How We Became an International Incident
This is the story of entrepreneur Shane Smith, as told to Inc. staff writer Eric Markowitz.
North Korea is the scariest country in the world. I've been twice, to make documentaries, and I'm not allowed back because I was critical of the regime. But we wanted to see how the country was faring under its new leader.
Jason Mojica, a Vice producer, and I spent a lot of time talking about how to get in. I knew that basketball, and especially the Chicago Bulls, was a fascination within the country. I had some inroads with people I had met on my first trip, so we proposed a goodwill game of basketball with North Korea's national team.
We offered to bring three Harlem Globetrotters and a real, live Chicago Bull. Michael Jordan's camp was not interested. Dennis Rodman was.
Now, Dennis Rodman is an absurd character. But North Korea is an absurd place. And to our surprise, it worked. The timing was tricky, because in December 2012, North Korea launched its missiles, which stirred up fears of nuclear disaster.
I was in Brooklyn when Jason called. The North Koreans had given Jason an Internet connection for about 20 minutes. He was like, "Uh, Kim Jong-un came to the game. Then he invited us over to his place for dinner." There was also some heavy drinking and singing.
I will say this: In retrospect, we should have thought, OK, what happens if Kim shows up? We should have had a message ready.
People were like, "Dennis Rodman? He's not a diplomat!" Of course he's not a diplomat--haven't you seen Celebrity Rehab? We weren't going over there to solve world peace or whatever. We went there to try and get a camera into a place that doesn't have cameras.
A lot of hypocrisy came out. My favorite was this guy from the State Department who called us and said, "Well, we would have hoped they would have taken the food from the banquet and given it to the starving people." You're like, OK, maybe Amnesty International can say that. But the State Department?
Who cares? Our brand, which used to be known only by Gen-Y, all of a sudden went out to a new demographic. People are fascinated by North Korea, and a lot of people who don't know Vice will see our documentary.
We're not a company that goes and tells the same story that everyone else does. So that's what we did. We told a different story.