Van Toffler Launches Digital Studio Backed by Chernin Group, AT&T

Former MTV and Viacom boss teams with ex-Endemol exec Floris Bauer, Otter Media to form 'Gunpowder & Sky'

Van Toffler and Floris Bauer Otter
Courtesy of Otter Media

Van Toffler, a creative force at MTV and Viacom for nearly three decades, is funneling his energy into producing content for the digital-first generation.

Toffler (above left), former CEO of Viacom Media Networks Music Group, has teamed with Floris Bauer (above right), previously global head of strategy at Endemol, and Otter Media — the digital joint venture between Peter Chernin’s Chernin Group and AT&T — to form Gunpowder & Sky, a studio focused on cutting-edge entertainment for millennial audiences.

Toffler, who left Viacom last spring after 28 years with the media conglom, described the new studio as “the defiant lovechild of YouTube, the MCNs and Netflix.” L.A.-based Gunpowder & Sky will delve into multiple genres and formats, ranging from short-form content to feature-length films.

“The organizing principle is, we want to nurture and find people with new ideas about how to tell stories,” said Toffler, who is CEO of Gunpowder & Sky. “And we want to do that globally, with stuff that lives primarily in the digital ecosystem.”

Gunpowder & Sky has inked co-production and partnership deals with other like-minded studios and producers. Those include U.K.-based film and digital production studio Realm Pictures; direct-to-consumer film studio Supergravity Pictures; and production firms Bona Fide Prods. and Adaptive Studios. G&S expects to announce additional partnerships in the coming weeks.

“Gunpowder & Sky is a bold move for us into what we think is the next great opportunity in content production — producing premium groundbreaking video with up-and-coming as well as established writers, directors and talent for primary distribution on emerging platforms,” Peter Chernin, CEO of the Chernin Group, said in a statement. He praised Toffler’s “incredible track record producing content with emerging innovative talent for young audiences” and Bauer’s deal-making experience on a worldwide scale.

G&S projects already in the works include a four-minute animation series; a slate of digital-first horror movies; 45-second viral videos featuring global sports superstars; and “DC Trip,” a theatrical film about a high-school class trip to the White House that goes horribly awry, based on the book by comedian Sara Benincasa.

“I decided a little bit ago to leave a big corporate situation and go back to what I love, which is creating stuff and working with great creative people,” Toffler said.

Toffler said he felt the timing was right to launch a digital-skewing independent studio. “I kept bumping into Jesse (Jacobs, president of Chernin Group) and Peter Chernin, and oddly enough they wanted to build something similar,” he said.

Toffler, Bauer and Otter Media each own equity stakes in Gunpowder & Sky; the parties declined to disclose details of how the ownership breaks down. The studio plans to make key hires in the next few months to build out development, production, financing and distribution functions.

Otter Media, which AT&T and Chernin Group formed in April 2014, sees an opportunity with Gunpowder & Sky to tap into a burgeoning digital talent pool and new distribution platforms, according to Jacobs. “You have this whole YouTube ecosystem that we’ve been a part of and it’s been great,” he said. “But there’s no one home that is the place for the next generation of great creators.”

G&S-produced content may flow through other companies in Otter Media’s portfolio, Jacobs noted. Those include multichannel network Fullscreen and Ellation, which is focused on subscription VOD businesses.

The studio’s principals are betting Toffler can replicate the successes he had at MTV and Viacom in developing breakthrough youth media brands. On his watch, the conglom launched MTV Films, MTV Digital, MTV2 and other nets, along with a wide-ranging slate of content including “Beavis and Butthead,” “The Real World,” “Punk’d,” “Jackass,” “Unplugged,” “Catfish” and the MTV Video Music Awards. He also produced or executive produced culturally resonating films such as “Election,” “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Hustle and Flow.”

Bauer, Gunpowder & Sky’s president, previously worked as an adviser at Otter Media where he formulated the strategy to launch the studio. Prior to that, he spent more than nine years at Endemol, and he was one of the initiators of Endemol Beyond, the production company’s global network of premium digital channels.

Gunpowder & Sky has “a real appetite to experiment” with creators who embody “quality storytelling and unique visual aesthetics that appeal to the global connected generation,” Bauer said.

About the fledgling studio’s name, Toffler said “Gunpowder & Sky” is a lyric from an Aimee Mann song, “4th of July.” He cleared the use of the name with Mann’s reps, after being inspired by the phrase’s explosive connotations. “I called her people, and she blessed it,” Toffler said.