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July 18, 2009

The New Rules According to Ashton Kutcher

Inexhaustible, freewheeling, would-be media mogul Ashton Kutcher is inking cable, broadcast and web deals...proving new content calls for new (or was that no?) rules.

By Jenny Hontz

Ashton Kutcher has far too much kinetic energy to hang around a set all day, waiting for his next scene.



"You sit around for, like, eight hours and work for about three," Kutcher says as he gets his hair trimmed and tousled for his emmy photo shoot. "When you've got five hours of sitting around, you tend to come up with some ideas."


Credit boredom with launching the actor's second career as a producer.



Kutcher was playing goofy teen Michael Kelso on the Fox sitcom That ’70s Show when he started kicking around concepts with Jason Goldberg, his friend and now partner in Katalyst Media.



The idea they came up with was Punk’d, an edgy homage to Candid Camera in which Kutcher pulled elaborate pranks on celebrity friends. The show launched on MTV in 2002, ran for seven seasons and established Kutcher's reputation as a renegade alternative-comedy producer tapped into youth culture.



"He doesn't play by the rules, which is fun," says Goldberg, who sports a scruffy beard and an ever-present BlackBerry. "Ashton doesn't have rules."



With the networks suffering from ratings erosion, defection to new media and the fallout from a costly writers' strike, a rule breaker may just be what the TV industry needs. In the six years since the debut of Punk'd, Katalyst has expanded from two guys working out of Kutcher's house to a company of thirty-seven, with a TV division led by former NBC executive Karey Burke. And it keeps outgrowing its office space.



Never mind that many independent TV production companies are going out of business. Katalyst recently secured $10 million in financing to help create a digital studio focusing on interactive content for the web, mobile phones and other broadband new media. The company also inked a TV deal with CBS Paramount while retaining international rights to its unscripted shows. And, of course, Katalyst still produces feature films, most of which star Kutcher.



"We've got a lot going on," Kutcher says. "We're busy."



And how. Katalyst's Beauty and the Geek wrapped its successful run on the CW in May, and the company's next generation of projects launched in September: the ABC game show Opportunity Knocks, which travels around the country to test contestants' knowledge of their family members, and the firm's first original web series, Blah Girls, an edgy, South Park-esque show featuring animated teen girls commenting on celebrity culture.



A new ABC reality show with Tyra Banks and CBS's Game Show in My Head are also expected to debut midseason.



The company has a slew of new projects in development, too, including a scripted one-hour NBC drama about a cruise ship doctor and a pair of scripted comedies at CBS: Man and Wife and Wife and Tony T with Samantha Bee and Jason Jones of The Daily Show. Moreover, Burke and her team were pitching four more projects to networks as this story went to press.



When it comes to TV, there's no doubt Kutcher is thinking big. "I want to have a slate of television season after season, not just two shows that come back. I want to have six."



How did this thirty-year-old go from model to mini-mogul in a decade flat? Perhaps by mastering multi-tasking. For someone who could easily coast through life enjoying his status as a movie star married to an even wealthier movie star, Demi Moore, Kutcher seems to work awfully hard. "I don't need to do anything," Kutcher says, but "I guess I have a healthy fear of failure, which borderlines on unhealthy at times."



Juggling roles as an actor, producer, husband, stepfather, sex symbol and hipster guy's guy would seem to require a bit of a split personality. Spend a few hours with him, and you'll see some of his many sides.



One minute, he's intense and focused, a man in charge, trading notes with Goldberg on a script while sipping a Starbucks cinnamon iced latte: "This, I'm not crazy about," he says. Next, he's the dude who cracks crotch jokes with a photographer and talks up a new joint where a guy can watch a game and drink a beer while getting a buzz cut.



Minutes later, he's sincere, bordering on sappy: "I'm probably like the big dreamer, and Jason's the practical dreamer. So together, we can make dreams come true," he says, instantly admitting, "That's weird. I never said that before." Switching roles yet again, Kutcher's acting insecure about the very body that's adored by droves of female fans. "I had to take a breath in to tuck this [shirt] in because I'm fat," he says after a wardrobe change. "I feel like an Oreo."



Although it's impossible to feel even slightly sorry for a guy blessed with looks, smarts, ambition and success, Kutcher acknowledges that the juggling isn't easy.



"The first thing that gets shut down is a social life," he says. "The next thing to suffer is your friendships. You tend to neglect them because you know they'll be there, especially if they're real friends. The next thing that starts to suffer is your family. How do you negotiate it? Listen to the people you love and just try to be there for them as much as you can. And try not to get stuck on the results. Live the journey."



What a journey it's been, from Kutcher's childhood home in Iowa, where he was plucked from obscurity after a modeling competition, to landing a dream role on a Hollywood sitcom at nineteen and eventually launching a successful production company. Kutcher and his Katalyst partner met through Goldberg's wife, actress Soleil Moon Frye of Punky Brewster fame.



"I was friends with a friend of hers, and I showed up and started drinking his booze and sleeping with his women," Kutcher jokes. "No, not really sleeping with his women. He was married already.



Sleeping with his wife's friends - well, trying to. Couldn't pull it off."



Goldberg was considering a job as a film executive when he and Kutcher decided to work together instead. "We started shooting ideas around and thought, 'How hard can it be?'" Kutcher recalls. But things got pretty tough during the first six months, before they sold Punk’d.



"The key to being a producer is to be ready to be poor for a while," Kutcher says. "We got to a point where my partner was broke, and I was like, 'Look we can go make a [studio] deal, or we can wait.' We could have taken a deal just based on the fact that I was known at the time, but we decided to build the company first. As soon as you cash out, you're limiting your potential. It got tight and uncomfortable, but that's how you usually know you're on the edge of something great."



Greatness probably didn't come to mind as Hollywood execs listened to their pitch for Punk’d.



"People thought we were insane," Goldberg admits. "MTV bought the idea at the end of the day because they knew they had an insurance policy with Ashton. But we knew we had the pulse. We were reckless, but it was controlled chaos."



Punk’d soon entered the cultural vernacular as a synonym for "pranked," but Kutcher recalls the experience with a fond weariness. "We invented a word, so that was good," he says, but "while we were doing it, it just felt like a lot of work. It's probably the most difficult show we've ever produced. Someday we'll do something that rivals it, but not today."



Developing a reputation for pulling pranks on celebrities certainly has its drawbacks. Rod Aissa, Katalyst's executive vice-president of TV, worked on the show as an MTV executive. "Jason would call me from the truck and say, 'You're not gonna be happy, but so-and-so is angry,'" he says. "I would call someone in for a meeting, and I would have to qualify with lawyers and agents that nothing would happen."



Three weeks after the show debuted, Aissa met Kutcher and Goldberg for dinner and drinks, but the restaurant refused to seat them. "The maitre d' says, 'I'm sorry, but we can't have you in the restaurant. There's a lot of celebrity clientele tonight, and I can't have you doing Punk’d.'"



Most of the celebrities duped for the show turned out to be good sports. "I didn't lose any friends over it," Kutcher says. "I think a lot of people avoided me for a while, but for good reason. I would have avoided me, too. If somebody tried to pull that on me right now...."



With a cable hit on their hands, the pair quickly tried to capitalize on their brand by developing more of what Kutcher calls "disruptive programming with a heart." And though Hollywood partnerships can be notoriously short-lived, Kutcher says he and Goldberg "work together like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie."



"We just make babies," Goldberg says.



"Except we don't have sex," Kutcher adds.



Even after a couple of high-profile births, they still fight the perception that Katalyst is a mere vanity deal.



"You always have to overcome that," Kutcher says. "Every show that we do, as producers, there's some expectation that my contribution is creating visibility for the project in the consumer marketplace. People will say, 'Wow, it's really not a vanity deal,' but then they want all the perks of a vanity deal. And that sometimes is difficult to negotiate because the project should be good enough to speak for itself - always.



"I'm proud of the babies we create, but I don't want to be the voice of the child, if you will. I think the child should have to work and has got to earn it. And ultimately, if it doesn't earn it on its own, it will become spoiled and fragment. The audience will resent the show; the show will resent the audience. So the tricky thing is negotiating that properly — to give it enough, but not spoil it."



Beauty and the Geek struck the right balance and stayed on the air for five seasons, but things didn't always work out so well. The company's first foray into scripted TV, the ABC comedy Miss/Guided, didn't get picked up for a second season earlier this year. Scripted comedy is "a challenging environment," Goldberg says. "There are not a lot of shots, and it's expensive."



Another short-lived effort was the E! series Pop Fiction, in which celebs turned the tables on the tabloids. The stars planted false stories, often by acting out absurd scenarios in front of paparazzi. Kutcher thought he might make amends with celebrity friends by conspiring with them to fool the media, but the show lasted for only a few episodes.



"Everybody was afraid to do that show," Kutcher says. "I saw it as an opportunity to introduce doubt into an institution that can't be trusted, but unfortunately, people were afraid to fight the beast. I mean, the media is a big beast. The same companies that make movies own those magazines. I was, like, 'What are they gonna do?' I was behind it all, and it hasn't hurt my career."



Kutcher is proud of the impact of Pop Fiction, however brief. "We actually pulled it off," he says, "because for a while there, people didn't know what to believe. That was the whole point, and if we could have kept it going, those magazines would have folded because people would have made the assumption that it was all lies. And we wouldn't have photographers in our backyards."



He learned a few lessons along the way. "I found out some bizarre stuff, like, some people actually pay those people to take their photos. People want that attention for attention's sake. I understand wanting to tell people about your art, but people don't even want to be artists anymore — they just want to be famous. That seems weird to me."



Despite the setbacks, Katalyst keeps forging ahead. "Ashton has an amazing business sense," Aissa says. "We're in the midst of retooling creative on the ABC game show, and he'll segue to how to set up an online promo contest. He'll ask, 'How are we going to monetize it? How do we drive tune-in to the show?' He shifts gears quickly and efficiently."



He built his name playing stoners like Kelso in That ’70s Show and Jesse in Dude, Where's My Car?, so people can be forgiven for underestimating him. But as Burke points out, "It's not Kelso sitting in the room. [Kutcher] is incredibly bright and serious when it comes to creating comedy."
In fact, if you get him going on the future of digital media, he might start sounding like a geek.



"The web is like a giant TiVo, and the genius part is you don't have to give half of it away to NBC or ABC or CBS or anyone," he enthuses. "Land has no value in an infinite earth, right? There's a limited bandwidth to television, so unless you have a million, bajillion dollars, you can't own a network. But on the web, you can own your own distribution entity, so the real power doesn't belong to the network. The power belongs to the studio, to the content creators themselves. So it's like boundless television owned by the artist."



Kutcher believes he can transfer TV's advertising model to the web — and turn a profit. "The big mistake everybody made on the web was, they take their stuff and put it on the web, and then they try to ad-support it afterwards," he says. "Well, it's already been successful, so that would be like deriving your entire value out of a rerun of an episode of Friends or The Office. It's already had its first run. If you get it ad-supported before your first run, then it becomes a value proposition."



Advertisers tend to pass on unproven web projects because "they've been screwed over by enough people that they don't want to be screwed over again," Kutcher admits. But here's where his reputation and star power come in handy. "They know the kind of content that we create as a company. So they know, worst-case scenario, they're going to be built into something that has value and integrity."



When Kutcher and Goldberg started the business, they had no idea they would become such great friends. Today, with so many projects, they have to work hard to put their friendship first.



"Whenever we feel like the business is starting to get in the way of our friendship, we mend our business to make our friendship our priority," Kutcher says. "We got to a point where we started to get too busy. I was, like, 'Dude, I haven't seen you in, like, a month.' Whenever it gets to that point, we know we need to hire somebody."



Judging from the recent hires, it's gotten to that point quite a lot. In fact, the biggest challenge for Katalyst today is a happy one — namely, handling the company's rapid expansion. Growth, after all, rarely comes without growing pains.



"It's really hard to manage people and delegate effectively," Kutcher admits. "When you're successful without a staff, being successful with a staff is a different skill set. How much do you delegate? What are the expectations? I didn't go to business school. I'm good at coming up with shows. I know how to make a commotion. Managing staff? We're learning. We're abusing our employees to learn it. We really are. We get upset because they do not do exactly what we would have done. Our shows suffer for it a little bit. Our relationships at home suffer a little bit. We have to learn to be good managers of people, and we're trying really hard."



Kutcher's employees don't seem any worse for wear. They recently started documenting the company's foibles on video and posting them to the Katalyst Media page of Facebook. Someday, it might make a reality version of The Office. For now, it's "just for shits and giggles," Kutcher says.



"The biggest motivation is, we have fun doing what we're doing. That's it. I wake up and I'm excited to go to work. The reason our company has been successful to this point is because even if we go broke, we're still having fun, and we don't care. Granted, we want to build a really valuable company, but as long as it isn't 'The end justifies the means,' as long as it doesn't become Machiavellian, we'll be really successful."



Kutcher just doesn't seem the Machiavellian type. As he heads out the door for his next meeting, wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a USA Wrestling cap, he waves goodbye and shouts as he goes. "Just make us look cool, okay?"


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