Today, we’re talking with a great organization called Meerkat Media.
Meerkat Media is a democratically-run, cooperatively-owned production company. Their filmmakers have produced some really amazing work, including collaborations with Sesame Street about racial justice and homelessness. I’m personally very fond of a profoundly charming short film they put out a while back called Unstrung.
I had a great chat with a member of the cooperative, Jeffrey Sterrenberg, about how Meerkat was founded, the film industry, and why he thinks co-ops are the best business model.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
C.N. (Maximum Fun): There are a lot of potential business models out there and a worker-owned cooperative is still a relatively uncommon one. What drew Meerkat Media to the cooperative model out of every potential option?
Jeff (Meerkat Media): That’s a great question. It’s also complicated because we didn’t set out to start a co-op originally. I’m trying to give you the short version of how we got here, but basically some friends who made movies in college together moved to New York and wanted to create a casual collective that was just like, “We’re gonna hang out. We’re gonna make movies. It’s very unofficial.” And a lot of those folks came from activist circles and learned a lot about consensus decision-making and things like that in college. So, they brought those kinds of tools into the meeting structure of those very casual collective meetings.
And as that shifted and evolved and people started video careers, those people were already working together. There was a feature film that was directed by that group that had 10 directors; another experiment in cooperation. It was a very slow, organic process. Then a small group of people started working together specifically to make money. Because we were all part of this group that already had a non-hierarchical structure, we kept doing that as we were talking about business stuff. We were working together very casually for a couple years before we even realized co-op models were a thing. Then at some point, we realized, “We’re basically already doing this, so let’s own it”.
And we researched a lot more into it and realized there were all these tools and resources that already existed. We didn’t have to completely invent everything from scratch. It was definitely the right choice for us and has always been—especially in the production company world, which is a very hierarchical, top-down, horrible, exploitative industry. Part of it has always been to try, at least within our own structures, to fight against that stuff.
C.N.: That’s awesome. I love that. My first foray into the professional world was an internship at the Seattle International Film Festival, and I still know many people who work in film, and it’s everything you were saying—there’s just so much exploitation and it is a very hierarchical industry. So I think it’s really awesome seeing the work that Meerkat is doing and seeing that you all are trying to push against that.
Jeff: Yeah. Because we’re a production company, our internal structures are as anti-capitalist as we can be, but we’re very much interacting with capitalism. We gotta make money. We’re trying to make a living. So it’s always an interesting dance to do.
C.N.: Gotta strike the balance, yeah. I actually want to ask a little bit about those internal structures. Your website says that you’re a democratically run production company, and I was just wondering if you could tell me a little more about what that means in practice—how do the big and small decisions get made?
Jeff: Great question. I will say we’re in the process of redoing that—we don’t actually love that language anymore, and it was written a long time ago. But to answer your actual question: We just finished a year and a half long process of bringing on four new members, so we’re now to thirteen I think, which is huge. We were six for a really long time and then we expanded a lot. As the membership changes, we change things. So what I tell you about how we’re structured now might not be our structure forever.
But basically, the simple version is that we meet once a week with everybody to do updates and talk about projects that people are working on. Then we’re all part of working groups, and that’s how all the administration of the company gets done—we report back on the working groups and have working group meetings in addition to our regular updates meetings. And then once a month, we call a full day meeting with everybody. We cover a lot of territory and have time to get into some of the more complicated stuff.
And in all those meetings, we use consensus process for making major decisions. So anything that has to do with policy or the direction of the company or anything else contentious that might come up as we grow, we have to have good tools to address those things. So what that consensus process looks like is, any group can come up with a proposal, someone drafts it, and the proposal gets sent out. We all make comments on it, talk a little bit about it, and then we come together and discuss. And what that means for us is that everybody has an opportunity to make their voice heard. Make sure that if things aren’t sitting right, we’ve addressed those concerns.
C.N.: My next question is a slightly different topic. As Maximum Fun has been transitioning into being a cooperative, we’re finding that there are a lot of unique challenges that we’re facing now that crop up with the process of becoming and being an employee-owned cooperative. So, I’m just curious if Meerkat has faced any unique challenges due to being a worker-owned cooperative.
Jeff: The first thing that comes to mind—and this is maybe slightly less what you’re looking for, but it comes up in our industry specifically because it’s a unique way to be structured. Our structure is a pro for a lot of our clients and other people we work with who are socially oriented and are interested in being good to people and all that stuff. But for more commercial clients, we’ve definitely gotten like, “What is this? I don’t understand. It’s weird. We don’t want thirteen people involved in our project.” And so we’ve definitely faced that a little bit. That’s kind of a minor challenge; kind of hard to know exactly how much that’s affected us or not, because those people maybe just don’t approach us as much.
C.N.: This next question is a little bit more of a fun one, less of a business-y one. Meerkat Media has produced some pretty cool work over the years. Is there anything that Meerkat has produced that you are particularly proud or fond of?
Jeff: Yeah, for sure, there’s a ton of stuff. There’s this thing we did with Sesame Street two years ago, a series of short 6-10 minute films about parents talking to their kids about race. We worked with five different families from different backgrounds. And we got nominated for an Emmy, which is our first Emmy nomination as a co-op. So I’m definitely really proud of that.
C.N.: I was really excited when I went on to your website and saw the Sesame Street collaborations, because like just about every kid in America, I loved Sesame Street as a kid. So it was really exciting to see that you were doing that really cool work with them. My next question is getting back to more serious topics now: There’s been a lot of discussion lately about how major media companies have this tendency to cancel film and TV projects part way through. Do you think that cooperative environments offer more protection against sudden cancellations like that compared to traditional corporate environments?
Jeff: Interesting question. I don’t know if I have a good answer for that, I think, because we’re still getting paid by the powers that be who have money. I think it would be just as devastating for us as a co-op as it would be for any other creator if that were to happen. But I will say, we would have a support network and all these other things that individual creators in the industry might not have. Most of our money-making work is not fancy, outward-facing work. We’re doing a lot of work for different institutions and organizations, making videos for them for very specific purposes that aren’t things that the world sees. But having that as a backbone keeps us all afloat. So there’s more of a community and more of that safety net to fall back on if a project does fall through, versus a creator who is working essentially independently, just being funded by a studio, and then suddenly the project gets canceled. So they just have nothing to fall back on. They just have to start over.
C.N.: What does it mean to you, personally, to be part of a cooperative?
Jeff: I mean, it’s the only way I can imagine working at this point. I haven’t ever had a real job as an adult. I graduated college, moved here and was part of that initial, weird amorphous version of the co-op that became a real business. But when I look at LinkedIn notifications for editing positions I’m just like, no, I don’t think I could really go back. The way we work is sort of perfect for me—not for everyone, but for me, it’s a perfect mixture of community, and we’re able to work with each other and work off of each others’ strengths and things like that. So what it means to me, basically, is it’s the only way to work. I’m definitely an evangelizer for co-ops in general. When I talk to anyone about any business at all, I’m like, “That could be a co-op”.
C.N.: That’s a great answer. Thank you. So, this is a bigger picture question. What are your hopes for the future of arts and media as a field? Do you think that more people will embrace the cooperative model?
Jeff: Great, great question. It’s changing so fast that it’s hard to predict. But from my perspective, I’ve been reached out to by a lot of filmmakers who want to start a co-op, and we give a lot of advice and stuff like that. So, in my mind, there exists a world in which there are a lot more for sure. But in terms of the larger industry… you know, five years ago, Netflix was the hero of documentary. Now they’re the villain. They were buying independent documentaries for millions of dollars at film festivals and now they only make murder docs—and only with themselves, they don’t buy stuff. So the industry can change so fast.
I think if there were more organizations like this, doing different things, there’s room for sort of a solidarity economy version of the film industry down the line. But the problem is always going to be, “Where’s the money coming from?” But in terms of large changes, it is hard to predict. Another thing could come along.
C.N.: Yeah, absolutely. It is a very rapidly changing industry. I just have one final question for you. Do you have any advice for any people who might be reading this who are interested in forming their own co-op?
Jeff: Yeah, I have lots. The first would be to do it with intention. You need lot of really specific ground rules for the folks you’re doing it with that everybody is fully bought-in on. For example, we use consensus decision making; if that’s how you want to do it, everyone needs to be into that. Because if they’re not, it’s gonna be a problem. You need to set some of those basic things, like “How do we communicate?” That’s a big thing, knowing that and then maintaining flexibility, while also keeping your goal in mind. I would say you need to be open-minded and flexible while also holding to whatever sort of standards you’ve made for yourself.
Cultivate good relationships with people and talk about how to work together. What do you want to feel like when you’re working together? Do you want to feel like a professional office environment, do you want to feel chill and family? Whatever it is, make sure it works with whatever you’re trying to accomplish. Talk about your feelings. Your co-op shouldn’t be your therapist, but people have stuff going on in their lives, and you should be aware and conscious of those things.
We didn’t take out a business loan. Because we didn’t start this on purpose, we were using our own individual resources for a long time to get started. So, I don’t know if that’s what the advice there is, but I think just be really specific about how much time and money you have to put into it at the beginning. I could come up with more but I’ll leave it there.
C.N.: Great. Thank you so much, Jeff!