Film and documentary production company White Horse Pictures said Tuesday it is moving forward with a strategic reorganization to service growth at the company whose recent titles include Lucy and Desi and the Ron Howard pics The Beatles: Eight Days a Week and Pavarotti.
As part of the changes, Nicholas Ferrall, the company’s current president, takes on the role of chairman and CEO, previously held by founder Nigel Sinclair, overseeing all aspects of the company’s business, growth, and development. Sinclair will transition to become the company’s non-executive chairman, maintaining a role in the business while focusing on content creation.
Jeanne Elfant Festa and Cassidy Hartmann, two partners at the firm, take the role of co presidents, responsible for overseeing all aspects of the company’s creative content, production, and development.
White Horse also has entered into a partnership with longtime collaborator Ben Murphy, of Whiskey Bear, to oversee and streamline the company’s physical production process while continuing his involvement in creative development. Robert Dietz, a White Horse Pictures employee since 2018, takes the role of VP Production, managing day-to-day production and business development and reporting directly to the Executive Team.
The reorganization sees White Horse continuing its working relationships among senior management, who are supported by about 40 production and creative executives. The company’s new Executive Management Board consists of Ferrall, Elfant Festa and Hartmann, with Sinclair and Murphy attending as appropriate.
“It’s been an honor building White Horse with my partners these past eight years, and I relish the opportunity to expand my role ahead of this new phase of growth,” Ferrall said in a press release announcing the changes. “I look forward to continuing to work alongside Nigel and our fantastic executive team to continue producing high-quality films and documentaries.”
Elfant Festa and Hartmann added, “This is such an electric time in our industry, with so much opportunity for innovative and elevated storytelling. We’re excited to continue building on Nigel’s breadth of experience and incredible relationships and growing White Horse’s production operations while also maintaining our commitment to excellence on every one of our projects.”
Sinclair said, “This new management plan positions White Horse Pictures to expand upon nearly a decade of consistent growth. I look forward to being a part of this company’s next chapter, as a new generation of leaders creates first-rate content.”
White Horse Pictures’ recent releases have won Emmys three years in a row. These include the Amy Poehler-produced Lucy and Desi, the Frank Marshall-directed The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, and the Roger Ross Williams-directed The Apollo.
Previous White Horse projects include the Howard-directed documentaries The Beatles: Eight Days A Week and Pavarotti, along with the Oscar-shortlisted short film Refugee.
The company has an extensive slate of documentaries in production and post including Wilder, a feature documentary directed by acclaimed filmmaker Chris Smith on the iconic comedic actor Gene Wilder; Stax, a multiple-part series for HBO exploring legendary Memphis soul label Stax Records, directed by Emmy-nominated Jamila Wignot and executive produced by Academy Award winner Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow; Billy Preston, a feature doc from Emmy-winning writer-director Paris Barclay; and Shari & Lamb Chop, Emmy nominee Lisa D’Apolito’s feature doc about the legendary puppeteer and personality Shari Lewis. On the scripted side, the company is currently in post-production on the genre feature The Queen Mary, directed by Gary Shore and starring Alice Eve and Joel Fry.
Sinclair founded White Horse Pictures in 2014 alongside longtime business partner Guy East, after serving as CEO and co-chairman of Exclusive Media, a global film finance, production and distribution company. Prior to White Horse, Sinclair produced a series of documentary projects, including Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan; Foo Fighters: Back & Forth; the Grammy-nominated Amazing Journey: The Story Of The Who, and the Academy Award-winning Undefeated. Sinclair’s extensive scripted credits include The Ides of March, End of Watch, Snitch, The Woman In Black, Sliding Doors, Terminator 3, and The Quiet American.
Ferrall has served as president of White Horse Pictures since 2019, after being elevated from his previous role of Head of Production. He previously served as a VP at Exclusive Media. Ferrall is currently producing the upcoming Stax and Wilder, and his previous executive producer credits include The Beatles: Eight Days A Week, The Apollo, and Bee Gees. Ferrall is also producing the upcoming genre feature The Queen Mary.
Elfant Festa previously served as White Horse Pictures’ Head of Documentaries & Director of Features, overseeing the company’s documentary slate. She began working alongside Sinclair when Piper Cub Productions, her own production company, took a first-look deal with Exclusive Media, and the two combined to produce the Grammy-winning documentary Foo Fighters: Back & Forth. Elfant Festa also produced Lucy and Desi, The Bee Gees, The Apollo and Pavarotti.
Hartmann is a partner at White Horse, having previously held the role of Director of Documentary Features at Exclusive Media. She was a producer on The Apollo and an executive producer on The Bee Gees among other credits. Hartmann also serves as a contributing writer on most White Horse projects. Her upcoming producer credits include Wilder and Shari & Lamb Chop.
Murphy began his career at talent agencies WME and Gersh before transitioning to production, acquiring credits on Lucy and Desi, The Apollo and the upcoming sci-fi romantic comedy Molli and Max in the Future. In addition to his work with White Horse, Murphy is the president and owner of Whiskey Bear, and will continue to lead that creative production studio.
Dietz has served in various creative and production roles, with his recent credits including The Bee Gees, Pavarotti, and the upcoming Shari & Lamb Chop.
Los Angeles native Jeanne Elfant Festa dreamed of being a stand-up comedian, but at age 40 she had an epiphany that led to an award-winning career. After a friend asked her to help produce a small stage play. Festa, now 60, discovered the joys of behind-the-scenes work. Since then, she has co-produced memorable award-winning documentaries of the past decade: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week; The Apollo; Pavarotti; The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart and, most recently, the Emmy Award-winning Lucy and Desi.
Festa talks to Senior Planet about her life as an award-winning documentary producer:
Q: Congratulations on the two Emmy wins for Lucy and Desi. What drew you to look further into the lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz?
FESTA: I’ve always loved Lucille but I think we all knew less about Desi Arnaz, a man who did not take no for an answer and was a brilliant businessman. He’s been kind of pushed under the carpet while others have taken credit, and you see that in our film. So, at the forefront it’s Desi and his perseverance because literally at every turn people would tell him he can’t do that.
We couldn’t fit in every detail but, before him, nobody had a studio with a live studio audience, so he actually changed the way we do business. Even those little things where he took a hammer and a nail and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to build this’, because he did. He was there every step of the way. Thanks to their adult children, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill and Desi Arnaz Jr, we had access to never-before-seen archival recordings, including taped recollections and home movies, and comments from the Arnaz children and from fellow legends Norman Lear, Bette Midler and Carol Burnett.
Q: Why was Amy Poehler the right director for Luci and Desi?
FESTA: People might say she’s a performer but, when you’re a comedic actress and you’re presenting the core of who you are, you’re actually directing the process. And Amy was in our living rooms with Parks and Recreation in a way that was very similar to Lucy and Desi. Amy also wrote, directed and produced that show, so I just thought she was perfect for this. She was the only person on my list. Amy had a clear vision and insisted on interviewing real people who knew Lucy and Desi – in a way that would keep them alive – while also creating a very forward looking film. She really brought them back to life, rather than portray them as untouchable icons. If we only talk about how funny and brilliant they were, you forget their humanity and Amy really shows them as real people with all the love and relatability.
Q: Did your heart sink last year when Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem co-starred as Luci and Desi in Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos?
FESTA: We knew it was coming and watched it come to fruition. But it had a positive effect because people wanted to see these two incredible actors and so it just enhanced our project.
Q: Together with your three partners at White Horse Pictures, you are responsible for producing and documenting the artists who have literally formed the soundtracks of our lives. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Bee Gees, Billy Joel, Pavarotti. . . Is it easier if the subject is deceased?
FESTA: I don’t think so because, even if the person has passed away, you’re still dealing with their family members protecting them. So I actually think it’s more difficult when they’re not here to talk in the first person to look back and reflect.
Q: What was your first music documentary?
FESTA: Foo Fighters: Back and Forth was the first film I executive produced. It really came about because I had done all this background research and I had story points and ideas. And then one thing led to another and I had a friend who had these remote cameras so we could do this without affecting the band’s mojo.
Q: You’re trading in nostalgia too with these documentaries? Baby boomers love to indulge in the golden era of music with The Beatles, Bob Dylan or The Bee Gees?
Of course there’s a nostalgia component but we pride ourselves on making documentaries that are like films with a narrative feature.
FESTA: Of course there’s a nostalgia component but we pride ourselves on making documentaries that are like films with a narrative feature. We don’t do any reenactments and use a classic three act structure. And the research process is incredibly deep, looking for things that perhaps people weren’t aware of or highlight things they might have forgotten, like how The Bee Gees were really kids when they began in Australia and all the artists that they wrote for, so I think we really explained their brilliance. So much of this has to do with the process of creativity. And I think audiences are interested in the big Why? Which is one of our biggest discussions when we first start a project.
So much of this has to do with the process of creativity
Q: What’s your secret to aging with attitude?
FESTA: I think the secret is exercise. Every morning, I start my day at 7am with calisthenics or a jog. I do a 75 minute routine which might include burpees, planks, Pilates or yoga. I do that every day except Sundays when I sleep in but, even then, I’ll go for a walk because you have to move every day. Movement is number one by far to keep you physically comfortable and to start your day off freshly meditated with a good and positive attitude. No matter what your life looks like, you’re met with roadblocks so if you’re relaxed when you hit those roadblocks, you can look at it another way. It’s also good to remember that we can learn from our mistakes – even if that’s sometimes difficult. So be healthy and use common sense like don’t drink or eat too much. Nourishment is key. And family is really important too. I’m lucky I’ve been married to my husband for 37 years and we have two incredible kids. Pets can be a tremendous source of support too. I love my pets. I have my dogs and a bird and some koi. Pets really center you. Also, as my mother would say – remember to moisturize!
Q: What’s your favourite documentary you’ve produced?
FESTA: Probably The Apollo which chronicles the unique history and contemporary legacy of new York’s landmark Apollo Theater. Over the last 85 years, what began as a refuge for marginalized artists has emerged as a hallowed hall of Black excellence and empowerment. It took us seven years to reach the finishing line and it was a real labor of love. On a personal note, my parents used to live in Brooklyn and my father loved Harlem and told me all these amazing stories about going to The Apollo and I know he would be so proud to see it if he was alive today.
Q: What’s next for you at White Horse Pictures?
FESTA: We’re working on Wilder about the life and work of comedic acting legend Gene Wilder, also STAX, a look at Stax Records, responsible for some of the greatest soul hits of the 1960s and 1970s, plus a documentary about legendary musician Billy Preston. We are also producing the fully authorized feature, Shari & Lamb Chop, focusing on the legendary and beloved ventriloquist Shari Lewis.
Stax Records, the label responsible for hits such as Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” is getting the docuseries treatment.
HBO is behind a new multi-part series telling the story of the fabled Memphis-based label.
Jamila Wignot, who directed Ailey, a portrait of the legendary choreographer Alvin Ailey and has worked on HBO’s Axios, is directing with OJ: Made In America director Ezra Edelman and producer Caroline Waterlow exec producing. Nigel Sinclair and Nicholas Ferrall of White Horse Pictures, the company behind Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan doc are also EPs.
The series will explore the rise and fall of the label, which was founded in 1957 by Jim Stewart. Stewart, a country music fan, and his sister Estelle Axton, who mortgaged her house to afford recording equipment, released “Fool in Love” by the Veltones under its original name Satellite Records. They then took over an old movie theater in Memphis with plans to turn it into a recording studio and discovering a coterie of R&B acts.
They then released Rufus & Carla’s “Cause I Love You” before changing its name to Stax and signing a distribution deal with Atlantic Records.
It went on to release records by Booker T. & the M.G.’s – Booker T was originally a session musician for the label – Redding, who was officially on Stax’s sister label Volt, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and Sam & Dave. Al Bell joined in 1965 and became co-owner in 1969 when Axton became unhappy with her brother’s vision for the company.
Redding’s death from a plane crash in 1967 and the sale of Atlantic Records to Warner Bros., which led to the discovery that Bell had signed a disastrous deal giving over ownership of his masters, caused setbacks for the company, which was not able to achieve the same level of success as its Detroit rival Motown.
In 1972, the label launched Wattstax, a benefit concert to celebrate the anniversary of the 1965 riots in Watts, LA. It featured Hayes, The Staple Singers and a young Richard Pryor and was filmed for a seminal documentary. However, in 1975/76 it was forced into bankruptcy.
The documentary series – titled Stax – will tell this story and will feature rare and never-before-seen archive material.
It is the latest doc on the record label; Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon directed Respect Yourself in 2007.
Stax, which is currently in production, comes from HBO Documentary Films in association with Concord Originals, the TV and film arm of Stax’s parent company, Polygram Entertainment and Warner Music Entertainment.
Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records is serving as a consultant on the series, which is exec produced by Scott Pascucci, Sophia Dilley and Michele Smith for Concord Originals, Jody Gerson and David Blackman for Universal Music Group’s Polygram Entertainment and Charlie Cohen and Ron Broitman for Warner Music Entertainment. David Peck, Jeanne Elfant Festa and Cassidy Hartmann will act as co-executive producers. Wignot will also serve as a producer on the project, alongside series producer Kara Elverson.
“In both the sound that fueled its rise and the events that triggered its demise, Stax Records manifested the soul of America,“ said Ezra Edelman. “There is no better person to bring this quintessential American story to HBO’s viewers than Jamila Wignot, whose work I’ve long admired.”
“As a lifelong fan of Stax Records, what has most inspired me about the label is its defiance,” added Jamila Wignot. “The individuals who built Stax knew their worth and had a willingness to risk everything to make something on their own terms.”