At the age of 32, Eric Kuhn has already had more careers than most people have in a lifetime. After leading early efforts to get to grips with social media at CBS News, the NBA, CNN and the United Talent Agency, the New York entrepreneur co-founded the cable company Layer3 TV in 2014.
Now Kuhn is embarking on a new life in the mercurial world of Broadway theatre, where most shows flop, but hits can yield Falstaffian returns. Over the past 18 months, he has been a producer on three shows along the Great White Way: a revival of Harvey Fierstein’s gender-bending comedy Torch Song, the US premiere of Matthew Lopez’s epic, two-part meditation on gay identity The Inheritance, and a boldly revisionist version of the classic musical Oklahoma!, for which Kuhn received a Tony Award last June. The precocious impresario also co-manages the chess champion Fabiano Caruana. And he serves as a senior adviser at Hawkfish, the company set up by Michael Bloomberg to manage the digital side of his now-abandoned presidential campaign.
Kuhn nonetheless discerns a consistent pattern to these eclectic pursuits. “My whole career,” he says, “has been about making sure quality content finds an audience, whether that’s a presidential speech or The Inheritance or getting people to tune into CNN or buy tickets for the NBA. It’s about trying to figure out different ways to use technology to make sure that happens.”
That vision began to take shape when he was a student majoring in government at Hamilton College in Upstate New York. Kuhn, who grew up just outside New York in Westchester, wanted to be a journalist but feared he would struggle to find a job in a field whose prospects were starting to look decidedly shaky. He recalls how his father, who works on Wall Street, gave him some timely advice: “Why don’t you just do whatever’s next in journalism, and then you’ll always have a job.”
Kuhn duly took a summer internship in NBC’s embryonic digital division and then worked as an intern for journalist and presenter Katie Couric at CBS News, which led to him setting up a consulting company to help the broadcaster develop its social media presence. Those efforts helped turn Couric’s 2008 interview with Sarah Palin into a journalistic sensation. “That went viral,” says Kuhn, “because we had set up the infrastructure to go on YouTube.” He went on to perform similar roles at the NBA and CNN before becoming, at 23, Hollywood’s first social media agent at the United Talent Agency, where, as he puts it, “we made our social clients famous and our famous clients social.”
Kuhn and some friends then came up with what he calls “a crazy idea to launch a new cable company” that would use their experience in tech and digital media to improve the user experience. Denver-based Layer3 TV, where Kuhn was chief marketing officer, eventually grew to have 200 employees and was sold to T-Mobile in 2018 for $325m.
As he served out his contract under the German telecoms company, Kuhn began to do “a little ‘soul-searching’, for lack of a better term”, which led him to adopt the discipline — outlined in Julia Cameron’s creative self-help book The Artist’s Way — of filling three pages with free-form thoughts each morning. (Kuhn, who laments that nocturnal theatre types are rarely available before noon, has already completed his “morning pages” by the time we meet for breakfast at Cafe Luxembourg, a favoured spot among Broadway producers on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.) That process of reflection culminated in the realisation that he wanted to devote himself to the theatre, which has been his passion since childhood.
One summer’s day in 2018, Kuhn drove to Boston on a whim to attend the out-of-town tryout of the musical adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge. Wowed by what he had seen, he approached the producer immediately after the curtain fell with a commitment to invest in the show, which has become a box office smash since opening on Broadway last July.
With his friend Justin Mikita, a lawyer and gay rights activist, Kuhn then earned his first producer’s credit on Torch Song at the end of 2018. They have since partnered with Randi Zuckerberg (who previously worked for her brother Mark at Facebook) to create ZKM Media, which co-produced Oklahoma! and The Inheritance.
“We had no idea what we were doing,” says Kuhn of his initial steps in theatrical production. But, aided by mentors such as Torch Song’s lead producer Richie Jackson, he soon realised that he could use his marketing and social media experience to create a niche for himself within the business. In place of traditional press and online advertising, Kuhn aims to maximise publicity on social media by inviting Instagram personalities to attend his shows and creating a sense of spectacle that theatregoers will share online. “It goes back to word of mouth,” he says, “except now you’re telling your friends about it on your devices.”
He adds: “People want an experience in real life that also looks well on your mobile life, on your social life.” He recalls how the entire audience took out their phones to photograph Bill and Hillary Clinton when they attended Oklahoma! But a device as simple as a branded photogenic display in the theatre lobby can also drive coverage on social media. “I love the analogue world, and I love the mobile world,” says Kuhn. “When you merge the two, that’s when it can be really powerful.”
As for balancing the books, Kuhn suggests viewing inherently uncertain investments in theatre as an enlightened form of venture capital. “Over 10 shows you’re going to make money,” he says, “but some you’re doing more for the love than the commerce of it.
“There’s art, and there’s commerce,” he adds. “We believe in both. We put our hearts and souls behind shows that have meaning, that move us, that we love, that we’re entertained by. And we also have investors who expect a return. We invest alongside our investors so that we are in it with them. But we want to make good art and put it out into the world.”
With several new projects in the pipeline, Kuhn is pursuing those goals at a remarkably vigorous clip. After we conclude our breakfast, I watch him literally sprint across Broadway towards the subway.