Sunday, August 2, 2015

Some Strings Attached

New York’s Catalysta seeks to promote corporate responsibility and sustainability through a unique venture -- a new web series starring an all-puppet cast. 

From left, MunchCo Calling! co-stars Olivia Kinter, Danny Burstein and Alexandra Hellquist (Photograph courtesy Catalysta LLC.)



By: James Swift
uncommonjournalism@gmail.com
@UNJournalism 

Ever since he graduated from New York University’s prestigious film school in the 1980s, Edward Goldberg has blazed two career paths.

At various points in his life, he’s been an assistant teacher, a bike messenger and a cater waiter. He even earned an MSW and briefly worked as a psychotherapist. Right when the World Wide Web was taking off, he enrolled in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. After graduation, he spent two decades serving as a project manager for numerous digital advertising agencies.

Although those jobs may have paid his bills, the New Kensington, Penn. native said media production has always been his true passion. Now residing in Jackson Heights in Queens, NY -- just a stone’s throw away from the headquarters of some of the world’s largest media outlets -- Goldberg decided to launch his own multimedia venture, Catalysta, in early 2011.

Initially, the platform was designed to give high schoolers from the United States, Canada, India and the Philippines an online space to create their own media.

“The first Catalysta project brought together students worldwide to explore headline issues and collaborate on related projects,” he said. “We developed two curricula: one on water and another on globalization.”

Although the project drew rave reviews from students and educators alike, Goldberg said there was little buy-in from schools. That made him turn his attention towards a different topic that “encompasses all of human activity”  -- the world of commerce.

“We assembled a team of writers and photographers who published articles and images about work and its connection with the common good for the next three years,” he said. “In September 2014, we re-launched our website with five original video series, a podcast and new articles and interviews.”

Transitioning from a 501(c)(3) to an LLC, Goldberg describes the current incarnation of Catalysta as a production company with an emphasis on the “power and potential of transformative careers.”

One program, Dream Job, documents a group of aspiring “eco-fashion” designers from around the world, while another program, Agents of Change, features Dr. Peter Crist delving deep into the psychology of personal development and work relationships.

Goldberg said a newer project, The Catalysta Show, aims to be the company’s flagship program. “It’s a family of three podcasts and a video series,” Goldberg said, “that celebrate work born of passion that spontaneously generates purpose and truly satisfies.”

However, Goldberg said he has long sought a way to extol the virtues of corporate responsibility beyond the newsmagazine and talk show formats. Weaned on Monty Python, Mad Magazine and Saturday Night Live, he began laying out the groundwork on what would become Catalysta’s first sitcom program. The inspiration, Goldberg said, came in the form of a gaggle of fictitious pets he and a friend had dreamed up long before the show was even conceptualized.

“A wonderful friend of mine, Brin Azzarello, has a dog whose name is Ralph Munch,” Goldberg said. “I always wanted Catalysta to have a scripted component, and after many trials and errors, Ralph and his colleagues were enlisted to tell tales.”

MunchCo Comes Calling

Kicking around ideas for a new show, Goldberg and Azzarello imagined Ralph as the CEO of his own monolithic corporation. After the supporting cast was fleshed out -- among them, a tech-savvy bunny and a koala CFO -- Azzarello went to work on crafting a set of puppets.

Meet Ralph Munch, the fluffy lead character of the upcoming
web series MunchCo Calling! (Photograph courtesy Catalysta LLC.)
Goldberg and co-writer Briana Whyte Harris penned the first five episodes of what would become MunchCo Calling! The pilot was filmed in October 2014, with post-production work set to wrap up shortly.

“Work, passion and meaning sound like heavy topics, but they can be very happy notions,“ Goldberg said. “After childhood, or perhaps when we enter the job market, work often becomes a drag, but doing work we love is an act of wonder …  MunchCo considers both sides of the story.”

Voicing Ralph -- a Yorkie Pekingese reconsidering the practices of his multinational company -- is five-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein.

“Anyone who’s seen Danny on stage knows what a super-talented performer he is,” Goldberg said. “He brings a tenderness and joy to Ralph that’s perfect.”

Each season of the program will focus on a specific arm of Ralph’s humongous corporation, providing a segue into discussions about corporate responsibility and sustainability practices across different industries. For the first go-around, Goldberg said the emphasis is on the ritzy world of fashion.

“It is definitely a challenge to not go down the preachy road,” he said. “Briana and I are hyper-aware that preachiness is a buzz kill. Hopefully, we’ve balanced info with humor.”

Goldberg said MunchCo Calling! will be showcased on The Catalysta Show. Once an air date for the pilot is set, he said he plans on reaching out to other companies to explore co-production and distribution deals.

While the voice tracks for the next four episodes have already been recorded, he said production on the subsequent episodes is at a standstill.

“The lion’s share of the pilot was produced through the generosity of talented filmmakers, puppeteers, actors and artists, but it’s only right to pay people to move forward,” he said. “Everyone has agreed to payments far less than they deserve, but it’s still a pricey endeavor … untold hours of computer graphics and post-production work add up quickly, [and the] bottom dollar brings us to $25,000 for each 10-to-15 minute episode.”

Finding Funding for the Felted Friends

To maintain continuity, Goldberg said the first episode will not go live until a plan has been assembled to film a full season. To finance the remaining four episodes,  he has turned to the crowd funding platform Indiegogo.

To produce the second episode, Catalysta has initially asked for $25,000 in donations.

“The funds are earmarked for the artists who work on the project,” Goldberg said. “$100,000 would cover all four remaining episodes of season one.”

The wild and woolly cast of MunchCo Calling! (Photograph
courtesy Catalysta LLC.)
Donors are privy to all sorts of bonuses. For $15, contributors will receive an exclusive illustration, while a $250 investment nets a personal shout-out throughout the credits of the first season’s episodes. Top-tier donors who chip in $1,000 receive a treasure trove of artwork and DVDs, as well as a personalized thank-you message from Ralph himself.

“We’ve had almost 2,000 people visit our Indiegogo page,” Goldberg said. “I’d like people to know there’s no such thing as too small a gift.”

While the podcast portions of The Catalysta Show are good to go for this October, the fate of Ralph Munch and pals hinges on the outcome of the online fundraiser.

“We want to offer an ongoing nine-week cycle of programs with MunchCo in the number nine slot, but that requires having episode two ready nine weeks later and the next episode after that, and so on,“ Goldberg said. “We can’t start MunchCo in October unless production starts up again very soon.”

The Purpose Behind the Puppets

In today's globalized economy, Goldberg said every industry is presented with its own unique set of challenges and possibilities.

“We live in a time of insightful trailblazers in every field,“ he said. “These women and men have dedicated their lives to exploring how an industry or service can better align within its particular ecosystem: the people, communities, and environments that it impacts.”

A mere buzzword to some, Goldberg defines “sustainability” as simply recognizing that humanity exists on a planet with finite resources. “We make believe otherwise at our own expense,” he said.

A fairly recent trend, Goldberg said more companies than ever are realizing that they have a pivotal part to play in sustainability efforts.

“It was through experience, and oftentimes, disaster that weaknesses were exposed and new solutions realized,” he said. “Corporate responsibility ought to combine an ongoing process of personal development with an exploration of the benefits a company can offer beyond the limited goal of monetary profit. There’s always room for improvement on both fronts.”

Goldberg said the intent of MunchCo Calling! -- indeed, the entire Catalysta line-up -- is to stimulate and inspire such "transformative" careers.

“I’d like our shows to contribute to the evolution of meaning and passion in every field of work for everyone everywhere,” he said. “Though difficult, I do believe it’s possible to get in touch with our passion and nurture it into reality … our natural tendency is to do something that we love, which includes being of benefit. The combination of passion and purpose just feels satisfying.”

Admittedly, he said the path to pursuing passionate and meaningful work is oftentimes bumpy, even when one is clear about what he or she wants to do.

While the stars of the new program may be beings of fur and fluff, Goldberg said he believes their exploits in and out of the office -- especially when it comes to tackling heavy duty evolutionary business ethics -- are more than relatable to bipedal viewers.

“I hope that Ralph Munch and the cast of MunchCo Calling! are enjoyed as examples of everyday professionals who are coping with their personal issues and a bevy of business challenges while attempting to transition to work of passion and purpose,” he said. “It’s not an easy road for anyone, including dogs, bunnies, koalas and people.”

Uncommon Journalism, 2015.

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