RadicalMedia's Frank Scherma Discusses Production During The Pandemic, Adapting, Prioritizing
Frank Scherma
Nimble postproduction also figures prominently in company’s mix of content during these challenging times
  • SANTA MONICA, Calif.
  • --

From one of our country’s Founding Fathers to our current global health crisis, the arc of history has been navigated deftly by RadicalMedia during this pandemic. 

The Founding Father reference is to Hamilton--the filmed Broadway musical based on the life of U.S. Constitution framer Alexander Hamilton--which premiered on Disney+ this past Fourth of July weekend, drawing a massive audience to the streaming service. Radical produced what’s been nicknamed “Hamifilm,” the live capture taken from two on-stage Broadway performances with most of the original cast in June 2016. The movie was originally scheduled to open in theaters in October 2021. But the pandemic moved up that timetable and shifted the venue from cinema to households and other streaming destinations.

The critically acclaimed Hamilton film delivered a special shared experience to audiences, bringing us a much needed dose of virtual togetherness during these isolating times. The movie was just one of varied Radical-produced projects to make its way to audiences in recent months. And now Radical is adding to that mix as it has geared up production of short and long-form fare with COVID-19 safety protocols front and center.

SHOOT caught up with Frank Scherma, RadicalMedia’s president, to get a handle not only on how the company is adapting as it resumes production, but also on its slate of already produced high-profile projects that have recently emerged on assorted platforms. Radical has additionally proved nimble on the postproduction front in order to bring content to fruition.

In terms of new production during the pandemic, Radical has been active in the commercialmaking/branded content arena. As previously reported (SHOOTonline, 8/20), writer/comedian Fred Armisen recently made his commercial directorial debut with a client-direct campaign for GoogleStore.com. This also marked Armisen’s first directing gig since coming aboard the RadicalMedia roster for ad representation. Armisen did far more than just direct the campaign. He also portrayed assorted characters highlighting how Google products can serve its users on various fronts. A new film premiered for each of 30 consecutive days. Each film promoted a Daily Special for purchase of a Google device such as the Nest Hub, Pixel phone or Chromecast. And for customers wary of venturing out to brick-and-mortar shops, the campaign positions the online Google Store as a viable option. The 30 scenarios were shot over six straight days in Santa Ana, Calif.  Armisen took on the personas of Kai, Bob, Derek, Vinny, Sven and Miles--each with his own distinctive quirks. He also portrayed supporting characters like a plumber and a  pizza delivery guy. In one spot Armisen takes on the role of a man trying to keep in touch with his father--while also playing the father. 

Scherma noted that other Radical commercialmaking endeavors during the pandemic have included celeb work with the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Bacon, as well as projects which entailed a director in L.A. dovetailing with a crew in Slovenia, a director from Sweden involved in a Mercedes-Benz shoot in China, and director Steve Miller working remotely from New York with a crew in Los Angeles.

The priority for all this work has been to stay safe, placing above all the health and well-being of cast, crew and agency colleagues, affirmed Scherma. Coronavirus protocols are being adhered to, with deployment of masks, COVID testing, temperature taking, remote communication and collaboration, and other safety-first measures such as crews/contributors looking to maintain social distancing.

Scherma observed that this work in commercials carries lessons that can translate into shoots for longer form projects. For example, habits we take for granted have to be reassessed, said Scherma who’s spent much of his life on sets, working with directors, creatives, networks and assorted artists. “When you get back on a set, people tend to fall into what they’ve always known,” he related. This could mean being immediately responsive to a director’s request without thinking of today’s pandemic context. In that vein, there’s now another authority on set--the COVID-19 monitor. Scherma emphasized that if a monitor says something on set, it’s like the president of the company saying something. You had better listen and act accordingly.

Scherma shared that he prefers his COVID-19 monitors to be trusted production professionals whom he has worked with before. He’s generally been using such pros, including a seasoned production manager, who have been trained in OSHA and COVID-19 classes. “You can put a COVID monitor on a set but if they haven’t been on set before and understand the dynamics, that won’t do you any good,” assessed Scherma. 

Among the biggest variables is COVID-19 testing which comes in different forms. Scherma has become a diligent researcher of tests that are available, those on the horizon or being deployed in other countries, the time it takes for each to get results and the accuracy of those results. He’s been in consult with medical professionals, labs, unions and others to gain as much knowledge and information as possible.

Currently, insurance is an issue in that COVID-related problems are generally not covered. Reliable testing might change that but for now it’s difficult to determine how, when or where someone contracted the coronavirus. Stakes are high in that an outbreak could lead to the postponement or cancellation of a shoot. Was the COVID in question caught on set or when a crew member independently went to the grocery store, for example? 

Insurance is indeed a big picture concern. In late June the Motion Picture Association, The Independent Film & Television Alliance, IATSE, DGA and SAG-AFTRA sent a letter to ranking members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives asking for relief from the pandemic. Among the industry proposals outlined in that letter was the creation of a federal insurance program to cover pandemic-related losses. The letter read in part, “The ability of our industry to return to active production, whether on set or on location, is severely compromised by the inability to purchase insurance to cover losses stemming from communicable diseases amongst cast, crew, and others involved in the production. This insurance has been available in the past and is essential to the decisions by banks and others to risk investment in a film or program that may be shut down while a single member of the cast recovers from illness or as a result of a civil authority order unrelated to the specific production. Without it, production--especially independent production--cannot resume on a significant level. We urge Congress to develop a program of federal insurance (or guarantee to fill this gap) to cover pandemic-related business losses in the future.”

A related bill, the Pandemic Risk Insurance Act, has been introduced in Congress but it has not yet made much headway; and the current state of legislative chaos in the U.S. certainly doesn’t bode well. Other countries have begun to address the production industry’s needs with insurance solutions funded in full or in part by the government. France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the U.K., and Australia have all announced bespoke programs to cover re-start costs (and in some cases losses) associated with COVID-19 stoppages, while others including Canada, are considering proposals.

Long-form fare
As for longer form projects which Radical has resumed production on, they include Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry’s mental health documentary series with Harpo Productions for Apple TV+, and the film Black Woodstock, which delves into the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969. The latter marks the first documentary feature for director Ahmir Khalib Thompson, aka “Questlove.”

Additionally, there’s American Portrait for PBS, a national storytelling project that asks people all over the country to submit their narratives by responding to thought provoking prompts. From pre-pro to production, capturing content, editing and delivering, Radical has been doing everything remotely for this series during the pandemic, including such installments as “In This Together,” a special on how people have been impacted and brought together by COVID-19 experiences, and “Family Of Us,” in which families of all shapes and sizes give us a look into their lives. This remote means of operation has also been deployed in the development of future American Portrait episodes, including next season’s debut in 2021.

Furthermore Radical has resumed production on True Haunt, a Netflix project from lauded documentarian Joe Berlinger centering on the most haunted places in America.

While it has other projects currently in the pipeline that have begun shooting but aren't announced yet, Radical has also been in post during the pandemic on notable projects--a prime example being director Spike Lee’s film adaptation of David Byrne’s American Utopia. Produced by Radical, American Utopia was picked up by HBO and is slated to be the opening night attraction at the Toronto Film Festival.

Meanwhile final edits, color, mixing and other post work were done remotely to accommodate delivery during the pandemic of Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, a four-part Netflix documentary series about the multi-millionaire who spent decades sexually abusing underaged girls, using a deep network of powerful enablers to help cover up his crimes. Directed by Lisa Bryant, Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich was executive produced by Berlinger. The series, which was released in May on Netflix, is a RadicalMedia Entertainment Production in association with Third Eye Motion Picture Company.

Brendan Hermes, executive producer of postproduction at RadicalMedia, said that American Utopia and Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich are just two of an estimated 17 projects that the company has innovated on remotely in post to deliver during the pandemic. For the Epstein doc. series, Hermes had six to eight editors, a colorist and audio post engineer working from their homes. Rather than going for a cloud-based solution, Hermes and his compatriots gravitated towards a hard-drive option with technology sent to the artisans’ residences. Editors for instance were set up with Avid, while finishing was done via DaVinci Resolve resources up and running at home. Also deployed was a Signiant Media Shuttle so that these post professionals--including long-time Radical collaborators who operate independently such as colorist Josh Kanuck and audio engineer R. Hollis Smith--could readily access content as needed. Media could thus be passed back and forth among artists to facilitate a coordinated postproduction effort--all with the security of encoded and password-protected tech. A Zoom room was set up for support so that artisans and tech experts could connect if the situation called for it. Post talent was available as needed during the course of a round-the-clock schedule, helping to remotely meet delivery deadlines. 

Proving advantageous was Radical’s depth of experience. For example, the pandemic wasn’t the first time that the Radical ensemble worked with Media Shuttle. Hermes noted that from its base of operation in Santa Monica, the Radical post contingent worked previously with freelancers all over the country and internationally via the Signiant technology. There was less of a learning curve involved given Radical’s familiarity with various technological options and how they could best be used to connect people and bring projects to fruition. For some projects delivered during the pandemic, for example, Radical put to use its experience on a software program called Evercast which enables people in the post chain to live review content when necessary.

The postproduction brain trust at Radical includes Hermes, chief technical engineer Alexander Santoro and CTO Marc Frydman.

Beyond "Hamifilm"
Beyond the aforementioned Hamilton film, Radical had other notable projects--produced prior to the pandemic--debut in recent months. They included:

The History channel miniseries Grant, based on Ron Chernow’s book about Ulysses S. Grant. Executive produced by RadicalMedia, Appian Way’s Leonardo DiCaprio, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Chernow in association with Lionsgate, Grant was directed by Malcolm Venville and premiered on Memorial Day over three consecutive nights. The first installment of Grant drew 3 million viewers, giving the History channel its best non-fiction miniseries launch in six years. It also marked the second most watched miniseries launch of the year in cable, only behind ESPN’s The Last Dance centered on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

Spaceship Earth, produced by RadicalMedia, was purchased at Sundance this year by Neon.  It tells the true, stranger-than-fiction adventure of eight visionaries who spent two years quarantined inside of a self-engineered replica of Earth’s ecosystem called Biosphere 2. Playing theatrically in participating drive-ins and select pop-up city-scape projections, the film also debuted across Hulu and other streaming services during the pandemic.

Sherman’s Showcase Black History Month Spectacular debuted in June. The variety/sketch comedy show, exec produced by Scherma, has been picked up for a full season two by IFC/AMC.

And currently streaming on Hulu is Target’s first-ever documentary, the Radical-produced Design for All which introduces us to people whose lives have been positively impacted by the inclusive accessible design of products.

New talent
Pandemic or not, the lifeblood of any production company is finding and nurturing new talent. On that score, Radical recently added directors Bethan Seller and Quaran Squire. Seller will be handled by Radical worldwide--except for Ireland and Scotland where she has ongoing representation relationships. Scherma said he was drawn to her “wonderful eye” and directorial acumen, particularly from a storytelling and production design perspective.

Seller’s first film Luxuriously Taxable, which she wrote, produced and directed, raised awareness about the U.K. luxury tax placed on tampons. The film directed viewers to sign an independent petition to eliminate the tax, which gained over 300,000 signatures and was picked up by Dazed & Confused, Bustle, Metro, The Daily Mail and the Independent’s i100 list. Seller’s attention to detail and positive energy inspire her and others to create compelling work spanning comedy, lifestyle, drama, narrative and fashion. 

Aside from her considerable talent, Scherma noted that Seller is based in London which dovetails well with the reality of those American ad agencies currently looking to shoot overseas. During the pandemic, having U.S. directors traveling abroad could prove problematic. Having Seller in Europe already thus offers a viable option to clients and brands.

Meanwhile Squire is a writer, director, and producer based in Los Angeles. He was born and raised in Essex County, New Jersey, where his creative lens around the narratives of the mundane and the extraordinary were shaped. Squire is a graduate of both Morehouse College and Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television, MFA. His work has been recognized by many platforms such as the American Black Film Festival, Newark International Film Festival, HollyShorts Film Festival, Urbanworld Film Festival, and Revolt TV’s Film Festival. Squire recently completed projects for Loud Robot and Warner Bros Records. Radical had a chance to collaborate with Squire on a music video and the experience was so favorable that the company put him up for another project and brought him aboard its global roster.


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