Crazy Good Storytelling
Part of Georgia’s appeal to incoming productions is the state’s geographic malleability
One day, downtown Atlanta can be dressed to mirror the bustling streets of Manhattan, and the next day Tybee Island can mimic the shores of sunny South Florida. The beauty about this burgeoning production hub is its inability to be visually stereotyped on the silver screen or television set. Similarly elasticity is a quality a Georgia production company can proudly relate to. “Our brand has been defined by the fact that we aren’t definable,” explained Scott Thigpen, chief operating officer of Crazy Legs Productions.
"I wanted to be in Atlanta. I've always believed in the talent here."
Crazy Legs is located snug in the Westside of Atlanta, near Georgia Tech. Past their front desk is a wall full of framed logos from Crazy Legs’ past and current television series, from true crime shows like Your Worst Nightmare and Swamp Murders, to reality television like Family by the Ton and The Prancing Elites Project. The company, though, is a producer of more than just reality and true crime television; Crazy Legs also creates home-grown sports documentary-series, feature films, feature length documentaries and branded content.
Today, productions flood into Georgia to take advantage of the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act. However, in 2006 Tom Cappello, founder and chief executive officer of Crazy Legs Productions, opened up the company’s doors with his wife, Allison Troxell. “I had zero hunch,” said Cappello when asked about how ahead of the game he and Troxell were, opening up the production company prior to Georgia’s film and television industries generating $9.5 billion, mostly from taking advantage of the 2008 investment act. “I wanted to be in Atlanta. I’ve always believed in the talent here. There was great talent here before the tax incentives; it’s just that people didn’t see the potential,” said Cappello. “If I had any hunch, it was that there were great people here and we could make something unique and special.”
While Cappello was the one who knew he could tap into the talent in Atlanta, Thigpen had an early, personal experience distinguishing himself as someone who is as unique as the city he grew up in. “When I went to Georgia State, [film] was a fairly new program. This was in the ‘80s, and I looked around the class one day and I thought, ‘Okay, I have two years to go before graduating. There are 30 other people in here. What can I do to go ahead and separate myself from the pack?’ So I cracked open the phone book and I called every production company in the Atlanta metropolitan area.”
“I always try to tell people, ‘This is an industry where that piece of paper you get when you graduate doesn’t have the same meaning as it does if you’re becoming a doctor or a lawyer,” explained Thigpen. Thigpen cut his teeth on filmmaking during his time at Georgia State University’s undergraduate film program. Soon after he dissected the phone book, he was finally offered his first media gig working for Innovative Productions, Inc. The company produced non-traditional ball and stick sports packages that bigger networks didn’t want to be bothered with. “We did off-shore powerboat racing, world triathlon championships, snow skiing championships, all kinds of things. ESPN and others would basically subcontract us to do these events.”
Fast forward to 2006: Cappello and Thigpen met to discuss what would become their first joint filmmaking project. “We talked about making a film about the women’s empowerment movement to solve global poverty,” said Thigpen. The film was called A Powerful Noise and it premiered in Tribeca in 2008. The documentary was followed by a theatrical release through Fathom Events. “We showed the film in 400 theatres across the country via satellite, and everybody in those theatres watched an event at the Danny Kaye Theatre in New York, hosted by Ann Curry,” said Cappello. From the very start of their partnership, the two had a hope to connect people through the art of storytelling. “When we saw the success of [A Powerful Noise], it inspired me to bring Scott onto the team to do more.”
"It really just boiled down to the simple thought: connecting people through stories."
The two sat down a number of years ago to come up with their mission statement. “It really just boiled down to the simple thought: connecting people through stories,” added Thigpen. When asked if either of them feel an affinity towards producing sports content over their unscripted reality series, Thigpen was quick to decline the idea. “We’ve done sports, lifestyle, docu-series, crime; we really have been able to be malleable and move in and out of different genres.” For Crazy Legs, it doesn’t matter the genre; if they can tell a great story, they will make it happen.
The name Crazy Legs stems from a cherished Cappello family member: Tom Cappello’s grandfather. Grandfather Cappello would rise from his seat at family reunions and gatherings and shout, “I’ve got crazy legs!” which was immediately followed by a spontaneous dance. The company shares this same uncontrollable urge in telling stories as grandfather Cappello had to wildly move his legs. No doubt, both the company and Cappello’s grandfather knew how to spread joy through the vehicle of entertainment.
What makes Crazy Legs stand out more than its name is the fact that it prides itself on being a storytelling production company. At Crazy Legs they control the entire lifecycle of the film, from optioning script ideas to directing their routes in distribution. Over a decade ago, there weren’t many production companies based in Atlanta, nor Georgia as a whole. “It was harder to get people to move here, especially if it was a contractor and you just had them on a temporary assignment for a season of a show,” explained Cappello. These contractors would wonder, “When I’m done with this, what other companies in the Atlanta area will hire me?” Now, more and more, there are other production companies establishing themselves here or relocating here based on superior and enticing tax credits. As a result, there are plenty of opportunities to work here. “There are other companies that we could view as competitors in one sense, but we talk amongst each other all the time. We want to see the other companies grow and do well,” said Cappello. “The more they grow and lure people here, the more it helps everybody . . . We’re also supportive of other companies like Crazy Legs in this area, because a rising tide lifts all ships . . . We’re still a growing entertainment community here, unlike New York or Los Angeles, which you wouldn’t say are growing; they’re established. We’re still the up-and-comers trying to prove ourselves and we all need each other to do that.”
For Cappello, Atlanta has always been a nurturing environment for his dreams in film and television. He worked at Turner Broadcasting for a decade before following his heart. “I was sitting in my director’s cubicle and I looked outside of it and saw my soul walking out the door, and I decided to go with it,” laughed Cappello. “Because I wasn’t creating content!” He went on to tell Oz that every extraordinary opportunity he had came from being right here, in Atlanta. “First, it was at Turner; then it was on the History Channel series; then it was a feature documentary film.”
Cappello and Thigpen’s hearts are clearly invested in collaboration, helping people and championing even the success of those who might be labeled as their competitors. “We’re not going to make every show out there,” added Cappello. “I want everybody to be successful.” His beliefs lie within the Crazy Legs team and other collaborators. “They’re the heroes; they’re the ones that are able to roll up their sleeves and get this done,” praised Cappello. “It all comes from a common perspective.” The company’s very first employee and intern still work at Crazy Legs today, a testament to the positive work culture and the types of storytelling they produce. “A third of our full time employees started as interns,” said Thigpen. “That’s a statistic we’re very proud of.”
The Crazy Legs approach is intended to spark a sense of understanding in their viewers for the eclectic lives they follow on set. “We always approach our characters with empathy,” said Cappello. Take the Andersons for example, a family who weigh in at over 3000 lbs between the six of them. In Family by the Ton, an ongoing reality series Crazy Legs produces and distributes through The Learning Channel (TLC), the Andersons’ stories aren’t exploited or mocked. The Crazy Legs team does its due diligence to humanize these folks who some might shake their head at or, even worse, laugh at. “I don’t think reality TV is bad,” stated Cappello. “I just think it’s gotten a reputation of being salacious.” The Andersons are described by Crazy Legs as having debilitating food addictions and the company makes sure to paint a broader stroke that accounts for both hilarious and desperate times within this family unit. In one episode, a viewer can laugh, cry and feel frustration; however, viewers are laughing and crying with the characters and they feel frustrated on their behalf. “Everything has a purpose,” said Thigpen. “It’s not just a cooking show, or a sports show, or a show about obese people. There’s a higher purpose to all of [our shows].”
“I think we see ourselves as a documentary company,” explained Cappello. “Even though the networks we’re on may be labeled as reality TV networks, we see the content we’re delivering really humanizing our characters.” Cappello and Thigpen often shine a light on disenfranchisement, marginalization, poverty and LGBTQ issues. “We dealt with some serious topics while you laughed the entire time. You have fun watching their journey.”
“We definitely love good documentary storytelling: real people,” added Thigpen. “I don’t know that either of us thought, ‘Well, let’s start doing reality television,’ because our chops are steeped in documentary roots. And I think we’ve been able to do reality television in a way that’s more than reality television.” The success of hit shows like 1,000-LB Sisters, The Graduates ATL, Track Rats and more, is directly attributed to the Crazy Legs team as a whole. “Our success is because of our employees, not because of Scott and me,” stated Cappello. If the growing tax credit has done anything, it’s brought in more creatives and encouraged locals to collaborate and create unique television series and films. “You take away the tax credit and you really dwindle the pool of people that can create great things here.” If Cappello had any hunch, it was his belief in the untapped potential that was already here in Georgia. “The tax credits have been an amazing fuel for growth,” said Cappello. “When we hear stories about taking the tax credits away, I think that is short sighted and maybe not looking at homegrown companies like ourselves that count on the tax credits to really fuel our growth.” Cappello hopes that the politically motivated language around the tax credit starts to look at local, homegrown stories like themselves. “I think that’s the real success of the tax credit,” stated Cappello.
“I’m a native Atlantan, so it makes me happy to hear from people who moved here from LA and are actually loving living in Georgia,” said Thigpen. “They’re able to make their living here, afford to buy a house here and send their kids to quality schools in Georgia; things they would not have been able to do in LA. That’s great stuff.” If there is a point where Georgia has a debate over the merits of filming tax credits, these are the stories Thigpen wants elucidated. “I think sometimes the lens that some people look through is: the studios come here, get a tax credit and leave. But there’s plenty of companies like Crazy Legs where, because of the tax credits, there’s more opportunities here. We’re able to hire more people. They are able to buy homes, pay property taxes, pay sales taxes when they shop everywhere. It’s real money that is going back into the community; it’s not just on a plane going back to LA.”
“The heavy lifting is here,” stated Thigpen. “The bulk of everything is done here, and we’re building a writers’ room here and trying to continue to build an infrastructure here.” Like their growing roots, Crazy Legs future goals go a number of different ways. They recently opened up a feature film division, a possible vehicle for telling Georgia-lensed stories. “We are trying to look for more and more content or scripts or IP that is created and written in Georgia,” added Thigpen. “I think most people that get into this industry probably get into it because they grew up really being influenced by or having a big interest in telling stories, and many times primarily telling stories on film or television. It’s a natural evolution for our company” said Thigpen when asked what made Crazy Legs broaden their horizons to a feature film division. “Every time we shoot these episodes, we’re kind of making a little mini feature anyway, and if you look at the quality of cinematography, the acting and the composition, it holds up to any independent film at least. So, it was just the natural progression for us to start to do that. We wanted to add that layer on top of the episodic work.”
For Crazy Legs, the next logical layer after creating more feature films is creating more scripted episodic series. “We’re able to go out and do more than just non-fiction episodic series,” noted Thigpen, regarding the flexibility of the Crazy Legs team. Cappello is aware that there is a big difference between unscripted and scripted content. While the Crazy Legs team are mostly story producer driven and editor driven, Cappello believes the team is ready to branch out to scripted content. “We were able to create a film that took women from Vietnam, Bosnia and Mali, and connected them to people across the United States in a one-night only event,” said Cappello about Thigpen and his joint efforts on A Powerful Noise. “That’s why Crazy Legs came into existence and, what we try to do now, which is to find stories, find characters, humanize them in a way that makes them three-dimensional and tells, not only entertaining stories, but stories that impact lives, or transform lives or make a difference in people’s lives. If you look at anything we’ve done from lifestyle to docu-series to crime, that’s the common thread for us.”
“We purchased a schoolhouse in Chosewood Park a year and a half ago,” revealed Thigpen. “Our hope is to develop that into our permanent home that we own. That speaks to us planting firm roots in Georgia and making sure that the talent pool we hire is either from here or is willing to be here.” In the present day and the near future, Crazy Legs is actively nurturing their roots in the Peach State, creating jobs and producing entertaining, and meaningful, content that Georgia residents of all ages can appreciate.