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CHARLES D. KING - Charles D. King Isn't Looking To Join Your Club. (But Maybe You Could Join His...)

Posted By Chris Green, Thursday, June 7, 2018
Updated: Wednesday, June 6, 2018

As anyone who’s worked in this business for more than 15 minutes can tell you: It’s a different world out there. The equity money isn’t where we thought it was. The technology can do things we only dreamed of 10 years ago. In fact, 10 years ago, the dominant player backing new and original content barely existed as a distribution platform. The audience doesn’t look like we thought it did, and the creators producing the most exciting content definitely don’t look like we thought they would.

Near the center of this shifting landscape stands Charles D. King, himself both a symptom and an agent of these changes. But before he was an agent of change, he was simply an agent, working for 15 years at WMA/WME, ultimately earning distinction as the first African American to be named as a partner in the venerable company’s history. As a talent rep, King built a thriving career out of working with filmmakers of color, among them Ryan Coogler, Tim Story, Rick Famuyiwa, Lee Daniels and M. Night Shyamalan, fighting to help them seize their chances in a Hollywood that was characteristically averse to those who looked, spoke and thought differently than the dominant industry culture.

But for King, agency work, however rewarding, was always a stepping stone to something larger—ambitions toward a career as a producer of content and media, a mogul in the mold of David Geffen or Barry Diller. Those ambitions took a massive leap forward in 2015 with the founding of King’s company, Macro, and the succeeding few years have helped establish his reputation as a savvy and judicious champion of the kinds of stories and storytellers for whom he once drafted deal memos. First came a pair of collaborations with longtime personal hero Denzel Washington, serving as a backer and executive producer on the searching character study Roman J. Israel, Esq., directed by Dan Gilroy, and the long-in-gestation adaptation of August Wilson’s stage classic Fences, directed by Washington himself and nominated for four Academy Awards, winning one for Viola Davis’ performance. Even more triumphant was Mudbound, which King put together as one of the lead producers on a substantial team of collaborators. The first film to carry King’s name as “Produced by,” Mudbound proved to be the biggest sale at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and ultimately scored an historic quartet of Oscar nominations for writer/director Dee Rees, director of photography Rachel Morrison, and cast member and songwriter Mary J. Blige. Releasing this summer is King’s second film as producer, Sorry To Bother You, a wildly imaginative satire from hip-hop trailblazer turned first-time writer/director Boots Riley.

As his company name—and the interview that follows—suggest, Charles D. King has an intuitive grasp of the big-picture changes taking place in the entertainment business. For nearly 20 years, he’s worked to give talented outsiders the access and support that, once upon a time, only Hollywood insiders enjoyed. If King and Macro can deliver on their substantial ambitions, in a few years we’ll be looking at an industry in which there are no true outsiders and no true insiders—just supremely talented artists telling the best stories they can.


There’s plenty to talk about in your career, but I’d like to get a sense of how you found your way to Hollywood.

I grew up in Decatur, the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. As a kid growing up, I would watch movies and television pretty voraciously. I went to Vanderbilt University, where my focus was initially business, and I was a political science major.

One summer, I started doing some things creatively, really just as a way to make some money … some commercials, some print work and some modeling. From that, I began to help friends get into the business, and I discovered that I had a knack for identifying talent in others. Somewhere along the line someone suggested, “Look. You’re at Vanderbilt. You’re studying political science. You obviously have an interest in entertainment. You should think about entertainment law.” I had really no idea what an entertainment lawyer did, but I did recall the show L.A. Law and the character played by Blair Underwood, who was the one African American on the show and who was so charismatic and intelligent. I really liked that character. So I had that model in my mind.

I graduated, worked in the corporate world for a couple years, then went to law school with a focus on entertainment law. Around that time, I read this book called Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun? by Reginald Lewis. That’s really where the idea formed that one day, I could perhaps start a media company that would focus on telling these stories that would reflect who I was and would reflect the community. I wanted kids and people around the world to have that same kind of “aha” aspirational moment that I had when I saw L.A. Law because, frankly, I didn’t have enough of those stories and images of people that looked like me.

At that point I was considering my entry point into the industry. Someone suggested I look at the talent agency world. I did the research and learned about these titans, like Barry Diller, David Geffen, Bernie Brillstein … these iconic figures who built these amazing companies and careers and studios all at one point were agents. So I thought that the agency world would be an ideal space for me to cut my teeth, to build the relationships and connect with artists, to understand the landscape and then ultimately go on to build something. It’s the epicenter of the industry.

So I moved to LA. I went into the belly of the beast and went to WMA (now WME) and had an amazing career working with some of the most compelling and inspiring artists across every sector. After 15 years, I felt as though I had done everything that I set out to do in that world—having created new deal models for filmmakers, actors, musicians and media titans. It was time for me to forge ahead and really build out this vision that I had since before I even moved to town. So three years ago, I launched Macro and we’ve been having a great journey ever since.


So in representing all these creative figures, it put you across the table, in many ways, from producers. What was your experience of producers and content creators from that vantage? And how did that inform your path as you crossed the line over to the side of generating the content as opposed to representing the artists?

That’s a very good question. I represented filmmakers, writers, directors and a lot of producers too. The best ones, for me as an agent, were the ones who just made things happen, right? They did whatever it took, driving things forward by identifying ideas but also by building out a team and connecting the dots.

I never really thought about it until you asked this question, how much I learned from so many of those people about what worked, what didn’t work; when to push, when to lay back; how to coalition-build with the filmmaker and align the right elements to support the filmmaker and the right crew; knowing which distribution or studio partner would be the best fit for certain types of vehicles; how to navigate the landscape and be amenable to deal structures with talent. It’s like you’re putting together whole companies, teams of hundreds of people, all to work together toward a common goal, and you’re doing it over and over.

 

Going back over all the producers that you worked with, are there particular instances that stand out in your mind as times where you arrived at some degree of insight into what the job was, at its best?

There was one movie where I had more than one client involved with the production. It started out as a smaller independent movie, but the vision and scope of this movie continued to expand and grow. It wasn’t a massive $100 million movie or anything like that, but it went from being a tiny, micro-budget project to more of a low-to-mid-size film. But the producer on it was someone who had made many movies that were much larger in scope, an incredibly accomplished producer who was already at the top of their game.

Now this was one of the most challenging films that I was involved in. I still joke with friends about this one particular film, that I had hair before that movie. [Laughs] But I’ll tell you this: The producer, athough they went through lots of ups and downs through it—and there were some moments of yelling and things like that—the thing that really struck me through all of that was how committed that producer was, from the time it was a micro-budget movie all the way to the mid-size range that it ended up in. Even though they had produced these massive blockbusters, they were just as committed to this film as to anything else that they had worked on or could be working on. The amount of energy and time they committed was absolutely extraordinary. It made a huge impression upon me, how when you believe in a story and you’re passionate, then it doesn’t matter what your producer fee is or what the economics of it are. You’re going to pour all of your heart and energy into every one of those things that you’re working on.

In the same category is a producer who I represented along with a talented filmmaker on a number of projects. They were literally my first call every single day. And getting into my office somewhere between  7 a.m and 8 a.m., before the workday even started, they were literally the first person calling me every single day—“So, what are you doing?” I admit, I didn’t expect that kind of tenacity every day. They were just a force of nature. No matter what, they just made things happen.

It got to the point that there was a moment where they weren’t calling every day and I was honestly a little worried … “What’s going on?!” It turns out, they had gotten married and they had calmed down for a second. And then all of the sudden they were calling again, “Yeah, I’m back in action now.” We had a great experience and those projects all moved forward. Really great producers—they put in the work, they work their asses off, they will projects into existence.

I could probably give you a hundred more examples, but those are the first two that jumped out at me.

Producer Charles D. King and Mudbound writer/director Dee Rees at the PGA's Produced By: New York conference in October, 2017


So now you are one of those folks. How did you take the leap and start putting together those first productions?

When I was agent, I represented Kenny Leon, who directed Fences on Broadway. I was fortunate to be at the opening night when Denzel Washington and Viola Davis were starring. I was just so blown away by their performances and the emotion of those characters. I knew that Fences was in development for years at Paramount. Over my last couple of years at WME, as I was charting my path to go and launch this company, I began to create a grid of projects that I would be interested in if they ever moved forward and if there were an opportunity to get involved.

Fences was one of those projects that we were tracking. I also had a tremendous respect for Denzel, who has, throughout my life, been my favorite actor, hands down. I’m a connoisseur of his entire body of work and what he represents. But for years I also had a great experience as an agent interfacing with [producer] Todd Black.

So when I found out that this was moving forward and there could possibly be an opportunity to partner, it checked every box of what we were looking to do as a company: supporting the vision of a brilliant filmmaker and artist like Denzel, working with one of the great actresses of their generation in Viola and working alongside a masterful and thoughtful producer like Todd Black.

We were not day-to-day on the physical production side of things. They already had their cast, obviously. We were probably a little more involved when it got to some of the efforts around the marketing of the film and social media strategy and things like that. But it was a team and a vision that we were thrilled to be a part of as executive producers and financiers.

I wonder if you could contrast that with something like Mudbound. Denzel and Todd have been making movies for a long time, and Fences is a classic of the American stage. But Dee Rees is a younger, less tested filmmaker, and not as many people are as familiar with the source material. What was your role as a producer in that scenario?

So this is one where you know how they say, “It takes a village?” Mudbound truly took an entire village of mission-aligned producers, who all brought their own skills to the table and who all worked together as a team to move this forward. But the unifier was really a commitment to supporting the vision of a brilliant filmmaker like Dee Rees. Five months into launching Macro, my friend and former colleague Cassian Elwes had lunch with me and he said, “Hey, I have this script, Mudbound, and it’s the best thing that I’ve read in the last few years. It feels like it would be a great fit for your company and your mission and what you’re looking to build. And if you respond to it, we should do this together.”

Now I’ve got to give Cassian credit. This was before we even announced who our investors were and what our financing was like. But he, as a smart producer, knowing the landscape of this town, understood that I have credibility in terms of the relationships and my understanding of marketing, and my ability to galvanize creative contributors even though I had not physically produced a movie yet. My colleague, Poppy Hanks, read the script first and told me, “Charles, this is amazing.” I read it, and I agreed.

Dee needed the right opportunity to be supported in her vision. She’s very selective. She had passed on so many things for years and really only focused on making films that she was deeply passionate about. And when she shared her vision for Mudbound with us, again, it checked so many boxes and had a universal theme. It was a story about a time and an era that we hadn’t seen before.

From there, Cassian and Macro partnered with the other producers who had developed it, Sally Jo Effenson and her son, Carl. We had a group that had developed it, who got the story to a certain point. They brought it to Cassian, who helped with his understanding of how to package. Cassian brought it to Macro. A few months before, it was a dormant script that no one paid attention to. All of a sudden, it was on fire. We had talent at the highest levels interested in being a part of it. That’s a big part of what producers do, galvanizing the community. Cassian was strong on financial structures. We were bringing the equit, along with a market understanding and talent relationships as well.

My colleague Kim Roth, who used to run production at Imagine, joined right around the same time. It was Cassian and Kim and myself really engaging the talent, putting the cast together with Dee. We had two other great producers who also came in as co-financiers, who weighed in a lot as well. But each one of us knew our strengths and where we should play, working almost like linemen in front of this quarterback, Dee, who was throwing touchdowns every day on set.

You look at all the historic nominations around that movie, with Dee being the first African-American woman to get nominated for an Academy Award for an adapted screenplay, Rachel Morrison being the first female DP nominated in the history of the Academy and Mary J. Blige being the first artist to get nominations in a movie for both a song and a performance. To be frank with you, those things happened with the support of a company like Macro with an African-American financier who, alongside our co-financier, ultimately drove most of those decisions of who should be hired. We supported our filmmaker with who she wanted to bring on, in every case. I know for a fact that the average studio wouldn’t have given her that kind of support.

But in our case, we ended up with a product and an opportunity and a historic win that we are all proud of. Almost every one of our department heads was a woman, and we made a tremendous film. Hopefully more people will take note and will take similar strides.

It seems crazy, that the entire industry seems to be waking up to the fact that there’s this giant, untapped talent pool just waiting to show what they can do. What took everyone so long to recognize that?

To be honest with you, I can’t speak to why other people make these decisions, except to think that people are just used to working with who they know and who they think they’re going to be most comfortable with, instead of asking “Who’s the best person?” Right? That’s the only way I look at it, whether we’re building our team at Macro or when we’re putting together a project. We didn’t have an inclusion rider in front of us when we were looking at who we were going to bring in. I know it was important for Dee, it was important for us, but we didn’t sign anything to that effect.

But obviously we are going to be a part of supporting every single one of the initiatives about more inclusion in our space. We’re going to be driving it and hopefully in front of it. But it’s just smart business. You want the best people. You want to have a lot of different voices as part of your production. It’s going to make the product better, and it’s going to make your company better.


We’ve worked in the business long enough to see a few cycles in which ideals of diversity, frankly, have gone in and out of fashion. But something feels different this time.

I feel like the wider range of opportunities we’re seeing in both film and television is really a part of the digital revolution. The streaming platforms have created tremendous opportunities, both in terms of longer features as well as scripted shows.

But it’s also about the falling cost of digital cameras and the tools available to young storytellers, like crowdfunding and wider access to independent capital for emerging filmmakers whose talent and gifts are evident. Access to opportunity is less organized and no longer defined by the same group of gatekeepers.

What I think we’re going to see, along with the shift in demographics, is the growth of what I will call the “new majority.” You have organizations like Macro that are African-American owned, that are financing and telling stories. You have others like Franklin Leonard and the fund that he launched recently. You’ve got other producers who are thinking more entrepreneurially, who are not looking to say, “Hey, please let me be in your club,” but who will participate in the larger ecosystem.

You’re going to have groups of people who are smart, who want to work with artists and who want to tell stories for an audience that is thirsty to see a wide range of offerings that are more reflective of their experience. They’re going to build market share and create value and not be concerned about whether they’re in someone else’s club or not. They can create their own club. They can create their own studio in the way people have like Tyler Perry back in Atlanta or Robert Rodriguez had with his compound in Texas or the way George Lucas built his studio in San Francisco. I believe we’ll see people from diverse backgrounds doing more of those.

And to the degree that the industry’s larger institutions don’t recognize and understand that this audience is there, they’ll lose market share and they’ll lose relevance. Some of them clearly do get it, like ABC. Look at the success of all their shows. Look at what happened with Disney with the success of Black Panther, bringing in all these new audiences into the Marvel universe. I’ve seen the trailers and the commercials for the new Avengers—they have Black Panther characters out in front of them. If you’re telling me that they aren’t smart enough to know that they have a chance to keep the same Avengers audience while also bringing in new people, you must be kidding me.

Marvel is brilliant to be doing that. If other places want to sit back and keep making movies for who they think the audience was 40 years ago, they’re going to get acquired or they’ll die. That’s what’s going to happen. I think that forward-leaning producers are going to understand how to tell stories for the world, not for what they think their buddies in the halls of Hollywood want to see.

 

Making your own club, that’s a really useful shorthand for understanding the transformation that’s going on.

Maybe they can come join my club. [laughs] I don’t mind going to your place either. 

Charles D. King (right) with cast member Denzel Washington at the premiere for Roman J. Israel, Esq. in New York


In terms of being part of the digital revolution, well … Netflix distributed Mudbound, after all. The company is clearly a key driver of changes we’re seeing. As somebody who’s worked very successfully with the company, what should your fellow producers know about Netflix?

First of all, I have to say that on Mudbound, Netflix was an absolutely incredible partner. The passion and the energy that they exhibited from the moment they saw Mudbound galvanized the rest of the team. They came in and acquired the film out of Sundance, making it the biggest sale at the festival that year. The entire organization backed up everything that they said they were going to do, and then some. They over-indexed on everything that they said they would and took it to another 10 festivals ... what they did on the marketing campaign, what they did on the awards campaign, how they made sure it was seen around the world. They did share a nice amount of data with us. Would it be great to have the full algorithm and sit there and digest everything it could tell us? Yes. Of course we would all love to see that. But hey, we also want to know the formula for Coca-Cola, right? This proprietary approach obviously works for them as a company. Everyone would love to have more of that data.

But I’d say that in our case, I was very happy. They were the ideal partner for that show. All around the world, people know what this film is. This movie was seen in 180 countries and it will continue to be seen. It had cultural relevance. So Netflix was an incredible partner. Still, as we think about going forward, we want options. We still want to work with studios. We still believe that there’s a huge marketplace for theatrical features and that shared moviegoing experience in the theater, whether it’s a period drama or a love story or a comedy. Then there are some films that might be great to see at home on your television through Netflix or watch them on a tablet. We still believe that there’s a great independent film marketplace where you can make movies outside of the system and then you can decide if you want to have a theatrical release or you want to have a streaming service acquire it for their platform.

So we, as a company, are playing ball in all of these arenas. We’re mindful of where the business is going. Obviously there’s a different kind of pressure on theatrically released movies. But then that’s where as producers, as well as financiers, we have to be smart and thoughtful about movies that we’re financing, how we’re making them, how they’re being marketed, who the best distribution partners are and what is the best way to not only create a great product, but what are the best ways to monetize this great product that we’re hopefully making?

We will continue to seek other new players, and if tech companies want to create great content, we’ll get involved. That’s why we’re producing and financing stories on all platforms: film, television and even shorter-form digital. You want to create content where all of these audiences are. For other producers in our space, if they want to maintain relevance and market share and business, they also need to be aware of those things. Otherwise they’re going to limit the possibilities and all of the cool things and fun content that they could produce over time.

 

Could you talk a little more about your approach to short-form work? To date, Macro has mostly gained notice for its feature films. How are you looking to crack the “television-plus” side of the equation?

We believe that there’s all kinds of quality storytelling on the digital platforms. Our initial slate was focused on premium short-form content that, if you looked at it, you’d think, “Wow, this could pass for an independent feature. This could stand next to something you would see on a streaming platform or a premium cable network.” It’s just in a shorter form, more episodic. We’ve had great success upstreaming a nice amount of that first group of projects on our initial slate.

As we go forward I believe we’ll be looking at Gente-fied and I Turn My Camera On as good examples of shows that we created as short-form content that have now been upstreamed in those areas and brands we want to work with. But we’re also beginning to think about even shorter forms of content. Those kinds of content might not usually be considered “premium,” but they’ll be pieces of storytelling shared via social that still connect to and unify the premium content we’re creating. How do you connect the pieces and begin to create a consumer-facing connectivity to an audience over time, whether or not that content appears on others’ platforms or one day, maybe our own?

Right now, that’s how we’re doing it. Obviously it’s a space that’s going through a lot of change, but we ought to be nimble enough to adjust as new models come together and entrepreneurial enough to try different things. But it’s also a way to incubate great new voices, as well as an arena where you can work with established filmmakers who want to just experiment and do some new things.

From left, Mudbound executive producer Cassian Elwes, cast member and songwriter Mary J. Blige, Macro president of production Kim Roth, producer Charles D. King. - Wenn LTD/Alamy Stock Photo


Speaking of new things, I can’t let you go without asking about Sorry to Bother You. For a producer who’s built his early rep on these almost literary dramas, this movie seems wildly different.

It is wildly different. I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of work with Sundance. I had a lot of great experiences with the festival when I was an agent, supporting so many filmmakers that I worked with from Craig Brewer to Rick Famuwiya, Justin Simien, Dee Rees and lots of others through the years. I’ve been a mentor in a number of the labs. I met [writer/director] Boots Riley at the first lab that I was a part of, and then he was at a second one and a third one. I kept seeing him there, and I was really impressed by his vision for what he wanted to do with the script. When he would pitch the story, I could see his energy as an artist and where he was coming from, both as a musician and now transitioning into a filmmaker. It was bold, and it was audacious, and it was unique and refreshing. For me, it was about helping him channel that into a budget and a framework that I thought would make sense and then making sure he was equipped with the experience and tools to make the transition. Between all of those labs, he spent a good year or so working on the script and the budget.

The other key element was partnering with great people. We’re a company that’s very collaborative. Nina Yang Bongioviis a producer who I have the utmost respect for. We had a lot of success together when she produced Fruitvale Station with Ryan Coogler when I was one of his agents, and then I gave her the Dope script and we worked together again where I was the agent and she was the producer, partnering up with Rick Famuyiwa, and she did a great job making that film.

So we were looking to find something else that we could work on together. She had also met Boots at those labs. I told her, “Hey, if you ever get the budget and the range, I would love to do this with you.” And so they got it to that place and then I said, “Let’s do this together.” She, along with the other producers, drove a lot of the production. We got very involved in casting and galvanizing the town and packaging the movie. On set, Nina and her team led a lot of it. We came back in for a lot of the post process and determining who could best distribute and market the film--we were heavily involved in all of that.

So once again, it was a great team scenario, which is always our choice as a company. It was great to tell a story like Mudbound. It was great to tell a story like Fences. But it was important to us to tell a more contemporary story, to push the genre boundary, the way Sorry To Bother You does ... to make people a little uncomfortable with the movie. It’s funny and it’s out there. It’s unique. That makes some people uncomfortable. But I think uncomfortable is good. It gets people outside of their comfort zone, thinking about things and waking them up.

This is a film that so many people respond to, and it speaks to the audience that we’re talking about. It’s incumbent upon producers to think about and listen to the marketplace, to understand the wide range of audiences that are out there for such stories. And it was important for us to work with a brilliant auteur like Boots, who is willing to take chances, to push boundaries and tell the kind of stories that haven’t been told before. That’s a part of our mission. I can 100%, for a fact, tell you you’ve never seen a story like Sorry To Bother You before. I can’t wait for the world to see this.

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