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BOTH SIDES OF THE LINE - Mainstream Media and Transmedia Aren't Speaking The Same Language. Rhoades Rader Can Translate

Posted By Kevin Perry, Tuesday, September 5, 2017

At the intersection of big-screen crowdpleasers and second-screen obsession lurks a little something called the audience. We navigate from viral cat videos to Oscar-winning movies like a tech-savvy Tarzan, swinging from one digital vine to the next with curious abandon. So, who can tame our wild ways?

Enter Rhoades Rader.

My first impression of Rader was a gleeful blend of self-deprecation and irony. Before we met for the first time, he emailed me a helpful tidbit. “I’ll be with a white fluffy [dog emoji]. So I’ll be the one looking like a super villain, only less super and not as intelligent.” Moments later, he indeed strolled up with his trusty canine companion (Falkor) at his side. Rader sported a vintage grey T-shirt that read, “Another Sleazy Producer” in disco orange font. Falkor wore a fetching pink collar.

Sleazy producer, eh? We’ll see about that.

Rader embodies the link between mass media and the very digital revolution that challenges its hegemony, and he has welcomed this clash of contradictions for years. While at UC Santa Barbara, he switched from a double major in religious studies and economics to filmmaking, but never abandoned the lessons of his former concentrations. “My focus has really been on storytelling,” Rader explains. “That’s where my religious studies came from. It’s all about narrative structures and influencing people’s minds and trying to figure out what gets people excited and how they identify narratives in their own lives and apply them to the world. That sort of relationship about language back-and-forth is what’s always excited me.”

One of Rader’s first major credits was Executive Producer of the blockbusteriest of blockbusters, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, starring Ben Stiller. Rader worked at Stiller’s production company Red Hour Films for years, but he was always searching for the forgotten quadrant of the audience who may not have dipped, ducked, dove and dodged their way to the multiplex. “So that’s when I went into independent films.” He decided, “This will be a great place where you can tell stories that you couldn’t tell elsewhere. There’s an appetite for them, a hunger for them, and there’s an underserved market.”

After producing several indie features, Rader studied the migration of his audience and followed them to their ultimate destination: the Internet. But he didn’t abandon his comedy background when he began charting the digital frontier. “The best delivery system for any idea is comedy,” he states. “You can get a Republican and Democrat to laugh at the same joke. If that joke has a particular spin or angle or piece of information in it, you’ve just delivered an ideology to two very different people through one particular narrative structure.”

Rader applied this philosophy (not to mention his mastery of harnessing star power and online influencers) to one of the worst problems facing the world: the water crisis. No biggie, right? So how do you make light of such a serious topic? Answer: go straight to the toilet. The campaign enlisted Matt Damon to hold a (fictional) press conference in which he announced that he would no longer go to the bathroom until the crisis was solved. But one comedy clip wasn’t enough for Rader. “We got a bunch of [YouTube] influencers to come in and they all got 15 minutes to film with Matt Damon. They could do whatever they want and put it on their channels, and we did the cross-promotion.” Grinning, Rader admits, “All the influencers wanted to fuck around with Matt Damon.”

The campaign went viral, attracting celebs like Jason Bateman, Jessica Alba, and Bono. Its success made Rader deservedly proud, leveraging the digital space to make a difference in the real world. “If we can make people laugh, then they’re gonna share it. If we can have more people see it and share it and like it, then more people will donate,” he recounts. “And that’s what happened. It was a very successful campaign. The reason it caught fire was the influencers and the traditional [producers] came together and promoted each other.”

Rhoades Rader shares an unsettling moment with cast member
John Michael Higgins (as Cotton Mather) on the set of Crossroads of History.

In addition to the little matter of saving the world, Rader’s comedic chops also served him well at Maker Studios, where he contributed to the Emmy-nominated series Crossroads of History. The show’s creator and star, Elizabeth Shapiro, had nothing but glowing reviews for her studio executive. “Rhoades is one of the great people of the world,” she says earnestly. “He’s the kind of executive you dream of getting, someone who fights for your vision of the show.” To be graphically specific, Shapiro recounts a piece of feedback in which Rader’s only notes came in the form of an email with the subject line: This time with more anus and less talking.

Rader’s work at Maker reached fans by the tens of millions and put him in the room with Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm. Having worked in both traditional media and the new transmedia sandbox, Rader was the liaison between two worlds, a role in which he excelled while maintaining no illusions about its perils. “Both sides of the equation had a lot of disdain for one another,” he recalls. “Each thought that they knew better than the other side of the equation. Being someone who had worked on both sides of that line, that’s where the opportunity was.”

Rader turned proverbial lemons into digital lemonade, producing several viral series to support the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as well as the current talk show hit Marvel’s Off the Rack. But the disconnect between mass media and transmedia was still weighing heavily on him. “Right now,” Rader asserts, “transmedia is just marketing opportunities. It’s not true native storytelling based on its platform.”

Never one to complain idly, Rader took his know-how to Mitu, a social media channel that racks up an estimated (and whopping) 2 billion views per month across its various platforms. One recent viral sensation was a shot-for-shot remake of the dance scene from Beauty and the Beast recast with Hispanic actors, scored by a Mariachi band. “Here is mainstream iconic American storytelling,” explains Rader. “Simply by taking that and putting a Latino point of view on it, you’re immediately firing up Latinos who never got to see themselves in that role before.” A sense of authenticity is the essential ingredient of his most effective work. “Successful content has to speak authentically to a group of people,” he observes. “The more you’re trying to do broad-based content, the more it feels like an advertisement, the more it feels fabricated, the less real it feels. The whole nature of social publishing on these digital platforms is that you have a real relationship and investment with the content you’re consuming and engaging with, in a way that literally didn’t exist five years ago. In fact, the digital content space is built on that personal relationship.”

A casual visitor to the Mitu Snapchat Discover tile will soon learn a buzzword that rings loudly in the halls of social media: chisme. Its rough English translation is “gossip,” but it means far more to Rader. “Chisme is a glue that holds communities together, holds ideas together; really it’s a fuel of conversation. When people are talking about something, it becomes more real, more interactive, more participatory. You’re helping fuel it. This is how communities are developed.”

Rader shakes hands with president Barack Obama prior to the President's sit-down interview with
Gina Rodriguez (left) for digital content platform Mitu.

But sometimes chisme cuts both ways, as Rader and his Mitu cohorts learned when they were tapped to conduct an interview with then-president Barack Obama. The one-on-one was conducted by Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez, who didn’t pull any punches on the topic of immigration. Obama fielded the inquiry by urging all Latino citizens to let their vote speak for the millions of undocumented individuals who couldn’t participate in the election. It was an admirable sentiment ... until the piece got re-edited by the alt-right. The resulting hack job appeared on Fox News and Breitbart, the deceptively cut clip giving the impression that Obama was encouraging undocumented people to vote. “It was one of my first interactions with how reporting can be chopped up and fabricated to say something that’s not true,” he recounts.

For a guy with substantial and effortless comedic chops, Rader was surprisingly soulful during our epic chatfest. He spoke of the mindfulness he attains during meditation, espoused the inherent kindness of the human spirit and bemoaned every lost opportunity that languished on the cutting-room floor over the years. Still, he balanced any hint of regret with eternal optimism like a champion perfectionist/dreamer hybrid, boiling it all down to a perfect producer’s bottom line: “My failures are forgotten but my successes are cheap.”

Rader announced that he left Mitu just a week before our meeting. So what is he going to do with all of the expertise that he’s accumulated from across the spectrum of his varied media endeavors? “I’d like to take what I did at Mitu and expand it to broader conversations, larger audiences, a bigger platform. I feel like that’s really my calling. I really do. Filmmaking is so far in the rearview mirror now. If I could go work for Facebook and help run the way they do video, that would be awesome.”

Social media giant, meet socially conscious humanist.

Case in point: when the conversation turned to gun violence and its depiction onscreen, Rader grew emotional. “Content creators have a huge responsibility to stand behind the ramifications and the implications of the content that you create.” He took a breath and then continued, “I personally take that stuff very seriously and strive very hard to work with people who are also aware of that. I’m trying not to cry right now.”

That’s when I noticed tears welling up in Rader’s eyes. He sat back and adjusted his ironic “Sleazy Producer” T-shirt pensively before collecting himself. For Rhoades Rader, media isn’t just an abstract construct, and it certainly isn’t just a job; it’s a matter of life and death. “Another Sleazy Producer?” Far from it. 

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