This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Brian Volk-Weiss, founder/CEO of The Nacelle Company, and Comedy Dynamics.
Queens-born, Burbank, California-based Brian Volk-Weiss works in a giant play box, and he owns all of the toys.
In fact, an enormous toy collection (more about this in a second), along with a massive library of TV/film productions, and comedy recordings.
Since 2017, Volk-Weiss has overseen all aspects of the Nacelle Company, the production house that he has built from the ground up into a full-service media powerhouse with TV/film productions; a comedy record label; podcasting, publishing, management, books, and toy departments; and its own proprietary distribution system.
Through years of producing, directing, writing, scouting locations, negotiating distribution for specials, and working with a wide range of established and emerging comedians, Volk-Weiss has placed programming with such transactional platforms as iTunes, Amazon, Google, PlayStation, and Xbox; with such major telco and satellite providers as AT&T, Comcast, Charter, Dish, and Verizon; and with Netflix,, Disney+, HBO, Discovery, BET+, A&E Networks, Hulu, Animal Planet, MTV2, Viacom, and History channels.
Among the leading comedians Volk-Weiss has worked with are: Dave Chappelle, Kevin Hart, Louis C.K., Patton Oswalt, Bill Burr, Katt Williams, Dennis Miller, Whitney Cummings, Ali Wong, Tiffany Haddish, Aziz Ansari, Jim Gaffigan, Pete Davidson, Louie Anderson, Tom Arnold, Rita Rudner, Darrell Hammond, Paul Rodriguez, Michael Winslow, Jimmie Walker, and many many more.
Volk-Weiss has created, directed, and produced such hits as “Down To Earth with Zac Efron,” The Toys That Made Us,” “The Movies That Made Us,” “Kevin Hart’s Guide To Black History,” “Behind The Attraction,” “A Toy Store Near You,” Discontinued,” “All The Way Black, “Center Seat: 55 Years of Star Trek,” “Animal Nation with Anthony Anderson,” “There’s… Johnny!,” “Join Or Die with Craig Ferguson,” “Coming To The Stage,” “Mad About You” and much more.
Comedy Dynamics is also releasing independent original films, both online and in theatres, including “Slut in a Good Way” (2018), “Lost Holiday” (2019), and “Blunderpuss” (2021).
Launched in 2017, Comedy Dynamics Records, now unquestionably the world’s largest comedy recording label with over 1,000 titles, has produced and distributed comedy masterworks by Lavell Crawford, Iliza Shlesinger, Ali Wong, Tom Segura, Tiffany Haddish, and Larry The Cable Guy.
In 2016, Comedy Dynamics acquired the Ken Weinstock Catalog, including shows with Dave Chappelle, Adam Sandler, Denis Leary, Tim Allen, and Chris Rock as well as the show “Full Frontal Comedy.” It also acquired exclusive rights to the Sam Kinison video and recording catalogs.
Volk-Weiss is a father of three, a renowned “Star Wars obsessive, an avid Sun Records collector, and owner of a 65-pound East African land tortoise.
You remember Netflix’s 8 part series “The Toys That Made Us” in 2017 which focused on the history of notable toy lines including: “Star Wars,” “Hello Kitty,” “Star Trek,” “Power Rangers,” “My Little Pony,” “He-Man,” Barbie, G.I. Joe, LEGO, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and professional wrestling?
That’s Volk-Weiss’s toy collection—3,000 vintage collectibles in all.
The Grammy Awards are upon us this Sunday, April 3rd. Are you excited?
Oh my God, yes. It is one of my favorite days of the year.
Some 132 comedy albums were considered this year.
I think that it is a record.
Who do you have nominated in the comedy category alongside Lewis Black, Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Nate Bargatze, and Chelsea Handler?
Lavell Crawford for “The Comedy Vaccine.”
(Lavell Crawford, one of comedy’s fastest rising stars, first gained national exposure on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing.” He has since appeared on AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” Comedy Central’s “Workaholics,” and Showtime’s “Shaquille O’Neal Presents: All-Star Comedy Jam.”
Louis C.K. won the 2022 Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album for “Sincerely Louis C.K.” his 2020 special).
Like many I was taken aback that Bo Burnham’s album “Inside (The Songs)” was excluded from the comedy nominations. It has topped the Billboard comedy chart for an astonishing 39 weeks.
I was shocked about that.
(Republic Records released “Inside (The Songs)” on its Imperial imprint. In addition to Best Compilation Soundtrack For Visual Media, the album is nominated for Album Of The Year. The song “All Eyes on Me” is nominated for Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year, Best Pop Solo Performance, and Best Song Written For Visual Media. “Inside” is in the running in the Best Music Film category.)
What are the good and bad parts of the Grammy ceremonies for you? Comedy is never featured as part of the televised show.
No, they aren’t. I guess that I am just used to it. It has never bothered me. The only bad thing that I would say about the Grammys is that, while I’m a very impatient person, so a normal person may not have a problem with this, but our category historically is 75% to 80% through the program. We usually have to sit there for two or three hours waiting to see if we won or not. I am not too crazy about that. But, other than that, and there’s no way around it, so I’m not criticizing the Grammys. It is what it is. If I was running the Grammys, I would have no choice but to do the exact same thing. But yeah, if I had to say if there was one thing that kind of bums me out, that would be it.
I can imagine your impatience when Comedy Dynamics Records had all 5 nominations in the Comedy Album category at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards in 2019. Dave Chappelle won for “Equanimity & The Bird Revelation.”
Yeah, that was a good year, and based on what we’ve been told by the Grammys, it was absolutely unprecedented. It had never happened before nor since in the history of the Grammys in any category.
(Dave Chappelle won out over fellow giants, Chris Rock (“Tambourine”) Patton Oswalt (“Annihilation”) Fred Armisen (“Standup for Drummers”) and Jim Gaffigan (“Noble Ape”).
The ’60s and the ‘80s are regarded as Golden Ages of stand-up comedy, but right now may be another Golden Age. Even with the various challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, comedians have attained an elevated place in American culture.
The current wave kicked off through the proliferation of new subscription streaming services, and greater access to television, and social media, coupled with an abundance of recordings and the growth of various comedy clubs.
Yeah, to your point, I call this era which I think started around 2015, I call this the Diamond Age Of Comedy for those reasons. And I can point to many things that I think clearly makes it more of a crazy comedy era than the ’60s or the ‘80s. But I do agree with you.
What better time for comedy than now with what is going on in the world.
I completely agree.
Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias has made history at Dodger Stadium in the Elysian Park neighborhood of Los Angeles as he has become the first comedian to headline a fully sold-out show at the venue. The stadium, one of the largest in the country with a capacity of 56,000 people, has fully sold out ahead of his scheduled May 7th performance. With his sell-out, he joins the ranks of a small group who have filled the stadium to capacity, including Elvis Presley, Elton John, Madonna, the Police, Luke Bryan, and Pope John Paul II.
The show will be recorded and presented as his third comedy special which is due on Netflix later this year.
Obviously, his stadium sell-out is a sign of comedy’s strength in the marketplace.
This is part of the “Netflix is a Joke” comedy festival, the giant live stand-up series that shows that not only is the stand-up biz not flatlining but exponentially ramping up, as it has been doing for the past 8 years. When my career started, it was only two stand-ups ever in history who had sold out MSG (Madison Square Garden in New York City). Now it is almost happens once or twice a month. And now it’s stadiums too.
You have your hand in everything from films to TV shows to albums to podcasts, a label, and management. In essence, you’ve got your childhood wish. You’ve got your own studio.
Yeah, that was my goal when I got out to L.A. about 27 years ago. We are a tiny studio. We are very small. We are obviously a private company, but if you look at the legal definition of what a studio is—which, to be honest, I don’t know what the legal definition is–to me, a studio is an organization that has a library, and that library throws off enough money to keep investing in, and increasing the size of the library.
So we self-finance. We self-produce. We self-distribute. We do that in audio and video. We launched basically last year, but it kind of started in 2020 with a fair amount of new departments that allow us to support the original departments. In addition to making stand-up specials, documentaries, and scripted shows, we launched a book division and a podcast division. Our most recent thing is that we have launched a toy division, where we started producing toys based on IPs (intellectual properties) that we have been buying. The idea, and the hope, is that all of these things combined will give us a lot of freedom to pursue projects that we are excited about, but that they also support each other. That really is where the company is at right now, and what we are trying to accomplish.
How much staff do you have?
Between full-time and part-time, it is well over 100 people.
Working from the Burbank office?
Before COVID, yes. Now, it’s all over the country.
How did COVID affect the company?
COVID helped our distribution business, but it hurt our production business. We had been making 20 to 30 specials a year since about 2005. In 2020, we only made four specials. Let that sink in. Last year, we did 14. This year, I think we will be over 20 again. Yeah, it definitely slowed down.
Are you still working with the Tribeca Film Festival?
Yes, we have 10 more specials coming out with them this year.
Last year, you made several pivotal deals. One of the most important was with Comedy Central to license and distribute albums, including Kevin Hart, Amy Schumer , and Bo Burnham through Comedy Central Records, the New York label, owned by parent ViacomCBS, that specializes in stand-up comedy albums.
Among Comedy Central Records’ 200 album catalog are album classics by Kevin Hart, Bo Burnham, Joe Rogan, Amy Schumer, David Spade, Jim Gaffigan, Mitch Hedberg, Norm Macdonald, Aziz Ansari, Dave Attell, John Mulaney, Natasha Leggero, Jo Koy, Marc Maron, Maria Bamford, and Whitney Cummings
A key deal, and quite the exchange.
Yeah, I have long believed that the two best audio libraries for stand-up are ours and Comedy Central. So when I heard that there might be an opportunity to work with Comedy Central’s library, I looked at it because my belief was that if we were operating both libraries, that between their library and our library, we kind of have almost everybody for at least one album. So it just made a lot of sense, and to say that we are excited about it, would be quite the understatement.
Another important deal made last year was with Dry Bar Comedy which brought a considerably different comedy world under your roof.
Yes, we are very proud of our deal with Dry Bar Comedy. One of the things about the Dry Bar catalog which is interesting is that for a variety of reasons clean comedy is what a lot of people are looking for now, but there are not a lot of people who do clean comedy. The fact that Dry Bar is producing such volume, and such high-quality clean comedy that was massive. We are very proud to work with them.
(Founded in 2016 by Neal and Jeffrey Harmon, Dry Bar Comedy networks focus on clean, family-friendly comedy. The company has a library of over 300 clean stand-up specials.)
A lot of comedy on terrestrial radio is clean comedy. It’s jarring hearing words bleeped out. I grew up in the 1960s with mostly clean non-profanity comedy, except for volatile social satirists Lenny Bruce, Red Foxx, Moms Mabley, and Rusty Warren who were racy for the time. I can recall Bill Cosby chastising Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy on their use of profanity, and I’d think, “Oh, shut up, Bill.” But I understood the popularity of clean mainstream comics like Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters, and Shelley Berman. With streaming, there are places that will let some profanity go, but there are certain networks that are uneasy with it.
When you make a TV show or a film, you work hard to get a sale, and there are so many different outlets available for comedy today. So many different places to sell to now.
Yeah, you are absolutely right. Every quarter we are finding at least one new place to put our content. I don’t think that we have ever had a quarter where we only found one new place to put our content. I think that every 90 days we are finding at least two or three new places to put our library. It is good for the comedians because these specials act as commercials for their touring, and it is good for us because it allows another way to monetize our investment, and make a profit for us, and the comedian.
Do you reach many international markets?
We are pretty much in every international market. If there is a list of things that I want the company to grow more, it is that I want to increase our foreign business. And it is going up. We have never had a down year with our international business, but I do wish it would go up a little faster.
Spotify deleted a swathe of comedy albums from its service over the Thanksgiving weekend, including comedy albums by stand-ups ranging from Kevin Hart to Tiffany Haddish, Jim Segura, and Robin Williams
It is likely that Spotify knows that it doesn’t have all the rights in place to serve all comedy content. Spotify has the licenses for the master recordings, but possibly not the “lyrical content” performed which may be the equivalent of music publishing rights. However, comedy routines are not currently covered by the Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC) in the U.S. which ensures that Spotify clears rights to every track on its platform.
What we don’t know is a comedic routine the equivalent of a lyric?
I don’t know either. All I can tell you is that it is an incredibly complicated topic. All I can tell you is that I have been doing this for over 20 years and I never heard of this issue until about 18 months ago. I hear different things from different people. I could be talking to two comedians within 20 minutes of each other, and one comedian is like, “I feel that I have been ripped off,” and then the other comedian will say, “What do I care about a billionth of a penny on top of a penny? I need Spotify to act like a commercial to help my stand-up business grow when I am touring.“ I’ve had the same response from lawyers; where a lawyer at 3’clock will have an opinion, and a lawyer at 4’oclock will have a completely different opinion.
So how do you handle this?
I am watching this situation. It’s a very important topic for both sides. If you look at the history of the music business, it will get worked out. I don’t know if it’s going to get worked out in 6 weeks, 6 months, or it could take years. I certainly hope that it gets worked out quickly.
In a lot of these cases, they are works for hire. So it’s not clear who the rights holder is.
Most TV and film is work for hire as is working for Disney.
It is for us at least.
A work-for-hire—or “work made for hire”—agreement essentially states that a person or company who commissions a work from an author (composer) retains actual ownership and is, in fact, considered the legal author of the work. So a producer of comedy, or comedians themselves, likely won’t be able to reclaim rights to their works after 35 years. The copyright holders (the networks and production companies) will say, “No. It was work-for-hire. It was not subject to reclamation options.”
Right, Sonny Bono at his best.
(On October 27, 1998, President Clinton signed into law the “Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act,” which extends the terms of almost all existing copyrights by 20 years, in order to provide copyrights in the United States the same protection they are afforded in Europe. The basic term of copyright protection, the life of the creator plus 50 years, was increased to life plus 70 years). The reasoning behind the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act was to preserve an incentive for creators to create by guaranteeing that they would be able to enjoy the fruits of their own labor for a set period.)
These new streaming and social media outlets have largely taken the place of commercial radio which is still broadcasting comedy, but the emergence of these new cross-media outlets is like a vast tribal broadcasting network. A rising comic, say on Comedy Central, becomes a celebrity shortly afterward.
Oh absolutely. We have done specials with a lot of people that were not famous when we shot them. A month or two after the special premiered they could sell from 2,000 to 4,000 tickets. These were are people that couldn’t sell 50 tickets when we shot their special. We have been very blessed. We did Ali Wong’s first special, and Tom Segura’s first special. I could go on and on.
I’ve gone down your list of productions, and it’s mind-blowing.
Yeah. We have been very lucky, and it’s a great business. It’s a lot of fun. I try to point out to people that a lot of the work we do, it is really our hobbies that we turned into a business. I love stand-up comedy. We make stand-up comedy. I love documentaries. We make documentaries. I am a huge reader of books. We make books. I am a huge toy collector, so now we make toys. People are like, “You must have a brilliant master (business) strategy,” or some crap like that. No, I don’t. I don’t have any strategy. I start a business, if it works, we then take the profit from that business, and we start another business based on stuff that we are excited about.
It really is that simple.
Over the years you have worked with nearly 400 comics. Comedy isn’t all that different from other entertainment sectors In that as a producer you have to learn to absolutely trust the talent. As does a savvy manager. To a large extent comedians know what they are doing, know what works for them, and know what audiences work for them.
Yeah, I thank God every day that I was a manager, even though it was not a fun job, to put it mildly. But it taught me exactly what you just said, and I feel that there are very few people in my position that have that knowledge. My job is to implement the will of the comedian. It is not to write the jokes.
I will be completely honest with you, and this is always weird thing for someone like me to say, but I am actually very proud of it. If a comedian says to me, “Brian I really want your notes.” I’ll do it. But, first of all, I think that has happened twice over 200 specials.
My job is to very carefully pick who we get into business with. But once we make that decision, that’s the end of it. I need to get out of the way of their creative process and to support their vision. I just have to pray to God that my instincts are right about who we bet on. My job is not to—at least where I do my job–my job is not to give them notes. That’s not my job. If that is my job, then I am very bad at my other job which is picking the comedians that we work with.
Sometimes I am selling, and sometimes I am buying, and one of the things that I try to be very mindful about is that when I am the buyer I be very respectful of the seller. That if I do want to do a deal, that I don’t want to do a deal with a filmmaker and have to take away the project. I don’t want to do a deal with a filmmaker where I have to watch 25 cuts. I do deals with artists that we want to support, and bring about their vision. I learned that from back in the day. We would sell a show that we created ,and then the network after they bought it after they had committed millions of dollars to making it, would start changing the show because new market research came in. So we don’t do that. We trust our instincts that we are picking the right people to work with, and we hope that it works out. I would say that 85% of the time that it does.
In picking comedians to work with I imagine it can be as easy as hearing or seeing them and thinking “Oh, they are funny.”
Or knowing that the comedian has built up a sizeable fan base through performing in clubs or through social media.
You also may pick based on meeting them, and being impressed enough that you say to yourself, “I really want to work with this person.”
Like with Dennis Miller. You two met, and spent the day driving around to different meetings, which you have since described as, “Greatest day in my entire life.” The next day, you were with Kevin Hart of which you then said, “It’s the best. Who gets to do that?”
So it can be as simple as “I want to work with that comedian” or having market knowledge about them because you and your staff talk to the market each day. You have been quoted as saying, “It doesn’t matter what I think, it only matters what I can sell.”
About 98% of the comedians that we work with came through referrals. We have a very tight network of agents, managers, comedy club owners, and people like that. That’s really how we do it. I will be very honest with you. There are comedians that we have done sessions with that I’m not jumping up and down and paying money to see. But again, it is not about me. It is about the audience, and it’s about the comedians. And that’s my job. My job is to pick comedians to work with that I think the most amount of humans will enjoy.
I heard a great quote that I always think of when (filmmaker, producer, and actor). Sam Raimi was making the first “Spider-Man” movie. “He said, I am making ‘Spider-Man,” I am not making “Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.” And that is how I feel about myself. My job is to help make people laugh and to bring in enough money to my company to keep the doors open. That’s my job. My job is not to judge what makes people laugh. Or (question) why people laugh. That’s not my job. My job is after people have had a crappy day, and they want to have a laugh, I help them do that, hopefully.
The company also does management, but not of comedians.
We have not managed talent for a long time. We only manage writers, directors, and showrunners.
The deals you make are mostly single type deals. You aren’t making multi-program deals?
We have never ever made a multi-deal. I don’t believe in them, and it goes back to my management days. I want a comedian to want to work with us. I don’t want them working with us because we have a contract. Because they have to. When I was a manager, I can’t tell you how many clients were in deals like that, and the third time that they worked together, it was a disaster, and then they had to do it again two or three more times.
The Golden Age of Hollywood, between the ’20s and ’60s, was when the studio system ruled; when the Big Five studios controlled the film industry and locked in actors and actresses in contracts for usually 7 years. Often after three years, the actors and actresses were deeply unhappy with being forced to do mediocre in-house films, and with their studio’s refusal to loan them out to other studios for promising films that would have boosted their careers.
I understand why they did it, but it’s just not for me. A lot of what we’ve done as a company is a reaction to what I didn’t like when I was managing comedians. When I was dealing with the buyers. Including (being sent) notes. We would get notes all of the time. I would have a client that could sell 10,000 tickets in a C market– I’m not talking about selling 10,00 tickets in New York–I am talking about selling 10,000 tickets in Tulsa. Then you would get these network notes saying, “Less dog jokes, more banana peel jokes.” I was like, “My client has been touring this act for 18 months. You don’t think he knows, with staggering precision, what works?”
Networks are renowned for indecision, and second-guessing themselves. While NBC executives were unsure about “Seinfeld Chronicles,” they decided to try a pilot. The test audience, however, reacted extremely negatively to the pilot. While NBC still broadcast the episode, the network decided not to pick up the show. However, several NBC executives, including VP Rick Ludwin, felt the series had potential, and NBC’s entertainment division ordered four more episodes of “The Seinfeld Chronicles,” which formed the rest of the show’s first season. Castle Rock Entertainment, failing to find any other buyers when it tried to sell the show to other networks, accepted the order. The show was renamed “Seinfeld.”
Well, luckily for us, there is an abundance of streamers like Netflix, Amazon, and Disney+, in particular, which are about 80% of our business. We get very nominal notes from them. Those companies practice what I preach which is they are very picky about who they get into business with. But once they make a decision, they respect it. If you do a good job, you get another season. If you don’t do a good job, or if you have bad luck, then you don’t get another season. I would say in the past five years, we definitely exponentially got fewer notes than what we used to receive. They really trust us now.
At the same time with your track record, you are in the driver’s seat now. If you have issues with one programmer, you can take the special elsewhere. Fifteen years ago, they would not have let you get in the driver’s seat.
That is very true.
We mustn’t forget that it took 7 years to get the Netflix series, “The Toys That Made Us” made.
In December 2017, the first four episodes premiered on Netflix. A second season of four episodes arrived in May, 2018. And In November 2019, Netflix released a spin-off series, “The Movies That Made Us,” focusing on the development of classic films, that is now in its third season.
(“The Toys That Made Us” focused on the history of notable toy lines including: “Star Wars,” “Hello Kitty,” “Star Trek,” “Power Rangers,” “My Little Pony,” “He-Man,” Barbie, G.I. Joe, LEGO, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and professional wrestling.)
Wasn’t there a point where a network had a four-year hold on “The Toys That Made Us?”
No. Nobody had a hold on the show.
Nobody wanted it?
Nobody wanted it. It was that simple. We came very close twice. Then luckily Netflix became Netflix (launching on August 29th, 1997). Yeah, nobody wanted it. Everybody thought I was crazy. That nobody would want to see a show about toys, and now we have two shows about toys on the air.
It’s interesting that with “Toys That Made Us,” that fans spread the word. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson posted a picture of himself watching the show. Two days later, someone from his company called you which led to the two of you working together on the series “Behind the Attraction” which was generated by Disney+.
His post changed my life. It was tremendous.
I love the story you tell of working with somebody who would fight for every penny. If he wanted $100,000 for something and got offered $100,000, he would ask for $200,000. He was never happy with whatever he had. You talked of being on a conference call with him and a network president trying to get a deal closed. The network president said, ‘You know what? I’m going to give you what you’re asking for. That’s the good news. The bad news? Lose My phone number.”
Just to be clear, that was not said to me. I heard that.
The lesson you likely learned was that it’s sometimes better to leave money on the table, and have a good relationship than to haggle over every possibly available penny. People screwed, or feeling they are being screwed but have to go along with the deal, resent it. Better to leave money on the table?
Well, yes. The key thing that I have found with dealmaking is that you really want the person signing the contract next to your signature, you really want them to be happy. I never view it as leaving money on the table. I view it as an investment. The stuff that you really don’t know about but is important. What I mean by that is that if I am negotiating a deal for a TV show, and they only want to spend a million bucks, and I have other offers, and I torture the lawyers to get $1.1 (million), well maybe, if they are happy with the deal at a million, they will spend a quarter million on marketing which means we will make more money. But if I grind them down, and I get the $1.1 (million) then they could be so angry about it, or we could have hurt the budget that, maybe, they will only spend $75,000 on marketing. That is one example of millions that I could give you about why you have to have a good relationship, especially when everybody is signing the contract.
The only comedy strategy, say in the ‘80s, was for stand-up comics to perform on TV, and play the comedy club circuit. During that decade there was a comedy boom, clubs sprouted across the country, and acts like Jim Carrey, the late Sam Kinison, Roseanne, Dennis Miller, Sandra Bernhard, and Jerry Seinfeld soared.
By the ‘90s, if you were an unknown comic, it was a tough road. Successful comedy became about thin profits and good timing. Comedy wasn’t dying but poorly managed clubs with second-tier comedians were. Nevertheless, other than “SCTV,” “In Living Color,” “Saturday Night Live” and cable and nighttime TV, comedy was restricted to live venues with $15 covers. Few comedians or managers or agents were thinking of interacting with emerging new streaming platforms.
Sure. Very luckily I read a book in 2006 called “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More” (by Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine). That book predicted everything that would happen. The reason that I mentioned that the year was 2006 is because it was before the iPhone, and certainly before anyone had heard the word streaming. We basically bet the entire company that book was right, and very luckily for us the book was right. But that book predicted everything. It was highly, highly accurate to this day by the way.
Many music industry executives read that book and concluded that their industry would get past piracy, and illegal downloading, and that it would be okay.
It’s now more than okay.
In the ‘80s, you were a C-student living in Queens obsessed with “Star Wars” but apparently unaware the story was a work of fiction. When your mother gave you a book about the making of the film, you saw that the planet-sized Death Star was actually a five-feet-wide model.
Yep. I’m looking at the book now.
While in high school, you were making Super 8 sci-fi films.
I have very fond memories of doing that.
Meanwhile, coming from a family of dentists and lawyers, your mother would be yelling, “What’s wrong with you?”
It definitely took awhile.
You are a product of many different worlds. You are a Jew from Queens. Who has worked in Hollywood for 27 years. Not all so different from a lot of people working in film and TV. But you are also a product of the University of Iowa where you earned a B.A. in communication studies. There you were trained by experimental filmmakers, including two influential teaching assistants, Johanna Hibbard, and Meg Jamieson, who didn’t judge you for wanting to make big action films.
Yeah, without a doubt. I have a lot of very different influences on my life that hopefully have made me better as a person and at my job. I learned so much from them.
Knowing you would eventually land in Los Angeles, you had decided on college in the Midwest. While “Star Wars” might have led you to filmmaking, it was “Star Trek” which brought you to Iowa for four years.
I wanted to see where Captain James T. Kirk (captain of the Starship Enterprise) would be from (to be born in nearby Riverside, Iowa on March 22, 2228). So my dad and I came to Iowa City for a campus visit. When I left the hotel and walked out onto the Ped Mall, it was like reincarnation. I felt so at peace. I had never felt so at home.
If you had attended a film school in New York City or Los Angeles with teachers who had deep TV or film resumes, your career path would most certainly have been different. The University of Iowa is renowned for its independent spirit.
It was crazy, but I went there, and I had a blast. I was kind of bored with New York. I knew that I would live in California for most of my life. I just wanted a different experience. That was my theory and, in retrospect, it was more valuable than I even thought it would be. I have so many friends all over the Midwest, and thanks to my wife who is from Atlanta, I have a lot of friends from the South. I absolutely think it makes me better at my job. A lot of people in our business are from New York or they are from L.A. and they kind of spend most of their lives in those two cities.
Part of the reason people seem to like our shows is that we are really making them for the whole world, and not just a sliver of two coasts. Whenever I am in the editing bay, I am always thinking of not just my friends in New York, but also my friends in Minneapolis, and my friends in Texas.
Spending all that time in Iowa, you got to go to rodeos and to local farms?
I did. I did and I loved it. I absolutely loved it. I had a lot of friends with parents who were farmers, and I went home with them on weekends. Pretty often, especially for my first two years. I loved it. I hope to own a farm one day. I think that it is a very peaceful, honest way of life.
Two years ago I took a Palestinian friend and his wife to their first country music show, Florida Georgia Line at Planet Hollywood Las Vegas Zappos Theater. The crowd was largely Midwesterners, and my friends so loved the band and the experience.
Yeah, I went line-dancing while in college. All of that kind of stuff. Obviously, we didn’t have any of that in New York City. So I really enjoyed it. My wife is a huge country music fan. So I also went to my first country concert while in college, Toby Keith in L.A. Something that I never thought that I would say in my life. Country is like any other genre. There are great songs, and there are sad songs and everything in the middle.
Three days following graduation, you resurfaced in Los Angeles where you endured countless waiting and P.A. positions including working in the wardrobe department for the 2000 American survival film “Cast Away” film, starring Tom Hanks.
So you are familiar with the bottom job rungs of Hollywood, with its humiliations, and lousy pay, Where all you need to climb upward are street smarts, and the ability to deal with any situation on your feet.
It’s the first rung. yeah. It is the lowest rung. My only regret of that time of my life is that I only did it for a year. I enjoyed almost every single day that I did it. I miss it. I wish I had done it a little bit longer.
In 2015, I read David Rensin’s “The Mailroom: Hollywood History from the Bottom Up,” an engaging read based on 200 interviews on how trainees deal with careers in the lowly mailroom.
Among those who started in low positions were David Geffen, Eliot Roberts, Barry Diller, and Michael Ovitz.
Being a “trainee” in the mailroom is an opportunity to work long hours, racing from Pasadena to Malibu delivering scripts and checks or pulling a mail cart through the office while being allowed to listen silently to conversations with clients and buyers endured with little pay other than in the hope of “getting on a desk.” All Hollywood lives by a code: Never say no to the talent. Consequently, executives tend to be very demanding of their staff.
So you worked in the wardrobe department which is a similar experience.
On one movie, yes. It was career-changing. It was an absolutely wonderful experience. I’m not really a fashion guy, to put it mildly, but I learned a lot. I didn’t know anything about how a wardrobe department worked. It is information that I have until this day.
Was it that job, and other unpaid internships that led to a job as an assistant at the Barry Katz Entertainment Group, a talent management company?
That was the jump, but basically what happened was I was working on a Sears’ commercial, and it was literally three people in chairs in front of a green screen for like 18 hours. It is the only time in my career that I considered, “Ahhhh, should I go to law school?” It was awful. It was like, “This is not why I came out to Hollywood for.” What I learned from that experience was I needed to get into the process of film-making earlier. I started interning with a producer, and on the floor that the producer worked on, there was a communal coffee room, and all of the assistants and interns got to know each other. I met Barry’s assistant, and he and I hit it off. One day he told me that he was quitting, luckily for me. I was broke. I was completely broke. I didn’t know how to pay my rent that month.
Being broke in Hollywood is no joke.
Oh yeah. I was taking waiting jobs. Waiting tables, that’s how bad it was.
The thing is not only are you broke trying to find cheap living quarters, but you are likely broke and without a car in a freeway universe.
Pretty much, yeah. But I was in a brand new Honda CRV which was extremely lucky because I was pumping gas one day, and this woman backed into me. The damage—I remember vividly—it was $2,200, and she didn’t want to go through her insurance. So she gave me $2,200 cash. And I never got the car fixed. It was less than a year old when she hit me. That $2,200 helped me not have to wait tables for 6 months. That was basically what I needed to get my career going.
While at the Barry Katz Entertainment Group, you were promoted to senior VP, and became responsible for producing film and television projects.
The Barry Katz Entertainment Group was acquired by New Wave Entertainment in 2003, and you became head of the new company’s talent management and production division.
(In 2007 Volk-Weiss produced the first stand-up special for New Wave with Greg Behrendt, and he produced the Dane Cook films, “Employee of the Month,” Good Luck Chuck,” and My Best Friend’s Girl,” and the Dane Cook-led HBO documentary series, “Tourgasm.”)
In 2007, he founded New Wave Dynamics (which later became Comedy Dynamics) as a production and distribution company of New Wave Entertainment. In 2017, New Wave Entertainment moved Comedy Dynamics into a newly created full-service entertainment entity, The Nacelle Company, and Volk-Weiss, was elevated to CEO of the new company, and will oversee all operations.)
In 2017, New Wave Entertainment moved Comedy Dynamics into a newly created full-service entertainment entity, The Nacelle Company, and Volk-Weiss, was elevated to CEO of the new company, and will oversee all operations.)
For “The Toys That Made Us,” the filming took place at your house. “Nobody is touching my toys.”
Does your wife have to tiptoe around your toy collection?
No. She avoids it like the plague.
How about your kids? You have three kids, 8, 6, and 3, a daughter and two sons,
You know weirdly enough my youngest, just in the last couple of months, has picked up a couple of things. That had never happened before. My oldest only touches the things they know are okay to touch which is very few things. There are over 3,000 pieces in there. They are only really allowed to touch 8 toys.
Touch any “Stars Wars” toys, and you threaten adoption?
Right. That’s boarding school right there.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.