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 ‘Small Companies, Big Ideas’, realscreen chats with some indie prodcos who’ve innovated and thrived, showing the unscripted world that sometimes the best things come in small packages.
Below, we chat with David Shadrack Smith, president of Brooklyn-based Part2 Pictures — an Emmy-winning full service production company with a knack for creating high-end, character-driven stories across a variety of genres and platforms.
Since launching in 2007, the studio – with a minimal staff of less than 10 – has produced over more than 200 hours of content, including such programs as CNN’s This is Life with Lisa Ling and the forthcoming Chasing Life with Sanjay Gupta, OWN event series Belief with Oprah Winfrey, Showtime’s Dark Net, Investigation Discovery’s Scene of the Crime with Tony Harris and National Geographic’s Hard Time, as well as feature films and documentaries that have premiered at the Tribeca and Sundance film festivals.
Prior to founding Part2, Shadrack Smith worked as a director, producer and DP on National Geographic’s ‘Explorer’ series, and has also worked as a journalist and documentary filmmaker.
Where did the idea for launching Part2Pictures come from?
Part2, down to its name, came about in a moment in life when I felt ready as a filmmaker to take the next step: to take all the experiences and working knowledge and develop an approach that reflected my perspective on storytelling. More than a decade later – and hundreds of hours of programs and films later – I can still see how those roots took hold and spread. The notion of telling stories through a human lens still infuses everything we do, something I remain amazed and proud of.
I’ve previously read that you’ve opposed criteria that other companies deemed critical to measure success in business, and instead rely on certain values. Why is that, exactly?
Opposed is maybe a strong word, but I didn’t come from a business background; I came from a filmmaking background. So for me, the best measure of success is in the work. If it’s good, if it has impact and connects, that’s success. Everything we build as a business serves that goal. As the business has grown, I’ve tried to track it less by pass/fail targets and more by whether we are growing in line with our vision and core values. I do make every effort to run a sustainable, robust and evolving business, but we also try to incorporate a broader set of metrics for our personal and professional goals.
What are the core values that drive Part2 at its heart?
My gut tells me, if your values are strong, you will have a set of criteria to effectively meet challenges and opportunities. Every day in production and in managing a company, you have to make a million decisions, big and small. If at every crossroad we can say, does this align with and promote our values, we hopefully make the right call in that moment. Our values are pretty simple: integrity, innovation and craft. Those are the tools we use to best meet the responsibility — and the joy — of telling great stories.
Part2 has been around for more than a decade now, but what are some of the biggest challenges that have come with being an indie?
Being independent allows for a lot of flexibility in how we scale and deploy our resources, which helps us navigate constant changes in our industry. That said, as the business of production has evolved, the resources for development and deal-making puts pressure on indie companies. It helps a lot to have our team of agents at WME. However, we’re also aware that we aren’t a multi-national company with an array of ways to monetize what we do, whether that’s through distribution or sharing IP and formats across a portfolio of production companies. The challenge remains how to stay competitive, no matter what size you are. There’s a trade-off with accepting funding, and with it, shareholder oversight, and staying indie and scrappy with our resources. We have to be nimble and the best at what we do, and that’s hopefully our edge.
What are some of the advantages that come along with being an indie?
Indie means independence, and there are a lot of advantages that come with that. We determine our goals, our culture, our brand and our way of working. We can meet opportunities quickly and adjust accordingly to the ebb and flow of our industry. I’d say our biggest asset is being able to work with incredible show runners, producers, editors, DPs and APs who find a supportive and positive hands-on approach at Part2 that is very much a result of being able to determine all aspects of our productions.
What’s your strategy when it comes to breaking through the clutter and succeeding in a competitive market?
Our strategy is to focus on working with amazing talent — which comprises a lot of our slate — and staying innovative with our ideas and our approach to stories. The best results come when we have strong relationships with broadcasters and talent, and can work closely to create something everyone wants to get behind. We think our shows really take audiences into unique worlds and experiences, and hopefully that continues to attract interest in a crowded landscape.
Can you tell me about your forthcoming docuseries Chasing Life with Sanjay Gupta for CNN? What was the genesis for that series?
We love to craft series that show incredible people in new ways, and through our long relationship created making This Is Life with Lisa Ling for CNN, they reached out to us to develop some ideas around Sanjay. We couldn’t have been more excited. We worked hand in hand with Sanjay and CNN to make a series that takes on the subject of health and wellness in the most entertaining yet thought-provoking way possible. Through the subjects we covered and Sanjay’s perspectives, our lives literally changed during the making of this series.
How did you approach this series from the perspective of a smaller company?
I don’t think size was a factor. Our work spans all sizes of productions, including global large scale ones, such as Oprah Winfrey’s landmark series, Belief. Over the years, we’ve probably shot in a hundred countries. As with every production, the approach is to build the best team — which was easy with such interesting subject matter — and stay passionate about making the most amazing series we could. One aspect of our culture that works to our advantage is sharing talent, ideas, and production knowledge across all our teams. It’s an open way of working that I think allows for a productive flow of ideas and innovations.
You’ve noted in past interviews that Part2 focuses on “high-end, human-driven storytelling”. What’s the criteria you’re searching for when developing a series?
We look for great characters and great stories, like everyone. How we filter that to meet our brand and the needs of our clients and partners is the secret sauce. But as we talk about “Stories Through a Human Lens”, I would say the core is all about trying to convey an emotional connection between audiences and stories, and hopefully that informs, engages, provokes and entertains.