Producing “The Chosen” & Impacting Media | Business with Purpose Podcast EP 204: Neal Harmon, CEO of Angel Studios (formerly VidAngel)
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A few months ago, I heard about this show called The Chosen. It depicts the life of Jesus and the disciples in a unique way, taking a look at Jesus’ life, and how the disciples became disciples. When I first heard about it, I was skeptical, but I gave it a try. After the second episode, I was hooked! Not only have I watched the entire season once, I’ve actually watched it though three times now. When I fell in love with the show, I started to do more research on it. Not only is it a unique show in and of itself, it’s also the first series that is the #1 crowd-funded media project in history. It even has its own app! As I began to dive deeper, I learned more about the company producing the show, Angel Studios, formerly VidAngel. The show is directed by Dallas Jenkins, the son of Jerry Jenkins, who wrote the Left Behind series. I wanted to know more about VidAngel and why this platform wanted to produce a show about Jesus in such a unique way. My guest this week is Neal Harmon. Neal is the CEO and cofounder of Angel Studios formerly VidAngel, a streaming service that allows parents to skip objectionable content in entertainment using groundbreaking technology. VidAngel has been highly profiled for The Chosen, and its other incredible family-based content like Dry Bar Comedy. VidAngel recently made headlines by offer all of its streaming content for free during the Covid-19 pandemic, provided that people agree to social distancing of course. My conversation with Neal was incredible and refreshing He was very transparent about the story of VidAngel as it experiences growing pains and lessons many young companies experience. You’re going to love this conversation with Neal, so let’s dive in!
4:30 – The Neal 101
- Neal grew up in Idaho working on dairy farms and even tried to start his own cattle business at one point, but as he got older and learned more about the world, he started working with web businesses. After experiencing a spectacular failure right out of college, he started a company called OraBrush, a tongue cleaner that got rid of bad breath.
- OraBrush went from zero sales to global distribution in just a few years, thanks to YouTube marketing. Later a company reached out to Neal and his brother, cofounders of OraBrush, to help them market Poo~Pourri!
- The Poo~Pourri ad campaign was so successful that it turned Neal and his brother into an ad agency. Shortly after that, they started VidAngel, which is something Neal and his three brothers wanted to create for their own families.
- Neal’s favorite movie is Cinderella Man. The movie portrays people having character, even in their darkest moments, but the movie has a coach who has a foul mouth. Neal wanted his young kids to be able to see the story, but didn’t want them hearing or repeating those words in their home.
- VidAngel allows you to take popular movies and TV shows, and skip over content you don’t find appropriate for your own home. It’s like a pre-programmed remote.
- Neal and his brothers had a bigger vision for VidAngel, too. They wanted to have a bigger impact on media and on the world. They knew that if they found the people who valued protecting their families by using technology to skip over specific content, that they would also have a group of people they could also distribute content in a manner that would be a better fit than what Hollywood provides.
10:53 – A Broken Feedback Loop
- The creators in Hollywood love to see who wins the awards each year, but it seems they are essentially making movies for each other. About three fourths of the revenue in the box office comes from the family friendly movie, but half the titles coming out of Hollywood are rated R. VidAngel is bridging the gap to give creators a feedback loop. If audiences are skipping over certain scenes, creators can learn how to adjust the content that is affecting their market. It allows them to listen to their market, rather than their peers.
- When there is immediate feedback, there is acknowledgement of an issue and something productive can be done with that information. Since big studios own the distribution channels, they can also fill those with what they chose. VidAngel’s feedback loop helps create a voice for those without access to big distribution channels.
14:10 – Resistance, Controversy, Transparency, Growth
- During the summer of 2016, VidAngel faced a lawsuit with The Walt Disney Company. It was a shock to VidAngel because before they started their service, they actually wrote The Walt Disney Company in good faith and transparency, telling them about the service, giving them information on the users they’d tested it with, and asked for their feedback. They shared their own reasoning for why they thought what they were doing was ok, but also gave The Walt Disney Company an opportunity to let them know if they thought anything being done was unlawful.
- VidAngel heard no response from The Walt Disney Company until a year later when families were already enjoying what Angel Studios was providing. VidAngel asked their customers if they’d be interested in investing in VidAngel to start growing the next phase of the company, and their customers said they’d put in over 60 million dollars to help it grow. Two weeks later, The Walt Disney Company sued VidAngel.
- It’s been a long, difficult journey and a lot of time spent in depositions. After the lawsuit started, VidAngel reached out to their customers asking if they wanted to take it to the Supreme Court if they were willing to invest $5 million into the company. They invested $10 million in 5 days. Because of that, VidAngel has been able to improve their product and fight the legal battle.
- VidAngel doesn’t know what will happen now in the midst of this process. They are trusting that they have been called to work to help families through their services and will continue moving forward in faith as they wait for the outcome and experience the process.
20:00 – The Chosen
- The Chosen is VidAngel’s first scripted original series. It will be a multi-season series based on the gospels and the life of Jesus from the perspective of the disciples. The first season is out with 8 episodes. The Chosen is the highest grossing crowdfunded media project of all time.
- VidAngel’s first original series is called Dry Bar Comedy, which has over a billion views per year. It’s a stand-up comedy series (with clean humor). When Dry Bar started out performing all the other studios in the digital space, VidAngel learned that the data from people’s skip choices can create a bigger market when the comedians improve their content based on the consumer feedback loop.
- VidAngel decided they wanted to do a real TV series next, and after a friend of Neal’s introduced them to a short film by Dallas Jenkins, Neal’s brother Jeffrey pitched an idea to do something similar on the life of Jesus. Neal wasn’t interested at first, but after watching Dallas Jenkin’s short film on the birth of Christ, everything changed. Neal knew then and there he wanted to get behind a project like this on VidAngel.
- VidAngel has a lot more exciting these coming. The Chosen has awakened in a lot of people the desire to change media. They want to hear stories from the bible that are well written with a high level of video production, imagery, and storytelling. They want to see the ability for both reverence, humanity, and light-heartedness in the portrayal of Jesus. It was important to Dallas to find someone to play Jesus (Jonathan Roumie) who was slightly unexpected, unique, and genuine, rather than a famous Hollywood actor.
- In The Chosen, you get much more insight into each individual’s story and what their lives were like before Jesus and then their individual relationships with Jesus. The stories are plausible, relatable, and do not conflict with scripture. There is a biblical committee and those working on the show have educational backgrounds in biblical studies and have taken trips to Israel to study. Their goal is to stay true to the Bible.
44:15 – Find out how the cast and crew are dealing with COVID-19 and what’s on the horizon for The Chosen.
You can watch The Chosen on VidAngel (and skip parts that your children may not be ready for or that might be scary). You can also download the app The Chosen app. Either option allows you to watch for free!
46:12 – Getting to Know Our Guest
Find out what meal Neal would eat if he had to eat the same thing for dinner every night for the rest of his life, a dream of his he’s yet to achieve, his favorite TV show when he was growing up, and of course, what it means to Neal to run a business with purpose.
13:50 – “The beautiful thing about the internet is that it provides an opportunity for those of us who don’t have a have a voice in the big distribution channels to have a voice for ourselves and create content for ourselves.”
25:20 – “I think the reason that The Chosen has so much of a good spirit about it is because I think a lot of the people making it, and the distributor who’s getting behind it, are going through similar trials and facing similar situations in modern society as what the disciples faced back then.”
38:18 – “The goal of the scriptures and The Chosen is to lead us to understanding who He (Jesus) was and that He redeems us. If we don’t get there or if we get off the mark or too caught up in how good the actors are or how famous the show becomes, then we’ve missed the mark. As soon as it takes us into the scriptures and gets us into a relationship with Christ, then it will have been a successful project.”
39:58 – “This project is just about telling the stories of Jesus in a way that we can all relate to to and can hopefully lead people of all faiths, and people who don’t have faith, to our Redeemer.”
Connect with Neal Harmon and Watch The Chosen:
ABOUT NEAL HARMON, CEO, ANGEL STUDIOS (formerly VidAngel)
How can parents make entertainment good for their homes? Neal is the CEO and co-founder of VidAngel, a streaming service that allows parents to skip objectionable content in entertainment using ground breaking technology. VidAngel has been highly-profiled for The Chosen, its original series about Jesus and the #1 crowdfunded media project in history, and its other incredible family-based content like Dry Bar Comedy. VidAngel recently made headlines by offering all of its streaming content free during the COVID-19 pandemic, provided people agree to social distancing of course.
Leave a comment below with something you learned from this episode.