The founder / executive producer of REVERSE tells Addison Capper about wrapping one of America’s biggest post-lockdown shoots, the issues with production companies’ development of young directors, and experience working across a bunch of creative industries
Thibaut Estellon grew up in a quiet village in the southeast of France. Unsurprisingly, given that he was in one of the most beautiful regions in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, it was a childhood surrounded by gorgeous nature. In his words, though, there wasn’t a great deal to consume in terms of art and culture. He’s more than made up for that in his adult life.
Nowadays he’s the founder and executive producer of bi-coastal US production company REVERSE but his CV prior boasts stints in a bunch of creative management positions in the music, art and fashion industries. He’s handled sales and advertising for record labels, curated and promoted concerts, and developed events that brought together music, art, movies, and performances. As a student, peers claimed his idea to launch a festival where people couldn’t buy a ticket but had to donate food instead was dumb and unsustainable, but it’s still going strong today. It’s all experience not directly linked to advertising but which has laid the foundations of Thibaut’s eye for talent and ability to connect and inspire artists and clients around a shared vision.
Thibaut has just wrapped an 11-day shoot with Grey New York, one of the largest shoots since lockdown restrictions eased. What’s more, he holds strong yet measured views on the issues around the development of young directors and the fact that it took a global pandemic to give the production industry a shakeup. LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with him to find out more.
LBB> It seems like you've always been involved in creative businesses - music, art, fashion, advertising, etc. With that in mind, what was your childhood like? Where did you grow up and how did you wind up working in such industries?
Thibaut> I grew up in a small village in the southeast of France. It’s a pretty area with great nature, but not much to see in terms of art and culture. My parents were elementary school teachers and I was an A-grade student, reading a lot to stave off boredom, and playing competitive tennis and chess. But I was always a curious kid and dreamt of living in a big city. As a teenager, I started to hang out with the few cool kids in the area; skateboarding, spinning records, and going to concerts and music festivals. The typical teenager's way of soft-rebelling against a pretty normal life - but nothing really that predestined me to do what I’m doing today.
LBB> Tell us a bit more about those jobs that you had prior to working in production. What did you do in the music, art and fashion industries? And what lessons did you learn that inform the work you do as an EP/company owner?
Thibaut> I have an unusual path to production. Like a lot of what I’ve done in the past, I came across it by chance, or opportunity perhaps, being at the right place and meeting the right people, and just decided to dive into it and try to carve my own path.
I think my aha! moment happened back in business school. I launched a charity music festival with a bunch of friends. No real experience prior to this but we had a fun concept: food donations were your ticket for several days of live music. Everyone thought we were crazy; how would we finance this if people weren’t buying tickets? Who would trust a bunch of inexperienced kids? Pulling off the event required us to curate a line-up, land sponsorships and advertising, and secure permits, etc. Almost 20 years later, this festival still exists and is managed by a new generation of students, which is extremely gratifying.
This first experience made me realise that I was good at bringing people together around a creative endeavour and seeing it through. That I could also make a career out of it even though I didn't have the knowledge about or networks within any of these creative industries back then.
In the following years, I was able to apply these same skill sets to develop and curate similar events that brought together music, art, movies, and performances. I had the opportunity to train under a pioneer for the Parisian LGBTQ arts and nightlife community, and also spent time in the high-end luxury industry in Paris and the contemporary art scene in the US. I was still exploring and all of these experiences further exposed me to other artistic fields.
I’ve always been starved for culture, whether it was visual arts, music, performance, literature or films. It just took me longer to get exposed to it. And while my path to advertising was not a totally straight line, I learned the core skills that are applicable to the production industry. I developed my eye for talent and my ability to connect and inspire artists and clients around a shared vision.
LBB> What was your first role in advertising production and what were your first impressions of the industry?
Thibaut> I remember landing my first broadcast job with ad agency Roberts + Langer years ago through a small video production company I was working for at the time. We were given a micro budget, which felt huge for us. The director and I, both still green in the business, thought we nailed our “pre-production meeting” with the agency partner and producer. Turns out, that was just prep for the actual PPM, which involved 20 people in a huge conference room. You should’ve seen our faces when we walked into that one!
Being self-taught, I think my strengths lie in being humble, surrounding myself with smart, experienced people, and listening to and absorbing from them as much as possible. I asked the right questions and tried to crack the code on best practices. In the process, I was also able to create some of my own.
The same still holds true today, which is why we’ve built a reputation for our buttoned-up production processes combined with impressive talent. It’s also why we’re increasingly in the mix with the larger, more established shops.
LBB> Tell us about REVERSE - when did you launch the business and what inspired you to launch your own production company? What was the mission when you launched and what was the inspiration behind that approach?
Thibaut> I’ve always felt there was space for something different – a place where new talent, creativity, and a strong work ethic can thrive. I kept meeting great talent and noticing they weren’t handled properly by their current production houses. They had everything they needed to succeed! I knew we could bring a unique approach to the industry. It was more of a gut feeling than an actual vision and mission statement; these usually get formulated later. It’s a bit unorthodox but it’s allowed us to adapt and grow by pivoting when needed.
LBB> What are you looking for when you sign a new director? And how are you staying abreast of new and exciting talent during Covid-19?
Thibaut> I always look for that spark of magic. Directors who align with our values as a company, which is to pursue curiosity, challenge each other to work and create harder, and embrace growing into what we aim to be as creators. The companies that can do this while staying true to their core vision and values tend to succeed.
There are a few patterns in the industry that annoy me. Some companies sign talent because they’re afraid of missing out on the next Spike Jonze or Ian Pons Jewell, and in the process, burn an up-and-coming director’s career due to improper development. Others convince talent to sign by overpromising on results or opportunities, such as feature films and content; however, the reality of the companies delivering rarely happens.
I’m more interested in long-term career development, finding the right opportunities, fighting tooth and nail to get on a list or win a job, developing new angles, expanding on a director’s reel, and collaborating with their international representations. We work extremely hard and it can be exhausting. So, when we sign someone, there needs to be a strong partnership because we’re playing the long game.
LBB> How do you see the future for the production industry? Will this pandemic change the way you work forever?
Thibaut> Over the recent years, we’ve seen major crises caused by new entrants and technological disruptions in other creative industries. The revolution in the music industry with piracy and the new digital era. Barnes & Noble-like stores hurting the independent bookstores and then being hit themselves by Amazon. Distribution giants and streaming platforms in the film world. And if we want to expand beyond the creative fields, the malls that emptied Main Street businesses.
I see some analogies in our business. In the same way that certain independent bookstores, record labels or movie theatres have survived and thrived by developing a niche offering that’s focused on quality, craftsmanship, artistic value, and talent, combined with business acumen, the key in our business is to go back to the core, which is the work, talent, and the creative value, as well as the people and processes allowing the work to be made and exist in the first place.
Talent is key and so are production and business fundamentals. To put it simply, you bring something special and develop it in an efficient way. The pandemic just pushed us in this direction more quickly. Production efficiency and budgets are now going into the actual jobs and people who make it happen, from directors to production crews, rather than being spent on travel and swanky offices. There are new collaboration tools, more integration between agencies and production partners, and between production and post-production. In many ways, though, it’s how we’ve operated REVERSE from the start. I just wish it didn’t take a pandemic and poor political governance across the world to force everyone to adapt.
LBB> Which projects are you most proud of from over the years? Are there any that particularly stick out?
Thibaut> We just wrapped an 11-day shoot with our director Johan Stahl and ad agency Grey/Townhouse NY. It's one of the largest shoots globally produced during Covid. We’ve never worked so hard on prepping a job. We had to consider every little detail to make it safe and successful. When the insurance company is shocked a client validates such a job, you know the stakes are extremely high. We had to rethink all the basics. That job is a testimony to our capabilities and know-how when it comes to developing talent and getting things done.
LBB> I think producers have often got the best stories to tell - have you ended up in any particularly hairy or memorable scenarios during your career?
Thibaut> Like everyone else, we’ve had our fair share of hiccups when working with kids and animals, key crew missing their flight or getting sick, some piece of technology failing right when you need to shoot, or having to burn a ton of incense in place of a smoke machine because the production assistant forgot to load it (a lot of red eyes on set that day).
A couple years ago, we were shooting a job with a former NHL athlete based in Canada. He asked the agency and clients to arrange for an early pick-up at his house in the morning. The only thing he forgot to mention was that he had literally just moved to a newly developed area and built a house. We had the address but his house and mailbox didn’t have any numbers on them yet making it impossible to find. And, of course, we couldn’t get a hold of him. Our driver had to knock on every single door in the area to find the right one. That’s how you end up losing two hours of shooting time and waking up an entire neighbourhood in the wee hours of the morning!
Oftentimes, a seemingly random event or experience makes me think about and question the ways we do things. We did a broadcast job last year where our director, Romain Quirot, wanted to experiment with a bunch of toys to do some camera moves combining a high-speed drone, regular drone, and MōVI stabiliser. A very rough behind-the-scenes clip of the action posted on Instagram raked in nearly 150,000 views in no time. It’s really telling us about the power of social media and where our eyeballs are.
LBB> What do you like to get up to outside of work? Do you have any particular hobbies or quirks to help you unwind?
Thibaut> We have two young kids and just had our third one, so with Covid and the lockdown, I’ve been focusing on them a lot lately. Both my parents were elementary school teachers, so I’m getting some weird déjà vu. We stayed in Brooklyn for most of the lockdown, and it’s been surreal and scary. Being able to ride the subway with them, which we started to do only recently, and just being outside feels amazing. We love checking out museums and contemporary art galleries around town. The kids aren’t formatted and look at art in a very candid way without the context of culture, background or history yet. It brings up some fun and interesting conversations but it’s also a way for me to keep my brain sharp. I always encourage directors to look outside the film world for inspiration. You truly need to be open to the arts and the world that surrounds you to nail this craft and convey emotions, raw energy, or whatever your vision is. Vimeo and Instagram just won’t cut it.