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So What Do You Do, Mike Tollin, Acclaimed TV/Film Director and Producer?

'It's really hard to launch a show; it's even harder to have one sustain.'

- January 27, 2014
Having recently launched his AOL On Originals series, My Ink, which reveals the stories behind professional athletes' tattoos, is just one credit to Mike Tollin's extensive career as a TV and film producer/director. Although he frequently gravitates towards sports-related projects (the film Varsity Blues is one example), Tollin has also produced popular TV series like Smallville and One Tree Hill.

His extensive resume is testament to his skills behind the camera, but Tollin -- who has partnered with actor-director Brian Robbins for over 20 years (via their production company Tollin/Robbins Productions) -- makes it clear that success in a media-related career is rarely a solo effort.

Name: Mike Tollin
Position: TV and film producer/director
Resume: Produced and directed more than a dozen feature films, award-winning documentaries and hundreds of hours of television. Films include Varsity Blues, Coach Carter, Radio, Wild Hogs, Hard Ball, Summer Catch and Big Fat Liar. TV shows include All That, Keenan and Kel, The Amanda Show, Smallville, One Tree Hill, What I Like About You and Arli$$. He directed the Peabody Award-winning and Academy Award- and Emmy-nominated documentary Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream.
Birthdate: October 6
Hometown: Philadelphia
Education: Stanford University
Marital status: Married with two kids (a 21-year-old daughter who attends Brown University, and a 14-year-old son)
Media mentor(s): Leonard Koppett, a teacher at Stanford and renowned sports journalist. "He had a great sense of the world and gave me great perspective. He was a really inspiring storyteller, and a loving and patient man. He had time for everybody and yet, at the same time, had very high standards of excellence that he brought to his work and his teachings."
Last book read: The First Phone Call From Heaven, by Mitch Albom
Twitter handle: @MikeTollin

How did you get your start in the entertainment industry?
There was a man in my life named Berl Rotfeld who was both my father's best friend and my best friend's father. As a child, our families were joined at the hip. Rotfeld launched a series of sports documentaries on syndicated television, and was happily willing to exploit me; overwork and underpay me when I graduated from Stanford. So I stepped in, and within a year I was directing the series and sitting at dinner discussing with Ted Williams and Tom Seaver why a baseball curved, telling Wilt Chamberlain and Pete Rose where to walk. It was a great apprenticeship.

Then I went to work with MLB Productions in New York and created a [documentary] series called The Baseball Bunch. Then I figured out in my 20s that I was pretty much unemployable and started my own company making sports documentaries, kids' shows and entertainment specials. We had a glorious three-year run only to be sabotaged and run down by the evil forces of Donald Trump. We moved on from that and ultimately I moved to California and joined up with Brian Robbins.

We started Tollin/Robbins Productions almost 20 years ago. Our first project was called Hardwood Dreams, about five graduating seniors from Morningside High in Englewood, California, who [were] the defending state basketball champions. We followed them for a year and we were able to chronicle some pretty dramatic happenings both on and off the court. Wesley Snipes narrated it, and it was broadcast on FOX and went to the Sundance Film Festival. It kind of became our calling card.

How did you get involved in the production of some of your more well-known work, like Varsity Blues?
You may remember the Nickelodeon sketch-comedy show, All That. Well, [Robbins and I] took the most popular sketch, "Good Burger," and the two most popular actors, Kel Mitchell and Kenan Thompson, and we had a script written and submitted it to Paramount.

"The ability to reach audiences in different ways, different lengths, different sensibilities, I feel lucky to be able to do that, and it's never boring."

Good Burger was what I would call a modest success. It kind of put us in the movie business. Paramount then sent us a script of something called Varsity Blues. We liked the idea of delving into Texas high school football, but we had a different vision so we found a very talented young writer and we re-imagined the project.

[We] spent time with the teams competing for the championship, and actually went to the title game in the Houston Astrodome. We really got to see how it all worked and the emotions that were involved. You know, kids playing the last football game of their life.

Why do you think your TV shows One Tree Hill and Smallville really took off?
We were very lucky to be there at a time when The WB had a great, young audience. In the case of Smallville, we took mythology and put a contemporary spin on it. We were very lucky to find Tom Welling and a great cast of young actors and have a 10-year life and do 225 episodes of a show. You have to be very grateful; a lot of things have to go well.

One Tree Hill was a show that was always kind of on the bubble. Year after year, we weren't sure if it was going to be over or if it was going to continue. And I give Mark Schwahn, the show runner, along with [executive producer] Joe Davola a lot of credit for being in the trenches and keeping the show alive and constantly coming up with ingenious story lines and character arcs.

The big thing, as you may remember, there was The WB, and then there was UPN, and then they merged and it became The CW. It looked like One Tree Hill might not survive. Mark had the idea of having the characters leap four years forward, so we basically skipped their college years. And the great news for the actors was that when we came back, they were all able to play characters that were roughly their real age. The stories just resonated more with the audience.

[The plot twist] was something unprecedented for prime-time soaps, and I think it put One Tree Hill in a whole other category, and we developed a bigger following. No matter what time slot or night they moved us to, our audience always found us. And at the end of nine years and 187 episodes, to be watching the finale and having a chance to have a Q&A with the actors and seeing the cult following, it was exciting. It's really hard to launch a show; it's even harder to have one sustain.

What are you working on these days?
A year and a half ago, I joined forces with Peter Guber, chairman of Sony Pictures, who has also produced a number of Oscar-winning films, is an award-winning author and a professor at UCLA Business School. We started having conversations about the new forces in the film business and how the middle -- the character pieces between low-budget indies and big-budget films -- was kind of being squeezed, and it was getting harder and harder for these films to find a way into the marketplace.

At the same time, the sports media landscape had been exploding. Alongside ESPN, there's Fox Sports 1, there's NBC Sports Network, there's CBS Sports Network, and all kinds of digital platforms that are hungry for sports content. And I think that increasingly there's been a divergence of sports and pop culture where sports heroes are now on TMZ for better or worse, and they really transcend. You don't have to be a sports fan to follow some of the crazy stories of the sports world.

"It's finding great characters and telling great relatable stories with universal themes that I find fun."

So, we started a company called Mandalay Sports Media to take advantage of these appetites, and we've been having a lot of fun. It encompasses everything from sports movies to long-form sports documentaries in the vein of 30 for 30, which I have been very involved in, to digital shorts like My Ink, which we just launched for AOL. We just announced a new series called Three the Hard Way, based on Dwayne Wade's book about fatherhood and raising a family of boys while trying to win NBA championships.

It's exciting to see a new market where you're making up the rules as you go. Look at the over-the-top networks, as they're called: Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, and look at how they're launching their shows. How much is binge-viewing a part of the strategy? It's exciting to find new partners and find new ways to reach an audience. If you find a great story, there's a way to reach an audience.

Are there certain storytelling platforms that you gravitate toward?
I love the ability to go back and forth. It's very different muscles in the protracted development of a feature film that may take four to 10 years for you to get to where you can shoot it; to the grind of a TV series where you're cranking out episode after episode, five or six days a week; to the documentary, where it's all about discovery and you go in with a set of expectations, which are invariably dashed and where you have to keep your eyes open to discoveries and re-write the story every day in production.

So, the ability to go in and out of all those different kinds of storytelling and reach audiences in different ways, different lengths, different sensibilities, I feel lucky to be able to do that, and it's never boring.

Sports have been a great backdrop for a lot of our stories, but we do a lot of television development that has nothing to do with sports. It's often finding great characters and telling great relatable stories with universal themes that I find fun.

Do you have any tips for aspiring directors or producers looking to break into the industry?
You know, the classic mantra is 'follow your heart,' which may sound trite and overused, but it has a lot of merit. It's a very competitive business. People think that there's a lot of glamour, but to me, it's a lot more grind than glamour. One thing that's for sure is that it's competitive and it's hard to break through so you have to be prepared to hear a lot more 'no' than 'yes.' It's important to believe in your own vision and to have a passion that ties to what you're pursuing, because that's hard and you're going to need to persevere. And I don't know how to do that unless you really, really genuinely care. I'm only a good salesman when I believe what's coming out of my mouth. We've talked a lot about perseverance and persistence. It's the same thing I tell my kids and I tell young aspiring filmmakers.

Amanda Layman Low is a freelance writer and artist. Contact her on Twitter @AmandaLaymanLow.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Tracey Edmonds, Award-Winning TV and Film Producer?

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of Mediabistro Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of Mediabistro Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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