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Fast Break - Michael D. Ratner and OBB Pictures Look Beyond The Sports/Entertainment Model They Pioneered In The Digital Space

Posted By Spike Friedman, Thursday, November 29, 2018

When I walked into OBB Pictures and met producer Michael D. Ratner, the question that kept rattling around my brain was: How has this guy already done so much? It’s a lot to take in, frankly. In a wildly short amount of time, Ratner has been able to go from a kid making student films, to an intern thrust into producing content at Relativity, to creating his own company that produces work with the biggest athletes in the world, to now making music documentaries, horror television, and comedy specials. And all within the past five years.

Ratner is engaging and smart. This is a guy who’s thought about the business he is creating and how it can be a platform for him and his team to both be creative and profitable. He’s taken his share of gambles in a compressed timeline, and he’s been able to continuously leverage his success to grow from just being a sports content creator into something of a mini-mogul.

Ratner was a sports fan from childhood, but he didn’t set out to carve out a niche for himself in the sports world. He was making romantic comedies at NYU Film School, when a summer job at Relativity led to an opportunity to produce run-and-gun material for athletes. “At the time, there was no other studio-slash-sports agency that could create content in-house. There are union rules, but since [Relativity] didn’t rep directors and actors they could create the stuff there, for their athletes. It was supposed to draw athletes in by creating content in-house. But they didn’t have a practical mechanism to make that happen.” 

Producer Michael Ratner consults with comedian/host Kevin Hart
on the set of interview series
Cold As Balls

That’s where Ratner came in. While still in grad school, he was put in a position where as an intern at Relativity, he could write, direct, edit and produce content with top name athletes and release it quickly, sometimes in as little as 24 hours. This model has become ubiquitous with the proliferation of professional digital content studios, but at the time it was unique, and with the sports angle even more so. “I was tasked with working with Amare Stoudamire or Miguel Cabrera,” he recalls. “They’re coming in, so come up with three ideas, and then create it.” 

This was successful enough that Ratner was offered a chance to stay at Relativity, perhaps turning this work into a profit center for the company. But Ratner took a gamble: He went back to school to finish out his degree. “I was asking myself, ‘Don’t you go to film school to get this opportunity?’ But at the same point, I wanted to go to New York and finish. My whole life was in New York, and I felt like just going and working at Relativity might not be as entrepreneurial as I thought I needed.”

That early phase was not only a practical crash course for Ratner, it set the tone for what OBB would eventually become. “I love sports. I love telling stories,” he says. “I got an opportunity where I could bring them together and do it in a really unique way. And I had this epiphany: I just spent 24 hours producing a piece with say, Iman Shumpert. And it got 300,000 views. And people saw it and loved it. At Tisch I spent a bunch of money just hustling around—six months—and made a romantic comedy that was seen by 50 people in a basement. And I thought to myself, there’s gotta be a way to bridge these things—storytelling, doing things the right way, and the ability to find a star and make things quickly on a digital scale.”

Passing on a job could have been a major missed opportunity. That’s not how things played out. Instead, Relativity kept his seat warm, and he was invited back after graduating. He chose to do so, but on his own terms. “They offered me a sort of undefined executive role in Los Angeles, but I had this idea for a company in my head. I had the name OBB (Original. Big. Bold.), which was just an idea. I had the little logo. I just really wanted to build something. So I said I want to come, but I wanted a first-look deal.” This was a ballsy ask, by any standard; Ratner barely knew what a first-look deal was at the time. He got the reaction you might expect: “Whaaaat?”

Ratner was looking for a measure of credibility, but was told his scheme was a tough sell. So he passed on the gig and committed to starting his own thing. Three months later? The deal was struck, with one condition. Ratner would have to uproot himself and his work and come out to LA.

Things started moving quickly at that point. He sold a 30 for 30 to ESPN, and as he produced the piece he leveraged from Relativity the connections it afforded. “When I talked to a vendor? I was OBB. When I called up Sean Penn’s people to have him narrate the piece? I was with Relativity. I was able to really get stuff done.” This was all happening just before Relativity would go through its errors of stability, so there was an unusual autonomy afforded to the young producer. But he used it to make work happen, to hustle and to push his company forward.

Interestingly, Ratner’s moment is one that could not be recreated now, mere years later. As Relativity was crumbling, there were myriad opportunities for a producer with Ratner’s skillset to get content out there. With the proliferation of platforms, Ratner says, “There had never been a bigger need for content, and the barrier to entry had never been lower. Maybe I wasn’t able to compete with the top showrunners in Hollywood at HBO, but you could be able to go and have someone take a bet on you if you were making pretty good stuff.” Ratner amicably parted ways from Relativity and was able to strike out on his own to launch OBB, maintaining the formula that he had developed. This was another roll of the dice: Would he be able to get deals done without the backing of a larger company? In this particularly fertile moment, that answer was yes. Among other projects, Ratner created the comedy anthology series The 5th Quarter, which connected him with a massive slew of the nation’s best athletes, streamed on the now defunct go90 platform.

But it still wasn’t simple. Before he could proceed to making his own work, Ratner had to put a company together. This meant bringing in his brother Scott to help figure out all those details: employment contracts, workman’s comp, real estate ... all the things that make an independent production outfit a real company as opposed to a vanity shingle. They signed contracts with UTA and 3Arts and started working broadly, with everyone they could. 

Early in the process, Ratner made a savvy choice to do more than just project development. “I think I got very fearful of people calling bullshit on me,” he admits. “So what I saw was an opening for ‘concept-to-screen’ in this digital era, to make content from ideation to the moment someone is viewing it, whether it’s on a laptop or a phone. And with that, you could get something very cool done in a year, whereas with a film it could be four to as many as 10 years.” Ratner pinpointed opportunities that would be able to go from concept to screen on his one-year-or-less timeline.

That confluence of factors set OBB up to own the block on sports content. “Athletes liked us,” Ratner says by way of explanation. “People started looking good in the go90 show. People started saying ‘These are the new guys in sports content.’” But sports content was only the way in for Ratner. The man loves sports and the work he does with athletes, but OBB has become much more than just a sports content mill. 

Ratner preps for a segment with NBA star Joel Embiid

Aside from the type of content they produce, what defines OBB is its people. Putting it bluntly, the place is filled with people who are very, very smart. He brought his brother Scott on board early as a co-founder, taking him away from the white shoe law firm Sullivan & Cromwell to run business development at OBB. Head of Production, Eric Cohen, is a Princeton grad who worked as an engineer at Microsoft before getting his MBA/MFA at NYU. “The infrastructure to me is everything,” Ratner says of the base he’s built at OBB. His definition of infrastructure is a broad one. It’s the ability to make work from idea to product. It’s having a space that can house a full company and also keep post-production close to the creators. It’s about being rigorous and forward-thinking in the use of analytics and how they can drive the OBB business. And it’s about having a team of really smart people that Ratner trusts to his core.

A little bit about the OBB space: It’s nontraditional for a production company. When OBB outgrew its initial office space on Beverly, they decided to go big with their new home. Hence OBB Pictures now inhabits what was once Scooter Braun’s recording space in West Hollywood. What used to be Justin Bieber’s recording studio is now a pair of edit bays, where content like Kevin Hart’s Cold As Balls gets cut. They have a deck, which was blazingly hot on the summer afternoon when I visited, but felt like an ideal space to work outside or generally hang almost all year round. They sublease a few offices to Blake Griffin and Ryan Kalil’s production company, Mortal Media, keeping OBB close to two of the smartest and funniest athletes around. “I think we’ve got a farm system here,” Ratner says, “that can make products in-house that are platform-and duration-agnostic.”

Having a team like this surrounding Ratner has allowed him to push the organization beyond its roots. And in fact he forced the company to take six months to develop exclusively non-sports related content. Were I in Ratner’s position, I would have been terrified to try to expand beyond what was obviously working for me. Instead he defined himself by expansion, and it’s paid off in numerous ways. “We’ve landed comedies. We have a horror show. We’re in production on a documentary about Jeezy. And it’s exciting as we’re now fully announced and market-facing in all these pillars.” Ratner could have simply owned the sports content block. But now OBB is more than that, and it’s growing all the time.

What this does, ultimately, is free Ratner up to tell stories again. He still showruns and directs Cold As Balls, and he's currently producing and directing OBB's Netflix Original comedy series Historical Roasts, starring Jeff Ross. And as OBB becomes more self-sufficient as a company, he sees a longer-term possibility to get back to his feature filmmaking roots. “I want to be able to focus on projects that really, really inspire me. Where I need to use my specific voice.” Getting OBB off the ground made that tricky for Ratner. But with his youth, his fire and his business acumen, I wouldn’t put it past him to keep this company surging, while coming into his own as a full-fledged feature storyteller.

So how has Ratner gotten all this done by his 30th birthday? (Yeah, he was only 29 when I spoke to him.) It’s hard work and it’s luck, and it’s timing, and it’s smarts, and it’s skill. It’s a really good team with a really savvy vision for the company. It’s all of these factors coming together in an organization that makes it work. Ratner and OBB’s story is already deep and complex. End act one.

 

 

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