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It’s a Thursday afternoon in March, and online star Eugene Lee Yang is presiding over the OMG sound stage at BuzzFeed Motion Pictures’ Hollywood campus. Dressed in a casually cool uniform of grey cardigan, green sweatpants and a matching beanie, Yang — who rose to Internet fame as one-fourth of the BuzzFeed video series The Try Guys — looks like he belongs in front of the camera. But today he’s in the director’s chair, shooting a series of test videos for a new male makeover show, tentatively titled Mansformation, that he’s pitching to Lifetime.
This is Yang’s first solo project since joining BFMP’s Development Partners program, which keeps some of BuzzFeed’s biggest stars committed to exclusive two-year contracts. Yang is one of seven BuzzFeed employees who have signed on to the program, designed to help BFMP retain its top talent even as they become internet sensations and begin to field offers from both traditional and digital suitors.
The program is being shepherded by BFMP’s newly promoted head of development, Matthew Henick, but is also a top priority for BFMP president Ze Frank and BuzzFeed CEO (and recent L.A. transplant) Jonah Peretti, who were present for the signing of the contracts and regularly sit in on meetings with the talent around the marketing and financing of their projects.
“The thing that was surprising to me was when I started to interface with the entertainment industry is…there was this entire system set up to say no to people that want to make things,” says Peretti, who early in his career made the rounds in Hollywood with his sister, comedian Chelsea Peretti. “When you look at the way we designed this program, we were thinking about how to have a system where they can learn and get better, and they’re not having a difficult time making something and reaching an audience.”
These are comprehensive deals, covering projects for digital, linear and theatrical distribution as well as sponsorships and other branded content opportunities. Talent receives a base salary and gross revenue participation. In some cases BuzzFeed might act as a producer, studio or distributor on the projects.
“This is not meant to lock talent down or prevent them from doing other things,” says Henick, noting that the contracts are designed to be transparent about how much the creator and BuzzFeed will receive. “It allows them the freedom where, if there’s an opportunity that they want to pursue, we can find a way to make it happen.”
While some managers and agents might balk at the terms, BuzzFeed and the talent who have signed up — among them Yang’s Try Guys partners and comedian Quinta Brunson — insist that the Development Partners program will eventually lead to greater opportunities within BuzzFeed. Brunson, for example, is developing her web series Broke into a project that would be at home alongside more standard TV-length fare at Netflix or MTV.
The Try Guys — Keith Habersberger, Zach Kornfeld, Ned Fulmer and Eugene Lee Yang (Photo: Macey J. Foronda/BuzzFeed)
“I was talking to two other more traditional companies at the time, but they were inadvertently making it clear to me that I wasn’t going to be able to write,” says Brunson. “BuzzFeed was going to allow me to write, to continue to produce. They said, ‘We are investing in your perspective because it’s proven to be well liked and sharable and impactful.’ ” She acknowledges that it was “a little scary” to sign a two-year contract when she was fielding other offers, adding that she had to explain to her manager why she would want to commit to such a program. But, she says, “I didn’t want to be a paintbrush for anyone else.”
Like many high-flying digital media firms today, 10-year-old BuzzFeed began pushing into video as ad dollars flooded the digital video market. The company formally launched BuzzFeed Motion Pictures in the summer of 2014 as its Hollywood-based video factory. In the nearly two years since, the 300-person team has become known for churning out viral hits on emerging video platforms including Snapchat and Facebook, and it now boasts over 3 billion monthly video views.
As BFMP has grown, so has the fame of many of its in-house creators. The Try Guys, for example have received more than 25 million views on YouTube since they began posting their videos in September 2014. Other Development Partners include Kelsey Darragh, host of web series Ladies Room, and Ashly Perez, who started at BuzzFeed as a travel editor in 2013 and now co-stars in You Do You, a series on the BuzzFeed Violet YouTube channel. “It was a really cool opportunity to continue learning about the business side of what we do,” Perez says of signing on for two years. “I would have stayed at BuzzFeed even if this hadn’t come along, but what was enticing to me was the resources to make the things I want.”
BFMP employs about 200 video production staff and continues to work with a number of producers who are part of its other residency and training programs. The company says it will continue to sign talent to the development program. But not all talent chooses to stay in-house. Matt Bellassai, star of BuzzFeed’s Wine About It, left BFMP earlier this year to forge a solo career that includes a new Facebook series, live shows and a book.
Even as BFMP operates outside the traditional Hollywood system, the company is increasingly looking for ways to collaborate with established entertainment players, working with producer Michael Shamberg on film projects (he has been with BFMP since its 2014 launch, but the company has yet to announce its first feature-length project) and raising a $200 million investment from NBCUniversal. The Development Partners program, in fact, could be the first to bring BuzzFeed IP to a more traditional platform. Says Henick: “I think [more traditional] content will come from this group before other content, because by virtue of being in this program, they are thinking a bit bigger, and we’re thinking bigger about investing in their ideas.”
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