Libby Geist: The Woman Behind the ESPN 30 for 30
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because documentaries in the digital space are becoming ever more intriguing.
By Shannon Sims
The film June 17th, 1994 from ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series is missing narration. And there are no interviews. Instead, while patching together cutting-room scraps — “garbage footage” — the film closes in on a story like a hawk plotting an attack, in swooping, tightening circles. In this case, it’s the tale of how the infamous white Bronco chase intersected with a dramatic day across several sports. It’s a unique storytelling approach, a roundabout form that lets the natural energy of a story propel it. It’s her favorite doc, but its style could also be the story of Libby Geist’s career.
Thirty-five-year-old Geist has led development for ESPN Films for the past three years, ushering through the phenomenally popular 30 for 30 series and curating the telling of our collective sports histories. (ESPN doesn’t release financial figures, but the series dominates its viewership rankings.) She made The Hollywood Reporter’s 35 under 35 list last year as a rising star. And since 30 for 30 creator Bill Simmons’ sudden departure from ESPN in May, she’s shot even further ahead with a big promotion to vice president of ESPN Films. (ESPN PR said the two moves weren’t related.)
From her office in Manhattan, Geist seems like the nice girl at the party, the one who lays low and then surprises you with her charm when you run into her at the bar. She describes herself as “no drama,” and with long strawberry-blond hair, a plaid shirt and an easy, toothy laugh, you might guess she went to school at Wisconsin (you’d be right). But her casual appearance belies a serious talent and a booming career that’s just revving its engine at the film division of the “worldwide leader in sports,” where she’s now tasked with finding new documentary-series ideas and managing ESPN Films in the digital space, which means overseeing everything from budgets to sales of documentary shorts. “I love sports,” she says, “but I’m a documentary nerd.”
Once something’s worked, it’s hard to stay ahead. … My job is to think of new formulas to push the envelope.
Although ESPN Films started as a side experiment in 2008, it has since produced minidocs like June 17th, You Don’t Know Bo (the ratings winner) and The Two Escobars (which Geist calls a “fan favorite”), earning ESPN plenty of praise, Peabodys and Emmy nods. The films have redefined the channel, bringing it into competition with nontraditional peers like HBO as well as Amazon. No wonder another order of 30 for 30 films was recently announced. Combined with Geist’s promotion, it shows the channel clearly plans to keep high-caliber storytelling at its center. And while finding great filmmakers who passionately tell human stories is a tough act, Deirdre Haj, director of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, thinks Geist’s documentary work “has made her exceptional at ESPN.”
But Geist’s success with 30 for 30 is also somewhat of a burden. Like so many at media companies, she must help ESPN figure out how to succeed in the digital space, spawn new hits (“We have to get our new Two Escobars,” Geist says she often wonders) and transition made-for-TV stories into something with iPad appeal. Geist says they’re looking at getting shorter-form content, but, as she notes, “Once something’s worked, it’s hard to stay ahead.”
For Geist, the bar’s always been set high. She comes from a media-pro family, in which her dad, Bill Geist, wrote for Chicago Tribune and The New York Times before landing at CBS. “A lot of the time there was a camera crew in our house, and that was part of our lives,” Geist says. That kind of alternative childhood, she laughs, is why today “we’re weirdos.” Successful weirdos: Her brother, Willie, is an anchor at the Today show.
Originally, though, Geist thought she’d be a lawyer, and picked up a poli-sci degree from the University of Wisconsin before moving to the Windy City to intern for the White Sox, her favorite team. She then relocated to New York and took a PR job. Geist admits she made an “awful publicist,” and so when the agency’s president said he was starting a production company for documentary films and needed a “right-hand man,” she jumped at the opportunity and learned everything — like which camera to use and what insurance to buy — on the fly while developing four docs in just four years. “I was thrown into the fire 100 percent, but that was my film school.”
That set her up for a jump to ESPN Films’ development department in 2011. She recalls those days with the kind of energy you can sense in an entrepreneur or a creative when they’re onto something good, when that buzz in their voice tips you off that their idea might really blow up at any minute. A week after our conversation, Geist was promoted to VP. The fact that she’s a woman? No big deal, she says, as roughly half of ESPN’s staff is made up of women.
These days, the married (to fellow ESPN producer Kevin Wildes) mother of two is still hunting for the next perfect pitch for an ESPN doc, no easy task given the thousands of ideas that have come in. Geist is linking the most promising ones with the right directors, which she often chooses by calling up her favorites and asking: “Do you like sports? Want to get coffee?” Brett Ratner, the Zimbalist brothers and even Ice Cube have taken the bait. She’s still got Liz Garbus, Rory Kennedy and Eugene Jarecki in her crosshairs. And, in her new role, that challenge has been kicked up a notch. “My job,” she says, “is to think of new formulas to push the envelope.”