Funny Business

The man behind the largest urban comedy festival

NAME: RON WILSON
Career Festival Producer, LAFFAPALOOZA!
America’s Urban International Comedy Arts Festival
Age 42
Location Atlanta
Salary Range Executive producer of a festival: $25,000–$135,000; $125,000+ for a televised event
Former drummer and Morehouse graduate Ron Wilson followed his instinct and learned the discipline of entertainment law. The Berkeley, California, native knew that understanding the creative and business aspects of entertainment would allow him to stay involved in music and enable him to negotiate contracts with talent agents and attorneys. It’s a skill that helped propel his career in music and beyond.

Today, Wilson is executive producer of LAFFAPALOOZA!, a four-day, 40-show comedy event staged in Atlanta that attracts 250,000 attendees and a viewership of 84 million. Wilson used his experience in the music industry as a springboard into comedy. He developed skills that transferred across industries, beginning with an unpaid internship at Tommy Boy Records in 1990 while completing his law degree at Hofstra University.

“Volunteering your time is critical when you don’t have credentials in the entertainment industry and you’re looking to develop a credible resumé,” says Wilson.

Volunteering helped him secure his first paying gig at Tommy Boy as an assistant director of business and legal affairs. “Through that experience I got to work with Tupac Shakur and Queen Latifah,” he says, “and I observed people who are extremely tenacious and later used that as a barometer to define what I wanted out of the business.”

Four years later, Wilson was recruited from the label by Turner Broadcasting System, where he was responsible for licensing and acquisition of content — a job that required him to negotiate rights for the company.

By 2002, he had the work experience and enough contacts to partner with Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx and his manager Marcus King to executive produce LAFFAPALOOZA! Wilson coordinates the acquisition of A-list talent, crew members, and specialized vendors. If that’s not enough, there are venue bookings and insurance purchases to consider.

He manages to keep it all together with a staff of six and 200 volunteers. Among his challenges are staying within a budget of $2 million — with $50,000 to $80,000 allocated to marketing — and coordinating logistics for 8 to 10 venues. “You have to be cognizant of overtime costs, as many venues are union-controlled,” says Wilson.

Executive producers are usually tenacious self-starters, Wilson adds. They are either the creators of intellectual property or they put up the financial backing for the production. Many enter the field as production assistants, earning approximately $25,000, or TV script writers, earning between $5,000 and $10,000 per episode. There are also executive producers retained for a one-time live event who can command $55,000 or more per job.

“You always have to operate at the top level of professionalism,” says Wilson. “Public perception is that you’re as good as your last production. Sometimes the public is forgiving but you don’t want to take that chance.”

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