When BuzzFeed rebranded its video department in 2014 to BuzzFeed Motion Pictures and tapped veteran film producer Michael Shamberg to help it forge new relationships in Hollywood, the message was clear: The online publisher known for listicles and cute cat videos on Facebook wanted to get into the movie business. But during the two years that followed, that ambitious plan appeared to fall by the wayside as BFMP instead generated more than 3 billion video views a month with such YouTube-like subjects as up-for-anything The Try Guys and an exploding watermelon.
Now, finally, those film goals are coming back into focus. The company has closed its first big movie deal, teaming with Warner Bros. to co-produce the feature adaptation Brother Orange. The movie will be based on a series of 2015 articles by Matt Stopera, who spent more than a year tracking his stolen iPhone all the way to China. Meanwhile, buoyed by a $200 million investment from NBCUniversal, BuzzFeed executives are making the rounds at TV networks to pitch projects including a cooking competition series and a male makeover show.
The big and small screens are the next frontier in BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti’s plan to distribute the company’s articles and videos through any platform he can. It’s an acknowledgement that, for all the talk that his digital media empire is stealing desirable young viewers and advertising dollars from traditional media, there is money to be made in old-fashioned movies and TV. Says eMarketer analyst Paul Verna, “The bottom line is, if your content is desirable and you’re not exploring distributing it through cable or theatrical or another traditional vehicle, then you’re probably leaving money on the table.”
Seated in Peretti’s office at BFMP’s Sunset Boulevard outpost earlier this year, the CEO and BFMP president Ze Frank, 44, laid out just how such projects would fit into BuzzFeed, an organization that has grown from a list and quiz generator into a media company with an audience of 200 million people a month for BuzzFeed.com. “We will end up making films and TV and a whole bunch of virtual reality and other kinds of media,” says Peretti, 42. “But it will come more organically out of franchises that we’re building. It isn’t something like we’re trying to shop 20 films and hoping we’ll get one made.”
Still, BuzzFeed’s Hollywood efforts couldn’t come at a better time for the 9-year-old company. After years as the fast-growing darling of New York’s new-media scene, it’s facing new challenges, including reports that it made $80 million less than expected in 2015 and cut 2016 projections in half. BuzzFeed has disputed the April report. Says Peretti, “The only revenue number we set for this year we’ve been beating.” And that is where Hollywood comes in. BuzzFeed is barreling headfirst into a future dominated by video, driven largely by the $17 billion in ad dollars expected to boost the market by 2020. It was early into the space, launching BuzzFeed Video in 2012, but during the years since, the Los Angeles-based division has come to drive a majority of the company’s monthly content views. Peretti even moved west with his wife and twin sons.
But what’s even more lucrative than web video? Film and television. “It’s a brave new world,” says comScore media analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “Virtually anyone with the resources and the vision can create original content, whereas before we used to think that would only come from the studios themselves.”
Rival Vice Media, a $4 billion company with investments from Disney and other big Hollywood players, has invested heavily in the space through its HBO show and the launch of cable channel Viceland with A+E Networks. Vox Media (which also received $200 million from NBCU) and Mashable (through a recent investment from Turner) also are exploring how to develop formats for the small screen.
BuzzFeed wants to adapt existing stories or raise the profile of stars who have proved their success online. “When we actually decide to take things to the feature market, we want to be able to prove that it has an audience, prove the audience is global and prove that there’s a reason why we should be partnered with a studio,” says head of development Matthew Henick, who spent his early career working under Judd Apatow.
There is no better way to understand how BFMP approaches content than to spend an afternoon at the mazelike 60,000-square-foot home base it has carved out at Siren Studios in Hollywood, which is one part video factory, one part mad scientists’ laboratory. There, where soundstages are named LOL and OMG, it’s a normal day to have Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi test celebrity perfumes in a bathroom taken over as the set of the web series Ladies’ Room. Meanwhile, the final scenes of season two of the comedy series You Do You films in a nearby bungalow; up in a rooftop room, the team behind the food brand Tasty tests out French macaron recipes.
Many of these projects are spearheaded by members of BFMP’s new development partners program, which draws two-year commitments from top stars including the four members of web series The Try Guys and comedian Quinta Brunson. It’s through these stars that BuzzFeed could make its first foray into television. Lifetime currently is weighing a pilot pitch for the male makeover show Mansformation, from Try Guys‘ Eugene Lee Yang, and Brunson is in the process of setting up two series at digital outlets.
But as BFMP props up some of its rising stars, it faces new challenges. Two staffers were fired in June for breach of contract after they appeared in an unaffiliated web series produced by actress America Ferrera, and a few weeks later several online creators (including some who have worked with BFMP in the past) accused the company of stealing jokes. Peretti penned a post on Medium addressed to one of the women who claimed her jokes had been repurposed in BuzzFeed videos, saying that after a “thorough internal investigation” his team found the allegations “patently false” and also noting that “like all creative people, the talented producers at BuzzFeed are influenced by others, but our analysis shows that they are doing original work, adding value, and improving and contributing to the culture of the web.”
Meanwhile, some talent, including comedian Matt Bellassai and longtime behind-the-scenes staffers, recently have left for new opportunities. But Henick, who oversees the program, dismisses the notion that it has created discord among BFMP’s 300 employees. “We’ve been very communicative from the beginning about what the program is,” he says, adding that while “we’re investing more, both in time and budget” into the program, the company “would be at a disadvantage” if it did not continue to offer platforms for up-and-coming talent.
Meanwhile, NBCUniversal’s August investment in BuzzFeed is beginning to pay dividends. BuzzFeed executives say they are plugged in from the office of CEO Steve Burke all the way down to an MSNBC producer. NBCU Cable Entertainment content chief Jeff Wachtel, on the encouragement of cable group chairman Bonnie Hammer, recently toured BFMP and stumbled upon what he believes could be the next hit cooking competition show, Mom vs. Chef. The web series, born of Tasty, pits a mother against a professional chef to determine who can make the most kid-approved meal using such ingredients as spinach and tofu. In a sign of how much Wachtel believes in the project, boosted by a spate of recent kid-focused competition series, he is working with BFMP to develop the show for broadcast. “What a fun thing to open a door and see people workshopping an idea that gets a real-time reaction,” says Wachtel. “We think there’s something there that translates.”
These projects might not be what Hollywood expected from BuzzFeed. But while executives have been approached for a more TMZ-like show where the company’s writers talk about what’s trending on the internet, Peretti and Frank weren’t impressed. “There have been opportunities for us to flip into a traditional model, but what we’re really after is trying to use what we’ve learned in order to create something we love and that we think is moving in the right direction,” says Frank, a former vlogger.
He acknowledges it has taken time for BuzzFeed to figure out what that is. “We were still working on our infrastructure, on figuring out how these talented people were getting trained and thinking about media,” adds Frank. “To be in a position tonow get to talk to people from the traditional industry, who know so much about making content people love, that’s a really wonderful place to be.”
1. Quinta Brunson — The comedian is the creator and star of the web series Broke.
2. Eugene Lee Yang — A member of The Try Guys, he has a pilot for a male makeover show, Mansformation, at Lifetime.
3. Ned Fulmer — The married man, and one-fourth of The Try Guys, has launched the game show Love Goals.
4. Ze Frank — BFMP’s president was an early internet vlogger.
5. Kesley Darragh — Her web series Ladies’ Room recently hosted Snooki.
6. Ashly Perez — Season two of her comedy You Do You just hit iTunes.
7. Jonah Peretti — The BuzzFeed CEO recently moved from New York to L.A.
8. Zach Kornfeld — He’s embracing his singledom in the comedy Single AF and also stars in videos as part of The Try Guys.
9. Keith Habersberger — Demi Lovato recently starred in one of his videos and he’s a member of The Try Guys.
A version of this story first appeared in the July 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.