Michael Di Girolamo’s CV reads like a who’s who of US commercial production. Starting out as an intern at MTV, he eventually landed at RSA Films, working with Diane McArter, who nowadays is the founder of Furlined. He worked at Propaganda Films under the Partizan umbrella and eventually followed the late, great Steve Golin to Anonymous Content in 2001.
These days, Michael is the founder and managing partner of Hey Wonderful. To quote Michael, the pandemic gave him “a moment of clarity to re-examine” his business priorities and focus on evolving Hey Wonderful’s roster to mirror what he and partner Sarah McMurray stand for as a LGBTQ+ / Woman-owned production company,” giving a voice to the marginalised and truly walking the walk by who we represent and the kind of work that we produce.”
LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with Michael about the talent he’s recently been signing to Hey Wonderful’s roster and how heightened bigotry towards the LGBTQ+ community is impacting filmmaking both behind and in front of the camera.
Michael> Emily McDonald and River Gallo exude compassion and humanity in their everyday life which translates to the stories they tell behind the camera. They are not witnesses but participants in advancing LGBTQ+ equality. Emily is already shooting her first campaign with us for Cricket Wireless. It doesn’t stop there, we recently started working with queer director Matt Wolf who just shot a Microsoft Pride commercial with us at Hey Wonderful. And we’re now proud to be working with BIPOC director Franck Trozzo Kazagui who wrote and directed Nike ‘Be True’, which celebrates LGBTQ+ athletes and creatives. This campaign is a foundation to create a safe space for the next generation and move the world forward.
LBB> You've made a point of supporting LGBTQ+ talent, which I’m not sure I have specifically seen from a production company before. Why is that such an important issue to address for you as a production company leader?
Michael> As a gay man and leader in the industry I feel a strong responsibility to give visibility and support to queer talent. I think the pandemic gave me a moment of clarity to re-examine our priorities and focus on evolving our roster to mirror what my partner Sarah McMurray and I stand for as a LGBTQ+ / Woman-owned production company, giving a voice to the marginalised and truly walking the walk by who we represent and the kind of work that we produce. We have a platform to foster emerging BIPOC and LGBTQ+ talent where everyone can freely be themselves while expanding our equity and space in the world. That’s the power of advertising and we must lead by example.
LBB> What are the representation issues that LGBTQ+ people face in roles behind the camera?
Michael> Agencies and clients are helping with initiatives for BIPOC, Women and Queer talent which is great to see. It moves the needle forward in terms of having a diverse bidding pool of directors to choose from. We’re living through a time of heightened, open bigotry toward LGBTQ+ people, so now more than ever it’s important for clients and agencies to lead and open up their bidding pool so the queer community is represented behind and in front of the camera. Look at Florida, for example, enacting the harmful ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill that just passed the state legislature (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/29/dont-say-gay-bill-florida-teachers-react). When you have someone like governor DeSantis declaring a “cultural war” on companies like Disney for coming out against the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, what does that do for brands who now might think twice about having same sex couples or LGBTQ+ talent in their spots and have to fear the backlash from conservative circles in the form of boycotts? I’m hoping brands are willing to take that risk now that so much is on the line for the queer community.
It’s troubling to think that 16 states have introduced or passed ‘parental rights’ legislation that bars discussion of LGBTQ+ subjects in schools. Teachers are not allowed to instruct students about sexuality and gender identity in sex education contexts, but the way these bills are written implies that teachers shouldn’t discuss these issues at all. Taken together these bills are gaining traction and will do irreversible damage to LGBTQ+ youth across the country. I believe this will negatively impact how advertisers choose to cast same sex couples or trans people in their spots. Will they fear that they’re going to be the next Disney? It’s up to the advertisers/clients to take a bold step and not let that happen. Not bow down to the pressure and really put their stake in the ground.
LBB> How does this impact the type of filmmaking being made for brands?
Michael> I spoke about the backlash above. I think it’s great that brands honour Pride every year during the month of June but it’s not enough for brands to feel good about themselves once a year during Pride. I would like to see brands expand beyond Pride month and make it their mission to show gay and diverse people in front of and behind cameras throughout the year. The stakes are too high not to, given the climate in the country right now. Imagine a gay or trans child in Iowa who is not allowed to live as his/her/their authentic selves and seeing them represented in a commercial. Visibility matters. That’s the power we have to enact change.
LBB> Tell me more generally about Hey Wonderful right now. The company is around six years old now. How would you define it? What do you do well?
Michael> Hey Wonderful is home to a diverse body of talent who work across all genres. I’m proud that Hey Wonderful has an eclectic and boutique mentality. Visual storytelling and telling real stories are at the heart of what we do. Our work and talent are curated – and Sarah and I are very hands on which helps us manage and empower our talent to bring their visions to life. I like to say we make the impossible possible… especially when it comes to activation and hidden camera work.
LBB> What is some recent work that you feel really well represents Hey Wonderful as a production company?
Michael> Sam Cadman recently directed a spot for Liquid Death, which will surprise many people when it’s released soon. More recently, I’m proud to have shot a Microsoft Pride spot with Black/Ops. The creative team behind the spot were supportive and generous throughout the project which carried over to the shoot creating a safe space for the subjects we interviewed. By the end of the shoot it was a joyous celebration reflecting what we can accomplish when everyone comes together and is on the same page. It’s not about us in the end, it’s about the talent and having them share their experiences with us and the world.
LBB> Your career in production began at MTV - how did you land there and what did you do?
Michael> I was lucky enough to snag a sought-after internship at MTV On-Air Promos while I was at college. It was the best time to be at MTV. I eventually worked for Ted Demme at Yo MTV Raps and was thrown a lot of responsibility and wore many hats. Along the way, I had producers and mentors who believed in me. From there I landed at RSA Films working under Diane McArter who taught me the commercial ropes through her curated sales lens. I was fortunate to have an incredible foundation working for A-list production companies, but the one common denominator was the knowledge, confidence, generosity and trust my mentors gave to me. It’s a responsibility I feel we all have and something I proudly honour and pay forward in my career now. I moved to Los Angeles from NYC in 1997 and landed at Propaganda Films working as sales rep under the Partizan label before following Steve Golin to Anonymous Content in 2001.
LNN> What memories and lessons from that time have stuck with you to today?
Michael> I’d say Steve Golin passed along to me the most valuable lessons that still resonate today. Steve was so giving as a leader and 100% authentic. What you see is what is what you got and he always had your back even if it was uncomfortable. I’m willing to stick my head out and go to bat for my team. I learned that from Steve. He was gracious and lived life on the edge of vulnerability, he never took life for granted and was the most unpretentious person in the room. Steve liked to say on many occasions, “No matter how successful you become, you’re always Willy Loman.” That quote keeps me grounded and in touch. He was a trailblazer when it came to discovering talent and I learned from him how to spot emerging talent and to always support a director’s vision by standing up for them and giving them the tools to do their best work.
LBB> What did you do before you fell into the world of production? Were you quite single-minded growing up or did you flit around industries before finding your calling?
Michael> I was laser focused. I took a straight road forward and never questioned or was distracted at the crossroads along the way. I have no regrets and I’m very grateful for the choices I’ve made in my life and career.
LBB> Where did you initially grow up and what kind of kid were you?
Michael> I grew up in an Italian neighbourhood in Brooklyn. Growing up there I learned the value of family and friendships, humility, integrity and trust. I was a pretty curious kid who had Tony Manero dreams of leaving Brooklyn and making an impact in the world.
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?
Michael> The time Madonna yelled at me to be quiet on set or when she jumped off stage to show the dolly operator how to pull it herself. There was also one time I was riding in a helicopter with Brad Pitt and his manager on our way to film an Edwin Jeans commercial. While we were flying over the desert the pilot notified us that the temperature was too hot outside. And all I could think of was if the chopper crashed at that moment with Brad Pitt sitting next to me, I’ll forever be known as the Ritchie Valens of advertising.
LBB> Outside of work, what keeps you inspired / relaxed?
Michael> I’m forever inspired by people who have made a strong impact on society and have overcome adversity to come out ahead. I enjoy travelling with my friends @Coolhunting and discovering different cultures, art and architecture. But above all I love laughing with my partner of 16 years and two dogs. And I highly recommend intermittent fasting when it comes to your social media intake. That keeps me sane and balanced.
Now is the time to celebrate our LGBTQ+ community by reminding our foes that we won’t be silenced, visibility matters.