Bill Simmons Launches Ringer Films to Focus on Documentaries (Exclusive)

Bill Simmons - H 2015
AP Images/Invision

Bill Simmons - H 2015

Bill Simmons is heading back to familiar territory.

As part of what he calls “the next phase” of The Ringer, his year-and-a-half-old sports and pop culture website and podcast network, he will launch a new division focused on long- and short-form nonscripted programming. Having co-founded the 30 for 30 franchise during his tenure at ESPN, Simmons says he's been eager to return to the format and intends to focus not only on sports but also on music and other pop culture subjects.

HBO, which was an initial investor in The Ringer, will have a first pass on the company's video content as part of its first-look deal. Simmons says he will begin a search for an executive to lead the department, aptly titled Ringer Films, in the new year; in the interim, he will co-run it with Ringer president Eric Weinberger.

The first project to bear the Ringer Films' name will be the previously announced Andre the Giant doc, which will be released on HBO this spring. The doc, a co-production with HBO Sports and the WWE and directed by Jason Hehir, will air a teaser on Saturday night during the boxing match between Miguel Cotto and Sadam Ali at New York's Madison Square Garden.

Simmons talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the crowded space he's entering, his documentary ambitions beyond sports and his hopes for a daily Ringer show.

What is your goal for Ringer Films?

We’ve been looking at this in phases. The first phase was about getting the website up and trying to hire the editorial staff and build the podcast network. The second phase, in 2017, was moving to Vox — which means we have a really good website now, and it looks good — and investing heavily in video and social. So, phase three, next year, will be about nonscripted long-form and short-form stuff. It’s part of my DNA, and I think it’s something people expect from me. And it’s always been part of the plan here. Andre is the first one. It’s coming out in April 2018, and it’s really good. And then we’ll be open for business.

The doc space is a crowded one right now. Why jump in?

It’s really cluttered right now, but it’s not necessarily cluttered with great stuff. So, when you do something good, it really stands out, and there have been a few examples of that.

What have those been for you recently?

The Defiant Ones was one of the best docs ever and, while this isn’t something that we’d do, I thought the Jim Carrey documentary on Netflix [Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – The Story of Jim Carrey & Andy Kaufman Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton] was really good, too. I think, especially on the sports side, that there’s a bit of a staleness that’s crept over this stuff, that we want to reinvigorate it. For better or worse, 30 for 30 had a big impact on people making sports documentaries, and they’re becoming a little formulaic. I think they could be a little more creative, and we’ll look at that. One of my few talents is that I’m good at helping a documentary get a little better -— I’m just good at the process of it. What we’re hoping for in the next couple of years is that we find a few filmmakers who we like, especially some younger ones who are on the rise, and then try to come up with some cool ideas with them.

Where are the opportunities and interests for you beyond sports?

There are some windows. Music is really interesting right now. The way it’s been done has been these big dramatic, all-encompassing docs with the band’s consent, which is kind of how you have to do it. But it seems like we can get a little more creative than that. Look, people are making a lot of docs. The last five, six years, there are just a lot of them, and sometimes it’s hard to know which ones to watch or who to trust. One of the things I’m hoping is, if we can keep putting out stuff that is really quality people will [know to watch]. ESPN had been doing a lot of documentaries before it, but nobody knew which ones were good and which ones weren’t — there was an aimlessness to them — and then once it had some sort of cohesion, it made sense to people, and that’s one of the reasons that 30 for 30 worked. Sometimes that can be a docuseries, other times it can just be who’s involved. You look at it and go, "Oh, that person’s involved? Great."

What will your short-form fare look like?

When we launched 30 for 30 Shorts in 2012, it was almost a little too early for it. We were pretty committed — and we won an Emmy for it; it wasn’t like it was a failure — but people were still watching things on desktops back then. Now, there are so many more ways to watch, and so short-form stuff, somewhere between four and 15 minutes, that’s the biggest growth area for this space. Because sometimes something isn’t a one-hour documentary.

Will those live on

Not necessarily. God knows with the digital universe when stuff is going to shift again, but a place like Facebook or Twitter or YouTube could be good.

When people hear Bill Simmons is launching a documentary division, the natural assumption will be, "Oh, he’s going after ESPN’s 30 for 30 brand." Fair?

I’m sure some people will think that, but I wouldn’t look at it that way. With 30 for 30, we did 30 and then we thought the thing was going to die. Then they allowed us to do another 30. And now, it’s just kind of going. I don’t know how long they plan on [continuing]. I certainly never wanted to do more than 50, but I was gone by the time they decided to keep it going. Our intention with 30 for 30 was always to eventually prevent it from becoming [ESPN biography program] SportsCentury. SportsCentury had hit this point where it was just a formula — they were running out of people to do, and they were still doing them and it just got stale. I hope that that’s not what happens with 30 for 30. But no, it’s not on our radar and we could never compete with them. And, also, I feel like I’m on the 30 for 30 team in a lot of ways, it’s one of my babies. With this, we’re just trying to do quality stuff. I don’t want to make a shitty documentary.

You launched with your talk show and an After the Thrones aftershow on HBO. How much of a priority is TV at this point?

Then we did the After the Throne show for Twitter, and it exceeded everyone’s expectations, including Twitter’s. The audience grew every week, and by the time we were done we had 100,000 people watching live during every minute and then another 500,000, 600,000 after. We stumbled on something with that, which is if you’re going to come on right after something or during the day, it’s got to be with a purpose and with people who have expertise. We definitely want to do more stuff with Twitter. Down the road, you’ll probably see a daily Ringer show. One of the reasons it would work and one of the things that people in that space seem to want — they don’t just want a smart show, they want somebody who can hit a whole bunch of different things, and that’s one of the best things about our website: We have all of these different areas of expertise and also really fun approaches to them. We’ve been experimenting with a whole bunch of stuff. The most important thing is to keep trying stuff, keep throwing stuff against the wall.

What would a Ringer daily show look like?

I don’t know yet; we’ll have to get creative. But you think about the stuff that’s stood out in the last 10 years, and you don’t need giant budgets for this stuff. Like, Andy Cohen’s show has no budget other than the bar bill. Harvey Levin’s TMZ show is just in the office and they turned some cameras on, but those shows feel distinctive and they have an identity. And for us, it may not be Twitter. We’re waiting to see what happens with Snapchat here and whether they become a real suitor again. Facebook has audibled six times since they started the company, and we’re waiting to see what they settle into. It’s a great time to create content if you’re positioned in a lot of different ways. What we’ve seen with the sites that have gotten into trouble … one of the reasons for the “pivot” to video is because they were trying to do one thing and once the parameters of that one thing changed they went, "Well, now what do we do?" What we’ve tried to do is have a creative company that’s built to do a whole bunch of different things so no matter where things go, we’re ready.