It’s not everyday you get to say your company created a competition show staring Martha Stewart on Discovery+. Xpedition, a production company ran by three Chapman Alumni (Hunter Johnson, Derek Helwig, and Yael Egnal) created Table Wars: a show where designers compete against each other to create the best show-stopping party environments through the artform of tablescaping. We spoke to the three Chapman alums about how they made tablescaping into a competition show and how their time at Chapman contributed to their successful careers:
Please share your career path with us: how did your majors at Chapman get you to where you are today/working on Table Wars?
Hunter: I graduated in 2007 with a BFA in Film Production. Prior to starting Xpedition, I worked in TV Development at Sony Pictures Television (Breaking Bad and Shark Tank) and later went on to produce shows including MasterChef and MasterChef Jr, Big Brother, Street Outlaws, in addition to many others for major networks such as HBO, HGTV, FOX, CBS, CW, Discovery, and History. In 2016 I founded Xpedition, an award winning entertainment and marketing company with clients at Google, FitBit, Youtube, Discovery+, HGTV, and McKinsey & Co, that has grown to over 50 full time employees. I have had articles published in Forbes, writing about our team’s work in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space. I am also a member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (The Emmy’s) and the Producers Guild of America.
Derek: I graduated from Chapman in 2005 with a degree in Film Production. I then went on to receive a masters in International Conflict Studies from King’s College London before starting my career in international television production. Before joining Xpedition, I was fortunate enough to produce a variety of different TV shows. Most notably, I spent 12 seasons at The Amazing Race, getting to travel all over the world, working with a variety of different global production teams. I then went on to produce series like Best Bars In America (Esquire), United States of America (CNN), Huang’s World (VICE) and Ultimate Expedition (Youtube Originals).
Yael: I graduated in 2017 with a degree in Television & Writing Production and a minor in Advertising. I spent my first year at Xpedition on the production side, before moving over to the development department. Prior to starting at Xpedition, I worked at A24, College Humor, NBC, and RSA Films.
How did the three of you come together to pitch this project? What aspect of the production were you a part of?
Hunter: Our company not only works in television and branded content, we have an entire team that produces some really amazing events, conferences, dinners, and parties. So there was a perfect opportunity to draw from our own experience in that world and bring that to the screen.
Derek: A team member had come across the world of Tablescaping and initially pitched the idea internally as a documentary film. Competitive Tablescaping takes place at county fairs, with competitors vying for a blue ribbon prize year after year. And in the luxury event market, event designers compete to impress high end clients. Since the world of Tablescaping is inherently competitive, we asked ‘what would this look like as a competition series?’
Yael: Our team developed the concept and built out the format for the series. We explored the world, interviewed Tablescapers, and established how to bring this art form into a competitive event made for television. We were lucky enough to have amazing partners at ITV and Leftfield Pictures that understood our idea and believed that a competition show about Tablescaping could really be a hit.
Tell us more about your production company Xpedition. How did your team start out and what are you currently working on?
Hunter: We started Xpedition to help up-level the digital video content for Fortune 500 clients like Google and Youtube. Since then, we have grown and added new teams in content marketing, experimental event production, and entertainment. In fact, we have recently signed on for a really exciting project that involved us filming some of the largest sound stages in the world. Our staff is made up of talented creatives, strategic marketers, international journalists, and Film and TV producers. They have all been brought together by a commitment to making the world a more equitable and vibrant place by connecting with others and telling human stories that amplify diverse voices. I especially love collaborating and championing other Chapman Alumni and students and finding ways to get their stories and shows out to the world.
Derek: We are working on some pretty fun ideas, I’ll say, though I can’t be specific for obvious confidential reasons, but are getting pretty close to being announced. What is important for us is to continue to develop across genres. We love doing competition formats and have some really fun ones on the horizon that we can’t wait to talk about. We also have some great documentary projects and docu-series in the works. We recently opened our podcast division and just launched our scripted division, so I’m really excited about exploring the types of stories we can tell in various mediums.
Yael: We are really passionate about collaborating with other producers and creatives, our doors are open to hearing new pitches and we pride ourselves in forming great partnerships. It gives us a chance to hear stories from new voices. We obviously love developing competition formats and have some really fun ones on the horizon.
Were there any specific resources (i.e. certain professors, courses, workshops, career advising, etc.) at Dodge that contributed to your career journey post-graduation?
Hunter: There are two professors that come to mind that had a significant impact on my time at Chapman. Dan Pavelin really took me under his wing as a faculty advisor. He went above and beyond in advocating and looking out for me as a student. Additionally, Harry Cheney was an incredible mentor and professor, he has an incredible experience and accolades to back it up. Having him believe in me was a turning point for me in starting my career. The career and life advice from these two amazing mentors/professors helped me find the strength to continue to find new ways in this very competitive industry. These two aren’t the only professors, and those that teach want to be there for you as well. You will get so much out of your experience when you give them the same energy back. I also got my first internship through the career advising center so I recommend checking them out as well!
Derek: My advisor Mark Parry was a great inspiration. He was always there to talk to and lay out the realities of the industry without sugarcoating anything. My professor Joe Dull was similar in that way where in the last full class of the semester, he gave a lecture not by the syllabus, but one where he laid out the realities of the industry. Just the honest truth about this lifestyle. I really took that to heart and as an adjunct professor here at Dodge, I try to keep that tradition alive where I will spend the last full class doing an Ask Me Anything session and just be honest about my experiences. I think that is what makes Dodge incredibly unique. You have state of the art facilities most studios are clamoring to get, but also faculty and staff who can give that honest perspective in a personal way to set you up for success.
Yael: During my time at Chapman, one of my favorite classes was The Game of Television. It’s a fun, immersive, and social class – and in hindsight I was pleasantly surprised to realize how much I had learned and how applicable it was to my job. In terms of my post-grad career, I found out about the job at Xpedition via an email blast from a documentary club. Getting involved in clubs and connecting with upperclassman is a great way to learn about internships and job opportunities. Chapman students and alumni are the reason I was able to land interviews for my internships at A24 and CollegeHumor.
What is the best advice you have received that you would give to current students?
Hunter: The best advice I have received still to this day comes from Chapman Professor Kiku Terasaki, and that is “A.C.Y.A” or always cover your ass. I can’t even begin to tell you how much this advice from Kiku has saved me, got me promoted, and continues to be an everyday part of my job. The entertainment industry is fast paced and filled with high maintenance people. Be thorough and detailed. Know everything about your job, the job you want, and the A.C.Y.A. From sending an email to conform meetings, to writing detailed recaps of meetings to make sure you’re all on the same page, it is all important, especially the stupid things that you don’t think are important
Derek: When I was a recent grad, I came out wanting to take on the world and thought I could be running my own shows right away. I hate that he was right about this, but my first boss Bertram Van Munster, who created The Amazing Race, gave me some humbling advice: “Life is a marathon not a sprint.” It’s an incredibly cliche phrase, but he was absolutely right. It caused me to look at the industry as a long play, swallow some humility, and gain experience. And I did. I spent the next six years traveling the world with him and learning how shows are made. I see it more and more recently where students expect to be a director or show-runner right out of school. Go get that experience first, and I swear it pays off and makes you a better storyteller.
Yael: Take classes with adjunct professors who are currently working in their respective fields. They’ll provide great insight into the industry and real-time. For example, one of my favorite classes was Short Form Television I & II. I took the course with adjunct professor Christian Papierniak, who now directs for the NBA 2K franchise. He always gave candid and constructive feedback.
Any parting thoughts or advice?
Hunter: You are your own toughest critic. There’s a power in being able to recognize the critic you have within yourself and choose to be kind. Strive for the best you can possibly do, yet speak to yourself in the way you’d want to be spoken to by an external critic.
Derek: It’s really hard, but try not to compare yourself or your career to other people. I still have to remind myself of that. People you know may get these high ranking jobs or something you think would be better than them. Know that this industry is unlike any other and may feel incredibly unfair at times. But know that everyone is on their own journey, including yourself. You’ll get there, just keep on working at it and you will find that rewarding experience for yourself.
Yael: Take classes, join clubs, and make friends outside of Dodge. You’re going to get an amazing experience within your major and that;s obviously a huge reason you’re enrolled. By branching out and diversifying your involvements and experiences, you’ll find new places to gain inspiration and insight that you can bring back to your work.