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When Justin Baldoni and Steve Sarowitz started Wayfarer Studios in Hollywood, they did it with one goal: to make films that focused on the spiritual side of humanity.
Of course, the entertainment industry doesn’t often do that, at least in part because the financial risks are considerable. In this second installment of our interview with Wayfarer co-founder, actor, and director Justin Baldoni, we take a look at how Wayfarer wants to balance the business side of that equation with the importance of spiritual storytelling.
Q: Justin, how does this idea of a spiritual enterprise influence the financial structure of your company?
A: We have a double bottom line. What Steve Sarowitz, my partner and co-founder says all the time, is the number one reason we finance or make something is because it should be made and because the world needs it. The second reason is that hopefully we make it excellent, and we can make money.
There will be times we make a movie just because it deserves to be made, but we’ll never make a movie just to make money. I’ve always believed that if you make something with purity and an intention to touch people’s hearts – with love, and with the idea of the audience having a unifying experience or opening their eyes to an issue they haven’t seen before – that there is no algorithm that can quantify how much money it will make, because the impact goes far beyond anything we will be able to see.
When you make a movie with that recipe, it will end up producing a return, and I believe it will make money, too. Now, if we don’t make money on it, that’s okay – because our double bottom line allows us the freedom and the space to say “Well, did it impact somebody?”
The perfect example is our Man Enough podcast, which takes a lot of work. We have a team of people who are doing 45 episodes a season. We’re not making a lot of money, but we are doing it as a service, because people have requested it and we have a loyal fanbase and more and more men are tuning in. It’s because doing it is the right thing to do and clearly people need it, and that’s how we’re looking at everything across the board.
Either it’s going to really, really work, or maybe it won’t, but at the end of our lives we’ll be able to look back and say we weren’t just hamsters running on the hamster wheel of patriarchal capitalism – we were engaged in the system while also trying to break it apart and make the system better, and that really stems from my understanding and Steve’s understanding of the Baha’i teachings. In a talk he gave in Paris, Abdu’l-Baha said:
… take heed, lest in thinking too earnestly of the things of the body you forget the things of the soul: for material advantages do not elevate the spirit of a man. Perfection in worldly things is a joy to the body of a man but in no wise does it glorify his soul.It may be that a man who has every material benefit, and who lives surrounded by all the greatest comfort modern civilization can give him, is denied the all important gift of the Holy Spirit.
It is indeed a good and praiseworthy thing to progress materially, but in so doing, let us not neglect the more important spiritual progress, and close our eyes to the Divine light shining in our midst.
Q: Earlier you spoke about learning from your mistakes. What have you learned along the way?
A: Well, we’re a startup, I mean we’ve only released one movie and that film was Clouds. What we are learning is that this is a tough industry, and that it’s really hard to run a spiritually minded organization in a field and industry that does not value the spiritual, and that historically has taken advantage of folks and people who think that way. We’ve learned that sometimes we have lost our way and found ourselves stuck in the muck, if you will, and have made bad decisions and maybe not treated people as well as we wanted. We’ve heard feedback and realized “Oh man – we lost our way, and we’ve got to regroup and do better.”
But more than anything, we’ve learned there is a hunger and a desire for the company that we’re building, the content that we’re acquiring, and for the ‘why’ behind what we’re doing. I believe that if we look at the world, as it says in the Baha’i writings, what’s happening today is very clear: we’re in a period of disintegration. The systems are falling apart and we need to be steadfast and firm in our beliefs and in our ‘why’ as an organization, because people are going to need spiritual content, to be uplifted, to see themselves on screen, and be represented, especially during these tumultuous times which may not get better in the near future. So, we have to be lights in the darkness – that’s why we’re Wayfarer.
Q: What would you say to people in the entertainment industry who are struggling to find meaningful work in an industry that is so bottom-line focused?
A: My insight for anybody trying to break into the entertainment business or feel this is their passion and how they are meant to serve is that you don’t have to be in a position of power to be able to serve, and don’t underestimate the power inherent within you. When Baha’u’llah says we are each “a mine rich in gems of inestimable value,” I believe it. You can be a low-paid intern at an organization and literally work your way up to be a key executive in a matter of years if you are always true to yourself. Stay humble, stay truthful, don’t backbite, have a view and opinion rooted in beliefs and rooted in a larger why. Just be someone that everybody can turn to and say I trust that person, because those are the people that rise in organizations. So just because you are a part of an organization or industry that Doesn’t value spirituality, or your beliefs, or even doing good for pure reasons, that’s okay. How can we have an impact in the world if we’re not going to the places that need it the most?
I would also say, something I think is really lacking especially with some of the younger folks I meet is that they just want to make it. The drive is so big, and they think if they make it, they can influence more people, but that’s not the way it works. Take it from somebody who has made every mistake you can possibly make – it’s better to have a humble posture of learning, to spend time truly learning everything about the field you are going to enter, and getting to know yourself in the process.
Baha’u’llah said every one of us “… should know his own self and recognize that which leadeth unto loftiness or lowliness, glory or abasement, wealth or poverty.” The best way to know yourself is to put yourself in situations that are deeply uncomfortable, to be the only spiritually oriented person in the room, to work hard for long hours, to be part of an industry that does not see you, and then you will know uniquely how you can impact, affect, and change that industry or company.
Q: From your experience with starting Wayfarer, Justin, how can we begin to radically reimagine what the entertainment industry would look like in a more spiritually grounded society?
A: The entertainment business is a byproduct of multiple systems that are interconnected and at play, and until those systems break apart, the industry as a whole will never change completely. So long as we are measuring success by viewing time, views, likes, follows, subscriptions, and general income, that is a byproduct of capitalism. While capitalism and spirituality, as in the Baha’i writings, can work together, it’s only when the leaders and those in power have enough spiritual wherewithal so that power is being expended and used fairly and equitably in the world. So to be frank, essentially what has to happen is either the system has to come down, or we have to have enough spiritually-minded people coming up in the arts and in the business, who are undeniably excellent at whatever it is they choose to do, who will rise and become the leaders of these communities, studios, and networks. Only then can things start to shift, because the choices and the decisions will not be made solely based on the bottom line.
Q: Thank you, Justin, for your time and insights.
While the transformative work at Wayfarer Studios is just beginning, there is much we can learn from the way the team has endeavored to become a spiritual enterprise, adopting a humble posture of learning and striving for excellence in every aspect of its work. In an industry that increasingly treats film as a profit mechanism, Wayfarer attempts to elevate the creative arts to be a tool for the transformation of hearts and service to humanity. Wayfarer now has several projects underway, including upcoming film and television shows, and the ongoing, much-acclaimed The Man Enough podcast. It will be exciting to see the future stories they tell and the knowledge to be gained from their admirable endeavor.