Messler launches content company
It’s one of those Hollywood stories with a sports twist.
Basil Iwanyk, whose Thunder Road Films has produced more than 30 movies, including the “John Wick” series and “A Star Is Born,” was researching a sports documentary late last year when he met Jaymee Messler.
Messler, co-founder of The Players’ Tribune, had moved to Los Angeles to explore original programming and development and was trying to get a feel for the Hollywood landscape, meeting with filmmakers, buyers and content creators. “We nailed first-person editorial and digital storytelling at TPT,” Messler said, “but I knew there was a larger business opportunity in the TV, film and audio space.”
It was just supposed to be one of those brief meet-and-greets, but Iwanyk and Messler clicked immediately.
“I said, ‘Jaymee, we should start doing sports content, whether it’s digital, narrative, scripted, unscripted films — you are a pioneer in this world,’” Iwanyk said. “And she’s like, ‘100 percent, let’s do it.’”
Last week, Iwanyk and Messler, along with sports industry veteran Greg Economou, unveiled their vision, (co)laboratory, a company that partners athletes, teams and leagues with moviemaking expertise, relationships and experience. The company will create everything from feature films and documentaries to TV series, digital series, streaming video, branded content and audio.
Both Iwanyk and Messler said last week it was something they didn’t want to do alone.
“The athlete community and the sports community and the film business and television business are really similar in that it is really, really hard to penetrate,” Iwanyk said. “People that are in there don’t trust outsiders — and for good reason.”
Iwanyk is a New York Mets, Jets and Knicks fan, and the documentary he was researching last year was “62,000:1,” about the 1969-70 seasons when those New York teams all won championships. It ran earlier this summer on the SNY network.
“Looking at the landscape, I thought, ‘God, it feels like a lot of sports content is monochromatic,’” Iwanyk said. “A lot of it is pretty traditional stuff. And athletes for the first time are getting their voices heard, and I realized there is a huge opportunity to start a sports content company.”
Thunder Road Films has produced movies that have grossed more than $3 billion, including “We Are Marshall,” “The Town” and “Sicario,” but Iwanyk didn’t want to attempt to launch a sports content company on his own. “Yeah, I could show up and be the ‘Movie Guy’ and sit down with the athletes. But they would be looking at me sideways like, ‘How is this person not going to let me look like an idiot?’”
Iwanyk is a fan of The Players’ Tribune and the way it’s helped athletes be comfortable telling intimate stories, including sensitive and potentially embarrassing ones. He likes the fact that Messler built a startup, “which now sounds like a no-brainer but at the time was like, ‘What?’”
But more than anything, Iwanyk admired the reputation Messler has built and the relationships she has across sports. “She has the trust of the athletes and the street cred with the athletes and the athletic community,” he said. “And I have the trust of the filmmakers, actors, actresses and screenwriters.”
Messler said she could not launch such a venture without Iwanyk. “He brings something so important to the table,” she said. “It’s very hard — you can have a great idea, but if you don’t have the best writers and filmmakers and directors, it’s much more traditional sports storytelling and we are trying to bring a higher quality approach. Without his relationships, I feel like you have to reinvent the wheel every time you create a project.”
Financial details and equity stakes were not announced.
Based in Los Angeles, the company will have an original production arm, (co)lab studios, which will provide athletes with development funds and content creators — including actors, directors, producers and writers. Additionally, (co)laboratory will help teams, leagues and brands develop a content strategy, Economou said.
“Sports properties are already seeking to become better storytellers,” said Economou, who has held executive positions with the NBA, Charlotte Bobcats, Madison Square Garden, Dick Clark Productions and most recently Ticketmaster. “So, in addition to developing our own original content, a major focus of ours will be working with sports teams, leagues and brands investing in sports on content-related projects.
“We want to help reimagine how brands are telling stories and help them create more authentic connections with consumers by leveraging the entertainment space and the best content creators.”
Iwanyk said the market for sports content has undergone massive change in recent years. “Five, six years ago, there were a very limited number of buyers for sports content,” he said. “ESPN was a clear one. Fox Sports. There weren’t a lot. Now, there is ESPN; there is Netflix, Apple, Hulu, DAZN; there are regional sports networks; there is Facebook Watch; there is YouTube. It’s endless what a booming market for sports content there is.”
Messler said the founders brainstormed for a while before coming up with the name (co)laboratory. “It has a dual meaning: (co)lab is short for ‘content laboratory,’ which is what we are in the literal sense, but it also represents what we stand for, which is collaboration,” she said. “We are uniquely bringing the worlds of sports and entertainment together to collaborate and create. The name felt right.”