very early on that it was a world I wanted to be part of.”
After graduating from high school in 1980, Pitman headed west to see if she could make her dreams a reality. She enrolled in California State University, Long Beach, as a radio, TV, and film major. To support herself during school, Pitman worked three different jobs. One of those jobs was as an assistant to the entertainment director on a cruise ship. It was her first foray into working in entertainment.
“We put on musicals every weekend on the ship and I would serve as stage manager,” Pitman says. “It was certainly a formative experience.”
Later on she earned an internship at a local television station working on a public affairs program called “Frankly Female.” After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 1985, Pitman leveraged her experiences to get a job in casting for the reality dating show “Love Connection.” In her role, Pitman was charged with finding what she called “real people” to appear on the show.
“I would go out to bars, restaurants, and grocery stores and look for people who want to be on TV,” Pitman says. “I’d try to find people who stand out in some way, in terms of personality, or the type of work they do, or hobbies.”
Pitman worked at “Love Connection” for two and a half years, learning the ins and outs of casting. She was then approached by Fox with an offer to work on a dating game show in development called “Studs.” She decided to take the offer because it was an opportunity to learn more about how a new TV show is made.
“The fact that I left a show that was wildly successful to work on a show that was only guaranteed a six-week run at the time was a huge risk,” Pitman says. “But in the entertainment industry you can’t succeed if you don’t take risks.”
Jacqui Pitman (Courtesy: Jacqui Pitman)
Pitman quickly found success on “Studs,” a show that aired 300 episodes over a two and a half season run. She also found a mentor in Howard Schultz, the show’s executive producer. When Schultz left “Studs” in 1993 to launch his own production company, Lighthearted Entertainment, he asked Pitman if she wanted to join him as his assistant.
“I told him I don’t want to be an assistant, I want to learn what you know and do what you do,” Pitman says. “He looked at me like I was crazy and offered to let me come work for him for free, and if and when I sell my first show, he’d double what I make now.”
Pitman accepted his offer and, sure enough, within six months she had sold her first show—a game show called “Sex Wars.” Schultz stayed true to his promise and doubled Pitman’s pay. Over the next 15 years, Pitman and Schultz worked together to develop and produce some of the most popular reality television shows of the day, including the game shows “The Big Date” and “Happy Hour,” and the reality shows “Love Shack” and “Extreme Makeover.” Pitman also worked as casting director on the second season of “Big Brother,” and supervising producer on the Oxygen talk show “Pajama Party.”
Pitman’s biggest success was the MTV reality dating show “Next,” in which a male or female contestant goes on a blind date with up to five other single people. The added twist was that the contestant could replace their date with another candidate at any given time by saying the word “next.” Pitman says she got the idea for the show from her own dating life.
“I just noticed all these little pet peeves when I would go on dates, whether it be something about my date’s appearance, or how they talked or ate,” Pitman says. “My thought was, if someone disappoints you on a date, what if you could just replace them with someone new and keep the date going.”
Along with creating “Next,” Pitman would go on to produce 300 episodes of the show during its six-season run. Pitman remembers it as a good time to be working in reality television, given that the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) strike of 2000 had created an explosion in the reality television space.
“I was making a lot of money and learning everything there was to know about developing reality television,” Pitman says. “I was on every phone call, in every development and pitch meeting, and reading every document.”
In 2006, Pitman again decided to leave a stable job in hopes of launching her own production company.
“It is very easy to get caught up in making money and helping other people’s dreams come true that you miss your chance to accomplish your own dreams,” Pitman says of the decision.
She hired an agent, bought two homes, and started working as a freelance producer. Then, it all fell apart.
The cast and crew of “Chain Reaction” (Courtesy: Jacqui Pitman)
When the economy crashed in 2007, the entertainment industry was affected as much as any sector. Pitman says she went unemployed for six months, and both of her homes lost more than half their value.
“The crash killed whole slates of programming that were scheduled to go into production, or money allocated for programming,” Pitman says. “It was horrifying. Everyone I knew who was a producer became unemployed.”
However, out of misfortune, a new opportunity was born.
Because Pitman’s producer friends couldn’t get network jobs, they decided to try and create and sell their own programming—and they needed someone who could help cast their shows.
“Everyone was trying to reinvent themselves and I was able to fall back on my casting experience,” Pitman says. “Friends would ask me to cast for them and if the show sells they said they’d give me a job.”
Before Pitman knew it, she was being asked to cast multiple shows while also serving as a producer on the shows that sold. By 2010 she realized she needed help, so she rented some office space in Burbank and hired a few employees to help her cast programs.
“What was happening unbeknownst to me was that my business was forming,” Pitman says. “I’d be working as a producer in a studio in Hollywood while my employees would be back in Burbank working to cast the same show.”
Pitman soon realized she needed to pick one business to focus on, so she slowly stopped accepting producer jobs and focused on growing her casting business, which she named Pitman Casting Inc.
“Once I changed that mindset it really made a huge difference in the success of my company,” Pitman says.
To date, Pitman Casting has cast over 400 TV shows, including “Make Me a Supermodel,” “Dating Naked,” TV One’s “Love Addiction,” Discovery Channel’s “Sons of Guns,” Reelz’s “FanAddicts!,” Syfy’s “Face Off” and “Cosplay Melee,” and, most recently, “To Rome for Love.”
Pitman has since launched PartyPit Productions, a production company that has produced some of the same shows that Pitman has cast for, including “To Rome for Love.”
“I was reluctant to form a business,” Pitman says. “I had never gone to business school and I didn’t want employees, but the business kind of just started organically, and it has been probably the best thing that could have happened.”
Jacqui Pitman on the set of a show (Courtesy: Jacqui Pitman)
Pitman originally came to Fundera in December of 2018 to acquire financing to help support her businesses through the holiday season, which tends to be a slow period in the TV industry.
“A friend of mine had worked with Fundera and said they had a very good experience,” Pitman says. “I figured I could use Fundera to alleviate some of the stresses between December and January and offer a little more stability to those who work for me.”
Pitman worked with senior loan specialist Ashley Margraf to acquire a three-year term loan from Lending Club. The money has allowed Pitman to pay her employees—many of whom are contractors—through the downturn, as well as build out her casting database and hire a head of development for her production company.
“Within three days of applying I had offers from multiple lenders,” Pitman says. “Now my business is taking off, and the loan was instrumental in allowing that to that happen.”
Pitman attributes her success in the TV business to several factors. One is her uncanny ability to identify individuals who will perform well on reality programs. The second is putting the production mechanism in place that will get the most out of the cast.
“Even if you assemble a great cast, you can’t just point a camera at them and expect something to happen,” Pitman says. “They need to have an objective or some sort of urgency that makes them come to life. That is how great reality TV is made.”
There are also stark differences in casting based on the type of reality program you are producing. With game shows like “Deal or No Deal,” and “The Price Is Right,” the goal is to cast people who viewers will find relatable.
“When you watch a game show you want to be able to say you can get on the show and do that,” Pitman says. “So when I cast a game show, I look for likable, engaging people.”
With reality shows like “The Real World,” “Duck Dynasty,” and “Real Housewives,” Pitman says the goal is reversed: You want to find people unlike anyone else walking the earth.
“We all become sociologists when we watch these shows,” Pitman says. “Viewers are fascinated by these American subcultures they never knew existed.”
As far as how casting is done, Pitman says she still scours grocery stores, but admits the advent of social media has made her job a little easier.
“To cast locally, I used to have to fly around the country and hold interviews in hotels,” Pitman says. “Now we get the word out on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and the talent finds me.”
Social media has also made more people amenable to the idea of appearing on television.
“People are already exposing their personal lives to the world more than they ever have before,” Pitman says. “So attitudes have shifted a little bit.”
Jacqui Pitman on a panel promoting “To Rome for Love” (Courtesy: Jacqui Pitman)
Pitman hopes for continued synergy between her casting and production businesses. Ideally, Pitman and her team will work to develop, cast, and produce their own shows. She says she is currently developing a show for ABC, and has also partnered with CBS to executive produce another show.
Outside of television, Pitman has aspirations to one day direct a horror film.
For those who wish to work in entertainment, Pitman has some advice:
“You’ve got to take risks,” Pitman says. “Don’t get caught up trying to make money and not pursue the avenues you are interested in. If I didn’t take risks I wouldn’t be where I am today. There are many jobs in this industry—try a few out, see what you like, develop your path, then go down it.”