Former MTV Chief Van Toffler on His New Studio and How He Handled a Crying Taylor Swift

THR Shoot - Van Toffler - Photographed by Christopher Patey - H 2017
Photographed by Christopher Patey

After making a major mark on youth culture at Viacom, he's luring young viewers again through Gunpowder & Sky, which he co-founded in 2016 with former Endemol exec Floris Bauer.

Van Toffler found success somewhere between his first two career aspirations — rock star ("I was a bad musician," he says) and entertainment lawyer (with clients such as Elvis Presley's estate) — as the executive who oversaw the network group that included MTV, VH1 and CMT. Rising from an MTV business development exec, in his nearly three decades at Viacom he left as significant a mark on youth culture as any Top 40 act, shepherding TV hits such as The Real World and Beavis & Butt-Head, turning the MTV Video Music Awards into a must-see annual event and launching MTV Films, whose titles include Election and Napoleon Dynamite.

Now Toffler, 57, is looking to lure young viewers again through his studio Gunpowder & Sky, which he co-founded in 2016 with former Endemol executive Floris Bauer. Backed by Otter Media, a joint venture of Peter Chernin's entertainment firm and AT&T, the 40-employee company has developed everything from a Spotify series with T Bone Burnett to a film adaptation of Sara Benincasa's novel DC Trip. On June 30, G&S will leverage its acquisition of indie film distributor FilmBuff to debut its first theatrical release, raunchy nun comedy The Little Hours, which it bought at Sundance.

Despite startup life, Toffler, a widower with two adult children, finds time for his first passion, music, by attending as many as two concerts a week and adding to his record collection — releases from Mondo Cozmo and Maggie Rogers are among his recent purchases. He sat down with THR to discuss his new venture, young audiences and life after MTV.

Why didn't you take another network position?

I had done that. I had 1,000 people working for me, 15 channels. And I just got a little too comfortable, so I wanted to try something new.

What was your idea for launching Gunpowder & Sky?

The content being created in the digital landscape was relying on people in front of the camera, influencers. But tech players like Facebook and YouTube and Snapchat want content that creates greater engagement. So it felt like a great time to champion people behind the camera who had a strong sense of story. This is a model that I used at MTV and MTV Films, where we bet on people like Spike Jonze and Michael Bay and David Fincher.

How is it to build a studio without an established brand like MTV?

It's much harder. People would return my calls when I said, "Hey, it's the CEO of MTV." Now I drive many miles and wait in people's offices. But the idea to be fearless and adventurous creatively is still compelling to artists. That's what I am counting on.

Who did you turn to for advice when you were starting the company?

I talked to David Geffen, Clive Davis, Jeffrey Katzenberg. Clive basically said, "You need to know what you're not good at and surround yourself with people who are better at that than you and be egoless about it." I suck at process, structure, HR, legal, finance — I could go on. So I partnered with Peter Chernin and Otter and AT&T and Floris.

What kind of content do you want G&S to be known for making?

In short form, there is a scripted [project] called Breakarate. And we’re looking to do a four- to five-minute live, daily show. For all this stuff, we’re telling stories differently and working with some traditional filmmakers or first-time storytellers. These may live on places like Snapchat or go90 or Facebook. 

Do you worry about money in the short-form space drying up as the streaming buyers consolidate? 

The way the world is working, when one goes away, one or two others pop up. If you diversify and you get to own your content so you have the ability to sell it globally, it’ll be fine. But yes, some of these players will disappear. 

How do you deal with low viewership on some of these newer platforms?

I got addicted to resonating in the culture with MTV, and I want to keep doing that. Part of the reason we went with Spotify on Drawn & Recorded was it was their initial foray into video, they agreed to put us on the homepage, they allowed us to market it ourselves, and we had some episodes that lived on YouTube and Facebook. Part of the reason it was their most viewed video series was because of the marketing. Yes, I’m scared about some of the small viewership these places have, but I think marrying our marketing skills with their distribution can work.  

What do you want G&S to be known for in the film space?

We are looking to reinvent what John Hughes and Judd Apatow had with rom-coms. Think about how dating has evolved since John Hughes. It's all social media. Nobody has gotten that right on film. We're shooting a couple of those this year and some thrillers, docs, some sci-fi stuff as well.

What drove the decision to pick up The Little Hours?

The beauty of being independent is we can see a movie at Sundance and buy it on the spot and figure out the window. It will be 90 days theatrical [via FilmBuff, the indie distributor G&S bought last year], 90 days TVOD, and then it will go to SVOD players around the world. Releasing content in novel ways that address how the audience is going to consume it is important.

How big a role should theatrical play in film distribution now?

It depends on the movie. There are some movies, like the first one we developed that we haven't released yet, called DC Trip, which will be theatrical. That's where it belongs. It's a big, bold movie at a higher budget. But you can't be precious about it. Our rom-coms will probably live in the on-demand world and never go to theaters. If I were to release Napoleon Dynamite or Jackass today, we may bypass theaters.

Is it possible for any one player to be as dominant in youth culture as MTV once was?

Much less so. I still believe there will be shows, short- and longform, that will capture the attention of young people for a time, and then they'll move on. It was easier when there were a handful of channels and we were the only youth-targeted channel.

What would you do if you were still in charge at MTV?

Corporations are wonderful structures for planting seeds and growing a business. The flip side is they're not great structures to pivot and reinvent because there is so much institutional baggage. I would try to throw as much of that out and take risks and bring new voices into the mix.

Would merging CBS and Viacom have been a smart move?

Les Moonves is a brilliant media executive. Under the right circumstances, I think it would've made a lot of sense. It's a lot of heavy lifting, and you really have to believe in the idea and the mission. If you don't, then they should live separately. I guess that's ultimately what happened. [Viacom president and CEO] Bob Bakish is a really smart guy. There's really wonderful talent still at Viacom, and I hope they can get back to breaking some rules again and making bold moves.

Many of your Viacom colleagues like Tom Freston and Judy McGrath have moved to digital. What does that say about the state of entertainment?

A lot of those people in the early days of MTV, in particular, were nonconformists. It makes sense that as the business grew bigger and there were more rules to adhere to, that all of us would feel more comfortable where there were fewer rules.

Do you stay in touch with them?

All the time. We were really fortunate to have the run we had together. We loved each other, we respected each other and we supported each other. And we still do.

What is your favorite VMAs story?

When Kanye walked up onstage with Taylor [Swift] that year, it turned out that Taylor had to go onstage to do her song five minutes later. I ran out of the truck to see that everything was all right, and Taylor and her mom were crying hysterically. I'm not always wonderful with emotions. I didn't know what to say. Then I went backstage, and Beyonce was crying, too.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.