SXSW: Awesomeness Films Exec Talks Aging Up Teen Brand With Drama 'Shovel Buddies'

Matt Kaplan - President of Awesomeness Films - H 2016
Courtesy of Alli Harvey/Getty Images for Fast Company

"Young adults don't want filters," says Awesomeness Films president Matt Kaplan on the dark coming-of-age drama 'Shovel Buddies.'

AwesomenessTV is making its film festival debut with the Monday, March 14, premiere of Shovel Buddies at South by Southwest.

The coming-of-age drama about a group of friends who set out to fulfill their late friend's final wish represents a new type of project for Awesomeness Films, the movie division of DreamWorks Animation-owned ATV that was established last year. Awesomeness picked up the dark script off the Black List, hired commercial directors Simon Atkinson and Adam Townley to direct, and cast a mix of traditional and digital talent including YouTuber Kian Lawley, Bella Thorne (Amityville: The Awakening) and Alex Neustaedter (Colony).

Awesomeness Films president Matt Kaplan acknowledges that Shovel Buddies is "a little off-center" from the slate that teen-centric Awesomeness established in 2015, which included Snervous, a documentary about vlogger Tyler Oakley, and buddy comedy Smosh: The Movie. He spoke with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the film's world premiere about how it fits into the Awesomeness brand.

What makes SXSW the right platform for Shovel Buddies?

This is a project that we bought off of the Black List a while back. It's one that really came together nicely. We've got an amazing directing duo named Si & Ad, who have done pretty elevated commercial work. We were really wanting to take steps in a more adult direction with the movie. I think that it's really grounded and real, and we were able to attract a really promising cast with Bella Thorne and Kian Lawley, one of our bigger influencers, and a wonderful young actor who's more traditional named Alex Neustaedter. It was the perfect film to take after the other films that we've done. It really represents the direction that we're headed in. South By particularly is such a fun festival. It premieres films that are usually for this younger audience in a way that we felt like it was the perfect place for it.

How important is a festival premiere in helping change the perception around the types of films you're making?

While other people may be making influencer-driven movies, we're about quality. Awesomeness is about elevating and supporting our influencers. Just like we did this film, we're trying to get a great piece of writing, great director and work with our influencers to make sure we get the biggest reach possible and in front of as many viewers as possible.

Will you distribute Shovel Buddies digitally like you have with your other films?

We're still devising our plan in terms of the rollout strategy. It may be a theatrical thing or it may be a digital thing, but that's the fun part. Distribution at this company is fluid. We choose the path after we've screened it and seen the response, as opposed to having a more traditional route. That's the part of our business that we're most excited by. We feel like, as content providers, its our responsibility to make great movies and focus on the business aspect later. We've been able to have success with that model.

Why did you decide to make a project that is a bit darker than what we've seen from Awesomeness in the past?

This movie is an R-rated film that is very grounded and real and emotional. We felt like it was a story that we wanted to tell. We wanted to come out with something that was a little off-center for what we had been doing. But moving forward, I still think it's about making sure that we're touching that core 13-to-25 demo when everyone else in traditional is leaving them behind. The film that we just completed is Before I Fall. That's a movie that's more of a PG-13, based on a YA best-selling book that's very grounded. Zoey Deutch plays the lead in that. It's really about making sure that we continue to tell stories that elevate the material and the actors that we're working with.

With an R rating, is Shovel Buddies still made for that core Awesomeness audience?

Young adults don't want filters, ultimately. When you're in the room of Tyler Oakley, he's speaking to the camera and he's really honest and real. I don't think it's about ratings but I do think it's about not speaking down to your audience and allowing them to feel like this story that they're being told is something that they can really relate to.

What's the experience like on-set when you've got a mix of traditional and digital talent?

I think that there's this kind of amazing shift that's happening now where traditional actors now are interested in figuring out how they can grow their social reach. And then someone like Kian who may have come from digital is now learning how to be on-set and figure out how all of that works. That is what the future is. Actors and directors want to speak directly to their audience. And it's a great opportunity for them and us to collaborate and have the support of our enormous channel to help them grow.