As Hannah Byron remembers it, her son Philip was carrying a camera around with him at the age of 10, making movies with the neighborhood kids, including one in which she appeared prominently as a corpse. She figured he was under the influence of her own job at the time, as head of the Baltimore film office, and that his was a passing interest. But 25 years later, Philip Byron – Pumpkin Theatre alum and graduate of St. Paul’s School – is living in L.A., immersed in the world of entertainment as Head of Unscripted and Docs at SpringHill, the film and entertainment juggernaut founded by basketball legend LeBron James.
His production credits for SpringHill include the Muhammad Ali documentary “What’s My Name” for HBO and the Peabody Award-winning “Graduate Together.” His Emmy-nominated shows include “Golden: The Journey of USA’s Elite Gymnasts”; “The Playbook: A Coach’s Rules for Life” for Netflix; Uninterrupted’s popular barbershop talk show “The Shop”; and “Becoming,” now showing on Disney +. The talk show Turning the Tables with Robin Roberts, produced and developed by Mr. Byron, just won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Informative Talk Show.
Last month, Byron was in New York, where his lacrosse documentary, “Fate of a Sport” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. “Fate of A Sport” follows Johns Hopkins lacrosse player Paul Rabil and his brother on their 11-year saga to start a new professional lacrosse league. (You can read the Baltimore Sun’s Mike Preston on the PLL, here.) Recently acquired by ESPN Films, it’s a compelling story that seems destined to attract a large audience in Baltimore.
On the same New York weekend, seemingly on a different planet , Byron’s first live theatre production, “Titanique,” premiered off-Broadway. A “clever and kooky” musical parody that purports to tell the “real story” of the Titanic love story between Jack and Rose, the New York Times calls it “a camp reimagining of the maritime blockbuster.” Co-produced with Eva Price, it’s set to the music of Celine Dion and runs at the Asylum Theatre in New York through Sept. 25.
Baltimore Fishbowl caught up with Philip on a visit to his family’s home in Owings Mills, where he was fresh from New York and heading back shortly to L.A. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Talk a little about your trajectory. How did you get from the Pumpkin Theatre to Hollywood?
Philip Byron: Well, it definitely didn’t feel like ‘a trajectory’ at the time! I always loved film and theatre, and I had a great experience doing drama at St. Paul’s, but being the yearbook editor is actually what got me interested in production. I guess there wasn’t much interest in the yearbook that year, because I ended up doing almost the whole book — it was kind of embarrassing (laughs), my name was on like, everything. But editing and planning — pulling all the pieces together, and getting people to do things, turned out to be what I was good at.
BFB: Ok, and after that?
PB: I went to Boston University and studied film. For my “year abroad” I got an internship at HBO in Los Angeles. I didn’t love L.A., so after graduating, I took a job at a startup in New York called DanceOn, doing videos for YouTube. I’ve always worked at startups. It’s a great way to learn every job in the place. You’re like a human Swiss Army knife…. Eventually DanceOn got an investment from Google, and I had to move to L.A. anyway.
BFB: How did you get to SpringHill?
PB: The job at SpringHill basically fell in my lap — a friend there told me they were looking. In 2016, I’d been at Whalerock for four years. SpringHill was still in the start-up phase, operating as three separate companies (which have now merged): SpringHill Entertainment; Robot, a branding agency; and Uninterrupted, which was doing more sports. The job at SpringHill was Head of Unscripted and Docs, a job I considered to be way over my qualifications. My friend said “Why are you taking yourself out of the running before you even take a meeting”? I applied, and I’ve been there now for six years.
BFB: Explain your role as Head of Unscripted and Docs
PB: Unscripted and Docs just refers to any non-fiction production. I work as Executive Producer, building a slate of programming, which includes coming up with ideas, meeting with people who have ideas, finding the talent – and then following up on that with financing, budgeting, timing – keeping things moving.
BFB: Where do you look for new projects?
PB: We’re always beating the bushes, looking to see what is doing well, what audiences are responding to. That sparks a lot of ideas. Sometimes you’re trying to create a vehicle for the talent. Sometimes it’s a news item or current events. SpringHill has a mission to empower greatness in every individual, and that’s a starting point for most of our work. We have “pitch days” where everyone has to pitch a new idea, which is a good exercise.
BFB: So, no unsolicited manuscripts?
PB: No, sorry….
BFB: What’s a project you’re especially proud of?
PB: I worked for four years on “I Promise,” which tells the story of the first year at the school LeBron founded in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. When I first arrived at SpringHill, I heard that LeBron was opening this public school in Akron. This was a few weeks before it was publicly announced, and I let them know that we must make a documentary about it. There were dozens of hoops between start and finish – getting the school on-board, finding a filmmaker, selecting which students to follow, etc. LeBron was heavily involved throughout the process. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and is now streaming on YouTube. I was with that project from the beginning, and I really felt ownership of it.
BFB: And what about Titanique? It seems like a big departure from your work at Springhill.
PB: It is, of course. My friend Alex Ellis, who is in the show, took me to see a reading of Titanique back in 2018. It’s kind of a crazy show, and I loved it. Last summer, I heard that Eva Price was going to take the show off-Broadway, and I thought ‘If she believes in it, it must be as good as I thought, and I want to be a part of it.’ I’m working now on a play which may be SpringHill’s first foray into theater. That’s all I can say for now. Stay tuned.
BFB: What makes you good at your job?
PB: I’m good at working with people, collaborating, and I try to be positive. One boss I had told me that I was like a dog with a bone, and that is true. When I have a good idea, I get a little obsessed with trying to make it happen.
BFB: What’s the best advice you ever got?
PB: When you’re about to send a heated email, wait till the morning.
BFB: Did you take it?
PB: I take it about once a month.