Leading with love: Get to know PoC Studios co-founder Labid Aziz
Labid Aziz may not be a household name to many, but his productions as head honcho of PoC studios are sure to ring a bell. The Vessel with Martin Sheen is just one of many projects showcasing Aziz’s expertise behind the scenes. His historic success with Clouds on Disney+ continues to rise up the charts in viewership, and Aziz is just getting started.
We were lucky enough to get a few moments with the executive to discuss what more is up the sleeves of PoC Studios.
Tell us about your history as an executive. How did you start your journey?
My journey as an executive officially started in 2007 when I moved to LA to attempt to put together my first film fund. I was very fortunate to have spent the year prior learning how Hedge Funds and the world of institutional financiers work from one of my dear friends and mentors, Steve Oristaglio.
Steve had previously worked at places like Putnam Investments, UBS, and Saloman Brothers, and at the time was the CIO of his own shop.
Over the course of about a year, Steve took it upon himself to teach this kid, who was a Psychology major and Religious Studies minor from Brandeis University that was simply trying to make documentaries that might impact the world around him, how the world of money and investors actually works, just in the hopes of expanding my approach to the business of media & entertainment.
After that time with Steve, and with his support, I moved to LA with the specific goal of building a team and a plan for a fund for filmed entertainment.
Luckily, with his support and the support of other close associates who worked in finance in Boston and NYC, I not only had the confidence that if I was successful in building the team and the plan I would be able to raise the capital for it, but I also had soft-circled some capital commitments for the Fall of 2008.
Then the crash happened.
Before you got into show business, you were an executive at two merchant banks. How did this experience help to inform your future career?
I actually started my career in media when I was at Brandeis where I began making documentaries and short-form content geared towards my activism efforts on campus and beyond.
This turned into a business post-college where I was making (as producerexecutive , director, cinematographer, editor, and pretty much all other positions imaginable) feature-length & short-form documentaries & films, PSAs, national and regional commercials, music videos, and also internal corporate training videos and non-profit fund-raising media tools.
My stints at the two merchant banks came about because the crash of 2008 put a pause on any fund-raising progress I had made. After the crash of 2008, I saw major financial institutions go from having over $50bn in assets to barely having over $3bn in assets overnight.
It was an eye-opening moment where I felt like I knew nothing about how the real world worked. However, at the time when the world was hemorrhaging as a result of the crash, I noticed that a sub-sect of our world was highly active and solvent, the world of physical import/export of goods/food/energy.
I noticed that this business was not only humming but also that they were using structured products and using methods not dissimilar to the ones I was using to structure the film finance vehicles on which my first fund attempt was based.
Also, I noticed that they were using leverage options at 3 or 4: 1 vs the roughly 20:1 that the mortgage-backed securities business had used, which included the really bad collateral at the bottom.
From Bangladesh, born in Sweden, I have a lot of international contacts involved in the goods/food and/or energy industries, whether by importing cotton and milk powder into Bangladesh, exporting garments out from Bangladesh, and metals/minerals from West Africa into the US.
I also noticed a highly disciplined approach to providing liquidity to goods and products that required many steps with varying risks that had to be navigated before they could be converted into cash.
These goods/products often started underground, needing assay reports in order to substantiate their potential value to a financier and/or insurance company in order to serve as collateral for a loan to be used to produce it.
They then needed further protection as they were shipped in vessels around the world where there is further risk of delivery and then the end-user pays for the product upon reaching its intended destination safely, as promised and as per QC guidelines.
Sound somewhat familiar? A script is just an untested idea that requires money to be given shape, to then only be faced with risks related to completion, delivery, and performance with the intended audience.
Yes, I saw that right away, so I found a way to get myself involved with some small international traders, which then led to me conducting due diligence and underwriting, then on to drafting legal contracts and having more and more responsibilities. It landed me at the first merchant bank sourcing, structuring, and working to close physical commodities deals.
The second position in merchant banking came about because of a relationship I developed in the mid-2000s, which led me to a merchant bank that wanted to start both a physical commodities trade desk and an entertainment finance desk. I was literally the perfect person for this job and it helped things come full circle for me, this time more refined and prepared to tackle the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead.
You launched Wayfarer Studios as its COO and CFO in 2019. What drew you to the studio and what did you learn during your time there?
In August of 2019, I was tapped on the shoulder, first by Justin and then by Steve, to help them build and run a content studio around Justin’s incredible talent as both a filmmaker and a visionary with the ethos, integrity, and impact-focused nature of the two of them combined.
My only request was that I get to build Justin’s Amblin and our Dreamworks simultaneously. Justin, Steve, and Steve’s CIO all agreed so I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
It was not an easy decision because it meant putting on hold a company I had been building with Andy Cosby and some others since the summer of 2017. However, it was truly a gift to help these two amazing humans as they set out to build a social impact entertainment content company with equality, diversity, and love at the center of all of it.
That opportunity allowed me to take all of the experiences, skills, and wisdom I had learned starting from my first failed fund attempt in 2007 until that summer.
That included more failures than I would wish upon my enemies, and apply them as the only c-suite executive of the company and show the industry and myself (to be very honest), that I can do that job and go toe to toe with industry stalwarts to create win-win-win scenarios.
During my 20 months building and running Wayfarer, I was given the space and freedom to do my job which was simply to be a preservationist of capital and talent, which has ultimately been the backbone of who I am and what People of Culture Studios is all about.
To steal from Elon Musk’s playbook, I got to battle test myself at Wayfarer for what God has truly planned for me and ALL of that is now being channeled into People of Culture Studios!
During your tenure at Wayfarer, you brokered the historical sale of CLOUDS, the first narrative Disney film to be acquired for a global platform. Can you tell us how this deal came about?
Obviously, there is only so much I can share but I will say that Justin knew that the DNA of CLOUDS wasn’t a fit for the HBO Max streaming service.
I worked hard with the incredible folks at WarnerBros to show them that I will always work in the interest of my partners and stakeholders. We needed to view the deal with fairness and not prevent any real pathways for value in case we ever came across a hurdle that could possibly prevent future value from being derived.
After we knew theatrical was out of the question since the pandemic was just getting underway, we were given the opportunity to present the film to the folks at Disney and Disney+. As a testament to Justin’s talent and the incredible film that CLOUDS is, the film rose through the ranks and even earned Justin a personal message from Bob. The rest, as they say, is history.
Who are your biggest professional influences?
Professor Gordy Fellman, a professor who showed my short videos for cultural shows to his Peace & Conflict Resolution class which changed my entire life trajectory.
Professor Henry Felt, documentary professor at Brandeis University. He taught me how to tell a story with a camera.
Professor Chuck Reed, an entrepreneurship professor at Brandeis International Business School. He taught me how to think like an entrepreneur and how to write a business plan.
Arnie Reisman, Class of ‘64, mentor, producing partner. A Producer, Oscar-nominated writer, Poet Laureate, and playwright. RIP Arnie and please know how important you have been to me though I didn’t get enough chances to tell you. We built a business in Boston together producing all forms of content.
Ann Carol Grossman, Class of ‘69, is a mentor, a producing partner, and a Producer who has made more than seventy films and videos in the last thirty years. She supported and produced many of my projects in Boston.
Steve Oristaglio, mentor. Vice-Chairman with over 40 years in the investment business. He instilled in me the foundation, tools, and skills to think like and eventually become a ‘closer’.
You are the co-founder and CEO of People of Culture Studios. How did the idea come about and what does the name of the studio mean?
My idea for this studio has always existed and it is truly the reason I moved to LA back in 2007. It has taken on different names, was built around different business models, and of course, involved different people/teams. In April 2021, after leaving Wayfarer, I truly reflected on my life, journey, mission, and purpose. Fortunately, I didn’t have to think too hard. In essence, this all started for me in the 6th grade.
During my 6th grade year, I convinced folks at my grade school to convert the janitor’s closet into a safe mediation space/prayer room for anyone who needed a break from the stresses of the transition to junior high school, and also from the stresses of being part of the diverse student body population in our school. As you can imagine, in the late 80s, there was not a lot of diversity in our middle school in Nashua, New Hampshire!
This notion of working hard to create safe spaces has carried through my entire life in some shape or form continuing on to Phillips Exeter Academy, my time at Brandeis University, and also into my first media/communications company focused on addressing inequities in health care, civil liberties, and education policy.
It even affects every step I take right now as I endeavor to be a new model of a CEO in Hollywood. I’ve always believed that if people feel safe, then they will have the space to become the best version of themselves. When we are given the space to become THAT actualized person, incredible and magical things happen.
So the idea is that we, People of Culture Studios, create safe spaces for the creative community and the financial community, in the hopes that we can lean in on becoming the best version of ourselves, thus unleashing our true and full potential into the world. We pride ourselves on a few simple tenets:
The first is truth, honesty, transparency, dignity, and trust will take us far. No jerks allowed and check your ego at the door. Never overvalue yourself and never undervalue the other. Give people space to shine and allow room for mistakes. Be direct and loving in your approach, but don’t shy away from the truth.
Let’s make dreams come true. When someone shows you their true colors, believe them right away. It’s not the “who” we are after, it’s the “why”. If our spirits and purpose align, then please join us on this journey where we will make lots of money together, have even more fun and hopefully, along the way, win a few awards and maybe even impact the world in a positive way!
What separates PoC Studios from its peers?
Honestly, nothing should separate us from our peers. Our peers, allies, and co-conspirators should know that our doors are wide open for them. If anything, we wish to work super closely with them and even work to support them and protect them in their efforts.
One of our fundamental goals is to show that being fair and transparent in this business is possible and that direct, healthy & honest conversations, even if they make you uncomfortable, are the answer. We do this with the goal of making sure everyone understands that the world needs to be viewed with a lens of abundance not through a lens of scarcity and fear.
Do you feel like Hollywood has been doing a better job promoting representation over the past decade?
I think there are a number of key individuals who are doing a great job at promoting diversity & representation in Hollywood. I think Hollywood and the institutions that comprise it are trying and noodling with ways to do a better job promoting diversity & representation.
I also think it’s wonderful that we have diverse folks with titles like “CMO”, “Chief Diversity Officer”, and even some COOs and CFOs from underrepresented and diverse communities. But, I will be overjoyed when we start seeing diverse folks as CEOs and Chairpeople in Hollywood.
Can you tell us about any upcoming PoC projects?
We’ve been super busy over the last year to make sure the foundation is set right. Now that we’ve had a year of battle-testing the team, our processes and clearly establishing our WHY, we have been working at an elevated pace over the last couple of months and are hoping to share some of our new initiatives soon.
What advice do you have for aspiring executives?
Thank you. I would love to share advice with others in case the lessons I’ve learned could be valuable to someone else. First and foremost, I didn’t start out aspiring to be an executive, I started out because I was inspired to use the power of media and storytelling to find a way to impact the world around me in a positive way.
This critical starting point of truly having a mission, vision, and purpose, which of course can expand, change, and be refined as we grow as humans and travel this journey of life, is IMHO vital as without it we can easily become lost or distracted along the way.
Make sure you’re ready to put in the 10+ years & 10,000+ hours to be really good at what you want to do. For me it became 20+ years and 20,000+ hours because I knew if I wanted to be an executive, I had to learn to be both a good operator and a disciplined fiduciary which are two completely different things!
Though you have to put in the time yourself and do the work, be on the lookout for those experienced, sagely, and caring mentors who will actually be there for you and help you even when you don’t realize they are. Find them, hold onto them.
Mr. Reisman gave me humbling advice early in my career. If I really wanted to pursue a career in Hollywood, I needed to be prepared to sacrifice a lot along the way including a desire to have a life partner and family. I didn’t get married until my late 30s however I’m so glad I waited as I was not only ready for a relationship, I found my perfect life partner who makes me a better person every day.
Mr. Oristaglio really instilled in me the value of learning how to be a ‘closer’, while also carefully listening to all the others at the table.
You have experience as a filmmaker and editor. Do you have an interest in returning to the creative side of things at some point?
Maybe when my 5-year-old daughter wants to produce something, whether a dance performance, a rock n roll show, or a music video, I will definitely raise my hand and help out, if she lets me!
I’ve fully embraced and love that my creativity comes in the form of strategy and high-level thinking about the ecosystem of the content landscape and trying to understand how to harness the power and beauty of transformative storytelling to attempt to do God’s work – make positive fundamental changes in society in how we think and behave as a people.
It’s a super long-game approach but all things truly impactful are.
By taking a preservationist approach to talent and money, I’ve been earning the trust of amazing humans. This earned trust allows me to incorporate ideas and strategies that can work towards those changes. Hopefully, through some of these efforts, PoC will soon show you what we mean versus me trying to just tell you about it!
Do you feel your experience as a filmmaker has informed your talents as an executive and producer?
100%. I think taking the time to understand the nuances of every aspect of the craft of filmmaking has given me incredible insight when working with others no matter what position or role they play in the ecosystem of content creation.
From being a boom operator to working in the G&E department to line producing/AD’ing over 20 projects and of course being a producer, director, editor, and cinematographer on a wide array of content efforts, the ability to have empathy and speak the same language as the other goes a long way in building trust and ultimately working towards successful results.
What is your greatest professional achievement?
My greatest professional achievement is hands down what I did during my 20 months at Wayfarer when I was asked to design, build and run a new content studio centered around the DNA and incredible talent that is Justin.
I started in August of ‘19 as a consultant and soon thereafter took on the roles of COO & CFO. I hired our first employees in March ‘20 and went on to build out six departments with almost 30 employees by March ‘21. Building a company from scratch in the pandemic was quite the adventure!
In that time, we put together groundbreaking and historic deals with WarnerBros, Disney, and P&G. We produced 5 micro-budget feature-length films in the Fall of ‘20 as part of our competition to discover new talent. We worked hand in hand with HarperCollins Publishing to release MAN ENOUGH with incredible results from our direct marketing efforts.
We had the joy of working super close with the marketing teams at Disney for the premiere and launch of CLOUDS, also with incredible results, especially from our in-house social efforts. And I think we had about 20 press releases in 14 months! I am forever grateful that Justin and Steve took a chance on me to show off what I am capable of and super proud of what we accomplished during my tenure.
What is your biggest professional mistake? What did you learn from it?
I think the biggest professional mistake is to have a ‘Plan B’. If you truly believe in yourself and truly know what you stand for, then making mistakes and failing are necessary for growth.
A ‘Plan B’ allows one to not get back up after a mistake and then to give up by going after that ‘Plan B’. Don’t give up. Always get back up and keep going – there is no ‘Plan B’. It’s so cliche, but perseverance is the thing. Giving up IS the mistake you never want to make.
I do have some regrets in how I’ve handled things in the past based on decisions I have made. If I could go back, I would handle them differently, but not alter the decisions I made ultimately. In a nutshell, I put myself first over some dear friends who believed in me and some could say I abandoned them to pursue a life in Hollywood. I am happy to say that I think I am the opposite of that today.
I truly feel I think about others and even put them first in many situations and I deeply and genuinely care about making people’s dreams come true. I definitely work hard to not lead with ego but instead focus on leading with love and compassion.
Lastly, what is your five year plan?
Well if I told you this, I might have to kill you! But seriously, the plan is to focus on making sure PoC’s foundation is rock solid and that our WHY and our HOW are crystal clear as the world learns more about us.
This business is actually not that difficult, but people can make it super difficult. So, I want to focus on our tasks and goals at hand which are to create quality representative content, make money, have fun and maybe win some awards along the way.
As we do that, I will endeavor to do my job which is simple: 1) protect the two most important actors in our business: the ones who write the script and those who write the checks and 2) give our real bosses – our audience and our community – what they want in the most authentic way, whoever they are, wherever they are.
What other film projects would you like to see Aziz take on to push minority artists to the forefront? Let us know in the comments!