Most people don’t get a text from Bono in the middle of the night.
But Jon Kamen, the CEO, chairman and co-founder of RadicalMedia, found himself fighting off jet lag on a recent business trip to Japan as he fielded messages from the U2 frontman. That pair had worked together on the One campaign, the musician’s push to eradicate AIDS and poverty in Africa, and this time Bono needed help launching ticketing for the band’s upcoming residency at Las Vegas’ newly launched venue, the Sphere. Kamen assured him that there was someone on staff who could help him.
“I said, ‘let me call this guy and see if he can come up with something,’” he remembers. “We needed to turn this thing around in ridiculous time. I go to bed in Japan. Bono gives me a good recommendation for a restaurant in Kyoto. I’m dreaming of sushi, and I wake up at seven in the morning to get ready for and the young man out of our L.A. office has already edited and cut something together.”
After Kamen’s sent him the work, Bono quickly texted back — “holy shit. How did this happen so fast?”
Kamen is recounting all of this from his office on Hudson Street in the West Village (that weekend, he’ll head to Sin City to watch U2). RadicalMedia has been headquartered in that section of Manhattan for 30 years, moving there long before it was the apotheosis of hip and cool — which may be why the company can afford such a sprawling space, one that overflows with editing bays, interview rooms and stunning views of the city.
“There were a lot of people who were migrating to the West Coast at the time,” Kamen remembers. “I was a born and bred New Yorker, so I decided to stay. And we were able to build out this place at a time when real estate was cheap and we could have a fabulous Katz’s Deli opening night party to celebrate.”
In those days, Kamen and his fellow co-founder, Frank Scherma, were convinced that the old approach to advertising was growing stale and that emerging platforms like the internet were about to shake things up.
“I remember listening to this speech by the then chairman of a very conservative Procter and Gamble who suggested the industry wasn’t paying attention to the changes that were taking place,” Kamen remembers. “He actually used the word ‘radical’ to describe the disruption that was going to grip the media landscape. I thought, that sounds like a pretty good name for a company.’”
And RadicalMedia quickly impressed, working with the likes of Grey Goose, American Express, Target and Nike to produce original content and branded entertainment that had a visual flair and narrative drive. But it soon moved beyond sponsored material and into feature films, television and non-fiction programming, winning Oscars for producing “Summer of Soul,” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s look at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, and “The Fog of War,” Errol Morris’s documentary on U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. It also produced the Emmy-winning pilot for “Mad Men,” as well as “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman,” “Jeffery Epstein: Filthy Rich” and the acclaimed and Oscar-nominated “What Happened, Miss Simone?”
It usually has six to eight projects in various stages of production. The company has built up an impressive list of collaborators, including Derek Cianfrance, Joe Berlinger, and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy Kail, who chose RadicalMedia to film their hit show, “Hamilton.” It often falls to Dave Sirulnick, a former top exec at MTV who now serves as Radical’s president of entertainment, to keep track of all the activity.
“On any given day, Amir’s sitting in an edit room or [‘The League’ director] Sam Pollard is in a conference room, or Jonathan Groff is coming in for a screening of our film about ‘Spring Awakening,’” Sirulnick says. “It leads to a sense of community and an impulse to share resources and ideas.”
Like Kamen, Sirulnick is a long-time New Yorker, who skateboards the mile from his home to Radical’s office. He’s helped the company fine-tune its dynamic approach to shooting hit Broadway shows like “Come From Away” and David Byrne’s “American Utopia,” so that they aren’t just a static portrait of a live performance. That means the camera is moving and placed in more unusual spots to heighten the drama.
“If you score tickets to see ‘Hamilton at the Richard Rodgers Theater and you get the best seat in the house, you’re going to have an incredible night of theater, but you’re going to see it from one perspective,” says Sirulnick. “But when we set out to make a film of something like ‘Hamilton,’ we talked a lot about making this cinema and not just cameras pointed at the stage. So we’re going to put the cameras in places that you couldn’t be as an audience member — right over Lin’s shoulder, looking into the eyes of Leslie Odom Jr.”
Going forward, RadicalMedia has “Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero,” a concert film featuring the musician that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, as well as a feature documentary on Jerry Garcia from director Justin Kreutzmann. There’s also two forthcoming series with the History Channel — “The Great War” about America’s involvement in World War I and a series on the American West titled “The West” that RadicalMedia produced with author Doris Kearns Goodwin. And the company believes that several more projects may join these on the horizon now that the writers strike is ending and the picketing actors may soon get their own contract.
“The industry has gone through a period of paralysis, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done and now we can start doing it,” says Kamen.
“There’s a sense of optimism now,” adds Sirulnick. “And hopefully that can lead to some momentum.”
And though RadicalMedia now has a presence in several major hubs, with offices in the likes of L.A. and London, there’s still something quintessentially New York about its story.
“New York City is a beacon to the world,” says Sirulnick. “Not every film or TV show that we do is about New York, but so many of them have connections to it. We have an affinity for working with people who love this place.”
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