There’s no question that the television industry is competitive, and it can be hard for a small prodco to break through the noise and find its niche. In this series, realscreen chats with some indie prodcos that have innovated and thrived, showing the unscripted world that sometimes the best things come in small packages.
Below, we chat with Ari Mark, co-founder and executive producer of AMPLE Entertainment — a production company founded alongside showrunner Phil Lott that is dedicated to what Mark calls “handcrafted” content. Since launching less than three years ago, the company has produced more than 40 hours of programming including Murder in the Heartland for Discovery ID, Cooper’s Treasure with Amblin Entertainment for Discovery, Cold Case Files with Blumhouse Television for A&E, Hacking the Wild for Science Channel and the upcoming Facebook series Nine Months with Courteney Cox.
Do you still see AMPLE as a smaller company?
It’s an advantage in some ways for us to think of ourselves as a small company. If we present ourselves as a small company to the outside world, we continue to be thought about a company who is very thoughtful about our content, and a little bit more handcrafted. We go out of our way to push that philosophy because first of all, it’s true — there’s not that many people actually physically working here. But secondly, everyone who’s here is really a doer. There’s a filmmaker mentality. We do think of ourselves as a small company but that translates to a nimbleness and an ability to pivot, and usually a fearlessness to take big swings.
Was that your mantra from the beginning?
Yeah, as cheesy as it sounds. We legitimately started this company in a garage.
We wrote a manifesto when we started the company, and aside from not being jerks, it also says that we need to stay true to the passion.
What obstacles did you face along the way in terms of being a smaller company trying to make your mark in a competitive industry?
The obvious answer is being a smaller company usually means you don’t have the infrastructure to move quickly on things. But I think that actually has the opposite effect because there are less layers in the company. So a good idea doesn’t have to go through a bunch of people — a good idea is just a good idea, and you just go ahead and make it. Being able to eliminate those layers goes a really long way.
A big challenge in the first year is that you’re sitting there with your fingers crossed for every piece of development. But if you’re able to generate ideas without having to rely on tons of people, you’re unstoppable. It’s not like that well’s going to suddenly dry up.
On that note, maybe we can we talk a bit about Murder in the Heartland. What was the genesis for that series?
The thing about ID is they’re all about taking something familiar and defamiliarizing it for the audience, so it’s about figuring out a twist. For us, as producers with a really deep documentary background, we went out and shot this concept about how the people closest to murders are the people in small towns. If you piece together the people in these towns, you can actually reconstruct the murder, and you realize everybody [is] a sort of inextricable piece of that puzzle.
It’s really telling the [stories of the] murders through the eyes of a small town, and while that was cool, I’m not going to say ID had never heard of it before. I think the thing that really resonated with our audience and the reason why the show is such a success right now is the approach.
I think we were able to nudge the production towards something that felt new. We went incredibly lean. We went back to our documentary roots and said, ‘OK, you’re speaking to somebody about something that’s incredibly sensitive and traumatic.’ We had to ask ourselves how to treat a subject in a way that’s going to get the best material possible and feel the most authentic. The way to do that is you don’t have nine people standing around craft service tables… You need one shooter-producer, and you let them put in the time.
Is that shooting process something you dictated from the beginning of the project, or was it something you realized needed to be done later on?
It was a little bit of both. We knew we wanted to do away with sit-down interviews — we felt for this type of show, where you’re telling multiple stories about people in a small town who are connected to a murder, you want to feel like you’re living with them. Sit-down interviews tend to get very static.
We went in very intentionally planning to do present-tense interviews. The person asking the questions is the same person filming. Once we saw that working we knew we’d cracked the shell and started shooting everything that way.
How do you find staff that has that jack-of-all-trades mentality?
One thing we talk about a lot is we try to be very thoughtful about our approach and try to create projects that are filmmaker-led. It’s about finding people that are doers who are going to be able to wear a lot of hats, and not see that as an encumbrance — more of an opportunity.