BuzzFeed Rethinks Hollywood Strategy, Names New Studios Chief (Exclusive)

BuzzFeed News (Drew Reynolds)
Cindy Vanegas-Gesuale

Cindy Vanegas-Gesuale is adding oversight of film and TV projects to her existing role as head of programming for BuzzFeed News.

It's been nearly five years since BuzzFeed unveiled its ambition to become a producer of film and television projects, and now CEO Jonah Peretti is rethinking his approach.

The online publisher will focus on what Peretti describes as "the post-TV world" as more consumers turn to over-the-top platforms for video content. That means developing new formats that take advantage of digital features like interactivity, social media and live-streaming. BuzzFeed isn't abandoning its work on more traditional projects, Peretti tells The Hollywood Reporter in an interview, but he acknowledges that the company's strength is in exploiting opportunities created through the disruption of legacy industries.

"When things switch to digital, things get weird," says the exec. "I think you're going to see a whole explosion of new formats and new models in programming that will go beyond just taking traditional TV and sticking it on the internet."

To help BuzzFeed Studios navigate the shifting landscape, Peretti has tapped the woman in charge of some of the company's current video successes. Cindy Vanegas-Gesuale, who joined the company in 2017, serves as head of programming for BuzzFeed News and will add oversight of BuzzFeed Studios to her role. The CNN and HuffPost Live veteran has been responsible for Twitter show AM to DM and the forthcoming Snapchat daily news show BTW

Peretti announced Vanegas-Gesuale's promotion to head of programming for BuzzFeed in a memo to staff on Thursday afternoon, explaining that she "will continue to move the current slate forward while aggressively adding in new projects across the company." She replaces Lauren Dolgen, who left BuzzFeed in May for a role at Paramount Network.   

A big part of Vanegas-Gesuale's new role will be helping BuzzFeed Studios think about new projects that, per Peretti's memo, "apply digital advantages to video, like we did to print." Peretti acknowledges that BuzzFeed is still figuring out exactly what that will look like. "I don't think we know exactly what it is yet," he says, adding that development of these concepts is still in the R&D phase. 

BuzzFeed revealed plans to take on Hollywood with the 2014 launch of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures (renamed BuzzFeed Studios following a companywide reorganization). But the company has had few successes in the traditional film and TV development ecosystem. One of the first projects it set up was the Jim Parsons starrer Brother Orange, a co-production with Warner Bros. based on an article series. Although development has been slow, an insider says the project is still in the works and could begin filming as early as this fall. On the television side, it sold a true-crime series to Oxygen and produced one season of the shortform show Follow This for Netflix.

When BuzzFeed Studios works on more traditional projects going forward, it will likely bring in a Hollywood partner, Peretti says. The company is currently doing that, teaming with Smokehouse Pictures and It producer Dan Lin to develop two movies based on articles that ran on the BuzzFeed website. "We'll still do some [linear projects] on our own as well," Peretti says. "But our sweet spot, where we are really differentiated, is understanding digital platforms and how audiences interact with digital platforms." 

While these projects make up a piece of the BuzzFeed Studios business, Peretti argues that it's never been as much of a focus as has been suggested. "When we talk about our studio, people have always kind of overestimated how much that meant traditional TV and film," says the exec. "It's always been, how do we think about what's coming next and build towards that, and how do we extend our IP and partner with people whose whole business is traditional film and TV." 

As BuzzFeed Studios looks to produce more digitally-enabled shows, Peretti points to existing shows such as AM to DM and Facebook's Relationshipped as examples of projects that take advantage of their platform. "There's going to be an explosion of interesting change," he says, pointing to the emergence of new streaming services over the next year. "That's the space we thrive in the and the stuff that we've always been most excited about."  

Peretti's full memo is below.

Hi BuzzFeeders -

I’m writing to share some news about BuzzFeed Studios. Cindy Vanegas-Gesaule, our Head of Programming for BuzzFeed News, is taking on an expanded role overseeing the BuzzFeed Studios team and external development slate for the whole company. From AM to DM to newly greenlit projects for Twitter and Snap, Cindy has had great success in developing the right projects for the right partners, and we’re excited to see what she can do with the full creative power of BuzzFeed. Cindy is taking this work on as Lauren Dolgen left BuzzFeed earlier this month for a new opportunity.

Cindy and the BuzzFeed Studios team will continue to move the current slate forward while aggressively adding in new projects across the company. As we look ahead, our strategy with Studios will mirror what we’re doing throughout the larger organization: we’re focusing on what we do best. That means strengthening our focus on developing innovative content for the platforms. Making TV is great, but we’re even more interested in figuring out the future of TV.

The television landscape is changing quickly: TV ad dollars are finally shifting as cord cutting and ratings declines impact revenue at traditional media companies. We got a head start building our video business before the market was ready, grew a huge audience, and now it’s time to pioneer new models for a post-TV world. I believe we can apply digital advantages to video, like we did to print, and build the post-TV world together.

Our deep understanding of the Internet and our audience gives BuzzFeed Studios a competitive advantage. Television and streaming services are starting to explore interactive content, shows that blur the lines between long form and social media, and cross-platform live programming in news and entertainment. Most of our work right in these areas will be experimental because the space is still emerging, but when it reaches the mainstream, we’ll be the best in the business at this form of studio production.

You’ve seen this in action with the real-time Twitter conversation of AM to DM or the interactivity of Relationshipped and Outside Your Bubble. This expertise, paired with strong relationships throughout the industry, powered us to launch series across Facebook, Netflix, Oxygen, Twitter, YouTube, Snap, Spotify, and more to come.

Our selection of premium series for platforms and array of programming, features, and documentaries for TV, streaming and film will help us expand our fast-growing studio business, and create in more ways, in more places for our audience.

Please join me in congratulating Cindy and thank you for all of your continued hard work.