Hollywood is changing, and not a moment too soon. With traditional entertainment platforms in upheaval and digital models facing down old-style distribution, TheWrap went on the hunt for the people who are creating new business models, challenging the status quo and digging new paths for content creators.
So here they are, in our first annual list of Innovators Who Are Changing Hollywood.
These 12 come from all walks of the entertainment industry — from production, screenwriting, marketing, social media, finance, YouTube, agenting and talent in front of and behind the screen. Beyond this innovative dozen, there were some fascinating risers who we couldn’t resist naming as honorable mentions.
Also read: Hollywood’s Innovators: Honorable Mention
Have a look, have a read, and let us know what you think.
Innovators are listed in alphabetical order.
1. JASON BLUM
Founder, Blumhouse Productions
With each new micro-budget hit, Jason Blum is upending the way movies are made, emphasizing thrift in exchange for artistic freedom and greater profits.
He first caught Hollywood’s attention in 2009 with “Paranormal Activity,” which cost a mere $15,000 to produce and made an astounding $193.3 million globally. Then he proved that wasn’t an anomaly with films like “Insidious” and this summer’s “The Purge,” which earned back their bargain-basement budgets tenfold thanks to fresh spins on familiar bogeymen like ghosts or home invaders.
See photos: 12 Innovators Changing Hollywood
“We can take risks that we wouldn’t be allowed if these were traditional studio films,” Blum told TheWrap, noting that actors, directors and producers on his films work for scale in return for getting a bigger cut of a picture’s back-end.
His reward is a first-look distribution deal at Universal — but he has no plans to mess with his formula for the sake of nicer craft services or a bigger trailer
Asked what he would do if offered $100 million to make any film he wanted, he replied, “I’d use it to make 35 movies.” – Brent Lang
2. ZACH BRAFF
Actor/Writer/Director, Kickstarter Fundraiser
You remember Zach Braff. The goofy doctor-ish guy from “Scrubs,” and the writer-director and star of a little indie movie called “Garden State,” which in 2004 took the indie world’s heart and made almost $27 million?
That guy started an internet feeding frenzy earlier this year when he decided to crowdfund a follow-up called “Wish I Was Here” at Kickstarter. He killed his goal of $2 million in a couple of days and ended up with $3.1 million — along with a chorus of naysayers who protested that a Hollywood star had co-opted a tool for the unwashed masses.
We disagree. Totally. Making independent films like “Garden State” is a Sisyphean task in the current moviemaking system. And Braff is not in it for the money. He’s in it for love. We salute his commitment to telling good stories using the power of social media.
And as he wrote on Twitter: “Haters gonna hate. The angry will only get angrier. I choose love.” Amen. – Sharon Waxman
3. MAHA DAKHIL
When TheWrap wrote about CAA back in March, Maha Dakhil was one of the names that continually came up as an agent bound to lead the next generation at Hollywood’s largest talent shop.
To that point, she represents a bevy of rising directors with movies coming out this fall, including Lee Daniels (“The Butler”), Steve McQueen (“Twelve Years a Slave”) and Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”). On the talent side, she works with Natalie Portman and some guy named Tom Cruise.
She also has fully embraced the increasing international nature of Hollywood, signing successful French directors like Michel Hazanavicius, who won an Oscar for “The Artist,” and Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, whose “The Intouchables” is the second highest grossing film in French history.
Dakhil told TheWrap she is “focused on igniting creative exchanges with artists from different corners of the world. Packaging is more than putting pieces together, it’s about bringing people together who are like-minded and encouraging them to work together.”
Oh, she also represents Gary Ross, who launched Hollywood’s biggest new franchise — “The Hunger Games.” – Lucas Shaw
4. LENA DUNHAM & JENNI KONNER
Producers, HBO’s “Girls”
Dunham and Konner are part of a wave of female writers who are inspiring a new generation by tackling sensitive topics and other comic horrors that network shows have long considered off limits.
“Lena and Jenni aren’t afraid to dip into areas that other people might be reticent to write about. You can get into an argument after every episode because they’re raising a lot of new issues that people think are both great and deeply disturbing,” Judd Apatow, the executive producer of “Girls,” told TheWrap.
And while Dunham gets much of the attention, Konner is an essential part of the process.
“I’ve known Jenni since ‘Undeclared,’ and she has really found herself as a writer,” Apatow said. “She pays attention and knows when to step in and help Lena out when she needs a break. It’s an exhausting job to be the visionary of your show and have to act every day and write at night or on the weekend, and Jenni being such a strong writing partner makes that show possible.
- Jeff Sneider
5. DAVID HAYES
Entertainment Evangelist, Tumblr
Prior to joining Tumblr, David Hayes worked at Lionsgate, where he was instrumental in the success of “The Hunger Games,” overseeing the film’s digital marketing campaign.
His emphasis on steadily building online word of mouth through social media and consistent streams of new photos and information helped propel the film to more than $600 million at the global box office and cement it as Hollywood’s next huge franchise.
As part of his campaign, he also launched an iPhone game that won two Webby Awards and was named Game of the Year by Variety.
Hayes then brought that know-how to Tumblr, convincing studios to use the blogging platform for film marketing. “After eight to 10 weeks of hard core hustle with friends at the studios, we got 10 out of the top 10,” Hayes told TheWrap.
Warner Bros. used it for “The Great Gatsby” and Disney turned to Tumblr for help with “Monsters University,” publishing photos and updates about school events from the faux college.
Don’t forget the indies. “Fox Searchlight is huge on Tumblr,” Hayes said. ‘They are very innovative.” – Lucas Shaw
6. ZACH JAMES & RICH RADDON
How often does a Hollywood studio find a new revenue stream? Not often, which is why Raddon and James have entered into business with every major studio except Disney – so far.
ZEFR’s core business isn’t sexy on its face. It’s a YouTube-centric technology and rights-management platform that in the early days consisted of posting movie clips online.
When they saw a video someone else posted from “Dirty Dancing” that drew almost 100 million views, they realized there was a better business to be had.
They built a technology that could track their videos, taking down the ones the studios don’t want up and selling ads against the ones they do – and giving the studios a piece of the action. “That’s the cool part, that we can just bring them checks,” James told TheWrap.
ZEFR has since expanded to music, sports and TV, working with “Saturday Night Live,” Dick Clark Productions and most of the major record labels.
They’ve proven so effective at making money for major media companies that they also manage a handful of top influencers’ YouTube channels, though James would not disclose their partners.
Their next domain? Brands. – Lucas Shaw
7. FRANKLIN LEONARD
Founder, The Black List
Some people strive for cool. Some just are.
Franklin Leonard, a former producer, established his own cool club by creating the Black List, an annual compilation of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays, chosen by a group of industry insiders (i.e., his friends).
This year, he turned it into a digital platform aimed at cracking open opportunities for budding screenwriters seeking to have their work found, assessed and validated by their peers and industry veterans. It’s called theblcklst.com, and in eight months some 4,000 scripts have been uploaded, with three dozen member writers finding agency or management representation as a result.
“We’re creating an ecosystem that balance the needs of the writing community, that protects the integrity of their material, but is also a really good resource to help people who make movies find material as quickly as possible,” Leonard told TheWrap.
The Black List has recently concluded deals with the Writers Guild East and West, and with the Sundance Institute, to allow their members to join for free. More than 250 Black List screenplays have been produced as feature films.
Leonard is creating the future of the industry from a core devotion to quality content. It remains to be seen if that devotion can be a profit center. We’re rooting for him that it will. – Sharon Waxman
8. MATT MAZZEO
Partner, Lowercase Capital
It’s no secret that Hollywood frequently views new media with barely concealed hostility. Yet Mazzeo is part of a new generation of agents and financiers helping to change those attitudes.
At CAA, he helped connect members of the entertainment industry with Internet startups, helping develop digital pioneers like Funny or Die and the celebrity social-media management service WhoSay.
His success caught the attention of Lowercase’s investing guru, Chris Saaca. A key backer of Twitter and Kickstarter, Saaca tapped Mazzeo to be the firm’s first partner, where he leads a $20-million fund that invests in the media and technology space.
He’s already making waves by investing in companies like Big Frame, which brings advertisers and YouTube creators together, and Ranker, a data-driven listing service. He is also serving an ambassador between traditional and new media as old barriers tumble and long-held prejudices soften.
“The old knock on Hollywood was that it was only focused on upfront fees and didn’t grasp the long-term benefits of building a business,” Mazzeo told TheWrap. “We’re seeing that change dramatically as some artists and agencies are acting more like entrepreneurs by recognizing that the path to wealth is equity — and they’re becoming more willing to take a risk so they can create something enduring.” – Brent Lang
9. MELISSA MCCARTHY
Actress, “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat”
In the two years since “Bridesmaids” made a star out of McCarthy, screenwriters have discovered a new opportunity: changing the gender of male characters fit her unique comic talents — and attract a sizeable underserved audience to boot.
McCarthy’s character in Universal’s “Identity Thief” was originally written for a man, but the chance of pairing her larger-than-life personality and gift for physical comedy with Jason Bateman‘s uptight shtick proved impossible for the studio to resist.
Not only did the reverse casting make the movie funnier, it helped the $35 million comedy gross $174 million worldwide.
Her upcoming film “The Heat” came together in an incredibly short amount of time, proving that when McCarthy has an open window, studios had better take it. Production started merely two weeks after she signed, and now there’s a groundbreaking female buddy-cop movie to counter-program against a sea of male-driven blockbusters such as “Man of Steel,” “White House Down” and “The Lone Ranger.”
There’s more to come. McCarthy also beat out a slew of competition for a serio-comic role opposite Bill Murray in “St. Vincent de Van Nuys.” And her biggest role to date may be as the writer and producer and co-director of “Tammy,” along with husband Ben Falcone.
Actresses rarely get the chance to make their own movies. Here’s hoping McCarthy makes the most of her opportunity. – Jeff Sneider
10. SHANE SMITH
How many media companies get official sanction to enter North Korea?
Vice, the company behind HBO’s newsmagazine series “Vice,” which just finished its first season, pulled it off by shepherding a bunch of basketball players, including gadfly Dennis Rodman, for a friendly basketball game with Korean players. The experience was documented in an episode of the show.
Smith couldn’t make the trip, as he is banned from the country for two prior documentaries.
That’s just one of many ways in which he has come up with innovative ways of reporting while still working with more traditional media outlets.
Vice began in 1994 as an underground alternative print magazine and has since transformed into a spawling media empire with offices across the globe.
It still publishes the monthly bible for the iconclastic sect, but it has also partnered with Silicon Valley giant Intel for the Creator’s Project, a celebration of how entertainment, art and tech work together; launched a record label that worked with artists like Action Bronson and Chromeo; made a movie with the newly renamed Snoop Lion, and racked up more than 2 million subscribers for its YouTube channel.
And all those projects remain a fraction of Vice’s business. Vice generates the vast majority of its revenue from producing and distributing both short and long-form content across seven different channels. It has made more than 60 original series on topics such as fashion, music and travel.
What’s next? Don’t have a clue. – Lucas Shaw
11. BEAU WILLIMON
Creator, “House of Cards”
Beau Willimon started his career as a playwright, serving up keen tales like “Farragut North” for the older and wealthier Broadway set. He’s now a hero of youthful binge viewers and cord-cutters as one of the creators and the showrunner of the breakthrough Kevin Spacey series that premiered in February on Netflix — upending the way television has done business for decades.
But even debuting the entire series on one day, on a platform known for shipping and streaming movies and network TV series, didn’t hurt the credibility or popularity of the show, which is expected to secure several Emmy nominations.
While Spacey and director David Fincher drew the most attention for the gripping political drama, Willimon oversaw the show, which has been renewed for a second season, on a daily basis. He also had a hand in writing 10 of the show’s 13 episodes, ensuring Spacey’s vicious double-crossing and Kate Mara‘s sinful sleuthing tapped people on their couches.
“You’ll hear time and time again in the TV industry about likeability. I don’t give a s— whether anyone likes my characters,” Willimon told TheWrap of the manipulative Spacey character. “I do give a s— whether they’re attracted to them. The most interesting characters — Shakespeare is a great example of this — are not likeable. Richard III is not likeable. Macbeth is not likeable. Hamlet’s not likeable. And yet you can’t take your eyes off them because they’re something that attracts you to them.” – Lucas Shaw
12. FREDDIE WONG
Top Hollywood producers want to work with Freddie Wong, but he’s still not sure he wants to work with them.
Who can blame him? Wong and Matthew Arnold have already launched a successful film franchise in “Video Game High School,” which debuted on their own website last summer and racked up more than 50 million views.
The success of that film, released in increments on RocketJump.com and YouTube, spawned a sequel, out this summer. A third movie is all but guaranteed.
Wong has amassed a rabid base not only willing to watch his movies but pay for them as well. Wong funded much of the first “VGHS” on Kickstarter — one of the most successful campaigns at the time — and raised the bar again by raising more than $800,000 for the second one.
“Crowdfunded development, being able to build our audience, come up with a cool idea and have them literally and financially participating in that — we can try to take some of the risk out of film projects,” Wong told TheWrap.
Take that Zach Braff. Whoops, he’s on this list, too. – Lucas Shaw
Here is a video of four of the Innovators who spoke at TheWrap’s Grill@ Locations Show conference on Friday June 28, the day this list was announced.
For the record: An earlier version of this story said that Shane Smith took part in Vice’s expedition to North Korea. Smith is banned from the country due to documentaries stemming from his past visits.