Small companies, big ideas: Bryn Mooser’s premium doc studio XTR

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, ...
June 11, 2020

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 indies that are innovating and thriving, showing the unscripted world that sometimes the best things come in small packages.

Below, Realscreen spotlights two-time Academy Award nominee Bryn Mooser, founder and CEO of the Los Angeles-headquartered XTR.

Since its founding in September 2019, the premium non-fiction film and television studio has served the documentary film community by empowering a new generation of artists to pursue “impactful storytelling” on a global scale.

Despite its nine employees, XTR has been punching above its weight since inception, touting backing from former AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong and Josh Kushner, brother of President Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

XTR’s board of directors, meanwhile, encompasses the likes of lead investor Franklin McLarty, who led the initial investment from the McLarty Arquette Group, an entity that includes actor David Arquette and producer Christina McLarty.

In the 10 months since being operational, the studio has raised funding in the mid seven-figures, according to the Wall Street Journal, with investments in a number of documentaries and non-scripted television series.

XTR’s feature-length documentary catalog has included Kim A. Snyder’s Sundance film Us Kids; Cristina Constantini and Kareem Tabsch’s Mucho Mucho Amor, which is releasing globally on Netflix July 8; David Darg and Price James’ You Cannot Kill David ArquetteElyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres’ The Fight; and Bill Ross and Turner Ross‘ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, to name a few.

Prior to launching XTR, Mooser (pictured) served as co-founder of immersive media company RYOT Films, which was sold in 2016 to The Huffington Post and AOL, before serving as an SVP at Verizon Media.

Here, Mooser discusses the benefits and disadvantages of running a boutique production house.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

XTR has been in business for about a year now. Can you tell us about the origins of the company?

I’ve been working in documentary, non-profit, and related fields for my entire career, so I’ve seen a lot of mini-eras happen and peak. After the experience of co-founding RYOT and successfully exiting what we were all so proud to build, I was looking for what’s next. And it was so clear that we were at the beginning of a revolution in the documentary industry. Perhaps for the first time in the history of cinema and television, documentaries have a central place in the culture. Prestige films have always been a thing, but streaming has really exploded it, and now we’re in the era of Tiger KingThe Last DanceSurviving R. Kelly, and countless other examples.

Looking at that landscape, what got me excited was the opportunity to build the best documentary studio in the world. Not just the best production company, but a cultural force in the industry and center that around the brand of XTR rather than a specific documentary filmmaker.

What obstacles have you faced along the way in terms of being a smaller company trying to make your mark in a competitive industry?

We’re in a moment where strong and lean companies will survive over the big traditional companies. We’ve got an amazing team of true experts who are passionate about what they do. And that extends to our investors and backers.

Conversely, what are some of the advantages or benefits of remaining independent?

Our independence allows us to take risks that others can’t and that’s reflected in our film slate. Resourcefulness, speed and urgency.

XTR describes itself as a “premium non-fiction film and television studio.” Do you have a checklist in mind of what makes a project fit into the “premium” space?

Well, a funny thing has happened in the streaming era, which is that what used to be called “water cooler” moments now actually happen with regularity. A lot of people declared water cooler TV dead a few years ago during the advent of DVR and time-shifted viewing. But what I see as somebody who pays close attention to the culture is that true quality rises to the top, and has a moment. That’s one element of “premium.” Also subject matter and who’s involved are important. But ultimately we’re looking for that cultural impact. I love Sundance, but it used to be that you had to gather several thousand people on a mountain and show them something great to create momentum. Now anyone has access to these types of films; that’s a democratization of distribution that is so exciting about this moment.

Now, with more buyers arriving on the scene in the form of SVODs and emerging platforms, are you finding more opportunities there? Is it challenging to be a smaller company when pitching to these new buyers, or are they more open to creative risk-taking?

There are more opportunities than ever for sellers right now. What we’re really doing when we’re out with a project is trying to find the right match, [and] ultimately the right buyer. That might be Netflix, but it might be a niche or an up-and-coming service. We want to have a clear sense that what we’ve got is going to resonate with a given platform’s audience. Our independence is again a strength here, because it lets us work with literally everyone. With the rise of distribution and streaming competition, it makes this an amazing time to be in the business we’re in.

What’s your strategy when it comes to breaking through the clutter and succeeding in such a competitive market?

With humility, I would point out that our core team has been doing this for a long time. So while the company is new, we’re fortunate that we’ve already worked with the people who form our ecosystem: buyers, executives, filmmakers of course, festival bookers, journalists, agents, and the like. How we’ve been able to break through so quickly is connected to that obviously, but it’s really also about our core mission and staying true to that. We have a fanatical devotion to quality and we want to be leaders in the documentary revolution that’s happening as we speak.

What’s in the pipeline now at XTR?

Lots. You’ll have to sit back and watch.

We’re in production on many docs, including a few announcements on the horizon.

Right now, we’re working with Neon for distribution for You Cannot Kill David Arquette. Now that we’re living in the COVID-19 era, a release for a film may be different than what we’re used to. Neon is one of the most progressive and creative companies in the business and the way they think about distribution was already cutting-edge, pre-pandemic. They really do it right. That type of unconventional thinking is more valuable than ever right now, so we’re excited to see how it plays out.

Generally speaking, how are the disruptions of the coronavirus outbreak impacting XTR, and how are you adjusting to the fallout as a small company? And, more specifically, how is XTR working with your industry partners during this uncertain period? 

Aside from the daily Zoom calls with the team, walks with our head of film, Kathryn Everett, and the peacocks of Echo Park, we’re finding creative ways to do business.

We were disappointed when we found out SXSW was cancelled, not just for us, but all of the filmmakers. We were set to premiere You Cannot Kill David Arquette there so our team was really disappointed — mainly because there was no better crowd than SXSW to premiere that movie. We didn’t want to miss the chance to give it a proper premiere so 24 hours after finding out about the cancellation, we held a screening at the Arquettes’ house with friends, family and everyone involved in making the film.

When the pandemic hit and we understood the severity, we — and everyone — took stock of the projects we were doing and figured out which ones could be finished at this time. Not only are we spending a ton of time talking to people at studios and figuring out how to get finished projects to audiences, but we’re looking in post-disaster and crisis cinema to find those themes that are universal after humanity goes through a collective crisis.

How do you think these disruptions will impact small and independent production houses in the long-term?

Sadly, many won’t make it through this period — both newer and bigger legacy production companies. In the documentary world, production companies will fare better than narrative and independent film companies but this will be a time when the industry will look quite different than it did going into it.

Image courtesy XTR

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