Michael Ratner started off with his dad’s VHS camera and now runs a company that produces content for some of the biggest stars on the planet. Here’s how.
7 min read
Some entrepreneurs make their mark inventing new apps.
Other do it by dunking celebrities into bathtubs filled with ice.
That’s the route content producer Michael D. Ratner took, and it is more than paying off. His new video series, Cold as Balls, created for Kevin Hart’s Laugh Out Loud digital comedy network, has more than 20 million views on YouTube just four episodes into its 12-episode run, and the audience show no signs of any, well, shrinkage.
Cold as Balls is just one of the productions Ratner’s company OBB Pictures has produced since forming in 2014. Under his leadership as president and CEO, OBB has created original scripted and unscripted content for the likes of Netflix, MTV, ESPN and Vice.
We spoke with Ratner about how to get started and how to thrive in the ever-changing content game.
Believe in clichés.
“I was always interested in creating. I know it sounds cliché but as far back as I can remember that’s what I wanted to do, so I taught myself everything from using iMovie to how to use my father’s VHS camera. I think a lot of people say they want to do something in entertainment when they are young, and that dream kind of fizzles out. It’s just a fad for a bit. But for me, that bug never went away.”
Learn as much as humanly possible.
“I went to the best liberal arts school I could get into, which was the University of Pennsylvania. In the summers I interned at production companies. I studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute not because I wanted to be an actor, but because I wanted to immerse myself in that world. I eventually went to NYU grad school to study film, where I really learned how to create great content, and where I met a lot of the people I work with today.”
Know when to work for someone.
“Between my second and third year of grad school, I got an opportunity to work at Relativity Media, to create content for their athlete clients. Things went well and they offered me a job, but I just didn’t feel like I’d be able to really continue my entrepreneurial aspirations — I wanted to have my own company and was worried about getting sucked into a larger conglomerate. So I passed. I went back to school and they came back to me with another offer. I said the only way I would do that is if I got a first-look deal. Now, that is an insane thing to request at age 25 — especially since I didn’t even know what it meant! I just heard some other guy had it, so I figured I should, too. They agreed, so I signed on. I thought that having their backing would help open doors and give me some kind of edge over all of the other content creators out there. And it worked.”
And when to go your own way.
“The real pivotal moment in my career and my entrepreneurial pursuits came when Relativity got into bankruptcy issues. I quickly realized that the value that Relativity brought me was quickly dissipating and becoming a roadblock more than a help. So I exercised my option to opt out of my deal and decided to finally build my own company with my brother.”
Don’t worry that you aren’t ready.
“I remember the moment when I formalized my dream of starting a company. It was the middle of the night and I wrote an email to my brother saying, ‘The time is now. I want to start a company so badly I can’t sleep. I just know that we should be doing this!’ And honestly, the time wasn’t quite right and it was undoubtedly premature, but we did it anyway. I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to be going to reach my potential if we didn’t go for it. I think what really helped get things off the ground was that I recognized that I didn’t know everything. I’ve always been willing to ask a million questions and I surround myself with really good advisers. There’s no shame in any of that.”
Fake it. And learn how to type fast.
“When we were starting out, I’d be on these calls negotiating things while not knowing what everything being discussed meant. I’d be on speakerphone and Googling things and figuring it out in real time. But I thrive when I feel behind the ball a bit. I’m most comfortable when I’m a little uncomfortable.”
Build on your wins.
“There’s a domino effect when you land a big name. One of my first big pieces was directing a 30 for 30 short for ESPN called Gonzo @ The Derby, about Hunter S. Thompson and the Kentucky Derby. It featured Sean Penn, Ralph Steadman — huge names! Something like that goes well and you parlay it into the next one and the next one. But whether I end up in a room with Kevin Hart or some huge sports star, I don’t treat it differently. You’re there to get the best performance out of them and they are there to do great work.”
Check in with yourself and your team.
“My team has a quarterly meeting where we sit down and talk about what are we doing and what do we dream of doing. It’s very casual and is all about keeping us on track to meet our big goals, course correcting to make sure we’re heading in the right direction. I do the same for myself. I have an hour on my calendar every Friday called ‘Time to Think.’ I just go for a walk and let my mind go and be creative. It is really easy to stop being creative when you are a manager.”
“I always remind myself that this business is built on relationships. So I’m always sure that I have scheduled myself to meet up with people in the business for drinks and dinners. You have to force yourself to be in uncomfortable positions where maybe you don’t totally want to be there, maybe you’d rather get a couple more hours of sleep, but you never know what will come of talking to people. Sometimes it is a total bust, but sometimes I’ll trace back a big project we’re finishing and realize that it all started because I happened to be at a dinner with so-and-so person who made a connection. You can get lucky just by showing up.”