For TLC, With a Little TLC

Is a local production company that recently finished its first documentary too good to be true?

l-r:  Jonathan Nowzaradan, Jana Holley, Jeff Keels, and Graham Davidson
l-r: Jonathan Nowzaradan, Jana Holley, Jeff Keels, and Graham Davidson (Photo by John Anderson)

Show business is about being seen. Awarding the easily recognizable and the flashy, it's an industry that thrives on showing. But one local production company is building its reputation with a strikingly different approach: flying under the radar. With one documentary recently picked up for distribution and several more in various stages of production, Megalomedia is slowly but surely creating marketable and yet distinctly humanistic content.

Officially incorporated in April 2003, Megalomedia is the brainchild of president and Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Nowzaradan and Creative Director Jeff Keels. Both self-taught directors, producers, camera operators, and editors, Keels and Nowzaradan are nonetheless producing documentaries that have attracted the interest of CNBC, A&E, the Discovery Channel, HBO, and the Learning Channel. With a background in business and Christian ministry, Nowzaradan began with a simple yet profoundly ambitious vision.

"It's fine to make some money," he says, "but media can be used for so much more, to communicate a lot of good things, to encourage, to inspire." Even the name demonstrates their desire to subvert the expected. Says Keels, "The reason we named it Megalomedia was we wanted a name that would be almost the opposite of what we are, something that's very camouflaged." After three years of creating their own content and hiring freelance crew, the company recently expanded to include producers Graham Davidson and Tom Mireles and a vice president of operations and production manager, Jana Holley.

In accordance with the company's identity, Megalomedia's first distributed film focuses on a subject that is both larger than life and unseen. At 841 pounds, Austin resident Renee Williams was considered the heaviest woman in the world but remained out of sight, bedridden for years, and visited only by a small group of friends and family. In early February, Megalomedia sent a crew to film the beginning of Williams' hope for normality. Only 29 years old, Williams was scheduled for gastric bypass surgery, a weight-loss procedure that could save her life. The experience would make her the heaviest woman to undergo such a treatment. Williams had been large her entire life and, from the time she weighed 400 pounds, had sought gastric bypass only to be turned away by 14 different doctors, each saying she was too high risk. Almost completely immobilized since 2003 (resulting in part from a car accident that shattered her left leg), she simply continued to increase in size.

Nowzaradan had unique access to Williams. His father, Houston-based surgeon Dr. Younan Nowzaradan, specializes in weight-loss surgery for the supermorbidly obese (more than 600 pounds) and was the first physician to say yes to Williams' pleas for surgery. Sadly, the efforts came too late. The crew had filmed the successful procedure, along with hours of interviews and family interactions. But on March 4, two weeks after surgery, they learned that Williams passed away from a severe heart attack.

"The way they described it was a race of the clock," Nowzaradan says. "Even though she had gastric bypass, a heart's pumping for a body that big. If she'd had the surgery earlier, possibly she could have made it." He adds that their hope for the film is to inspire patients to act and to encourage doctors to care more about their patients than their careers. "My father said, 'Who needs medical attention more than the patients who are high risk? We turn away people who need medical attention the most.'"

Sitting in the comfortable Megalomedia offices in Southwest Austin, I watched footage from the shoot. Not sure how to prepare myself, I braced for the worst. And the images of Williams were indeed overwhelming. Yet, underneath it all, a frightened young woman spoke of her pain and her hopes. Even though they only spent a short time with Williams and her family, the respect and care demonstrated by the Megalomedia crew resulted in a deep bond.

After Williams' death, Enter­tainment Tonight, The Insider, Inside Edition, The View, and 20/20 contacted the family immediately. Meanwhile, despite having a direct line to the biggest pop docu-drama story of the moment, Megalomedia paused. Concerned for the family and unsure how to proceed, they took a step back as the media closed in. Then the family requested that Megalomedia complete the story.

"I was taken aback," Davidson says. "I think it spoke volumes to what it means to really care for your subject." Despite the fact that calls were pouring in from all over the world, Megalomedia was the only company allowed to be with the family.

Recalls Nowzaradan, "They said, 'You're the only ones who treated us with dignity.' And we did. We respected them." The company has remained close to Williams' family in the wake of finishing the documentary. "They tell us they feel like we're family right now."

The film would become World's Heaviest Woman, a title that Williams approved prior to her death. Partnering with British company At It Productions, Megalomedia has licensed the documentary to appear on cable stations in 20 countries throughout the world, including Channel 4 in the United Kingdom and the Learning Channel in the U.S. The film will air in the UK in early August under the rather unfortunate title The Woman Who Ate Herself to Death and will appear on TLC in early September.

The story of Renee Williams is closely related to another and much longer running production for Megalomedia. Last Chance to Live is a series that follows six patients who have undergone gastric bypass surgery over the course of several years. All of them were at minimum more than 600 pounds at the time of their surgery, with some topping the scales at 1,000-plus.

"The people who are over 700 pounds think that they're the only person on the planet like that," Nowzaradan says. "But there are millions, some people suspect in the tens of millions, of people in America. We want them to know that not only are they not alone, but there are doctors who will help. Don't give up, and don't just decide to die."

Megalomedia has been shooting Last Chance to Live for more than three years and will continue another six months before completing production. Having already garnered interest from several cable networks, they plan either to sell the show as a series or edit a feature documentary for theatrical release that will then segue into a series.

Though a rare -- at least in this industry -- sense of humility pervades all of my conversations with the Megalomedia team, their goals include creating big-budget narrative films. But in preparation for that, they're spending less money than they would on a fiction feature, creating content that they believe in, and building a reputation with investors.

"You see so many people running around Hollywood telling you with such confidence what's going to be the next big thing," Davidson says, "and yet it's changing all the time because it's such a subjective industry. So I really respect these guys: Take it slow, prove ourselves to the industry, and prove it to the investors."

In the meantime, they're finding success nearly everywhere they turn.

"The thing that's amazed us is that we have yet to have a project that hasn't garnered some interest," Keels says. "The hardest thing to do is to sell things, and yet we've had such ease with that." Other projects include Aftershock, the story of a Pakistani senator who's spending millions of dollars to fight terrorism by building orphanages; The Voice Gods of Hollywood, a series following the top trailer voices in the past 40 years; and Starmakers, about the extreme changes in college football recruiting over the past few years.

"The biggest thing is we're not in this just to make money," Nowzaradan says. "We're in this because there's so much to be done with film and media, and we don't just give that up to sell a project out."

Davidson agrees. "With this group of people, it's not necessarily about getting what you want. It's about loving people."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

gastric bypass, Megalomedia, gastric bypass surgery, Jonathan Nowzaradan, Jeff Keels, Graham Davidson, Tom Mireles, Jana Holley, Renee Williams, World's Heaviest Woman

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