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.
The latest edition of Realscreen‘s Small Companies, Big Ideas series spotlights Brooklyn’s The Front, a female-led documentary production studio and creative think-tank.
With offices on both U.S. coasts, the fully independent production company was founded by award-winning filmmaker and media executive Thalia Mavros (pictured) in 2016. Mavros’s mission for The Front is to elevate narratives from underrepresented and unexpected perspectives, focusing on storytelling “that can spark conversation and change.”
Within its first four years of existence, The Front has launched the traveling dance competition series The Sauce, executive produced by and featuring Usher, for ill-fated short-form streamer Quibi, and is behind a number of previous titles for Spotify’s Best Advice franchise and National Geographic’s Untamed and WildLife with Bertie Gregory. The indie studio is also currently in production on a number of yet-to-be-announced long-form projects in the docuseries and feature length-documentary spaces.
Prior to launching The Front in 2016, Mavros was the first executive creative director at Vice, where she launched some of the youth-skewing media company’s most innovative verticals, and also led its joint venture with Intel, The Creators Project. At Vice, she helmed the director’s chair for projects from the likes of Pharrell Williams and Johnny Knoxville, and interviewed such luminaries such as Errol Morris, Werner Herzog and Harmony Korine.
Here, Mavros discusses the benefits and disadvantages of running her own boutique production house.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The Front has been in business for about four years now. Can you tell us about the origins of the company?
I was setting out to create something I hadn’t been seeing in the industry yet felt was so necessary – a creative playground where women and underrepresented groups could come together to tell edgy and thought-provoking stories that could generate more complex conversations for women and others, while appealing to viewers everywhere.
At the time, I was noticing a commodification of feminism that felt exclusionary, and there was a whole world of experiences, themes and emotions left unexplored. I started The Front to tell those stories, and I believe deeply that the best way to achieve authenticity in that pursuit is to have people behind the camera who can understand and relate to the nuances at hand.
With your background at larger companies such as Vice Media, how do you compare the experience to running your own shop?
I’m sure most would agree, the most exciting and alluring part about being independent is that we don’t need to compromise at the outset. There’s zero internal political maneuvering; we have the freedom to chase the stories we’re passionate about, to push boundaries and to collaborate with the creative partners we feel are best equipped for the project at hand.
We’re also not locked into a specific lane. We’re able to diversify our portfolio, producing projects that range from deep, investigative pieces – including those we currently have set with cable and streaming partners – to lighter, cultural fare.
What are the challenges in being a small company at a time when many production companies are being acquired by larger, multi-national operations?
I love that we’ve been able to build and evolve the company our way, and craft our own distinct, fully-formed voice within the entertainment community. However, being independent certainly requires another level of resilience. Yes, we have the creative freedom that we love, but there are other facets to running your own shop and being part of a larger company can go a long way toward lightening the load operationally.
That said, at this point, our approach and focus are so clearly defined, I never feel like we’re competing or losing out to larger companies. I think buyers know we bring something different and unique to the table, and because of that, we’re able to coexist with the bigger content creators.
The Front has a comprehensive history in short-form and branded content, but you’ve recently been focused on creating long-form unscripted projects. Why have you decided to move in that direction?
From the jump, our strength has been documentary. In the early stages of the company, short-form was an effective way for us to share more stories and propel more conversations in an immediate and impactful way. And even at that time, there were many projects in which we were utilizing short-form to incubate deeper, long-form storytelling.
From there, we really just evolved with the audience. When we first launched the company, short-form was much more prevalent, and I actually credit the short-form digital media boom with fueling the eventual rise of long-form documentary. Short-form docs conditioned viewers to seek documentary programming as a source of entertainment and information, and to enrich their understanding of the world. All of a sudden, documentaries were becoming watercooler conversation, and at the same time, the major streamers began investing in premium docs.
The Front was there for all of it, and our work grew with the audience’s appetite. We haven’t moved completely away from short-form, but a lot of the stories we’re currently uncovering and focusing on are best served through long-form series and features.
The Front is described as a “a female-led documentary production studio and creative think tank” that produces film and TV with underrepresented voices at the forefront. Do you have a checklist in mind when creating a project in that space?
It isn’t about creating content within a particular space. Rather, in each and every thing we do, we think about diversity and about representing the population in our storytelling and at our company. That includes constantly asking ourselves, “Are we the best people to tell this story?” If that answer is “no,” we pass on the project. We want our production team and crew members to have a real relationship and connection to the subject they’re spotlighting. That philosophy also inspires some of our coproductions, bringing in terrific partners from different backgrounds and experiences — for instance, we currently have projects in the works with Vox and XTR, among others.
We look at what’s happening in the world and how we want to articulate people’s real experiences through our content, but we also always aim to go a layer deeper to see where those current conversations originated and where they’re leading us. For example, we have a project in production now with a cable network that resulted from digging further into the experiences and behavior brought to light through the #MeToo movement.
There has been considerable consolidation throughout the television landscape in the last handful of years. Has there been any consideration on your part to station The Front under the wing of a larger business?
It’s always a consideration. We’ve certainly had opportunities, but it just hasn’t been the right moment or the right fit for us. And remaining independent these past four years has given us the opportunity to establish our voice and build great relationships with buyers and with myriad creative and production partners.
Generally speaking, how are the disruptions of the coronavirus outbreak impacting The Front, and how have you adjusted to the fallout as a small company?
I think that, like many companies, we had an opportunity to take stock, evaluate our processes and make the changes that would help us get to the core of what we’re trying to accomplish. There are actually some projects we turned down over these past few months because they would have taken resources away from other series and films we’re passionate about and that are more in line with The Front’s brand and values.
There are new considerations and challenges across the board, but these things push us to set a higher standard, re-evaluate what’s meaningful to the company (and to us as human beings) and focus in on how to achieve our goals, even in the most turbulent of times.
Has The Front returned to the field working with your industry partners during this uncertain period?
Yes, we have. We currently have projects at different stages of production and development with partners at various streamers, cable networks and digital platforms. When productions were dark, we pivoted to focus on development, utilizing our time researching and writing, so that, once protocols were in place to resume physical production safely, we could hit the ground running.
Overall, it’s been heartening to see the way the industry has worked together and supported one another in finding ways to move forward.
What long-form unscripted and documentary projects are in the pipeline at The Front?
We have a number of upcoming projects that haven’t yet been announced by our partners, but I will share that we have a premium documentary series in production with Netflix; a few sports-based documentaries with Red Bull, one of which will soon debut; an investigative docuseries set up with a major cable network; as well as two upcoming feature docs. Our other projects in development encompass environmental subjects and wildlife, among other topics.