Our look at realscreen‘s Trailblazers for 2014 continues with Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, founders of World of Wonder Productions.
When realscreen reached World of Wonder founders Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey for an interview, the pair was recovering from their office holiday party the night before. Billed as the LA-based prodco’s first-annual drag ball, the event was a who’s who of drag queen high society.
“For us an office party includes a red carpet, a runway and Lady Bunny DJing,” says Barbato. “It was filled with queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race. It was like being at the Academy Awards.”
It was a long haul to get Drag Race to where it is today with a devout following, but also well-liked in industry and critical circles. World of Wonder pitched the show for years to execs that deemed it “too niche” (i.e. too gay).
Even for a company with a long history of producing feature docs about cult figures and LGBT characters, such as The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Becoming Chaz and Party Monster, the project proved too difficult and Bailey and Barbato shelved it until a new exec at Logo persuaded them to revive it.
World of Wonder’s belief that LGBT stories and characters can have broad appeal often brushes up against perceived wisdom about what will and won’t work on cable. The ongoing success of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the docuseries Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce – about one of the most popular performers in bounce, a hip-hop sub-genre – would validate that belief.
In addition to the seventh season of Drag Race, WoW is in production on seasons three and four of Big Freedia. The company also saw successes in 2014 with the real-estate franchise Million Dollar Listing for Bravo and Island Hunters for HGTV, and kicked off the new year with Friends to Lovers?, which made its debut on Bravo on January 15.
Barbato and Bailey are in talks in the UK and elsewhere about local versions of Drag Race and are developing other formats. “There is a very soft format to Million Dollar Listing but there is a format,” says Barbato.
The pair started the company 23 years after being inspired by the free-for-all that was New York public access television in the 1990s. Earlier this year, WoW channeled that spirit into a digital programming venture with European multi-channel network Base79.
WoW’s sub-network of 70 YouTube channels features personalities from its various documentaries and TV series that have collectively racked up 112 million views and 529,000 subscribers. Meanwhile, the main WOWPresents channel has 145,000 subscribers and 42.8 million views.
Additionally, the web series for AOL, #CandidlyNicole, featuring celebrity Nicole Richie made the jump to cable as a series for VH1 (the second season is due to air this year).
In 2015, WoW will return to its doc roots with a project for HBO and #AfterParty (w/t), a sequel to Party Monster that catches up with club kid-turned-convicted murderer Michael Alig upon his release from a 17-year prison term.
How do you define the success of your digital programs? Is it when a digital show moves to linear TV?
Randy Barbato: Our philosophy is “today’s margin is tomorrow’s mainstream.” Creating a digital platform and inviting friends of World of Wonder, our artists, or our “wild-lebrities” to produce digital programming feels completely natural.
Fenton Bailey: Increasingly, ideas can travel between different platforms or different sizes of screen. But I don’t think you can only define success in that area as “YouTube star-becomes-a-legitimate-cable-star.” In many ways, YouTube artists are finding a large enough audience in their own medium. They don’t need cable’s validation.
Has the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race had the impact of doors opening for more LGBT talent?
RB: We’ve been producing stuff for over 20-odd years and we’ve never been “in” so we never “came out.” A lot of stuff we’ve produced has had gay, loud or out characters and there’s definitely been a kind of progression. There are definitely more gay, lesbian and trans characters, stories, and ideas that are part of the mainstream media. That just seems like a gradual progression.
Jonathan Ross has been trying to get a UK version greenlit. How is that going?
FB: We’ve been talking to him and UK broadcasters about a UK version of the show. We’re not there yet. We’re also talking to other territories about doing original versions of the show because, whatever you may think drag is or what you think about where it comes from, it is ultimately, and potentially a completely mainstream phenomenon. It comes from a gay space but I don’t think it needs to scare any network in any country as a “gay thing.” People want to see lives that are other than their own lives.