Bodega Pictures’ co-founders follow their instincts

There’s no question that the television industry is competitive, and it can be hard for a small prodco to break through the noise and find its niche. In ‘Small Companies, Big Ideas’ Realscreen chats with indies that are innovating and thriving, showing the unscripted world that sometimes the best things come in small packages.

Sometimes the friends you make in college can change the trajectory of your life.

Take the case of California-based indie prodco Bodega Pictures, which began as a venture between two college buddies, Benjamin Nurick and Joshua Ackerman, who met as 18-year-old NYU students and quickly became friends. They eventually started Bodega in a garage in the San Fernando Valley in 2008 and went on to grow it into a production company committed to diverse content and stories, with Nurick (pictured left) serving as president and Ackerman (pictured right) the company’s chief creative officer.

“He was the brother I never had, and we were like-minded creatively and helped each other out with student films and school projects,” Nurick tells Realscreen. “That energy of telling stories and being creative with your friends was really the beginning of our working relationship as adults.”

The duo penned screenplays and came up with ideas for documentaries and reality shows, shooting and producing sizzle reels for established producers.

“A few tried to wrap us up in those early days but we felt strongly that we had our own voice and wanted to do our own thing,” Nurick explains. “So we made a decision to stop working for other people and dig in and put all our energy into our own ideas.”

Ackerman says the vision of the company hasn’t changed much since the beginning. “Our philosophy then was very similar to what it is now: to produce undeniable television in a creative, supportive environment. That’s remained true and our first two employees that started out in the garage with us are still major factors at Bodega — one runs post-production and the other is our longtime creative director.”

Among Bodega’s latest projects is Kendra Sells Hollywood, which premieres today (November 17) on Discovery+, and finds reality star and former Playboy model Kendra Wilkinson pursuing a new career as a real estate agent in Los Angeles. Bodega’s other series include Extreme Sisters, sMothered and You, Me & My Ex for TLC; Hustle & Tow for A&E; Girl Meets Farm with chef Molly Yeh for Food Network; Rehab Addict Rescue and Tiny Luxury for HGTV; and truTV’s popular South Beach Tow.

Bodega’s co-founders are also committed to telling stories that reflect the diversity in the wider world. Hustle & Tow, for example, features Tyler Smith, a transgender man, among its core cast. Working with Smith and other cast and crew members have made an impact on Bodega’s leadership.

“There’s always more we can do to promote diversity and we’re all learning, whether in the context of content we’re producing or more broadly as an industry, and we are committed to being part of that mission at the company level and at the industry level,” Ackerman says.

Realscreen spoke with Ackerman and Nurick about the growth of Bodega Pictures, the importance of inclusion in the stories they tell and how they went from being two college guys with a dream to successful producers.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What was the initial vision for the company when you launched Bodega back in 2008?

Joshua Ackerman: I convinced Ben to join me working out of my detached garage in the Valley. That’s where we produced the pilot for South Beach Tow, which became our first series, for truTV. We were very lucky to have a partnership with Jennifer Lopez’s production company on that show — we pitched them successfully, and we became partners for seven seasons and learned the value of a splashy press release! It was a very big deal for two young producers.

How did you go from that garage in the San Fernando Valley to producing television for major broadcasters and streamers?

Benjamin Nurick: By trusting our instincts and developing a reputation for high-quality work. Our partners know that to us, quality is the most important element and that we’re personally committed to delivering the best episodes every time. Everything that we produce gets a lot of attention from Josh and myself. Our partners know that they can count on us to deliver, which is why we have multiple shows and projects with the same networks and streamers over many years.

JA: Trusting our instincts remains important. Having the instinct to spot a show concept that viewers will love, to identify compelling talent with a great sense of story. Molly Yeh of Food Network’s Girl Meets Farm is a perfect example of a great storyteller, a storyteller using her world and her artistry and love of food, someone we’re pleased to collaborate with on a highly-rated and beloved show. Our mission is always to tell great stories and deliver entertaining shows that viewers won’t click or navigate away from.

There’s a fair amount of diversity on your shows. Is that something you consciously pursued when first developing concepts, or did things just sort of evolve that way?

BN: We’ve been fortunate to find compelling, diverse voices from across the United States and beyond, and we have an excellent casting department that’s made it possible. Diversity does tend to come naturally when you’re looking for interesting stories in a comprehensive way.

JA: This year one of our most meaningful storylines was in A&E’s Hustle & Tow, which follows towing companies across America, among them a family-run company in Kentucky where one of the employees is a transgender tow truck operator — Tyler Smith. He had the opportunity to share his experience. We learned a lot from Tyler, and it was important to our team that we could play a part in putting his story out into the world.

What sorts of things do you look for when developing an idea or pitch?

JA: We’re looking for that undeniable factor, and once again it’s about instincts. What is a concept we’ve never seen before, or a particularly great example of a format that we can put a new spin on, and what do we think audiences will love? We are fortunate in that we produce content across many categories, from docuseries to food, lifestyle, and relationship content, so we can play in many sandboxes and have a lot of fun with the content we’re making. We have a wonderful, creative team at Bodega that’s crucial to the development and creation of great concepts and pitches. To keep those ideas flowing and maintain the company culture that’s true to our roots, we prioritize open doors, creativity, constructive feedback and discussion, and most of all we love celebrating people’s eccentricities.

What process do you have to ensure that when presenting subjects from diverse backgrounds you’re doing so in a respectful way?

BN: We’re engaged in an ongoing quest for authenticity and honesty in the storytelling we pursue, and for us that’s the key to respectful interactions and portrayals. We present many aspects of the human condition — people from different walks of life who want to share their experiences with the world. The most important process, we believe, is to listen and to be committed to authenticity. Let your subjects and collaborators teach you as you work together.

How have you overcome the challenges of production during a pandemic, particularly as a smaller company?

BN: The answer is always safety first. Our talent and crews are our priority, and we followed COVID protocols carefully every day. We continue to do so, as we have multiple series in production now. We’ve all had to adapt, and our whole community in unscripted production has responded very well to the shifts we’ve all had to make in response to the pandemic.

Kendra Wilkinson is no stranger to reality television. How did the new show with her come together, and how did it land on Discovery+?

BN: Kendra’s in an exciting phase of her life. When we found out that she was wholeheartedly pursuing a new real estate career, we really wanted to be involved in that journey. We mentioned authenticity earlier — she’s an authentic, relatable protagonist and we’re watching her try something she’s never done before. She’s a single mom who has committed to this new direction, no matter how challenging it is, and she’s out there earning her real estate stripes every day. She has some wonderful mentors, and she’s in the orbit of a terrific cast representing people from both the real estate community and from her own personal life.

How did producing a series for a streamer like Discovery+ change the approach to the show or its production?

JA: We’ve taken the same approach we always do — being committed to quality in the stories we tell. Of course, with a streamer it’s important to take into account the potential “bingeability” of a series depending on the rollout strategy — but other than that the process is the same.

BN: Kendra Sells Hollywood represents a successful collaboration with the Discovery+ team, and we’re pleased to have a docuseries in the lineup for their inaugural year. We’re in good company. We envision Bodega as a forward-facing business that includes substantial work with digital streamers, and we’re very happy to have this partnership with Discovery+.