Small Companies, Big Ideas: Trailblazer on passion projects, staying independent

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, ...
April 8, 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.

Emmy-winning entertainment, production, post and sound studio Trailblazer Studios calls Raleigh, N.C. home. And in that southern city sits Trailblazer’s nearly 20,000 sq. ft. facility that comes loaded with a soundstage, production offices, edit suites, picture finishing, sound mixing and other production services. Most recently, the company announced a first-of-its-kind television endeavor with Reuters to adapt its highly acclaimed, award-winning investigative series The Body Trade. Trailblazer, which delivered nearly 100 hours of original programming in 2020, is currently producing blue chip, natural history and premium docuseries for several networks, including National Geographic, OWN and Discovery. Over the past 15 years, the company has developed a robust remote post and sound workflow and assists clients with delivering content to HBO, Netflix, PBS, Amazon and numerous film festivals, including Sundance, Full Frame and Tribeca.

Below, four members of Trailblazer’s executive team discuss the indie’s multi-genre slate, and the ins and outs of remaining independent and navigating a pandemic: Jeff Lanter, president/COO; Ashleigh DiTonto (pictured above), SVP of development; Eric Johnson, SVP of sound and engagement; and Scott Roy, SVP of post production

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you tell us about the origins of the company?

jeff_lanter2Jeff Lanter (left):  Trailblazer Studios was started almost 20 years ago by Tom Waring and Rick Duffield. They were both part of Lyricks Studios (Barney/Wishbone) and when Lyrick was sold to Hit Entertainment, they looked for their next adventure. That just happened to be in Raleigh, NC.

In the beginning, we were going to focus on independent films but it quickly morphed into unscripted TV when we hooked up with Figure 8 Films, who is also located here in NC. We had a great connection with them — we ran the two companies very much alike, so I think that’s why we hit it off. From there, we started to handle all their post/sound on their numerous hit series (and still do) but we also wanted to get back to creating our own projects and after a few years we launched our own development.

How would you best describe your philosophy when it comes to factual programming and how you develop/select projects?

Ashleigh DiTonto:  When I started, Tom and Jeff told me I could shape the slate and team however I wanted. That freedom and support was very empowering and it made me a better creative because I was in love with everything I was working on. So, I try to make sure that my team feels the same, which is why the slate is wildly diverse, but full of passion. For me, I like my projects to answer the question, will this make an impact? Will it raise an unheard, ignored or silenced voice? And then can we make it entertaining so the audience will actually listen? If I can answer all three of those with a “hell, yes”, then it goes on the slate.

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

Scott Roy (below): Collaboration is at the heart of our process. Being a small company in an atypical market was challenging enough to get the ear of buyers. To get them to trust and believe in us, when it came to delivering the final product meant we had to exceed all expectations in order to

scott-roy2get a win and prove our worth. It was our small size and bootstrap mentality that allowed us to communicate swiftly from the top down and everyone felt they had a hand in dragging the shows to the finish line. And trust me, those first few were kicking and screaming! Now with our end to end and remote workflows that have proven to be successful, we are providing post and sound for other production companies, producers, and filmmakers across the country, allowing us to share the love.

ADT: Being able to pivot, persevere and adapt. I am like a dog with a bone with my projects because I believe in them and fight for them. We’ll re-develop a concept 85 ways to adjust to the market or what a network needs. And we’re creative with partnerships and attachments that might be out of the box or tough to land, but worth it if it can elevate the project and make it stand out.

How has the enduring COVID-19 pandemic affected the long-term outlook for your business?

JL: I think the pandemic showed all of us, it doesn’t matter how many shows you have on your slate, it can all go away in an instant. So it forces you to rethink how you put together your teams. It causes you to rethink how you attack projects. Look, because we chose to be in Raleigh, NC, we’ve always had to find a way to work remotely with other creatives and clients. That could sometimes be a hurdle but now that everyone has a year of working remotely under their belt, it’s not such a big deal. New and old clients are trusting us and our remote workflows that we’ve had in place for 15+ years since the majority of our clients are not located here in NC. So I think we’ll see that continue and likely increase when things go back to “normal.”

What do you have currently in development that you can share?

ADT: In addition to our recently announced projects (partnership with Reuters bringing their award winning The Body Trade investigation to screen and Red Summer with Dawn Porter for Nat Geo), we have our newest babies we’re ready to “share screen” with and pitch: An anthology series with Soledad O’Brien’s production company SO’B; an epic ocean series with Fabien Cousteau, Tom Dettweiler, Eric Strauss; and Sara Page’s Discover Our Oceans organization as well as two projects with director Deborah Riley Draper.

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?

JL:  We’ve been very fortunate. We are a closely-held company with owners that believe in taking our successes and reinvesting them back into the company. We constantly fight the battle of growing too big because we like being nimble. But, that presents challenges —when you’re a small company, everyone has to roll up their sleeves and do more. That “whatever it takes” mentality is awesome and clients love it — but at times, it comes at a price for the team. So we spend a lot of time worrying about burn-out and how we protect our team while staying small.

ADT:  I remember when I first learned that one of those acquired companies had 15 interns scouring the Internet for talent/ideas all day, and I pretty much wanted to change careers knowing we couldn’t compete with that (or their insanely high optioning fees because IP is king these days). But Trailblazer has taught me I don’t need to compete. I can play a completely different game where we collaborate with like-minded creatives. It’s doing wonders for my anxiety and our slate.

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

Eric Johnson (below): Remaining independent allows us more freedom of choice about the types of projects we do and equally important don’t want to be a part of. It means a great eric-johnsondeal to us to be able to elevate underrepresented voices and shine a light on hidden stories which comes from a place of wanting to use our platform to be good citizens of the world.

ADT: Not to be redundant, but it’s the freedom for sure. We are so nimble and our slate is diverse because we don’t have to be just one thing. We can just be good storytellers with a range of genres and formats bringing on the best people for the job. And there are way less meetings and paperwork.

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

ADT: It’s a bit different for me since I’ve always worked remotely for Trailblazer right outside Manhattan. I can still pitch most of the major networks in person if necessary. I also lived in LA for over a decade, so I know there are advantages to being “in it,” but for unscripted and documentary it mostly works to our advantage. Our stories and ideas aren’t coming from the hubs and we work with people across the states.

EJ: Now more than any time in the history of our country and really the world, there is a heightened awareness around issues of diversity. Racial diversity, gender diversity, and regional diversity are more sought after than ever and as we all know in factual programming, stories can and do happen anywhere and everywhere.

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