Epix Courts Younger Viewers With Interactive Doc Block

Lara Porzak/Paramoount
"Waiting for Superman"

The Wednesday night series includes "Waiting for Superman," "The Harvest" and "Best Worst Movie" and will feature live Q&As with filmmakers.

Executives at Epix are banking that the boom in documentary films can bring some younger viewers to the premium service.

Epix – launched in 2009 by Paramount Pictures, Lionsgate and MGM – will add a weekly documentary feature beginning Wednesday night with Davis Guggenheim’s critically hailed Waiting for Superman. The weekly showcase will continue every Wednesday at 8 p.m. through February 2012 and will include new original and interactive content such as updates about the film’s subjects and live, interactive Q&As with filmmakers.

Like Superman, a rather critical look at America’s much-maligned public education system that sends parents and students clamoring for a few coveted spots in charter schools, many of the Epix documentaries will examines social issues. And the interactive component brings another dimension to the films, say executives. Epix has a robust video-on-demand and streaming service and hopes that the multiplatform initiatives attached to the documentaries will further appeal to younger viewers who don’t consume media the same way their parents have.

“This is very simpatico with what we feel our brand position is,” said Epix president and CEO Mark Greenberg. “When we started this venture we made the decision that we would try to get to a younger audience.”

When network executives were planning the documentary showcase, adds Greenberg, “We thought, how do we use the Internet delivery of content to reach that younger audience? We firmly believe that today’s younger [viewers] are more socially consciously than any generation in 20 or 30 years. This group really cares about the environment. And they get engaged. We saw that with the 2008 presidential election.”

Epix sponsored a virtual town hall in October around Superman that was very well attended, said Nora Ryan, Epix chief of staff, and won multiple industry awards. It included Guggenheim and then New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein and was moderated by Arianna Huffington.

“That’s the kind of interactivity our platform affords us when we want to get deeper into an issue,” said Ryan.

Wednesday night's Epix screening of Superman includes an update with two of the students featured in the film. Other documentaries that will premiere over the next several weeks include: Bjorn Lomborg and Ondi Timoner’s global warming film Cool It; Unlikely Weapon, about Eddie Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of South Vietnam’s police chief executing a Vietcong soldier that was credited with spurring an end to the Vietnam War; The Harvest, about migrant child workers in the U.S. that counts actress Eva Longoria among its executive producers (Epix executives are working on lining up Longoria for a post-film Q&A); and Chosin, about survivors of 1950 North Korean battle.

But Epix will also veer into pop culture; among the documentary selections is Best Worst Movie, which explores the phenomenon behind the low-budget 1990 cult horror film Troll 2. Epix will also screen Troll 2, which is not a sequel to the Sonny Bono film Troll, rather it revolves around vegetarian goblins who turn humans into vegetables so they can eat them. Epix will host an interactive Q&A with the film’s cast, including George Hardy, the Alabama dentist who starred in what many consider to be among the worst movies of all time.

Epix was launched after Paramount, Lionsgate and MGM failed to reach a new movie licensing deal with Showtime in 2008. Showtime was beginning to move away from movies and invest more in original programming. Launched initially as a VOD service, Epix is still comparatively small. It has about 10 million subscribers and is available on Charter, Cox, DISH, Mediacom, NCTC, Suddenlink and Verizon FiOS.

“The metrics for us are the engagement and involvement and participation,” said Greenberg. “We don’t have to worry about ratings. We don’t have to worry about commercials. This will never make or break our network. But I think it says a lot about who we are. We want to spur a meaningful dialogue about issues facing this country and it’s not about red state or blue state. We think that’s important.”