Exec tells Variety there's room for 'screw it, just do it' mentality

Richard Branson is a tough man to pin down. With 36 companies, charities and foundations under the Virgin brand, the high-flying executive spoke with Marc Graser in Philadelphia, where he was launching Virgin America’s newest route.

MG: Why get into making movies and TV shows?

RB: The last time we were active in film was when we launched Virgin Atlantic in 1984. Coincidentally, we made ‘1984,’ Richard Burton’s last movie. The film went three times over budget and nearly bankrupted the Virgin Group. The film has done well over the years, but we thought it was a risk to be in the film business, so we abandoned it until last year, when we launched Virgin Produced. (Jason Felts, the CEO of Virgin Produced) and his team have now delivered not only once but twice (with “Limitless,” which took in $162 million worldwide; and “Immortals,” which nabbed $226 million globally).

MG: Innovation seems to be lacking, especially in Hollywood, where companies are afraid of taking risks. Do you have any advice for executives?

RB: I think it’s easier for an entrepreneurial company that’s not public, that maybe still has its owners involved in the running of it, to just say ‘Screw it, just do it.’ The moment you start working for big corporations, if people try something and it goes wrong, they’re likely to lose their job. Therefore they’re far less likely to take risks — which is why Hollywood is so fear-driven. And America generally, too.

MG: Whenever you launch a business, you take something familiar but give it a twist. With films, are you planning on experimenting with distribution windows?

RB: We’ve certainly thought about it, but we have good distribution partners with companies like Relativity Media (and a first-look TV deal with Entertainment One). So we’ll leave it up to them to figure it out and tell us what they’d like to do. But what we do to aggressively and strategically market (the films) and get them out there in an alternative distribution standpoint is limitless.

MG: Your new Virgin Produced channel on airline Virgin America could provide a new outlet for your films or TV shows.

RB: When people come onboard our planes, we like to make sure they’re not bored. (The channel) is the first step that allows us to look at our major assets as entertainment platforms, whether it’s on a plane, in a hotel room, on your mobile phone, in our health clubs or on one of our trains.

MG: Where does Virgin Produced fit into your overall entertainment strategy?

RB: Virgin Produced is just in phase one (with its films). The Virgin entertainment brand did help people realize that they were going to get more entertainment onboard the airline. But as we look to the future, we’re going to utilize entertainment as a way to organically integrate the Virgin brand in new ways, especially as more consumers consume entertainment on different platforms.

MG: What factors determine whether to launch a Virgin-branded business?

RB: Well, we only go into areas where there’s a crying-out need for us. There was a crying-out need for a breath of fresh air for the airline industry, and I think Virgin America is fulfilling that need. If there’s an industry where there’s an obvious gap in the market, or badly run or not serving the consumer, it’s something we’d consider. We’re always open to ideas.

MG: Virgin is a well-known brand overseas, especially in Europe and Australia, but is still growing in the U.S. What is it like doing business here?

RB: It’s obviously bigger and more competitive, definitely. The upside to success is more enormous. It’s a big market we would like to have a bigger presence in. But we’re also growing elsewhere. Virgin is making a big push in Latin America. I think we’re among the top 20 (brands) in the world, but if we want to get into the top three, Virgin Galactic (which takes nonprofessional astronauts into space) is going to take us there. It provides a halo effect for us.

MG: Why launch Virgin Galactic in the U.S. and build the spaceport in New Mexico?

RB: Obviously, America is a massive market. But the genius behind Virgin Galactic was Burt Rutan, who built SpaceShipOne, and is a genius engineer, and we basically decided to use his team to do it. …Nobody’s been able to replicate what he achieved over the past five years, and I don’t think anybody’s going to be able to replicate it over the next 10 years.

MG: A lot of people may look at Virgin Oceanic (an ocean exploration initiative) or Virgin Galactic or even Virgin Volcanic (a travel service intended to take tourists inside volcanoes announced on, wink-wink, April Fool’s Day) as gimmicky.

RB: Well, look at Oceanic, for instance. Eighty percent of species in the oceans have not been discovered. So, exploring our oceans has enormous relevance, and only three people have been below 18,000 feet in the sea.

MG: You and James Cameron!

RB: He’s explored the Pacific, we’re going to explore the Atlantic (when Virgin Oceanic travels to the bottom of the Puerto Rico Trench, the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean later this year), and we’ll most likely put our submarines together and explore lots of other oceans. It will be fascinating what we discover around the ocean. And then from experimental craft like (Virgin Oceanic’s submarine) come things like Virgin Galactic, that will send tens to hundreds of thousands of people (into) space. There are lots of people who want to explore the oceans as well.

MG: How did you land Tom Hanks, Will.i.am and Seth Green as the first passengers (on Virgin Volcanic)?

RB: (laughing) You’re one of the few people I’ve told, but because you’re Variety, it was an April Fool’s joke that no one caught on to. We actually had Stephen Hawking contact us. He was away on the first and called us on the second and gave us a lovely quote (for the fake press release).

MG: Does anything surprise you?

RB: I’m surprised by lots of things. I’m surprised how half a million people in America get locked up for taking drugs every year. I’m surprised that it’s principally black people. I’m surprised that when the war on drugs has so obviously failed, that America continues to wage this ridiculous war.

MG: You’re involved in a lot of charities to try to change that. How so?

RB: We have a foundation called Virgin Unite through which we’re doing our best to change minds and get on top of things that seem to be ridiculous and that politicians are too afraid of addressing. On the drug war, I’m a commissioner with something called the Global Drug Commission, which has got 15 ex-South American presidents, Kofi Annan, Paul Volcker, George Shultz, and they put out big statements about what should be done, and they’re campaigning very hard to get governments to experiment more to stop harming so many young people.

VIRGIN GROUND

The Virgin Group, headed by Richard Branson, employs approximately 50,000 people in 34 countries across its companies. It’s businesses include film and TV production, mobile telephony, travel, financial services, leisure, music, holidays, space travel and health and wellness.

Virgin Group’s global branded revenues in 2011 were around £13 billion ($21 billion). According to the Forbes 2011 list of billionaires, Branson is the fourth richest British citizen and 254th richest person in the world.

Branson’s also an investor in Tumblr and Twitter.

Virgin Produced‘s slate of upcoming projects includes the comedy “21 and Over,” an untitled Farrelly brothers laffer, the Oliver Stone drama “Darkhorse” for FX, and other TV series through its first-look deal with Entertainment One.

Virgin Hotels launches in 2013, with Chicago as the first of 25 hotels it wants to open within seven years.

Virgin Unite, the Virgin Green Fund and the Virgin Earth Challenge all use entrepreneurial tools to find solutions to big issues facing the planet, like creating and developing renewable energy sources and using local businesses as a force for good in communities.

Branson received a knighthood in 1999.

In 1976, Branson hatched the idea for Virgin Atlantic when he chartered a plane from the Virgin Islands to Puerto Rico for $2,000 and filled the flight by charging for $39 per seat. A passenger turned to him and said, “Virgin Airways isn’t too bad. Smarten up the service a little and you could be in business.”

Branson developed the idea and officially launched Virgin Atlantic Airways in 1984. He now operates Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia and Virgin America. Virgin Atlantic is part owned by Singapore Airlines, and in 1992, Branson sold the Virgin music label to EMI to keep airline afloat.

Branson jokes he came up with the Virgin name when he was 15, but the name stuck when he proposed it for the launch of his record label in 1972. Mike Oldfield recorded the first album, and it sold more than five million copies.

Virgin has always been forward-thinking. Billed as the world’s first “spaceline,” Virgin Galactic provides flights into earth’s outer atmosphere for non-professional astronauts. It is building a spaceport in New Mexico. Tickets for a flight cost $200,000. No word yet on whether Galactic charges extra for checked bags.

Virgin Oceanic‘s one-man sub will explore some of the Earth’s deepest points — the Mariana Trench is planned for later this year — while Branson will pilot the one-man sub set for a tour of the Puerto Rico Trench sometime after that.

And the announcement of Virgin Volcanic caused an eruption of sorts — and earned a smile from Stephen Hawking.

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