Tommy Swanhaus created his first reality show at the age of 25. Bought by the TLC Network, Swanhaus saw immediate success in media come his way. However, the Duke University graduate didn’t stop there. While working for Miramax, Swanhaus saw the limited number of films that the company picked up for distribution each year. An innovator by nature, Swanhaus did something about all the great films being tossed aside. His idea was to create a streaming service to bring eyes to the works of art of fledgling filmmakers. Swanhaus developed The FreeStyle Life Inc., an online independent distribution service for filmmakers. Swanhaus’s creation allowed viewers to stream films and video long before Netflix and Amazon Prime became household names.
Now a producer for Ron Sherman Advertising, Swanhaus has taken his amazing background into the world of commercial production. It has been an amazing career for this entertainment pioneer, and it isn’t even close to being over yet.
Totalprestige Magazine recently caught up with the media guru to find out more about his past, present and future in industry.
Tommy, you have had an extensive career in media. Tell us how you got involved with television and other forms of media early on?
I am the youngest in my family. My father did marketing for Pepsi and my brothers were filmmakers when I was growing up, so our dinner conversations entailed everything from TV commercials with Michael Jackson to how to make a great film inexpensively and still connect with the audience. When I was in high school, I interned with Miramax Films before they were bought by Disney. That internship was a real eye-opening experience of the process of content creation from beginning to end and monetizing it. Overall, it was great to see the business side of media from my father, and the production side from my brothers.
In your mid-20s, you sold your first reality television show to TLC. Tell us about the show, how you came up with the concept and how easy – or difficult – it was to sell it during that time?
While I might say I was “lucky”, I also say luck is preparation meets opportunity. Selling my first show was lucky as it sold for so many episodes and for such a high price, but everything was really already planned out and put in place. The show was called “The Bussey Bunch”, which I put together with my two brothers. The Bussey Family was/is unique as they are fun, lovable, and wrestlers. When TLC Network executives saw the sell-tape, they instantly ordered 12 episodes on the spot of the series, which is unheard of! It was the show that they paid for the highest to get at the time. The show was about a modern day Brady Bunch with the mom coming to the marriage with three kids, and the dad coming to the marriage with three kids. The family ran Professional Championship Wrestling, a pro wrestling league in Texas. The family does everything from write the story lines and clean the bathrooms to actually wrestle. By me selling this show that I created when I was 25-years old, I became one of the youngest executive producers in Hollywood and New York for my age, besides Ben Silverman, who is now a former NBC president. The biggest difficulty for me was not selling the TV show, it was getting the network to put the marketing dollars behind it when they were in the process of changing the direction of the network. We had a percentage of all ancillary sales of merchandise, action figures, and anything and everything as it is wrestling.
You developed The FreeStyle Life Inc., digital independent film distribution company in in 2010. How did you come up with this idea and what were the challenges when putting it together?
I would say between working at Miramax and other film distributors where they reject hundreds of great films each year and only select a few films to distribute. The films that are selected to be distributed, their success is dependent on how much Miramax wants to put into it. I saw an opportunity to solve this lack of distribution through the combination of technology and the Internet. I could create a platform where award-winning films could be viewed on any device, anytime and anywhere, and that is exactly what The FreeStyle Life was. We were streaming films and video content years before Netflix, and Amazon on your phone, Smart TV, Computer, Tablet, etc. We had the best of both worlds situation for monetization. We also monetized them three different ways. First, like Apple, where you can buy the film with one-click. We then also had the feature where you could sign up for a monthly subscription like Netflix and see all of them. We also allowed regular viewers to come to our platform and watch “making ofs”, behind the scenes, and director and actor interviews, which was ad-supported, so those were free to the viewer.
The FreeStyle Life was described at the #1 Global Entrepreneurship Week Spot in the United States as the “Future of Media and Entertainment.” We went on to expand The FreeStyle Life, so our films and video content could be seen on all devices all over the world in 110 Countries and 26 different languages.
Can you tell me about The FreeStyle Life Exhibition?
We never expected The FreeStyle Life Film Exhibition to be such an instant success. The year that we launched it, it was among the Top 10 major film festivals in terms of web traffic. That means our newly created film exhibition that took place in the palm of your hand or the comfort of your couch watching your smart TV was getting as much online traction as the Toronto Film Festival, Sundance, Cannes, or Berlin Film Festival. For our Film Exhibition, we had set viewing times, and live Q&As with the directors, etc. Our Golden Swan Award the first year was a film that ended up being the official submission for Peru and a finalist for the Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Film just shortly after it won the Golden Swan. We had feature films, short films, music videos, student films. Because most of the films were paid for through countries’ cultural affairs department, our exhibition was described as the “Olympics for Independent Film”.
What I personally loved about the FreeStyle Life Inc. was that it was recognized by so many wonderful organizations and groups, including the United Nations. It was the voice for some many filmmakers and their causes all over the world. I used to be invited to what seemed like weekly discussions with Ambassadors, the top people for USAID, and many other organizations to discuss HIV, access to medicine, global education and technology. These meetings were at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.
With media changing so rapidly, and the move from television to online/mobile content, what are the biggest challenges to media companies today?
Your mobile phone is the most important device as it is always on you. Therefore, you need to make sure people can access your content on their mobile. It is not likely that someone will watch a full feature film on their mobile device, but they may watch shorter form content on the mobile or tablet over their TV. The average attention span of someone watching a video today is 2.7 minutes. Therefore, your high-quality content should be around that length, if you want people to watch and engage with it.
The biggest challenges for media companies with everyone being a prosumer (professional consumer) is there are over 2.7 billion videos online. How do you make yours stand out and be authentic? How do you cut through all the noise and clutter and make your message stand out?
Since you started your career and businesses, how has media changed? Do you think it is changing for the better or worse?
I have been very fortunate where I got to see the old media way and also understand the new way to connect and engage with people. I think media is changing for the best as technology has enabled us to track a viewer to the nano second when he stopped engaging. Targeting has allowed us to better use our advertising dollars and as a consumer you are going to see more ads that are of real interest to you.
Tommy, on what and where are you working right now?
I have gone from being an entrepreneur to an intrapreneur. I am using my entrepreneurial talent and transforming that into an awesome existing 30-year-old TV commercial production company. I am a producer at Ron Sherman Advertising and have my hands in everything it seems, which is why I love working there. We have the Guinness World Record for most TV commercials produced. We set the record in 2016 with 7,263 commercials and in 2017 we made 8,395.
Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies estimates there is a total of $383.3 billion spent by homeowners on home improvements yearly, so the question is: how could we further help this industry? We came up with the Houseaware Platinum Contractor to help both homeowners and contractors by offering qualified contractors our third party endorsement. The Platinum Contractor Seal provides the homeowner reassurance that the contractor will get their project done and they are in good hands. For contractors, the Houseaware Platinum Contractor separates them from their competition. It also comes with advertising to promote their company as a Platinum Contractor, such as a TV spot, a radio spot, and a print ad.
I have also just helped launch the world’s largest unlimited home improvement video streaming service. It is pretty amazing that we can take a contractor’s ordinary website and give them their own extraordinary HGTV meets Food Network-style channel on their website, and it can be all branded by their company and their company’s product. You can’t beat that as a way to social engaging and keep your potential customers coming back. The real smart contractors that are already bringing in a lot of revenue understand the power of streaming video. Our goal is to help the others come to this realization and easily implement great high-quality videos for their websites through us.
While we are setting the world record for most TV commercials produced, mostly in home improvement, we also have lots of exciting additional projects, such as we are helping launch medical cannabis in Arkansas, which is a huge deal and big business. With only five cultivation licenses and thirty-two dispensary licenses, you can only imagine the competition from the big players that are from Arkansas, along with the other top cannabis companies in the world.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
Finding the time in the day to get everything done. I work with a wonderful team that is very efficient, but sometimes it seems that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done.
What was your most rewarding professional experience?
My most rewarding professional experience is helping an individual achieve his or her dream. I have helped people in all different dimensions. For example, I helped one filmmaker raise six figures to finish his film through my platform. The film went on to be an award-winning documentary.
I have helped hundreds of filmmakers launch and market their films. But a real tangible example is when I helped an individual who had worked two years on a film and it was premiering in New York City on back-to-back nights at the same theater. The filmmakers thought they were going to have a packed house the opening night, but when no one showed up, and they were devastated. They called me in panic and asked if I could help. I said yes and that day we promoted the film through The FreeStyle Life Platform. When we went to go see the movie that night in New York, there was a line down the block and it was sold out. I congratulated the filmmaker and said soak this up as this moment is very special.
Instinct versus expertise: Which is more important and why?
Instinct comes from ingrained repetition while expertise is a studied and learned skill. Therefore, I would rather take expertise which is a learned skill, because if your instincts are wrong, there is not much you can do about that. With expertise, you can sharpen your skills to make sure you are always on the cutting edge.
Tommy, what is a day in your life like?
Always fun and busy! Non-stop, but lots of appreciation.
What makes you smile?
My son, Johnny, makes me smile and laugh. He is the best! Johnny is named after my father who was a legendary father and businessman. He helped to bring Stolichnaya to the United States by trading Pepsi for Stoli. He also changed the Pepsi Can. He died of Pancreatic Cancer, but had a huge impact on my life. My overall family makes me smile and laugh as my mom is one of the sweetest women ever.
What scares you?
Fire scares me as my son and I are very lucky to be alive. My home caught on fire last year while my son was sleeping. Luckily, I had not fallen asleep yet. We were able to get out in time, but 10 more seconds might have been a different story. There were 34 firemen, 10 firetrucks, and four ambulances there that night.
What is your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement or honor was being asked to speak at the #1 Global Entrepreneurship Week Location in the United States, which was Miami. I was the third person the committee asked to speak about media at this event as the first two were not able to do it. The first person they asked was Steve Wozniak, who co-founded Apple with Steve Jobs. The second person that they asked was Nolan Bushnell the co-founder of Atari. While they both could not speak, I was truly honored that they asked me next as they said I was the youngest successful entrepreneur. They called my talk, “The Future Of Media and Entertainment”.
I am also honored to have created what was declared the first successful series on the mobile platform, won Min’s Integrated Marketing Award, selected for the People’s Choice Nominee for the Streamy Awards, an invitation to join IADAS or the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, along with speaking at Duke University a couple of times. Being a part of the IAB and telling my Internet advertising story in Washington DC to different congressmen and senators. Being a judge for the Oscars of the Web, or the Webbies.
It always makes me chuckle to see that they are selling a book online about my career called “Tommy Swanhaus: Multimedia, Mobile Content, Cross-Platform”. They say mimicry is the ultimate compliment.
But, what trumps all of these accomplishments is my five-year-old son, Johnny. He is named after my father, who was a wonderful man. Johnny is going to do great things in this world.
What is your secret talent?
Great question! My secret is being able to keep that secret.
Which historical figure do you most admire?
Although you could argue that Tim Berners-Lee is too young to be considered a historical figure, Tim created the World Wide Web in 1989 and that changed the world. He designed and built the first web browser, editor and server. Tim has transformed our entire lives by what he achieved.
Do you have any hobbies?
I play ice hockey here in Little Rock, Arkansas, with a great group of people. Somehow, I have seemed to lead the league consistently with penalty minutes. There was a season where I also lead in points, but I normally am pretty good at getting penalty minute. They call me “Captain Hook”.
What are you never without?
During the week, you will never see me without a pocket square in my blazer or jacket. I think it is an easy way to give your attire some old-school class and style. Pocket squares are my thing!
Can you share two of your favorite quotes with us?
I am fortunate to have heard Maya Angelou talk before. I love her quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Confucius -“Choose a job that you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
What advice would you give to anyone starting a new business?
If you are going to start a new business, just buy an existing one and go from there. You will save yourself the trouble of trying to actually start it, which entails the team you must put together, figuring out the technology, along with hundreds of hurdles you must jump through when starting a company. It is much easier to raise money or invest in something that is already up and running than something that is just an idea.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
There comes a point in your career when you are working late or long hours and you might start to question what you are doing. My father always told me “to put your head down and carry on. You will eventually get to the other side and will be amazed when you get there!” My father was a trailblazer and a man of true wisdom.
For more information on Tommy Swanhaus and all of his projects, please visit RonShermanAdvertising.com