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Lights, Camera, Cocktails

Lights, Camera, Cocktails

Alex Bieler

Three bartenders work feverishly behind the bar at Society Lounge on East Fourth Street as a crowd watches. Within minutes, the trio churn out multiple carefully-crafted cocktails. However, these drinks aren’t for paying patrons. It’s Sunday afternoon and these bartenders are putting on a show for, well, a show.

Seven cameras and a 39-person crew surround the bar to film the first episode of SpilledTV, a competition show for mixologists. The shoot began at 6 a.m., but the true genesis of this scene stems from a chance encounter at Ohio City’s ABC the Tavern nearly two years ago.

SpilledTV Creator and Host Shawn Ford is no stranger to TV shows, bars, and TV shows about bars. The Northeast Ohio native has a lengthy resume, including serving as the beverage manager at The Greenhouse Tavern and being on the opening team for Porco Lounge & Tiki Room. These days, Ford spends up to 30 weeks a year consulting for bars around the world.

Still, the average person likely recognizes him from a different role: master mixologist for Bar Rescue. Ford has appeared on nine episodes of the TV series, working with entrepreneur and hospitality consultant Jon Taffer to revitalize poorly-performing bars. While Ford is proud of the work done on Bar Rescue, he’s faced criticism from industry peers because of the show.

“I was participating in the only show that showed bartending and mixology, but it always showed it in a negative light,” Ford says. “It got me to wonder why there wasn’t anything that showed it in a positive light and why there wasn’t anything other than Bar Rescue on TV about bars.”

This inspiration led to the initial framework for SpilledTV. Ford worked on the idea for nearly two years, but he needed help to bring his concept to fruition. Appropriately, this help came from another bartender.

During a fateful last call at ABC, Ford struck up a conversation with Graham Beck, a bartender who he had known for a few years. Beck overheard a Bar Rescue fan ask Ford for a picture and had no idea about this part of Ford’s career. Shortly after, Beck told Ford that he was attending film school at Cleveland State University. At this point, Ford found his co-creator and producer.

With Beck’s background, the duo honed Ford’s initial idea into a concept based on competition shows like Chopped. The current formula for SpilledTV involves a three-round competition where judges award bartenders “tips” based on originality, mouthfeel, use of ingredients, and presentation. These tips are converted to points, with the leader winning the competition. Like Chopped, the show unveils mystery ingredients at the beginning of a round. These range from tequila to buff dewlap African goose eggs, which Ford describes as “the size of my fist and as dense as a brick.”

As the duo worked on the show, the team drew in people who lent credibility to the project. A pitch meeting for in-show product placement with liquor company Beam Suntory resulted in a $10,000 commitment. Three staff members of Bar Rescue plan to direct the show. Ford also gathered a trio of judges: reality show veteran Chef Kevin Bledsoe, award-winning bar owner Molly Wellman, and Beastie Boys DJ and producer DJ Hurricane. Another key for success is the bartender-shaped hole in the TV market.

“There’s an abundance of cooking-related shows,” Ford says. “For Christ’s sake, there are three cupcake competition shows. That led us to believe the need for [mixology-related] content was there.”

Still, there were some issues. Ford and Beck planned to film with a local media company around Memorial Day in 2018. That relationship ended when the duo say the company “tried to hold us hostage” and raised its price five days before the shoot.

“It seemed real then,” Beck says. “It was pretty tough for both of us to have to pull the plug on it because we were so close to getting this thing done.”

Still, the delay gave the SpilledTV team more time to build relationships. Garrett Moeller joined on as co-creator, producer, and DIT (data information transfer) to provide expertise on investment opportunities and using demographics and location information to make key decisions. Beck used his CSU connections to source equipment from the university’s School of Film & Media Arts, which opened in 2018. In addition, many members of the film crew at Society Lounge were students from CSU and Kent State University.

Local companies also offered support. The crew shot footage at Ohio City BBQ and Ohio City Provisions for a chef round where contestants pair drinks with prepared dishes. Cleveland Camera, Dodd Camera, and Hughie’s Event Production Services helped with equipment. These combined efforts made a major impact on the shoot at Society Lounge.

“Without the network we’ve formed, you’re talking about a $200,000 production just for that one day,” Moeller says. “We were able to do that at a fraction of the price because people dedicated their time because of their belief in the project and the people who are a part of it.”

With the shoot completed, the SpilledTV crew estimate that they’ll be able to pitch the series to networks by the end of July. SpilledTV is currently set up as a travel show that moves competitions from city to city, but it can also shoot a full season on a studio set in a couple weeks.

“[SpilledTV] has been set up so that it can be molded into whatever the network is looking for,” Ford explains. “What appeals to one network might not appeal to others, but it has enough of everything that we feel it gives us a lot of markets to pitch to.”

There’s no guarantee for success, but the approach certainly improves SpilledTV’s chances. Regardless of how the final product turns out, Northeast Ohio can know that it played a vital role in helping raise the bar for bartending on the small screen.

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