The Strike Anywhere director on the challenges of finishing the documentary in lockdown and the poignancy of its timing
Strike Anywhere director Michael Jacobs was tasked with unpacking the Donald Sterling scandal, which rocked the LA Clippers’ 2014 season, as director of new Quibi series Blackballed. The scandal was a major factor in spurring the unprecedented movement from professional athletes to hold racism accountable. Told through the eyes of the players and coach, the timely series weaves a tale of race, power and high-stakes sports in bite-sized episodes made for the mobile first platform.
Creating a show for Quibi presented Mike with a unique set of challenges. Knowing that the format was intended for mobile play meant that it had to be shot for both horizontal and vertical viewing.
We chatted to Mike to pick his brains on Blackballed and his career in general.
Q> Tell us about your career path and what led you to start Strike Anywhere?
Mike> My debut film Audience of One was on the festival circuit at the same time Barry Jenkins and Justin Barber were out with their film Medicine for Melancholy. We became fast friends and talked about cross-disciplinary collaborations both in the brand and original content space. It all grew very naturally from there. As we found traction with a few agencies and brands (big shouts to 215 McCann and Facebook for being early believers in Strike) we formalised things. First as a directing collective, then as the company grew, we added the necessary infrastructure and roster of a proper production shop.
Q> What projects are you excited to work on once the industry starts back up?
Mike> I'm developing a few unscripted projects that are a continuation of my work storytelling at the intersection of pop culture and social injustice. I'm also reading a few scripts as I consider making a jump into narrative features. On the brand side, it's encouraging to see so much awareness and an examination of values around structural racism. This wave of agencies, brands, and production companies making conscious efforts in diversity and inclusion feels like a lasting shift. I know firsthand it makes for better filmmaking. So I look forward to opportunities to create ad work that helps shape where we go from here.
Q> What project(s) are you most proud of having worked on?
Mike> I'm hopeful that Blackballed contributes to these much-needed conversations about race in America right now. I also have a forthcoming feature doc with Marvel Comics for Disney+ about superhero identity constructs that I am excited about. In the brand space, some of the recent films I've made with the Facebook Connectivity team are a reminder of the participatory power the internet holds in the developing world.
Q> What drives you creatively?
Mike> My curiosity about the world is most of the fuel I need. But then it's all about the power of collaboration. Artists and craft persons coming together to build, design, and capture visual story. This is a singularly unique experience that I can't seem to get enough of.
Q> What draws you to sports content?
Mike> Sports are a reflection of our society. Because of their widespread popularity, they also provide a platform for conversations around identity, politics, and popular culture. Professional sports also feature some of the most inspirational people on the planet. And as an added bonus, athletes are dazzling to shoot on camera.
Q> How did Blackballed come your way? Can you walk us through the process of getting it greenlit?
Mike> My longtime producing partner Chris Gary and his team had Doc Rivers and Chris Paul committed to the project and were actively pitching the series to distributors. Once talks with Quibi got serious, Chris put me up to direct. Within weeks of presenting my vision for the series, we were in production. Most film projects take years to sell through, shoot, and finish. In this case, we prepped, shot, and delivered in under 10 months!
Q> What was the most challenging part of making Blackballed?
Mike> The speed at which we had to deliver the series for essentially a startup streaming platform provided for a myriad of challenges. We had to make two versions of the film (one for landscape orientation and one for horizontal) under a lot of creative and technical scrutiny. I tend to thrive under pressure but getting through post as the country was going into lockdown was really tough.
Q> Tell us about having to finish the show in isolation?
Mike> Not being in the same room as the editor, colourist, and mix engineer was a challenge. Especially in the final QC checks. Apologies but I have to plug a product here, if it wasn't for Frame.io there is zero chance we would have been able to complete this film during Covid. We had remote teams working around the clock in LA, Oakland, San Francisco, and Australia. There were archival teams clearing usage and dropping in footage, graphics teams adjusting animation and text, and two editorial units making vital tweaks - all down to the wire. But I had an incredible support team behind me and I am grateful to too many people to name here.
Q> How do you hope Blackballed will add to the larger narrative of today's political climate?
Mike> The recent spate of police killings (and in Ahmaud Arbery's case, non-police killing) are obviously so much worse than anything the players had to face in Blackballed. That has to be made very clear. But as an examination of how structural racism is a function of American society, our series speaks to these same ugly truths. The NBA, while not perfect, is a very progressive model of an American enterprise and cultural institution. Its current generation of athletes has become essential voices in speaking up and speaking out against injustice.
Q> Is there anything you hope to see change in the industry moving forward?
Mike> I can only speak to my own experiences and impressions but diversity on set (and at the executive level) makes for better films, plain and simple. Over the years, I have established some pretty diverse crew relationships as I find different perspectives are vital to making better creative choices. But I need to do more work in this area. Listening and learning and then in action. As a director and partner of a production company, I am in a position where I can identify and elevate new talent as well as ensure more representational diversity on any given project. It's not always going to be clean or easy but fortunately, it's good for both art and business.