If Evolve Studios were a dish in a restaurant, it would be “some kind of crazy savory mix of spicy multicultural food that hits you with every flavor possible. And you have to sop it up with bread. As a team, that’s where our tastes are,” said Joel Edwards, president and executive producer.
It would be an understatement to say that when it comes to creative, Evolve Studios doesn’t hold back. Since 2010 the independent Nashville-based studio has developed into a full-service production company known for its high-concept, high-execution and high-stakes projects. In the past few years, the studio has grown beyond commissioned and branded-content work to now developing, producing and delivering long-form original content.
“At the heart of what we do, it’s always bold,” Edwards said. “No rules. No limitations. Push the boundaries, but do so with love and respect … and hard work ethic.”
For instance, on a music video for Pearl Jam’s song “Dance of the Clairvoyants,” Evolve edited together live performances of the band with more than 200 clips of intense landscapes and abstract footage from Filmsupply’s massive library. But they couldn’t just stop there. It quickly escalated into a three-part music video series for a truly captivating visual experience that portrays the creative progression of the project.
In another example, the Evolve team met up with cast members in the middle of the Nevada desert for a promo for Street Outlaws: Gone Girl from Discovery+ about female street racers. They used drones and Russian Arm cameras to shoot a highly technical and stylized spot that contained a whole sub-narrative about a mystery racer, executing a more elaborate and elevated promo and setting it to a rockin’ cover of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.”
“To walk away with that spot in just one day — we’re very proud of that,” Edwards said. “We’ve got one day, and what’s the most badass thing we can produce? Our team loves the hype piece. Let’s get the blood pumping, let’s feel it. We all love doing that stuff.”
Evolve takes its “full-service” offering seriously. The studio produces in three different verticals, creating a wide range of content such as original feature films, episodic series, documentaries, branded content, promos, music videos, digital films and immersive VR content.
As Chief Operating Officer and Executive Producer Daniel Kiedis puts it, “we truly do sail in different seas of content.”
“It’s one thing to know how to sail,” he said. “It’s another thing to know how to sail in the Atlantic Ocean. Or experience sailing in the Indian Ocean or the Arctic. For us, making content is kind of similar. It’s one thing to know how to make short form commercial branded content, or to know how to make promos, or to know how to make long-form episodic content or theatrical content.”
When taking on new projects, they look for those that can leverage their value proposition and incorporate the entire team, while having fun doing it.
“We’re very committed to making sure the process and the journey of making content is as crafted and as beautiful as the end product itself,” Kiedis said. “There’s a lot of focus on what everybody sees in the final product, as there should be. But we want to make sure the experience of getting there is treated with the same level of concern. For us, that’s something that truly sets us apart.”
An Immediate Love Affair
Edwards started straight out of high school “living a Dazed and Confused-like movie script”: literally couch surfing, leading a rock-n-roll cover band, falling in love with his high school sweetheart, and then having to get serious quickly.
He worked on a commercial sod farm, a dirty job that involves growing grass and installing it in people’s lawns, and he also worked part-time construction flipping houses. Eventually he found himself working as a freelancer for a sports television broadcaster. He took whatever work he could get, and wound up doing pretty much every below-the-line job possible.
He was young and eager, ready to embrace the latest technology and full of fresh ideas about ways to improve the business, which many times fell on deaf ears. He saw an industry on the verge of disruption, and wanted to be one of the disruptors.
“I stumbled into this industry and quickly realized how antiquated and old-school it was,” Edwards said. So he decided if he wanted to see things change, he was going to have to make it happen himself.
“The reality of [being able to] only go so far as individuals prompted me to start a company,” he said. “At that point in time, not many people wanted to hear my ideas and fund them. I knew we were just going to have to build it from scratch.”
He went into business with his brother Jesse Edwards and began laying the foundation for Evolve, earning the right to work with bigger and bigger clients one project at a time.
One of the defining moments came in 2010 when a documentary he produced caught the eye of a creative director who was leading a rebrand at National Geographic Channel. They created a four-spot storytelling campaign for the network that went on to garner a 2011 Emmy Award.
“When you get a first date with National Geographic, and you bring home an Emmy — it was an immediate love affair,” Edwards said. “We’ve worked with them for years after that.”
Name Your Dream
Today, Evolve has many respected clients under its belt, both in entertainment and beyond, such as Disney, National Geographic, ESPN, Netflix, Discovery, Fox Sports, History Channel, NBCUniversal and many other brands. The secret, Edwards says, is the blue-collar creative approach and vision: to produce high-end creative in a more efficient way, and to always over deliver, whether the budget is $1 or $1 million.
“Dream big and work very hard. It’s about naming your dreams, and being very intentional,” Edwards said. “Where do you want to go? You don’t have to know how to get there, but you have to know where you want to go. And then start taking steps.”
It’s a principle he instills not just in himself, but also in his team.
When Senior Producer Jen Lewis started working at Evolve, she was asked in her first meeting if she had a dream in life.
“I immediately said I want to adapt a book to a feature film,” Lewis said. It’s something she’s wanted to do ever since she was a kid.
Just recently, she was on a phone call with Edwards and Kiedis.
“Joel said, ‘Hey Jen, do you remember one of the first times we met, and you said one of your dreams was to adapt a book to film?’ And I said, ‘ ... yes’ and he said, ‘so we’ve got this project …’”
“To say that Evolve helps anyone get to where they want to go? Yeah, absolutely,” Lewis said. “And I think that goes back to how they treat people. If you have a dream, tell us what it is, and we’ll help you get there. I think it’s so lovely what that means, and how that just sits, because I just lived through that. Something that I spoke to them four years ago, and they remembered.”
Part of that, Edwards says, comes down to a company culture that aims to restore a childlike sense of wonder.
“When we’re born we just have this insatiable appetite for wonder, and as we get older life kind of chips away at that, and starts to pollute that innocence,” Edwards said. “Part of our culture and vision is to keep and retain that. Not only do we stay better humans, but we actually do better work.”
That mentality helps Evolve stand out as an agency like no other, says Post Supervisor Melissa Floreth.
“It’s so refreshing to work for a company that values family and a sustainable work/life balance,” Floreth said. “Not that we don’t have moments when we are slammed and have late nights, but there is a certain camaraderie within the team when we are busy and even when we’re not that is so encouraging to be your best self every day.”
With a background in sports and documentaries, Edwards is also excited to craft more pieces that deeply edify as well as entertain. He finds opportunities to do that, even in a short-form promo.
In a teaser for Defying Gravity, a YouTube Originals docuseries from All 3 Media about the untold story of women’s gymnastics, Evolve focused on the notion of what drives an athlete to give their whole life to a sport.
“In 60 seconds, we’re trying to say hey, this show is going to tell the stories of these young women, and how they’re going to give everything to forge a new identity,” Edwards said. “That is a really rich story focus.”
Edwards’s desire to produce creative “where the heart and the mind are moved and stirred in a deeper way” circles back to his young entrepreneurial spirit that drove him to launch the company in the first place, and the sense of joy that radiates throughout the company he’s established.
The Way the Wind Blows
Holding true to those virtues while programming flexibility into the strategy has allowed Evolve to live up to its name. The company has ebbed and flowed along its path to success, and that’s no accident.
“Change is in our nature,” Edwards said. “We’re in love with the whole process. It’s stimulating to always be changing. Whether that’s technology, whether that’s medium, creative processes, logistic processes. We’re seeing that with the entertainment industry as a whole. What worked last year isn’t working now.”
During the pandemic, for instance, clients shifted, companies dried up, and entire lines of revenue disappeared from Evolve’s budget. But the agency adapted by leaning into post-only creative executions and stock footage licensing, focusing on projects that weren’t at the mercy of COVID lockdowns and social distancing mandates.
One such project was a promotional campaign for Science Channel’s Mysteries of the Abandoned, created completely in CG.
“What if your mindset is this is the way the wind is blowing; how do we continue to sail?” Edwards asks. “How can you still provide value? And if you can find a way to carve that out, you will continue to stay in business.”
As time moves on, Edwards has big plans for the future of Evolve. His goal is to have the brand identity of a company like Pixar, but in live action and in three different verticals: branded content, original television, and episodic feature films.
The desire to continue to grow the agency speaks to the young and creative spirit that inspired him to launch Evolve in the first place.
“I saw the opportunity disrupt an industry as an artist, but also as an entrepreneur,” he said. “And since that moment, we’ve never stopped.”