EXCLUSIVE: It’s a big week for husband-and-wife production duo Luke Hyams and Sunita Mirchandani Hyams.
Not only does their debut documentary, The Sidemen Story, launch tomorrow (February 14) on Netflix in the UK, but this interview with Deadline is the first they’ve given since the launch of their indie cross-cultural producer Pangaea.
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In a wide-ranging chat that interrupts a break in Jamaica — what they call their “first holiday in quite a few years” — they talk about the gruelling hours of work that went into shooting and producing a doc on British YouTube stars The Sidemen, the state of the UK production sector and a slate that includes Work in Progress, a talk show in which UK TV host, broadcaster and creative Julie Adenuga quizzes major public figures.
Hyams is the former Head of Originals for YouTube EMEA, Director of Global Content for The Walt Disney Company and the creator of influential UK music drama Dubplate Drama, while Mirchandani Hyams is a veteran producer on the likes of Oscar Pistorius: What Really Happened?, The Only Way is Essex and The Great British Menu for major British production companies. In 2020, she co-produced her first feature, Big Boys Don’t Cry, and in the same year decided to create Pangaea after encouragement from her husband to act on ideas she’d been harboring for years while she worked as a production manager.
This came just as the Covid-19 began, but Mirchandani Hyams jumped into development on a number of projects and didn’t look back, and soon Hyams began to yearn to join in. “I’d be doing calls with 200 YouTube people in the U.S. explaining who Stormzy was, and I would hear Sunita in the next room having so much fun,” says Hyams.
When YouTube EMEA decided to slim down its originals business, the couple decided to work together on a full-time professional basis, 18 years after they first met on set of Channel 4’s Dubplate Drama, which followed the plight of a female grime MC over three seasons. “The idea of two people working together, with a bit of assistance, versus working at a giant corporation was a positive creative sea change for me at that point,” says Hyams.
“Sunita is the best producer I’ve ever worked with, and we worked together for a long time before romance came into it” he adds, as Mirchandani Hyams interjects with a laugh: “He has to say that!”
There was also a deeper point to Pangaea. Mirchandani Hyams, who has Nigerian and Indian heritage, notes that the Black Lives Matter campaign was hotting up as she began working on early projects, which included a Channel 4 short. “As the parents of multi-cultural children, we began asking ourselves that if we just continue to make the same content, how would that change things?” Hyams knew from YouTube that new audiences are rarely defined by borders, and that it was “passions and communities” that truly drive content.
‘Doing this together is the right thing to do’
Pangaea is branching out and building up at a tough period for the UK. Just this weekend, Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon predicted many indie producers would go out of business as the perfect storm of streamer slowdown, TV ad revenue collapses and the cost-of-living crisis that’s hit UK shores continues on unabated. Having the personal connection a shared life and children brings has been crucial.
“Doing this together — starting a start-up when we’re at the ebb of the ebb-and-flow of TV, and with how hard you have to work right now to get anything going — is the right thing to do,” says Hyams. Their company is mainly funded personally, but that could change in the future, according to Mirchandani Hyams. Up to this official launch point, it’s been about identifying like-minded partners on individual projects and strategies.
“So many people are out of work and these are really challenging times, and it is quite hard if you don’t have support,” says Mirchandani Hyams. “Luckily, we have some great allies out there,” she adds, referencing a young-adult film development agreement Pangaea has in place with Altitude Filmed Entertainment.
“They’re a terrific partner who are really on board with what we think is our USP: Bringing through new talent and stories that feel like they can bridge the cap between old platforms and new platforms,” says Hyams.
That’s the idea behind The Sidemen Story, Pangaea’s first documentary. The film charts the rise of the British YouTube group comprising web personalities Olajide ‘JJ’ Olatunji (KSI), Simon Minter (Miniminter), Joshua Bradley (Zerkaa), Tobit ‘Tobi’ Brown (TBJZL), Ethan Payne (Behzinga), Vikkstar123, and Harry Lewis (W2S) — who have amassed well over 100 million subscribers across platforms, including nearly 21 million on their main YouTube channel. They have encountered controversy, such as when KSI used a racial slur in a video and was forced to apologize, but at the same time built an operation that spans everything from YouTube videos to a clothing business with a physical shop in the UK.
Disclaimer here: I make a short appearance in the doc as a talking head providing some context around the rise of the YouTuber economy and how that has impacted traditional media in the UK, U.S. and around the world. (The rock ‘n’ roll part, I’m sure you’ll agree.)
The Pangaea pair say industry watchers could do worse than consider how KSI, who has been at forefront of the online boxing craze and become a popular rapper, and his pals built their media empire. “People don’t quite understand how much work goes into it,” says Mirchandani Hyams.
Early on in their careers, The Sidemen moved into a house together, which they called The Factory. Each bedroom was also the individual Sideman’s personal studio for their audience, while the kitchen became the central hub where videos for the main channel were pumped out to a schedule. Penalties for missing a record resulted in the Sideman having to provide another video — creating even more content and loop that meant failure created success.
“That was the biggest learning for me between them and other YouTubers: They have a democratic process at the heart,” says Hyams. “KSI might be the most popular, but the group’s decisions come down to a seven-person vote. They make decisions and move on.”
Netflix’s Nelesh Dhand and Samantha Blanco moved to acquire the doc for the UK (we understand a wider international deal could follow), and Pangaea’s bosses say the fact it launches on Valentine’s Day is a “sign of their belief” in the film, with Hyams quipping, “They’re the home of Netflix and chill.”
Pangaea, named after the giant supercontinent that once united Earth’s entire landmass, is next up piloting several digital formats. Top of this pile is Work in Progress, which Hyams calls a “deconstructed chat show” in which the co-host of MTV series Catfish UK and broadcaster Julie Adenuga interviews great cultural figures of our times to learn about their journeys and what makes them tick.
“We’re going to be releasing episodes throughout the year. Julie has been very helpful with her contacts book,” says Hyams. “We’ve got really big hitters lined up,” adds Mirchandani Hyams.
There’s also a documentary looking at class in the UK through the prism of pop music, an area both know well. An unnamed partner is attached and the project is in post-production. “It’s a really interesting opportunity to look at a story we think we know from a new perspective,” says Hyams.
More music-based projects are planned. “Music was always a great way to tell purist, self-made ambition stories,” adds Hyams. “Like we saw in Dubplate Drama, before they had digital technology, young people could pick up a mic and turntables and express themselves and put themselves on the map. We’ve got great contacts in the music business and we have circled back on a lot of stories we know about. There are so many great music stories in the UK.”
On the international front, Mirchandani Hyams has written her debut script on a feature film that will cross UK and Nigerian borders. Another major company is attached to the development. “The beautiful thing about our partnership is we have lots of ideas back and forth and Luke has really pushed me to put those ideas down on paper, so I did that, wrote the treatment and pitched it to a fantastic woman in the industry, a really ally, who said, ‘Let’s go,'” she says.
“With Sunita having been born in Nigeria, it’s been important for her to build on her own experiences with it,” adds Hyams. “The detail of that story allowed Sunita to open up and create connections and partnerships with other emerging writers from that part of the world. This was an idea keeping her up at night, and I knew it had to go down on paper, even if it was just for her.”
There’s an obvious ease and understanding with between Pangaea’s founders, and their natural sensibilities give them a strong platform to work from: Hyams the career creative and Mirchandani-Hyams the veteran production manager. Quizzed what the next 12 months might look like, Hyams says, “We don’t where we’ll be in 12 hours,” while Mirchandani Hyams expects to see a second film launched, two scripted projects in production and final draft of a third project finished. “I like to keep a tight ship over here, so we’re definitely going to keep marching on. There’s definitely going to be a lot more to see very soon.”
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