"If you do what you love, you never have to work a day in your life.” That's an age-old adage, but it's particularly applicable to John Brenkus, co-founder/co-CEO of BASE Productions and host of Sport Science. Brenkus has held one job for his entire career, and even 17 years after starting the production company out of college, the exuberance he feels for television is palpable over the telephone.
“I wake up every day and I consider myself to be blessed and very fortunate to work on programs that I'm passionate about,” Brenkus says. These days, he has a lot to feel good about, even if his job sometimes involves being thrown to the ground by an NFL tackle.
Sport Science, which first aired on the Fox Sports cable networks, was recently acquired by ESPN. The Emmy-winning sports technology show challenges long-held assumptions about what makes athletes successful, and utilizes BASE's signature fast-paced visual production techniques and use of motion-capture and CGI technology. At ESPN, it will appear as a standalone special and in segments as part of other network programming such as College Football GameDay, as well as online.
“ESPN is a very visionary network,” Brenkus says of Sport Science's new home. “This show is creating a new genre of programming. They understand how to get that brand out over many platforms….ESPN provides us with the biggest platform in the world to deliver that message.”
On Sport Science, Brenkus plays the Everyman foil, often putting himself in harm's way to illustrate a point. That was the case last spring when the show tested the hypothesis of whether an “average Joe” could withstand the punishment of going head-to-head against an NFL lineman. Brenkus (5'8”, 160 pounds) gladly stood in against New York Jets defensive tackle Kris Jenkins (6'4”, 360 pounds) and was promptly pounded into the ground.
Playing that average Joe role is a bit misleading—Brenkus has participated in four Ironman triathlons—but the congenial host is quick to point out that he is nowhere near a world-class athlete.
“If I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it all the way,” he says. “For me, it's an honor to be able to go up against [a great athlete], just to even try. The purpose of the show is to really illustrate how amazing these athletes are and how they do what they do. Throwing me nine feet in the air certainly does illustrate that.”
Some shows are awe-inspiring even without such high-flying antics. A 2009 episode explored the mechanics behind throwing a perfect spiral. The Sport Science team set out to find out if an NFL quarterback is more accurate zeroing in on a target than an Olympic archer. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees solved the riddle by hitting a bull's-eye from 20 yards away—on 10 straight attempts.
Brenkus, a self-described “type AAA” personality, is certainly a self-starter. While attending college at the University of Virginia, he stopped into the Virginia Independent Film Office, then run by current AFI President/CEO Bob Gazzale. Gazzale told Brenkus about an up-and-coming film director named Steven Soderbergh who was in the area. “Maybe you should hunt him down,” Gazzale told Brenkus.
The enterprising student did just that, tracking down Soderbergh at a screening of his 1991 film Kafka. Brenkus then earned course credit for learning about the film industry at the side of the young director.
“His advice was, 'Do everything yourself,'” Brenkus says. “That was really the foundation for [BASE Productions]. I taught myself how to shoot and how to edit.”
Brenkus teamed up with Mickey Stern, a law- and business-school graduate who also happened to be dating Brenkus' sister. Stern had been working as a real estate attorney but was looking to get into something he was more passionate about. The two hit it off immediately. “It's been a very powerful relationship,” Brenkus says.
They co-founded BASE upon Brenkus' graduation from Virginia. Stern would eventually marry Brenkus' sister, making the two business partners and brothers-in-law.
And business has been good since the company's inception. BASE's net and gross revenues have increased year-to-year since the company started, according to Stern. He says the company already has 75% of its 2009 revenue in the pipeline for 2010, even before a number of new show pitches have been made to networks.
“He is the most intense, driven and talented guy you will ever meet,” Stern says. “He's been a 20-hour-a-day guy since the day I met him. That's his personality.” Stern adds that whether he's producing television, hosting a show or training for a triathlon, Brenkus gravitates toward challenges: “The harder something is, the more he likes it.”
“He's got this genius brain with a childlike eagerness for information,” adds Ron Wechsler, ESPN's VP of series development and production. “It's really infectious. You don't leave a meeting with John thinking, 'Man, he's really not into this'....And John's personal knowledge of production and post-production are second to none.”
In the early days of BASE, Stern managed the business affairs of the company while Brenkus handled creative. But over the years, Stern says the two have “worn both hats incredibly frequently.”
Sport Science is just one of a high-octane slate of shows BASE is producing. The roster includes A&E reality-based murder mystery Crime 360, Spike TV's Jesse James Is a Dead Man, National Geographic Channel's Fight Science and G4's Human Wrecking Balls.
Brenkus' love for film comes across in all of BASE's productions, which meld drama and powerful imagery for an intense viewer experience. “John's passions have always been both film and television,” Stern says. “The word we use a lot is 'cinematic.' Even if it's something that sounds like it's made for the small screen, there's always got to be build, got to be suspense and then there has to be a reveal.”
But with a track record of compelling programming, a slew of awards and a new 26,000-square-foot facility in Los Angeles, Brenkus is still hungry to pitch the next hit. “I think passion sells,” he says. “Our philosophy in creating high-quality product is to have passion in what we're doing. We've never taken on a project that we're not passionate about.”