It's only 11am, but Brian Volk-Weiss is on his 7th or 8th meeting of the day when we finally get a chance to talk. No surprise there—who has time for sleep when you've got over over a dozen different projects in post-production alone?
As the 45-year-old founder and CEO of The Nacelle Company, a Burbank-based production company that specializes in pop culture docuseries, books, comedy and podcasts, he's worked with companies including Netflix, Amazon and HBO to build a media empire that he hopes one day will rival Viacom.
Volk-Weiss is perhaps most famous for directing the two docuseries "The Movies That Made Us" and "The Toys that Made Us," which use their respective subject matter to examine the broader influence of pop culture. His latest project, "The Center Seat: 55 Years Of Trek," is a 10-part special about one of America's most beloved sci-fi series. The first episode debuted on November 5th on The History Channel.
dot.LA spoke with Volk-Weiss about his obsession with pop culture, how COVID has changed the industry and how he picks a project in an age where data is boundless and audience expectations shift at a moment's notice.
dot.LA: First things first, how do we pronounce your company, "Nacelle?" And where did the name come from?
Brian Volk-Weiss: "Nuh-cell." A Nacelle, first of all, is a real thing: It holds the engine onto a vehicle. When you're looking out the wing at an airplane and you see the engine, it looks like a beautiful part of the plane. If you take the engine out of the plane, it's this big nasty jumble of pipes and wires. Whatever holds the engine to anything, that's a nacelle. I liked that as a concept, because a lot of what we do is work with talent—like Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Amy Poehler, whatever. I view our job as basically supporting their vision.
I learned of the term, as most people do—if they're even aware of it—from "Star Trek." If you look at the Enterprise [spacecraft], what people who are not Trekkies would call the "wing"—those wings are the nacelle."Star Trek" is a massive franchise. How do you even begin to tackle a project like that?
We start with massive amounts of research. The research goes on for about six to eight weeks, then we start doing pre-interviews; between the research and the pre-interviews, our story editors start to put together what we think the episode is going to be. Then we start shooting.
One of my little secrets about directing these types of documentaries is to find the lawyers. The lawyers, very often, are the only people at these giant companies that see everything. They see the marketing; they see the production; they see the post-production; they see the sales reports.
So, I was obsessed with getting a lawyer from Kenner [the company that makes "Star Wars" toys]. It took forever to find him, and I think he was 88 or 89 years old. His name was Jim Kipling. By the time we did the interview, I think we'd almost locked the first cut to send to Netflix. But in the interview, he casually said that Kenner got the lion's share of the money from the toys, not George Lucas. This was the opposite of what everybody had been told their entire lives! So after we were able to confirm what he'd told us was true, we literally tore the episode apart and started again.
How has your approach to creating content changed as the industry has evolved?
The real change wasn't driven by the industry, it was driven by COVID. We were in production on a lot of shows last year when COVID hit, so we had to design these remote camera systems that we could FedEx to people in cases. Now that things are going back to regular shooting, we're still using those to a certain degree.
It's like a force multiplier. If we were budgeted to do 40 standard interviews with a pre-COVID methodology, now we can do 65 interviews. Forty of them will be the regular thing where we get on a plane, and we set up lights, and we interview them. But for 25 of them, we'll keep shipping these kits and do them that way. And the people we're sending kits to, very often they're people that are only important for one or two very specific things. Sending a remote camera kit allows us to get stuff that, before COVID, we wouldn't've even bothered trying to do.
What's in the kit?
It's two cameras, two tripods, two lighting bars, two audio recording devices, a mixer and three hard drives, two of which are backups.
Anything else coming out of COVID that you think will be a permanent change for the industry?
Viewing habits have changed drastically. We have so many people now watching our content on places like Tubi. Tubi was something I never even knew our library was on. Now they're one of our best partners. COVID got people watching things in ways and in a volume that I believe is unprecedented.
How do you adapt to that as a content creator?
The streaming services, they're all different, but the main thing is that A) they just have a confidence I've never seen before, and B) it's a much more worldwide thing than other companies. When we're working for Netflix or Disney Plus we're constantly talking about the whole world. When we're dealing with The History Channel, it's all about the USA.
What do you mean when you say that the streaming companies have a confidence that you've never seen before?
I'm not giving any secrets here, but the cable business, it's not what it was 10 years ago, let alone 20 years ago. Netflix, Disney Plus, all these other companies are all kicking ass, so they're like, "Yeah do whatever you want! I'm sure it'll be great!" Some of the older companies, they're more traditional and there's just a lot more back and forth.
Do you think the old model opted for quality over quantity while the new model is just sort of throwing things at the wall to see what sticks?
I don't think quality has gone down at all. I think this started probably with "The Sopranos," but I think quality is as good if not better than ever. What I always say about Netflix is that it's really hard to sell a show to [them]. But once you sell the show, it's kind of up to you. They really really trust the filmmaker. At some of the older companies, there's a lot more "Oh I don't know if people will like this."
The truth is you don't know what people are going to think until it comes out. I mean, Netflix will be the first people to tell you they didn't know "Squid Game" was going to be "Squid Game." Some of the newer companies are more at peace with the fact that nobody knows what the public is going to like
It's almost like the VC model for investing in startups: You just have to trust the founders.
Do you think we're improving our ability to predict what's a hit or are we learning it's even more esoteric than we ever imagined?
I think we are absolutely not improving. I don't think it can be improved upon. Netflix has more data than any content company in history and they still have things that they spend a lot of money on that bomb and things that they don't spend a lot of money on that are huge. "Squid Game," I think, is the first planetary TV show. They spent $20 million on it. That's nothing! They have movies now that are between $100 and $250 million apiece.
Another example I like to point out: Watch the Youtube video where Steve Jobs introduces the iPod. He's on stage with 5 different products. It's a 90-minute presentation. He spends 88 minutes on the other four products. Twelve months after that presentation, the iPod has literally saved the company, and all four of those other products—one of which was like a printer, one of which was like a phone, I don't fucking know—but all four of the other products were not being sold 12 months later. Nobody knows nothing.
In a world where nobody knows nothing, how do you navigate those waters? How do you, in your own words, make Nacelle the next Viacom?
I was a manager for a long time—over 10 years. I would have clients that could sell 15 to 20,000 tickets in B and C markets. I'm not talking about New York and Boston and L.A. I would have a client who could sell 25,000 tickets in Albuquerque, and I'd be talking to Comedy Central and they'd say, "Oh I don't think people are going to like that." This comedian, with no marketing, has sold two million tickets in 10 months, and you're saying you know better than he does what the people want?
I just trust the artist.
How do you decide whom to trust?
Very, very, very carefully. In this day and age, everybody wants to talk spreadsheets and Google docs and algorithms and all this other crap. At least for me, I just go with my gut. We're doing a book now with Jenny Mollen. Is this a book I would've bought for myself if I saw it walking through Barnes and Noble? Hell no! No offense Jenny. That being said, her other books were successful, and she is a hard-working person. I know based on her first two books, it's going to be a good book and I know she's going to work her ass off promoting it. If the book bombs—which I know it won't—I will sleep well at night knowing I made a good decision.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Disney is banking on spin-offs of "Star Wars" and Marvel universes to help boost subscribers to its streaming services. On Friday, the entertainment giant rolled out its plans for the upcoming years including bringing the already debuted "Shang-Chi" and "Jungle Cruise" to Disney Plus.
Two years after it launched, Disney Plus has become a key piece of the Disney content portfolio, and while its executives remain optimistic the service will hit 230 million to 260 million subscribers in the next three years, this quarter Disney Plus failed to keep pace with Netflix's growing consumer base.
CEO Bob Chapek said during Disney's earnings call this week that the company isn't ready to give up on box office releases, but that it'll continue a hybrid strategy of releasing some films directly to Disney Plus others in theaters, and some simultaneously.
When many theaters shuttered during the pandemic, Disney released the blockbuster "Black Widow" on the big screen and on its app at the same time. The move sparked a breach of contract lawsuit from its star Scarlett Johansson, who settled out of court in September — but the incident raised concerns about Disney's longer-term theatrical release strategy.
Chapek said his plan is to get theatrically released content onto Disney Plus from theaters as fast as possible.
"We're sticking with our plan of flexibility," Chapek said during the earnings call. "We're still unsure in terms of how the marketplace is going to react when family films come back with a theatrical first window."
In 2022 Disney will release a torrent of content, heavily loaded with spin-offs, that will go straight to streaming on Disney Plus.
The lengthy list of planned shows Disney announced during its Disney Plus Day Nov. 12 include a "Star Wars" show called "Obi-Wan" that sees Ewan McCregor reprising his role as the master Jedi facing down Darth Vader and a Boba Fett origin story show called "Under the Helmet;" Marvel shows including "She-Hulk," Ms. Marvel" and "Moon Knight;" an animated show about the original X-Men called "X-Men '97;" and a "Guardians of the Galaxy" holiday special directed by James Gunn. There'll also be a three-part Beatles docu-series from "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson called "Get Back" that begins streaming on Thanksgiving.
"You'll notice that the films we are putting into the marketplace that are theatrical and are family films have a fairly short window," Chapek continued, "We're doing that so we can get our films quicker to Disney Plus, but at the same time, see if the theatrical market can kick back into full gear as we prime the pump with these films."
Disney announced a handful feature length films that will go straight to Disney Plus, including a sequel to the 2007 film "Enchanted" called "Disenchanted" with Amy Adams and Patrick Dempsey which will debut in fall 2022. "Scrubs" star Zach Braff will star in a reboot of the classic comedy movie "Cheaper by the Dozen" with Gabrielle Union and Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy will reprise their roles as the Sanderson Sisters in "Hocus Pocus 2," premiering this fall.
In its first year after launch Disney Plus hit 95 million subscribers, which the company initially said was its target for 2024. Despite the rush of momentum at launch, growth has continued at a much slower pace and if Disney Plus can't keep pumping out fresh, compelling content, it could risk losing valuable users.
In its third quarter earnings reported earlier this week, Disney recorded 179 million paid subscribers across Disney Plus, ESPN and Hulu -- compared to 214 million paid members at Netflix.
The company created Disney Plus Day as a way to showcase new content after an unusually slow production year because of pandemic delays, and remind people of the work still going on inside the Mouse House.
The pandemic continues to impact Disney's ability to push out content, which it desperately needs. The reported "significant disruptions in the production and availability of content."
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The average American adult uses more than three streaming platforms every month, but the problem many viewers face with all these options is choice paralysis — the feeling of being overwhelmed by a glut of paid TV offerings.
With each entertainment company inking different carriage deals, one streaming service rarely holds onto a piece of content for long, unless a streamer owns and consolidates its library outright, like Disney Plus or NBC Peacock.
This can make it difficult for users (roughly 82% of the country, according to a recent Deloitte study) to figure out where to stream their favorite content. Niche services like Magnolia Pictures or Tribeca that offer compelling genre-based content but don't have the extensive libraries of their larger competitors, can often be overshadowed.
For $4.99 per month, startup Struum (rhymes with room) aggregates content from 60 smaller streaming providers including BBC Select, Magnolia Pictures, Tribeca, Cheddar News, Cinedigm and FilmBox into an app that tells people where to find media. The monthly subscription fee comes with 100 credits, which Struum users can redeem each month to watch specific content on the app.
Struum co-founder and CEO Lauren DeVillier said the app, which launched in January, is licensing entire libraries from smaller entertainment companies looking to gain more viewers.
The former vice president of digital media for ABC TV and vice president of product for Discovery Ventures has gotten some big names to back Struum, including former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who invested through his company Tornante and called it a "great idea."
DeVillier said that she thinks Struum could be well-positioned to capitalize on what she called a reversal of "the great unbundling," where consumers actually want to save money by paying for several services wrapped up in one (basically, the exact opposite of what motivated chord-cutting from cable in the first place).
"I think that you will see that, you know, there's a sort of great unbundling, and now we're sort of heading back into the bundle. It's frustrating for consumers, and they end up paying a ton of money," DeVillier said. "They were paying whatever their cable package was, then they got rid of that and now they're adding it back up, and that can be [up to] $100 if you have a handful of services. So, I think that you'll see some more aggregation happening."
Struum raised a $7 million series A round led by Canadian mass media company Corus Entertainment to expand into Canadian markets, increase its content library and further develop its technology. New investor Gaingels also joined the round.
The company would not disclose how much it's raised since its launch last year.
"[As] a larger streamer streaming company, you have to go into the international space and tap into that audience segment, you know, we feel strongly about going into Canada. Corus is a huge leader in Canada," Devillier said. "There's also some great content partners up there that have great content, and we would love to do deals [with them]."
The app will prompt a person to subscribe to a streaming service if it detects they're using most of their credits to watch, say, a bunch of shows from the BBC, one of Struum's content partners.
"We were really trying to address that problem for customers to really manage their package of services, by aggregating all of these services into one simple, monthly subscription," DeVillier told dot.LA. "We'll be onboarding content regularly, you know, on a weekly basis, so there'll always be something new for them to find."
DeVillier said the credit model is designed to let people sample content on different streaming services without outright subscribing to them all, a bill she said could reach into the hundreds of dollars each month.
Right now the Struum app is only available on iOS and Android phones, but the company will also use the Series A funding to launch on TVs — including Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TVs — in the coming months.
DeVillier said she doesn't envision Struum competing with bigger streaming players. Instead, she hopes they complement each other. "We see ourselves sitting alongside, you know, some of the larger players," she said. "So, we don't really see ourselves competing in the spaces like Netflix or HBO or Disney Plus, we really see ourselves as sitting alongside those."
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