Campfire, a producer of scripted and non-scripted content, has been on a tear.
The company debuted three films at this year’s SXSW, the buzzy documentaries “WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn,” “Hysterical,” and “The Lost Sons,” and also fielded “A Glitch in the Matrix,” which scored rave reviews at Sundance. All told, the company will have nearly a dozen movies and shows scheduled to premiere in 2021, a remarkable burst of productivity given that COVID-19 has slowed production for the past 12 months.
“The pandemic didn’t really impede our growth,” says Ross M. Dinerstein, the company’s founder and CEO. “We were able to pivot quickly and figure out how to move much of our post-production remotely.”
The explosion of content is also being fueled by a key investor. In 2019, Wheelhouse Group, the media and investment firm created by Brent Montgomery and late night host Jimmy Kimmel, bought a majority stake in Campfire, which Dinerstein had founded five years earlier. That investment has allowed Campfire to more than double its output from an average of two to five projects annually to roughly 10. It also enabled to company to quadruple its staff, with Campfire now employing more than 20 full-time workers.
“We’re trying to build something special,” says Montgomery. “This has allowed Ross to make bigger projects with bigger budgets and to take bigger swings with bigger talent.”
A regional connection helped seal the deal for Wheelhouse. Montgomery says he and Dinerstein enjoy a shorthand because they both grew up in Texas.
“Texans have a lot of pride,” says Montgomery. “We like to buck the system and do things we’re told we can’t or shouldn’t do. Ross was a Houston kid and I’m from San Antonio, so we have a nice Rockets versus Spurs rivalry going.”
Thanks to its new financial backer, Campfire has become more of a one-stop shop. It doesn’t just join other companies’ projects, it can develop, finance and produce its own films.
“We have an infrastructure that a lot of other companies can’t offer,” says Dinerstein.
Directors who have worked with Campfire appreciate that level of support. Andrea Nevins, who directed Campfire’s “Hysterical,” says it was rare to have that kind of bespoke experience on a documentary.
“They’re pretty perfect as collaborators from soup-to-nuts,” she says. “They brought me on as a director and had everything teed up. I walked in and there was a producer ready to work on the film and a camera person and really everything I could think of was taken care of. They did the heavy lifting so I can do what I do best, which is concentrate on directing.”
Clay Tweel, who directed “Heaven’s Gate,” a docu-series that Campfire produced for HBO Max, and teamed with the company on the Netflix show “The Innocent Man,” says that Dinerstein is a natural facilitator, which is the key to his success.
“I think of him as the connector,” says Tweel. “He knows a lot of people and he can find the right person for you to talk to or work with on a project. You go into any room with Ross and he’ll recognize someone and remember personal details about them.”
Dinerstein believes that the rise in streaming services will help propel Campfire to new heights. The company isn’t just distributing projects on Netflix, it also has projects launching on rival streamers such as Hulu and HBO Max. The past year and a half has seen a number of new Netflix challengers launch, such as Disney Plus and Paramount Plus, and that, in turn, has bolstered the appetite for content to populate these services.
“I’m a big believer in competition breeding innovation,” says Dinerstein. “With HBO Max and others coming into the space, there’s more than one buyer out there for every project.”
It’s also helped make movies and shows that might otherwise struggle to turn a profit more financially viable, plugging the void in downstream revenue left by the implosion of the DVD market more than a decade ago.
“For a long time the biggest source of revenue for a producer was DVD and Blu-ray sales,” says Dinerstein. “When that went away you had transactional VOD, but that only replaced about 30% of the DVD revenue, so it wasn’t sustainable. That’s changed since Netflix entered the space. That’s helped fill the gap.”
Campfire will have a lot to juggle in the coming months. April has already seen the Hulu debut of “WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn,” an incisive look at the real estate company’s founder Adam Neumann and his disastrous decision to overhype his startup while ignoring its bottom line. At the same time, “Hysterical,” a look at women shattering the male-dominated world of comedy’s glass ceiling, debuted on FX. And “A Glitch in the Matrix,” a head-trip of a documentary involving everything from novelist Philip K. Dick to conspiracy theories, sold to indie distributor Magnolia.
Also on deck is the second and final season of Netflix’s “Special,” an acclaimed comedy about a young gay man with cerebral palsy, as well as a new documentary on TikTok’s controversial rise and ” Choir,” an upcoming Disney Plus non-fiction series with Blumhouse, that follows “America’s Got Talent” finalists the Detroit Youth Choir. Last year, Campfire dipped its toes in the podcasting world with “Abuse of Power,” a series hosted by husband-and-wife criminal defense duo David Rudolf and Sonya Pfeiffer. The company is developing more projects for that medium.
“We’re interested in stories that are relatable with universal themes that are a little left of center,” says Dinerstein.
There’s one topic that Campfire isn’t interested in exploring.
“I’m not personally looking for pandemic content,” says Dinerstein. “We’re hoping to put COVID in the rear view and I really don’t want to watch a lot of stuff that remind me of this past year.”