Dragging TV Into A RuPaul Future With World Of Wonder’s Co-Founders
(This article originally appeared on TV[R]EV)
Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey founded World of Wonder, their TV production company, 28 years ago, in a very different era of television. But as they like to say, ‘Today’s fringe is tomorrow’s mainstream.” A decade ago, they launched RuPaul’s Drag Race on a small LGBTQ-focused cable network called Logo. The show boomed, moved networks, and since has spun off localized versions on three continents. They since have created several other reality shows, long-form documentaries, features and episodic scripted programming.
But Barbato and Bailey haven’t stopped there. World of Wonder operates a retail store and art gallery on the first floor of its Hollywood Boulevard headquarters n Los Angeles, It now operates DragCon live events in two cities, a subscription VOD channel and a powerhouse YouTube presence.
I sat down with Barbato and Bailey onstage at last week’s VidCon convention in Anaheim, Calif., to talk about how they evolved a traditional independent TV production company to survive and thrive in the Peak TV era of Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max and so much else. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
DB: So you guys have been producing TV the old Hollywood way, in Hollywood, actual, physical Hollywood, for nearly 30 years. But you have branched out in some really interesting ways. Tell everybody the shows you’re doing beyond RuPaul’s Drag Race now in its 10th year. What else are you guys working on?
FB: There’s a Drag Race in Canada that we do. There’s a Drag Race UK, a Drag Race Thailand and more Drag Racing.
RB: Here we do a series called Million Dollar Listings for Bravo, for L.A. and for New York. We do a show called Backyard Envy. It does for gardening what Top Chef does for food.
TVR: All right, kind of a topiary with taste.
RB: We also do feature-length documentaries. The Eyes Of Tammy Faye was one of the first ones we did.
FB: That was very early in time for us. It’s coming back as a movie with Jessica Chastain playing Tammy Faye.
TVR: So who’s playing the makeup?
RB: We haven’t cast that yet. She’s one of the first drag queens we worked with and she didn’t even know it. She wasn’t trying to be natural.
TVR: This was a show that you made as a feature-length documentary 20 years ago that is now coming back as a scripted movie. And that’s the kind of new DNA for you guys. So talk about that.
FB: We believe that a story is a story. You know, people talk about the size of the screen that matters. It’s a story. And a story can be told in multiple different ways And we’ve seen this trend of many documentaries becoming feature films. In fact, many years ago, we turned Party Monster, a documentary about a true-life murder, into a movie that we wrote and directed.
TVR: What is the difference, though, for you creatively, going from a doc or an unscripted reality show, maybe an Internet video show, to a scripted film, or episodic show? Is it a big shift for you creatively?
RB: I’m not sure that it is a big shift for us, because I think everything that we do is all about how best to tell the story, how to have them create the most impact. I’ll give you a really specific example. We just did a short documentary for YouTube, Stonewall Outloud, and we partnered with StoryCorps, which is an organization that collects audio recordings.
TVR: They play the conversations on NPR, built around some theme, and then all the recordings go to the Smithsonian, correct?
RB: They all go to the Smithsonian. They actually recorded the first documentary about the Stonewall (protests against police harassment of gays) over 20 years ago as an audio documentary. And YouTube came to us and said, “How can we bring this to life for a new generation?” And at first, we said, “We can’t,” but then we started thinking about it
TVR: You were stonewalling them?
RB: We were stonewalling them. But then we thought, “Oh my God, we can get young actors and certain media stars to lip-sync this documentary.” So it’s basically all these young actors. In our show Drag Race, the last act has something called Lip Sync for Your Life. And so this documentary is sort of basically one long Lip Sync for Your Life. It’s really powerful to watch these young people truly connect with the voices of the pioneers who were actually at Stonewall in Greenwich Village as it happened. But for us, each story, it’s all about the story. It’s less about what whether we’re doing it in a fictional way or a non-fictional way.
TVR: So I’m guessing with all that lip syncing that you’re thinking that TikTok is your next natural platform?
RB: Well, I’m hearing there’s a lot of Drag Race music on TikTok. I don’t know about what the royalty is. TikTok, we need to talk.
TVR: Yeah, you’re not the only one in the music business saying that. So that’s the music you commission or license for your shows, and have some proprietary interested in how it’s being used.
RB: We do (commission music) when we can can. It’s like everything else at World of Wonder. There’s a lot of people who work at World of Wonder. Many of them are young directors, or not-so-young directors, and there are songwriters. We like to work with creative people and find ways for them to do creative work that they can’t really find around town. It’s hard, whether you’re a documentary filmmaker or a songwriter who hasn’t completely hit.
TVR: There are more opportunities in Pay TV than ever. The economic climate is more complicated over in the reality space. How do you give young creators opportunities? Are you incubating new programs in short videos and social media? How are you taking advantage of that young talent?
FB: Well we have a YouTube channel called WoW Presents with about 1.5 million subscribers. And we also launched an SVOD channel called WoW Presents Plus. It’s $3.99 a month,, less than the price of a latte but offers so much more.
TVR: If only we had a blinking neon sign showing that message to the crowd. So you got into subscription VOD. But you’re not the next Netflix. Don’t you have to generate a fair amount of content to provide value to subscribers? How do you maintain that velocity of content creation?
FB: Netflix is the elephant in the room, or the giant, or however you want to call them. But it doesn’t have to be about them. Audiences want to find something that’s original, and authentic, and speaks to them. And so it doesn’t necessarily have to be about bigness. Netflix wanted to rule the world. Okay, go ahead. But we see ourselves more as a family of creators, whether you subscribe, or whether you create, we don’t really draw that distinction. It’s really just one large family and this experience. We have offices on Hollywood Boulevard, opposite Musso & Frank (Grill), and we have a ground-floor gallery and retail space. And our goal is to really create an extended sense of family.
TVR: So you’re across the street from the best martini in Los Angeles, where William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlie Chaplin and lots of other famous names used to drink and occasionally eat. But tell me how much programming do you need for a successful small, targeted SVOD service. How much do you need to create to keep the audience happy, and your churn down.
FB: It’s not as much as you might think. We have been surprised by the success and enthusiasm for WoW Presents Plus, to the extent that we’re able to make original content specifically for it. A recent series we did, Werq the World, is behind the scenes of the official Drag Race tour, and we follow the 12 Queens to 10 countries, and it’s doing really well.
RB: It’s long-form content, a long-form documentary series, which probably we could have sold to another streamer, because that show Drag Race is a huge global hit. But for us, part of continuing to produce our own content is partially about having complete creative freedom.We might not have the same budget size, but what we don’t have in budget, we make up with enthusiasm and creative freedom.
TVR: There’s so much competition for VOD audiences. Can you talk about how many subscribers you have, or any other metrics, to give people an idea of how you’re doing?
FB: Not really. But what what I can tell you is that it is profitable. We don’t have outside investors, So we are able to sustain, and we are able to increase the amount of original content we’re making. WoW Presents, for us, is essentially the home for all things Drag Race in the first instance, because Drag Race Canada will be on it, Drag Race UK will be on it, Drag Race US is on it, and Drag Race Thailand, and it’s available worldwide.
RB: I look at it like an engine. In the third quarter this year, we’ll be announcing probably two or three long-form series for WoW Presents Plus. So it’s got enough subs and enough traffic for us to be able not only to be profitable, but for us to be able to produce pretty good content for it.
FB: So this is what’s so exciting to us about this opportunity. Not knocking Netflix, they’re amazing. But for them, it’s always about the algorithm, and what the algorithm says works. It doesn’t seem to really take into account people as individuals with passion. They all get managed into an algorithm. And I just think if you’re a person, that could be an unsatisfying experience. What I love about what we’re able to do, with complete creative freedom, and working as we have worked with networks over the years, it’s very rare to just do what you think is the right thing to do, what you think is exciting. We understand the cable networks have notes and they have advertisers and they have all sorts of demographic information that requires you to sometimes bland-ify what you’re making.
RB: And World of Wonder, we’ve always been built on this idea that today’s fringe is tomorrow’s mainstream. We always identify with the outsider, we we believe that we are actually all outsiders. That’s the idea that drives the company, the people who work there, and the content that comes out of World of Wonder. The new media landscape is great, because it creates a lot of opportunity for independent people, but for independent production companies, it’s a challenging environment to survive. We continue to be driven by this idea and passion. So we’ve gone into new businesses. DragCon is really successful in L.A. and in New York. We never had any con(vention) experience, but we just felt like there was an opportunity that the people who share our beliefs might want to come together. And they did.
TVR: So talk about the economics of live conventions. Who shows up and why did you want to do a live event? What’s the win for your audience and your own company?
FB: It’s funny. Drag Race has been on for 10 years, so it has been a sleeper (hit) in many respects. It began on Logo. And over time, we began to wonder who is the audience? People who watch Drag Raceare very passionate and engaged with it. They don’t look like an 18-to-34 demographic. It is multi generational, it is incredibly diverse. You see so many families with kids. Kids are often bringing their parents. It’s just as it is with VidCon. We spend so much time looking at screens that many embrace the opportunity to actually physically meet people and interact. I’m sure that’s the appeal of both VidCon and DragCon.
RB: The demographic was really surprising. It’s much more fluid than we ever expected. It’s a 50-50 female-male. I think there’s a perception that it would be just… everybody would be wearing high heels. There’s never enough high heels for me, but it’s not that. It’s just people who identify with being an outsider.
TVR: Your retail operation is a long way from any independent producer that I know of. What made you create a physical retail space?
FB: There’s a little bit of a story. When we moved into the building, we were renting the the retail space to (adult toy store chain) A Touch of Romance. And short story long, they moved out. And, as of last year, we had the added bonus of RuPaul’s star on Hollywood Boulevard is right outside. People are always taking pictures. So we thought we should do this, because we have a merchandise store at DragCon and we saw one of the popular things is the “Shade” button, like Staples has those big red (“Easy”) buttons.
RB: And then it always sells out. We cannot stock it. It’s a fantastic seller. It seemed like a natural evolution to be doing merchandise. And also we regularly have our shows there with the gallery. There’s so many artists and artist relationships at World of Wonder, it all so much of what we do. Weirdly, it’s kind of organic. We’re always looking to see the next step.
TVR: We’re in the middle of the retail Apocalypse, as they say in the Wall Street Journal. How is the store doing?
FB: It’s doing great.Our goal is to create a space for people to come to. Hollywood Boulevard is a destination, (but) many times you hear them say how disappointing it is when they show up on Hollywood Boulevard. We really want to increase the experiences with people and have more of them. So it’s a great place for people to come because again, in an increasingly virtual space, what is unique is the opportunity to have a physical experience.
TVR: Are you all looking at new platforms or opportunities like video games? A RuPaul video game makes my head spin but what about augmented-reality opportunities?
RB: Our reality is always augmented. And definitely that is one area that we are talking to other gamers. There is something actually in development right now. It’s definitely a new world for us.
FB: It’s really all about telling stories. And I think you can tell a story in an infinite number of ways. Randy and I come from an unscripted background. And it used to be that documentaries are this sort of dire medium that no one really wanted to watch. But I think technology has advanced so much that you can tell a factual story in so many ways. What we love about stories, and especially factual stories, is the truth really is stranger than fiction. Sometimes they just can’t make this stuff up.
RB: We’re still old school as well. I think we have four or five feature-length documentaries in production right now that we are financing ourselves. They have amazing directors who are directing really special stories.