Conversation with Gigantic! Productions founder Cheryl Horner
Cheryl Horner is the founder of award-winning Gigantic! Productions, which produces acclaimed documentaries, news specials and reality programming. Founded in 2001, Gigantic! is a full service production company, based in New York. Its roster of shows includes over 45 episodes of MTV’s True Life series, along with critically-acclaimed news specials and documentaries, for which it has received numerous awards and nominations. “Bean” is Cheryl’s newest documentary film.
We recently got an opportunity to interview her for our magazine, sharing it with our readers here.
Pro Media Mag : Can you tell our readers about the start of your professional career?
Cheryl Horner : I like to think my career in TV began in the accounting department at Showtime Networks in New York City, where I was tasked with sorting through incoming mail. It was a temp job and as mindless and unfulfilling as you might imagine, but I made several great connections throughout the company and soon landed a full-time Production Assistant position in the On-Air Promos department. I felt like I’d hit the lottery and threw myself into the work, staying late and shamelessly pitching ideas to my bosses.
Within a year I was an Associate Producer at CNN in Atlanta, then a Segment Producer for other Turner Networks. In my early 20s, I moved to Sydney, Australia where the cable industry was just getting off the ground, and by the age of 25, I was the Creative Director for both Showtime and Encore there. It was incredibly fun and rewarding to create content for channels from scratch in an environment that rewarded innovation and creativity.
After Sydney, I was part of HBO International’s launch of its channel in Bucharest, Romania. It was like the Wild West, but with a post-Communist haze. Where Showtime/Encore in Sydney was glossy, monied and creative, during my time at HBO in Romania I learned to be incredibly scrappy and resourceful. Someone had to “call in a favor” to get us a fax line in our cement block production office so we could send documents back to HBO’s headquarters in New York, and someone always had to know someone to get our tapes and other shipments out of the customs office. Nothing was easy, and nothing worked according to the rules to which I was accustomed. I didn’t speak Romanian, and most of my young, hungry Romanian production staff had little to no experience making on-air promos and interstitial content. We had a ton of fun figuring it all out together and eventually I was able to pass the torch to a local before heading back to New York permanently. I had a strong desire to get out of Promos and produce original long-form content back home, and MTV gave me that chance in 1998.
Pro Media Mag : Who or what inspired you to launch Gigantic! Productions?
Cheryl Horner : I started Gigantic! Productions after about four years of producing a wide variety of shows for MTV. I had so many opportunities to learn there, as I got to write, produce, and direct everything from celebrity-driven movie specials to live events and, finally, news specials and documentaries. Most shows at that time were shot on beta tape by professional camera crews and edited on Avid. Both of these were very expensive and kept production costs high. But then the Sony PD150 came out and Apple launched Final Cut Pro editing software.
Neither of these new TV-making tools worked as well as the professional grade gear, but together the new technology created opportunities for scrappy producers like me who wanted to make content on our own. I started Gigantic! Productions in 2001 with one DV camera and one Final Cut editing station set up in the living room of my one-bedroom apartment and it grew from there.
Pro Media Mag : What kind of programs does Gigantic! generally produce?
Cheryl Horner : In the 16 years since I started the company, we’ve created docu-series, reality shows, news specials, and many, many documentaries.
Pro Media Mag : Tell us about your most recent project, “Bean.”
Cheryl Horner : “Bean” is a labor of love and the first film we’ve done 100% independently. We had no outside funding or support, which is scary, but also liberating. The film’s director, Emilie Bunnell, has been working with me in research, development, and casting for several years, and she’s the one who discovered Lori and Alana’s story.
Emilie saw a viral video online in which Alana opens a box of gifts from her new girlfriend and discovers that she wants to give her a much-needed kidney. We reached out to the women, their families, Stony Brook University Hospital, and their respective surgeons to see if they would be open to sharing their upcoming journey with our cameras, and they all agreed. It was incredibly fortuitous to have all of the key participants on board, and we began filming immediately.
Pro Media Mag : What has the response been like to “Bean” so far?
Cheryl Horner : When I explain to people that Alana and Lori met on Tinder and within a couple of months Lori decided to give her new girlfriend a kidney, the first thing they typically ask is “Wait.. is this a true story?”
I guess it seems a little far-fetched, but it’s 100% true. When people see it, I think they’re surprised by the depth of the story, the emotion of the journey leading up to and following the transplant surgery, and the humor. They’re touched and inspired by Lori’s selflessness, and the love between both the girls and their families.
Pro Media Mag : What message do you hope to send with this film?
Cheryl Horner : First and foremost, we wanted to tell a positive and uplifting story with real stakes. There is so much darkness and conflict these days, and so many tragic stories in media. We wanted to take a moment to shine a light on something beautiful and inspirational. The story also draws attention to the need for organ donors and gives people a lot of information about the process of living organ donation.
Pro Media Mag : What is it about documentaries that is different from that of a feature narrative?
Cheryl Horner : They biggest difference is the lack of control. Your story is only as good as the subjects you’re filming, the actual life events which naturally unfold, and your team’s ability to have the cameras rolling in the right place at the right time. You can’t just decide what’s going to happen or when. You can’t tell people what to do or say so it’s crucial that you find the right subjects and a story worth telling regardless of what happens.
Also, actors are paid to participate and have contracts. Documentary subjects are not, and you have to take care of that relationship if you want to keep them on board through thick and thin. Being followed by cameras isn’t always fun, and if you don’t have a strong relationship with your subjects, they won’t stick with you when it feels like work.
Pro Media Mag : What has it been like producing programs for MTV, such as “True Life,” for instance?
Cheryl Horner : I’ve been producing shows for MTV since 1998 and I never get tired of it. I was in my 20s when I started there, so I could relate to the audience. Now I have teens of my own, and I can relate in a different way. The channel itself has changed a lot since I started, and the production has evolved, but the interests and struggles of teens and 20-somethings remains consistent in many ways.
“True Life” has been resonating with viewers since the 1990s because they offer a look into other young people’s lives and show all of the humor, heartache, tragedy, and straight-up weirdness of the human experience. “True Life” allows viewers to really get a sense of what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. The subjects are real people, the stories are raw and true, and the outcomes are unknown. When we do our best work and capture life-changing moments like a deaf teen hearing his mother’s voice for the first time or a young man learning that he’s the father of a baby he’s never met, it’s magical.
Pro Media Mag : What do you consider the best work you have ever produced?
Cheryl Horner : I’ve won two Daytime Emmys, one for “True Life” and one for the documentary special, “Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word.” I do think that both of those represent some of my best work thus far, but I’m also proud of the work we did on many difficult shows about drug addiction. Our MTV series “Gone Too Far” was one of the most challenging and worthwhile projects of my career, but the potential impact of that series was diminished by the tragic death of our host Adam Goldstein (DJ AM) toward the end of production.
Pro Media Mag : What has been the biggest achievement in your career thus far?
Cheryl Horner : In the past two decades, we’ve been able to shine a light on a wide variety of issues that may not otherwise have received much attention. Our documentary “The T Word” with Laverne Cox was important in creating more awareness and understanding of transgender people, for instance. We’ve produced at least a dozen other docs with positive portrayals of the LGBT community, as well as shows about all kinds of other human experiences and challenges. We’ve tackled everything from albinism to eating disorders, and educated viewers on issues from gun laws to sexual health and politics. The biggest reward is when people see our shows and tell us how they impacted their views.
Pro Media Mag : What other new projects are you working on, or would you like to work on in the future?
Cheryl Horner : We have a great new 12-part series called “Marching Orders,” which will launch soon on a new Time Warner platform called Stage 13. It’s about one of the best college marching bands in the nation, The Bethune-Cookman Marching Wildcats. Looking forward, we’re developing a project with an amazing team of very unique inventors and a doc series about American women in all their diverse forms and convictions. I’m increasingly concerned and passionate about the lack of genuine equality and respect for women in this country, and I’m looking to do more documentary work on that subject.
Pro Media Mag : Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Cheryl Horner : Our film “Bean” will be showing at upcoming film festivals and if you’re able to see it, please drop us a line and let us know what you think. You can find information about screenings on our website at www.gigantic.tv/bean. The film’s director, Emilie Bunnell, and I are both easily accessible through our website and we’d love to hear from you!