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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, Wednesday, March 27, 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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How The PGA's Diversity Workshop "Exemplifies Inclusion As a Solution"

Posted By Peggy Jo Abraham, Thursday, March 21, 2019

The PGA’s Power of Diversity Master Workshop is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to learn the art and business of producing. Renowned professionals from the worlds of film, television and new media offer individualized instruction on story development, pitching, packaging and financing. Sylvia L. Jones, one of ten producers selected to take part, expresses gratitude for the benefits she gained and the connections she made through this unique program.

- Read Sylvia's experience with the PGA Power of Diversity Master Workshop at HollywoodReporter.com

 

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

Posted By Curtis Augspurger, Friday, March 15, 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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MIKE FARAH - Funny or Die's CEO Considers How To Run A 12 Year-Old Startup

Posted By Chris Green, Tuesday, March 12, 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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PGA East: Documentary Screening Salon

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The PGA East Documentary/Non-Fiction Committee presents the Documentary Screening Salon, an exclusive monthly curated program designed to enlighten audiences and spur discussion.  Once a month, the committee behind this lineup screens a documentary, presents a Q&A featuring the filmmakers, and concludes with a reception to encourage more conversation.

 

The Documentary Screening Salon is managed by members of the PGA East Documentary and Nonfiction Committee, and focuses on documentaries with small distributors, self-distributed, or without distribution.  This subset of qualified members aspire to choose documentaries they believe should have the opportunity to reach a larger audience, thus providing an exclusive look for members, as well as a venue for filmmakers to showcase their work.  The program aims to provide not only the experience of viewing the film, but enrich the issues brought to the surface by surrounding them with informed discussion.

 

In 2018, the Documentary Screening Salon screened several highly acclaimed independent documentaries: Minding The Gap, On Her Shoulders, Our New President, Chi-Town, and House Two.  Each year the program runs from March through August, and invites for the evening are sent to all 1800 members within the Guild's East region. Screenings are not open to the public or press, and the venue is provided at no cost.

 

Although the Documentary Screening Salon is not a member screening program, members are strongly encouraged to submit their documentaries for consideration.  All documentaries should be submitted a minimum of 8 weeks prior to release date. This is a very competitive process, and Documentary Screening Salon selection panel decisions are final.

 

If you are interested in submitting your documentary for consideration, please complete the Documentary Screening Salon submission Form.

 

PGA members interested in joining the Documentary/Non-Fiction Committee, please request membership at:
East: http://www.producersguild.org/members/group.aspx?id=136088
West: http://www.producersguild.org/members/group.aspx?id=138882

 

For questions regarding the Documentary Screening Salon or information regarding the official PGA screening program, please contact Mitzie Rothzeid, Director, PGA East "mrothzeid_at_producersguild.org"

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