Katalyst targets the creative set with Thrash Lab

Anthony Batt, president of Ashton Kutcher and Jason Goldberg's Katalyst Media, talks to realscreen about the production company's YouTube channel Thrash Lab, which targets creative individuals and their admirers.
August 21, 2012

Ashton Kutcher and Jason Goldberg’s indie Katalyst Media is staking a space on YouTube as a destination for viewers interested in creativity with Thrash Lab, a premium content channel.

The channel (pictured above) launched earlier this year as part of a reported US$100 million investment that the Google-owned video sharing site has poured into roughly 100 niche channels.

Thrash Lab’s programming includes the docu-series Dream Bigger, which follows a group of content creators competing to create a web series pilot; Subculture Club, a series about unorthodox social groups, such as teenage magicians and off-the-grid Colorado community Slab City; and Rituals, which pulls the curtain back on pre-show rituals of artists and musicians such as Mr. Brainwash and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. In all, the company will deliver 25 hours of content throughout its production year.

The idea for Thrash Lab was born last spring when Katalyst teamed up with Intel during digital media event IdeaJam, a 48-hour creative meet-up where 600-odd content creators brainstormed and shot six projects. Katalyst’s ultimate goal is to do for digital media what the Sundance Film Festival has done for independent cinema.

“No one really covers creativity very well, either in traditional or digital media,” says Katalyst president Anthony Batt, who was chief creative officer at blog network BUZZ Media before the Los Angeles-based prodco this year. “There isn’t that one-stop place that covers [creativity] thoroughly. We want to document the creative process with many different approaches. We also want to show creativity and the byproduct of being creative. We think that’s fertile ground and an area we really want to own.”

The goal is to program the kind of high-quality, creative-led content on YouTube that is typically associated with Vimeo, the video sharing site of choice for many writers and directors. Thrash Lab’s target audience is independent and aspiring creators, as well as anyone interested in the creative process – similar to Vice and its creative technology website The Creators Project.

Thrash Lab’s Subculture Club and Vice both brought cameras to Slab City, for example, but Batt says there’s a tonal difference in the two outlets’ approaches. “They show a more aggressive and edgier side of creativity,” he explains. “We’re a little more cerebral, and we’re interested in the humor and the beauty.”

Although he won’t reveal how much money Katalyst is putting in Thrash Lab, Batt says the company is matching YouTube’s investment and is actively seeking pitches from creatives that want to do mini-series or documentaries. Aesthetically, Katalyst is keeping production values modest and in line with the quality of other web series, rather than aiming to replicate the high-end look of a television program – a practice he calls “unsustainable.”

“You have to work within the confines of what digital budgets have today,” he says. “Hypothetically, if someone gave us a million dollars, we could go make something for a million dollars, but it’s an unsustainable model. We explain to our creatives the medium and the platform, the audience, what works, what doesn’t work, why it works, and budget them accordingly.”

Working in digital also allows producers to take a fluid approach to a show’s format, something TV producers are unable to do but necessary on a series such as Rituals. The show is about the rituals a chef, artist or musician undertakes in the lead up to an important opening or concert. Since filming these intimate moments often hinges on personal relationships between director and subject, the access level can vary from episode to episode.

For example, the Jeff Tweedy episode follows the Wilco frontman during the quiet moments in which he re-learns obscure songs from his band’s back catalog ahead of an annual, all-request charity gig he takes part in each year in Chicago. Conversely, the Mr. Brainwash clip is totally chaotic; Katalyst’s cameras practically chase the manic Los Angeles-based pop artist around a massive warehouse space as he improvises finishing touches on his work seemingly at random.

“I come from an engineering background,” says Batt. “When you address the television, you as a user of that system expect a certain level of quality and format. It’s the same when you go to the movies. When you go a digital media platform, things vary so you can switch it up a bit. I think that’s a good thing.”

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