Innovators List 2018: 12 Hollywood Disrupters, From Kenya Barris to Xumo

TheGrill 2018: We honor some of the industry’s most revolutionary new figures

innovators kenya barris bill simmons hannah gadsby
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The year 2018 was transformative across Hollywood, media and technology. #MeToo dominated the conversation. Studios and companies embraced diversity and consolidation. And everyone started riding scooters.

TheWrap’s 2018 Innovators List gathers together those thought leaders who are making transformation happen across their industries. They’ve grown media empires as legacy media outlets struggle. They’ve worked to change their perceptions beyond where they began their careers. And in the case of one individual, wanted to quit the industry all together.

You can learn more about these disrupters first-hand at the Innovators panel at The Grill conference on October 2 at SLS Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Beverly Hills. The event that brings together the leading voices in the convergence between entertainment, media and technology.

1. Kenya Barris, TV Producer 

The creator of ABC’s hit show “black-ish,” and its “grown-ish” spinoff is truly having a moment. The writer/producer has worked to highlight black voices and tell black stories in film and on TV that resonate with broad audiences. Barris co-wrote the 2017 feature comedy hit “Girls Trip” and is writing and producing a “Shaft” sequel set for 2019.

In August, the mega-producer dipped out of his ABC deal a year early, inking a nine-figure deal with streaming giant Netflix. Barris said he cut ties with ABC after the network blocked a politically charged episode of “black-ish” that would have addressed President Donald Trump, the Charlottesville riots and NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

2. Alyssa Milano, actress and activist

And they say a tweet can’t change the world. A little under a year ago, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a note from her friend saying, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me Too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of magnitude of the problem.”

The floodgates opened from there, with millions of women to this day sharing their stories. Milano in the process became one of the de facto figureheads for what would become more than a hashtag, but a movement.

And while she always practiced activism in addition to her acting, 2018 has put her in a new light and trajectory. Along with Mark Ruffalo, she led the #StateoftheDream rally as counterprogramming to Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, calling for immigration reform and a more inclusive America. And last week as #MeToo nears its firstanniversary, she could be seen sitting just rows behind Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh as they testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

3. Bill Simmons, The Ringer

After an unceremonious exit from ESPN in 2015, leaving behind the now-shuttered, once beloved sports and pop culture site Grantland, Simmons found his second act, starting The Ringer in 2016. The website has seen incredible growth in its first two years, breaking traffic records each month and increasing its reach roughly 40 percent compared with last year.

But Simmons and his Ringer staff have truly hung their hat on the The Ringer Podcast Network, one of the largest and most lucrative audio-based networks with 27 different podcasts including the “Bill Simmons Podcast,” “The Watch” and the popular “Binge Mode” series. As podcasts have gained popularity among audiences in recent years, Simmons and The Ringer have been at the forefront of pushing the limits of the medium, generating more than 30 million downloads per month.

4. Erika Nardini, CEO, Barstool Sports 

In 2016, Nardini took over as CEO of the irreverent and boundary-pushing sports, news and men’s lifestyle media company Barstool Sports. The company has been accused of being crude, misogynistic and racist, but it maintains a loyal following. When Nardini took over, her plan was not to change the site’s focus, but find a way to help it reach a wider audience while holding on to its base.

The 20-year media veteran has helped Barstool secure a partnership with ESPN for a show — ultimately canceled because of a clash of cultures — as well as a Comedy Central show in the lead up to Super Bowl 51 that was the network’s No. 1 series among the key 18- to 24-year-old demographic during its four-night run. Nardini is subverting expectations and trying to lead an irksome underdog to the digital media summit.

5. Colin Petrie-Norris, CEO, Xumo (VIDEO) 

With over 140 digital channels of free premium programming, Xumo is a leading force in the ad-supported streaming TV industry. Over the last year, CEO Colin Petrie-Norris has led the company to increase viewership on the platform by 325 percent and user consumption by 90 percent.

To accomplish this growth, Petrie-Norris has been aggressive in helping lock down partnerships with companies like CBSN, PeopleTV, CollegeHumor, History and PGA tour. The CEO has also worked to integrate XUMO into the interface of select TVs and streaming devices, which now account for more than 90 percent of the traffic on the platform.

hannah gadsby

6. Hannah Gadsby, performer 

Hannah Gadsby is in a strange spot. The Tasmanian stand-up comic recently been thrust into international fame, but she earned that fame by saying she wanted to quit comedy.

Gadsby’s sobering and widely acclaimed Netflix special “Nanette” begins as her usual brand of self-deprecating humor. But 17 minutes in, she drops the bombshell that what she’s been doing is “not humility. It’s humiliation.”

The special opens up wounds for Gadsby to grapple with her identity as a lesbian artist out in the open. She proceeds to call out straight white male artists and reveal how her comedy has only put up painful barriers in her life, deconstructing norms of jokes and stand-up along the way.

Her routine has led some (mostly male) critics to wonder if she’s even telling jokes or debate if what she’s doing can even be considered stand-up comedy. But there is no shaking how she has changed the comedy landscape. She screams in her special, “I am in my prime,” but it feels like Gadsby is only just getting started.

7. Toby Sun, CEO, Lime Bike  

The scooter craze of 2018 is real. In a little over a year, Lime became one of the leading electric scooter ride-share companies in a crowded market, expanding beyond its programs on college campuses to attract over 6 million riders to dockless electric scooters.

CEO Toby Sun, along with co-founder Brad Bao, have garnered $335 million to promote their smart mobility initiative and even have planned expansions to Israel and Austria. Hey, even Elijah Wood is getting in on the fun.

But in addition to working to outpace its competitors, Lime has battled to educate sometimes resistant cities on the benefits of ride-share programs and to fight lawsuits restricting access to where Lime scooters can operate — particularly after two recent cases of deaths involving riders. Still, Sun is committed to continuing the “movement” in spreading the reach of Lime and transforming urban transportation.

Eighth Grade Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher

8. Bo Burnham, Director 

Many comedians have turned to filmmaking and personal stories to transform their image and become something more than just a person who tells jokes. But for Bo Burnham, his debut feature film “Eighth Grade” turned the camera away from himself and onto a teenage girl, making for one of the most honest representations of teenage life in the modern, social-media-driven 21st century yet. And Burnham has done it all before turning 30.

The evolution comes as part of a 10-plus year career where Burnham has shifted between social-media star, stand-up comedian, musician, actor, writer and poet, a performer who has been taken seriously far beyond his years for some time. But with “Eighth Grade,” he’s managed to take yet another step, inspiring other comedians to find an outlet to tell stories other than just their own.  

9. Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni, playwright and activist

It’s a new day and in the era of #MeToo, Times Up and #OscarsSoWhite, and actress, playwright and activist Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni has helped lead the charge in developing and raising awareness for inclusion riders.

Frances McDormand created a stir when she accepted her 2018 Oscar for Best Actress and closed her speech by saying: “I have two words to leave you with tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion riders.”

There weren’t many people at the time who knew what an inclusion rider was, but Cox DiGiovanni was one of the few. Along with Stacy Smith, who developed the idea of inclusion riders while serving as director for the Inclusion Initiative at the USC Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication, Cox DiGiovanni encouraged childhood friend Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to adopt inclusion riders at their production company, Pearl Street Films, where she serves as head of strategic outreach.

And in conjunction with Smith and Washington lawyer Kalpana Kotagal, Cox DiGiovanni helped develop the legal language for inclusion riders that are being adopted around Hollywood with increasing frequency.

10. Matt Stern, COO, Mira Augmented Reality (VIDEO) 

Augmented reality — where computer graphics are superimposed over the real world — has grabbed Silicon Valley’s attention. Spearheaded by Apple, the premier tech company on the planet, the tech world is betting big on AR becoming one of the defining sectors of the next decade. And Mira Augmented Reality aims to be at the forefront of that revolution.

Founded in 2016 by three USC students, the Los Angeles-based startup quickly won funding from a who’s who of investors, including Sequoia Capital, musician, and Salesforce chief Marc Benioff.

Mira has sold thousands of its affordable headsets since last year, aiming to capitalize on the budding AR gaming market. Now, co-founder and COO Matt Stern says the company is developing both software and hardware for a myriad of industries, from telecom to aerospace and defense. AR isn’t just a new form of entertainment — it’s already reshaping how companies train their employees. Stern and his partners want Mira to be a key player in bringing AR to the masses.

11. Michael Wann, CEO, Mobcrush  (VIDEO) 

Mobcrush wants to make it easy for creators to reach their audiences. But with an increasingly stratified media landscape, it can be difficult for live streamers to pick which platform they’ll use to connect with their fans. That’s why Mobcrush and CEO Michael Wann don’t want it to be a choice.

The Santa Monica-based tech and entertainment company allows users to simultaneously broadcast themselves on Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, Twitter and Mobcrush’s own platform. As eSports grows into a multibillion-dollar industry, it’s become especially attractive to gamers looking to reach as many followers as possible.

Mobcrush also wants users to make money while streaming, offering up to $2,500 an hour in sponsorships to live stream. The company has raised $36 million in funding from investors such as KPCB, Evolution Media, Raine Ventures and First Round Capital.

karina longworth
Photo by Emily Berl

12. Karina Longworth, podcaster, author and Old Hollywood historian

Karina Longworth has the most modest of reasons for starting a podcast that has earned scores of imitators: “I felt, as someone who listens to podcasts, that there were never enough to listen to,” she said. “I didn’t think anybody would be bothered by my making it.”

No one was. What she started, back in 2014, is “You Must Remember This,” a deeply researched, gloriously resonant investigation of Hollywood’s first century, a mix of the the radio dramas of old and most perceptive documentaries of today. It has examined and often debunked Hollywood legends about the anti-communist blacklist, the Manson murders and Jane Fonda’s activism, taking Mulholland Drive-style turns through the lives of Mia Farrow, Lauren Bacall and all three past versions of “A Star Is Born.”

Longworth spent a prolific decade as a film writer before what she thought would be a small detour into podcasting. But within a year, the popularity of “You Must Remember This” made it a full-time job. The medium is now crowded with soundalike podcasts.

“It didn’t occur to me that there were things you could do and couldn’t do. … I was trying to create a new path and a new way of doing film history,” she said. “I never really needed this advice, because I just did it. But the thing that has been most useful to me was to leave a situation that wasn’t working for me.”

What she envisioned as a cross between “This American Life” and Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon” came full circle this year with a season dedicated to exploring the gossip, innuendo and even occasional truth behind the latter, a treasure trove of dark Hollywood lore.

Stories she pulls from past generations — like her account of Fatty Arbuckle’s rape-and-manslaughter trials, almost a century before #MeToo — rhyme eerily with the stories of today. Her new book, “Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes’ Hollywood,” is about a mogul for whom filmmaking and trying to control women went hand in hand.