Innovators List 2021: 15 Hollywood Disrupters, From Netflix’s Scott Stuber to Chloé Zhao

Dolly Parton, H.E.R and Clubhouse founders Rohan Seth and Paul Davison make the annual list of industry influencers

TheGrill 2021
Photo: TheWrap composite

Even as the entertainment landscape continues to be disrupted by streaming and pandemic fallout, the artists, entrepreneurs and pioneers on TheWrap’s 2021 Innovators List have seized the opportunity to orchestrate their own sort of innovation, opening new doors to cultural inclusion and expansion in Hollywood.

Chloé Zhao became the only the second woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director for “Nomadland” and will soon release the Marvel epic “Eternals;” musical artist H.E.R let her lyrics speak against injustice in “I Can’t Breathe,” and won the Best Song of The Year Award at the 63rd Grammy Awards. Amazon’s Marie Donoghue seized on the potential of sports video by engineering Amazon’s takeover of “Thursday Night Football” in 2022, representing the biggest streaming push into the world of live sports.

Whatever their field of endeavor, these innovators’ achievements promise to be both far-reaching and long-lasting.

chloe zhao
Chloé Zhao (Getty Images)

1. Chloé Zhao, director

On April 23, 2018, 16 of the 17 screens at the ArcLight Hollywood were screening “Avengers: Infinity War,” the long-awaited climax of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The 17th was screening “The Rider,” the second film from Chinese expat filmmaker Chloe Zhao featuring non-professional actors in a tale of a cowboy forced to end his rodeo career after a brain injury.

Fast forward three years later, and Zhao is now arguably the hottest director in Hollywood, having become the second woman to win Best Director with “Nomadland,” her acclaimed odyssey through communities of nomads left behind by the Great Recession. And she’s about to continue the story that “Avengers” began with Marvel’s next big blockbuster “Eternals” before heading to Universal to put a sci-fi western spin on “Dracula.”

As she takes the jump from indies to the industry’s biggest studios, Zhao is taking with her a style that is contemplative and intimate. Whether it is Lakota Sioux ranchers at the Pine Ridge Reservation or Frances McDormand as a woman traveling across the American West for the next temp job, Zhao and her cinematographer Joshua James Richards place their subjects amidst the vast, colorful skies of American landscapes, depicting poor communities in a way that digs beyond the poverty of their lives and finds the quiet moments of dignity and grace that still shine despite the hardship. It’s a style that has required Zhao to embed herself in the worlds that she is filming, sometimes with an emotional cost.

“The road-movie aspect wasn’t easy,” Zhao told TheWrap about shooting “Nomadland. “I was constantly moving, and I felt emotionally drained by the end of the film. I wasn’t used to going into a place, getting attached to it and to people and then leaving it behind. When I made the first two films, I’ll see those guys on the weekend at a powwow or a rodeo. And this time, when I left them behind, I’ll probably never see them again. That feeling took a toll on me.” — Jeremy Fuster

Paul Davison and Rohan Seth, Clubhouse
Clubhouse founders Paul Davison and Rohan Seth (YouTube/Twitter)

2. Paul Davison and Rohan Seth, Clubhouse founders

When Paul Davidson and Rohan Seth started Clubhouse in 2019, the social audio platform was meant to combine podcasts and group chats. When they rebranded as Clubhouse the following year just as the pandemic hit the U.S., the company’s invite-only Rooms became the new medium of choice for many users in lockdown.

The app introduced a new way for people to connect and engage with audio content, whether live or joining discussions later. Facebook, Twitter and Spotify have looked to jump into the live audio space with their own versions of Clubhouse clones, spurring other social media platforms to take notice of the emerging social audio trends.

Recently, the app ditched its invite model and opened up the platform to everyone as downloads and activity continued growing. Clubhouse continues to see downloads in the millions in recent months, most recently 9.6 million in February. The company has also grown rapidly, going from eight employees to 58 at the start of 2021. 

“We know there will be many more ups and downs as we scale, and competition from the large networks will be fierce. But we believe the future is created by optimists — and we’re excited to keep working to build a different kind of social network,” the co-founders said in their blog. —Antoinette Siu

dolly parton
(Getty Images)

3. Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton could rest on her laurels — and her millions of dollars — in peace, but she’s not content to do that. As the country icon has proven through her decades of philanthropy, she has never one to rest on her many laurels (including 11 Grammys).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Parton took her outreach and good will to new heights by helping to fund research for the Moderna vaccine with a $1 million donation, then getting a jab of her own medicine on camera this year to demonstrate its safety and effectiveness for her millions of fans. She’s also challenged the right-leaning country fan base in other ways, like her advocacy for the LGBTQ community and Black Lives Matter. 

While Lil Nas X faced condemnation for his raunchy music videos, blood-infused “Satan shoes” and faux pregnancy photoshoot, he found none from Parton when he covered her hit, “Jolene.” The singer praised his performance, signaling an openness to changing norms and culture that her contemporaries might shy from. She did the same thing last year with one simple phrase: “Of course black lives matter!”

Through her continued philanthropy, public appearances and well-timed tweets, Parton is blazing as many trails in the modern age as she did when she first hit the scene. —Lindsey Ellefson

Substack co-founder and CEO Chris Best (Substack)

4. Chris Best, Jairaj Sethi and Hamish McKenzie, Substack founders

Chris Best, Jairaj Sethi and Hamish McKenzie founded their newsletter startup in 2017 out of San Francisco, and the venture has quickly climbed its way to the top of the media world. Substack writers have the freedom to offer their work for free or earn a living through paid subscriptions — and so far that model seems to be working out well both for the company and writers.

Substack claims the top 10 publishers currently make more than $20 million a year combined, with some raking in more than $1 million a year. (Substack takes a 10% cut of subscription fees.) Although the company does not share this list of top performers, Substack has brought on big-name writers and content creators from Glenn Greenwald and Michael Moore to Andrew Sullivan and “Queer Eye” co-star Tan France. At a time when legacy media has faced unprecedented upheaval, several top journalists have even quit their traditional jobs to write full-time on Substack and become their own bosses.

Just four years in, the startup was recently valued at some $650 million and inspired social giants including Facebook and Twitter to release similar newsletter products. Now Substack is turning to comics, crypto and more writers services to grow its platform. —Antoinette Siu

Bela Bajaria Netflix
Bela Bajaria (Getty Images)

5. Bela Bajaria and Scott Stuber, Netflix heads of global TV and film

It’s hard to argue with Netflix’s dominance in the streaming space — even as traditional entertainment giants like Disney, WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal have joined the fray.

But as rivals have reclaimed streaming rights to some of Netflix’s most-watched programming (“Friends” now streams on WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, while “The Office” went to NBCUniversal’s Peacock), the streamer has stepped up efforts to create a library of original content with an increasingly global focus.

Bela Bajaria, born in England to parents of Indian descent, spearheaded Netflix’ highly popular docuseries “Indian Matchmaking,” presented in English and Hindi. The success of that series and others — including Spain’s “Money Heist” and the recent South Korean phenomenon “Squid Game” — led to her promotion to head of global TV in 2020. “Hollywood’s always a great place to tell stories — that hasn’t changed,” Bajaria told the Los Angeles Times last month. “To me, it’s just an expansion of the sort of storytelling and creativity and an opportunity for people to tell stories who haven’t gotten to tell stories on that global scale.”

Scott Stuber, a veteran studio executive who joined Netflix in 2017, has set his sights on making the streamer “the best film studio in the world,” as he told TheWrap at last month’s TheGrill conference. After rival studios have reclaimed their film libraries for their parent companies’ streaming services, Netflix has set out to build up a robust library its own, producing 80 films per year for the United States alone. The company has even had limited release theatrical runs for some of its movies, leading to multiple Oscar nominations and wins. — Diane Haithman

Sterlin Harjo (Photo: Shane Brown/FX)

6. Sterlin Harjo, “Reservation Dogs” co-creator and showrunner

Oklahoma native Sterlin Harjo, a member of the Seminole Nation with some Muscogee heritage, is bringing it home as co-creator, executive producer, showrunner and writer of the FX comedy “Reservation Dogs,” the first series to be shot entirely in Oklahoma.

The series, created by Harjo and Taika Waititi (“JoJo Rabbit,” “What We Do in the Shadows”), is a first in featuring all Indigenous writers and directors, as well as an almost entirely Indigenous cast and production team. The two met at Sundance while involved in Sundance’s filmmaking labs.

Harjo hopes “Reservation Dogs,” which focuses on four rural teens who dream of moving to Los Angeles, will push the entertainment industry to re-examine Indigenous culture beyond the “soulless zombie” Native characters of old Hollywood Westerns. “There was such a narrow view of what a native story is, and that was because they were not letting us tell them,” Harjo told TheWrap recently.  “They are realizing how rich and unexplored our stories are, how diverse and how expansive they are, I don’t think it’s a fad. You may get this new idea of what a native story is.”

At a press conference before the show’s Aug. 9 premiere, Harjo said Hollywood needs to look beyond its own geography to find Indigenous talent. “Hollywood makes a western every few years where Native actors get to come and get killed in front of a camp. It’s just not the most exciting work,” Harjo said. “So, they’re not in L.A. beating down the door, trying to get these parts.” — Diane Haithman

H.E.R. at the 2021 “iHeartRadio Music Awards” ( Fox. ©2021 Fox Media, LLC)

7. H.E.R.

This is the American pride
It’s justifying a genocide
Romanticizing the theft and bloodshed
That made America the land of the free

The lyrics of H.E.R’s Grammy-winning song “I Can’t Breathe” encapsulate the rage, despair, and demand for justice of the Black Lives Matter movement, catapulting the 23-year old R&B singer into the spotlight a year before her debut album, “Back of My Mind,” was even released.

Six weeks after winning the Grammy for “I Can’t Breathe,” H.E.R. (born Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson) added an Oscar to her growing list of accolades with “Fight for You,” a song she wrote for “Judas and the Black Messiah.” If “I Can’t Breathe” was for the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2020, “Fight for You” may be the song for BLM in 2021. The song runs over the credits of the film after Black Panther leader Fred Hampton is betrayed by FBI mole Bill O’Neal, the defiant blank stare of Dominique Fishback as Akua Njeri filling the camera as Hampton is shot off screen by white federal agents in a political assassination.

Despite the heartbreak, the fight goes on, as “Fight For You”’s opening bars play over a picture of Mother Akua in the present day with her son and current Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. In a sense that fight continues for Black Lives Matter, as despite a small handful of local changes to hold police accountable for violence against people of color, the promises of big changes promised by politicians to the movement have been smothered by failed talks on police reform in Congress while BLM’s larger push for police reform has been turned into political kryptonite. Even though “Their guns don’t play fair/All we got is a prayer,” as H.E.R. writes, they won’t give up the struggle. —Jeremy Fuster

Jen Statsky Lucia Aniello Paul W. Downs "Hacks"
(Getty Images)

9. Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello, “Hacks” showrunners

After years of being TV’s best kept secret, Jean Smart broke out with not one but two key roles on HBO (or HBO Max) shows. But while Smart was a key player on the Emmy-winning “Mare of Easttown,” it was her starring role as fading comic Deborah Vance on HBO Max’s “Hacks” that represents the zenith of Smart’s career.

And for that, we have Paul. W. Downs, Jen Statsky and Lucia Aniello to thank. The three co-created and co-crafted Smart’s Emmy-winning turn. And like many good stories about comedians, this one began on the road. “We were actually on a road trip many years ago,” Statsky told TheWrap. “Paul was shooting his ‘The Characters’ special for Netflix, and Lucia and I were there to help out. And we just started talking about female comedians and women in the arts in general — women of a certain age who hadn’t really gotten their due, while their male counterparts had a seemingly much easier path and got recognition. We were talking about these iconic women who nevertheless kept pounding the pavement, got knocked down 1,000 times and got back up 1,001 times. And we just became fascinated with telling that story.”

“Hacks” became more than a buddy two-hander between Smart’s Vance and her much younger counterpart in Hannah Einbinder’s Ava. It became an allegory for what most women face in show business, and a long overdue spotlight for Smart, who, like Vance herself, would be overlooked no longer. — Tim Baysinger

Fewocious (Twitter)

8. Fewocious, top-selling NFT artist

Leave it to an 18-year-old Seattle teenager named Fewocious to shake up the art world with his digital art that has topped $20 million in sales. In fact, he has become a central figure in a community of queer crypto creators who sell NFTs — unique digital files stored in a public blockchain that serves as proof of ownership.

The young transgender artist, whose real name is Victor Langlois, started making art at age 13 in his hometown of Las Vegas and sold his first piece at 17. He has since continued releasing several successful NFT drops, including the recent “Fabricated Fairytales” in collaboration with his friends and FEWO WORLD in partnership with RTFKT, a company featuring sneakers and collectibles.

The NFTs come with a real physical pair of shoes or fashion accessory and generated more than $3 million in sales in its initial release. His recent auction with Christie’s auction house sold for a whopping $2.16 million. —Antoinette Siu

10. Marie Donoghue, vice president of global sports video at Amazon

For years, we’ve been waiting for one of the tech giants to disrupt the sports world. That happened this year, when as part of the National Football League’s new media deals, Amazon will take over sole control of “Thursday Night Football” in 2022, representing the biggest push in streaming by far by the world of sports.

And it just so happens to be the biggest sport in the country. But while the “Thursday Night Football” deal is Donoghue’s biggest feather in her cap, the former ESPN executive has been doing this for years.

For the last few years, Amazon has quietly amassed an impressive roster of sports rights, including local rights for the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer and New York Yankees, as well as a slew of international rights for soccer’s Premier League, Champions League and tennis’ U.S. and French Opens.

“I don’t think it’s a dire future for sports at all. I think it’s a great opportunity to innovate: start with the customer, start with fans and innovate,” she told TheWrap during a sports roundtable discussion back in May. “We wouldn’t be investing in 11 years with the NFL exclusively if we didn’t believe in sports.” — Tim Baysinger

Morgan DeBaun (Photo: Blavity)

11. Morgan DeBaun, CEO and founder of Blavity

As an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis, Morgan DeBaun remembers eating lunch with her friends and realizing over time that they kept attracting other Black students to engage in intellectual topics together. From that experience, she was inspired to found Blavity, a media company geared toward Black millennials, with a mission to feature Black voices and stories.

The Los Angeles-based outlet, which she co-founded in 2014 with Jonathan Jackson, Jeff Nelson and Aaron Samuels, takes its name from a combination of “Black” and “gravity.” The site’s verticals — which boast roughly 2 million monthly unique visitors — cover everything from politics and Aftrotech to travel and Hollywood. The company, which hit pause on its live events during the pandemic, has recently partnered with brands including Bumble and Coca-Cola to engage Black singles during the pandemic and create a project debunking Gen-Z stereotypes. — Antoinette Siu

olivia rodrigo
(Getty Images)

12. Olivia Rodrigo, actress/singer/songwriter

Olivia Rodrigo has done more before her 19th birthday than most have done in their entire lives.

She kicked off her music career with three consecutive number one songs with “Driver’s License,” “Good 4 U’ and “Deja Vu,” the first artist to ever accomplish that feat. Her debut album “Sour” broke Spotify’s global record for biggest opening week by a female artist ever. That came after she began starring on Disney+’s TV series remake of “High School Musical.”

If that’s not enough, Rodrigo appeared at the White House as part of an effort with the Biden administration to get young people vaccinated against COVID-19. She met with both Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the well-known chief medical adviser.

In a very short time, Rodrigo has redefined what it means to be a triple threat. — Tim Baysinger

Allessandra Galloni (Reuters
Allessandra Galloni; Sally Buzbee; Kevin Merida (Photos Courtesy of Reuters, AP, Getty Images)

13. Sally Buzbee (Washington Post), Alessandra Galloni (Reuters) and Kevin Merida (Los Angeles Times), the new top editors of mainstream news

It’s no secret that the media business really went through turmoil over the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic decimated newsroom newsrooms, causing losses in ad revenue and slashing staff numbers. Across the industry, journalists experienced burnout while reporting on last year’s tumultuous presidential election, the national reckoning over racism and police brutality and this year’s Capitol riot and the big election lie. 

Amid all that new leaders were installed at some of the world’s biggest outlets, including Sally Buzbee at the Washington Post, Kevin Merida at the Los Angeles Times and Alessandra Galloni at Reuters. All three face unique challenges in their respective roles, but one thing is the same: They are tasked with leading their newsrooms and organizations into the future. 

Merida was named the Times’ new executive editor after staffers demanded that the new leader be brought in from outside the organization, to give it a “fresh” perspective. That’s not a responsibility he takes lightly. “For me, the challenge first is getting the motivation, getting people excited,” Merida told TheWrap’s founder and CEO Sharon Waxman at this year’s The Grill. He added that “culture and who you work with every day is important,” saying he wants to make use of the Times’ pool of incredible talent.

Buzbee, too, is tackling the challenges of her organization quickly. Earlier this year, the Post became the first major outlet to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for all employees returning to work, highlighting the paper’s commitment to the health of its staff. That staff, by the way, is growing, which is particularly noteworthy given most outlets slashed their ranks amid the pandemic: The Post announced in September “a major expansion” that will see the addition of 41 new editors, two of whom will be featured on the paper’s masthead. Buzbee herself made the announcement to staff, signaling her commitment to creating “a greater number of career paths across the newsroom and [increasing] the number of journalists of color in editing roles.”

And Galloni, the first-ever female editor in chief in Reuters’ 170-year history, made waves just three days into her new role as Reuters became the latest outlet to move some of its content behind a paywall.

cary fukunaga
(Getty Images)

14. Cary Fukunaga, director of “No Time to Die”

Over the course of the last six decades, 10 men have been called upon to direct a James Bond film. With the exception of Maori filmmaker Lee Tamahori, who directed “Die Another Day” in 2002, all of those directors have been white.

The 11th is Asian-American filmmaker Cary Fukunaga, who took over directing “No Time to Die” at a critical period for the Bond saga, and not just because the legendary Daniel Craig is holstering his Walther PPK for good. Craig’s tenure as Bond has been defined by its deconstruction of 007, how masculinity in both its normal and toxic forms shapes him as an agent and as a man. In doing so, Bond has kept its relevance well into the 21st century.

Now Fukunaga, known for his work on “Beasts of No Nation” and becoming the first Asian director to win an Emmy with “True Detective,” brings forth a Bond film that tasked him with sending Craig off while continuing to explore his character’s problems with trust and vulnerability, be it with his newfound love Madeline Swann or with the 00 agent — who is neither white nor male — that replaced him on active duty. 

Despite having a fraction of the prep time as he was brought on late to replace a departing Danny Boyle, Fukunaga has put forth the longest film in Bond history that was met with a standing ovation at its Royal Albert Hall premiere and with relief from a global movie theater industry looking for an event film that can break the box office out of the COVID doldrums. Despite all the reinvention, the movie world still needs 007 as much as it ever has. — Jeremy Fuster

Alex Cooper
(Photo: Sarah Krick/Spotify)

15. Alex Cooper, host of “Call Her Daddy”

Alex Cooper’s year has been defined by her persistence and broadly, her last three years have been defined by her success. Cooper skyrocketed to podcasting infamy when she and Sofia Franklyn launched “Call Her Daddy” with Barstool Sports in 2018. The two young women captivated listeners with raunchy, explicit talk of their sex and dating lives, being totally open with millions of strangers about topics that are typically reserved for the confidence of a few close friends. 

Cooper and Franklyn had a well-publicized dispute with Barstool founder Dave Portnoy in 2020, which resulted in Franklyn’s exit from the wildly successful project. Fans worried that meant the end of “Call her Daddy,” but Cooper had other ideas. This past June, she announced she’d signed an exclusive deal with Spotify worth $60 million. “Call Her Daddy” would live on — though Barstool would still be involved in merchandising. 

Cooper’s solo show continues to push the envelope — a recent episode was titled “Stop Cyberbullying and Start Masturbating” — and continues to rank high on Spotify’s weekly top 10 chart. —Lindsey Ellefson