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Friday, Sep 29, 2023

World of Wonder Sets Bar for LGBTQ Media Production

In a media landscape where representation is becoming more important than ever, World of Wonder Productions Inc. kicked open the door for LGBTQ companies 30 years ago with a plan to create a platform for artists and creatives who were not being recognized in the mainstream media.
In addition to executive producing RuPaul’s Drag Race, founders and Co-Chief Executives Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato have developed a content slate that includes films, television shows, podcasts and conventions with a focus on creating visibility for marginalized communities.  

“We’ve always been an out-loud production company, and I think a lot of the things we wanted to make weren’t necessarily on the top of people’s lists,” Barbato told the Business Journal.

From its historic celebration of LGBTQ art, culture and lifestyles to the complete control of its library on subscription-based platform WOW Presents Plus, which was launched in November 2017, World of Wonder has become a standard bearer for other companies, from “Pose” co-creator Ryan Murphy’s eponymous production imprint to streaming service Revry Inc., both of which led and benefited from increased appetites for LGBTQ content.

Bailey and Barbato met in the mid-1980s while enrolled in New York University’s graduate film program and formed a disco pop outfit called the Fabulous Pop Tarts. They characterized their music more as “cheerleading than singing,” but their Pop Tarts music and publishing deals bankrolled World of Wonder, which began as a record label named after the British comic book that UK-born Bailey read as a child.

According to Bailey and Barbato,while releasing their own albums under the WOW label in 1988 and 1992, they began working with friends and fellow artists like drag queen, actor and model RuPaul Andre Charles, whose 1986 album “RuPaul Is Star Booty” they volunteered to produce after first seeing him a year earlier strolling through the lobby of the Times Square Marriott in football shoulder pads, thigh-high waders and a loin cloth. RuPaul later asked them to serve as his managers.  

Drawing from their own film school training as well as the work of videographer Nelson Sullivan, an important figure in the downtown New York City art scene, Fenton and Bailey’s first series was “Manhattan Cable,” a show that debuted in 1991 on UK’s Channel 4 and consisted of clips licensed from public access channels.

“We were inspired by that kind of television because it was completely do-it-yourself,” Bailey said. “Commercial television has to reach the broadest number of people possible, and it needs to be advertiser friendly. With public access, they had no advertisers, and they didn’t care about how many people they reached, but that difference was something that audiences weren’t getting.”

The duo quickly realized they didn’t need to spend millions of dollars on high production values or market research to tell compelling stories.

“It was actually about the authenticity of somebody’s story,” Bailey said.

It’s an ethos they implemented while directing a series of documentaries that drew modest box office returns but widespread acclaim, including “Party Monster: The Shockumentary,” about New York club promoter and convicted felon Michael Alig, and “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” a profile of the disgraced televangelist remade this year by director Michael Showalter as a biographical drama starring Jessica Chastain.

A number of bigger-budget Hollywood adaptations of their documentary projects have not only underscored Bailey and Barbato’s shrewd creative decision-making but also highlighted an inclusive and empathetic streak in their storytelling that presaged larger shifts in cultural attitudes about individuals and communities.

Their Tammy Faye film treated the disgraced televangelist with kindness after she’d been reduced to a tabloid punch line. Their 2002 documentary “Monica in Black and White” gave former White House intern Monica Lewinsky the opportunity to tell her side of her relationship with former President Bill Clinton almost two decades before writer Sarah Burgess and “American Crime Story” creator Murphy would dramatize the scandal with a compassionate portrait of Lewinsky’s victimhood in “Impeachment,” the third season of the FX true-crime anthology series.

Meanwhile, RuPaul quickly became a worldwide star for the company, first as a recording artist and then via the World of Wonder produced TV series “The RuPaul Show” and eventually “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” whose 14th season VH1 ordered in August 2021. The show’s popularity has steadily grown, with an audience of 1.3 million viewers tuning in for the Season 13 premiere on Jan. 1, thanks to a six-network simulcast on VH1, The CW Network, MTV, MTV2, Pop TV and Logo. 

Global reach

“RuPaul’s Drag Race” and its six spinoffs have become the cornerstone of WOW Presents Plus, the company’s subscription-based streaming service. While the company did not release subscriber data, it indicated the service has doubled its subscription numbers annually since then thanks to a strong international presence, with 84% growth so far in 2021, according to data provided by the company.
WOW generates demand from subscribers in every territory worldwide through its holdings of “Drag Race” intellectual property, which it holds exclusively in many countries, as well as through the company’s library of documentaries and other series. It also serves as the only network offering same-day and date airings of its international “Drag Race” spinoffs from countries like Thailand, the United Kingdom, Holland and the Philippines.

Despite this success, Bailey suggested that making money and reaching the biggest audience are not the company’s main goals. He and Barbato declined to disclose information about the company’s finances.

“I don’t think that definition of success really counts in this space at this time,” he said. “In the evolving media landscape, I think it’s about a broad range of stories and opportunities and many different business models within that.”

“There’s always going to be a McDonald’s, but there’s a whole lot of other food experiences other than McDonald’s, so you don’t say that anything that isn’t mass-produced fast food isn’t successful.”

Of the company’s accomplishments over the past 30 years, the duo is proudest of making audiences more receptive to drag content.

“There’s a lot more shows out there with drag queens on TV,” Barbato said. “They’re the pop stars, the TV stars of the 21st century, as far as we’re concerned.”
But their work as filmmakers and storytellers has increased the profile of members of the LGBTQIA-plus community in a significant way, paving the way for others to follow, and for more viewers to accept them.

“We were, without question, one of the first production companies ever to produce programming focusing on trans individuals,” said Bailey. GLAAD called the 2005 World of Wonder-produced show “TransGeneration” about transgender youth “the high bar for films or television programs concerning transgender lives” in 2012.

“We did a series for Discovery. We did a series for the Sundance Channel. And we’ve all seen a tremendous increase in the amount of trans programming and trans visibility,” Bailey added.

Still, he does not take credit for the increase in stories that has occurred since then. “We’re not saying we did that,” he said. “I’m just saying we’ve seen over the years a really dramatic transformation.”

Universal experience

After releasing three self-produced documentaries in 2021 and with a robust slate of film and television projects in the works, the company has ambitious plans for expansion, including plans for scripted series — and, of course, more “Drag Race.”
“We’re very involved with the international versions because we actually believe that drag is a universal experience,” said Bailey. “Like Ru says, ‘You’re born naked, and the rest is drag,’ and every culture, every nationality has their own brand.”

Inspired by World of Wonder’s dedication to celebrating the LGBTQ community, a number of LGBTQ companies have sprung up since WOW’s inception to find their own authentic stories to tell, including Justin Simien’s Culture Machine, Greg Berlanti’s Berlanti Productions and Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad Productions.

Conversely, many legacy media companies have been slow to follow WOW’s lead, offering proclamations or initiatives that generate headlines without producing substantial diverse or inclusive content.
But Bailey said that even hollow gestures for public relations purposes serve an important purpose in getting members of this community seen.

Of the top 300 programs in 2020, 29% featured cast members who self-identify as LGBTQ, according to a June 2021 Nielsen Co. report on Gracenote Inclusion Analytics data. But the same report showed that people identifying as LGBTQ still only have 3.8% representation across reality TV as a whole despite the popularity of series like “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

The representation might not be there yet, but the potential audience is. Nielsen’s report also found that 85% of its LGBTQ survey respondents have used a video streaming service in the last 30 days, compared with 74% of the general population. The majority of those LGBTQ viewers are in the coveted 18-34 demographic and many of them earn $75,000 or more annually, contributing to what a 2021 Human Rights Campaign report estimated to be $1 trillion in buying power among LGBTQ consumers.

“The issue with LGBTQIA-plus has always been visibility because no one necessarily knows if you are LGBTQIA or not,” Bailey said. “And, therefore, the importance of being visible, of a story being told on a platform, is actually the all-important critical piece.”

“I agree with that a thousand percent,” said Barbato. “It could be motivated by money. It could be motivated by corporate politics. It doesn’t really matter what motivates people to put it out there. It’s about the visibility — to be seen, as opposed to being invisible.”

Todd Gilchrist
Todd Gilchrist
Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based reporter and film critic with 20+ years of experience at dozens of print and online outlets, including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly and Fangoria. An obsessive soundtrack collector, sneaker aficionado and member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd currently lives in Silverlake, California with his amazing wife Julie, two cats Beatrix and Biscuit, and several thousand books, vinyl records and Blu-rays.

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