Back in 2018, when you could practically taste the speculation about James Murdoch’s career machinations amid the pending merger of Disney and 21st Century Fox, I floated some good old-fashioned real estate gossip after getting a tip that Murdoch had secured new offices in downtown Manhattan, a command center for the investment fund he was expected to set up upon leaving the family business. I’d forgotten all about this until I found myself sitting in said offices on a recent Monday, not with James (who was picking up one of the kids from summer camp), but his wife, Kathryn Murdoch, who’d invited me to the Couple’s sleek NoHo workplace to talk about—well, anything I wanted to talk about, I was assured, but in particular a new project Kathryn was ready to unveil.
“We have a studio we’re starting called Futurific,” she said, sitting opposite me (and her communications adviser) at a fifth-floor conference table overlooking the afternoon traffic on Lafayette Street.
A production studio?
“Yeah, which is really about encouraging more protopian stories—protopian being realistic, better futures.” (Or in the words of Wired cofounder Kevin Kelly, who coined the term, “a state that is better today than yesterday.” Here’s a handy primer from The New York Times: “Forget Utopia. Ignore Dystopia. Embrace Protopia!”)
In Kathryn’s estimation, dystopian narratives smack us in the face at every turn, from TV and film, to young adult literature, to the news. “Right now, most of what you see is ‘the future is bleak.’ It’s Blade Runner, or it’s Mad Max, or it’s, you know, zombie fungus,” she says. “Dystopian narratives are exciting in some ways, but they’re also exhausting. And I think there’s a change in the air, particularly post-pandemic, where people are interested in seeing something onscreen, or that they can read, or that they can dream about, that is actually better.”
Since 2014, through their philanthropic foundation, Quadrivium, Kathryn and James have funneled untold sums of their wealth into an array of societal, political, and environmental causes, some of which have become exceedingly urgent over the past few years: climate change, disinformation, election reform. Now they also plan to further their agenda by bankrolling content in the so-called protopian mold. “It’s part of a larger movement we’re hoping to inspire,” Kathryn tells me. (As for their standard campaign contributions, of which Joe Biden was a beneficiary last time around, they’re still in the “evaluation phase” for 2024.)
Futurific Studios is a work in progress, and if you were picturing Kathryn and James going full Obamas with some megawatt production deal, allow me to disappoint you. Kathryn does, however, want members of the creative community to know that, for any adherents of the better-future gospel, “There’s a place to come if they have ideas.” It could be documentaries, it could be scripted projects, it could even be something like, say, graphic novels, which have IP potential (and which the ongoing WGA strike does not preclude Hollywood writers from pursuing). “We’ve been working with AWA Studios”—a comics startup and early portfolio company of James’s investment firm, Lupa Systems—“and we’re encouraging writers to come up with protopian story ideas.”
The inaugural Futurific joint is exactly what you’d expect: a six-part PBS docuseries titled A Brief History of the Future. Slated for 2024 and produced in collaboration with Drake’s DreamCrew and philanthropist Wendy Schmidt (along with Futurific co-founder Ari Wallach), it’ll cover all the usual doom-inspiring topics—climate change and AI and such—but also, according to Kathryn, an executive producer, things like, “How do we make democracy function in a way that people actually feel like they’re part of it? How do we deal with an aging population? How do I design a house using materials that are lighter on the earth? My hope is that it sparks a conversation about the future and helps people understand what they can do to participate.”
Not to be cynical, but I suggested that a dystopian future has arguably never felt more palpable in our lifetime, between democracy teetering on the edge, alarm bells going off about a “risk of extinction” from AI, record-shattering heat waves, wildfires turning the skies orange thousands of miles away—maybe even an alien invasion, while we’re at it. I asked if Kathryn believes a better future is actually attainable.
“I think it’s entirely attainable,” she said. “That doesn’t mean it will happen. It means we can make it happen if we so choose.”
For all of her enthusiasm about the future, Kathryn, 51, is less chatty when she encounters questions about her early years in Corvallis, Oregon, roughly halfway between Salem and Eugene. She confirmed the few details I already knew from the historical record: only child, dad ran a health food store, mom worked at Hewlett Packard, parents divorced, she studied communications at Willamette University while modeling on the side. After a bit of prodding, I also learned that young Kathryn was a bookworm who loved Star Trek and Gilligan’s Island, and that her first concerts as a teenager were Run-DMC and Prince (in Milan, no less). Also: “Growing up in Oregon, it’s easy to appreciate that nature is an important part of how we all live and exist.”
Kathryn’s true environmental awakening came in 2000. She was newly married to James and recently transplanted to Hong Kong, where Rupert Murdoch had installed his younger son as the head of News Corp’s Asian satellite TV service. “It actually wasn’t until I went to Hong Kong, and saw the devastation of the oceans there, that it really sort of clicked, what we were doing to the world.” In 2006 she watched Al Gore give a presentation about climate change during a News Corp management retreat in Pebble Beach, California. “I’m the kind of person that a PowerPoint works for,” she recalls. “When I saw the Inconvenient Truth presentation, I thought, This is something I want to work on, something that’s urgent and important and needs to be dealt with now.”
For years, Kathryn quietly pursued her climate activism, remaining behind the scenes whenever the ruthlessly powerful dynasty she’d married into found itself in the midst of some controversy or scandal or news-making media conquest. Then in 2019—with James setting out on his own, and he and Kathryn increasingly viewed as the more liberal foils to James’s right-wing father and brother Lachlan—she decided it was time to accept a bit of spotlight. “There hasn’t been a Republican answer on climate change. There’s just been denial and walking away from the problem,” she told The New York Times, for a profile that focused on Kathryn’s bipartisan election-reform efforts—like ranked-choice voting and open primaries—designed to “remove partisan obstacles to climate progress that her family’s empire helped build.” (A recent Media Matters headline: “Jesse Watters is bringing his egregious brand of climate denial to the 8 p.m. hour.”)
Since then, Kathryn has done several more pieces of substantial press: The Washington Post in 2020 (“Kathryn Murdoch wants to reform the way we elect politicians”); The Financial Times in 2021 (“Kathryn Murdoch has a plan (and $100m) to fix American politics”); The New York Times again in 2022 (“How a Murdoch Hopes to Save American Democracy”); and now Vanity Fair, which wanted to know if the media exposure had achieved what she hoped it would.
“On the democracy reform stuff, part of the reason I stepped out on it is because it was so little known,” she said. “We now have a lot of really engaged, interested, intelligent donors that are working on this, and that’s certainly not just because I managed to do a New York Times interview. But where it can be helpful for things like that, I’m willing to do it. Again, on the idea of better futures, this is something that hasn’t gotten a lot of press, or interest, or understanding, and so, if the juxtaposition of my last name and what I’m working on helps draw attention to that, I’m really happy to do it.”