Just days before the 2018 ESPY Awards, Michael Ratner was less worried about rubbing elbows with the biggest stars in sports and Hollywood than he was convincing them to do an interview … with Kevin Hart … in an ice bath. The socializing could commence once a packed workday had wrapped.
As creator, producer and director of the hit digital show Cold As Balls, hosted by Hart, Ratner is adept at corralling superstars into a sports version of Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis. So far, he’s off to a good start: Boxer Floyd Mayweather and NBA star Russell Westbrook spent the morning of the ESPYs shooting segments for Ratner’s show. Season 2, which premiered on Aug. 21, also features basketball players Lamar Odom, Isaiah Thomas and Metta World Peace; football’s Odell Beckham Jr. and Johnny Manziel; and commentator Skip Bayless.
For the 29-year-old Ratner, managing such a star-studded project means making sure the temperature is just right. His multimedia production house, OBB Pictures, boasts a diverse portfolio aimed at the elusive millennial and Generation Z demographics, everything from feature-length documentaries to commercials to scripted comedies. Ratner’s script didn’t cast OBB as the go-to incubator for Hollywood-curious NBA stars, but that’s what it has become. At least in part.
Traditionally, you haven’t seen these big stars on digital, but we’ve built a business predicated on trust.
From Westbrook to Detroit’s Blake Griffin to Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, Ratner uses his connections and instincts to help athletes shine, comfortably, while testing the acting waters. “The goal was never to be a sports content guy, and I still don’t identify as one,” says Ratner. “But when you do something well, everyone expects that from you. I wasn’t going to turn away business when that started.”
Growing up in New York, Ratner was a hardcore Knicks fan. Still, his most memorable moments in front of a television came via movie night with his grandfather. “We’d sit together watching his old black-and-white films,” says Ratner. “Charlie Chaplin was our favorite, and he’s still a hero of mine.” After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Ratner returned home to attend film school at New York University Tisch School of the Arts in 2011. Along the way, he convinced Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg to let him produce a series of digital comedy sketches for the hit station’s morning show. “I begged him,” Ratner confesses. A Rick Ross spoof called Stay Sleepin’ and a commentary on the 2013 state of hip-hop — Rachet, Turn Up, Molly — went viral.
Ratner and his older brother, Scott, co-founded OBB, aka Original Big Bold, in 2014 to deliver millennial-driven original storytelling. Recognizing a massive barrier to entry for making a feature film, Ratner steered the company toward short, digestible digital content — drawing from his film school experience. “Call it luck, but I saw that young people’s viewing habits were changing,” Ratner explains. “I’d just spent three years working my ass off to get good at making short [films]. That wasn’t a business before, but it is now.”
“Michael knows how to grow relationships better than most people who’ve been in this industry for a lifetime,” says Miranda Sherman, an OBB production executive and Ratner’s confidante since their days at Tisch, when she was running the graduate student film program and marveled at how many projects he’d juggle at once.
Ratner’s first big break came from ESPN. After two sports documentaries (Dwight Howard: In the Moment and In Football We Trust), Ratner directed and produced Gonzo @ The Derby for ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary series. Featuring actor Sean Penn, Gonzo revisited the legacy of the late writer Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 trip to the Kentucky Derby. When the film was named as an official selection at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, the sports inquiries came flowing in.
Still, OBB’s most authentic sports partnership came by way of happenstance. After shooting a commercial starring Chandler Parsons, Ratner and the NBA forward bonded over dinner. Regular appearances on each other’s respective Instagram feeds suggest the friendship is still thriving. And what bro doesn’t like doing a favor for his pal?
In search of a star for the new mockumentary series that he’d sold to Verizon’s now defunct streaming service, go90, Ratner knew exactly who to call to get Blake Griffin’s phone number. “I knew that [Griffin] had done sketch comedy with Drake at the ESPYs and that he was interested in the acting,” says Ratner, thankful for Parsons granting the favor. “So, I cold-called him.”
Through three seasons of The 5th Quarter, Griffin regularly appears in the show “chronicling the greatest untold and untrue stories in sports history.” In the debut episode, he starred as Clif Cliff Adele, a 7-year-old basketball prodigy. NBA figures like Parsons, Embiid and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban followed, and on Cold As Balls, athlete credits are endless. “People love it, and it shows people a whole different side of [the athletes],” says Ratner. “Traditionally, you haven’t seen these big stars on digital, but we’ve built a business predicated on trust.” Word has gotten around that he offers a safe space: “I’m not going to ruin someone for the sake of going viral.”
In June, OBB took over a 10,000-square-foot building as it diversifies into comedy, music and horror. First up? Finding a network home for Smart Money, a series based on Michael Konik’s 2006 memoir about life inside one of the world’s biggest gambling rings. And in early August, Ratner announced a new division, OBB Music, with a feature documentary chronicling the rise of superstar rapper Young Jeezy in the works.
And while there’s no denying that OBB possesses an innate understanding of the evolving Hollywood landscape, staying ahead of trends is paramount for this small fish in the sea. “That’s something we talk about all the time,” says Jack Davis, founder of CryptTV and a Ratner collaborator. “How do you build for the future in a time that’s changing so rapidly? There’s been a seismic shift in consumer behavior and network behavior.”
The constant change can be unnerving. Verizon shut down go90 in July, landing The 5th Quarter on the disabled list — for now. And new Los Angeles resident LeBron James has plans for his own company, SpringHill Entertainment, which is shaping up as a direct competitor. “We’ve discussed working on projects together,” says Ratner. “But one thing I feel strongly about is: If SpringHill is for LeBron, then we’re for everybody else.”
OZY’s Five Questions With Michael Ratner
- What’s your favorite movie? Happy Gilmore or Superbad.
- What do you worry about? Quality control.
- Who are your heroes? Charlie Chaplin, Judd Apatow, my father, and Brian Grazer.
- What’s on your bucket list? Make a movie franchise that hits film number five, or five seasons of a TV series.
- What can’t you live without? Calling my mother every day.