Andrew Fried and his company Boardwalk Pictures are behind Netflix documentaries like Cheer, Last Chance U, and Showtime’s We Need to Talk About Cosby.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
In November 2018, comedian and television host W. Kamau Bell walked into the Santa Monica offices of Boardwalk Pictures, the production company known for “Chef’s Table” and “Last Chance U,” with an idea for a documentary about stand-up comedians
Boardwalk President Andrew Fried has had every “chef’s table of fill in the blank” imaginable since the show premiered in 2015. Car Mechanic. Surfer. They call it. But for Fried, a self-proclaimed failed comedian, the idea of profiling funny people was alluring.
Finally, the meeting between Bell, Fried and producer Jordan Wynn turned to the subject of famous comedy specials. Fried said his favorite was 1983’s “Bill Cosby: Himself.” “Now what do I do with it?” asked Fried.
Cosby, a black cultural pioneer once hailed as “America’s father,” was recently convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to prison. (Cosby’s conviction was later thrown out by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.) Settling accounts for Cosby’s legacy could be a powerful story if done right.
“I remember [Bell] stroked his beard, smiled and laughed, but also talked about the very, very real things,” Fried said of the meeting. “And then the next morning I got a very, very long email from Kamau Bell saying he couldn’t stop thinking about our conversation since he left our office.”
W. Kamau Bell’s documentaries “We Need to Talk About Cosby.”
(Mario Casilli / mptvimages / Showtime)
The project that grew out of those initial conversations, the four-part series We Need to Talk About Cosby, premiered last month at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and premiered Jan. 30 on Showtime. It’s one of the latest high-profile shows from Boardwalk Pictures, which also produced the critically acclaimed Cheer.
Since founding Boardwalk 12 years ago, Fried has been at the center of documentaries’ transformation from a genre with niche appeal to one of the fastest growing attractions for streaming and television viewers.
That appetite has grown rapidly over the past two years, according to research firm Parrot Analytics. From January 2020 to December 2021, US demand for original digital documentaries increased by 83%, while average interest in all other original series categories increased by 31%, according to Parrot data.
Streaming makes documentaries on obscure subjects easier for viewers to find and watch. Popular shows also speak to viewers’ yearning for nostalgia (HBO Max’s “Beanie Mania”), interest in cults (HBO’s “The Vow”), internet culture (Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma”), and music (Lifetime’s “Janet Jackson.”)
“What we’ve seen is that documents have gone from art-house fare to being discovered on these streaming platforms,” said Sarah Aubrey, head of original content at HBO Max another form of storytelling for people, rather than the purview of art house cinemas and film festivals.”
HBO helped kick in the door with “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” which became an unlikely pop culture obsession in 2015. and accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic with Tiger King.
Film productions such as National Geographic’s “Free Solo” and Magnolia Pictures’ “RBG” not only received awards; They were also box office hits. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul” was sold to Walt Disney Co.’s Searchlight Pictures and Hulu for $12 million at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Alex Honnold at the foot of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
(Jimmy Chin/National Geographic)
Sly Stone performs at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and is featured in the documentary Summer of Soul.
As audiences for documentary programs have grown, so have budgets, thanks largely to companies like Netflix. Documents are no longer just about passion and modest budgets. Docuseries typically cost $750,000 to $1 million per episode to produce, industry insiders say.
“This genre is an integral part of Netflix and an integral part of the TV ecosystem in general compared to maybe even 20 years ago,” said Brandon Riegg, vice president of nonfiction series and comedy specials at Netflix. “The proof of that is the volume we’ve had for these specific pieces of intellectual property and this franchise.”
Boardwalk has benefited from demand. His version of the dining competition format — “The Big Brunch,” hosted by “Schitt’s Creek” Dan Levy — will premiere on HBO Max later this year. “Race: Bubba Wallace,” a limited series about the only black driver in the NASCAR Cup Series, arrives on Netflix this month.
His films include last year’s “Val” (Amazon), which was shot from footage actor Val Kilmer shot himself over decades; and 2019’s “The Black Godfather” (Netflix) about influential music executive Clarence Avant.
Boardwalk’s workforce has doubled to 40 people in two years. The company has grown from having two to three concurrent shows in production five years ago to about 20 concurrent projects in active development or production. Executives declined to disclose financial details but said revenue has doubled about every two years. Boardwalk has produced more than 25 series for Netflix alone.
A Long Island native, Fried tried his hand at stand-up comedy in clubs in New York after graduating from Emory University in Atlanta. After two years in his grandfather’s real estate business, he began his entertainment career.
While working at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2004, Fried was hired by Jon Kamen to join RadicalMedia where he landed his first producing role on the Jay Z documentary Fade to Black. He is known for starring in the Sundance Channel series Iconoclasts and in films such as Britney Spears’ 2008 documentary Britney: For the Record, which led him to Los Angeles.
At the time, non-fiction storytelling on television existed at two extremes. On one side was the explosion of 2000s reality TV shows like Jon & Kate Plus 8 and competitive series like American Idol. On the other side were artistic and educational documentaries. There wasn’t much in the middle where Fried saw a chance.
“I remember when we were talking about shows, we were like, ‘Is this for commercial success or do you want to be nominated for awards?'” Fried said. “And I think what we started out saying in the early days of Boardwalk was ‘Both.’ You can do things that are meaningful and noble. You don’t have to decide.”
Skyler Gisondo as Ben in The Social Dilemma.
(Exposure Labs / Netflix)
Chef Rodney Scott on Chef’s Table: BBQ
(Netflix / Everett Collection)
In 2015, the show Chef’s Table, created by Jiro Dreams of Sushi director David Gelb, became Netflix’s first original documentary series.
Its success was a pivotal moment for the company and the visual style of documentaries. They tried to make “Planet Earth” to eat. The shots have been carefully planned, with close-ups of culinary masters preparing intricate dishes to classical music.
Boardwalk was careful not to flood the market with similar shows, said Lee White, a WME agent who has worked with Fried for years.
“It was a very conscious thing that we didn’t go out with a bunch of projects that were the ‘Chef’s Table of X,’ because A, you’re cannibalizing that show and B, you’re pigeonholing yourself,” White said .
The 2020 show Cheer, created by Last Chance U director Greg Whiteley, showed how documentaries break into the mainstream and showcased the young athletes at Navarro College and their die-hard coach Monica Aldama could make them national celebrities. The series was spoofed from Saturday Night Live and the cast appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Trinity Valley Community College’s Jeron Hazelwood Cheer in Season 2 of Cheer.
But with that popularity came a dark side.
In September, the FBI arrested fan-favorite cheerleader Jerry Harris — who interviewed Brad Pitt on the Oscars red carpet and had one of his exuberant “mat talks” with Oprah Winfrey — on child pornography charges. Harris was later charged with sexual abuse of a minor. He pleaded not guilty in December.
“Jerry was supposed to be performing at the Emmys this week,” Fried said. “But instead he was in a prison cell. There was a very real human component to What Do We Do Now?
The filmmakers attempted to approach the issue head-on. In the fifth episode of Cheer’s second season, which debuted last month, Whiteley features interviews with the twin brothers, who claim Harris asked them for sex and explicit photos; her mother; and her attorney Sarah Klein, who criticizes Aldama’s handling of the allegations.
We Need to Talk About Cosby also presented unique challenges as real events changed the story during filming.
Bell and his crew were in Philadelphia on one of their final days of filming when he began receiving text messages and news reports that Cosby had been released from prison. In one scene featured in the documentary, the cameras turn to a shocked Bell. The crew held a Zoom meeting after the verdict to process their emotions.
Bell credited Boardwalk executives for supporting him through the unexpected turns. Bell had turned his career as a political stand-up into a role as a host on CNN’s United Shades of America and was influenced by Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and PBS’s Eyes on the Prize. But he had never taken on a project like this before.
“If there was ever a time I could understand, ‘Okay, man, turn it off, we’re done here,’ that was it,” Bell said. “They just said, ‘Let’s take a breath. We don’t have to make a decision now. We’re going to find out.’”
Looking for growth opportunities, Boardwalk has begun developing scripted shows alongside its documentaries, much like other companies convert podcasts and documentaries into shows and films. They also want to finance other projects themselves.
While companies like Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine are currently selling at sky-high valuations, Fried – the sole owner of Boardwalk – said he wasn’t interested in a merger with a larger studio.
“We’ve won a few awards now, but to be honest, it feels to me like we’re just getting to the good part,” Fried said. “We’ve never had a huge capital injection just to blow this thing up. We just grew through work.”