Entertainment and technology entrepreneur Todd Wagner spoke last week at IU Cinema as part of the Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture Series.
For Wagner, a 1983 graduate of Indiana University, the visit also was a chance to share his alma mater with his family.
“This campus is beautiful. It’s amazing,” he said. “I look back at (my time at IU), and those are some of the best years of my life, so it’s fun to come back and talk to folks.”
Wagner personally introduced the IU Cinema screening of “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a film he produced that was nominated for six Academy Awards in 2006.
Today, Wagner is CEO of 2929 Entertainment, a media company he owns with longtime business partner Mark Cuban.
Their company includes 2929 Productions, which creates independent feature films; Magnolia Pictures, a film distribution business; AXS TV, a high-definition cable and satellite network; and Landmark Theatres, a national chain of art-house cinemas with an outlet in Indianapolis.
In the late 1970s, however, Wagner didn’t know what he wanted to do in life. He came to IU and studied accounting in what is now the Kelley School of Business.
“You don’t know it at the time, but you’re starting your life’s journey and it’s making you an adult,” Wagner said. “It’s the whole experience. It’s not just the business school, it’s the social aspect, it’s the friends. … It was all those things rolled into one.”
For Wagner, serving as president of Kappa Sigma fraternity was an important lesson in leadership. “If you can lead your peers, you can lead just about anything,” he said. “When you’re eventually the boss, they have to listen to you. But when you’re not their boss and they still listen to you, you’ve accomplished something.”
Wagner has accomplished some things — some monumental things — over the course of his career.
In 1999, when he was still in his 30s, he and Cuban sold their pioneering online streaming company Broadcast.com to Yahoo for $5.7 billion.
During his talks at IU, Wagner was quick to point out that his path to the top was hardly a straight line. “It was a roller-coaster ride,” he said.
Wagner’s accounting degree from IU’s Kelley School gave him a solid educational foundation and helped him land a prized internship with KPMG, though he realized immediately the field was not his calling.
He earned a law degree at the University of Virginia and made partner at a Dallas firm, but he still had the nagging feeling he hadn’t found his true path. “It wasn’t my destiny,” he said. “It was not what I was meant to do.”
After a few more bumps and turns, Wagner joined forces with Cuban, another IU alum who was already a successful entrepreneur. Their venture became AudioNet, later called Broadcast.com.
“I took all my money and put it in, all my savings, my 401k,” Wagner said. “You are all in. There is no Plan B.”
More than anything, being an entrepreneur is a mindset, he said. “You have to be comfortable with the chaos of it.”
Few people realize his financing nearly fell through just before the wildly profitable initial public offering. And they don’t know about other deals and big ideas that almost took off.
“Timing, luck, hard work and smarts: You need all four. But guess what? Two of those you don’t control,” Wagner said.
“People only see this part, when it’s over. All I did all those years was work and maybe sleep. That was it. There was nothing else I did, seven days a week.”
Wagner could have stayed with Yahoo or he could have retired young. Instead, he took a left turn toward Hollywood.
He was warned that in the movie business, the math is different: The studio always wins. A film project might have the right story with all the right people and never pan out. “There is no such thing as a sure thing,” he said. “It is fool’s gold. It’s just not reality.”
With 2929 Entertainment, he and Cuban created their own system. They can produce films, distribute them through Magnolia Pictures or other partners, show them in their theaters and stream them digitally.
Instead of stalking blockbusters and assuming giant financial risks, Wagner’s strategy has been to fund smaller-budget projects — true stories, inspirational films, and those with socially conscious themes.
Wagner wants to tell the Wright Brothers’ story, including parts people haven’t heard. When their contraption first left the ground, their adventure had just begun.
“I love stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” he said.
Since the time of his windfall, Wagner has been committed to philanthropy through his personal foundation. “I felt it was absolutely imperative that I found a way to give back,” he said.
Over the years, he has become passionate about shifting philanthropy from direct mail campaigns and gala events into the digital age.
Through his platforms Charitybuzz, Chideo and Prizeo, he hopes to amplify the amount of money raised while making the experience more entertaining and rewarding for donors.
Chideo offers exclusive entertainment content for purchase, with proceeds going to causes that the participating celebrities are passionate about. In Charitybuzz and Prizeo, donors enter auctions or sweepstakes for the chance to win once-in-a-lifetime experiences, such as meeting public figures.
“A lot of businesses look at ’cause’ as something that sits at the kiddie table, at the back table,” Wagner said. “I’m trying my best to bring it to the front table, to make it a part of what they do every day.
“We can make them look like great corporate citizens, raise money for a cause they care about and raise the visibility of the company. I’m not just asking them out of ‘the goodness of their heart.’ I’m saying, ‘we can help your business.’
“We’re trying to make it simple for them to do the right thing,” he said.
Wagner said he doesn’t feel he and Cuban were smarter than everyone else during the dot.com boom years. They just hit the jackpot.
“We just were lucky,” Wagner said. “We had timing. We had lightning in a bottle. It happened.”