NCtrend: Cue the spotlight

 In 2014-11

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by Spencer Campbell

After five years at NFL Films Inc. and eight more with NASCAR Media Group LLC, Rory Karpf became a full-time independent filmmaker in 2012. Going solo was made possible by two projects Karpf was set to direct and produce for ESPN: a documentary on the Manning football dynasty and one on the 1972 U.S. men’s basketball team, which lost the Olympic championship game to the Russians on a controversial call and refused to accept the silver medal. Then, on Mother’s Day weekend, Archie Manning, former New Orleans Saints quarterback and sire to Super Bowl signal callers Peyton and Eli, dropped out. “I talked to him on Saturday,” Rory says, “and he was just like, ‘I’m sorry’ — he would always call me Cory, he thought my name was Cory instead of Rory — ‘I’m sorry, Cory, I just can’t do it right now.’” That same weekend, Kenny Davis, captain of the 1972 national team, backed out, too. Karpf, 37, asked what the chances were he’d change his mind: less than zero. “I was devastated. I was almost in the fetal position.”

His wife, Lauren, a former teacher and now chief financial officer of Charlotte-based First Row Films Inc., laughs. “He was. Crying and vomiting.” Later, she adds, “Part of the process of doing this on our own was taking risk and believing that no matter what happens, you know you’re good at what you do and you’re going to persevere. The highs are really high, and the lows are really low. I freaked out a little bit because seeing him worried made me think this isn’t going to work — we’ve got two kids, what are we going to do, we’re going to be on the streets. You panic. But then I just thought about how far Rory had come.”

Karpf grew up in Philadelphia and studied film and television production at Boston University before joining Mount Laurel, N.J.-based NFL Films as a producer in 1999. He followed its head of production to NASCAR Media in Charlotte in 2004, directing Dale, a documentary on racing legend Dale Earnhardt that became the top-selling sports DVD in history. Three years later, he directed Tim Richmond: To The Limit, about the NASCAR driver who died of AIDS in 1989, for ESPN. Though directing for ESPN, Karpf was still a salaried employee of NASCAR Media. He explored going out on his own about seven or eight years ago, but a camera cost about $150,000, with editing equipment and software $60,000 more. “Now you can edit on a laptop and get Adobe Premiere [editing software] for $50 a month,” Karpf says. A camera runs about $5,000. Startup costs for First Row totaled about $40,000 because he had to cover production insurance and, though he had agreements with ESPN, initial expenses for the Manning project. “Usually you only hear about people taking risks when it works out,” Karpf says. “It just seems like such a great idea. But while you’re in it, you’re spending your own money, and if you’re trying to pay people after they work, you’re paying them out of your pocket.”

Long story short, one of Karpf’s producers talked the U.S. captain into participating, and about three months later, Archie changed his mind after Karpf sent an email to Olivia Manning, explaining why a film about her husband and sons mattered. The Book of Manning aired in 2013 and was the network’s most-watched movie of the year. “It’s right up there with any documentary we’ve done, in terms of ratings and buzz,” says John Dahl, an ESPN Films executive producer. Karpf landed an agent with Beverly Hills, Calif.-based William Morris Endeavor Entertainment LLC and connected with Snoop Dogg. First Row is now working on a miniseries called Snoop & Son, which focuses on the pot-smoking rapper’s relationship with his kid, a high-school football phenom.

Though Karpf is a skilled filmmaker — Dahl says his gift is gaining the trust of subjects — running a production company requires more than ability. “You gotta have talent and a business strategy,” Dahl says. Karpf’s business plan relies on relationships: playing them up in his films and then using them to keep a steady stream of projects in the pipeline. “It takes a while to build trust, but now I’ve got Archie Manning calling people and vouching for me. … He and Snoop Dogg actually know each other,” Karpf says. And Snoop Dogg’s son is a friend of Lorenzo Fertitta’s son. The elder Fertitta co-owns Ultimate Fighting Championship, the largest mixed-martial-arts promotion company in the world. “I got to know him last weekend at a UFC pay-per-view event. We were filming because Snoop’s son was with Lorenzo’s son,” Karpf says. “But I also wanted to take the opportunity to meet some people and maybe work together.”

Next year will be big for Karpf’s company. Snoop & Son premieres in January on ESPN, which will also air two of his documentaries — one on a former Duke University basketball star and Carolina antagonist, tentatively titled I Hate Christian Laettner — in the spring. He declines to disclose revenue or exact production costs but says reality-TV shows typically run “a couple hundred thousand dollars an episode.” Film industry officials urge Karpf to move closer to Hollywood, but he’s not inclined to leave Charlotte, where he and Lauren recently bought a house. Their basement serves as First Row’s headquarters. Los Angeles is crowded with production companies, he says, and ESPNU and The SEC Network are in Charlotte. Plus, Charlotte is family-friendly, and First Row is a family business, consisting of Rory, Lauren, a slew of freelancers and maybe one day their two boys, who already write and direct their own movies. Just like their parents, only better. “They told us they’re going to be more successful,” Lauren says.

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