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MIKE FARAH - Funny or Die's CEO Considers How To Run A 12 Year-Old Startup

Posted By Chris Green, Monday, February 4, 2019

Back in 2007, as online digital video was taking its early steps into public consciousness, a new website gave its viewers an abrupt and unusual binary choice. Faced with a brief video clip featuring Will Ferrell getting berated by a foulmouthed toddler landlord, the audience was invited to render an ultimate judgment: Funny Or Die.

Throughout the 12 years of its existence, the content put out by Funny Or Die has more often than not been chalked up on the left-hand/funny side of the ledger. Some of that credit lies with the site’s founders—Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy. Another chunk of it lies with the talent the site has featured and nurtured, including Zach Galafanakis and Sarah Silverman. But save a healthy morsel of credit for the dude who was hired 10 years ago as the site’s first producer and today holds the operation together as its CEO. His name is Mike Farah, and he’s the original guy who started out making funny short videos with his friends and simply never stopped until it turned into a career.

When it launched, Funny Or Die was, pretty much by default, the premier website for comedy online. If there’s an achievement that Farah can take to the bank, it’s the fact that 12 years and a couple of tech revolutions later, Funny Or Die is still first in its class as an online comedy destination. Even as the company’s offerings have diversified into long-form efforts that have found their way to HBO, Netflix, IFC and other platforms more identified with “traditional media,” Funny Or Die remains a vital comic incubator, a place where emerging talent can find support for ideas and material that can generate big laughs and thousands of clicks in under five minutes.

Farah is keenly aware of—and just as grateful for—Funny Or Die’s unique position in the entertainment infrastructure, a talent-friendly shop whose deep connections to comic artists allow it to play by its own rules. Name another company that could put together a telecast featuring real-time coverage of the Rose Parade by a pair of fictional hosts played by Ferrell and Molly Shannon in what’s effectively an hours-long, character-based improv jam.

Farah is evidently the right guy to be curating the ever-evolving showcase of Funny Or Die. Grounded and reflective, he’s still a good-natured Midwesterner casting a cockeyed glance at a crazy industry he can barely believe exists, let alone has allowed him inside it. Hollywood is still very much a game to Mike Farah, one he excels at and has a blast playing in, but one he holds no illusions of being born to. That inside-yet-outside dichotomy is part of what makes for a great producer, with the job’s characteristic tension between the big picture and its granular details. He’s also pretty funny. But you guessed that already. After all, he’s not dead yet.

So how did you find your way into entertainment?

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and went to school at Indiana University in Bloomington. My whole life I thought I was going to go to Michigan like my brother and my parents. But I decided to go to IU, and it was a great decision. I was a finance major, and the key thing I learned was that I never wanted to work in the world of finance. I had a really awful summer internship in corporate finance. I got back to IU my senior year and, talking to a fellow I was friendly with, Josh Golsen, I said, “Oh, what did you do this summer?” and he said, “I interned in Hollywood. I had this internship with a production company at Warner Bros.” And my mind was blown. He showed me the Hollywood Creative Directory, a book that I don’t even know if they still publish. And I thought, “What is this? This book that lists all these companies that make movies and TV?” I didn’t even know that was a thing. It sounds so silly now, but coming from the Midwest I had no idea you could actually do this as a job. So Josh Golsen blew my mind. And from that moment, I just said, “Well, fuck it. I’m going to move to Hollywood. That’s what I’m going to do.”

I’ll never forget when I was getting close to graduating, I was out to dinner with my good friend Frank Parker and his mom. She was an administrator, high up at Ohio University. She asked me, “Well, what are you going to do after graduation?” And I told Pam Parker, “I’m going to move to LA.” She looked at me and she said, “Well, I hope you have a better plan than that.” And honestly, I didn’t.

You just showed up?

I showed up, and I’ve been here ever since. I drove across the country in fall of 2001. Within two or three days of being in LA, I knew I was never going to leave. I loved everything about it … The hustle! The competition! The weather! The artists! The business! The phoniness! It was a perfect storm of things that I really responded to. I don’t know what that says about me. [laughs]

Mike Farah (back, center) and team emmbers celebrate President Barack Obama's unlikely appearance on
Funny or Die's
Between Two Ferns. 
Photo courtesy of Pete Souza.

So after showing up, how did you work your way into production? As a guy having no plan, you could’ve gone anywhere, but you ended up producing.

My very first job in LA was working security at movie premieres. There I met a kid who called himself “Kowboi,” K-O-W-B-O-I. He was a busboy at The Standard on Sunset, and he helped me get a job there. I became a food expeditor. Not to be confused with a busboy. Or a waiter. I’m just the dude who brings you food. So I expedited food for 2 1/2 years at The Standard.

That was my graduate school. Everyone I worked with was an aspiring something: writer, director, actor, model, musician. I have the fondest memories of being a very poor food expeditor but getting along so well with creative and talented people. So I started producing the little short films that that group of people was trying to put together. I asked myself, “Well what can I add?” I didn’t want to be on camera. I didn’t want to be a director. But I love to organize things. I actually have a passion for logistics. I love to curate experiences to serve a story. So that’s what I brought to the party, a knack for getting things made.

Obviously at some point you moved beyond food expediting.

Oh I was thoroughly fired from expediting food, as I should have been. I was much more interested in meeting people and producing shorts than delivering food promptly. I worked at what felt like a hundred unpaid internships for different production companies, but my big break was getting a job at United Talent Agency in the mailroom. Peter Benedek, one of the co-founders of UTA, was and is a big University of Michigan supporter. A friend of mine from home, a writer named Yoni Brenner, was sleeping on my sofa at the time. He told me that Peter was having a get-together for the Michigan Film Department. I showed up to that reception, and I met Peter that night. I spoke to him for probably a minute or two. The next day was my 25th birthday. The morning after that, I woke up to a message from UTA telling me I had a job and to come in on Monday.

At Funny or Die's 10th anniversary party, from left: Will Ferrell, Billy Eichner, Mike Farah, Andrew Steele, Chris Henchy, Pauly Shore.
Photo courtesy of Pete Souza.

Hey, “happy birthday.”

Yeah. That amazing gesture really changed my life. I worked at UTA, for an incredible agent named Shana Eddy, who represented writers and directors. Shana and I hit it off very well, despite my being quite immature and probably not ready for the job. But I loved the agency. Before I was kind of on the outside looking in. But when you get inside an agency, you’re in the game.

It doesn’t get more inside than that.

And I loved it. The competitivness, the delusions of grandeur, all the people! [laughs] It’s all so silly, so funny. Only Hollywood can make entertainment a real job that’s taken seriously. It’s incredible. Less than a year after I started there, I went with Shana to the Sundance Film Festival; it was the year that Hustle & Flow, Craig Brewer’s movie, premiered. January of 2005. That movie blew me away. It really resonated with me, because it was about this guy with a dream who would do almost anything to make it happen.

After the movie I saw Craig out on Main Street, and I introduced myself to him. We kind of hit it off and chatted. It turned out that Craig and his producing partner, Stephanie Allain, were looking for an assistant. I interviewed with Stephanie and we got along great. I’m still good friends with both of those guys. I left UTA to go work for Stephanie and Craig. Stephanie is a total badass. I’m really fortunate to have had these two talented, smart women, Shana and Stephanie, as my mentors starting out.

So what sort of stuff did you take from them that you still bring to your job today?

Both Shana and Stephanie were great with talent. They had great taste. They worked hard. And they were both very comfortable in their own skin, which I really responded to.

What work did you find yourself doing for Stephanie? What stuff was she working on that you got to be a part of?

Very soon into the job, I got to be on set with Stephanie. She made a movie called Something New, with Sanaa Lathan and Simon Baker. Sanaa Hamri directed it. So I was on the set. I got to see the whole process and met so many people. A great crew. A diverse crew. All the stuff that people are trying to do now with hiring inclusive crews … Stephanie was ahead of that curve by decades, as was Sanaa Hamri.

I also got to be a part of the whole Hustle & Flow juggernaut, because Paramount got behind the movie in a big way. Obviously I didn’t work on the production, but because I started working with those guys so soon after Sundance, I got to see all of the marketing process, the distribution plan, the release strategy and all that. That was terrific.

They got a deal at Paramount. Brad Grey had recently started there. I believe one of the first overall deals he gave was to Craig and Stephanie. So then we got to be on the studio lot.

Nothing like being on a lot.

That was the best. My only other time working on a lot was an unpaid internship on the Fox lot at New Regency. I was actually fired as an unpaid intern. This is because I was a terrible intern. I mean, they put you in a room and they tell you to make copies all day. And right next to your room is another room with these big filing cabinets. There was one whole cabinet that just said “Fight Club.” And I open it up and, oh my god, there are all these emails between David Fincher, Brad Pitt and Ed Norton talking about the script. So obviously I’m going to be reading that stuff all day and not making your copies.

I don’t see that you had any choice.

Yeah I was fired. Justifiably so. [laughs] So then to actually have a job on a lot that I loved … this was new to me. So we got some stuff set up, and we had a nice little run at Paramount. But on the weekends, I’d sneak on to the lot and shoot my own stuff at the office. I still loved putting together these short films and different comedy projects. This was around when Upright Citizens Brigade opened in LA. So I got to know Seth Morris, who was the Creative Director at UCB in LA, and started going there to meet comedians and shoot their stuff.

When the writers’ strike happened in fall of 2007, Craig and Stephanie kind of went their own ways. And so I started focusing completely on producing comedy videos. At the time people were actually paying for web series, which was crazy. It was way too early, because no one really knew how to monetize any of it. But at that moment, during the strike, I started producing all this stuff. Sometimes we’d have money. Sometimes I’d pay for it, just because I wanted to see it get made. Nothing cost a lot of money… $500 or something like that. I was on unemployment. I was living with four people and two cats in a two-bedroom apartment. So we just did it. Why wouldn’t we?

So how did you ultimately hook up with Funny or Die?

My first contact with Funny Or Die was Owen Burke, who’s now an executive at Gary Sanchez. I started shooting stuff with the actor Jerry O’Connell, who’s one of the all-time great guys. I produced some stuff with Jerry that did pretty well. Jerry knew Owen Burke because Owen was a PA on Joe’s Apartment, the MTV film. Jerry connected me with Owen, and that’s how I got my job at Funny Or Die as its first producer in 2008.

So in terms of being the first producer, at Funny or Die … what did that mean? What was in place before you got there?

They mainly had writers. Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy founded it. They had recently hired their buddy Andrew Steele from SNL to be the Creative Director. There were super-talented writers here. One of them was Seth Morris from UCB, who I mentioned, and Jake Szymanski and Eric Appel and Ryan Perez … a great group. I can’t speak for what it was like before I got there. But when I got there in the summer of 2008, I just knew I could sell Funny Or Die.

There was so much talent they had put together that I knew we would have ideas that people would want to do. In many ways, as a producer you’re only as good as the talent you’re working with and the stories and the jokes and the ideas that people have. Ours were great. I felt like I could get traction with this company. And, by the way, when you have Will Ferrell as the founder? Yeah, that helps. No one else had that. Even now no one else has that. I give Will a ton of credit. Not only is he one of the all-time great guys, but he is still right there in it with us all the time, as is Chris Henchy, and I love him. So I knew, “Yeah, I can do this.” I saw it. I felt it.

What was the nature of the job then as opposed to what it is now? Is it just a bigger version of the same job? Or has it evolved in different ways as the brand has grown?

There’s definitely been an evolution. Thematically there’s some things that are similar. When I got here, I was asking “How do we make as many great digital videos as possible?” I knew I could help extend the company. I felt like we could expand to athletes and musicians and other folks who weren’t necessarily known for comedy. I focused on trying to merge outside talent with inside talent. My schedule was basically 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., six days a week. Sundays I’d only have to work half the day. But it was email, set it up, get there, shoot and on to the next one, over and over again. Sometimes we’d have three celebrity videos going in one day. It was bonkers. And that’s the way it should be. I loved it.

Now it’s different. This year I’m trying to get back to some of my roots, but back then I was the producer. Later I became President of Production, then 2  1/2 years ago I became CEO. Staying successful is still about working with great talent, creating opportunities for talent and storytelling, at the same time that we’re thinking through how to position the company in this ever-changing and exhausting media landscape. I don’t love the word “disruption” but things are being disrupted nonstop. And so you try and navigate this, all while making good stuff, and having a business, and treating people well. It’s a combination of knowing who you are, sticking to that core of talent and taste. But it’s also, hopefully, stretching those muscles in a way so you can grow and evolve the best you can, despite not really knowing where any of this is going. [laughs] So it’s a worthy challenge.

Certainly I’ve seen the Funny or Die brand on a lot more content than just funny videos on the internet.

Yeah. We’re very fortunate in that we were able to diversify organically years ago in a way that I don’t think many digital-first companies were set up to do, because we had backgrounds in “traditional Hollywood,” TV and film and things like that. We were also fortunate to work with really good talent who we could grow and develop material with. For example Brockmire started off as a Funny Or Die video with Hank Azaria. After a lot of work and many years, it became a show on IFC.

It’s still a matter of trying to take advantage of the relationships we’ve built, take advantage of the brand and the heat, when it’s there. Heat in Hollywood is a real thing—it’s crazy, but it’s true. Perception really matters. So we try to extend what we were doing to TV and film and other things, while also staying true to our digital roots. Sometimes we’ve succeeded, sometimes we’ve failed, but today our business is 50% digital and 50% what we call “long-form.”

The biggest part of our digital business is the custom content that we make for brand partners. Last year we did over 60 original campaigns for different brand partners, whether it’s Walmart or Kroger or someone else. We create a lot of content around our own TV shows that we make. It’s a great, diverse portfolio. We’re also able to license our content to different platforms. Amazon, in particular, has been a great partner for us. The Funny Or Die library on Amazon Prime, I believe, is some of their most watched content.

So that’s our digital business. The long-form business is more of the traditional production company model, where we do series like American Vandal, I Love You America, Brockmire and No Activity, as well as the two movies that we produced last year, both of which should be coming out this year. And so it’s a matter of balancing those two things—digital and long-form. We can’t just become a production company, but we also know that the world of digital publishing has changed dramatically. We still want to be a publisher. We still want to have production capabilities. I’m really excited about the Rose Parade special we did this year with Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon. Will grew up in Orange County. He always loved the Rose Parade in Pasadena, and he seriously wanted to announce it. He came up with a character and asked Molly to be a part of it. It took a few years to work through everything with the Tournament of Roses, our partners in Pasadena, but we got it done. The first time we did the special, we did it with Amazon. The second time we did it, this year, we wanted to do it on our own and own that content and add to our library. We got four different brand partners to help deficit finance the special. Something unique about Funny Or Die is our ability to talk to brands. We have a sales team that raises money. We also have the ability to distribute our content on our own through our website and all of our social platforms. Because we have an audience north of 40 million people, we were able to market it directly to consumers. And we were able to produce it at effectively a premium TV level because of all of our long-form production infrastructure. Will and Molly trusted us to do it right, and I think that trust paid off.

That’s a model for what we want the future of Funny Or Die to be—as many of these hybrid projects as possible that take the best of digital and long-form and create great options and ownership for talent. I don’t think any company out there can combine the digital and the long-form in a way that allows these opportunities for creators. American Vandal is another example. I’m very proud of that show, and part of me still can’t believe it was canceled. But a big reason Netflix canceled us was because Netflix didn’t own the show themselves. In the short term that’s disappointing, but in the long term it means a lot more opportunities for us. I look forward to working with our partners to bring back an entire American Vandal world/ecosystem. I think American Vandal can become the Law & Order of comedy. It is a true premium procedural show that can have so many extensions and create so many worlds. I get fired up thinking about it. So really I think the cancellation was a blessing in disguise, letting us own more of that show.

That’s the key. I’m focusing on how Funny Or Die, with the right talent packages, can create more ownership for creators. The streaming wars are coming, and with the amount of money being spent on all this disruption, I think it’s important for producers and creators to be thoughtful about how to position their work to create as much ownership as possible. Think through the ramifications of whatever deal you’re making, because if you’re getting “X” amount, you can bet that whoever bought it, whoever owns it, is getting 100 times “X”, somehow, some way.

Farah (right) consults with director Chris Henchy on the set of Funny Or Die's upcoming feature film Impractical Jokers.
Photo courtesy of Boris Martin.

Other than expanding the company in new directions, how has the basic business of making funny content changed over the last 10 years?

To some degree that answer has remained the same. There’s always the combination of the talent, the idea and the timing. But there is so much content out there that only the best things have a chance to pop. That’s how we looked at videos back then, and that’s the environment that helped create Between Two Ferns and Drunk History and Billy on the Street and The Presidential Reunion and Prop 8: The Musical. They all felt special and unique but still accessible to audiences.

For me that was really the heyday of premium digital comedy. Now, because social is such a big thing, and people can self-document and basically create their own channels with their phones, it’s different. There was that moment where the MCNs and “the influencers” arrived. These people would just talk about their lives on camera and other people seemed to like it. That was a moment. Then there was the question of, “what goes viral?” For a moment talk show hosts getting emotional about the state of the world was going viral. The reaction to Trump made a whole bunch of things go viral. Now what’s gone viral? A picture of an egg. So sure, why not? I mean, the egg should have its moment.

But it’s a little sad for me, because with everything going to social platforms, I think to some degree, that golden era of digital sketch comedy is overthe kind of stuff we were able to do when digital video became much cheaper and creators could write and edit and direct very quickly. These young filmmakers were taking advantage of it, the timing was right for it. What is the ecosystem now? I mean, I would argue content still needs those basic ingredients, but the audience has been so spread out that there’s just not as clear of a formula for success. For example, digital publishers were forced to move to Facebook, because that’s where the audience was going. Then you’d see, “Oh, my god, we just got a hundred billion views on Facebook, but we made $14.”

With the proliferation of platforms, there’s almost too much content being made. I don’t know how long it can sustain itself. It also means that right now, the power is with the platforms. And honestly they’ve earned that right. They’ve succeeded. They’ve disrupted distribution and consumerism enough that creators are now trying to play catch-up.

But don’t get me wrong, Funny Or Die has been lucky. We are a startup, right? Most startups go out of business. A very few get bought. Even fewer achieve the “unicorn” status of being bought for huge multiples and becoming self-sustaining businesses. We, on the other hand, are still independent, and still going strong. There are not many 12-year-old startups, but we are a 12-year-old startup. That gives us the freedom to produce all these different types of exceptional premium content. It also naturally creates challenges. But I don’t think Will and the guys would have it any other way. It’s crazy and it’s stressful and it’s the best and it’s the worst. But it still doesn’t really feel like work. I still can’t believe I get paid to do this.

I gotta say, it doesn’t sound like you have many regrets.

I’m far from perfect. I’ve made a bunch of mistakes, but I don’t have any regrets. I believe in staying positive. I love betting on Funny Or Die. I get fired up just thinking about how many opportunities are out there for us. I would take our staff, our group of creators into any situation and know we’ll make it work. That’s why I’m here. The people and the work and the challenge, they’re everything.


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East Meets Best - How Producer John Penotti Went Crazy. Sometimes, To Find Your Way, You Need To Get Lost

Posted By Kevin Perry, Monday, February 4, 2019

Last summer audiences booked their tickets for the woman-meets-world sleeper hit Crazy Rich Asians, but the journey of its lead character was more than just a pleasure cruise for producer John Penotti. “I many times joked that, minus a few years and with a few creative changes, I was really Rachel Chu,” quips the PGA member. He recalls “landing in the airport in Singapore for the first time and being completely blown away by how beautiful it is … there’s carpet everywhere, and there really is a movie theater there. It’s just a different experience. We see Singapore through Rachel’s eyes, and to me that felt very familiar because I had just gone through my discovery.”

It was a long, strange trip indeed, and it all started in Paterson, New Jersey.

Penotti was debating whether or not he should continue his med school endeavors when he suddenly found a more healing pursuit: filmmaking. He enlisted as an assistant director for the legendary Sidney Lumet and immediately left his scrubs behind. “I really loved the scheduling and budgeting and logistics side of the business. Coming from training as a pre-med student, I loved that kind of systemic investigation. I just kind of transposed it to film production. And Sidney, bless his heart, he noticed it and took an interest and very quickly made me part of the team.”

It was a crew that elevated analog filmmaking to gritty perfection. Penotti recounts Lumet’s unique pre-production ritual at the Ukrainian social hall in New York City. “We would tape out the dimensions of the important sets on the floor,” narrates Penotti. “It’s his process. He worked well removing all of the logistical unknowns, even down to deciding on lens sizes weeks before we ever got on the set, because then he allowed his actors to have total freedom and comfort and confidence without wasting time. That sense of preparation is probably the biggest thing I’ve taken away from the honor I had to work with him.”

Penotti leveraged that prep ethic into a deliriously successful producing career, catapulting movie after movie into indie nirvana. “Those moments when a project stands on the precipice of being done or going back on the shelf, bringing that kind of mechanical and specific understanding to the particulars of filmmaking right down to the details, has helped me to be a better creative producer.”

Tempering his assuredness with humility, Penotti adds that he “still [has] a lot of work to do, but I do think that when you understand what’s possible on the logistics side, you can help the creators really attain the vision that comes from their head.”

His fellow filmmakers have always appreciated Penotti’s generosity of time and talent. When tapped for comment, super-producer Charlie B. Wessler declared, “I was very lucky to work with John on a film a few years back. He is a wealth of knowledge and experience. He is one of those rare producers who can give astute, useful, creative notes on a script and at the same time juggle all of the complex financial issues. John is meticulously organized and, at the same time, the most fun guy on the set. Go figure.”

This combination of frivolity and frugality has served him well; the turn of the century was a golden age for John Penotti. His catalog covered the spectrum from popcorn teen flicks to brooding Oscar hopefuls, but a reckoning loomed on the horizon. “We had already had some great success with In the Bedroom, Prairie Home Companion and Swimfan. We had a nice run, but by the late 2000s it was very difficult. All the distributors had disappeared and DVD sales had plummeted, and streaming had no ancillary value at that point, so it was just a depressing time to be an indie producer and financier.”

Where would Penotti turn to salvage his faith in filmmaking? Go east, young man.

“I needed a new mission on how we were making movies,” he reflects, “but also I needed to see a different model. The indie model that we had been working successfully was collapsing. The international sales market had plummeted. So I went to Asia thinking there has to be a better way.”

The pilgrimage opened his eyes like the blossoming Tan Hua flower. “I just got intellectually interested in stories that originate in the east, whether it’s literature or folklore or action films. To me, it was like … wow! Genres I really relate to, but now told in a different language with different creative instincts and impulses. If I can marry these, this will be interesting again. So that was what my two years of research was about.”

John Penotti and novelist Kevin Kwan (center) chat on the set of
Crazy Rich Asians with cast members Henry Golding (left) and
Constance Wu (right). Photo courtesy of Anja Bucko.

And in that creative crucible, Penotti discovered the novel that would rewrite his career. “When I read the manuscript for Kevin [Kwan]’s book, I was already attuned to the idea,” explains Penotti. “Because I had spent time in Singapore, I had some exposure to the Crazy Rich Asians world already, so I was like, ‘This is real. This is not fiction.’ While it’s written as a novel, clearly [Crazy Rich Asians] is inspired by true events and real people, many of whom I have now met.”

As eager as Penotti was to make it rain onscreen, the funding didn’t come together as extravagantly as he had dreamed. “We went in hoping that something called Crazy Rich Asians, something as luxurious as the material and our view of what we knew we could accomplish, that we would be getting a lot more product placement and promotional contributions,” he relates before admitting, “It just really didn’t happen!” Taking a step back and tightening his proverbial belt, Penotti reassessed, determining, “We had to get more clever on how to deliver on the Crazy Rich portion of it.”

Luckily clever comes naturally for director Jon M. Chu. Penotti continues, “By the time we went into production, we were so confident in Jon’s vision of the film, that he was going to deliver something luscious, that it was our job to deliver for him. To make sure that he had the looks he wanted—that was our commitment. It had to happen.”

Penotti and Chu stormed the filmmaking frontier together, and the producer praises his cohort’s ability to prioritize on an epic scale. “Jon Chu, he knew how to spend the limited money we had. I’ll give you an example: We fought really hard, not for just one helicopter, but three. And that was a big-ticket item. So we cut other areas where we weren’t gonna have as impactful a moment.”

The filmmakers’ quest for the best took them from the heights of aviation down to the depths of decadence. But when they were searching for just the right jewelry for Michelle Yeoh’s character, they hit an emerald wall. “We were like, ‘Ya know what, we’re not getting it. Michelle what do you have?’ And Michelle brought in the beautiful ring,” Penotti reveals. “That was her ring: the hero ring of the movie, that was Michelle’s personal ring. That becomes iconic in the film.”

The stars of Crazy Rich Asians provided much more than bling; they represented talent from every corner of the globe. “We had casting directors in five different countries,” Penotti elaborates. “Constance Wu being the only person we considered for Rachel and obviously Michelle—who else would there be except Michelle to play that role?”

But the riches get even more embarrassing as Penotti praises the supporting players. “In terms of the comedy, I gotta say that was just something we were never concerned about because Jon very skillfully cast what we jokingly call ‘our special effects,’ the great comedians Ken Jeong and Awkwafina.”

Producer John Penotti (leaning on chair) watches a take alongside the Crazy Rich Asians team,
including director John M. Chu (center). Photo courtesy of Sanja Bucko.

Penotti has come a long way from the trenches of independent production to the contemplation of franchise fare, and he credits the evolution to his producing partners and fellow PGA members Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson. “These guys are working on a studio level that far surpasses any experience I had. I had sold movies to a studio, but I had never gone through that producing process.” Penotti positively beams, “To see how they operate and to balance the needs of the studio, I just learned a ton! And then to have the film work on this level—not only can you not plan it, you can never expect it.”

Penotti’s word “work” is an understatement as massive as the success of Crazy Rich Asians. The film shattered box office expectations, pulling in almost a quarter of a billion dollars internationally. Not bad given its production budget of roughly $30 million. Penotti, Jacobson and Simpson also earned well-deserved Producers Guild Award nominations for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures.

But for Penotti success really translates into opportunity. “It’s made the conversations when we acquire material so much easier,” he explains, “because Crazy Rich Asians has turned the tide toward understanding that these properties are valuable. These properties that speak about representation, telling international stories and diverse casting—they can work. Why shouldn’t they? And now we have something to point to in a very profound way.”

Inclusion is more than just an abstract concept for Penotti, it’s a calling card. “Our business model is specifically taking local stories and bringing them into global markets. So this is a validation. Crazy Rich Asians is an uber-validation of the original premise we had when we began.”

Drilling down to the bottom line, Penotti continues, “I just think it’s good business. We’re looking for audiences to come pay for our tickets, right?” He answers his own rhetorical question with a passionate plea for humanity and common sense. “It’s laughable to me that people only would want to look inward at a time like this, to go inward to the intense nationalism that is pervading a lot of countries. It just seems completely idiotic to me. On a human level, it’s ridiculous, and on a commercial level, it’s wildly shortsighted.”

Penotti’s vision is an inviting blend of passion and compassion. That empathic orientation helps him see the most intimate stories and pluck them from obscurity for the benefit of global audiences.

Now Penotti is focusing his sights on the red carpet. When asked how he is enduring the rigors of awards season, he replies with refreshing honesty and unabashed exuberance. “C’mon, I love it!” he grins. “I mean, I get to hang out with a group of people who—we’ve just become so close. Listen, people get close on movies all the time, but this is different. In my 35 or 40 movies I’ve done, I’ve never had the experience of this kind of continued camaraderie and rooting for people! The minute someone gets a job or something good happens, in the midst of it, there is genuine support. I gotta say if the awards season allows us more time to spend together, isn’t that great?”

 Once again answering his own query with warmth and confidence, Penotti surmises, “Yeah it’s been terrific.”

- Banner photograph by Kremer Johnson Photography.

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Ghosts Of The Future - Bringing Performer And Audience Together In VR

Posted By Curtis Augspurger, Monday, February 4, 2019

At first it looks like theater. From a Victorian-appointed parlor, you are invited into a fully dressed foyer, all dark weathered walls and period furnishings. An actor greets you, declaring herself a physical manifestation of the ghost of Charles Dickens’ Marley, from A Christmas Carol. She engages you curiously, eventually directing you to a small writing desk on which rests an old, leather-bound ledger. Your name is already scribed into the weathered book.

 Seated at the desk, you see your reflection in a mirror. Marley gently places a VR headset on you. If there’s a moment when the theatrical illusion breaks, it’s gone as soon as you see precisely the same room around you, fully replicated in VR. The desk before you, the mirror, the one-to-one nature of the room—everything correlates, marrying what you see with what you feel. The sounds of horse carriages on cobblestones begin to filter in. Marley whispers to you, now beckoning from the other side of the wall.

 “Are you ready to cross over? Yes? You may not recognize me when you do … You may even think yourself an apparition.”

 After a show-stopper moment that seamlessly blends VR with the real world (I don’t want to spoil the surprise for future audience members), you are transported to a different time and place. Seeing is believing, but “feeling what you see” raises the bar to new heights.

 Now alone, you find yourself in Scrooge’s grand sleeping quarters. Thick velvet drapes. A large, intricately carved four-poster bed. An old smoking chair beside a warm fire. Reaching out to touch the digital bedposts, you find that they are physically there. Wandering over to the smoking chair, you can feel the gnarled, walnut arms and soft velvet back. Light filters in through tall windows; 1860s London is outside.

Just as you begin to feel comfortable in the space, you sense the eerie presence of another, whom you cannot see. In a swoosh of smoke, Marley gasps frighteningly to life (or rather, the afterlife) before your VR eyes. You are now in the presence of Marley in her ghostly digital form, being driven by an actor in motion capture gear. Flowing hair and tattered clothing expose the vacuous empty shell of what once was her body. She addresses you by name, reaching her chained arm forward, placing an empathetic (if decaying) hand on your shoulder. She informs you that on this night you will be visited by three spirits.

And so your journey begins. Over the next 20 minutes, you are immersed in the most memorable set-pieces of A Christmas Carol … Scrooge’s (and your) envisioned past, present and future, ending in an iconic Victorian graveyard, where you’re compelled to confront your own mortality in surprisingly personal fashion. Throughout the show you’re guided by the spirits, each of them rendered by motion capture actors, fantastical avatars who react and speak to you in real time. As with any kind of interactive theater, the more you give in response to the performers, the more you get more back from the experience.

This is Chained: A Victorian Nightmare, a one-of-a-kind dive into a fully immersive world that pushes the boundaries of storytelling possibility. The brainchild of creator/director Justin Denton, it’s a single-person immersive theater experience that marries VR technology to live actor-driven performance for a dark reimagining of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I was proud to produce Chained for its sold-out inaugural run in downtown Los Angeles this winter and was thrilled when Produced By invited me to reflect on the challenges of creating this unique show.

Chained is a new entry pushing the boundaries of the emerging Location Based Entertainment/VR market. To date LBE has been dominated by first-person-shooter experiences, esports and ride games. Early adopters have flocked to these experiences, powering a market that came close to $1 billion in revenue in 2018 and is projected to eclipse $12 billion by 2023 and comprise 11% of the VR industry. To encourage the audience’s adoption of this new market, the major challenge before us as producers is to create engagement models that place the technology at the service of storytelling, rather than vice-versa.

Developing and rehearsing Chained, from left: cast member Michael Bates, director Justin Denton,
interactive story producer Bruce Straley, cast member Haylee Nichele. Photos courtesy of Curtis Augspurger.


Getting Here

As with many of our origin stories, before I discovered my passion for film and digital media production, on a different path. As a graduate student in the School of Architecture at Columbia University, I was quick to realize that I couldn’t draw as well as I could see. We were still being taught with the traditional tools of the t-square and triangle, which gave me the foundation of spatial understanding but didn’t allow the freedom and interactivity I desired. Finding access to the highest-end software and computing systems (now less powerful than the phones in our pockets) at the time proved difficult, as the costs were in the neighborhood of $500K for a system. The Apple IIe had just been released, AutoCAD was just coming onto the market and the 3D visualization tools we take for granted today were then just a concept.

While working for architect Richard Gluckman on the Whitney Museum’s Breuer expansion project (now the Met Breuer), I brokered a deal with leading software and hardware companies and convinced Gluckman and the Breuer’s Director David Ross to take a risk. After several months of hard work photographing and then digitizing the Whitney collection (for the first time) and integrating it into Gluckman’s design on the computer, the board was allowed to see inside the design and take a ‘virtual walk-through’ with the collection in place, which helped the project win the build contract.

A demo of the Breuer expansion led to an alumni donation of a $10M computer lab to Columbia’s School of Engineering, where I then taught these same visualization tools to the next generation of student visionaries. The class eventually caught the eye of Hollywood, and after switching coasts from NYC to Los Angeles, I found myself immersed in building digital set extensions for Wayne Enterprises in Batman Forever, the digital swamp that Shrek called home, and ultimately producing animated features for Disney and Fox. Fast forward 25+ years, and we are still using bleeding-edge technology to strengthen the connection of story with the human experience.

“This project is actually not possible without having a live actor in the space with you. It’s at the core of how we wrote it and how we workshopped it with the actors. The technology of having the motion capture actor there is the reason why we can adapt to you as the guest and make it unique every time.”

~Justin Denton, Creator / Director


Bringing Chained To Life In Real-time VR

Not only would this type of project not be possible without the live actor in the space, but the technical ability to make this type of narrative experience didn’t exist a few short years ago.

The immersive tech Chained required is still in its nascent days and fraught with bleeding-edge incompatibility problems. So to produce a project of this scope, a faithful team of visionaries, a small village of talented artists, actors, set fabricators and engineers had to be pulled together to bring the curtains up in just under nine months.

With Chained, we were fortunate to have an experienced producing partner in Executive Producer Ethan Stearns and Associate Producer Christine Ryan, of Madison Wells Media Immersive, along with the support of Executive Producer David Richards of Here Be Dragons. MWM Immersive put tremendous faith in the project early on by backing it as their flagship immersive project. When our milestones slipped or our technology failed (as it did more often than not), Stearns’ previous experience producing Carne y Arena helped us keep the focus on prioritizing the audience’s experience with technology, in service of the story.

For example at one point in Chained, the story calls for a prop to be handed to the audience member by our mo-cap actor. Sounds simple, but it ended up being an enormous pain point—one that was more technical than story-driven. We needed the prop to feel as real as it appeared in the VR rendering. This required a tracking solution. With today’s tech, the two basic options were passive tracking (marble-sized reflective dots) or active tracking (tiny embedded LED emitters). Of course the passive solution is cheap and clunky, which could pull the guest out of the experience; while the active tracking solution is elegant and complicated, but at 10 times the cost. With an already challenged budget, support for this solution could have gone the direction of cheap and clunky. But in this case, our experienced partners’ commitment to stay true to the audience’s experience of the story led us to trim costs elsewhere and go with the more elegant solution, creating one of the more magical takeaway moments of the experience.

Actively tracking audience-held props notwithstanding, there were a large number of unknowns and unproven challenges we would encounter to achieve the narrative path. In an effort to control the complexity of the challenges before us, we chunked our goals down into a series of weekly sprints and milestones. We looked to align the project’s technical requirements with the conceptual design by adopting a game design pipeline. The milestones were broken into a few achievable categories; a minimum viable product (known as a ‘grey box’); vertical slice; green light; and ultimately a final EXE deliverable.

The grey box version merely showed temporary, untextured volumes representing the spaces, props and their interactivity (one month). For the vertical slice milestone (two months), we selected one of the scenes and gave it an approximate finish as a textured, lit environment. The grey box and the vertical slice demonstrated that the technology could marry the look/design with performance interactions, while still supporting our actors in the interactivity of the narrative.

To further complicate the design process, the visual effects from live-action events needed to be triggered (on the fly) during the performance, from a handheld tablet. Actor workshops held in VR headsets were used as an iterative back and forth, helping to get the actors comfortable with the technical demands of bringing the art to life. The story team also used these workshops to refine the story and staging for the mo-cap actor and their counterpart. Our live-action Marley thus transitioned to the stage manager, whose role was to orchestrate the live performance effects, trigger live-action visual effects and cue scene transitions on a connected tablet.

To streamline this intertwined production/performance process, we set up our ‘sandbox’ workspace and motion control camera systems at Aaron Sims Creative. ASC is the powerhouse design shop responsible for some of the biggest AAA character work in the film industry and who we chose to lead the creative design and the engineering of the EXE delivery. With imaginary walls lined in tape on the floor and tracking cameras in the ceiling, we were enabled to iterate directly with the VFX supervisor, Ryan Cummins, and his ASC engineering and creative team to bring the digital design work in line with creative goals. Cummins’ team collaborated with motion capture vendors Ikenema and Dynamixyz to integrate the body and facial capture in real-time to drive our spirits’ performances.

Beyond the one-to-one tactile relation of the space and their visual cues, the acoustical surroundings were critical for full audience buy-in into our immersive VR world. In most film productions, the sound is geared to the element of time, whereas in VR, the sound has the added component of spatiality and becomes more complex than a normal stereo mix. Making audio cues play from sources (diegetic sound) or from the ambient environment (non-diegetic sound) in a VR scene adds exponential science to the audio mix process.

To help us solve these equations, we partnered with composer and VR sound design wizard Dražen Bošnjak and his team at Q Department. Bošnjak and his talented team scored and mixed to make our London exterior and interiors sound like 1860s London. They created the entire audio landscape and score to work in concert with your spatial relation in the rooms and its objects. As you walk toward the fireplace in Scrooge’s bedroom, the crackle of the fire grows louder and the sound of the ticking grandfather clock responds to your position.

When soaring over London, the sounds and whooshes of the wind and passing clock towers surround your ears. You’ll hear each entry and exit that the spirits make into your virtual world, and as they finally usher you to the end of the experience and you reenter the world of the living, the familiar sounds of the clattering horses on cobblestones bookend the journey from where you began.

Immersive media has us all looking ahead to what is possible; what is next. As producers it may feel as though the years of learning the craft of storytelling are being overshadowed by the breakneck speed of technological advancement. However far we have progressed, the core techniques of storytelling, even in the face of modern technology, have not changed fundamentally. The latest headset experiences with either Magic Leap, Oculus, Halo Lens, Vive and whatever comes after, all continue to expand our ability as storytellers to move forward, reimagining legendary tales and new content to deepen the connection with our audiences in exciting ways. These emerging technologies not only offer the expansion of opportunity but simultaneously reinforce the foundational needs of the storytelling craft.

In this new frontier, the point to remember is that our role as producers has not changed. The fight to make story our primary focus, regardless of medium or technology, lives on and will carry the growth of the market.

As the epitaph of a life is being prepared and the birth and death dates are carved, Chained’s take-away message for the audience member is that only “the dash between” counts. How far we’ve come, and just how far we can go with storytelling in the digital age is solely up to what story you can dream up. If you dream it, there will likely be a new technology ready to bring it to life. Make the story of your dash count. 

PGA member Curtis Augspurger is currently finishing work on a 6DOF (six degrees of freedom) VR version of Othello with Oculus, Here Be Dragons and JuVee Productions, and embarking on a passion project to bring Light Immersion Therapy VR to PTSD sufferers.

- Artwork courtesy of Aaron Sims Creative

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In Her Own Lane - Dany Garcia's Unique Strategy For Production Magic

Posted By Katie Grant, Monday, February 4, 2019

"I’m a very frustrated individual who really wants to globally impact the world through my thoughts,” admits PGA member Dany Garcia. “I just haven’t gotten there.” One might beg to differ with the former Merrill Lynch VP turned producer, manager and media mogul, who lives and breathes her passion for enterprise, especially this goal of building one with global impact. That enterprise was built with ex-husband and still client, Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, based on the belief she could create a corporate model around an individual in a way that had never been done before.

It’s a notion that has paid off. According to Forbes’ Celebrity 100 list, “DJ,” as Garcia calls him, is now the highest paid actor in Hollywood. (While George Clooney was No. 1 on the list, he can credit that position largely to having sold his tequila company in 2018 for $700 million.) But the real boost to Johnson’s profile stems from his own personally written social media postings for his 190 million global followers. And in fact, the social media strategy Garcia and Johnson have embraced, of putting their audience first and keeping them intimately connected to Dwayne, is the brainchild the producer prides herself—and their success—on.

“DJ was six to seven years within the WWE,” she explains. “I loved business so much, I was convinced I could build a corporate model around an individual, if it was the right individual. And DJ is. From the moment I met him on [the University of Miami] campus … within him I [could] see this magic.” That vision met its first major test when Johnson began his transition from wrestler to movie star. “The audience used to see him twice or three times a week in their living room. Intimately. Like, you’re hanging out in your PJs in the morning and the Rock’s there. He’s your buddy. So what was taken away was something weekly, where people would invest in that relationship. For social media, it was like, there it is. We aren’t wrestling every week on TV, but we’re doing this.”

Garcia considers herself an “enterprise producer.” For her, “What that means is, each project we do, my job is not only the film but the on-the-ground production. My responsibility is the project: the relationship of the project to the entire cast, the relationship of the project to the studio and then, the relationship of the project to the audience. I produce the entire experience.

Executive Producer Dany Garcia (second from right) on the set of The Titan Games with her producing team,
including fellow EP Dwayne Johnson (second from left).

“It’s also one of the reasons why a lot of our films feel so big,” she continues, “because we are actually activating multiple mechanisms, in addition to what the project is. So if you’re going to do that, even if it’s a small, little $1 million project, or it’s a very large $200 million-plus project, that project has to be large in scope to be able to activate all the mechanisms, to really activate my position.” At a baseline, Garcia feels that the ideas of her projects need to resonate strongly enough to live on for the next decade. She wants them to impact not only the audience that sees a given film but also those who will only ever see the trailer.

Garcia’s penchant for numbers and mind for business emerged from her background as a daughter of Cuban immigrant parents and her determination to create a better life for them. She grew up in New Jersey amidst a family of musical hopefuls, including a brother and a sister who went to the U of Miami on performance scholarships. Garcia herself plays piano and the French horn, but the producer always knew she wanted to make money more than she wanted to make music. She majored in international marketing and finance and learned how to be the only woman in high-powered rooms from her professors there.

“So that strategy was practice, practice, practice, practice, practice,” she recalls. “It was prepare, prepare, prepare, prepare. Be so good, so that by the time you did speak, or you were in the room, you knew. So I was concentrating on one thing—to be that prepared and that good. And what happened, concentrating on that, it took care of all the other things.”

The Garcia Companies and Seven Bucks Productions’ roster is vast and varied, including documentaries (Racing Dreams), reality TV (Wakeup Call), competition shows (Titan Games, The Hero), big budget features (Rampage, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Baywatch), action (Skyscraper) and drama (Lovely, Still), to name a few. Garcia sees the through-line as heart. “I have this obsession to have done something that really puts people in a different place, a better place and to have that happen globally … I’m very concerned about how you feel once you leave the experience.”

For Garcia moving the company forward in today’s industry is a matter of “trying to look for more magic.” You can’t get much more magical than Disney, and that’s exactly where they’ve developed one of their most anticipated productions. Jungle Cruise, based on the famous Disneyland ride, and starring Johnson and Emily Blunt, opens in 2020. It’s difficult for Garcia to contain her excitement about the film, given the level of secrecy it requires. “The Dwayne in [Jungle Cruise] has never been seen before,” she declares. And insofar as the Jungle Cruise is one of the rare Disney attractions that isn’t attached to a pre-existing story, Garcia and her team got a taste of what it’s like to create with the Imagineers from the ground up.

“It was culturally, for us, a fantastic experience,” she smiles. “[It] absolutely impacted how we look at our own people. We like to consider ourselves Imagineers as well, we really get out of the box … It’s just the collection of these very unique individuals who are nurtured to be as expansive and out of the box as possible.”

The Jungle Cruise social media strategy is a new twist for TGC. “Instead of the conversation behind the scenes,” she says, “we’re going to be a little more forward-facing. Because everyone does know the Jungle Cruise, we don’t really have to do that type of work. But we want to begin the transporting into the magic and fun. It lies in a little bit more tactile experiences, because we have the parks all over the world.

“And then we’ll allow the social media to just sort of gloss over the top,” she continues. “If we do it correctly—which I think we will, absolutely—we can just use [the Disney] magic as well. If you went into Disney and there were no lines, you would be ‘Ahhh, this is going to be great.’ That [feeling] is our goal.”

Their latest feature, Fighting with My Family, based on the documentary of the same name, marked Garcia’s first time at Sundance. It’s a classic underdog story based in the world of WWE and a working-class family of four from Great Britain. Even if you’re not a wrestling fan, you’ll be rooting for the characters to make it. Garcia singles out the spot-on casting, with Vince Vaughn garnering laughs as the “bad cop” coach and real wrestlers handling much of the stunt work. “It’s so dangerous,” she reports, “that you can’t have your talent come in to take bumps. There were moves that [cast member] Florence [Pugh] could do, though, and that’s why it looks so seamless. But in the end, it’s not a wrestling story, it’s a story about dreams coming true.”

Outside of business life, Garcia is a competitive physique body builder who trains alongside DJ and her husband/their mutual trainer, Dave Rienzi. Asked if there was anything she uses in her bodybuilding practice that applies to her producing career, she confirms, “Yes there’s actually a tremendous amount. Whenever I do get a chance to step on stage, there’s a direct correlation between my contest prep and the amount of productivity that happens in the next six to 12 months. There is a discipline process whenever you prep. I go up in weight in the off-season. And then I have to come down in weight. When you come down in weight, obviously you’re dieting and it’s really strict. You begin to shed all the things that make you eat chocolate cake. Every time I go through that process, it redefines in my head all the areas that I’ve allowed some softness, where I’m not all that sharp. Through that process I become very, very focused, very clean, very sharp. And there’s a purity that has to be in everything around me, so I don’t have these pressures to need an outlet of relief that is a drink or chocolate or a little bit more carbs. That has to move. And then everything becomes very efficient. I can come back into the creative process and I can cut through. It’s wonderful. You are really energetically clear.”

Garcia (right) at the premiere of Skyscraper,
with Simone Johnson.

Every time Garcia trains, the process differs depending on her body and the competition. And in fact she is constantly shedding old processes. “That makes me very comfortable with doing things brand new with every project. I am continuously training myself to not be comfortable; any old process makes for comfort. To be in a space that you’re challenged continuously … I like to say, ‘I’m used to the wind being in my face because there’s no one in front of me.’ You get chapped lips. You’ve got to build yourself up ... being the only one who’s doing what [I’m] doing, the way [I’m] doing it. So having that, not being attached to holding on to processes, [is] very, very beneficial.”

Garcia acknowledges she is a role model to other female producers and women of color, although she didn’t set out to be. “When that became more apparent to me over the last three years, four years—of the importance of my role—it was such a good realization because it allowed me to honor what I’m doing. Now my steps are not only, ‘Are they important for the execution in business?’ But they may actually carry some importance to the rest of the world. And you remember my overall goal, right? Global [impact]. So it was funny to realize that, ‘Wait, you’re there. You’re doing it. Honor yourself more so they can honor what they’re doing.’”

Since the #metoo movement and fight for equal pay, Garcia has seen a direct impact in her work, noting that, “It did make me look at how we were doing movies.” Garcia now hires her female leads first; in doing so she aims to cut any difficult conversations about salary comparisons off at the pass.

But she goes a step further. “I am working to be more vocal,” she states. “We cannot be successful in a quiet manner. We must be successful as loudly as possible. So that everyone else can see, and they can learn, and they can be inspired, and they can say, ‘I can do that.’ We aren’t doing our job if we are just quietly being successful. We have a bigger responsibility.”

Garcia is striving to meet that responsibility with The Titan Games (NBC), a reality series that’s billed as “a groundbreaking new athletic competition.” Garcia explains, “There is a great female story that’s going to come out of it. The audience is used to seeing men be physical and achieve great things. But women, they don’t have that same kind of exposure.

“We have it in the Olympics,” she owns. “But this is a matter of brute strength. What happens with our women is they quickly reach their physical max because we don’t change weights between men and women … maybe one or two. But the women quickly get to the point of physical fatigue. You see them go through it emotionally, and then they come out the other side. That’s greatness … to have the honor of witnessing that and the majesty of it.”

Invited to consider the nature of her ultimate legacy, Garcia reflects, “At the end of the day, I think I would love [my legacy to be] not only the enterprise and the body of work, but a true understanding of my philosophies and how I believe things can happen, that the way we executed can be teachable to the world and impactful to people’s lives and goals.

“I have no—“ she breaks off, widening her frame of reference. “We have no time to break any glass ceilings. If we’re breaking glass ceilings here, then that means we are not spending enough time creating. I like working that way. That’s the way that the world should be … Going forward our films will be very sensitive to [those factors]: This is how the world is or how the world is maybe working to get that way.” Garcia has already created a place for herself in that shift. It’s just a matter of how far she can extend her magic.

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Death and Taxes (Though It May Feel Like Death) - What Does The New Tax Legislation Mean For You?

Posted By Carrie Lynn Certa, Monday, February 4, 2019

I was always taught not to talk about politics or religion when in mixed company. I believe we should add taxes to that list because the conversations I’ve had around this topic have typically ended in confusion and frustration… those were the good conversations. But alas, the extreme changes that came out of Washington last year greatly affect us here in Hollywood. We all need to be aware of the pitfalls so as to avoid sticker shock when the bill comes due in April. So let’s first get all of that frustration and angst that we have surrounding taxes out of our system…


and my mother’s favorite, because she didn’t like to swear – Farkleberry!

Deep, cleansing breath, everyone. Do we feel better now? Okay, let’s dive in.

Everyone is getting into the “decipher the tax bill” game. Even has a page dedicated to investigating the various claims. I actually reached out to the good old IRS as well as a variety of CPAs and lawyers, to review every word in this article, so you are armed with the information you need in order to have a heart-to-heart with your tax accountant about the next best steps for you. Everyone’s tax situation is unique; Are you single? Married? Filing jointly or separately? How many exemptions did you claim on your W4? Are you an S-Corp? Children? (Dogs and cats don’t count, no matter how much you love them.) And so many other things, which affect only you.

 The examples given below are highly simplified so you can see the general effects of the tax laws, so please, take this information as a guide, not gospel, and of course, definitely consult a CPA or tax expert to look at your unique situation to get the full picture. Currently, the IRS is encouraging taxpayers to do a “Paycheck Checkup” by going to and using their Withholding Calculator. All you need is your 2017 tax return and most recent pay stub to get started. They also strongly encourage people who claim their children or who normally receive high tax refunds, who are a part of two-income families and those who work more than one job (just to name a few) to double-check their withholdings as not to be overwhelmed come April.

First, the bad news. Big changes to personal deductions. If you are an employee who receives W2’s and itemizes your deductions, these are just a few of the big changes that affect you:

  • Business expenses incurred by an employee (i.e. computer, cell phone, mileage, meals, IMDb Pro, agent and manager fees, etc.) are not deductible.
  • Entertainment costs are no longer deductible, including membership dues. i.e. cable bills, PGA dues, Academy dues, meals, etc.
  • Research expenditures (e.g. Spielberg’s latest autobiography, subscription to EW, movies, etc.) are no longer deductible.
  • The deduction for state and local taxes paid is now capped at $10,000.

Now, some better news:

  • Standard deductions were substantially increased, to $12,000 for single filers and $24,000 for a married couple filing jointly.
  • You will no longer be penalized for not having health insurance.
  • The limit on deductible charitable contributions has been increased to 60% of the adjusted gross income (AGI).

Below are abbreviated examples of tax changes in the form of your favorite childhood math homework, word problems! Please also note, because the changes to the tax laws were so extensive and substantial, our accounting experts have been extremely wary of providing bottom-line estimates for what this means for your taxes. (Believe me, we asked and asked and asked.) The best they’re able to do right now is estimate changes to withholding totals. As you’ll see, most filers will receive more back in their paychecks but will be allowed fewer (or zero) deductions. Should you normally receive a large tax refund based on your deductions, you may need to re-evaluate your withholding as not to be paying come tax day. Once again, to assess the actual bottom-line changes to your return, consult your tax professional.

Lynn Hood is a single, union coordinator in California with no dependents who and was paid $1,500.00 in wages weekly. Last year, she claimed 1 on her W4 and was able to deduct a portion of her IA & PGA dues, the new computer she purchased with the latest and greatest POC software, her cable bill, cell phone bills (which were not reimbursed by the production) and a plethora of movies she saw when she was on hiatus. But that was so 2017. In 2018, she received more money in her weekly check (see the comparison below) but couldn’t take any of those deductions of dues, computer/software expenses and the like.

                            2017                         2018

Income              $78,000.00                 $78,000.00

Federal              $19,618.04                $17,342.52

What a difference a year makes! In Lynn’s case, given the relatively modest number of her deductions, she might well be better off taking the standard deduction of $12,000 than itemizing whatever deductions she’s still allowed to take. If Lynn is a homeowner, she might still want to itemize, as the home mortgage interest deduction remains in effect. But if she’s renting, that standard deduction might be the way to go.

Mrs. Clara Bow is happily married, living the life in Malibu as the creator / producer of the comedic web series The Daring Years. She was paid $3,550.00 in weekly employee wages. Goldmine! She claimed 1 on her W4… but wait, that’s not all! She also started creating a new top secret series where she filed for copyright, some legal fees were involved, and paid a friend to build the pitch deck. Quite a large out-of-pocket expense!

Wow! She received almost $6,000 more in wages in 2018! That’s fantastic but alas, all those lovely deductions are now gone. She can’t write off any of the expenses for the top secret project as she did back in olden days of 2017.

                            2017                          2018

Income            $184,600.00                $184.600.00

Federal            $ 37,694.27                 $ 31,791.24

Using Tax Reform Calculator, in 2018 Ms. Bow, filing separately, would owe the government more than $5,000 come this April. Yikes! Let’s hope she sells that project quickly in order to pay Uncle Sam!

Now to consider the beloved S-Corp tax solution, which has its own set of hiccups. The California Supreme Court recently redefined “Employee” in the case of Dynamex Operations West, Inc. vs, Superior Court. As described by Schulyer M. Moore, a partner in corporate entertainment at Greenberg Glusker, LLP:

“Under this new test, a worker is considered to be an independent contractor only if all three of the following factors are present:

(A) The worker must be free from the control and direction of the payor in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract and in fact;

(B) The worker must perform work that is outside the usual course of the payor’s business; and

(C) The worker must be customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed by the worker for the payor.

This new test casts a wide net that will result in many ‘independent contractors’ in the entertainment industry being reclassified as employees. In particular, the second factor listed above could be used to argue that almost everyone in the entertainment industry is an employee.” Also, due to additional scrutiny over the past few years by the IRS and by various states (namely California and New York), more and more studios are proactively giving W-2s instead of 1099s to individuals that have been classified as independent contractors in the past.

In other words: those of you in below-the-line categories with loan-outs may be reclassified as employees, making your loan-out null and void. Should you be deemed misclassified, the IRS can fine not only the company for the error, but you, personally, as well. I can’t urge you strongly enough: Speak to the accounting department of your employer and your tax accountant to make sure you’re in the clear.

So how does this California decision affect you lucky residents of the other 49 states? Massachusetts and New Jersey are already using this test to classify employees and other states are using it to help determine unemployment compensation.[1] More states are expected to adopt this new definition so it’s something to keep tabs on, especially if you are an employer. Frances Ellington, CPA, DBA, further advises, “If you operate a business outside California and have workers both in California and outside California, you have to apply the labor and payroll tax rules applicable to the work location. It is also important to understand the state and local income tax, payroll tax, and other business taxes in the jurisdictions where you operate.”

You can also check for your state tax information online at

To add insult to injury, if you were an employee and changed to an S-Corp/loan-out while performing the same job for that employer, the IRS will not recognize the loan-out for tax purposes.

Do we need a swear break yet? Let’s take a moment to breathe and then let out a big old Farkleberry! Better?  Lets go through one example for those of you who can use your S-corp.

The beloved bachelor, Alan Smithee, had quite a year! His indie film, the one the studio swore would fail, made bank at the box office, which allowed him to cash a check for a cool $300,000. He did it all through his S-Corp entitled Show Me the Money, Corp. (SMM) Alan paid himself through a payroll company Claiming 9 on his W4 and here’s the breakdown! 

                                       2017                          2018

SMM Income                $350,000.00                $350,000.00

SMM Paid Alan             $160,000.00                $160,000.00

Alan’s Federal               $29,249.64                  $25,161.40
Taxes Withheld

In 2017, Alan was able to personally write off his manager fees, PGA dues, brand new computer, cell phone and the like. But in 2018, he submitted his computer costs along with his cable bill and cell phone bill under SMM but couldn’t write off his manager fees or dues, neither under the S-corp nor individually. In this example, Alan has to submit his personal income taxes along with his company’s taxes. According to the Tax Reform Calculator, Alan would still owe more than $4,500 on his personal taxes. The good news is that his company can take on some of the deductions, which could possibly offset the bottom line. See all the complicated twists and turns when it comes to taxes?

There is some encouraging recent news out of Washington.  Over a year after the bill was passed, the IRS has finally gotten around to clarifying a new deduction called the Qualified Business Income Deduction.  This could prove to be a significant benefit for some of you that maintain loan-out S-Corporations. The deduction is 20% of net qualified business income from the loan-out S-Corporation, but the caveat here is that the deduction may be limited if you are in a specified service trade or business.  That category is defined as:

  • Traditional service professions such as doctors, attorneys, accountants, actuaries and consultants.
  • Performing artists who perform on stage or in a studio
  • Paid athletes
  • Anyone who works in the financial services or brokerage industry
  • Any trade or business where the principal asset is the reputation or skill of the owner

A considerable number of producers will fall within that category, based on the fifth bullet point above, meaning that many people in our industry will not qualify for the full 20% deduction on income from their loan-out.  However, not all is lost, as some of us will qualify based on personal income, which includes all sources for individuals, not just business income.) Single individuals with loan-outs will see their deductible percentage decrease if their taxable income is at least $157,500 with the deduction completely phasing out at $207,500. Married filing jointly individuals with loan-outs are limited to a taxable income of $315,000 to get the full 20% deduction, with the deduction again completely phasing out at $415,000. These amounts will adjust for inflation in the future.

Is this new tax deduction confusing and complicated?  Hell, yes. It’s so complicated that it took the IRS over a year after the law was passed to come up with the regulations for this code section.  One of our accounting experts even told us that he had picked up three new clients in the past week because “their previous accountants just said ‘I give up.  I’m retiring,’ rather than having to contend with the complexity and uncertainty of the new laws.”  Assuming that your own tax advisor hasn’t chickened out in this fashion, we strongly advise (once again) that you consult with them to see if you may qualify for this deduction. If you do qualify, you might just be able to claw back a significant amount of what you lost in deductible expenses.

Remember, these are all highly abstracted examples based on a 503-page tax reform bill that the IRS legal team is still defining. Even so, we hope this gives you enough insight into the importance of sitting down with your own tax advisor to see how this directly affects you. But taking into account what we do know, I foresee changes in our industry. (Maybe kit fees for personal computers should back into fashion?) Either way, taxes are a sure thing, so perhaps we should start talking about it within mixed company in order to help a friend or colleague to avoid the string of profanity bound to happen come in April if they’re not prepared.

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Announcing IPSI - From The Presidents

Posted By Gail Berman & Lucy Fisher, Monday, February 4, 2019
On December 14 the PGA Foundation received a $2 million grant from CBS, part of the $20 million portion of Les Moonves’ settlement package set aside for donations to organizations that support workplace equality for women. The grant was the brainchild of Associate National Executive Director/COO Susan Sprung and will be used to fund the Guild’s groundbreaking new Independent Production Safety Initiative (IPSI), which will provide free anti-harassment training and legal advice to qualifying independent productions. Our program should be operating within a few months and will be the first of its kind in the entertainment industry.

The Independent Production Safety Initiative is an extension of the work of the Guild’s Anti-Sexual Harassment Task Force, which was created last fall by then-Presidents Lori McCreary and Gary Lucchesi, as soon as the first news broke about the widespread sexual harassment occurring in our business. Last January the Task Force released the industry’s first anti- sexual harassment guidelines.

Since then we and other members of the Task Force have held discussions with producers to learn what more we could do to protect our workplaces from harassment and coercion. What we learned was that, although producers across the industry were committed to harassment-free workplaces, most nonstudio, independent productions lacked sufficient financial and institutional resources to support those goals. With studios making fewer and fewer movies and more productions relying on independent financing, our Guild saw a crucial gap that we wanted to fill. Accordingly, we are delighted to announce that with the CBS grant, IPSI will be able to fund on-set, in-person training, covering issues of harassment and laws governing workplace conduct, for all casts and crews of qualifying independent film, television or digital productions.

In addition producers who take advantage of the IPSI training sessions will have access to up to two hours of free legal consultation, which can be utilized at any point during the production process, to address harassment and conduct issues when and if they arise. As McCreary has observed, production is by nature complicated and unpredictable, but providing access to expert legal counsel lets producers know that they won’t be left on their own. If incidents of harassment occur, those producers now have a place to turn.

In order to qualify for IPSI training and legal consultation, a production must include more than 20 individuals among its cast and crew, but not have access to a company-wide human resources or legal department. For productions with 20 or fewer cast and crew members, the Guild will provide complimentary access to group training sessions, which will be held on a regular basis across a variety of production centers around the U.S.

We would like to thank our COOs Vance Van Petten and Susan Sprung for helping create this landmark program and CBS for funding it. And we would particularly like to thank our members for being so proactive in this area. Armed with practical tools and a fierce determination to create better, fairer and safer working environments, our members have once again demonstrated they’re ready to lead the way.

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MENTORING MATTERS - Platform Jumping: Making The Leap From Games To Scripted TV

Posted By Matt Stokes, Monday, February 4, 2019

My route to the PGA has been different than most: I’ve been producing video games for the last 15 years. Games is an incredible industry, but like most producers, I’m interested in all kinds of ways to tell stories and create memorable projects.

When I applied for the PGA Mentoring Program, it was to find a route to combine my experience in producing with my skills as a writer. I wanted to get my feet wet in scripted television, specifically hour-long, action/thriller content like the CW superhero shows 24 and Alias. I love all that stuff and want to work on similar content one day. During my interview with the Mentoring Committee, I was asked who my dream mentor would be. I swung for the fences and asked for a showrunner who had created and worked on the kinds of shows I wanted to make someday. We were asked for specific names of potential mentors, and I gave a few I had researched—any one of which would have been wonderful to learn from. A few months later, the Committee notified me that I had been paired with my first choice: Marc Guggenheim, co-creator and former showrunner on Arrow. It was a great lesson in asking for what you want—you could actually get it.

Marc and I hit it off quickly at our first meeting, and he’s been an invaluable teacher and guide on how shows are put together and reach the air. I’ve already learned a lot about how shows are developed, the process for taking them out and how vital it is to work with the network in preparing a pilot. He’s also been honest about how tough the television business is; there is no standard path that everyone follows. As someone who went through video games to get into the PGA to then get a mentorship about writing/producing television, I’m not afraid of building my own path.

In addition to multiple one-on-one meetings with Marc, I also asked him about joining a writers’ group. “Sure, let’s build you one!” he replied, and so we did. We now have a small group of writer/producers eagerly working on their own projects.

Not only have I gained a teacher and friend, I’ve also found a group of like-minded writer/producers to bounce ideas off and grow with. That’s the power of PGA’s Mentoring Program and the Guild as a whole: bringing producers and creators from across different media together, and giving us the opportunity to learn from each other and build incredible new things together.

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OPEN DOORS - Make This Moment Into A Movement: The Power of Diversity Master Workshop Rides The Crest Of The Wave

Posted By Sasheen R. Artis, Monday, February 4, 2019

2018 proved to be a year of tectonic shifts for our business—from #metoo, #timesup and the rediscovery of inclusion riders, to a wave of successes featuring diversity on the screen and behind the scenes. Worldwide, audiences proved that if we produce authentic stories featuring fully developed and representative characters, they have the money to spend, delivering an all-time high $41.7 billion global box office. Now 2019 presents us with the opportunity to make this moment a movement.

Whether reality, documentary, video games, television or film, the stories we choose to tell and the crew and cast we hire need to reflect what our world truly looks like. It’s time to break the myth that hiring by “merit” or “excellence” means hiring the same people you’ve always worked with. There are plenty of excellent folks in our industry that you haven’t met. Additionally, to ensure the success of these stories, inclusivity and representation need to exist in every facet of our business—distribution, marketing, strategic planning, finance, business affairs—everywhere. Once these factors work in concert with each other (including stories, crew/cast, executives, agents, managers and financiers), we will see significant and consistent success over time. Fortunately the Producers Guild of America has been at the forefront of these changes.

2019 marks the 15th anniversary of the Producers Guild of America Power of Diversity Master Workshop. The Workshop is a free eight-week summer program that offers master classes in pitch and story development, film finance, line producing, demystifying the TV writers room, agents and managers, packaging and multi-platform content delivery. We work with emerging and mid-career producers and also provide them one-on-one mentoring with PGA members. Many of our 180 alumni have gone on to great success—winning awards, show running series and making amazing films.

Past speakers have included current PGA President Lucy Fisher, Lori McCreary, Gary Lucchesi, Bruce Cohen, Mark Gordon, Bruna Papandrea, Marshall Herskovitz, Shonda Rhimes, Damon Lindelof, Paris Barclay, Caryn Mandabach, Lindsay Doran, Luis Barreto, Ali LeRoi and Bonnie Arnold. Open to PGA members and nonmembers, the goal of the Workshop is to teach producers how to pitch and package their projects for the marketplace. Only 10 projects are selected each year.

So how can you be a part of the movement? Find a fresh and authentic story to tell. Build a diverse team that can help you realize your vision. Work with companies who know how to reach new audiences and will fully support your efforts. If you would like additional support, consider applying to the Power of Diversity Master Workshop, either as a mentor or as a participant. Our industry is poised on the brink of change and each of us has an important role to play.

Sasheen R. Artis is a writer/producer and Co-Chair of the PGA Power of Diversity Master Workshop. For more information and to get involved, visit

- Photo: 2018 Workshop participants and mentors, including current PGA President Lucy Fisher (dead center, behind desk), celebrate graduation.

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ON THE SCENE - Green Light

Posted By Administration, Monday, February 4, 2019



At the end of an evening in which everything seemed up for grabs, producer/director Peter Farrelly stood onstage, practically gobsmacked. “Guys like me aren’t supposed to even be here, never mind winning anything,” he told the room, while accepting the Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Green Book. Indeed it felt like a night where anything could happen, from The Americans breaking through to win its first Producers Guild Award for its final season, to RuPaul’s Drag Race outshining previous winners The Voice and The Amazing Race to grab Competition Television honors, to Farenheit 451 taking home the PGA’s first-ever award for Streamed or Televised Motion Pictures. The night nearly turned into a literal Norman Lear lovefest, with honorees Kenya Barris and Amy Sherman-Palladino voicing their gratitude for the producer’s decades of from-the-heart leadership and presenter Regina King upping the ante by openly propositioning the still spry TV legend from the stage. (You want to know why the Producers Guild Awards aren’t on television? So we can continue to enjoy wacky insiders-only moments like King hitting on  Lear.) Congratulations to event producers Donald De Line and Amy Pascal, herself a winner for animated feature (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), who delivered a dazzling show at a lightning pace.

- View the photos 



The PGA’s premier morning event showed off some exciting new twists, such as its new venue at the Skirball Cultural Center and a new moderator, as PGA President Lucy Fisher took the reins from longtime host Gary Lucchesi. The event didn’t miss a beat, feeding an audience of over 600 in the lovely courtyard off the Skirball’s Ahmanson Ballroom and delivering the most memorable moments of making the year’s top films, as told by their producers. Thus you could hear Graham King (Boheniam Rhapsody) discuss his earliest talks with the surviving members of Queen to get the project off the ground, Kevin Feige reveal that the production lighting had inadvertently (and temporarily) blinded the entire cast of Black Panther and Andrew Form (A Quiet Place) share the mortification of enduring a test screening that included zero finished VFX shots. Roma’s Alfonso Cuaron may have provided the morning’s most memorable moment. When asked the biggest obstacle to producing his film, he replied that “the director [i.e., Cuaron himself] was very difficult.”

- View the photos



Attendees at this year’s PGA holiday event were treated to a grand, Great Gatsby-themed party, with many members dressing their dapper best. The Events Committee took the soiree in an entirely new direction, including a delicious three-course, sit-down dinner and a variety of live entertainment including music from singer Flavia, close-up magic by Dylan Wilson, stand-up comedy from Steve Hofstetter and the LA Follies dance troupe. Attendees still had plenty of time to mingle as well as win valuable prizes, thanks to the night’s costume contest and a 1920s-themed game created just for the event. Generous sponsors like Tiny Horse, The Hand Prop Room, United American Costume Company and Creative Coverings helped to keep this year’s ticket cost down—a big thanks to them and to everyone who attended and made this night such a huge success.

- View the photos



Sometimes Hollywood just happens. In an industry often referred to by the name of the city where it all began, producers—surrounded by decades of iconic movie and TV memorabilia—toasted their contribution to Hollywood. Seventy-two productions were nominated to receive one of 13 PGA awards for excellence in producing; together over 1,000 individuals comprise the producing teams of the nominated projects. Many of those team members celebrated at the historic Hollywood Museum this January, at an event presented by the PGA’s newest sponsor, Garnett Investments. Now in its third year, the west coast “nominees celebration” is a collaborative effort by the AP and New Media Councils and promotes the achievements of the entire producing team recognized by the PGA.

- View the photos




In January nominated producing teams from across genres gathered for the East Coast Celebration of our Producers Guild Awards Nominees, presented by the Producers Guild of America and Cadillac. Some of the nominees in attendance included: Stephen Schiff and Mary Rae Thewlis (The Americans); Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman); Jason Blum (BlacKkKlansman, Sharp Objects); Ben Stiller and Adam Brightman (Escape at Dannemora); Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Free Solo); Julie Cohen and Betsy West (RBG); Kevin Messick (Vice); and Nicholas Ma (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?). From late night, in attendance with their teams were Chris Licht (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert), and Jen Flanz and Jill Katz (The Daily Show with Trevor Noah). Among the evening’s high points was PGA East Vice Chair Donna Gigliotti’s presentation to Bruce Cohen of the Charles FitzSimons Award, the Guild’s highest service honor, which recognizes, “outstanding dedication and enduring contributions to the Producers Guild of America.”

- View the photos

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ABOVE & BEYOND - Find Your People: PGA Service Is The Secret To Making The Most Of Your Membership

Posted By Administration, Monday, February 4, 2019

Volunteers are the backbone of the Producers Guild. Events, seminars and master classes are provided by member volunteers, all of them working producers who believe in the Guild and want to give back. To whatever degree we can, we want to acknowledge and honor volunteers who represent some of the unsung heroes of the PGA.    

Longtime volunteer Karyn Benkendorfer has been a member for about 14 years, serving the PGA at various times as the Chair of the PGA West Documentary/Non-Fiction Committee and the Co-Chair of the Power of Diversity Master Workshop, and acting as a Workshop mentor since the program’s inception. She is currently a member of the Education and Employment committees as well as WIN (Women’s Impact Network). Karyn continues to volunteer because, she says, “Being part of the committees has exposed me to many different people and countless opportunities. It’s not just finding out what [members] do, but knowing who they are.” Some of Karyn’s most memorable experiences in the PGA include her work as a mentor to Workshop participants, and she maintains fond memories of helping families fulfill their dreams via PGA Green Habitat for Humanity builds. When she is not volunteering for the Guild, Karyn is a producer and writer in non-fiction programming, approaching her stories with the same passion she brings to her Guild service.

Lynn Hylden joined the PGA while living in Los Angeles and then, as she says, “Ten minutes later I moved to Atlanta.” Down south she is an integral part of the Guild’s growing Atlanta chapter. Lynn currently serves as a member of the AP Council Board of Delegates and on the Guild’s National Board of the Directors. “Honestly I believe that the more we put into the world, the more the world delivers back to us,” she tells Produced By. “By stepping up and doing something that benefits more than just me, I feel like I can give a little back to this profession that gives so much to us.” Lynn recalls a memorable PGA moment from the time after she was elected as an AP Council delegate. Coming out to Los Angeles to a welcome gathering, she realized she had “found her people” among the other Board members and volunteers. It’s proved to be a great way to connect and meet colleagues, exchanging ideas that can help the Atlanta chapter and the Guild as a whole. “Volunteering is a great way to explore and expand your skillset by taking on challenges that push you outside your comfort zone in a relatively risk-free environment,” she observes. “It’s a really easy way to discover something new that you didn’t realize you were good at and explore it further.” When Lynn isn’t volunteering, she has primarily worked on scripted series and MOW’s while in Atlanta, after transitioning from the world of reality TV production management while living in LA. She is also the proud mom of a young child, a full-time job in itself! Our sincerest thanks to both Karyn and Lynn.Their dedication is a big part of what makes this organization as special as it is.

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GOING GREEN - The First Step Is The Last Straw: Social Storytelling Where Activism Meets Clickitivism

Posted By Jon Michael Kondrath, Monday, February 4, 2019

With the rise of content creation, there has been a shift to social storytelling, creating entertainment that not only connects people but is driven by collective good to engage and activate communities. AT&T is helping to carve this path forward and promote social storytelling through The Bright Fight, one of three series produced by Hello Lab, a joint venture with Fullscreen. The Bright Fight is a creator-led documentary series using digital influencers to promote online positivity and social responsibility. Scotty Sire, one of the three featured influencers, is out to save the environment, one straw at a time.

The advent of drinking tubes is unclear, but the oldest confirmed usage dates from 5,000 years ago—the walls of an ancient Sumerian tomb from approximately 3000 B.C. shows royals sipping through cylindrical tubes. Over the centuries straws have materialized from the exotic, gold and blue stone lapis lazuli, to simple dried reeds and—no surprise to anyone—straw. The latter of these drinking devices had the unfortunate side effect of falling apart or imparting an unwanted flavor to the beverage being imbibed.

Enter Marvin C. Stone, the man who filed the first patent for a drinking straw, due to his love of mint juleps and desiring the untainted flavor of mint. On a summer day in 1880, to avoid the earthy residue invading his taste buds, Stone wound some strips of paper around a pencil, then coated the hollow tube in paraffin. By 1890 his factory was mass producing the simple (and still earth-friendly) straw.

Just a little earlier, around 1870, the first plastics were invented and plastic products were created. Quickly Stone’s creation was married to the young plastics industry; plastic proved far more durable and cheaper than paraffin-coated paper. By the 1960s these seemingly innocuous pieces of plastic were being mass produced.

Today it is estimated that 500 million straws are used every single day in the US alone, more than 1.5 straws per person per day. That may seem like a lot, and it is. Most straws are between 4 inches (cocktail or stirring straws) and 10 inches (your typical green Starbucks straw) long. If you were to lay the straws end to end, you could circle the earth ... twice. We’re talking over 50,000 miles of straws per day. In a full year, that mega-straw would reach to the moon and back 42 times. Single-use plastic has become a hot-button environmental issue and plastic straws have drawn the short straw. The younger generation has demonstrated a resolute desire to preserve their planet and be more conscious of waste, by recycling, using alternatives to plastics or cutting out items that are unnecessary.

Top: Scotty Sire and Kristen McAtee lead the charge for The Bright Fight.
Bottom: Socially conscious citizens add their "last straws" to the art installation

AT&T Hello Lab wants to be a part of this conversation, tackling the specific topic of single-use plastic within the broader social movement. One of the goals of programming like The Bright Fight is fostering community, bringing people together to take action for good. Sire released one of his first episodes (“The Biggest Surprise of Her Life”) with a call to action. In mid-October, Sire along with fellow digital influencer Kristen McAtee, headed to Santa Monica to explore the city’s efforts to ban plastic straws by 2019 and encourage the community to engage through art. Sire and McAtee took to the Santa Monica Pier to get people to pledge “my last straw,” by placing their last plastic straw into an art installation surrounded by one of the largest victims of plastic use, the ocean.

Eight million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. Sire shared with pier dwellers that scientists speculate by 2050 there will be more pieces of plastic in the ocean than fish. (This assertion is backed by a report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.) Plastic debris in the ocean does not break down and can end up killing marine life or just floating endlessly in the ocean. There’s a floating mass of trash in the middle of the Pacific between California and Hawaii called, appropriately, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s two times wider than Texas and is comprised of more than 99% plastic.

After the call to action, Sire released an anthem for The Bright Fight, a song called “Last Straw,” featuring Mariah Amato encouraging people to stop using single-use plastic. The official lyric video presents a catchy tune, bright graphics and a message to join the fight. Targeting Gen Z, programming like The Bright Fight is designed for primary viewing on mobile and to align with socially conscious viewers who believe brands should be engaged in social good. The Bright Fight creates entertainment that propels the audience into engagement and participation outside of their screens. It’s important to get the influencers on board—social influencers, storytellers, celebrities and tastemakers. Sire himself has 2.3 million YouTube subscribers. If each of his subscribers took the “my last straw” pledge, that alone could eliminate 3.5 million straws per year.

It’s important to bear in mind that of the 8 million tons of plastic that go into the ocean every year, only 4% is plastic straws. But for the vast majority of people, plastic straws are single-use and are mostly a convenience item, not a necessity. They are an easily eliminated bit of excess and more importantly a “gateway plastic.” Eliminating plastic straws is just the first step in tackling the larger issue of plastics.

Several companies and governments are leading the “last straw” charge in their fields, banning single-use plastic straws. In July Seattle was the largest city to ban plastic straws (and utensils). San Francisco, Malibu and Santa Monica (as Sire explores in his one-on-one chat with Santa Monica mayor Ted Winterer) have also implemented their own bans. California became the first state to take action on the plastic straw, banning them in full-service restaurants starting in 2019, unless a customer specifically asks for one.

Making waves in the news have also been leaders in liquids, most notably Starbucks. The beverage behemoth has pledged to eliminate its iconic green, plastic straws by 2020, removing 1 billion straws per year. Walt Disney will also cut out plastic straws and stirrers by mid-2019. Even celebrities have joined the battle against plastic and straws, reaching out to their fans to back the effort.

Plastic straws may be the current hot topic, but hopefully the “last straw” is only the first step in creating a healthier earth.

- Photos courtesy of AT&T Hello Lab!

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BOSPOAT - Best On Set Photo Of All Time: Cut!

Posted By Administration, Monday, February 4, 2019

Be honest—this is what you always imagined Oliver Stone’s sets were like, right?

This pic, featuring the legendarily intense filmmaker (right, with machete) on the set of his 1991 opus JFK, was submitted to us by veteran producer and PGA member Clayton Townsend, who served as co-producer/production manager on the film. He appears in this photo as the severely wounded gentleman in the driver’s seat.

We’re happy to report that Clayton did not in fact suffer his director’s machete-driven wrath, but rather had just completed a rare cameo, as the unfortunate Eladio Del Valle. (By Stone’s telling of the JFK saga, Del Valle was a CIA paymaster of David Ferrie, memorably played by Joe Pesci in the film.) “Oliver liked to put his staff and crew into his films,” Clayton tells us. “The guy in the hat was a production assistant named Juan Ros.”

Clayton admits that playing Eladio wasn’t much of a stretch. “The role required me just to be in the trunk of a car while being hacked to death by an unknown assailant,” he recalls. “The cinematographer, Robert Richardson, took great glee in pouring lots and lots of fake blood onto my head and into my ear.” While we admit we were hoping that the photo showed some hardcore rehearsal exercise to inspire an authentic expression of terror from the producer-turned-actor, no such luck—it’s just a photo of a high-spirited director having a goof with his team after getting the shot.

“I loved working with Oliver,” says Clayton, who went on to collaborate with Stone on five subsequent pictures. “He was very engaged and inclusive, a true filmmaker.” Speaking of being inclusive, there’s one key player here we’d like to include, but can’t: the would-be Zapruder who took this epic shot. Suspicion first fell on set still photographer Sidney Baldwin, but his steadfast denials have sent us down a rabbit hole of conjecture and supposition … could it have been Kevin Costner, shooting from behind the craft service table? Gary Oldman on the grassy knoll? Whatever the truth is, we expect that it would take at least a three-hour movie to uncover it. We’ll continue our research and meanwhile offer Clayton our sincerest thanks for submitting this phenomenal photo. 

We know what you’re thinking. “Best of all time? No way. I’ve got an on-set photo way better than that.” If that’s the case, we dare you to prove it. Submit it to Before you submit, please review the contest rules at Because no matter how great your photo is, we have no desire to get sued over it.

- View other BOSPOAT winners here.

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