Confessions of an Indie Media CEO: Inside Narratively’s Budding Hollywood Role
Wonder what it’s like to run an independent media biz in 2023? In this new column, our founder lifts the curtain, starting with his thrilling (and sometimes dispiriting!) entertainment-world dealings.
I was so overwhelmed with excitement and pride that I pulled my rental car over and tearily dialed my wife and parents. This was it — everything I’d been working toward my entire career had led me to this moment, under a scorching California sun alongside a bleak six-lane avenue in Burbank, organic salad wilting on the seat beside me. My fellow producers, from legendary director Robert Zemeckis’s production company, and I had just sold a TV show to the CW network “in the room,” as industry folks love to gloat — meaning the network had given us their verbal offer in a very climactic show of support at the end of our spiel. This was the first TV series I’d ever pitched, and it was loosely inspired by a short essay I’d published with Narratively about my wild experience as a newspaper stringer for The New York Times. I was one for one and just getting started in Hollywood.
The next day I got a phone call from Warner Bros. Television, where just months prior Narratively had signed an exclusive partnership deal. The studio let me know that the other Narratively-inspired show we’d pitched that week, alongside our partners at LeBron James’s production company, had gotten an offer from Amazon. Boom! Two for two. This was incredible — and honestly? — kinda easy. Cue the Emmy daydreams and Zillow searches for Silver Lake real estate.
Oh, you silly, naive, fledgling Hollywood producer! Here we are today, four years later, and both those projects are DEAD, laid to rest in the absurdly overcrowded graveyard that is TV and film development in Hollywood. Turns out, when you “sell” a TV series or movie, it generally means that the buyer is commissioning a screenplay (among dozens of others they’re funding in tandem) so they can decide at a later date, after countless outlines and drafts, whether the resulting script is among the mere handful good enough to merit some form of physical production order — with cameras, A-listers, and multi-million-dollar budgets. According to some industry estimates, just 0.3 percent of film scripts that are ordered actually go into production. The success rate is likewise freakishly low on the TV side.
Occasionally, deceased projects may reach the afterlife, after a self-loathing stint in purgatory. But it takes some real luck and skill — call it an angel with wings made of hundred-thousand-dollar bills that’s willing to negotiate a pesky latticework of legalese to buy the script back from the original commissioning parties. By this point, however, those pages brimming with 12-point Courier font have earned themselves a certain graveyard stench. Would you want to tango with a skeleton?
OK, Mr. Hollywood Wannabe, you may be wondering, why even spend the time when you’re facing such minuscule odds? Well, you’re in luck. In this new, semi-occasional series “Confessions of an Indie Media CEO,” I’m giving you an intimate look at what it’s like to run a company like Narratively in 2023 (spoiler: it’s incredibly rewarding and also a wee bit stressful at times!). Why do we do what we do? Where do we aim to go? What decisions am I grappling with?
In this first installment, I’ll answer the “why Hollywood” question, and I’ll start by sharing a query I hear all the time: