Josh Weinberg’s first job out of college was on the set of Queen of the South, a TV crime drama on USA Network. The Lower Merion High School grad aspired to be a producer or screenwriter, but he quickly learned that making TV shows isn’t always glamorous.
As a production assistant, he processed pay stubs, tax forms, and nondisclosure agreements for the show’s extras, the background actors who don’t have lines. A boss handed him hundreds of pages and a few highlighters. The task was “miserable,” he said.
“You think you’re making a TV show. You think it’s gonna be fun and sexy,” Weinberg said. “You’re doing paperwork.”
But the hours spent filling out forms — and filling them out again when he messed up — inspired a business idea. In 2018, he launched Run a Better Set, or RABS, a Philadelphia software firm that helps studios manage and onboard background actors.
The company’s application has been used on roughly 250 movies and shows, including by studios producing Mare of Easttown, King Richard, and Succession. The software grew in popularity during the pandemic, which pushed studios to do administrative tasks digitally.
“I imagined a solution and set out to build it,” said Weinberg, 28, of Fairmount. “I saw the inefficiency.”
A movie or show may hire hundreds of extras one day and hundreds more the next, depending on the scene. Productions traditionally onboarded, recorded hours, and signed out extras on paper, a time-consuming process that generated thousands of pages. The system was replete with compliance issues. Documents could be illegible or incorrectly filled out. Extras sometimes lost their “vouchers,” or the contracts and timesheets they took home.
“The process was arduous,” said Jason Loftus, a casting director and partner at Philadelphia-based Heery-Loftus Casting, which has used RABS on shows such as Hustle, Servant, and Mare of Easttown. “It would take [assistant directors] an hour, two hours to get everyone signed out at the end of the day. And this is after a long shooting day.”
With the RABS app, productions send extras a web link to fill out information ahead of time. Production assistants check forms before extras arrive, log their times, and sign them out with a phone or tablet. The app allows accountants to see how extras are affecting budgets in real-time. RABS makes casting databases and private software apps for clients, too.
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“The big areas where studios save money is you get all these extras off the clock sooner,” Weinberg said. “You’re saving them time and effort. And you’re doing it in a way that’s accurate, which reduces the risk of employment-related grievance problems.”
The pandemic battered film studios by suspending productions and shuttering movie theaters. But it provided a boost to RABS as demand increased for digital and “contactless” services. The business previously served one or two productions a month, but by last year as many as 71 movies or shows simultaneously used the app, Weinberg said. His goal is to break 100 in 2022. Customers have included Netflix, Warner Bros., and NBCUniversal, which is owned by Philadelphia-based Comcast, Weinberg said.
“Josh’s timing was right on the mark,” said Grant Wilfley, who owns Grant Wilfley Casting in New York and used RABS on such shows as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Succession, and Billions. “When COVID hit, the last thing people wanted to do was to hand out paper vouchers.”
RABS charges studios a flat weekly rate — usually hundreds of dollars — plus a few bucks per extra, Weinberg said. Studios that use RABS for several shows can get a reduced rate, he added. Weinberg declined to share revenue figures for the company. The firm has four full-time employees and four part-timers, including engineers and customer support staffers.
Weinberg, who studied philosophy and political science at Tulane University, didn’t have the tech background to bring his idea to fruition. He Initially sought partnerships with software engineers, but the pacts quickly soured. One took $1,000 from Weinberg and disappeared, he said. Others wouldn’t agree to the equity stakes he offered.
Eventually, he spent some inheritance money from a deceased cousin to pay a team of engineers to build the app. Weinberg now has 100% ownership of the business and software product. Running RABS is his only job.
Despite many clients being based in Los Angeles, he’s decided to keep the business in Philadelphia. He noted that he and his staff can work remotely and that his customers shoot shows all across the country, making where he’s based irrelevant. Plus, he’s fond of Philadelphia. “Philly is just my home,” he said.
There is still room to grow the business, but ultimately Weinberg sees RABS as a niche service for big-name studios. For example, he doesn’t sell software to student films or smaller independent productions, which have few extras and smaller budgets.
“That’s the caliber of production that I’m interested in,” he said of big-name studios. “I like stuff that’s supposedly higher-caliber, that’s award-winning. That’s what I think is rewarding to work on.”