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St. Louis Becomes Reality TV Hub

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ST. LOUIS (AP) – One TV series after another, video entrepreneurs are turning St. Louis into Hollywood on the Mississippi.

From an office on North 10th Street, Coolfire Originals has landed reality shows on two cable networks, with a third debuting tonight. But the wave has barely started; by early 2013, Coolfire will have six unscripted series on the air nationally, with five of the six featuring St. Louis people and businesses.

“It’s mind-blowing,” says Jeff Keane, president and CEO of Coolfire. “I can’t think of any city outside of Los Angeles and New York that will be featured in so many shows.”

Coolfire’s first series, “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s,” following “Miss Robbie” Montgomery and her restaurant family, is in its second season on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN, where it is the network’s biggest success story.

Tonight, Nickelodeon launches its new NickMom block on the Nick Jr. channel with “MFF: Mom Friends Forever,” featuring Creve Coeur moms and best friends Judi Diamond and Kate Frisina-White.

Already sold, but with no debut dates yet, are St. Louis-based shows that will air on the Style network, the Discovery Channel and Discovery Fit & Health. (Coolfire cannot discuss the subjects of the new shows until the networks release the information.) Coolfire also developed “Fast N’ Loud,” a Discovery Channel series about colorful Texas men who restore classic cars.

Coolfire produces “Sweetie Pie’s” with Los Angeles partners Pilgrim Productions, and Pilgrim shoots “Fast N’ Loud.” But Coolfire is solo on “MFF” and the three upcoming shows.

Tim Breitbach, Coolfire’s vice president of original programming, was on the set of “Mom Friends Forever” every day. “In the field or in post-production, this was our show,” he says. “We showed we can do the work. I think we also showed that we’re good people, good to work with. The networks get that.”

Keane founded Coolfire Media as a commercial-production company 10 years ago. From that, Coolfire Originals was born 2.5 years ago. Growth has been fast. The company is expanding to a second downtown location, more than doubling its space to 15,000 square feet from just 1,000 in 2011. Coolfire has gone from five full-time employees in 2011 to 11 this year, with 20-plus projected for 2013. The freelance staff nonexistent last year is projected to top 120 next year.

All this growth is creating jobs that never existed here before.

“On one show, on any day, there will be 15 to 20 people working just on the shoot,” Keane says. “For the total production, we’ll have as many as 50 total. And as we get more shows, we’ll use multiple teams. At this point, we’re basically rolling year round, with not much down time.”

Coolfire has a stable of people who have worked with the company in commercial production, “but shooting a reality show requires a slightly different skill set,” Keane says. “Our approach has been to find really talented people and do some retraining.”

To speed the retraining, the company has been bringing people who are experienced in reality TV production in from the West Coast and pairing them up with locals who learn from them. With multiple shows in production, “finding enough qualified people can be tough,” Keane says. “But it gets easier. It feeds itself.”

At this point, Keane feels confident saying that Coolfire is “creating a reality TV industry in St. Louis.” That is good news for people who want to work in television but prefer to live in St. Louis, not LA.

“People out there who came from St. Louis often want to come back home and raise their families here,” Keane says. “But there hasn’t been steady work here. Now, they could legitimately relocate and work steadily. We’re creating enough work that people can move back here and feel confident that they can work year round and feed their families.”

Steve Luebbert, vice president of development for Coolfire and a spark behind its success, was one of the people who wanted to come home.

“I was in LA five years and worked three years at ABC,” he says. “I loved my job, but I didn’t love my life.” Now, he’s helping more native St. Louisans come home.

“I just hired someone who’s worked on very popular reality shows and was packing up to move home anyway,” Luebbert says. After learning she could live here and do the work she enjoys, “she’s over the moon,” he says.

At a screening of “MFF: Mom Friends Forever” on Sept. 20, people who worked on the production cheered and high-fived when the credits rolled.

“For someone shooting commercials, they’re anonymous,” Keane says. “Their names aren’t on it, and the spots might not even air here. Seeing your name on the screen can give you a lot of satisfaction.”

Nickelodeon ordered 20 episodes of “Mom Friends,” which Keane called “amazing for a production company that had never done business with them before.”

Bronwen O’Keefe, senior vice president of NickMom, was in St. Louis for the screening and applauded both the series and Coolfire’s work.

“We were delighted to find that producing in St. Louis gave the show a level of authenticity and heart rarely found,” O’Keefe says. “The local producers, crew and talent brought every ounce of soul, passion and energy to work every single day. The people who work on the show care deeply about what they do and who they are, and they are making television that we believe sets a new standard for the industry.”

Keane couldn’t agree more that being in St. Louis makes a difference.

“Part of our success is because we’re here,” he says. “We’re a fresh location, smack in the middle of the country. A lot of the networks we work with target viewers in the heartland, and we’re providing characters those viewers will connect with.”

Trashy reality shows featuring people behaving badly are popular, but Coolfire’s intention will never be to make St. Louis or the subjects of its shows look bad, Keane emphasizes.

“We’re proud of the city, and doing shows that spotlight it is very satisfying,” he says. “We shoot in a way that takes a positive look at the city. We focus on interesting people who have had success, and how they got there. Every chance we get, we show St. Louis in a positive way.”

Keane is far from done. “We have hundreds of ideas,” all very diverse, he says. “We have mom shows and car shows. Our work isn’t pigeonholed. We want to be a company that finds good characters and makes good shows.”

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