The Story Behind Jack's Pens
For anyone not from the UK nor familiar with British pop culture the last few years, it's important to understand the phenomenon that is the reality TV show "Love Island" on ITV2. Love Island 2018 was the fourth straight season of the show since 2015. The opening episode hauled in over 4 million viewers. Huge ratings continued as it aired six nights a week for two months until the finale on July 30th.
(I'll spare you the rest of the background details... #1, because it's 2019 and you can click on their names or Google anything you might not know, and #2, if you're still reading this article you are very likely a "Love Island" fan who is scraping for every possible detail of this couple's lives, and you don't need the introduction.)
Four months ago as I write this, I had never even heard of "Love Island". I was on a trip back to the US to visit family with our 3 month old baby when I got an email from ACrew4U, one of our agents in the UK. They asked if we would be able to provide location permits and visa invitation assistance for a UK TV program.
At first we were asked a little vaguely to help get permission to shoot in Guangzhou's fabric market (the largest wholesale fabric market in the world), in a few textile factories, and in "touristy places". I began to wonder what the project was.
As I emailed back and forth with ACrew4U and eventually executive producers at ITV, the names "Jack & Dani" finally came out and I learned exactly what Love Island was. It may not have been my go-to entertainment type, but it was still a good chance for us either way.
I was told there would be a spin-off about the couple's lives after Love Island, and they would be coming to China. They needed some help on the ground to make that happen.
So... how does one get filming permits to shoot a European celebrity reality TV show in public places and landmarks in the third largest city in China?
Fortunately for us, a little over a year ago we did a commercial shoot for CNBC that featured the mayor of Guangzhou. One of my contacts at the mayor's office was kind enough to put me in touch with the head of the Guangzhou Municipal Party Committee. A lovely woman named Ms. Huang Yan was extremely helpful in getting us direct access to some of the city's most famous spots for filming. And we didn't have to pay a dime in permit costs.
A valuable lesson we were reminded of from this job: If the film/TV project will not show China or the specific city/region being filmed in a positive light, you're better off not wasting your time trying to get permission to film. On the other hand, if you can demonstrate how the show or movie or documentary you're working on is going to benefit that location, it is entirely likely for them to roll out the red carpet for your production. Case in point from this show: Jack's pens.
We Need to Film a Pen Factory
The producers at ITV only had a few specific plans for the episode at the time that they reached out to us. They explained how Dani had launched her own fashion line with a designer called In The Style back in the UK. All her clothes were being manufactured and sourced here in Guangzhou, so the whole idea for the episode was that the couple were taking a trip to China together so she could see the factory and processes herself.
The main reason Jack would be coming to China would be to research pens, as he was planning a launch of his own pen brand soon. They wanted Jack to go to a pen supply factory where we could film his supply research process.
Guangzhou is the world's Mecca of wholesale, so I figured finding a pen market and pen factories would not be too difficult.
Turns out I was right about the market (there is a stationery supply wholesale market that takes up a whole city block just 20 minutes away from our Guangzhou office). But I was wrong about the factories. After walking around inside the market and talking to shop owners, I learned that almost all their manufacturing took place in Jiangsu Province (more than 1400 km away). Since Jack and Dani would only spend 4 days in Guangzhou, this wasn't an option.
I suggested to ITV that perhaps a scene of Jack shopping for pens in the wholesale market would make for some good TV if access to a pen factory wouldn't be doable. They agreed...
Never offer something to a client that you don't already have.
The first two management offices we talked to at the market were not interested at all in having a reality TV crew film on their premises. Just, "No. Can't film here." Not an uncommon answer to a random white guy asking lower-level authority for permission to film something in China.
Just as I was beginning to get nervous, we walked into the office of the Yi Yuan Office Stationery market. Lucky for us their manager, a woman named Linna, is quite the opportunist.
It didn't take her long after learning about Love Island and seeing Jack and Dani's Instagram followings that it was in her interest to let us film at their market. She took me to lunch and began to brainstorm all the ways the reality show could help promote her company.
My job starts to get tricky at this point, because I'm actually playing one person off of another. I can't yet promise the location to ITV, because if Linna doesn't get what she needs then she's not going to give permission to shoot at the location. But I can't promise Linna that Jack or Dani will take selfies in front of her company sign and then post them to all their social accounts as she is asking for... or that the show's editorial team is going to use a wide shot of her building and logo (even if I can guarantee filming it on the day).
Fortunately for us Linna was aiming for the moon but happy to settle in the stars, because at the end of the day she let us film with just a "probably" from my end on all of her requests.
Not only did she let us film, but when we arrived at Yi Yuan with the crew and with Jack and Dani, two massive bouquets of beautiful flowers were presented to the couple. All her security guards had been informed of the shoot and had cleared the entrance of the stationery market. A laser-engraving machine was brought from another office so that after Jack selected pen samples they could quickly engrave them with his name and logo on camera.
To top it all off, Linna got Jack and Dani's autographs that day and used them to created custom-designed notebooks, one hundred of which were brought to the couple's hotel and given as a gift to ITV producers. The notebooks featured engraved signatures of both Jack and Dani on the front cover, of course with the Yi Yuan logo right there next to their names.
Moral of the story... when doing a recce (that's a location scout to us Americans) in China, presentation is everything. The person whose permission you need has to see that it's a win-win to give you access to their location.