"When I rent a car, I don't want to have a conversation with the rental car clerk. I just wanna get my keys and go," said comedian Michael Ian Black on stage at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater in New York City last November. "But I guess the rental car companies believe that customers enjoy it when the clerks engage in conversation. So they keep asking the same annoying question--'So, what brings you to town today?' " The crowd titters.
"Look, I'm Jewish," Black says. "As a Jew, when I hear 'What brings you to town today?' that sounds suspiciously like [imitating a Nazi voice] 'May I see your papers?'"
As the audience erupts in laughter, its reaction captured by a couple of the black-clad camera operators, Brian Volk-Weiss is standing backstage, enjoying it all. He's the founder and president of Comedy Dynamics, a company that is perfecting a risky business model within the industry, and along the way helping reshape how comedy specials get created and distributed in the emerging on-demand world. He almost crashed Dynamics before it got off the ground, when he invested nearly $300,000 to produce, and own, a special that, at one point, had no buyers. But tonight, he's in his element, presiding over his company's latest production.
Black's show is being taped for his new, hourlong standup special, Noted Expert, which has already been licensed in an exclusive "first-window" deal to the cable channel Epix. Volk-Weiss is thrilled that so many people are here in attendance. He remembers a time in 2013 when he produced a standup special in Minneapolis for comic Tom Segura and could barely fill the theater. "We had to run around to all the local bars and give away tickets to get people to come in," says Volk-Weiss, 40, smiling. Tonight, the house is packed and howling. It's music--and money--to Volk-Weiss's ears. Comedy Dynamics, based in Burbank, California, is footing the bill for Black's show, including his fee and the costs of postproduction, editing, and delivery to Epix. When Epix's license to air the show expires, Volk-Weiss will relicense the rights, which Dynamics owns in perpetuity, to any other channel or entity that wants to pay for it.
That model--of owning and repeatedly licensing standup comedy specials--has turned Volk-Weiss into a very successful comedy impresario.
Back in the old days of television programming--say, 15 years ago--most standup specials like Black's ran for a limited time on one of the three main cable channels that aired comedy (HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central) before being shuffled off to the archives. There were few other places to show them. That's why most production companies made comedy specials as work-for-hire projects and took a fat production fee while forgoing any ownership rights.
But as far back as 2006, Volk-Weiss saw where comedy, and almost every other form of video entertainment, was heading: to an anywhere, anytime environment. So he positioned Comedy Dynamics to take advantage of this massive shift in distribution by footing the cost--and taking the risks--of producing the specials so that his company could retain the rights and, eventually, license the shows several times.
Despite a scary start, Volk-Weiss's timing has proved as good as Jerry Seinfeld's. Dynamics has built a vertically integrated, privately owned funny business with the largest independent library of comedy programming in the country at a time when this art form is exploding in both popularity and ways to consume it. Today, Volk-Weiss licenses programs to established "real-time," or "linear," cable channels, like HBO, Showtime, and Epix; streaming video on-demand channels, like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and Seeso, NBCUniversal's new comedy subscription service (and increasingly, services from the linear channels); over-the-top-device companies like Roku, Microsoft (which makes Xbox), Sony (PlayStation), and Apple (Apple TV); and satellite-radio channel Sirius XM. He even licenses to cruise ships, airlines, hospitals, and hotels.
By recognizing that the marketplace is changing, Volk-Weiss, in response to that change, has built a 120-person company that he says grew its revenue (from licensing, streaming, and production fees, product sales, and ad-revenue sharing) more than 100 percent annually over the past three years--and more than 200 percent over the past two. He's also been the first to showcase nationally some of the country's best new comedic talent. The only thing that could screw him up is if he lets Comedy Dynamics complete an evolution that seems as inevitable as it is obvious, because the comedy-industry model is changing yet again--and this time, Volk-Weiss's customers are morphing into very deep-pocketed competitors.
We are in a golden age of comedy, mostly because we really need it. Comedians such as Louis CK, Jim Gaffigan, Aziz Ansari, and Amy Schumer now regularly perform in arenas--virtually unheard of 10 years ago. "When you talk to guys who've been in this for 25 to 30 years, they're likening what's happening now to the '80s boom," Segura says. "Clubs are packed. It's the best, as a comic."
Volk-Weiss was a comedy-loving kid when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1998 fresh out of the University of Iowa, an odd choice for a Queens, New York, native. A lifelong Trekkie, he says one of the reasons he chose U of I was because Iowa is the home state of Captain James T. Kirk. He wanted to work on films, but those jobs were scarce, so he took a job as an assistant at a small talent- management company called BKEG, owned by former comedian and comedy manager Barry Katz. Before long, Volk-Weiss was helping to manage comedians, including Dane Cook, Whitney Cummings, and Jeff Ross. It was during his BKEG days that he started producing standup comedy specials for the company's clients.
BKEG was acquired in 2003 by New Wave Entertainment, a producer of marketing solutions and trailers for the movie industry that's owned by Paul Apel, who started as an editor at the company and worked his way up to owner and CEO, a spot he's had for 23 years. BKEG became New Wave's management division (renamed New Wave Dynamics) and Volk-Weiss was eventually put in charge of it.
Along the way, Volk-Weiss, a tall, unassuming man with a light-blond goatee, very little hair, and rosy cheeks, became expert in the care and feeding of comedians. As funny as they are, it's a group notorious for rampant insecurity, depression, substance abuse, and debauchery. Volk-Weiss developed a talent for talking them down off the proverbial ledge, as well as producing top-quality specials. "They are so good at making these specials," says Segura, whose raunchy, absurdist, observational style is a cross between Steven Wright's and Louis CK's. "Brian has a personality that puts you at ease. He's worked in comedy for so long. He knows comic personalities. When you're a comic doing a special, it's like you're directing your first movie. He's there to facilitate your vision. And he just guides you through it and it's the easiest thing."
While Dynamics was producing those work-for-hire specials, Volk-Weiss's clients in the cable industry were facing a seismic shift. YouTube launched in 2005, allowing anyone to upload personal content. And in 2007, Netflix launched its streaming service, allowing viewers to watch movies via the internet instead of renting a DVD or waiting for the show to appear on a cable channel.
Volk-Weiss knew these shifts would change the comedy industry; he just didn't know how, exactly. Then, at the urging of a friend, he read the Wired magazine article by Chris Anderson that inspired The Long Tail. That book, published in 2006, predicted the internet would create a new type of economy in which products, particularly niche products, have profitable lives for longer periods, and on a wider variety of distribution channels, than ever before. This was especially true for books, music, movies, and TV programming. That message was a bolt of lightning to Volk-Weiss. "That book literally changed my life," he says. "There wouldn't be a Comedy Dynamics without The Long Tail. I didn't understand anything that was coming until I read that book, especially the whole premise of unlimited shelf space."
The book convinced Volk-Weiss that he needed to start producing programs that Dynamics could own outright and sell forever--and perhaps negotiate a piece of ownership for himself. He started an audio division, producing CDs of standup specials, since the costs were small. In 2007, he underwrote the first video standup special that New Wave would own, another low-budget job that he then licensed to Comedy Central. Between 2007 and 2011, New Wave slowly began building a comedy portfolio.
In early 2011, Volk-Weiss took his biggest chance yet on the long-tail thesis. In a meeting with comedian Tom Green's manager, Volk-Weiss suggested Green do a standup special--he'd never done one before--with New Wave. Volk-Weiss intended to do what he typically did and sell it to one of his regular buyers, with the buyer paying for the production and retaining the rights. He figured the advance for Green and the production costs would be out of New Wave's reach. The manager agreed, but when Volk-Weiss tried to sell the potential special to his usual buyers, a not-so-funny thing happened. "Everybody passed," he says. "They said, 'We like Tom Green, but [since he's never done one before] we're not gonna buy a special with him that we can't see.'"
Rather than drop the deal, Volk-Weiss saw an opportunity. "I was like, 'We've got this.' Our learning curve on making specials was improving. Our relationships with the buyers were pretty good at that point, and I was pretty confident that we could do it." He believed in the potential long-tail profit, that selling the first-window rights would begin to mitigate the production risk that Dynamics would take--indeed, the biggest it had ever taken.
Volk-Weiss went to Apel with a big ask. He needed $280,000 to produce the special, including the biggest talent advance the company had ever offered--$30,000. Apel was surprisingly open to the idea. "Any person in my position, who's a CEO and has a staff of people you trust, at times, you have to back them," says Apel. But there was another ask as well. "Brian said, 'Hey, I wanna do this; and if I do this, I want to eventually become a partner,' " says Apel. "I said, 'Fine. Let's go.'"
Volk-Weiss closed the deal with Green and then began trying to sell the first-window rights to the usual suspects. He thought that, since they'd be paying only for rights and not for production costs, one would surely bite. "I just assumed Comedy Central would buy it," says Volk-Weiss. "I thought Tom Green was a big enough name." Apparently, no one at Comedy Central had read The Long Tail. Comedy Central passed. So did HBO. So did Showtime. "I was terrified," says Volk-Weiss. "I didn't sleep. It was all very, very scary."
And then, he says, "I got lucky. I got really lucky." At the time, he happened to be producing a work-for-hire comedy special with Showtime, and he was out to dinner one night with some Showtime execs. They mentioned a problem negotiating the financials with the special's featured comedian. The next day, Volk-Weiss called Valerie Meraz, then Showtime's vice president of content acquisitions (who hadn't been at the dinner). "I said, 'Listen, I'll do the project at cost,' " recalls Volk-Weiss. "I won't take a production fee, but I need you to buy this Tom Green special."
Meraz doesn't recall the specifics of the agreement--she has since moved on to Turner Entertainment--but she does remember Volk-Weiss. "The thing that set him apart for me was that he would produce his shows on a large scale," says Meraz. "They were big venues. They were polished. It was a professional experience. You could tell he took it seriously. He wanted to be the best. We hit it off right away."
Meraz brought the deal up the food chain at Showtime, which eventually bought the first-window rights for $60,000, a "low to middle" amount. But Dynamics now had a life. The show premiered in 2012. After Showtime's rights expired, Dynamics licensed the special to Image for $90,000. And it kept relicensing. Today, it's still generating money.
In July 2013, Volk-Weiss became co-owner of New Wave Dynamics, subsequently renamed Comedy Dynamics, which has produced 20 to 30 standup specials per year and sold licenses not only to regular buyers like HBO and Showtime, but also, increasingly, to Netflix. With its growing inventory, Volk-Weiss was in a position to take the next step in his long-tail vision: He launched Dynamics "channels"--showing exclusively Dynamics-owned shows--on Hulu, Roku, and Amazon in July 2014.
But there is an unfortunate, if not entirely unforeseeable, side effect of being a disrupter: Other companies begin to pay more attention to you, and not necessarily the kind you relish.
"Ladies, if a guy picks you up for a date in a minivan, he's telling you, 'Why have sex when we can collect all the Angry Birds stuffed animals?' " says Segura in his new Netflix Original special, Mostly Stories. "Full-size van. That's like, 'You wanna go out? Well, you're coming.' If a guy picks you up in a Honda that's really close to the ground, with cool blue lights underneath it, that says, 'When we get to the restaurant, get whatever you want. My mom's got this.'"
Volk-Weiss produced Mostly Stories, but he doesn't own it. Over the years in which he's been producing his own specials, Volk-Weiss has gotten very good at spotting talent before anyone else, and elevating it to the national stage. That was certainly the case for Segura. Thanks to the lift he got from his 2014 Comedy Dynamics produced-and-owned special, Completely Normal, Segura's career exploded. "It had a tremendous impact. It grew the fan base and visibility; it took me to another level of exposure," he says. "When you shoot a special, you have no idea what's going to happen, and the fact that I got to do the first one with Comedy Dynamics was a roll of the dice. It was a game changer for me professionally." Segura won't put a dollar figure on what Completely Normal did for his career (he retained 35 percent ownership of the program), but he says it paved the way for bigger paydays--and that's been the case for other comics as well.
Most crucially, Segura got an original-comedy-special deal with Netflix, which is the modern-day equivalent of being asked to sit on Johnny Carson's couch after your set--a guaranteed career maker. Volk-Weiss says he actually did want to bid on Segura's second special, but "once we found out Netflix was involved, we backed off." A wise move, considering that Netflix had become one of Comedy Dynamics' biggest buyers.
But another factor was at play. As streaming companies such as Netflix steal viewers from the cable providers like Comcast and Verizon Fios, the cable guys are trying to claw back viewers by creating their own streaming services. Increasingly, their network and cable channel partners are refusing to license their shows to the independent streaming services--historically the active licensers of that content and now their chief competition for subscribers. Why give your enemy the bullets for his gun? So the independent streaming services need to double down on the amount of exclusive shows and specials they create or lock up very long licensing deals (like Netflix did for Mostly Stories, House of Cards, and Orange Is the New Black). And these streaming services are much, much richer than Comedy Dynamics.
Dynamics will inevitably face twin threats, both of its own making. One, it will begin going head-to-head with the rapacious streaming behemoths eager to tie up exclusive deals with big talents--talents Dynamics has helped make famous. Two, Dynamics has a huge library, and dedicated distribution channels, so like it or not, it's going to soon be viewed as a competitor by its biggest customers. Comedy Central, for instance, stopped buying Dynamics programming last year.
Volk-Weiss swears he is absolutely not interested in competing with his buyers. "My goal is not to beat Netflix or HBO," he says of the Dynamics branded channels. "Those companies should never worry about us. It's like the way Ferrari would never really view Ford as a competitor. We're like the Ford of comedy specials."
On the other hand, Volk-Weiss seems to be exhibiting another trait of good entrepreneurs: flexibility. He's started producing original scripted comedies, and it's no coincidence that most of the companies buying them haven't traditionally produced or aired comedy, so don't view him as a threat--at least not at the moment.
In 2015, Dynamics produced and sold a comedy talk show for the History Channel called Join or Die, starring late-night host, actor, and comedian Craig Ferguson, famous for his acerbic Scottish wit and hyperintelligent political and social commentary. Dynamics has since inked deals to create and produce an original unscripted show with Zac Efron for MTV; a comedy show, Wild 'n on Tour, with Nick Cannon for MTV2; a scripted show for Animal Planet, starring Anthony Anderson, which Volk-Weiss describes as "The Daily Show for animal lovers"; a comedy special featuring Kevin Hart; and a scripted series for Seeso.
Unlike the comedy specials it produces, Dynamics will not own the rights to the scripted shows, but will instead have "back-end participation"--in other words, a cut of the eventual ad revenue a show generates. Dynamics will also own limited rights.
This, says Meraz, is smart. "It is going to get more competitive," she says, "because networks overall are looking to own more of their programming. Every network is creating content so it can monetize through all the platforms. It's also going to be harder for Brian to get the artists if Netflix or Showtime starts paying more [guaranteed advances] for comedians." (Netflix declined to comment for this story.) The emerging model also allows the inmates to run the asylum: Comic superstars such as Louis CK now produce and control their own shows.
Volk-Weiss says he agreed with Meraz's assessment until recently, but now he says that both he and Meraz were wrong about how quickly this change would come. "In December of last year," he says, "I told my staff we'd be making fewer specials" because of the predicted competition from bigger players that wanted to build a programming library. Instead, he says, "we made more specials this year than we ever have."
The reason is that, "aside from Netflix and HBO, we can give buyers a bigger bang for the buck" when it comes to spending their programming dollars, says Volk-Weiss. It will be at least three years, he predicts, before buyers (other than Netflix and HBO) will start actively owning programs. Still, three years is an instant, especially in the comedy business. Competition is coming, just as Meraz predicted, albeit slowly. When it arrives, Volk-Weiss will have to pull off a balancing act to keep Comedy Dynamics growing profitably, licensing shows without seeming like competition, while building out an increasingly wide distribution capability. Ferguson says Volk-Weiss is more than up to the task.
"He doesn't come across immediately as someone who you think is a mogul, but he's clearly a mogul in the making," says Ferguson. "He's so enthusiastic and cheerful and positive. He's got a great hunger for knowledge. And I think that plays into why the company is becoming so successful and why it's so diverse. His enthusiasm and drive are infectious--you want to get involved. That's what they always say about successful people in Hollywood: The real skill is that people wanna be with you."
If things go according to Volk-Weiss's long-tail vision, Dynamics will become a major industry player. It will own a vast distribution apparatus; have the rights to more comedy programs than most of its competitors; and be producing much of the material they need to do battle with one another--as well as, inevitably, with Dynamics itself. When that happens, Volk-Weiss had better hope that comedy is as hot as it is now, that he's as good at producing it as he is now, and that his clients will still be willing to overlook the fact that with every deal they make with him, they hand him a few more bullets for his gun.