Lights, Camera, Disinfectant! Creating Great Content With Kevin Hart, Demi Lovato and Blake Griffin in the Age of Covid-19. Here's how production company OBB Media is rising to the creative challenge of creating content in the pandemic.
Founded in 2016 by filmmaker Michael D. Ratner, OBB Media is a multimedia production company that has amassed over 1.6 billion views thanks to such high-profile projects such as Justin Bieber: Seasons (which had 32.5 million views in the first week alone), Kevin Hart's Cold As Balls, and the Pursuit of Healthiness With Blake Griffin.
So what do you do during a pandemic when you are are in the business of putting cameras and producers and wildly talented people together in the same room? You get creative, says Ratner. Here's how this founder is navigating the global crisis.
How did you and your company react in the first days of the pandemic? Did you shut down immediately?
We decided to close the office immediately, and then we quickly pivoted to think about what we still could shoot and make happen. As far as the business goes, Scott Ratner, co-founder and COO, and I knew we were not going to have employees in person at the office, but we never accepted this time as a "shutdown." I take great pride in the fact that thus far we've kept our entire staff intact, we haven't furloughed anybody, never reduced anybody's salary and the only way to be able to sustain that was to get creative.
We really focused on our development slate and then found our pivot by being able to work on specific shows that could be produced regardless of the shutdown with remote rooms and virtual shoots. We shifted our franchise Cold As Balls With Kevin Hart to something called Cold Calls, which we shot remotely with Kevin interviewing athletes from their homes. And we've kept all of our animated series on track, and really ramped up our already robust podcast business because we can record high-quality content in a socially distant and safe way. And you know, it's been a lot of outside of the box thinking and strategizing to make sure that we could keep our marquee documentary projects going. For example, I've been directing the Demi Lovato docu-series for YouTube Originals and alongside our head of production, we've had to put very stringent health and safety protocols into place with a whole new department that never existed before.
How do you ensure safety for cast and crew members?
We've allocated lots of money towards having a whole safety-focused department on set with a medic, Health & Safety Supervisor, Health & Safety Manager, hygiene crew, micron disinfection crew, etc. Amid all this, we've just respected the fact that things might take longer or things might not run as efficient, but we need to put everybody's safety first because more important than anything is making sure that nobody gets sick on our set and that we're following all of these rules as best we can. It's incredibly rigorous and no two days are alike.
What was the brainstorming process like for how you could continue to operate?
We had to find the balance between ideating and developing projects that keep pushing us forward in the long-term and making sure we can pivot our focus on projects that are producible and revenue-generating in the here and now. I think we've struck a great balance here by continuing to develop the longer-term projects that networks, streamers, and distributors are going to be hungry for with an impending programming void on the horizon, given that so many productions have shut down, while also keeping our production at an all-time high.
What is the creative process like with each of the stars you're working with now?
Kevin's been quarantining with his family. And as a father and husband and businessman, shooting a show in your house — that's pretty intense. So there've been some really fun scenes where his family's walked in mid-shoot and whatnot, and we've actually just rolled with that. And it's been pretty funny but he's a consummate pro and we've been able to go through our prep remotely very similar to how we would in person.
And it's been interesting on a show like Cold Calls, because we sent Kevin and all the guests DIY packages including multiple camera setups, and we walked them through the cameras, the lighting, and sound, and ultimately uploading everything for us to finally edit. It's been really impressive what we've been able to accomplish with technology and eager talent.
As for Demi, when directing her, everybody's in face shields and masks, and everybody's been tested every day and all need to remain socially distance, six feet apart, and still we stop every 20 minutes to disinfect and sanitize the room so it's very hard to get into the rhythm of a conversation. It always feels like it's just about starting to get somewhere and then we take a break, you exit the room, there's a six-minute cleaning process, and then we re-enter. It's really a testament to Demi's focus and her passion for sharing this story that we're able to come back in and hit the ground running.
I think Blake has always preferred to record the podcasts with guests in person and over the summers in between basketball seasons, we've been able to do that. But Blake has become a great podcast host over the arc of season one and into season two and really hit his rhythm, so he can do it from anywhere. Now that we're deep into season two, he navigates these conversations and can ultimately draw really interesting facts and health tips out while also getting really cool insider stories from these people. It's been amazing to see him develop this ability further remotely.
Where does the revenue for your company come from?
We have multiple revenue streams across OBB Media, including OBB Pictures, the Film, TV, digital banner; OBB Sound, which is the podcast business; and the branded group OBB branded. Depending on the deal, we're a combination of a fees business and backend ownership, which creates annuities that give us second, third, fourth window opportunities as we are building a library we control and can monetize ancillary revenue. Given that we act as the production company and studio on most of our projects, we are able to control the underlying IP in many cases and pursue derivative and spin-off opportunities, for adapting our projects for live events, merchandising, consumer products and more.
And as far as finding new opportunities, we are constantly coming up with ideas, and thinking about how we can bring them to life. We're always looking to anticipate what is going to be considered the next big thing — from intellectual property to creators themselves — the barometer for us taking on a project at OBB is one simple question: would we watch it ourselves? That's really how I identify our brand...we have our finger on the pulse of what's relevant, but at the core, the question is whether we would want to watch or listen to the content ourselves, and if the answer's yes, then we take a crack at it.
What do you think the future holds for content creators?
The times couldn't be more complicated, but working with creative handcuffs is no new territory for this industry. Whether you're talking about your dream scene and it requires an extra million dollars and you need to figure out how to make it work without VFX, versus now figuring out how do you go and pare down the crew, or how do you go and shoot things remotely, I think this is just a test for people to get more creative. We need to find that blend of what can you do now as producers supplying to a landscape that's never been hungrier for content — where there's never been more buyers and places to go watch — while also thinking about the fact that hopefully sooner than later we'll be able to return to a more "normal" form of production that we're used to.
In regards to stars, I think they're itching to get back in the studio or onset. At the end of the day, they just want to entertain and perform and if during the pandemic, that needs to be generated in living rooms and backyards or makeshift studios, they are going to do it. That said nothing beats being in person and the magic that happens when you are actually together. Storytelling is a collaborative experience.