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Playing Hooky is Hard Work

By Maxine Rusbasan

Playing hooky has taken on a whole new meaning lately.  Not just about how schools and businesses across the globe have gone remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also about the newly formed MGM/United Artists Television and its first deal with Play Hooky Productions, founded by the Oscar-winning actor, Sam Rockwell, and NYU Stern’s own Mark Berger. 

You may know Sam Rockwell from his roles that definitely stole my heart as the dastardly villain, Eric Knox in Charlie’s Angels (2000), the Southern cop, Dixon, in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017,) for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, or, most recently, as the endearing Nazi, Captain Klenzendorf in this year’s Oscar-winner, Jojo Rabbit (2019). You may know Mark Berger from evening classes in KMC or the many MANY weekends spent working on group projects in the second-floor group study rooms.  

Berger was introduced to Rockwell while he was an undergraduate theatre student here at NYU, and over the last five years has transitioned into producing both film and Broadway productions, like Of Mice and Men and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  Together, they founded a production company: Play Hooky, a name of deep meaning for Sam Rockwell.

Berger recalls the story that inspired the name Play Hooky.  As they prepared Rockwell’s speech for his likely, and ultimately fruitful, Oscar win in 2018, Rockwell wanted to thank his parents, who Berger calls wild and beautiful artists and people.  Rockwell recalled a charming story of how his father pulled him out of school to see a film on opening day: playing hooky while parentally approved. Berger and Rockwell wanted to reflect the types of projects they intend to produce in the name they chose by evoking that sense of naughty and exciting mischievousness—the idea that, “if you play hooky correctly, you’re still learning.”

Play Hooky found a partnership match with MGM, because “MGM’s team and the simultaneous vision aligned in a way where we were super excited to get into bed with them and see what we could create together,” according to Berger.  MGM’s giant content library dating back to the 1920s including the likes of, The Pink Panther, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Vikings was a particularly appealing factor at play.  The duo are less interested in remaking content, but rather reimagining similar to the efficacious 2014 Fargo TV series reimagining the 1996 Coen brothers film.

With all of Berger’s success producing, he made the decision to come to Stern, because he realized that he wanted to develop foundational skills and the Stern Langone pathway has allowed him to learn these skills at night and apply them during the day.  As Berger and Rockwell saw their deal with MGM coming to fruition, Berger saw himself approaching problems and discussions differently. MBAs in the entertainment industry are unique and Berger feel that this is his “X factor.” He considered himself an actor first, but the unique combination of speaking the language of actors and a Stern MBA skillset sets him apart across the business.  He is “mind-boggled” and thankful for the access to industry professionals like Josh Walker, Chief Strategy Officer at HBO, at Stern.

Unlike most part-time MBAs who work in an office, Berger’s pre-coronavirus schedule has not been drastically interrupted.  He continues to read books, scripts, news pieces, and watch movies or anything that might jump out as an IP to develop with MGM.  Mark predicts that this period of economic slowdown will impact the independent film community most, as projects are less likely to have comparable access to capital as they had prior.  Uncertainty throughout the entertainment industry continues, as production timelines are halting causing unprecedented delays.

Commenting on our indoor isolation, Berger believes that, “in dark times we turn to the arts to find a way out,” which is reflected in the 36% rise in streaming according to Neilsen ratings. It’s no secret that as a society we are turning to a newfound nationwide homemade bread craze, through watching shows like Tiger King and downloading and making Tik Tok videos (it’s only a matter of time before I cave), with little else to do to pass the time.  This yearning for connection in a period of isolation is fuel for stories about connection for years to come.

Mark Berger is hopeful for the future.  When asked about the impacts the virus will have on us as a society, Mark said, “coronavirus is making people more empathetic in general—something we all need to work on, particularly for the arts.  Our job, as artists, is to take universal challenges and translate them into a universal language.” The arts “give us escape and to give us a catharsis in a time when we feel stuck.” I eagerly look forward to the projects that Mark Berger and Sam Rockwell develop with Play Hooky!

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