Small companies, big ideas: Red Rock Films on being a nimble indie

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, ...
January 21, 2021

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 Silver Spring, Maryland’s Red Rock Pictures, which is led by veteran producers Brian Armstrong (pictured left) and Shannon Malone-deBenedictis (right).

Since its founding in 2010 with just three hours of content for Nat Geo Wild produced in Armstrong’s basement, the independent studio has specialized in creating and producing a wealth of factual content across the blue-chip natural history, science, reality and history spaces for major broadcasters and digital content providers.

Red Rock also boasts international offices in both South Africa and Norway, where Red Rock International and Red Rock Scandinavia, respectively, craft bespoke natural history and factual content for the global marketplace.

Despite the enduring pandemic, the indie studio has been hard at work on production, with work progressing on what Red Rock calls a “genre-busting” natural history series filmed in Africa for Netflix (Spring 2021); and the four-part global series Secrets of the Whales, which reveals how these marine mammals are more similar to humans than previously thought. Secrets of the Whales, scheduled to debut on Disney+ in Spring 2021, is co-executive produced by Academy Award winner James Cameron and narrated by Sigourney Weaver.

Summer 2021 also promises to be a lucrative one for the production outfit, with new shark-focused content expected to steadily debut throughout the warmer months. On tap are untitled specials for Discovery’s ‘Shark Week’ and National Geographic’s ‘SharkFest’, and a new shark-centric series for Nat Geo Wild.

“We’re very aware that any time a development executive gives you a greenlight, they may be putting their job on the line,” Armstrong said. “They have to have confidence in your abilities and trust, which you’ll probably build over time. We’ve put in the time now, but the first two years, I think people were just wondering if we were going to last or not.

“They now know we’re not going anywhere, and we’re reaping the rewards because we’re trusted by the broadcasters that keep coming back to us,” he added. “We’ve now had plans approved to build a production facility with a full-size studio in the heart of Silver Spring, Maryland that we should be moving into this time next year. ”

The studio also hopes to continue serving as mentors for National Geographic’s six-month Field Ready Diversity Program, which pairs 10 filmmakers with leading producers, directors and storytellers from across the natural history genre serving as mentors.

Armstrong serves as the principal filmmaker of Red Rock Films and boasts more than 25 years of industry experience. The Australian native and Red Rock president began his career in the newsroom of Nine Network in Sydney, serving as an on-air presenter and as bureau chief, before moving stateside where he spent 11 years at National Geographic. There, he produced such series as Dangerous Encounters with Brady Barr, Wild Spaces and National Geographic’s Explorer, among others.

Malone-deBenedictis, the company’s SVP of development and production, holds more than 15 years of experience in the broadcasting sector, having spent eight of those years within Discovery Inc. (then Discovery Communications) and working her way up to the role of executive producer. She then shifted into program development with a four-year stint at National Geographic and Nat Geo Wild.

Her past credits include Wicked TunaAmerican ColonyGeorge W. Bush: The 9/11 InterviewShark MenPlanet EarthDiscovery AtlasReal Family of Jesus and Extraordinary People.

Here, Armstrong and Malone-deBenedictis discuss the advantages and challenges inherent in leading a boutique wildlife firm with big ideas.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic and the past year affected the long-term outlook for your business as we shift to 2021?

Brian Armstrong: We’ve had our best year ever, by a good margin. We got a little bit lucky, but we very quickly managed to move to remote editing and haven’t skipped a beat. I thought we were going to see a big slump this year, but as commissions are coming in it looks like we’re going to do really well this year as well.

I don’t see a huge dip or change in our outlook. We definitely had to shift fast to ensure what we did was COVID safe, and that’ll prepare us if this ever happens again.

Shannon Malone-deBenedictis: Because we’ve worked in this way as a small company, it’s allowed us to be very nimble and so we’ve adjusted. In that nimbleness, we’re able to work with our teams, because it’s a core group of people who are making decisions and working together to solve the problem.

What are some of the challenges in being a small company at a time when so many production companies are being acquired by larger multinational operations?

BA: We’ve never had a sugar daddy, and we’ve never had an output deal. We started with one basic philosophy: put the money on the screen. We spend a lot of time making sure that each project is our best project and that it’s a calling card for in order to get more business. That’s how we’ve been able to survive and grow over the last 10 years.

Being [independent] is a harder slog; it’s made us be more careful about the projects we do, what we choose to invest in, and just being smart about how we operate. 

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

BA: One of our strengths as an independent company is our ability to grow and shrink, and to do so pretty easily. We have a core staff of 10 but usually we have about 24-25 when you add on the freelancers. We’ve been constant at that number for a couple of years now.

When you have those little dips between projects, you’ve got to be able to comfortably shrink and grow. And we are a good size to be able to do that without any real damage being done.

SMD: One of the advantages of being a small company is we have a lot more creative freedom for what we can do and what we can invest in. It’s a small team who are working collectively on creating the ideas, generating the pitches. Once they’re greenlit, it’s still the same small team that’s working on the pitches, pushing them through and collaborating with the networks, because we’re not dealing with layers of bureaucracy.  

What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of being based outside of the major American television hubs?  

BA: In terms of wildlife, our premiere broadcasters are pretty close by. We’ve got Nat Geo and Smithsonian just around the corner; we’ve got Blue Ant and Love Nature close by. There’s quite a vibrant hub in the DC area and we’re so close to New York that we’ve never really felt that distance before.

SMD: To address also the drawback. We have less opportunities to build those relationships (in New York or Los Angeles). That’s not to say that I’m not traveling up there… but because of the work we do, we’re able to show people without necessarily being there.

The top DPs (directors of photography) for a lot of natural history live in South Africa, the UK, in Norway, in Asia, so where we are isn’t necessarily a hindrance in that area. 

There’s been considerable consolidation over the years throughout the television landscape. Has there any been any consideration on your part to station Red Rock under the wing of a larger business?

SMD: We’re always open for opportunities. But our goal, number one, is to tell a really great story and to make the best possible product.

As an independent who’s really concentrating on making sure these incredible stories out there in nature are told, we have to have freedom and understanding from higher ups or from an umbrella. Right now, our biggest competitors are the BBC and other companies in the UK who are under umbrellas, and yet, we’re still walking in line with them.

What is your strategy when it comes to breaking through the clutter and succeeding in such a competitive marketplace?

SMD: A cluttered market means more ideas and more innovation. And I know that as a company, we look at all different media forms to find inspiration and find new ways of telling stories, because it’s all about the story. It’s all about hooking the audience. I welcome a crowded marketplace because it really helps us figure out ways that we can do better and tell things in a different, more provocative way.

BA: There’s a tendency to think that smaller companies are not going to have the best people necessarily, or can afford them. But our philosophy has always gone the other way, that the best people pave their own way. We want to deliver high quality on time and on budget every time, and we do. That’s not because we’re hiring junior people – although we have junior people we’re training – it’s because we’re putting the best, most experienced people at their jobs in the positions that we need them to lead these projects. We’re a boutique but we have that philosophy of a larger company when it comes to delivery of our products.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.